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Chinese Statecraft, Confucian Humanism, and the Ethic of Responsibility

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Professor Tu Weiming, Director of the World Ethics Institute Beijing (WEIB) at Peking University
Professor Tu Weiming, Director of the World Ethics Institute Beijing (WEIB) at Peking University
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Professor Tu Weiming, Director of the World Ethics Institute Beijing (WEIB) at Peking University by Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies (IAHS)

Tu Weiming -- On Confucian Humanism and the Ethic of Responsibility

This is a transcript of a public lecture held at Stanford University on Feb 21st 2012.

The Confucian zheng rendered as "politics," zhengzhi in Modern Chinese, is defined as "rectification," also the character  zh eng. It means to rectify the status quo so that it becomes correct. The assumption is that the right people, right institutions, and right ideas are defining characteristics of right politics.

The junzi, or sometimes rendered as the shi junzi, the functional equivalent of what I want to argue is the modern idea of the intellectual, are considered the right people to rule. The junzi in this sense is very different from the Greek idea of the philosopher, the Judaic rabbi, the Hindu guru, the Christian priest, the Buddhist monk, or even the Islamic ulama.

Even though an intellectual in that sense carries functions comparable to them, as exemplar, as a knowledgeable person, as a wise person, and also as a person endowed with some spiritual exercise. This idea, the modern idea of the intellectual, of course is from the Russian notion of a member of the 'intelligentsia,' but in the Russian tradition it is very clear that anyone who is an intellectual is definitely a critic of not only the government but the establishment. So (Andrei) Sakharov was an intellectual, but (Mikhail) Gorbatchev will never become an intellectual in terms of that definition. Modern Chinese have been deeply under the influence of this idea. ["]

In the classic sense of the junzi as maybe a public intellectual was politically engaged, socially involved, and culturally sensitive and informed. So, the idea is very much a person of the word, and yet transforming the world from within; he is in the world and not of the world.

The right institutions are made, again in the classical sense, of li  and yue, ritual (or civility) and music. For Confucius, the paradigmatic personality is the Duke of Zhou who is considered a major builder, constructor of the so-called Zhou system: a humane, effective, and enduring political system of governance that is trust-worthy, responsive, and responsible. So Mencius defines this particular kind of politics as ren-zheng -- as humane governance. I will say, this is of course my own interpretation, that five human resources are tapped to develop this kind of politics.

First, I would call this the principle of subjectivity, which means personal integrity and self-cultivation philosophy. The second one is populism. In other words, the leadership is for the people, and in a sense even of the people, but not by the people. This is one of the reasons that there are democratic roots; but democracy as a form of government never developed in China, and the Chinese are still struggling to become one. There are a number of features about this notion of institutions. One assumption is that those who are more powerful, influential, and have more access to both material and non-material resources should be more obligated to the well-being of the society at large.

So in this sense the emperor, the ruler, should be totally public-spirited, ideally. The ruler can never become a private person, he is always public. ["] Throughout his life, the public gaze is always on him: there is one person that would record his behavior; another person would record everything he said; and whenever he was in the situation like eating, if he over-ate then the eunuch would plead him to take care of his health for the nation, and his sex life was also carefully observed, so he is in Hegel's notion the least free. He is always in the public domain. So, this is a kind of control that is considered extremely important. It is not legalistic, but ritualistic and symbolically very powerful. Then, the assumption is that the intellectuals ought to be on the side of the people, rather than on the side of the ruler. A famous statement from Mencius reads that the people are the most important, the state is next, but the ruler is the least important. And of the course the modern idea of serving the people, maybe very much of a modern coinage, is that the ruler is entrusted by heaven to take care of the people and is deeply rooted in even before the time of Confucius.

And in this particular context there is another feature, another resource the ruler and the intellectual has to tap, that is historical consciousness, which means society comes into being through a process of evolution. ["]. It is very different from either Hobbes or Locke -- the notion that society comes into being politically because of some contractual relationship. From this point of view it is imagined, a fiction: no society ever existed because of contract - People state of the nature, then come together and then form an contract and then society is formed. It is always a historical process involving all kinds of forces, often beyond the control of a group, not to mention the individual.

But it is also a transcendent dimension, often used to mean euphoric of heaven. I realized that a number of people used this as a functional equivalent of the French idea of the divine right of king. I will argue it is just the opposite. The notion of the mandate of heaven is diametrically opposed to the idea of the divine right of king, because of the notion of rights, like in human rights, originally occurred as the rights of the rulers or the rights of the aristocracy to claim some privileges. But in the Confucian tradition heaven sees as the people see; heaven hears as the people hear; heaven does not impose some kind of divine right to any individual.

Heaven reflects the will of the people. So in this case the mandate of heaven is a regulatory system controlling the ruler. The ruler is not only controlled by people because of the possibility of rebellion, but is also controlled by the cosmic order. So if the ruler fails to perform and then not only the people will try to rebel against him but heaven will also abandon him. That is the idea of the laws of the mandate of heaven that is always related to the feelings of the people. If the people suffer then the mandate of heaven will be lost.

The fifth one is the future orientation. Any policy or politics is not designed for the present; is not the distribution of wealth and power for a contemporary situation, but is always with the view to the future. Of course some the notion of bai shi, hundred generations. ["]

So, if you want to design something what the Duke of Zhou was doing, and Confucius wanted to do, is always for future generations as well.

What are the implications? First of the all, the society is a form of organic solidarity, again Durkheim's notion, rather than a mechanic solidarity. So, the fundamental difference between the Confucian approach and the legalist approach - you know the emperor Qing who organized the incredibly powerful modern bureaucracy was a legalist -- the difference is this: from a legalist's point of view there are two kinds of professions that are essential, one the farmers, the other is the military men, the soldiers. Because a society, a nation needs the productivity on the one hand, and defense on the other, sometimes aggression as well. And this is from a Confucian point of view a mechanistic solidarity. The legalists were against merchants because it is difficult to control them, and they are certainly very contemptuous of intellectuals. You know, they buried intellectuals alive and burning books were things the legalists were interested in doing. And Mao Zedong once made the remark that the legalists only buried 400 intellectuals; I was able to get rid of two million, or twenty million. So the legalist idea is mechanic, arbitrary, and the Confucian idea is more organic.

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Dr. Thorsten J. Pattberg (è å æ Pei Desi) is a German philosopher and cultural critic.
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