Jerome Keating on “the dark side” of Confucianism and Legalism

Here’s another essay on China, this one focusing on Confucianism and what it has wrought [pdf file]. I agree with its fundamental premise, i.e., that China is still reeling from the negative aspects of its Confucist and Legalist mindsets, which are inherently unjust and unhealthy. Unfortunately, their influence is still going strong in the China of the 21st century, where power and hierarchy matter above all else.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

The last time people talked against Confucianism, they started the Cultural Revolution.

December 30, 2004 @ 10:52 am | Comment

Your point being, that to criticize Confucianism is to invite another Cultural Revolution? So it should therefore not be criticized?

December 30, 2004 @ 10:56 am | Comment

My point being, there is nothing new to it. It is like a topic of discovering the dark side of Communism. People have been criticizing Confucius ever since the Taiping Rebellion or earlier.

December 30, 2004 @ 11:44 am | Comment

Okay, sorry if I misunderstood you. I agree, there’s no earthshattering news here, but I find Keating’s perspectives to be interesting, and this particular topic is central to understanding modern CHina..

December 30, 2004 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

Judging from the author’s article on Taiwan Independence, this is just another effort to discredit traditional Chinese values in order to cheer for a indenpendent Taiwan indentity.

December 30, 2004 @ 2:36 pm | Comment

Eek – that’s the 2nd time you’ve linked to a PDF file when there’s a perfectly good html page available:

Personally, I think it’s too easy to over-emphasise the importance of differences in philosophy (Confucian vs. Christian) rather than the similarities; people are people is my philisophy, and there ain’t much difference between us.

I’m not an historian, but I don’t think it would have taken much (e.g. the industrial revolution happening in Shanghai before the West) for China to have dominated the 20th century – in that case, I bet you’d have Chinese professors claiming that the “traditional Christian values” of the West were stopping proper democratic development :)

Incidentally, BL, Confucianism is something that unites China and Taiwan, so I don’t think you can idisregard his views on that basis. In fact, I’m pretty sure a Taiwanese student would be able to tell you a lot more about the teachings of Confucius than a mainland student!

December 30, 2004 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

Jerome attribute chinese attitude on Taiwan independence to the dark side of confucian. His approach is fundamentally flawed.

David has a good point. Most mainland chinese has much less education on confucian than Taiwanese. Mao’s biggest achievement/disaster is to sever/weaken the link of confucan in Chinese culture. In terms of ideology, Chinese essentially is blank. That partly explains why China, compared with other countries, can embrace globalization with less resistance.

The unwillingness of China to let Taiwan leave is more of national interest than ideology, just as Lincoln did not want to let the south leave. To borrow his words, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

December 30, 2004 @ 10:24 pm | Comment

I will speak briefly here to some of the comments above and refer readers to more of my comments on the China Taiwan posting since I don’t care to be writing on two areas especially when the two are closely related.

To JR, yes Confucianism has been criticized for some time in China much past the Cultural Revolution and the Taiping Rebellion–try going back 2000 years or more previous when in the book burning of the short-lived Ch’in Dynasty his works were part of the fuel. But since then the legalist tradition has learned to use it for their own ends. Mao was very clever, he used the Cutural Revolution to discredit the previous recipients of Confucianist respect for elders, teachers etc. but then turned around and let that need for respect of someone at the top end of the hierarchical roles fall on him. The roots and paradigmatic life perceptions of Confucianism are deep in the Chinese psyche and will not be displaced by something as temporary as the Cultural Revollution (albeit all the damage it did)

For STeve, yes for present day PRC, the Taiwan issue is really one of national interest and control of the Taiwan Strait and thus traffic between the East and South China Seas, isolation of Japan and Korea from Southeast Asia etc. But governments find it more convenient to motivate the masses by playing on fears, utilizing paradigmatic perceptions, etc. As I said before the legalist tradition has learned that Confucianism that it once opposed can actually be used to justify its position of control and power.

As example, the Iraq war which in many ways was more about oil was justified basically by the reasons of a search for Weapons of Mass Destruction.

So the Taiwan issue is really not so much about a house divided–China can stand by itself without Taiwan–but that is not a good reason to get people’s attention off internal problems and the lack of participation in government. Better to have people focus on outside issues and splitting the Motherland etc.

If I post anything else it will be under the China/Taiwan heading.


January 1, 2005 @ 9:53 am | Comment

As I understand it, legalism means punishing people very harshly for minor infractions to prevent them considering major ones, is this more or less correct? and confusionism is about hierachy, at least here it is, right?

This sounds a lot like zero tollerance and the three strikes system doesn’t it.

I think that any comunist regime has a good helping of legalism.

What China’s problem is that it doesn’t tollerate disent but that it doesn’t do enough abvout non disent iissues. You can reviece a highter punishment for distributing “soccer manager 2005″ in China because it describes Taiwan as a soverign country, than you will for distributing it becasue it si a pirate game. This is just insane.

January 1, 2005 @ 10:12 pm | Comment

Doing this topic justice will take probably much more effort than I can muster, but let me point out that this is part of a larger and still unresolved argument over whether hierarchy is inherently bad.

Let me just sketch out the other side of the argument…. This argument has been going on for thousands of years, and we won’t be able to resolve this. In fairness, let me just point out that there is another side….

I do think that Jerome is painting a strawman carticature of Confucianism. For example, one very important part of Confucianism is the notion that true loyalty means saying things that the emperor really doesn’t want to hear and which get you into trouble.

Also, as a result of the Cultural Revolution, I get very, very suspicious of arguments that *X* ideology is the cause of China’s problems* or that *Y* ideology is the solution. What I believe is the case is that successful ideologies tend to be extremely flexible, and that it is far better to think in terms of “cultural transformation” rather than “cultural revolution.”

For example, if you look at “Confucian” writers, you find that they disagree with each other about just about everything. So its not difficult to use these historical conversations as source material for something that will work in the 21st century.

Also, “look at Taiwan” is also a bit simplistic. A KMT-member is going to draw much different lessons from Taiwan than a DPP-member.

January 2, 2005 @ 1:06 am | Comment

One other thing that is useful in talking about this things is to make it clear that people in China disagree about these things as to people in the West. This isn’t China versus the West, and I think one of the things that Western writers do wrong is to write as if these things were settled in the West. They aren’t. There are lots of people in the United States who think that it is or should be a Christian nation.

It’s also not past versus present. If you read the classical Chinese literature, you will quickly discover that people in the past disagreed about these things as much as people in the present. The problem with saying the “past is evil” is that you then separate yourself from a lot of the thinking that lets you figure out what to do in the future.

January 2, 2005 @ 11:23 am | Comment

can anyone tell me how confucianism causes war in china?
I really need help here

January 6, 2005 @ 6:27 am | Comment

You all have interesting strong points. David made a good point; people are fundamentally the same. And Jerome sends a crucial message about lasting effects of traditional perspectives. It’s funny how the main subject gets lost in fodder! We all need to remember it’s not a battle of the minds, it’s a combination of them; aka teamwork. When it comes to legalism and Conf. there is no one or the other. Most of us cant avoid arguing about legalist perspectives and Confusionism, let alone figue out how to fix China and Taiwan. The truth is ,education is the key! Not to learn how to debate between scholars but to teach the average joe how to overthrow tyranic government. Personally, I could care less about communist China, but I would gladly stomp a mudd hole in their ass if they mess with my little home boy Taiwan. Peace

October 10, 2005 @ 6:51 pm | Comment

The issue many people have with Confucius’ thoughts is that the only book he (or rather his disciples) left us is a collection of some random sayings (The “Analects”) which don’t seem to quite add up to a system of thoughts.

But that is the point. Confucius never cared about building a system of thought. His entire ethical system is at the background, under which shadow he taught, and could be discerned only by gradual induction from the random quotes he left us.

Since I’m not writing a dissertation here. Let me just throw this at you guys. There are inklings of Classical Liberalism in the Kantian sense in the Analects and most of the later classics (Mencius and the Neo-Confucians.) All the “Confucius says” or authoritarianism shit is no more than caricature and vulgarization. Go figure it out yourselves.

November 19, 2005 @ 9:36 pm | Comment

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