Guest post by Brian Griffith.
Brian Griffith is an independent historian, whose previous books are The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History, and Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story. The Fall and Rise of Chinese Goddesses is due to be published in early 2012; the following is an excerpt from it. Brian Griffith lives in Toronto; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments and questions are welcome! Brian will reply to them himself.
Confucianism is generally seen as China’s bastion of patriarchal tradition, with a virtually Arabian array of sanctified controls on women. But before it was a state-backed cult of obedience to superiors, Confucianism was a protest movement against warlords, and a defense of ancient village values. In a sense, the first Confucian teachers were men standing up for their mothers’ values. They were mamas’ boys—and I mean this in a good sense.
According to various traditions, Confucius and Mengzi (Mencius) both grew up in single-parent homes, raised by their mothers alone. The same applies to many leading Confucianists of later times, such as Kou Laigong (961–1023), Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072), the Cheng brothers, Cheng Ho and Cheng Yi (ca. 1030s to 1080s), Lü Xizhe (1039–1116), Gu Yanwu (1613–1682), or Wang Tingzhen (1757–1827). Less impressively, it applies to Generalisimo Chiang Kai-shek (or Jiang Jieshi, 1887–1975), who said that his widowed mother was “the personification of Confucian virtues” (Parfitt, 2011, 134–135). These men certainly gave due credit to their mothers, who were the tutors and pillars of their early lives (Hu, 1992, 14). According to Tu Weiming, a recent survey of biographies for major Confucian teachers since the 1300s shows a large majority were trained in childhood by their mothers rather than male teachers. Tu cites a woman in the 1600s who wished for her son: “I would like you to learn from the two fatherless gentlemen in ancient China: one was Confucius, whose father died when he was three, and the other was Mencius [Mengzi]” (1992, 72).
It’s commonly said that Confucianism is the Christianity of China. It started out as a movement of wandering teachers who were ridiculed and rejected by the warlord rulers. For a time the movement suffered serious persecution. But within several centuries Confucianism won impressive popular support, and the emperors co-opted it by making it an official imperial religion. With such patronage it became a religious arm of autocratic governments for almost 2,000 years. Then, like Christianity in the French or Russian revolutions, Confucianism was largely rejected by many Republicans and almost all Communists. Confucianism was then firmly labeled as a feudal ideology, designed for the oppression of common people and women. In recent decades most people considered it a discredited religion, consigned to the garbage dump of history. But after Confucianism was stripped of official patronage, its fate fell to the hands of ordinary people. In that case, maybe most modern children heard little about Confucius, save some stories from their mothers. And the mothers interpreted ancient traditions in their own ways.
Back in Confucius’ time of the 500s BCE, North China was divided between several princely warlords, and Confucius reportedly wandered court to court, hoping some ruler would heed values from the past. While most Daoists would avoid the warlords, Confucius hoped to reform them. Maybe his effort showed a need for approval from the powerful, or maybe it showed courage in the face of tyrants. Some observers ridiculed Confucius for running from one prince to the next, and urged him “to flee from this whole generation of men” (De Bary, 1991, 8). And in terms of any immediate results, his whole effort was futile. The rulers claimed his advice was totally unrealistic. Instead of helping them to maximize their wealth and power, Confucius urged them to “serve” the villagers like parents serving children. Of course that would mean either reducing taxes, or re-investing tax wealth in the villages. And successful rulers needed that income to win the arms race, control the land, and reap its fruits for themselves. To such men, Confucius argued that real power grew from observing ancient virtues. With disturbing loyalty to his mother’s traditions, he explained “I am a transmitter and not a creator. I believe in the past and love it” (Cotterell, 1981, 120). Maybe the words ascribed to him were really said by many people. But if he was only a symbol for many like him, that would make his legend even more authentic.
When Confucius tried to revive the spirit of the pre-military age, he constantly referred to the web of relations, and the quality of relationships between people. Like a good mother’s son, he emphasized that jen (human compassion) started with tenderness between family members. Rejecting any claims that duty to rulers came first, he said that a loyal son would never report his parent’s crimes to the police. Even in relations between family members, jen was a matter of compassion, not blind obedience. As a disciple named Xunzi claimed, “the way of the child” meant doing what was kind, even if it required disobeying a father or ruler (Bauer, 1976, 54). Virtue had to originate in kindness between family members. Only then could it grow outward to others. As Mengzi (Mencius) put it, “A benevolent man extends his love from those he loves to those he does not. A ruthless man extends his ruthlessness from those he does not love to those he loves” (Cotterell, 1981, 123). With mother-like optimism, he claimed that the capacity for compassion was inborn for every child. Anyone could feel this in their natural response to seeing a child in danger. This inborn capacity for compassion could be cultivated, or stunted by abuse and neglect. But if nourished, it could flower to the full potential of the human spirit (Mote, 1971, 56–57). Being his mother’s star pupil, Confucius repeatedly said, “Anybody can be a sage.”
This kind of logic doesn’t sound so unusual for mothers. Maybe it seemed unusually good-hearted only when earnestly preached by their sons. Basically, Confucius taught that without mutual compassion, the web of human relationships would come undone. Calamity would befall first the family, then the whole village, and finally the kingdom. For most village elders and mothers, it was common sense.
(From chapter 12 of The Fall and Rise of Chinese Goddesses, by Brian Griffith)
Works cited in this section are:
Bauer, Wolfgang. 1976. China and the Search for Happiness. Michael Shaw, translator. New York: Seabury Press.
Cotterell, Arthur, 1981. The First Emperor of China. London: MacMillan London Ltd.
De Bary, William Theodore, 1991. The Trouble With Confucianism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hu Shih. 1992. “Woman’s Place in Chinese History.” In Li Yu-ning, editor. Chinese Women Through Chinese Eyes. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
Mote, Frederick M. 1960. “Confucian Eremitism in the Yüan Period.” In Arthur F. Wright, editor. The Confucian Persuasion. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Parfitt, Troy. 2011. Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas. Saint John, NB: Western Hemisphere Press.
Tu Weiming. 1992. “Community and Culture.” In Tu Weiming, Milan Hejtmanek, and Alan Wachman, editors. The Confucian World Observed: A Contemporary Discussion of Confucian Humanism in East Asia. Honolulu, HI: Institute of Culture and Communication, The East–West Center.