Confucius Gordon In The Twenty First Century!

Jiang Qing (蒋庆) is a mainland Chinese scholar who proposes reviving Confucius as part of the Chinese political settlement. There is a good overview of his work from Daniel Bell in NPQ. He notes the revival of Confucius’s fortunes amongst Communist Party cadres, as well as critiques Jiang Qing makes of the current Chinese and Western systems.

Rather than subordinating Confucian values and institutions to democracy as an a priori dictum, they contain a division of labor, with democracy having priority in some areas and meritocracy in others. If it’s about land disputes in rural China, farmers should have a greater say. If it’s about pay and safety disputes, workers should have a greater say. In practice, it means more freedom of speech and association and more representation for workers and farmers in some sort of democratic house.

Jiang, who incidentally shares an English transliteration with Mao’s notorious wife 江青, and is therefore hard to Google for without using Chinese characters, has certainly been on a remarkable intellectual and biographical journey. Xujun Eberlein has provided a good biographical sketch, including his search through intellectual and spiritual traditions from Marxism, Christianity and Buddhism, and detail on his magnum opus, Political Confucianism (《政治儒学》). She also has also posted some a more detailed overview by Wang Rui-Chang and notes on philosophical attitudes to women. Bell also has a good interview with Jiang in Dissent.

I haven’t read Political Confucianism, not just out of native laziness and because I only heard about it last week, but also because it’s patchily available even in Chinese: no English language translation exists. You could call Jiang and his followers Neo-Confucians, except that term is already in use for a group of Song and Ming dynasty thinkers. It was the Neo-Confucians that laid out the obedience-centric doctrine – to government, to parents, to husband – that defined Confucianism until today. This also goes for the New Confucians, the term applied to Neo-Confucian twentieth century thinkers outside the mainland in places like Korea and Taiwan. (Such are the pitfalls of prefixed nomenclature. It has a touch of irony given Confucius declared in Analects XIII, 3 his first priority would be the rectification of names. I have visions of the great teacher giving Modernism, Post-modernism, Neo-classical economics, retro-futurism and Neo-Confucianism several weeks of detention.)

As the Wang Rui-Chang paper points out, Jiang attempts to revive an older, humanistic and individually moral strand of Confucian thought alongside the rather more pessimistic tradition of the Neo-Confucians. Arguably the realpolitik school goes back to the arch-pessimist Xun Zi 荀子, who believed people were inherently evil and needed it taught out of them.

to be fully legitimate, a political power or regime must simultaneously meet three conditions: 1), it must be at one with, or sanctioned by, the holy, transcendental Tao as expressed or implied in the Confucian Scriptures, and as interpreted by the prestigious Confucian Scholars; 2), it must not deviate from the mainstream of the national cultural heritage and break the historical continuity of the nationality; 3), it must comply with the will or endorsement of the common people.

He goes on to quote Edmund Burke; a conservative, moralist figure with a lot in common with Confucius considering they lived 1900 years apart and on opposite sides of the globe.

Skimming over Jiang’s proposal to re-establish Confucianism as a state religion, the key constitutional proposal is of a tricameral legislature, only one of which is directly elected:

The House of Profound Confucians (Tong Ru Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the sacred Way, the House of National Continuity (Guo Ti Yuan) represents the legitimacy of cultural heritage and tradition, and the House of Plebeians (Shu Min Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the common people’s will and desire.

Combining an elected house with two Houses of Lords is obviously not going to light a flame in any democrat’s heart. The obvious parallel here is with the American Tripartite Commission. The existing examples of this sort of thing – in Hong Kong and Iran – are not really encouraging. The emphasis on ethnic or cultural representation rather than geographic and democratic representation also seems both very imperial Chinese and inviting the nastiness of partisan splits on ethnic and cultural lines. Absent having seen the specific arguments Jiang has, and as fun as kicking an absent strawman while he’s down is, let’s just note my general support for the miracle of democracy for now.

What is more striking is the parallel to the golden age of the Westminster system. In 1855 the Northcote-Trevelyan report recommended adoption of a civil service entrance examination as one means of professionalising an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy. This was inspired in turn by the long history of Chinese imperial examinations for the civil service. Combined with the great Reform bills, by the end of the 19th century the United Kingdom had a democratically elected House of Commons (庶民院) and an aristocratic House of Lords including a number of bishops (国体院). And they relied on a career civil service to advise on, draft and execute policy, which exerted its own conservative cultural influence on the government (统儒院). This constitutional settlement started to change at the end of the 1990s with changes to the Lords and the relationship between the cabinet and civil service, (and in Australia due to the breakdown of ministerial responsibility) but it had a good hundred year run and is by no means finished with. Given it has both historical precedent and cultural suitability, I can’t help but wonder why Jiang didn’t think of it. Perhaps with all that visiting of monasteries, studying of Marxist texts and surviving the Cultural Revolution, he didn’t get much time for repeats of Yes, Minister. If someone has his postal address, I’m happy to send him a copy.

松柏 (Pine and Cypress)

子日:岁寒,然后知松柏之后凋也 — 论语 九:二十八

The Master said, ‘Only when the cold season comes is the point brought home that the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves.’ — Analects IX.28 (Lau trans.)

Some films or books are fascinating more because of what they imply than what they are in themselves. Not everyone is fascinated in this way. Perhaps it is the definition of an [armchair] critic.

I remember, for instance, the film What The Bleep Is Happening quite clearly dividing my friends into a large, rationalist, hater camp and a smaller, trippy, New Age fan camp. I agreed with all the rationalist arguments except the worth of the film – it was an intriguing insight into the fetal stage of a new religion, a kind of Citified Liberal Hinduism.

Hu Mei’s (胡玫) film Confucius, released this year, is a similar sort of piece. It’s fascinating, but more for co-textual reasons than as a spectacular realisation of a cinematic idea. It’s a very public grappling with one the classics of world literature, and central figure of what was once China’s civic religion, and who is still a central figure outside the mainland.

Mao Zedong declared “We no longer need Confucius”, or at least Alice Goodman had him sing it, and he launched a purge to that effect. Today CCP finds Confucius rather more useful. A society of thrifty prosperity seems worth promoting over the income extremes and materialism of the last few boom decades. It’s also a way of reaching out to the Chinese societies at the edge of the nation of the PRC and beyond. John King Fairbank described HK, Taiwan, through Singapore and to the Chinese diaspora as Maritime China, and almost all of those societies maintained Confucianist and Taoist traditions with much less interruption than on the communist-run mainland. So whether it’s a matter of hands across the Taiwan Strait or expanding the soft power heft of Greater China, Confucius seems a goer. They even got a Hakka star from Hong Kong, Chow Yun-fat, to play the lead. The film was originally slated for release on the 60th anniversary of the PRC, which shares a birthday with Confucius (or at least the one traditionally observed).

For a screenwriter, or propagandist, Confucius presents a challenge. Confucius the historical person is a different, but not distinct, figure from the icon at the centre of Confucianism the tradition. As Confucianism became more and more important as a civic religion of the successive imperial dynasties, the stories and histories attributed to him became grander, more elaborate, and more removed from the humanist philosophy he founded. For example, the best historical evidence we have is that Confucius never rose above the rank of police commissioner of the pre-imperial state of Lu. By a few centuries after his death, he was remembered as its prime minister. Then various emperors posthumously appointed him a Marquis.

Instead of the mythic figure people may be more familiar with, the writers chose to focus mostly on the historical figure. (IMDB and CMDB leave the writers anonymous.) He may be a more appealing figure to moderns – more secular and less of a comic book hero. But the historical record is very thin. Almost the only reliable document about Master Kong is The Analects of Confucius, sayings collected by his students. There is nothing like, say, the nice narrative arc of the Christian Gospels to work with. It’s more like trying the write a movie based on the Book of Proverbs, or Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.

In the end the writers do stray a little from the material for dramatic emphasis, particularly at the start – we get human sacrifice (by the bad guys) and a diplomacy scene which is more Romance of the Three Kingdoms than the Spring and Autumn Period, but all pretty much within the scope of dramatic license.

More interesting are the scenes of the King of Lu holding court in pavilion almost like a Greek agora, or a small parliament. Here we see Confucius cutting and thrusting his way to argumentative victory, be it a judicial or policy debate. This is true to form in that it was a period where intellectual and philosophical debate flowered, analogous to the Greek classical period, and spawning as many great thinkers. I couldn’t tell you how much of it actually happened at court – rather less than is shown here, I suspect. But it’s intriguing that the arguments are far more zesty than anything in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, during sittings of China’s massive nominal parliament. They’re more zesty than Question Time in the Singapore Parliament for that matter, a body with much practical lawmaking power, but not many opposition members. Confucius wields power as police commissioner – minister of law here – and then takes on some (historically shaky) further powers for 100 days. There are weird echoes of the first hundred days of FDR and other American presidents, as well as of the Hundred Days of Reform in the late Qing and the hundred schools of philosophy of Confucius’ time. This was the allusion in the poem that Mao used in the Hundred Flowers Campaign, arguably a prelude to the Cultural Revolution; 百花齐放,百家争鸣: Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred thoughts contend.

Though it takes a bit of a dramatic license, this first half is also the more coherent. Confucius spent a number of years as a wandering sage, the script plausibly suggesting it was related to political manouevring at the Lu court. Though walking the earth, as it were, has plenty of narrative tradition, Confucius was less roving kung fu vigilante and more roving civil service tutor. Again, this is harder to dramatize, and during this second half the writers give in to the temptation to have the protagonist utter gnomic quotes from the Analects mid-sentence.

Confucius didn’t do so well with critics or at the box office, where it competed with Avatar, and there were reports of the latter being more politically controversial. Does this mean the CCP is out of touch in returning to a 2300 year old philosopher in an era of raves on the Great Wall of China? Well, perhaps, but my guess is James Cameron can out-muscle anyone when it comes to mass spectacle. The phenomenon of politicians’ public tastes being more po-faced than their constituents is not unknown to democracies, after all, though they tend to produce rather less state funded and state sanctioned film. Hu Mei’s next project is Dreams in Red Mansion, a capital-C classic novel with the whiff of the schoolroom about it. It seems she is seen as a safe pair of hands. The operatic and well known plot of Dreams should have an easier screenplay to deal with than the watchable jumble of Confucius.

I’m glad to see Confucius the thinker survive the brutal winter of the twentieth century, and begin to emerge from the strictures of the rigid social structures given his name. Yet how can one convey the austere aesthetics at the heart of Confucian philosophy in such a visual medium as film? In The Analects the sense of justice is tied to a sense of harmonius music, rites and names. The closest we have here is a scene like a Spring and Autumn music video, complete with extended Master Kong zither solo. Can you make a historically accurate, intellectually interesting, broadly appealing movie about a philosopher? Maybe. But this isn’t it.