"Moderation in Burials," 21st Century Version

The Mohist doctrine of “Moderation in Burial” seems to be winning converts among officials in China these days.

The New York Times reports that “After a quarter of a century in which the gap between rich and poor has steadily widened, the wretched excesses of the affluent are increasingly a Chinese government concern.”

“Ostentatious tombs are particularly irksome…because many Chinese find even a simple grave marker beyond their means. In a coinage that captures the widespread frustration, someone struggling to afford burial costs is called a ‘grave slave.'”

Last month in Wenling, south of Shanghai, “Five brothers commandeered the grounds of a high school to bid their mother goodbye with pomp befitting a state funeral. Thousands of onlookers watched a ceremony that featured nine flower-decked limousines, a uniformed band and a 16-gun salute. One brother told reporters that his mother wanted to be buried with ‘face.'”

The lavish ceremony prompted the local government to enforce a regulation against funeral “extravagance and waste.”

Full story here.

22 replies on “"Moderation in Burials," 21st Century Version”

  1. Chris, this is a very nice example with which to press the question, either to those who think of Confucianism as the interesting part of traditional Chinese philosophy, or to those who identify certain voices (e.g. their own) as “Confucian” – what is “Confucianism”?

    I’d be happy to see, among “Confucians,” a back-to-the-Analects movement. Confucius in the Analects seems to favor humility and thrift in ritual, and to oppose anything that expresses an inappropriately high rank.

    What went wrong? Did Mencius love his mother too much? Was Zengzi too dense? Or is the problem a combination of traditionalism and an imperfect tradition? Or maybe it’s too vertical a conception of rightnessm, hence an overvaluing of exalting others at one’s own expense, and of being exalted.

    Maybe it’s that Confucianism as a tradition is deeply suspicious of theory and theoretical argument (I mean, the kind of argument that can stand on its own legs, not the kind that presents itself as a report of a complex insight to be accepted on the speaker’s authority). Hence, for example, as Hu Shi complained, the brilliant light of Neo-Confucianism could shine for 800 years without noticing the horror and injustice of footbinding.

    What would be the root of such suspicion? Is it that familism opposes universalism? Or that philosophy is essentially a threat to power?

    Offhand it seems to me that the Daoist tradition tends to be suspicious of theory too, but perhaps based on a more direct attention to theory and its tools. I don’t know.

    • What sets Ru and Mo moral discussions farthest apart, I think, is their manner of presenting and arguing for positions. The presentation and defense of clear, consistent criteria for moral behavior, requiring minimal specialist interpretation, is the kind of social and discursive practice most distinctive of Mohism. Confucians generally deviate from or oppose this practice.

      The two schools agree on many substantive points; burial policy is not among them, but it would be fairly easy to argue for moderate burials in a Confucian way. Straightforward utilitarian arguments have more of a Mohist flavor, but combining utilitarian arguments with appeals to a formal and symbolic tradition is something characteristic of Xunzi. A Mencian could argue for moderate burials based on overwhelming emotional impulse of some kind – the impulse not to dishonor the reputation of one’s parents with garish display, for example.

    • I agree, Stephen; well put. But I like to think of the Analects as pre-theoretical rather than anti-theoretical.

    • Oh. Part of what I had in mind is that one thing people may sometimes mean by “Confucianism” is a what one might call a living tradition, some admixture of general culture and a continuous literati community. In that sense, “Confucianism” arguably harmonizes with, and is not well suited to combat, the 21st-century excesses. By contrast, at least the Analects unambiguously opposes such excesses (without going so far as to support the funerary minimalism that Mohists may have favored).

    • I think there are attitudes in the Analects that could be called anti-theoretical – there is a consistent avoidance of debate when it offers itself, and a relatively authoritarian set of appeals to tradition, community, and teachers. Mengzi and Xunzi do engage in debates, and offer arguments for their views and commitments, but they also express a dislike of having to defend themselves against opponents. Neither one of them indicates that he feels his outlook has been improved by encounters with rivals.

    • But Confucius does occasionally claim such a thing.

      To my question above about the roots of Confucian hesitation (if any) to engage in theory, your implicit suggestion would be that the root is Confucian respect for established tradition and other established authority, and perhaps an associated concern to be regarded with similar respect.

      I wonder if in Confucius himself something else is operating. We’re told he was willing to seek input from inferiors, and valued being questioned and challenged. I wonder if maybe his thought was that debate is more often than not a defensive and distracting exercise. Instead, when someone shows us one corner, we do better to try to grasp the others by ourselves.

    • It is interesting to watch the decline in humility from Kong to Meng to Xun. I agree that Kongzi is the least pretentious of the three. (Xunzi also has a marked proclivity for violence.) It would take a good deal of psychological reconstruction to get at what is behind those thinkers’ varying attitudes toward theorizing and debating; I’m not sure how much of the reconstruction would have to be speculative.

      But on some level this shouldn’t pose much of a puzzle for us: do we necessarily expect charismatic ideologues and educators to place much value on readjusting their own commitments and to fairly engaging with opponents? The idea that the early Confucian masters would care at all about such priorities may stem from the habit of treating them as “philosophers”. I think that the mainstream Western philosophical sensibility, canonized early by Plato and Aristotle, holds that appreciative engagement with opposing views improves one’s own understanding. The difference is one of emphasis, but I think it is there: Confucians don’t need to put nearly so much emphasis on engaging with opponents, because they trust the tradition to give them the great majority of what they need.

      Learning from others is not the same as learning from opponents. Peers, colleagues, even subordinates and random acquaintances can teach you important lessons – I don’t see any of the three early masters denying this. But for someone to reject the sage-kings, or defend some alternate conception of the virtues, or pursue a truly eccentric lifestyle makes him untrustworthy and dangerous, or simply irrelevant. If our reaction to diversity and strong contrast of opinion is different from this – if, for instance, we become willing to modify our basic commitments and defend socio-political structures valorizing diverse lifestyles – then we are thinking more like Zhuangists than Confucians.

      No Confucian would ever defend ritual or convention in the abstract.

    • Stephen, would you countenance a distinction between explicitly and gratefully learning from opponents, on the one hand, and coopting or appropriating ideas, values, or institutions from opponents, on the other? My thought is this: even to the extent you’re right here, it’s primarily about about rhetoric and justification (not that rhetoric and justification are unimportant!), and is perfectly compatible with the authors of the Analects, e.g., having learned a great deal from the Guanzi. Yes?

    • I agree: the claim is not that Confucians do not learn from their opponents – clearly they do. They are, however, generally loath to admit it, so that in detecting influence from other schools and thinkers we are making explicit something the original writers were disinclined to acknowledge. This relates to my earlier statement that “What sets Ru and Mo moral discussions farthest apart, I think, is their manner of presenting and arguing for positions.” The Confucian habit is to present their teachings as rooted in, or derived from (if not just obviously present in) the sage-kings and their literary and cultural legacy. The narratives and declamations of the Shu, the songs and sentiments of the Shi, and the elaborate training on offer from Ru masters – these are the foundation for developing proper views and habits. I think this is the primary point of Mencius 7b37. Mohists of course also defer to the sage-kings, but they are far quicker to issue clear standards and defend them as mechanically as their opponents might wish.

      The Confucian insistence on their specific cultural materials as the only fit basis for moral instruction is not, of course, merely a matter of rhetoric.

    • This would be a great topic for a new discussion: to what extent, if at all, have Confucians defended ritual or convention in the abstract? And insofar as they have done so, what have the arguments been? (Manyul? Steve? Alexus? David?)

      Youzi at Analects 1.12 may be defending ritual in the abstract – depending on how broad a concept of “ritual” you have in mind. On the Zhu Xi/Kupperman reading, Youzi is arguing that ritual forms for interaction allow us to negotiate complex situations with practised ease; on my reading, Youzi is arguing that ceremonial symbolic reenactments of the social order (especially the difference in ranks), and ritualized forms for interactions especially between unequals, help people cooperate in an orderly and mutually non-threatening way. Ritual helps 小 and 大 get along by being something they 由 in common.

      To the rest of what you say here I hope to reply later.

    • To defend ritual in the abstract would, I think, amount to this: defending the importance of culturally-specific symbolic forms in understanding and pursuing the right way to live – without committing to a given body of symbolic forms as constitutive of proper culture. I think the Confucians do have many insightful things to say about culture in general, but the context for their interest in culture is their conviction that there is one optimal cultural system, inherited from the ancients, to which they wish to convert the people of the world. Xunzi makes important and interesting observations about ritual-in-general, but his commitment is to exactly one highly specific set of symbols and protocols, to which the only alternative he envisions is chaos.

    • I don’t think having views about which sort of ritual is best is any obstacle to being able to give a defense of ritual in the abstract that doesn’t depend on such views.

      Are you suggesting that Youzi’s defense is in terms of the wrong kind of basis, because it defends ritual as a means of social harmony rather than as contributing to the effort to understand or carry out the best way (for an individual) to live?

    • from Zhuangzi 32:

      Huan, a man of Zheng, droned and intoned his lessons in the country of Qiushi. In a mere three years Huan became a Confucian scholar. The Yellow River moistens the land around its shores for nine li; Huan’s bounty spread to the clans of his father, mother, and wife. This caused his younger brother to become a Mohist. When the Confucian and the Mohist came to compete in disputation, their father gave his support to old Mozi. Ten years later Huan killed himself.

    • I’m having trouble seeing the lesson here! If Huan killed himself right away, the moral of the story would seem to be that Confucians would rather die than see reason; or that the father’s decision put Huan into a Moebius loop.

    • The funny thing for me is that the “bounty” (澤) of the Confucian—that much-vaunted spreading of influence that supposedly converts the world to the right path—instead does precisely the opposite, making everyone around him into a Mohist. There is no indication that Huan was deficient as a Confucian: instead we get the typically Zhuangist observation that someone’s taking up a strong, distinct position is just as likely to inspire opposition as agreement. The content or nature of that position has no bearing on this likelihood. It would probably be particularly galling for a Confucian to encounter rejection by his own family in this way.

    • Oh, I thought the point about the bounty was that it didn’t extend to the younger brother. Maybe the ten-year delay before suicide was just an additional dig. 🙂

    • Hi Bill–Raising the question of what counts as Confucianism in this context suggests to me a parallel with those (like Liu Qingping in his series of articles criticizing the Confucian notion of consanguineous affection) who draw connections between contemporary corruption in China and China’s Confucian heritage. Is that fair? Because it seems to me that the resources for Confucian criticisms of over-the-top, inapt rituals are readily found, and not just in the Analects. (Just as there seems to be a pretty solid consensus that Confucians have considerable resources for criticising corruption, even if these aren’t always the same resources to which a modern liberal, for example, might avail himself or herself.)

      Still, I do agree that the question of what or who counts as Confucian in a modern context like this is a good one. One way to think about it might be to extend, into a modern context, Stephen’s observations about differences in the rhetoric of the early schools. Alternatively, we might expect that Confucians today would self-identify, and argue, in very different ways than they did at the tradition’s birth. Certainly heirs of Wang Yangming should acknowledge debts to Buddhism, and anyone who sees Mou Zongsan as a Confucian–whether or not they agree with him–should be open to productive encounters with both the form and substance of Western philosophy. That might mean that Confucians today would criticize social excesses, and justify their criticisms, in very different ways from the authors of the Analects.

      So who are the Confucians, and how do they in fact engage in social criticism? (Or are they just cheering on the extravagent tomb builders?) Briefly, I think there’s a significant range: consider the “open letters” penned by anonymous Confucian revivalists criticizing the recent removal of the Confucius statue, or Jiang Qing’s scholarly treatises, or the English-language arguments about what a Confucian should criticize that I’ve been working on (some of which showed up in the feminism thread). In each of these cases, there is a mix of at least two things, though the ratio between the two varies: citation from canonical sources, to express an insight or a core commitment; and reasoning that any philosopher would recognize as reasoning, adverting to reasons and evidence that may have no particular source in earlier Confucian texts.

    • Hi Steve, thanks for the observations and information!

      I’ve read pretty carefully two or three of those papers by Liu Qingping, ones that have appeared in English; and I do think his arguments are distinctly unfair about the commitments of the texts. I don’t know if they’re unfair about the practical tendencies of the tradition. Anyway I admit that I’m being unfair here, for all I have to offer is suspicions that I’m not prepared to defend, and that are in real tension with each other. Maybe all they reflect is my grotesquely vast ignorance.

      One is that a refusal to stand firm against power (except when power attacks the flags of Confucianism) is bred too deep into the tradition, not just from its ancient alliance with the state but also from some of its core doctrines and its lacking (?) an image of justice as something sharp, clear, impersonal, and generally recognizable, or the ideal of the rule of law to concretize justice into something sharp, clear, impersonal, and generally recognizable. So although there may well be resources to criticize e.g. corruption, I don’t see how that would distinguish Confucianism from the absence of Confucianism. What seems perhaps to distinguish Confucianism is ideas and practices that tend to impede the use of such resources.

      Another suspicion, somewhat opposed to the first, is that maybe the answer to “What is ‘Confucianism’” is that it isn’t much; i.e., that maybe there isn’t a great deal more doctrinal agreement among “Confucians” than one might expect to find between most pairs of randomly selected pair of thinkers from anywhere (most thinkers can, I suppose, expected to agree on a great deal of what is in the Analects). For example, under David Elstein’s April 5 post, you wrote, “This, in turn, makes me wonder if the right kind of liberal arts curriculum might be a good, modern version of a Confucian education — especially if one wants to embrace the pluralism that is manifestly present in Chinese, or for that matter US, society.” I’m not sure, but the suggestion might be that a good liberal education, fitting the descriptions one might find on countless American universities’ web sites, is what should count as a Confucian education these days.

      What would be the harm in using “Confucianism” simply as a label for common sense about morals and society, a label with special appeal to certain communities? One problem might be the suggestion that it is something other than simply common sense about morals and society, something special to a certain culture or tradition. Like the view, common among American evangelicals, that basic morality is known only through revelation, such a label could impede moral thought and the understanding of others.

      Anyway I’ll go look more closely into the scholar Jiang Qing, and back to the feminism thread, as you suggest. Thank you!

    • Bill, some really nice and provocative thoughts here! First, on the “stand firm against power” idea: (1) Some of the tradition’s most famous heroes–Fang Xiaoru, for instance–are famous precisely for standing firm, at great cost, against power. (2) Still, we might say that Confucians often aren’t supposed to stand “firm”: persistent, gentle remonstration, with a bend-don’t-break approach might better characterize many recommendations and models we find in the texts. (3) Which leaves me with considerable sympathy for your concern that a lack of “sharp” notions of justice and law have a real cost. As I read him, this is precisely why Mou Zongsan argues for that Confucian morality needs to “restrict itself” so as to give space to an independent notion of political/legal value.

      Second, concerning the liberal arts education idea, I guess I want to stress the “right kind” of liberal arts: the content would draw extensively, maybe even primarily, on the Confucian canon. Would that be enough to make it a suitable modern Confucian education? Quite possibly not; I was (and am) just thinking out loud. But it should already be enough to get more conherence than one would get by selecting the contents at random, I think?

    • Thanks for (1)(2)(3). Regarding the Confucian liberal education, how would a college education drawing primarily on the Confucian canon be a way “to embrace the pluralism that is manifestly present in Chinese, or for that matter US, society”? I had read your remark as I did because I thought that in context you were arguing that the modern university’s valuing some sort of philosophical neutrality did not make it an unsuitable place for a Confucian education. Maybe the worry about the university that you were addressing was only the worry that it spends too much time on booklearning than is consistent with the training of good Confucians. That was indeed the immediate context.

      The Confucian classics may indeed diverge less from each other than do current “Confucians.” But I think the proposition that Confucians agree about little more than do most random pairs of thinkers is quite consistent with the claim that four years spent primarily with the Confucian classics amounts to an excessively coherent education. Indeed a course covering any three Confucian books will be more coherent than a course covering any three random books that might be read toward a standard liberal education, largely because what makes a course coherent is that the readings cover related topics, at least to disagree about them. So I don’t think your point about books cuts against my proposal about random thinkers!

  2. This is in reply to Bill – as once before, we ran out of indents on the comment-thread!

    Working from Analects 1.2, 1.12, and 1.13 – I don’t see any evidence that Youzi is talking about ritual in general, if by “ritual in general” is meant something like “conventional behavior” without specifics as to its content and historical origin. Content and historical origin matter vitally to early Confucian writers; they are not defending convention simpliciter, but a highly elaborate and specific set of traditions with many competitors in their surrounding environment. (Hence I do not think it is helpful to see Confucians as defending any kind of “establishment” or “status quo” – they mean precisely to impose their rituals on the status quo.) Conventional behavior in the abstract is better captured by the term “sú” 俗, with which Mohist and Daoist writers discuss custom.

    I am trying to pinpoint where our interpretive dispositions diverge on this material. Here’s a hypothesis: I generally tend toward a reading of early Confucianism that foregrounds participation in a community, where that community (the Ru) distinguishes itself by certain moral and cultural commitments. I tend to understand Ru thinkers as committing their energies primarily to participating in a set of cultural forms and adopting shared political ambitions and normative social ideals. None of those activities depends centrally on comparing different points of view in a careful, open-ended way: earnestness and effort are prized over any reflective or practical consideration of alternatives. Hence, however defensible the Ru priorities and way of life, the Ru themselves are more preoccupied with struggling through that way of life on its own terms than with stepping back or engaging other possibilities. This makes their intellectual practices very different from those of contemporary philosophers and academics – much narrower, less theoretical, and more activist.

    To get concrete, I do not think that actually considering the variety of possibly justified conventional behavior is something Confucians want to spend their time doing. (Or ever did spend their time doing.) They never sunder their more general reflections about convention from their commitment to one set of conventions. I feel like a tempting analogy is to a monk or member of a similar community talking about “discipline”. Someone who lives his life in monastic discipline will probably have opinions on discipline in general, but before we assume he is “talking to us” in a theoretically productive way, we need to consider how far any discussion he makes of “discipline” makes sense apart from his other (normative, practical, etc.) commitments.

    • Thank you, Stephen! That was very helpful. I think I agree with much that you say here. I was mainly reacting against the bold statement that no Confucian ever would defend ritual in the abstract. I have no reason to think you’re wrong in saying that such a topic is not in the mainstream of Confucian thought, at least up to the past hundred years. But really I wouldn’t know. Does anyone else?

      I didn’t think that by “ritual in general” you might mean “conventional behavior in general.” “Ritual” and 禮 are flexible terms, of course, and I suppose neither of us wants to get bogged down in their flexibility here, but the broadest meaning of “ritual” seems to me not a central meaning, and not as broad as “conventional behavior.” Also I don’t myself think of ritual as wholly conventional.

      Confucians seem to think of li 禮 as at least in part conventional, for they distinguished Xia 禮 from Shang 禮, etc. The term is not the name of a specific ritual set.

      I’m not sure why one wouldn’t take Youzi to be talking about 禮 in general, if not “ritual” in general. He does say he’s talking about 禮, and the reasons he adduces seem to appeal only to very general features of 禮. I think one can talk about triangles in general without reviewing the seventeen kinds. His arguments in the Analects never appeal to the authority of tradition (even at 12.9).

      (As you may know, I think Youzi wasn’t a disciple of Confucius, though his contributions to the Analects may have been influenced by the Confucian group. In the article on Confucius’ disciples in Cua’s encyclopedia, Ames says of Youzi that he was distinguished by being a stickler for fine points of ritual, and a sourpuss to boot. I have failed to find any evidence for either claim.)(It seems to me the Analects is highly ambiguous as to whether Confucius’ own ideas were based mainly on tradition, or thought one ought to base one’s own ideas on tradition. )

      IF it is integral to “Confucianism” to think that 禮 is from 天, then even if “Confucians” theorize about 禮 in general, then I grant that that probably does not amount to theorizing about “ritual” in general (unless the Confucian in question thinks e.g. that convention itself is from 天 by way of the human heart).

      Your statement that no Confucian ever would defend ritual in the abstract mught just have been a bold way of saying that thinking along such lines is not in the mainstream of Confucianism. I have no reason to disagree, at least for pre-modern Confucians.

      If there are “Confucians” today and if it is integral to “Confucianism” to value 禮, and the thought is not that we should return to something very like the 禮 of early China, then the term as used by today’s “Confucians” might have to be general enough to accommodate some very different sets.
      Here’s a relevant thread maybe:

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