Reconciling Socialism and Confucianism? Reviving Tradition in China

Reconciling Socialism and Confucianism? Reviving Tradition in China

Communism has lost its capacity to inspire the Chinese. But what will replace it? And what should replace it? Clearly, there is a need for a new moral foundation for political rule in China, and the government has moved closer to an official embrace of Confucianism. The Olympics highlighted Confucian themes, quoting the Analects of Confucius at the opening ceremony, and downplayed any references to China’s experiment with communism. Cadres at the newly built Communist Party School in Shanghai proudly tell visitors that the main building is modeled on a Confucian scholar’s desk. Abroad, the government has been promoting Confucianism via branches of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and culture center similar to France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe Institute.

Of course, there is resistance as well. Elderly cadres, still influenced by Maoist antipathy to tradition, condemn efforts to promote ideologies outside a rigid Marxist framework. But the younger cadres in their forties and fifties tend to support such efforts, and time is on their side. It’s easy to forget that the seventy-six-million-strong Chinese Communist Party is a large and diverse organization. The party itself is becoming more meritocratic—it now encourages high-performing students to join—and the increased emphasis on educated cadres is likely to generate more sympathy for Confucian values.

But the revival of Confucianism is not just government-sponsored. There has also been a resurgence of interest among academics. Rigorous experiments by psychologists show striking cognitive differences between Chinese and Americans, with Chinese more likely to use contextual and dialectical approaches to solving problems. Economists try to measure the economic effect of such Confucian values as filial piety. Feminist theorists draw parallels between care ethics and the Confucian emphasis on empathy, particularity, and the family as a school of moral education. Theorists of medical ethics discuss the importance of family-based decision making in medical settings. Those working in the field of business ethics research the influence of Confucian values on business practices. Political surveys show that attachment to Confucian values has increased with modernization. Sociologists study the thousands of experiments in education and social living that are inspired by Confucian values.

The renewed academic interest is also driven by normative concerns: an increasing number of critical intellectuals are turning to Confucianism to think of ways of dealing with China’s current social and political predicament. Without entirely rejecting westernization, they believe that stable and legitimate political arrangements need to be founded, at least partly, on political ideals from their own traditions. Theorists of international relations look to early Confucian thinkers for foreign policy insights. Legal theorists search for less adversarial m...

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