Zigong inquired, “What if everyone in a village despises a person?” The Master said, “It’s not enough. It would be better if the best villagers love and the worst despise, this person.”
There’s no one more emblematic of Chinese wisdom than the ancient Chinese sage, Confucius (Kong Zi). His legacy as a philosopher in Chinese history is unsurpassed and his influence still seen even two and half thousand years after his death. The spirit of his ideas can be felt in the words, actions and future hopes of the Chinese people despite the fact that much of the influence has been diluted during contemporary times.
Even Marxism could not totally abolish it. It is an enduring if not inherent part of the Chinese soul. Even the communist party members, some of the least Confucian people in the world and whom would readily acknowledge the poverty of modern society in Confucian wisdom would agree that China needs to return to its philosophical roots in order to build a truly just society. Modern ills often reflect the kinds of deep problems which occur across time; problems Confucius struggled against in his life often rear their heads in modern forms.
But here I am concerned with how Confucius is looked upon by the west and among many ethnic Chinese people throughout the world. Like many things related to China, the image created by modern western discourse reflects deep-seated prejudices. He is cast as either villain responsible for much of China’s ills throughout history or denigrated to the role of inscrutable fortune cookie sayings. But these images are not supported by facts and often not only get things wrong but get things sometimes precisely backwards. There are many myths about Confucius’s views. Many of them so wrong as to be the polar opposite of what the Sage actually believed and explicitly argued against.
Defaming Confucius is a tactic that is rooted in much of western discourse on Chinese history and values. It is part of the Orientalist program. No singular person represents Chinese thought and values more. He represents the deep-seated thinking behind the values of much of the Chinese people better than anyone and attacking him is a way to attack the Chinese worldview. In a society that is conditioned to loathe anything Chinese, those that come closest to embodying what is essentially Chinese are the targets of the most baseless accusations. He is synedoche of the Chinese collective soul and by discrediting him, they discredit Chinese culture and everything that China and its people stand for. Even some “experts” of Confucius have fallen into this trap (see here for an example of one such scholar). Even some ethnically Chinese people during contemporary times who have probably never having even read Confucius, “criticize” him not out of genuine disagreement with what he actually said but out of a sense that it is fashionable to do so. Mao was widely esteemed by his Marxist comrades for his anti-Confucian views. Intellectuals such as Liu Xiaobo and a predecessor, Lu Xun, also mocked him, warned against the evils of his influence. Much of modern Chinese cultural criticism from certain intellectual circles revolve around an anti-Confucianism.
The most commonly held and baseless myths concerning the great Sage today are that 1. That he advocated for forceful, coercive authoritarian governments. 2. That he favored Aristocratic, hierarchical societies over more egalitarian ones. 3. That he was for strict obedience to authority in the family and in other crucial relationships. 4. That he advocated sexist practices (such as foot-binding).
These are not only false but, in many cases, the exact opposite of what he advocated. I will prove this with his own words quoted from his most cherished work, The Analects (actually it’s a compilation by his students of his wisdom). Moreover, the other major Confucian philosophers such as Mencius and Xunzi quite often agreed with him on major relevant issues. The images (caricatures) constructed of him, of Confucianism, and hence of China’s wisdom tradition, in the modern west and sadly sometimes adopted uncritically by many Chinese people, are distortions. They are mere manufactured mirages used to denigrate a non-white and non western tradition by people who often are from societies with a colonial past. Moreover, I will contrast what Confucius actually said with much of the views held in some of the most influential western political and ethical tracts and show how much reality can be turned upside down in the words of defamers.
Granted there are many bad translations of the Analects. Also granted, one may cherry-pick some ambiguous passages here and there like you can do with any ancient text (or modern for that matter). But such cherry picking do not express truthfulness and intellectual honesty. One has to see the overall context and see trends in the text. One has to put them in the proper perspective. I will quote from the Ames and Rosemont translation of the Analects (unless otherwise noted) which I believe is the best translation (along with the D.C. Lau translation)
Myth 1: He advocated for forceful, coercive totalitarian governments
One of the most persistent myths is that Confucius was for a strong centralized government that uses coercion and force: i.e., authoritarian or totalitarian governments. Statements like this are commonly perpetuated in both the west and in China, both among the public and more intellectual circles:
Confucius sought to establish a totalitarian system of traditional controls which would perpetuate society and civilization regardless of the misadventures or inadequacies of government.
It’s a ubiquitous myth. Almost anyone that seems to have an opinion about Confucius in the west seems to have at least this uncritical view and to take it as so obvious, so well-established that not a iota of effort is taken to ever examine it. For example, western intellectuals such as represented by Samuel P. Huntington in his (in)famous Clash of Civilizations simply assumed that Asian societies are doomed to authoritarianism because they are doomed to be Confucian.
This common idea is ridiculous. Confucius advocated an ideal that focused on cultivating personal virtue and strengthening social relationships. The Confucian ideal state’s role was relegated to the performance of rituals and to provide for basic necessities, not in using any form of coercion never mind the use of force. The emperor was ideally a role model, not a true center of power, never-mind coercive power. The state’s main job was to provide basic necessities and to coordinate societal development. Harmony in society is cultivated through individual virtue and the redemptive power of strong relationships (specifically the five Confucian relationships). It was not the role of the state to do what families, friends, and the individual was supposed to do: that is, cultivate virtue and thus harmony and justice in society. Even laws were seen as too intrusive, too coercive and superficial as a means towards building a harmonious society. This is because Confucius thought punishment was an inherent element of law but that aspect is not only coercive but superficial. People will be outwardly decent but only behave that way because of the fear of punishment and not out of a virtuous soul. Consider the Analects 2.3.
The Master said: Guide them with policies and align them with punishments and the people will evade them and have no shame. Guide them with virtue (de) and align them with li and the people will have a sense of shame and fulfill their roles.
Only a virtuous soul can genuinely good actions spring forth naturally. Virtue is also more nuanced and can adjust to the complexities and contingencies of life that systems of law are simply too crude to handle. True virtue does not come from external forces such as inducements from punishment but from the human heart (xin) which is itself inherently good but need healthy a environment conducive to develop its natural course. That environment is fragile because it depends on the formation of many healthy relationships throughout one’s life such as parental, pedagogical and that of friendships.
The role of those “in power” such as the emperor are relegated to that of paradigmatic role model. Someone who can dutifully carry out rituals and personal relationships with such care, grace and understanding that others will be inspired to perform their duties to each other with equal care, grace and understanding. The emperor or the state ministers do not coerce others but influences them indirectly through their own behavior as exemplar. In fact, the emperor doesn’t even tell people what to do. He is the Pole Star or the Wind and others induced to virtue by mere observance or or his presence and not in virtue of coercion or even explicit commands.
The rule of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star which commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place.” Analects 2:1 [emphasis mine]
This is the Confucian ideal. All of this shouldn’t be surprising because the close association between Confucius and Taoism has been noticed by quite a few scholars of ancient Chinese philosophy. Taoism is an extreme version of an anti-authoritarian philosophy. It is essentially anarchist. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explained,
In ancient China, the political implication of this Dao-ism was mainly an opposition to authority, government, coercion, and even to normal socialization in values. Daoist “spontaneity” was contrasted with subtle or overt indoctrination in any specific or social dao….[P]hilosophical Daoism tends toward pluralism, perspectivalism, skepticism, political equality and freedom.
Confucianism is actually far closer to Taoism in this regard than many people realize (which also shouldn’t be surprising because Confucius discusses Taoist sages in several passages with admiration.
Confucius’s most admired sages of yore were Yao and Shun, two mythical Xia Dynasty kings who embodied the concept of wu wei or effective ruling without overt action and deception. These two kings were more like ideals of virtue and their societies were ideals of society rather than concrete historical examples for Confucius. These kings rarely acted, never coerced or punished anyone and yet were able to achieve the building prosperous and harmonious societies. Analects 15:5 says:
“If there was a ruler who achieved order without taking any action, it was, perhaps, Shun. There was nothing for him to do except to hold himself in a respectful posture and to face due south.”
In Confucius’s time, facing “due south” is a ritual position signifying respect and humility (also see Analects 8.18). In another famous passage (3:5), Confucius says that Chinese people without any rulers are superior to barbarians with rulers. This is because the Chinese have culture and education and can conduct their affairs virtuously without any authority looking over them. One can probably make a far better case that Confucius was an anarchist (at least on some conceptions of political anarchy) rather than an autocrat.
Myth 2: He favored Aristocratic, hierarchical societies over more egalitarian ones
Confucius could afford an optimistic moral outlook for the potential of human beings and the societies they could build without any coercion because he believed that human nature was inherently good. People behaved immorally because of corrupted past relationships and a failure of education or other kind of social failing (such as in times of economic desperation, natural disasters, etc). If human nature is allowed its natural developmental course, societies will be naturally just and harmonious without any coercive power structures in place whether that comes from a powerful Hobbessian king or the institution of punitive law.
The vast majority of people can achieve great virtue (of being a junzi). Confucius believed that he was no different in basic nature from the vast majority of people (see Analects 7:20 and 7:34 for example). He believed that human beings were basically equal in their moral capacities. See Analects 17.2:
Human beings are similar in their natural tendencies (xing) but vary greatly by virtue of their habits.
Other Confucian philosophers like Mencius similarly argued that human beings are innately good and that virtue is our natural tendency. It only needs the right healthy environment conducive to its development (which is by no means easily attainable for all the right elements must be in place) to take hold in society. Mencius’ analogy of the sprout naturally developing into the oak tree when certain environmental conditions conducive for its growth are in place serves to illustrate this point. His famous argument (2A:6) that human nature must be good for even hardened criminals will reflexively feel an instant spark of dread at the sight of a baby crawling towards an open well palpably demonstrates this view. Mencius argued that this brief moment of decency in the hardened criminal goes against his malformed upbringing and his wayward lifestyle. It is his innate goodness which had been there all along expressing itself. It simply can’t be extinguished despite a lifetime of vice. Also see Mencius in 3A.1 when Mencius admirably quotes a peasant who says he is not afraid of a tyrant king because both are men and no man is above another. Xunzi also made egalitarian arguments in asserting that the vast majority of human beings were alike in their basic nature.
This view of human nature as fundamentally equal and good carries over to a sense of social justice that favored egalitarian distributive principles. 16:1 in the Analects, for example, has Confucius arguing that an inequitable distribution of wealth is morally worse than overall poverty for a state. Equal distribution of wealth (jun), education, and appropriate ascription of honor and dishonor based on the fair evaluation of conduct (loosely translated as yi) and character (as opposed to social-status, popularity, and birthright) are all common themes in the Analects.
Myth 3: He was for unwavering obedience and conformity to authority in the family and other relationships.
Confucius’s ideas here seemed not to differ from his previous anti-authoritarian political views and the views of that of his Confucian successors. That ought not surprise anyone because Confucians believed that the state was analogous to the family. In Analects 14:22 for example, he says to Zilu when asked how one can serve his lord properly, “Let there be no duplicity when taking a stand against him.” Also in 13:15 partly reads,
Duke Ding asked, ‘Is there any one saying that can ruin a state?’ ‘A saying itself cannot have such an effect,’ replied Confucius, ‘but there is a saying, “I find little pleasure in ruling save that no one will take exception to what I say.” If what one has to say is efficacious and no one takes exception, fine indeed. But if what one has to say is not efficacious and no one takes exception, is this not close to saying ruining a state?’
In regards to the teacher-student relationship, Confucius says in 15:36 “In striving to be authoritative in your conduct (ren), do not yield even to your teacher.”
Also see 3:18, 13:23, 13:24, 15:28 for additional passages where Confucius warns against the dangers of mindless conformity and obedience to the masses or to village authority.
This anti-conformist streak is sometimes even more pronounced in the Han Dynasty Confucian philosopher Xunzi who said in regards to the child-parent (filial) relationship that one’s duty to be filial is to agree only when one’s parent or superior is correct. But it is also one’s duty, he maintained, to offer vehement disapproval when one’s parents or superiors are wrong. “One should obey what is right and not [necessarily] one’s father” (Quoted in Irene Bloom’s article in de Berry) he boldly announced in one passage. Also he cites stories of Confucius who corrects Duke Ai of Lu (who asked about filial piety) that only those who scrutinize what is told of him and offers protest in the face of injustice can truly be called filial.
Confucius also explains that filial sons must offer remonstrance (jian or defined as reasoned criticism or disapproval) at parents (or anyone else for that matter) when they are wrong. At least one comparative philosopher recently argued that remonstrance (jian) is among the core virtues of Confucian thought.
Myth 4: He advocated sexist practices (such as foot-binding)
Allegations of sexism in Confucius seems to be based on the sparsest of evidence. They usually focus on one passage in the Analects where Confucius says that petty people (xiao ren) are demanding and burdensome like women. One would think it would be easier to find other passages had Confucius been the misogynist he is often accused of being.
Statements like this are so complacently accepted that they are beyond any doubt in the minds of westerners.
Further, the Chinese family was a virtual citadel to patriarchy. Few family systems can compete with the Confucian for degradation and brutality toward women. From female infanticide to cripple feet to child-bride sale, wife beating, polygyny and more, Chinese women tasted no end of bitterness in their short, mostly poverty ridden lives.
They are simply axiomatically accepted. No evidence is needed to prove it.
Also see here
The misery of Chinese women throughout history is well known: the binding of feet,female infanticide, loveless marriages, second wives, widow’s obedience to eldest son,widow suicide and concubinage. This often-horrific oppression of Chinese women is typically blamed on Confucianism and not without some justification.
Alternatively, some have argued that the conspicuous absence of women mentioned in the Analects suggests sexism. For example, when Confucius says that all men are basically equal, the absence of any mention of women’s innate moral capacity is sometimes cited as proof of Confucius’s sexism. But as Sandra Wawrytko points out, the character used for “men” in the original classical Chinese text of the Analects is gender neutral. Moreover, she points out that the one passage used so often as evidence for the inherent sexism in Confucian thought is overblown and taken out of context. There is simply insufficient evidence to argue for any signs of inherent sexism in all the Analects.
Moreover, the more ridiculous accusation (due to the anachronism and the complete lack of reference to the practice in the classical Confucian canon) that Confucius is to blame for foot-binding is demolished by Confucian scholars such as Paul Golden. This belief is silly, not just defamatory, because of the fact that Confucius lived and died almost 1,500 years before the practice first appeared. Ironically, the only mention of the practice in the whole Confucian cannon are brief passages within the Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi‘s writing where he denounced the practice as barbaric.
I don’t mean to suggest that these are the only myths today in the west or in China about the great sage but these are the most prevalent. There are others equally unfounded. For example, the notion that he was for rigidly following traditional cultural traditions and rituals (see Analects 2:23). Or that he advocated education that focus on memorization without understanding (see Analects 13:5) Though rituals have a very important rule to play in Confucius’s philosophy, he argued against uncritical following of past traditions and cultural practices.
Examples from some of the most influential tracts in the western tradition
The Bible is probably the single most influential tract in the western tradition. In it, one can find the espousal for public stoning to death of children who disobey their parents (see Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Exodus 21:17). It advocates or permits slavery (numerous passages such as Leviticus 25:44-46, Ephesians 6:7 and Exodus 21:7-11) for various purposes including child slavery and sexual slavery. (As a comparison, no where in the Analects or in any Confucian text, classical or Neo-Confucian, does any Confucian philosopher advocate for slavery).
The Bible also describes explicitly the inferiority of women and how they are commanded by god to submit to men.
This book may have the title of the second most influential political/ethical tract in the western tradition. Many philosophers have noted that it is essentially an advocacy book for nearly an absolute totalitarian state. In the Republic, Plato argued that the ideal society uses coercion and force to build a maximally cohesive society (which he viewed as the best kind of society). His society is completely hierarchical with complete vertical obedience as one moves from bottom to top in the hierarchy. Those at the very top (“Philosopher Kings”) have the right to impose strict rules over life and death on everyone else even including what colors and music people could be allowed to enjoy.
Despite making some arguments for some plausibly feminist claims, Plato makes plenty of disparaging remarks in the Republic about their supposed inferiority too.
Plato’s most famous student Aristotle was far worse in his remarks about women, for example, claiming that they were fundamentally defective and lacked the part of the soul responsible for rational thought. He advocated for slavery and argued that, ideally, the best kind of government was a pure monarchy with total obedience of the masses (though, to his credit, he did argue that in practice democracies can be just as good as monarchies and oligarchies and in fact had certain advantages over them).
Again, another central political/ethical text in the western canon which argues that coercion and force ought to be used against the masses by their rulers was Machiavelli’s The Prince, which has been required reading for poli-sci majors for centuries. It is statements like,
The answer [to the question Is it better to be loved or feared?] is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.
that give the term “Machiavellian” its justifiable association with coercion, duplicity and cruelty.
Again, we see a common pattern as before: strict obedience to a central authority figure who has nearly absolute power (The Leviathan or an absolute monarch) is required for all citizens in a Hobbessian state so long as the central authority and his state provides for the basic safety of its citizens from devolving into a “State of Nature.” The central authority figure is the source of civil conduct and not individual virtue (ren) as in Confucianism. In fact, it is the source of what even makes justice possible for Hobbes. Man’s natural inclinations towards barbarity (red in tooth and claw as the famous Hobbessian phrase illustrates) demands such an absolute authority figure to coerce people into behavior against their natural inclinations to destroy each other so that everyone can benefit in a civil society.
Hobbes’s fame as a political theorist derives at least in part from the central role he gives to coercion as a necessary part of a state’s function.
Interestingly, Hobbes seems to share Aquinas’ view that acting from fear does not undercut the voluntariness of one’s acts, as he famously asserts that “covenants extorted by fear are valid,” at least if it is a covenant needed to secure one’s life and no sovereign authority prohibits the making of such a covenant (Hobbes 1651, Ch. 14).
Hobbes thus holds that coercion is essential to both the justification of and function of the state or commonwealth. In fact, it is a law of nature that we seek the protection of the Leviathan’s coercive powers in order to exit the perilous conditions of the state of nature.
Though Hobbes viewed all humans as basically equal in nature, he viewed that human nature as basically evil and that in a civil society, absolute inequality was necessary to prevent our basic evil natures from undermine anything noble.
G.W.F. Hegel is perhaps the single philosopher who influenced modern totalitarian and fascist thinking the most. And he remains one of the most influential western political thinkers today. Hegel’s views justifies the state’s well-being even at the cost of those in it. The highest priority was the state itself and the people within it are mere cogs within a machine which can be replaced when they fail to make the machine do what it’s supposed to do. The sole purpose of people are to be a part of that larger machine-state moving it in a historical trajectory towards an absolute teleogical course. One can contrast this attitude with the Confucian idea that the sole purpose of having a state to begin with is to benefit its people; it has no other purpose. Once it fails in that regard, it looses the Mandate of Heaven and is not even a state (its’ name cannot be rectified as such).
Karl Marx would later adopt the main tenants of Hegel’s ideas and create his own political, social and economic ideas the worst aspects of which were a contributing factor to some of the most brutal periods in Soviet Russian and Cambodian history to name just two.
Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals…
And regarding Hegel
Such is Hegel’s doctrine of the State—a doctrine which, if accepted, justifies every internal tyranny and every external aggression that can possibly be imagined.
Why such misinformation?
But why has Confucius’s image been inverted so that white is portrayed as black and black, white? There may be myriad reasons. It may just be pure anti-sinitic bias; Confucius is Chinese and anything Chinese must be loathsome. The west’s narcissistic love affair with itself also seems to be a contributing factor. Everything that glitters is western, everything that is stained must be non western. But as the political philosopher Thom Brooks has noted, western political thinkers have almost universally endorsed anti-democratic and totalitarian ideas. While as demonstrated here (except for a few notable examples such as the Legalists) Chinese philosophers have held either extremist anarchist political views or views endorsing anti-coercive, egalitarian and liberal principles. These principles may be the foundations for a truly just society.
Additionally, the Chinese themselves are to blame for the myth manufactured about Confucius is, according to the sinologist and philosopher Herrlee Creel, birthed in China centuries ago. Confucius’s ideas were co-opted by despots such as the first Emperor of the Qin dynasty for their own nefarious ends. Moreover, the Manchus continued to slander Confucius because his ideas were seen as a threat to their power.
The dust jacket of Professor Creel’s book on Confucius reads (as quoted in Shaughnessy):
One of history’s worst slanders is exposed in this unique biography. For 2000 years Confucius has been quoted in defense of conservative, reactionary, and totalitarian governments. His supposed sayings have been used by tyrants for the oppression of the people. But long original research now shows that Confucius was in fact a reformer and an individualist, democratic and even revolutionary. In his time his was a voice crying in the wilderness a “battle cry for democracy”. His teachings became so popular that a totalitarian regime in 213 B.C. banned the Confucian books.
A biography which in fact slanders Confucius was written at this emperor’s court around 100 B.C. It has generally been accepted ever since as the definitive portrayal of Confucius. In other books his philosophy was distorted, and words were put into his mouth which he never uttered. This perverted Confucianism was taken over by the Manchus in the 17th century as a technique for the control of the conquered Chinese. In modern times it has been used by war lords exploiting the people. This colossal deception has never before been exploded.
But the world’s slanderers cannot suppress Confucius’s ideas. Much like there is a spark of goodness which cannot be suppressed even after a lifetime of vice in the reprobate criminal which society ought to kindle into full blown virtue, the spark of Confucius’s ideas must be kindled so that society can become just and harmonious.