I often have trouble understanding the ease with which some Western observers/scholars living outside of Chinese-speaking societies try to merge modern feminist ideas with traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucian discourses. From a more embedded perspective, these attempts often look oversimplifying, or simply unconvincing. Again and again, social reality in China follows its own laws, not those imagined by observers outside of China.
Today, when I read this piece on the rise of “morality schools” in “communist” China, I was once again disturbed by the intriguing nature of social developments. Here is one striking passage: “In the recording, students at the Fushun Traditional Culture School were shown being told to put aside career aspirations and, in one instructor’s words, ‘shut your mouths and do more housework.’ One group of students was shown practicing bowing to apologize to their husbands.” And have a look at the beautiful statue of Confucius. And this is not a single case (one might also think of the Taiwanese classics reading movement which is also socially conservative and – as far as I understand the social context in Taiwan – about restoring traditional social roles, not about promoting gender equality). In other words, we may argue as we like that this is not the “authentic” Confucius speaking, but this is the very real Confucianism many Chinese women are exposed to, and the rest is silence (am I exaggerating here?).
This should be very troubling for contemporary Confucians. On a more theoretical level, we may need a debate on the role of “ideal theory” in Chinese philosophy. To quote Charles W. Mills: “Recognizing how people’s social location may both blind them to important realities and give them a vested interest in maintaining things as they are is a crucial first step toward changing the social order. Ideal theory, by contrast, too often simply disregards such problems altogether or, ignoring the power relations involved, assumes it is just a matter of coming up with better arguments.” (Mills, “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology”, Hypatia 20:3, Summer 2005).
Another observation in Mills’s article is also very insightful: “It is no accident that historically subordinated groups have always been deeply skeptical of ideal theory, generally see its glittering ideals as remote and unhelpful, and are attracted to nonideal theory, or what significantly overlaps it, ‘naturalized’ theory.” – Now “ideology” is certainly a rather vague and not necessarily helpful term. Yet, over the last 2000 years Confucianism has clearly demonstrated an unfortunate tendency to turn into some version of “ideal theory”. Thus, I believe, the problem analyzed by Mills may also be a problem that we need to think about more seriously. But this is just a rather tentative thought. Any comments on this?