One of the striking elements of “The Governance of China,” a book published this past fall in several languages (including English) by Chinese President Xi Jinping, was his reliance on the “brilliant insights” of Confucius to explain his own political and social philosophy. Mr. Xi quotes, for example, this pithy saying from the ancient master: “When we see men of virtue, we should think of equaling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should examine ourselves.” And Mr. Xi is clearly channeling Confucius when he writes that the Chinese have always “developed their country through studying the nature of things, correcting thoughts with sincerity, cultivating the moral self, managing the family…and safeguarding peace under Heaven.”
Leaving aside the question of Mr. Xi’s own sincerity in invoking these ancient and decidedly noncommunist ideas, there can be no doubt that the Confucian values he invokes have been the foundation of one of the great social, cultural and economic success stories of the last few decades. Despite Asia’s difficulties and imperfections (and the impressive achievements over the same period of such disparate places as Canada, Scandinavia and Israel), we have been living, since the closing years of the Cold War, in a Confucian moment. The rise of the Pacific “tigers” in the 1970s began a process that has made Asia the geographic organizing principle of the world economy. Countries like China and Vietnam couldn’t have discarded communism in all but name, switched to a riotous form of capitalism and remained as stable as they have been without the essential tolerance and respect for authority, hierarchy and social order embodied in Confucianism.
Confucianism is best described as a philosophy rather than a religion. It both competes with and complements Asian religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. To say that Asia is Confucian is an oversimplification, but to say that a Confucian sensibility helps to define East Asia is not.
The rise of Asia in our time has a great deal to do with how the social stability encouraged by Confucianism has interacted with modern capitalism. We have seen the rise of dynamic, enlightened authoritarianism in China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore—all of which, save for China, have evolved into parliamentary systems. China’s regime might yet be forced to change too, thanks to the kind of relatively peaceful and restrained democratic stirrings we have seen in Hong Kong and might eventually see on the mainland itself.
Indeed, the founders of many of the most robustly modern Asian states—South Korea’s Park Chung-hee, Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew—were all very consciously Confucian as they navigated the rigors of creating modern societies. As for China, its transition away from the corruption and inefficiencies that have built up over the past third-of-a-century of unprecedented economic growth will require (among other things) a reinvigoration of the Confucian ethos.
What exactly is Confucianism? Confucius is the Latinization of Kong fuzi (“the Master Kong”), who lived around 2,500 years ago, in the northern Chinese vassal state of Lu during the waning days of the Zhou dynasty. Looking back at the golden age of the early Zhou, Confucius presented his disciples with what the scholar and translator Raymond Dawson calls the “seminal expressions” of Chinese civilization.
Many of these ideas are on display in “The Analects,” the limpid philosophical extracts written by the Master Kong’s disciples. The work’s two most crucial concepts are “humaneness” and “virtue,” which together are supposed to shape a person’s psyche and help in all interpersonal relations.
There is nothing squishy or naive in these admonitions: Everyone else must be held to an equally high standard, all of it based on respect for the experience of previous generations. As the Master Kong says, “Being fond of the truth, I am an admirer of antiquity.”
In Confucianism, the past isn’t something to disparage as primitive or retrograde; it constitutes the very record of human experience, and the present depends on it. Particularly in times of profound technological and social change, Confucians find the best insurance against chaos in tradition, especially in the virtues of loyalty and filial piety.
Postmodern Western life, by contrast, is sometimes described as decadent because of its worship of youth. For someone like me, who has observed both cultures, it is hard to resist the thought that the West might benefit just now from a dose of Confucianism, as might China itself, whose one-child policy—only recently relaxed—has resulted in a generation of spoiled children.
Confucianism also strongly encourages tolerance and discourages insubordination, which, like egoism, it never equates with courage. It is about conserving the delicate equilibrium that exists between people themselves and between those inside social and political organizations. As the Master Kong says: “The gentleman has universal sympathies and is not partisan. The small man is partisan and does not have universal sympathies.” The demonstrators in Hong Kong may have demanded political change, but their discipline, organization and general politeness were very Confucian.
Much of this may sound, to Western ears, like classical Burkean conservatism, with its aversion to radical change but embrace of gradual improvement. Edmund Burke, horrified at the spectacle of the French Revolution, believed in evolution and gradualism. East Asia’s enlightened authoritarianism has to be seen in this light: as an economically productive transition phase, not as an end in itself.
The world as a whole is in tumultuous transition, as traditional family structures and ways of life come undone on every continent. In this crucible, social and political survival will come most easily to cultures that can preserve a time-tested ethical foundation as a defense against destructive change. East Asia has been the undeniable success story of the last four decades, even as its dramatic growth phase now seems over. I would bet that the Confucian moment will live on for a while longer yet.