Friday, April 10, 2009

Confucian revival

Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian on the Confucian revival in China:

...There is no such thing as a pure, unadulterated, separate western civilisation or Chinese civilisation. We have all been mixing up for centuries, especially over the last two. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. Yes, Confucianism is more important than Catholicism in China, and Catholicism is more important than Confucianism in California; but there's more of the west in the east and more of the east in the west than most people imagine. Moreover, even 2,500 years ago, when China and Europe really were worlds apart, Confucius was addressing some of the same issues as Plato and Sophocles, because these issues are universal.

So the interesting way for westerners to engage with Confucianism - in a conversation that China's official Confucius institutes would do well to support - is quite different. This way starts from a simple proposition: here was a great thinker, who still has things to teach us today. Rich schools of scholastic interpretation over more than two millennia not only reinterpreted Confucius for different times; they also added thoughts of their own. We should read him, and them, as we read Plato, Jesus, Buddha or Darwin, and all their interpreters. This is not a dialogue between civilisations but a dialogue inside civilisation. Human civilisation, that is, the thing that makes us better than beasts.

For this conversation, most of us must depend on translators. Here in Beijing, I have been re-reading Simon Leys' translation of the Annalects of Confucius, with its notes full of vigorous cross-reference to western writers. With Leys's help, I find the Annalects infinitely more accessible, enjoyable and rewarding than the central text of another cultural tradition with which we Europeans must engage: the Qur'an. Of course, some passages are obscure or anachronistic, while others - stressing the rule of men rather than the rule of law, for example - are in stark contrast to contemporary liberalism. But many of the sayings attributed to Confucius breathe a remarkably fresh secular humanism.

I prefer his cautious formulation of the golden rule of reciprocity - "what you do not wish for yourself, do not impose upon others" - to the Christian one. What should government do? "Make the local people happy and attract migrants from afar." How should we best serve our political leader? "Tell him the truth, even if it offends him." Best of all: "One may rob an army of its commander-in-chief; one cannot deprive the humblest man of his free will."

If these are familiar thoughts in an unfamiliar place, there are also very distinctive emphases, such as that on a kind of extended family responsibility to generations both past and to come. Not such a bad idea, at a time when we are ravaging the planet that our grandparents left us...