Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Some Thoughts on the Difficulty of Being a Confucian Today

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In memoriam Chen Cheng-po…

Yesterday we had a day off in Taiwan and I spent a rainy afternoon visiting the 2-28 Memorial Museum in downtown Taipei. I have been there before, but this time it was quite different, especially since I had the chance to look at some new documents. In particular the biography of one person was deeply moving: the Taiwanese painter Chen Cheng-po 陳澄波 (also known as Chin To-Ha). He was born in 1895 in Chia-Yi, studied arts in Tokyo and went on to become a famous painter in Taiwan and the broader Chinese-speaking world (especially oil paintings). After the liberation of Taiwan from the Japanese occupation, he got involved into politics and was elected into the local parliament at Chia-Yi. After the 2-28 Incident, he tried to negotiate between the Guomindang and the local population. However, he was executed without any particular reason in broad daylight on March 25th of 1947.

There are a couple of moving photos in the Memoral Museum: Chen Cheng-po sitting at his easel (here); Chen Cheng-po in Western clothes, brimming with pride (here); Chen Cheng-po’s dead body (his wild staring eyes). I found one picture especially meaningful that shows him, together with his wife and child, in front of the Confucius Temple in Tainan (see here).

For Chen was very enthusiastic about the restoration of Chinese rule over Taiwan, like so many other Taiwanese intellectuals (many of them practicing calligraphy or writing poems in Ancient Chinese). However, the Chinese reality was very different from what the painter had imagined in his cottage: China, that was the cruel rule of Chiang Kai-shek and his bands of soldiers and murderers. Random shootings. The silence of death. And the 2-28 incident was just the beginning of a long period of darkness…

After I had left the museum, I began wondering what to think about this horrible death of a very gifted Taiwanese painter in the 40s. And I began asking myself what to make of the horrible sufferings that Taiwanese and Chinese had to undergo under the dictatorships on both sides of the Taiwan strait (and, of course, are still undergoing in China). I thought of the enthusiasm of Taiwanese and Chinese intellectuals for a revival of Confucianism. Than a quote by Daniel A. Bell came to my mind:

“From a normative standpoint, perhaps the main reason for being optimistic about the spread of Confucianism is that it provides resources for thinking about contemporary problems that affect most parts of the globe, such as worries about the corrosive effects of liberal individualism on family life and the impact of globalization on the international order.” (Bell, Confucian Political Ethics, p. x-xi)

In recent years, a couple of Western scholars have demonstrated a similar optimism about the spread of Confucianism. But yesterday, having seen the documents about this tragic clash between a highly modernized Taiwanese society and a backward/corrupt Chinese military, I was asking myself whether this optimism is really justified and whether it isn’t just romanticism. How realistic is the hope for a renewed Confucianism if we look back at the concrete experiences made by the Chinese-speaking people during the very long 20th century? And although I do understand and cherish the hope Daniel is articulating in this short passage, I tend to think now that as long as the fundamental political problem of contemporary China (the one-party state) is unresolved, it is highly unrealistic to hope for any meaningful Confucian alternative to the West. What I want to say: the Taiwanese experience is not just a local one. It has a universal meaning insofar as how China relates to this particular Taiwanese experience (and the later democratization process) will decide which stance China will eventually take towards the world. And there is more than one reason to be cautious…

Now I can imagine that a lot of you will be dissatisfied with the lines above. Isn’t the Kuomindang rule over Taiwan just one historical fact among many others – how is this to tell us something about the Confucian tradition in general? But here comes my concern: Confucians have always been primarily concerned with practice (ethical, social and political), and thus we should pay attention to social and political practice in China (being influenced more or less directly by Confucian teachings). What I want to say is this: shouldn’t we (as Westerners/as people who do not live in China) be much more careful about what it means to be Confucian today?! In other words, shouldn’t be aware how difficult it is in the Chinese-speaking today to declare oneself a Confucian if one is willing to face the realities on the ground (plus 20th century history)?! Somehow I miss this awareness in Daniel’s very enthusiastic portrait of “China’s New Confucianism”. Or just think of the hidden violence and the many euphemisms for political violence in Confucianism (f.ex. qing 清: “to clean”; zheng  正: “to rectify”). How many Memoral Museums will there have to be in a pluralistic and truly open Chinese society in the very distant future?! And how much of the particularly experiences of 20th century China can Confucian teachings articulate or reflect?! (Here I am also thinking of the role somebody like Xu Zhiyuan 許知遠 is playing now, a public intellectual from Beijing who is concerned with Western liberalism, Andrei Sakharov, and the Arab Spring, not with Confucianism, and who is very honest about Chinese society in general…)

And this leads to my last point: I am more and more skeptical of those Western interprets that give us a closed and relatively unified account of a contemporary Confucian/Chinese position. In brief, I do not think that there is a Confucian philosophical position that can still be defended in the modern age. Hannah Arendt’s dictum about the end of Western philosophy after the Holocaust may have a point in Asia, too: how could it be possible to simply continue the Confucian tradition after the 20th century?! What is still possible, I guess, are open and relatively hybrid accounts of Confucian philosophy that try to integrate certain Confucian tenets into a broader theoretical framework inspired by contemporary thinkers in the West (maybe think of Martha Nussbaum’s attempt to combine the Aristotelian and the Kantian/Rawlsian account into a very powerful, contemporary position). What we should absolutely avoid (at least if we take our role as philosopher seriously), are those accounts postulating a general superiority of Confucian thought over (Western) modernity.

And that’s all what I have to say. What do you think? I am aware that my ideas are controversial, so I am eager to receive your comments…

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