Fidelio, Vol. V, No, 1. Winter 1996
|This article is reprinted from the Winter 1996 issue of FIDELIO Magazine.
For related articles, scroll down or click here.
Lessons of Universal History
Chinas Confucian Legacy In Todays World
by Helga Zepp LaRouche
What separates Chinese from European culture is that, in a certain sense, except for the very recent developments, the medieval period was prolonged for centuries in China. China did not make the leap which Europe did in the Fifteenth century. And thus, for the last five hundred years, since the Golden Renaissance, China has been falling behind the West.
I am going to tell you a little bit about Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.E. He was part of a waning nobility. As we do today, he travelled widely from one kingdom to another, trying to find people who would listen to his ideas. He did so for over ten years, but he was not able to carry out his political ideas anywhere (unlike us!). He lived in the period of the great upheavals, at the end of what is called the Spring and Autumn period, when the House of Zhou fell into the hands of the princes of the various states.
And therefore, the highest political goal Confucius had, was the reconstruction of society out of a condition of chaos. The world with which Confucius was confronted had, according to him, left the Right way, (wu Tao). Confucius therefore said, The most important step is to bring the notions, the words, the categories, into order, so that they again fit the meaning.
The Teachings of Confucius
In the philosophy of Confucius, the idea of Renlove, benevolence, but more love in the sense of agape¯is the central concept. Love of the people: that is, that people should love each other.[See endnote on the spelling and pronunciation of Chinese chareacters]
Confucius says, My teaching contains an all-pervading principle: Ren and its realization. Ren is the desire to develop oneself to develop others. Do not do to others, what you do not like yourself. Confucius described Ren, love, as something purely subjective, as a kind of internal cultivation of yourself. Love has its source in oneself. It is a mental cultivation on the part of the inner self. Therefore, its realization is very easy. As soon as I desire benevolence and love, love is there.
Confucius asked all people to cultivate love: The people are in need of love more urgently than of water and fire. The principle of love should be applied to the governing, as well as to the governed. When the gentlemen are earnest to their kinsman, the people will be inspired with love. Not only to have love, but to practice it. Im talking about universal love for mankind.
Now, Maoism obviously made this impossible, because a society divided into classes, in permanent class struggle, makes love impossible. In the period of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leadership declared that Confucius was only preaching deception, that this was all a trick to maintain the power of the feudal class.
Confucius said, There are gentlemen who are not loving, not benevolent. But there is no small-minded man who is ever benevolent. It was the idea of loving people, caring for other people.
Ren is an idea which subsumes a whole spectrum of moral values. And Confucius, who spent long years in teaching, therefore also reached a series of conclusions, in terms of the methodology of teaching and learning. You learn new knowledge by reviewing the old. Never be opinionated, never be prejudiced, never be stubborn, and never assume self-infallibility. He stressed, like all humanist thinkers, the importance of learning from predecessors, because it is only by following in their footsteps that one can hope to make progress. You cannot be let into the house of the master, unless you follow his steps. This is the humanist method, while the modernists throw out everything and start something arbitrary.
Confucius wanted his pupils to arrive at their conclusions independently, not through rote learning, but by thinking it out for themselves, so they would be able to reflect upon the three others, when one is hinted. Now, thats exactly the hypothesis, the three axioms; always keeping in mind the three other possibilities.
Confucius, therefore, has unquestionably the most important place in the history of education in China. He introduced the idea of teaching all people, without regard for rank or social status. He insisted on the study of the ancient Classics, and he selected five Classic books: The Book of Odes, The Book of History, The Book of Rites, The Book of Changes, and The Spring and Autumn Annuals, and established another key notion, the notion of Liwhich is the idea that each person must fulfill his place in society. This was Nicolaus of Cusas idea, too: only if all microcosms develop, can there then be concordancia.
Li also means, no break between the past and the present; and, for Confucius, as for the later Confucians, Li was the expression of a cultivated humanity. Since many of the elite violated the old Li order in Confucius time, he gave the answer, that the position or rank of a person should not be dependent on his birth or family, but instead, upon his moral perfection. The more moral a person is, the higher should be his rank. This is exactly what Nicolaus of Cusa said later, in Fifteenth-century Europe.
To my knowledge, this was the first time that any thinker had the idea, that development of the person should determine leadership, and not oligarchical considerations. And, even though it was not yet implemented at that point, it is important to see when that idea occurred for the first time.
Now, Confucius says, each individual can realize himself in his life, through knowledgechiand through the practical application of that knowledge, called qi. Doesnt learning, and exercising this knowledge, give you satisfaction? asks Confucius. Education must be accessible, irrespective of ones social rank.
That whole complex of Confucian ideas was the foundation of the Chinese examination system developed in the Han period. From the Seventh century A.C.E. on, it was fully developed, and anybody who had any functiona bureaucrat or government officialhad to go through that examination system.
For Confucius, sheng ren, the person of the highest moral perfection, had also a religious component, because such a person must base his rule on the mandate of heaven. The ruler must be the most noble example of this. One day, his pupil, Zi Lu, asked Confucius, What does ruling mean? And he answered, To go ahead of the poeple, to give an example and inspire them, and have moral excellence. Later, this was somewhat misused to glorify power; but, nevertheless, these ideas shaped Chinese history for centuries.
An important role was also played by faithfulness, zhong. The written character, or ideogram, for zhong is middle, or heart: to be directed to the middle of your heart. In the Lun Yu, the famous talks of Confucius, there are many references to the importance of the connection between Li and Yue, music.
Music and Li
Confucius says, songs elevate man: Li, the rites, give him strength, music makes him complete. As for Plato, so for Confucius, music had a function for the state. Confucius said,
[m]usic rises from the heart when it is touched by the external world. Therefore, if sorrow gives you the sound, then the sounds of the music are somber. Satisfaction: the sounds of the music are langorous and slow. Joy: the sounds are glorious. Anger: the sounds are harsh and strong. Piety: the sounds are simple and pure. Love: the sounds are gentle and sweet.In a very beautiful treatise on music, Confucius writes,
When the likes and dislikes are not properly controlled, and our conscious minds are distracted by the material world, we lose our true selves in the principle of reason, and nature is destroyed. When man is constantly exposed to the things of the material world which affect him, and does not control his likes and dislikes, then he becomes overwhelmed by the material reality, and becomes dehumanized or materialistic. When a man becomes dehumanized or materialistic, then the principle of reason in nature is destroyed, and man is submerged in his own desires. From this arise rebellion, disobedience, cunning, and deceit, and general immorality. We have, then, a picture of the strong bullying the weak, the majority persecuting the minority, the clever ones deceiving the simple-minded, the physically strong going for violence, the sick and crippled not being taken care of, and the aged and the young helpless and not cared for. This is the way of chaos.
Mencius: Exponent of Confucianism
Mencius also launched a very harsh critique of the rulers of his time, for their selfishness, for having no sense of responsibility for society as a whole. He accused the rulers of having destroyed ancient texts, out of fear that people would read these old texts as guidance.
Later, in 213 B.C.E. , the Emperor Qin Shihuang (221-207 B.C.E. ), the famous one revered by Mao Zedong, burned all books, and he also burned four hundred sixty philosophers.
Mencius developed a program for a humanist government, which included the consensus of the governed, because he said, without this, unity of the state is not thinkable. He also pronounced the need for the government to have the Mandate of Heaven: If the ruler is immoral, the mandate of Heaven is withdrawn.
Mencius also spoke about the right of resistance, if the ruler is bad. Man must live according to his internal moral laws, no matter what the external conditions are. He said, you have to take martyrdom, rather than betray your convictions. I love life, he said, but there is something I love more than life.
Mencius was an incredibly culturally optimistic thinker. He was convinced that not far in the future, the realization of Confucian ideas would come, because the basic nature of man is good, and therefore the world one day would become good. Each person could become like the mythical emperors of Yao and Shun, who were regarded to be the incarnation of the highest moral development.
Mencius said, Each person has the same potentiality in him. So, there was clearly a humanist conception in the early Confucianism, as well as the idea, that things do not depend only on Heaven, but it is your own efforts which determine your life and how far you develop morally. That there is, in human-kind, the ability for self-perfection.
Mencius said, The ten thousand natures of all things are all complete in us. Therefore, let us follow our inner nature, and be truthful: there is no greater joy. There is a correspondence between the inner and the outer world, between Heaven and Man, between the laws of morality and the universe. These are the same ideas you find in Nicolaus of Cusa and in Leibniz.
Mencius said, There is the nobility of the Heaven, and there is nobility of man. Love for mankind, faithfulness, duty, reliability, and limitless joy about the good: That is heavenly nobility. From that standpoint, he criticized the rulers of his time.
Mencius influence was the main reason why Confucianism became the foundation of the state during the Han period; but, the real Mencius renaissance developed in the Eleventh to the Twelfth century, in the Sung period, which Michael Billington has pointed to many times.1 The Book of Meng Zi became one of the four books of Confucius, which were mandatory reading for all bureaucrats.
Legalism and Taoism
But, before we come to this renaissance period, lets quickly look at Xun Zi (298-338 B.C.E. ), who was the dean of the Academy of the Chi-hsia University, and the mayor of Lan-lin in Shandong. He very consciously placed himself in opposition to both Confucius and Mencius, developing a materialistic notion of Heaven. For him, Heaven was just a collective noun for all natural phenomena.
Xun Zi developed the theory that human nature was evil, thus creating the theoretical foundation for a political doctrine which went explicitly against Mencius conception of the basic goodness of human nature. Xun Zi said, Human nature is evil. Its goodness is artificial. Human nature is evil a priori. Man is born with a desire to seek profit, to prefer enjoyment before hard work. [There must have been a Generation X there already!HZL] Since human nature is inherently evil, social disorder will be the result, and chaos; therefore, you need the rule of rites.
There is a striking similarity between the social contract theories of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, of Hobbes and Lockeand Gingrich, for that matterand those of Xun Zi. Chinese Legalism had already developed, nearly word for word, what these later writers, including Malthus, Adam Smith, Mill, and Bentham, would say; namely, that man is a mere beast, motivated by pleasure and the fear of pain. In fact, my suspicion is that all these British empiricists were plagiarists, who didnt even develop that garbage which they wrote. For example, Xun Zi said that, Learning is only the accumulation of sense-perception, a reacting of man to rewards and punishment.
Xun Zi had an even worse student, by the name of Han Fei (280-233 B.C.E. ), who advised that king who later became the first Emperor of the Qin dynasty (the one who burned all the books). Fortunately, Han Fei was framed up by false accusations, and committed suicide in prison; unfortunately, he left a political doctrine, according to which all speeches and actions that do not observe the law, have to be prohibited. Education should only consist of learning the laws, and the tutors should consist only of the officials.
Now, the doctrine of Xun Zi and Han Fei became the model for despotic rule throughout Chinas history, and Mao referred to it very explicitly. Statecraft was called the art of punishment. The two vehicles of power were called the two handles: to handle people through life, and death. Power is the means for maintaining supremacy over the masses, and obviously, this completely ignored all the noble aspects of man. Soon after the Emperor Qin Shihuang had unified China based on this doctrine, there was a great peasant uprising, and they overthrew the short-lived Qin Dynasty.
Another of Han Feis ideas was, that the growth of the population would cause a scarcity of material wealth, and therefore lead to chaos. His argument was, In trying to persuade rulers, callers do not advocate the use of power which is sure to win, but say that if one is devoted to the practice of humanity and righteousness, one will become a true king. This is to expect that every ruler must be equal to Confucius, and that all the people in the world be equal to this seventy followers. This is absolutely impossible!
Obviously, this is exactly contrary to what Schillers famous drama Don Carlos says: Be a king among a million kings! Everyone can be a Confucius. This has always been the issue in all cultures.
The Legalists declared scholarship illegal, just like Mao, who said that all intellectuals were counterrevolutionaries. It was in this spirit, that the Emperor Qin Shihuang burned four hundred sixty people to death.
So much for the Legalists. Then, you had the Taoist school, whose founder, Lao Zi, lived at approximately the same time as Confucius. Lao Zi said, The reason why people are hard to govern, is only that they know too much. The Ancients, who were good in practicing the Way [Tao], did not teach the people with intelligence, but kept them in ignorance. Being ignorant, the people would be kept void of knowledge and desire, and therefore it would be easy for the rulers to govern.
This is the clearest statement of the oligarchical principle in my experience. Later, it would be covered up more, and other arguments added. But, this is the essence: Keep the people stupid, and you can govern them.
Attain the ultimate emptiness; maintain absolute tranquility. All things move and grow, I observe their return, the ultimate return to the non-being, said Lao Zi. He was radically opposed to any kind of studying, because, he said, the pursuit of learning increases daily, while the pursuit of Tao decreases daily. The more one learns, the more Tao suffers. So, therefore, stop doing anything.
A contemporary of Mencius, Shuang Shi (369-286 B.C.E. ), was even worse. He went a step farther than Lao Zibackwards. He strongly recommended never intervening in the natural course of the worldthat is, return to primordial chaos! He was against any kind of social progress and social reform. People should lead their lives in the most ignorant way, because everything else would violate the Tao.
Shuang Shi taught that there should be a denial of the existence of the objective world, and even began to doubt his own existence as a consequence. One day, he said: Was I dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly? That shows how far you can take this! He said, I have abandoned my body and discarded my knowledge, and so I have become one with the infinite. This is what I mean by sitting in forgetfulness.
The Tang dynasty, unfortunately, and most of its emperors, were very much dedicated to Taoism and Buddhism. In the Seventh to Tenth centuries A.C.E. there was sometimes a conflict between those two, but most of the time, they merged into a syncretic mixture.
The Neo-Confucian Renaissance
The Sung dynasty emerged out of the collapse of the Tang dynasty in A.C.E. 960, and with it, the very important neo-Confucian school, the so-called Cheng/Zhu school, as it is called in China, of whom the most important scholar was Chu Hsi (A.C.E. 1130-1200), who launched a devastating attack on the immoral and fraudulent theories of Taoism and Buddhism. He further developed the ideas of both Confucius and Mencius, and produced a beautiful neo-Confucian renaissance.
There are clear parallels between the Confucian and neo-Confucian tradition, and Christianity, as was pointed out by Leibniz in his Natural Theology of the Chinese. Leibniz praised the highly cultured civilization of China, saying that the relatively high population-density for that time, was proof that the Chinese had a high degree of understanding of the laws of the universe.
Chu Hsi, in his treatise on Ren, said: Ren is the principle of love. When one realizes Ren is the source of love, and that love can never exhaust Ren, one has gained a definite comprehension of Ren. It is not for the sake of anything that Ren comes into existence. Ren is the principle of love and the way of life. Ren is the essence of creation of itself.
Chu Hsi said that Li is the most important concept. Li is exactly what Platos ideas are, or Leibnizs monads. It is coherent with the hypothesis leading to valid scientific discoveries concerning the fundamental lawfulness of the universe.
The first principle of the Chinese is called Li, that is, Reason, or the foundation of all nature, the most universal reason and substance; there is nothing greater nor better than the Li. ... It is not that all are capable of divinity as regards its being, and it is the principal basis of all essences which are and which can exist in the world, but it is also the aggregation of the most perfect multiplicity, because the being of this principle contains the essence of things as they are in their germinal state.Now, Chu Hsi says Li is the all-encompassing wholeness which contains everything, and which is contained in everything. This is what Nicolaus of Cusa calls quadliebert in quo liebertthat you have a germ of the entire universe in every little microcosm. All created things reflect the lawfulness of the microcosm. This is obviously a complete refutation in Chinese culture of the materialistic view of the world.
Chu says, The mind is always in danger of responding to the appearance of material things rather than their essence, their principle. In this way, the mind becomes cloudy, dragged down by selfish desires and fixations on things in themselves, and the purity of the God-given original nature is obscured. That is what Nicolaus of Cusa speaks about.
Man receives the material force, called qi, in the clearest form, while animals receive it in a turbid state. Both whose mind is clouded and not far away from the animals, says Chu. Nicolaus of Cusa calls such a person, homo animalisbestial man.
Chu also introduced the great learning for adultsthe idea that adults should learn all their life, that they should never stop learning. Continuous perfectionlearning the principle of hypothesis, not facts.
This beautiful, neo-Confucian period ended temporarily in 1211, with the Mongol invasion and establishment of the Mongol dynasty in 1279. A hundred years later, in 1368, the Mongol dynasty collapsed.
There was a Confucian revival in 1435, under the Ming dynasty, which brought about the building of great projects, such as canals. There was also a flowering of the Cheng/Zhu neo-Confucian school, which almost entirely dominated the court, the educational system, and the civil service examination system, especially in the second Ming dynasty (1402-24), under the Emperor Yongle. It was Yongle who moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, and built the palace in Beijing that is today known as the Forbidden City. The same neo-Confucian tradition continued under the Emperor Xuan De from 1425 to 1435.
Unfortunately, under Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529), there was a subversion of the Cheng/Zhu school, and Taoism dominated. There was a watering-down of Confucianism, especially by Wang Yang-ming.
When the Jesuits arrived in China in the late Sixteenth century, the Confucian tradition was seriously damaged. But the Emperor Shun Zhi revived the Cheng/Zhu school. It was this emperor who caused Leibnizs excitement, saying that the mathematics of Kangxi was such that if an emperor on the other side of the earth could have the same ideas as himself, then that was the proof that there was only one God.
The Vision of Dr. Sun Yat-sen
Later, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, would again emphasize the similarity of the Christian religion and Confucian classical thought, and he had the same idea as Leibniz of integrating the Eurasian Land Bridge.
But, at the same time, there was a massive British campaign to influence Chinese thought, utilizing the British empiricists. And, the affinity you find between the old Chinese Legalists, Taoists, and Buddhists, and the British empiricists, is, in my view, the reason why the Twentieth century went the way it did.2 For example, there was in particular Yan Fu, a scholar who translated all the British empiricists. He was very hostile to Judeo-Christian ideas, and to Confucianism. He praised Taoism, Buddhism, Montesquieu, and Darwin. His translations of these people formed the main material for Maos studies, outside of Karl Marx and Lenin. Mao openly embraced Legalism.
Sun Yat-sen, on the other hand, like Leibniz, emphasized the truth underlying both Christianity and Confucianism. In 1912, he led the republican revolution, but unfortunately, he could not consolidate a unified government; only in a small portion of southern China, could he establish government, while the rest of the country remained under various warlords.
Dr. Sun denounced the famous Fourth of May movement in 1919 as being inflicted on China from outside, and as a great danger to Chinas survival, because it drew upon Rousseau and Mill. At the same time, between 1919 and 1921, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey were teaching classes in both Beijing and Shanghai. These were the influences leading to the early development of the Maoist movement, and Chen Duxiu, the founder of the Communist Party, was very much influenced by these translations by Yan Fu.
In 1919, Sun Yat-sen called for the international development of China, and he had very detailed proposals for rail, water, agriculture, and industry. But, these plans could not be realized, because of the May 1919 Versailles Treaty.
Today, the Eurasian Land Bridge is back on the agenda, and the Chinese government is the main force driving it. The Chinese are moving ahead economically very forcefully, and they have formulated a policy very consciously, not only thinking about China, but about the whole world. And, I must say, in my discussions with representatives of the Chinese elite in Beijing, I was really positively shocked.
Because they said, What will be the meaning of civilization in the next century? The worst catastrophe which could hit the world, is if everybody just goes after material values. If Western materialism as we see it now in the United States, in Europe, in Russia, in other places, were to spread all over the globe, we would lose control over civilization. This would be the worst catastrophe. If everyone were guided only by the idea of how to maximize their own personal profit, then the meaning of life would be lost. The challenge confronting us right now, is: how, in the face of a collapse in both the West and the East, can we find a solution?
Science and technology cannot remain the privilege of one country only. It must become the possession of the whole world. Western science and technology has increased wealth, but the West has become lazy. Western culture has no motivation, no goals.
The Chinese say, We need a new civilization, which should be neither East nor West. China has a culture which lasted thousands of years. Some of it was good, some of it was bad. So also in the West. We need to have a new world culture, we need to integrate it. We need to do something which influences and changes the course of history.
In China, people think, Be good to yourself, then you have the ability to govern the country. This is exactly what Schiller said in the Aesthetical Letters, about the aesthetical conception of man. Schiller and Confucius actually have very much in common, because both of them have a goal of lifting man up to a higher level of humanity, to have a harmonic development of all mans moral and intellectual abilitiesto bring mankind to the highest humanity, to have him in self-determination for total freedom, so that man can reach in himself, through the coincidence of all contradictory forces, that creative tension which eliminates any kind of force, and which makes man really, truly free.
And thus, Confucius says, Only if the personality is developed, then the house is in order. When the house is in order, only then can the state function. Only if the state functions, can peace come into the world.
Dear friends, let us build such a world!
1. See, for example, Michael Billington, Toward the Ecumenical Unity of East and West: The Renaissances of Confucian China and Christian Europe, Fidelio, Vol. II, No. 2, Summer 1993; and The EuropeanEnlightenment and the Middle Kingdom, Fidelio, Vol. IV, No. 2, Summer 1995
2. Cf. Michael Billington, The Taoist Perversion of Twentieth-Century Science, Fidelio, Vol. III, No. 3, Fall 1994.
The Schiller Institute
Thank you for supporting the Schiller Institute. Your membership and contributions enable us to publish FIDELIO Magazine, and to sponsor concerts, conferences, and other activities which represent critical interventions into the policy making and cultural life of the nation and the world.
Contributions and memberships are not tax-deductible.
Home | Search | About | Fidelio | Economy | Strategy | The LaRouche Frameup | Conferences