A Visit to a Confucian Academy

A Visit to a Confucian Academy

D. Bell: The Chinese Confucian Party?

In a moment of wishful thinking, I once speculated that the Chinese Communist Party might rename itself the Chinese Confucian Party in the next decade or two. Marxism is dead as a legitimizing political philosophy. The CCP is not about to embrace liberal democracy, and Confucianism seemed like the obvious alternative. Over the last couple of years, the “Confucianization” of the party has intensified and the gap between the is and the ought may be closing. The Confucian classics are being taught at party schools, the educational curriculum is being modified to teach more Confucianism, and there are more references to Confucian values in speeches and policy documents. The opening ceremony of the Olympics, vetted by the Chinese Politburo, seemed to put an official imprimatur on the Confucianization of the party: Marx and Mao were gone, and Confucius was shown as China’s face to the world. My prediction, it seems, has been vindicated by events—sooner than anticipated.

But it’s too early to declare: “Mission Accomplished.” Shortly after the Olympics, I went to visit Jiang Qing’s Confucian academy in remote Guizhou province. Jiang Qing, a Guizhou native, is the author of Political Confucianism, the most systematic and influential defense of Confucianism as a modern political philosophy (and as yet untranslated into English). He develops political implications for China in another work that could only be published in the more open environment of Taiwan. Teacher Jiang, as I call him, puts forward the proposal of a tricameral legistature, with a democratic house including deputies chosen by elections, a meritocratic house including deputies chosen by examinations, and a house of historical continuity consisting mainly of political appointees of diverse traditions and ethnic groups. In an ideal world, the three houses would agree on policy, but in cases of conflict, Teacher Jiang wants the meritocratic house to hold most of the trump cards.

I was greatly looking forward to meeting Jiang Qing in his “natural” surroundings. The academy is located on a small mountain peak, about two hours from the provincial capital Guiyang. The natural scenery is spectacular, though the nearby villages are very poor and polluting cement factories dot the landscape in the surrounding area. At the end of a winding and potholed dirt road, we finally arrived at the gates of the academy. Teacher Jiang came out to greet our family and a friend who was with us, Yang Ruqing (a kind and erudite scholar who teaches classical Confucian texts to my child). He was dressed in Chinese black cloth shoes and loose-fitting, Ming-dynasty clothing, which seemed far more appropriate than my leather shoes and semiformal Western wear. We greeted in the traditional Chinese way, with hands clasped (left on top for men, right for women), but then we also shook hands, Western-style.

Teacher Jiang seemed to be in good spirits. He was joined by his assistant, Teacher Fan, who explained that the whole academy, in traditional courtyard style, was personally designed by Teacher Jiang. The academy was built after a cumbersome process that involved paying and accommodating nearby farmers. To my untrained eye, the academy is imposing yet unobtrusive and seems to fit harmoniously in the surrounding environment. Visitors are put in different complexes, each named after different Confucian ideals, and the cook rings a bell to call everyone together at mealtime. The food is grown on the property by a farmer’s family that harvests and cooks the food for the academy.

The center of the complex is a two-story building, with the top floor reserved for discussion. On the ground floor, Teacher Jiang has placed a statue of Confucius along with tablets engraved with the names of his most influential early followers. There are separate rows of tablets with the lineage of two different Confucian schools up to the present day (one that emphasizes political reform, another that emphasizes self-cultivation). In the “political” school, I was a bit surprised that Jiang had chosen to honor Liang Ji (Liang Shuming’s father), who is most famous for committing suicide in the name of preserving Chinese culture in 1918.

Our free time at the complex was spent reading, joking, and eating (my only regret is that I didn’t get to hear Teacher Jiang’s renowned singing and flute-playing skills). After dinner, Teacher Jiang relished in telling stories that entertained the group. The farmer/cook also participated in the mealtime drinking sessions (including a taste of snake wine made with the remnants of a snake that Teacher Jiang had personally captured on the property). He led us on mountain walks, answering questions about each plant along the way. Teacher Jiang noted that the farmer’s daughter had been admitted, following rigorous examinations, to a prestigious provincial-level high school.

Our discussion sessions were relatively serious. Each period was taped and lasted two hours, and I was surprised by how meticulously the time constraints were observed. Teacher Jiang told me that the mission of the academy is primarily academic in nature. He said I was too optimistic about the prospects of political reform in the near term. There is a time for political action and a time for self-cultivation, and we need to be patient. Now Teacher Jiang spends most of his time reading. His academy is privately funded, and the government leaves him alone, enabling him to fulfill his academic mission.

Teacher Jiang insisted that I choose the topics for discussion, and we debated such questions as whether it’s possible to universalize Confucian values and what the West can learn from Confucianism. Teacher Jiang noted that expressions of Confucian values have changed over the years and need to be updated for new situations. For example, Confucius suggested the need for a three-year mourning period after a parent dies as a way of expressing filial piety. In Imperial China, government officials were given three years of leave after the death of a parent. Today, why can’t the period of grieving be three months instead of the zero that it has been reduced to? Teacher Yang noted that government officials in Confucian-influenced South Korea are given one month of leave after a parent dies.

In discussion, Teacher Jiang observed that some academics were good scholars of Confucianism, but they lacked commitment to Confucianism as a way of life. Teacher Yang added that some young boys today use knowledge of Confucianism to pick up girls (I was thinking to myself that this is a healthy sign of Confucianism’s future in China). Teacher Jiang replied that Confucianism is not just a belief system like Christianity. It also involves prolonged study, and we can’t expect young students to be “pure” Confucians.

In the last session, I could not resist bringing in some political topics. I asked about minority rights and Tibet, and Teacher Jiang invoked some Confucian texts that justify a hands-off approach to minority cultures. I then asked about the possibility of a democratic system emerging in China, with the opportunity for a Confucian party to join the fray. He said that was his hope ten years ago, but he has since lost faith in democratic mechanisms. He told the story of how Al Gore gave a talk in Shenzhen a few years ago. Teacher Jiang went to the talk and asked Gore what he would choose if U.S. interests conflicted with global interests. Teacher Jiang, who admired Gore’s environmentalism, was disappointed by the response he got. After a long pause, Gore said that there cannot be a conflict because the principles of the US constitution express universal values. For Teacher Jiang, Gore’s response expresses a deep problem with democratic theory: the political leaders are meant to represent the national interest, and it’s hard, if not impossible, for them to consider global interests if they conflict with national ones.

Teacher Jiang added that the political stage in a democracy is not truly equal. It favors performances by rich and powerful interest groups and by demagogic politicians who appeal to people’s ethnic identities or short-term material interest. It is not a process that Confucian intellectuals would participate in. And if they did participate, they would almost certainly lose.

So what’s the alternative? I asked. Teacher Jiang said we should wait for a sage king to rescue the people. I replied, only half-jokingly, that Mencius said the same thing over two thousand years ago and we’re still waiting today. In that case, Teacher Jiang said, we need to consider second-best alternatives. He favors reviving the traditional civil service examinations that would test for knowledge of the Confucian classics, among other things, so that at least the first grade of “meritocrats” could rule. I asked if examinations can really test for virtue, and he replied that the examinations could set a moral framework and vocabulary for subsequent political actions, and that we’d need to evaluate how successful candidates perform in practice as well as allowing them to deliberate among themselves to choose the leaders. To my surprise, he invoked the example of the Catholic Church’s mechanism for choosing leaders as a possible model.

And how will this kind of system come about? I asked. Perhaps Confucianizing the CCP is the most cost-free way? The CCP is using Confucianism for its own political ends, but Confucianism can also use the CCP. Once leaders are trained in Confucian humanism, they will eventually rule in a more humane way. Teacher Jiang added that Confucians are not necessarily against the party: Confucians are social critics, but when rulers do something good, they should be commended. But he warned me again not to be too optimistic and that change may still be decades away. Teacher Jiang said we need a more open political atmosphere and more Confucian education before any changes can have substantial effect. Teacher Yang concurred and explained that he now focuses on teaching the virtue of filial piety to young chidren. They should learn to care and respect their parents, a kind of empathy that can then be extended to others in society. Such changes can help build a social basis for Confucian renewal.

Small steps, perhaps, but I’m impressed by the passion and dedication of Confucian intellectuals today. They show the same kind of passion and dedication I observed among Chinese students and intellectuals in the late 1980s. But this time, the cause is the revival of Confucianism rather than the importation of democracy.

So here’s the situation as Confucians see it. The dragon is sick and can’t survive in its current state. Liberal democrats want to slay it and build a foreign-looking political animal out of the wreckage—an animal that looks like either Scandinavia (left-liberals) or the United States (right-liberals). And we shouldn’t worry too much about differences in population, culture, history, education, and levels of economic development. In contrast, Confucians want to feed the sick animal traditional medicine, gently admonish it when it strays from morality, and stroke it when it behaves properly, with the aim of restoring the dragon to what it used to be—an auspicious and awe-inspiring creature that rarely pulls out its claws and won’t bother too much with the lives of the smaller animals.

I’m still betting on the Confucians.

Daniel A. Bell is professor of political theory at Tsinghua University (Beijing). He is the author of China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton University Press, 2008).


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