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21st century Confucianism

Vestiges of Confucian values can still be found in China and Korea today.
So all of our learning about the history of Confucianism this week raises the question of, how Confucian are China and Korea today? For much of the 20th century, especially for intellectuals who were trying to modernise their countries both here and in China, Confucianism sort of became like the crazy uncle in the attic that they wanted to hide away or get rid of entirely. Confucianism was equated with tradition, which was equated with backwardness, an obstacle to progress, to modernity.
And Confucian values were seen as insular, submissive, oppressive, particularly of women, to the point of being misogynistic, but also oppressive of youth who were trying to do new things with their countries that seemed stuck in a Confucian deference to age and seniority. Then there was an extraordinary reversal, after a sort of sustained attack on Confucianism, a kind of cultural revolution, if you want, that lasted among intellectuals for much of the 20th century. Toward the end of the last century, suddenly some leaders and some scholars started to rediscover Confucianism, as it were, and to argue that, in fact, it was the Confucian vestiges in many East Asian countries that made them the miracles of the late 20th century.
As the East Asian Tigers and Dragons were proving that there was an alternate model of economic development, leaders like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and other philosophers, both in Asia and abroad, started to celebrate Confucian values. Order and harmony were superior to conflict and self-interest. The focus on the family and on education, these were positive social bonds that particularly helped a country adapt to the competitiveness of capitalism and make it a more successful capitalist country. These kinds of arguments started to change our thinking about Confucianism in another, dramatically different direction.
So today you have interesting political theorists like a good friend of mine, Daniel Bell, who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing and argues that the Confucian tradition is a source of meritocracy, and that there are elements of meritocracy in the Chinese political system that actually make it superior to liberal democracy, or at least something that works better for China than American-style liberal democracy work. Of course, many still criticise the Confucian system and argue politically and socially its values are outdated. The question of whether China is still Confucian at all is something that my co-author Orville and I wrestled with in our book, Wealth and Power, about modern China.
And it’s a question that I’ve reflected on personally, both in China and in Korea, in my years of living in both countries, making friends, and settling down here in Seoul. So if we look at the current shape of things, I would personally say in my experience in Korea, I see vestiges of Confucianism all the time in my daily life. Confucian values, for example, deference to elders, is something that affects the way you pour your drink, where you take your seat on the subway. It’s even part of how you carry out any conversation that you have on the street or in a classroom.
Other positive Confucian values that you could see are the emphasis on family, and on the regular gatherings of many Korean families on the anniversaries of the death of a parent or grandparent, where ancient ancestral rights are carried out still in middle class homes in cities in Korea, that are also, of course, an excuse for families to get together and maintain and strengthen their family bonds. But you also see the negative sides of Confucianism. Most particularly you see how Korean women struggle when they’re forced to choose between child bearing and a career, or when they’re expected to play a subservient role in society that is in keeping, unfortunately, with the Confucian political tradition and Confucian social values as well.
And then when I contrast my experience living here in Korea versus China, it’s made me look differently at what I’ve seen in China, where it seems there, the revival that’s going on now of Confucianism is something a little bit more artificial. It’s almost like a body that’s being artificially resuscitated, as opposed to here in Korea, where many Confucian elements are organic and broadly based, and you sort of bump into them in different ways in your daily life. In China you find pockets where there are groups or individuals who are self-consciously trying to bring back certain elements of their Confucian heritage. One of my best friends in China is an example of that.
Since he’s been a young man he’s been drawn to Confucian texts. So one summer he and his buddies spent a couple months memorising classical Confucian histories. When he got married, he and his wife studied Song dynasty wedding ceremonial texts and devised their own wedding ceremony based on a modern interpretation of those ancient texts. So you do see, this is just one personal example and you see broader social phenomenon of a revival of Confucianism in China. For example, many ubercompetitive Chinese parents are encouraging, or forcing their kids to master difficult classical Chinese texts.
And you see it at a political level, where, in one of its fascinating and ironic twists, the Chinese government has embraced Confucianism and is opening Confucius institutes all over the world. And now senior communist leaders will cite classical Confucian texts, even after their origin of their communist revolution, as we’ll learn later, was focused very much on overthrowing Confucianism. Now they’re returning to some of that language to buttress and legitimise their governance. So you see these ways in which it’s being brought back.
And it’s still part of the mix in China, although, again, in my own experience and maybe those of you who have lived in Korea and China or are Chinese or Koreans, have different experience, which we can discuss online. I see an interesting contrast between the two. But all of this, I think the underlying point is that Confucian values and Confucianism has lost its hold on these societies, and has lost the central place that it used to play. And then of course, that also means the China Korea relationship lost that glue that it used to have in Imperial times. And so that’s anticipating one of the problems that we’re going to look at later in the class.
When that glue went away, what happened to keep the lips and teeth together?
Although China and Korea are post-Confucian societies, even today, vestiges of their shared Confucian heritage can be found.
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Lips and Teeth: Korea and China in Modern Times

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