7 replies on “Osnos on Confucianism in The New Yorker”

  1. I just finished reading this in the print version and was a little disappointed. It felt like it was written for last year but only now published, drawing as it does on trends and events from a few years ago (Yu Dan, rise of Confucius Institutes, erection and subsequent removal of Confucius statue in Tiananmen Square, etc.) I was hoping for some more updated sense of how Confucius is regarded in China.

    • Just read it, and have to say that I had the same reaction as Manyul. It felt like something from 2011.

  2. Like Steve, I enjoyed the article a lot.

    The whole thing had a kind of postmodern feel. This passage, for instance, would not have been out of place in a Don DeLillo novel:

    “In 2007, [Qufu]’s International Confucius Festival was co-sponsored by the Confucius Wine Company. Thousands of people filled a local stadium, giant balloons bearing the names of ancient shcolars bobbed overhead, and a Korean pop star performed in an abbreviated outfit. Near the cave where Confucius was said to have been born, A five-hundred-million-dollar museum-and-park complex is under construction; it includes a statue of Confucius that is as tall as the Statue of Liberty.”

    The writer, Evan Osnos, has a blog on the New Yorker website called “Letters from China”:


    • In this age of materialistic consumerism, nothing is sacred. Confucius is a powerful brand as a commercialized commodity. Money is made every which way we can from devotees to temples, tourists to theme parks, and – I wonder if we may even include – students to universities.

      Academic interest in Confucius, which is getting more insidious than ever has a tradition going back to pre-modern China. How does the study of virtue ethics spawn human corruption and immorality?

    • That sounds ominous. I’m genuinely puzzled, however, by the link between academic interest in Confucius and corruption/immorality. The link between commercial interest in Confucius and corruption seems clearer. What kind of purity would be preserved on Confucius’s behalf by refraining from taking an *academic* interest in him?

    • The reason as to why the “the link between commercial interest and corruption seem clearer” could be attributed to the norm in the study of Confucian ethics. Take the children’s “Three Character Classic” for example. The opening stanza is:


      This Catechism from the outset frames the founding doctrine of the inherent goodness of human nature and its divisiveness caused by decadent habits of culture. It exhorts self-cultivation, a personal responsibility, to bring about social harmony through attaining that goodness by internalizing and embodying the qualities of the Confucian ideal human being. Commercially-linked corruption is associated with the merchant class. The self-cultivated educated elite are believed to be above that crassness. Scholar-officials held high positions in the government of Confucian China from antiquity till the termination of the state-run examinations in 1905. Their intellectual participation was instrumental in the preservation of a self-serving political bureaucracy.

      After enduring two thousand years of misery, the Chinese people are still entrapped in this “civilization state” of China as the debate on humaneness (仁) and right conduct (禮) goes on in academia. Being an intellectual himself, Mao saw the link between traditional academic interest in Confucius and corruption. Thus, he felt justified in putting the “Confucian ideal human being” to better use in the fields to work with the peasants.

      There is no purity in a thing that does not exist. Since Confucian virtue ethics are aspirational (i.e. one can do everything Confucius say and still be a crook) they can be shaped and reshaped according to imagination. And this was done to fit the political agenda of the government of the day as China transitioned from one ruling dynasty to another. No implication is being made here by me about the pointlessness of studying the Confucian Classics. It is the norm of institutionalized study that is self-defeating.

      The modern university is a corporation. Like the Chinese state, it has a political structure invested in its own survival and flourishing. Funding for a university comes from three sources: the state, private benefactors and student fees. All three exert their own respective pressure on how the various university departments do their business in order to stay viable in the marketplace. How does a Professor of Chinese Philosophy and Confucian Studies keep on the right side of the establishment, stay published and be relevant to his audience beyond his classroom? How did China’s scholar-officials remonstrate with their emperors without literally losing their heads?

  3. I’ll get to see the article in early Feb. Meanwhile …

    A great thing about Yu Dan, I imagine, however shallow her readings, is that her work goes a long way toward legitimizing or even popularizing the independent or protestant reading of the Analects: feeling free to encounter Confucius directly, without deference to traditional understandings.

    I can think of worse excuses for party and spectacle than claiming to celebrate Confucius.

    We could look at the festivities and plans and see mainly venality tied to dangerous nationalism; or we could look at them and see civil society opening up to a plurality of symbols and authorities, flavored by by ordinary human silliness. We could love purple because it displaces red.

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