East and West, Confucianism speaks to us all

East and West, Confucianism speaks to us all

East and West, Confucianism speaks to us all


From Thursday's Globe and Mail

April 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT

BEIJING — When I was a young child, China was, for me, a vaguely comical Chinese man with a wispy mustache, dressed in an embroidered silk robe and conical hat, exclaiming in a funny accent: "Confucius he say ..." Later, it was black-and-white photos of a Mao-period sculpture of a prerevolutionary rent-collection courtyard, shown me by an enthusiastic English schoolmaster. Then it was the naively misinterpreted madness of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards. And now it is an American-educated Chinese academic in a dark suit, telling me in excellent English, "So, what Confucius says is ..."

Everyone knows that in China, Confucianism is back. A popularization of Confucius by a media-friendly academic, Yu Dan, has sold more than 10 million copies. Her book has been called "Chinese chicken soup for the soul." On the campus of Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, there used to be a statue of Chairman Mao; now there's Confucius. A Confucius film is to be made with funding from a state film company, with Chow Yun-Fat as the Master.

This is a private and public revival, a social and a party-state affair. "Confucius said, 'Harmony is something to be cherished,' " President Hu Jintao observed in 2005, promoting the Chinese Communist Party's proclaimed goals of a harmonious society and world. "From Confucius to Sun Yat-sen," Prime Minister Wen Jiabao averred a couple of years later, "the traditional culture of the Chinese nation has numerous precious elements." In his book China's New Confucianism, Montreal-born political theorist Daniel A. Bell quips that the CCP might one day be renamed the Chinese Confucian Party.

At an exhibition in the largest Confucian temple in Beijing, electric lights on a wall map pinpoint the spread of world branches of the Confucius Institute, a relatively new counterpart to the likes of Germany's Goethe Institute. While China's institutes are currently devoted mainly to teaching language, the exhibition clearly implies the benefit of Confucian thought.

There's a simplistic way to read this renaissance, and a more interesting one.

The simplistic way is to seek in Confucianism the key to understanding contemporary Chinese society, politics, even foreign policy. But for a start, there are many contrasting versions. Prof. Bell, for instance, distinguishes among liberal Confucianism, official or conservative Confucianism, left Confucianism and depoliticized pop Confucianism (Yu Dan's chicken soup).

Besides, Confucianism is just one ingredient in the eclectic mix characteristic of today's China. Many features of the country's society and political system can be described without any reference to Confucianism, and some would have the Master writhing in his tomb. You can discern elements of Leninism, capitalism, Taoism, Western consumer society, socialism, the imperial tradition of Legalism - and more.

It's precisely the mix that defines the Chinese model, which is anyway not yet fully formed. After all, China is still a developing country in every sense. Meanwhile, if we must seek a single label, then a better candidate would be Confectionism. The secret is in the confection.

It follows that it's a great mistake to conceive of a political and intellectual conversation with China as a "dialogue between civilizations." In this conception, Westerners put on the table what we call "Western values," the Chinese put on the table what they call "Chinese values," and then we see which pieces match.

Stuff and nonsense. There is no such thing as a pure, unadulterated, separate Western civilization or Chinese civilization. We have all been mixing up for centuries, and especially over the past two. There's more of the West in the East and of the East in the West than most people imagine. Moreover, even 2,500 years ago, when China and Europe really were worlds apart, Confucius was addressing some of the same issues as Plato and Sophocles, because these issues are universal.

So, the interesting way for Westerners to engage with Confucianism is quite different. This way starts from a simple proposition: Here was a great thinker who still has things to teach us. Rich schools of scholastic interpretation over more than two millennia not only reinterpreted Confucius but added new thoughts of their own. We should read him and them as we read Plato, Jesus, the Buddha, Darwin and their interpreters. This is not a dialogue between civilizations but a dialogue inside civilization.

For this conversation, most of us must depend on translators. In Beijing, I have been rereading Simon Leys's translation of The Analects of Confucius, with its notes full of vigorous cross-reference to Western writers. Of course, some passages are obscure or anachronistic. But many of the sayings attributed to Confucius breathe a remarkably fresh secular humanism.

I prefer his cautious formulation of the golden rule of reciprocity - "What you do not wish for yourself, do not impose upon others" - to the Christian one. What should government do? "Make the local people happy and attract migrants from afar." How should we best serve our political leader? "Tell him the truth, even if it offends him." Best of all: "One may rob an army of its commander-in-chief; one cannot deprive the humblest man of his free will."

If these are familiar thoughts in an unfamiliar place, there are also very distinctive emphases, such as that on a kind of extended family responsibility to generations both past and to come. Not such a bad idea, at a time when we are ravaging the planet that our grandparents left us.

Earlier this year, one of Britain's education officials reaped some mild satire for suggesting that his country's schoolchildren could benefit from studying Confucius. But couldn't we all? We would not merely learn something about the Chinese. We might even learn something about ourselves.

Timothy Garton Ash is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.



  提摩西·阿什著 吴万伟 译

 光明网-光明观察 刊发时间:2009-04-14 14:00:59

  人人都知道在中国儒家思想又回来了。在媒体上宣讲孔子学说的学者于丹的著作销售量达数百万册。她的书被称为“滋养心灵的中国鸡汤”。在北京的名牌大学清华大学校园里曾经有毛主席的雕像,现在则是孔子。国家电影公司资助正要拍摄电影《孔子》,由周润发(Chow Yun-Fat)扮演孔圣人。
  从这个对话中,我们多数人必须依靠翻译者。在北京,我一直在阅读西蒙·莱斯(Simon Leys)的孔子《论语》的译本,注释里面提到了很多西方作家的观点。当然,有些段落是模糊的杂乱无章的,但是其中许多被认为是孔子说的话表达了特别新鲜的世俗人文主义的情怀。

  提摩西·阿什(Timothy Garton Ash)斯坦福大学胡佛研究院高级研究员,牛津大学欧洲研究教授。
  译自:East and West, Confucianism speaks to us all TIMOTHY GARTON ASH
  From Thursday's Globe and Mail
  April 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT