Keenan: Confucianism a “fragile flower” in China today

“The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one,” says David Brooks of The New York Times. “The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream. It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”

This quote comes from the article with which Professor of History Barry Keenan began his lecture last Thursday, filling a classroom with students and guests late in the evening to discuss the resurgence of Confucianism in contemporary China.

As part of the annual “China Week” hosted by Denison’s chapter of Global China Connection (GCC), an international organization “looking to engage China’s emergence as a global power,” according to the group’s website, Keenan began by playing a clip of the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing, showcasing the coordination achieved by thousands of human beings at the same time.

A major undertone of the lecture was the contrast between China’s ideals of collectivism and harmony and the West’s emphasis on individuality and freedom. While the end of the Cold War supposedly demonstrated the failure of communism, the rise of China in recent years has challenged scholars’ viewpoints on the primacy of industrial capitalism.

A philosophy of collectivism has long been paraded in the People’s Republic in the costumes of Marxism and Maoism. But a kind of socialist ethic has existed in China since ancient times in the form of Confucian thought, Keenan explained. While Confucianism was suppressed in the mid-20th century by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he said, it is now experiencing a revival.

It was Hu Jintao (the CCP’s General Secretary from 2002 to 2012), said Keenan, who precipitated this revival through his use of the term “harmonious society” (héxié shèhuì), a term borrowing heavily on the Confucian principle of “harmony” (和, hé).

Keenan contemplated three possible reasons for this opening: to depoliticize Confucianism, to soothe the worries of the international community through pacifistic elements of Confucian rhetoric, and to combat China’s growing religions like Christianity and the Falun Gong sect. He pointed out that many centers that study Confucianism, such as the China Confucius Foundation and the International Confucian Association, are funded by the Chinese state.

Yet most initiatives to reintroduce Confucian elements, such as the oral recitation of the classics in elementary schools, are locally based, Keenan said.

Radical political interpretations of Confucianism also exist. Jiang Qing, a contemporary Confucian scholar, thinks that the Gongyang school can serve as an Eastern alternative to both Western liberalism and Marxism. He considers Marxism “rootless” and un-Chinese, and thus doomed to fail. Jiang advocates a tricameral legislature run by Confucian scholars and consisting of the House of Exemplary Persons, the People’s House, and the House of Cultural Continuity.

Keenan concluded by emphasizing the Confucian method of self-cultivation, a fundamentally interpersonal, organic task.

“Civility does the work of empathy,” he said, as underscored in the principle of “ritual” (禮, lĭ). Taking questions from the audience, he described Confucianism primarily as a “practice,” not a religion or philosophy. While Confucian thought mirrors Abrahamic religions in its love of reverence, Keenan said, Confucianism orders this reverence toward one’s fellows and not toward a deity. Ultimately, though, he agreed with a quote that calls Confucianism in China “a fragile flower,” liable to interference from the Communist Party and its ideologies.

Guests included Lian Xinda, professor of Chinese and East Asian studies and a noted scholar of Taoism and Song dynasty literature. Many students in attendance were members of GCC, while others knew Keenan from their coursework. “I thought it was really interesting to hear how a lot of of stuff in class relates to modern China,” said Matthew Steratore ‘15, a history major from Pittsburgh, Pa. William Bogdan ‘15, a history major from Jamestown, N.Y., agreed, saying it was “interesting” to hear about China “rediscovering a moral basis” for its economic resurgence.

Barry Keenan has been teaching at Denison since 1976. He is a graduate of Yale University and Claremont Graduate University. He has authored several books on the history of China, including his most recent work, Neo-Confucian Self-Cultivation, in 2011. He will retire this spring.

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