Confucius and the Confucian Family System
1. His Centrality
Any discussion of the Asian American families one encounters in our literature inevitably confronts the philosophy of Kong Fu Tse, whose name the West latinized as "Confucius" (551 BC- 479 BC); and what is often called the "Confucian family system." For the last ten years the American media has extolled the Confucian family's strength, often at the Western family's expense.
W. H. Auden once remarked that he trusted no learning that had not been "proved on the pulses." I chose to write this essay because, although I live in a large Confucian family, I did not grow up in one, and I still retain a bit of my outsider's perspective. The fish, it is said, will be the last ones to know about the water, and my Asian American students, when they try to write about their families for class, have a hard time. To them, it's just "life." I am still conscious of the differences from my previously Western family life, and can, perhaps, convey those differences better to other non Asian Americans -- the majority of this book's readers.
I write as a scholar of Chinese who works with the Confucian texts in Chinese, both in America and here in Beijing, where I am revising this essay. I have referenced scholarly accounts at the essay's end; but always, true to Auden's theory, I have concentrated on what I have personally confirmed, "proved on the pulses."
Confucius helped define, but did not create this powerful family system. No one man could. Yale's Benjamin Schwartz notes that the archeological evidence of ancestor worship in China extends as far back as we can dig. That means Chinese family bonds were always exceptionally strong. Confucius gave this cultural predisposition its classic, and most influential statement.
As a result there is no one figure equally central to all the West, not even Jesus. Confucius's thought spread through all of Asia east of India, and colored all later philosophic orientations. (Buddhism, which America associates with China, is a late import, arriving over the Silk Road around 400 A.D.) Though Confucius wrote 2500 years ago -- a contemporary of the exiled Jews who compiled the Bible -- his thought is a living presence in Asian and Asian American lives today, and the literature involving them. Asian American students who have never read a word of Confucius (or anyone but Stephen King, for that matter) read him in my class and say, "So that's where my Dad's coming from!"
The Bible makes a good parallel. Its values are so alive in a large part of the United States, we call it "the Bible Belt." You couldn't understand the South or West properly without knowing the Bible. You will understand Asian Americans better by knowing something about Confucius.
If you're Asian American, the odds are you'll better understand your family and yourself.
2. Americans of Asian Descent are not Asian
However, as I revise this in Beijing tonight, just after an enormous (and very Confucian) family banquet, I'm moved to add a warning: Asian Americans are not Asians. Just as it would be preposterous to read of King David's concubines and expect to find them in a Bible Belt home, it would be preposterous to imagine Confucius took you inside a modern Asian American home. My Chinese-American niece, ten years old, has had such culture shock since she arrived in China (the shock any American-born ten year old would have in a foreign country) that she frequently grows dizzy. We had to stand her in front of an air-conditioner tonight, where she gulped the air and wailed, "It smells like home!"
This essay, about Confucius, isn't a guidebook to Asian America. For them his thought is only a legacy, a substratum of values, now heavily overlaid by the standard American ones-- democracy, feminism, equality, air conditioning. In addition, so many Asian Americans are Christians that their Confucian substratum is deeply buried beneath Christian values. And with every generation the family spends in American, the Confucian values are buried deeper.
Yet, having said all that, the Confucian substratum is the rock on which the rest stands. When we try to describe certain characteristics which give an elusive sense of unity to the different communities of Asian America, we discover we are talking about the Confucian values. (Scholars take the trouble to distinguish Filipinos as "Pacific" culture, not "Asian" culture, because -- unless they are ethnically Chinese -- Filipinos do not share the Confucian substratum.)
3. Confucius: the man himself and his times
The name "Confucius" is a Latin form of his name plus his title. His actual name is *Kong, to which the Chinese respectfully added either "tse" or "fu tse", both words honorifics. "Kong fu tse" means "Master Kong." In his best-known book, a collection of his sayings called the *"Analects", many chapters begin with Tse yue, "The Master quoth..." (Yue is an antique form of shuo, "said.") It wasn't necessary in China to say who the "Master" was. East Asians have quoted Kong's saying at each other for two thousand years. (But never in fortune cookies, which were invented in San Francisco by a Japanese-American for a World's Fair!)
His dates were worked out hundreds of years after his death, but he is said to have been born in 551 BC in Qu Fu, near Shandong, at that time the state of Lu, the most civilized state in China, a state proud to be descended from the Chou dynasty which had given China its Golden Age. He died in 479 BC, age seventy two, the year after the battle of Marathon safeguarded the Greeks from Persian tyranny, allowing an independent "Western" history to develop. He is a contemporary, then, of Guatama Buddha, and Aeschylus' father and of the first Athenian republicans. He dies the year before Socrates is born. These were the pivotal years ("axial ages") for the Indian, Western and East Asian cultures alike.
Confucius was born during a time of continual civil wars, the so-called *"Spring and Autumn period", 770-464 BC, given that name simply because that distant time is covered in a sketchy book called the Spring and Autumn Annals. This era is followed, from 463 to 222 BC, by the *Warring States period, even bloodier. Like Dante, he lives in a dark age, looking back nostalgically to a great empire which had spread peace, prosperity and the pleasures of civilized life across the land. Dante lived in the ruins of the Roman empire, in an Italy where a scholar needed a safeconduct pass to travel a hundred miles between the feuding cities and their petty princelings. Confucius's China looked very similar. During his life he trudged from minor court to minor court, looking for employment and offering his ideas about reordering society to the Dukes. He looked back worshipfully to the *Chou (pronounced like the English name Joe) dynasty, a period of several hundred years when Chinese didn't kill other Chinese. You'll read many dates for the Chou but 1000 to 800 BC was their high point, the period Confucius most admired.
In 518 BC the Duke of Lu had given Confucius a kind of scholarship to visit Lo, the old capital of the Chou Dynasty. There he examined what books and objects remained of Chou greatness, already over three hundred years in the past. Confucius was thrilled by the Chou ideal (which we'll discuss in some detail). Later he claimed to be merely their humble "transmitter." He sustained himself through setbacks with his sense of mission: to restore the Chou culture to China (9.2) and thereby end the wars and bring another Golden Age.
As his fame increased, he taught, and travelled with disciples. But in 528BC Confucius abandoned public life for 3 years to mourn his mother according to the most orthodox old customs. He must have been trying to set an example. As he once said, no-one "preaches what he practices till he has practiced what he preaches." (Analects 2.13) Talk is cheap, in other words.
The Analects, read carefully, reveal a teacher who had tremendous personal charm. His human frailty is recorded and his humility. Go into any village with ten families in it, Confucius said, and you could find someone "quite as loyal and true to his word" as Confucius. "But I doubt if you would find someone with such a love of learning." (Analects 5.25-5.27. Hereafter I'll just write the book and section numbers.) He loved music (8.8, 17.11) collected and edited the Chou classic songs. He thought rulers led best by setting a good example, and if you tried to rule by passing a lot of oppressive laws instead, you'd only make the people into sneaks and tricksters. (2.20) Asked what kind of life he wished he could achieve, he said he wished he were someone who could live up to this ideal: To "comfort" the aged; to keep his word to his friends; and to "cherish" the young. (5.25) That's attractive.
At age 52, the court of Lu finally gave Confucius a big job. But-- when push came to shove-- rather than sell out, he quit the job he'd sought for so long. That noble decision became one of the foundations of his morality: it's normal and right to want power; the moral question is, what are you willing to trade for it? For the next fourteen years he travelled with his students from court to court, trying to interest one of the petty barons in running a state according to his principles. In the very first paragraph of the Analects, Confucius notes how important it is to "remain unsoured even though one's merits are unrecognized by others." (1.1) Confucius knew what it meant to struggle and to lose. It gives authority to his endlessly repeated advice about never turning bad or selling out, no matter what. The Analects faithfully record that ordinary people sneered at him for failing to win worldly success -- when actually he'd rejected it rather than sacrifice his integrity.
At 68, old and ignored by politicos, (14.41, .42) he settled back in Lu to put together the old Chou documents, which he decided was his real job. If the Chou works were available, people must read them -- he hoped --and change their ways. He put together edited texts of the still famous I Ching, the Book of Changes; as well as the Book of Documents, the Book of Songs, the Book of Rituals, and others.
Though Confucius met with meager success during his lifetime, his influence slowly spread. There was one final setback. In the 220s B.C., the first *Emperor of Chin finally unified China. This tyrant spent perhaps a million lives building the Great Wall. His tomb at Xian, his new capital, is surrounded by the famous terracotta army of lifesize figures that were buried with him, to serve in the next world.
In 213 B.C., reasoning that philosophers who taught people to think inherently interfered with his teaching them to obey, the Chin emperor ordered all philosophy books burned and philosophers killed. The tyrant died, his son was overthrown, and the Confucian texts dug out of their hiding place. The triumphant *Han dynasty started the next of China's several Golden Ages by adopting Confucius and his commentators (principally Mencius) as the official State philosophy. The Han are the Romans' contemporaries, and are profitably compared to them. As the Romans spread -- indeed, enforced -- the earlier Hellenic culture through the West, so, for 400 years, the Han spread Chinese culture through China, and ultimately Asia.
During that time Confucius became so influential that his value system is now the backbone, the "cultural DNA" as Bill Moyers once happily phrased it, of all East Asia, from Indochina to Korea and Japan. Other important Chinese philosophies have had to phrase themselves as reactions against him. The *Mo-ists worry that strong Confucian families will just be out for themselves and to hell with society. During periods of corruption in China, that is exactly what has happened. The *Taoists-- recluses, mystics, quietists-- think Confucius sets the wrong example entirely, in his rationalism and his enthusiasm for political action. They never confuse his caution with their quietism. "To see what is right and not to do it is cowardice," Confucius said. (2.24) The Taoists take that hard.
No one has fought Confucius harder than 20th century communists.. Confucius was involved in all their cultural battles to change China-- he's not a quaint old figure in China any more than Jesus is a quaint old figure in Texas. Chairman Mao fought Confucianism the way the Russian communists had to fight the Russian Orthodox Church. During the 1966-1975 Great Cultural Revolution (see Molly Isham's article on it in this volume) Chairman Mao ordered, "Pi Lin Pi Kong"-- Criticize Lin Biao (a competing political figure), criticize Confucius. Mao attacked Confucius as if he were a living counterrevolutionary. Mao's *Little Red Book, which the Red Guards clung to, was a Counter-Analects of Mao's sayings, designed to replace all the Confucian family duty with duty to the Revolution. Yet China has brushed Mao's communism away; Confucius remains. The Nationalist government in Taiwan has always revered him.
4. The Confucian Texts
Most important are the *Analects, the Lun Yu. (Actually, in Chinese, it's Lun-yu-yu: Yu yu is "sayings" and lun means "bamboo sheets compilation." The term was not used until about 120 BC by an editor.) The Analects are a loose collection of Confucius' sayings and of materials relevant to them, complied by his students after his death.
The Chin emperor's, rampage left us with no texts by Confucius or his opponents older than 213BC. Some books, like the Book of Music, were almost completely destroyed, and the fragments made chapters of other books. (That's why you'll sometimes read that there are five "Chou classics" and other times, six.) But also, when the ru jia (the "scholar family," as his followers are called) rewrote the texts after the tyrant emperor's death, they couldn't resist the temptation to improve them.
Our text of the Analects is therefore corrupt and disordered. To begin with, Confucius didn't write these sayings down himself. Second, at least three clear versions of the Analects exist: the "Lu version," the "Ch'i version," and the "ancient script" version, claimed to have been found hidden in the walls of Confucius's house, written in ancient characters. There are too many spurious stories about it. The Lu version became standard.
Not even all the Lu text seems authentic. Book 3-9 is the oldest layer. The student should trust those books the most. Book 20, the last, looks like a miscellany. Book 10 is not about Confucius at all, though they sometimes stick his name in this bunch of old maxims on performing ritual duties. The book feels pre-Confucian, scholars agree. Book 18, on the other hand, feels as if it were added hundreds of years later, since it brings some Taoist-style recluses in so that Confucius can dispose of them with a few well-chosen words. Confucius himself never saw Taoists (a later movement), but in the 200s the Confucian scholars were debating them and wished the Master had.
The other side spread its own hostile myths about Confucius. There's no evidence for stories that Confucius met their founder, Lao Tse, let alone that he proclaimed Lao Tse a wiser man! Nor is there evidence that he divorced his wife, or was illegitimate, or the child of a rape. The Tao jia, the "Taoist family," like to rewrite history, too.
5. The Confucian values: the Family and Teamwork
What is that Confucian substratum of values, then, that people all over Asia shared, and brought with them to America?
The West pictures a society as a collection of individuals, like a tennis tournament or golf tournament. Confucius pictures society as a collection of teams -- that is, families. When he talks about people he doesn't discuss them as individuals but as members of families, rating them good or bad depending on how well they help their team.
By contrast, when the West talks philosophy, it talks about people as individuals-- sometimes almost as if they had no family ties. Confucius starts by assuming that few people live as hermits and the fullest human life is only possible in a family.
Our word "teamwork" could be explained as the active expression of your love for those around you. One sacrifices for the team's good and finds one's own pleasure in whether the team wins or loses. Teamwork -- love, courtesy, subordinating your desire for glory to the good of all -- leads to victory for all. You do not hog the ball. You pass and set up shots. You all get Superbowl rings together-- or nobody does.
Confucius calls the central virtue which leads to teamwork, *ren, (pronounced ren, it is preposterously spelled *jen in the old books following the Wade-Giles romanization.) Ren, a homonym for the word human, has been defined as "human-heartedness," "deeply humane" "a real human being" (or if you know Yiddish, a mensch.) China's Chen Jingpan simply translates it "love" or "benevolence." I suggest that "teamwork" and "team spirit" come closer to ren's meaning. It is written in Chinese by adding the graph for "human" or "man" to the graph for "two": people in society, people getting along with other people:
After the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake the TV news profiled a Chinese restaurant that was doing great business, because it was the first restaurant able to reopen. "Fifteen people came over to clean up," the owner said, "Brothers, cousins, cousin's wives...." One pictures this restaurant's competition, some hapless Western owners, trying vainly to get a janitorial service on the phone.
Any Westerner who joins an Asian family has countless anecdotes about the surprise he or she felt at the living Confucian philosophy, expressed in loving teamwork. A friend whose son married a Chinese newcomer mentioned to her that his wife had to go back East to attend a funeral. The daughter in law mentioned it to a cousin, who called to volunteer his Frequent Flier miles so my friend's wife wouldn't have to pay for the trip. "Imagine," my friend said, "my daughter-in-law's cousin! In the West we wouldn't even consider that a relative, and he's trying to give Jeanie a free air ticket."
In Western books about Confucius and Asian, one reads the perplexing phrase *filial piety for this teamwork mindset. It's significant that the West doesn't really even have name for it, and has to make do with that awkward term. "Team spirit" would come closer. Bringing in the word "team" also correctly implies "competitiveness" and gives an image of life as constant, joyful, active exertion, on behalf of everyone you love.
6. Li: Dancing well the dance of life
If life is lived in families, and the art of life is teamwork, then successful life can reach the intricate beauty of professional basketball teams -- a beauty much like dance. Confucius pictures life as a constant intricate dance done with others, and the *li of life are its steps. Again, it's significant that we Westerners have no word for this. Western books try to translate li with the religious word, "rites," but that's to church-y. They try "etiquette" or "courtesy," but these days we think of courtesy as artificiality, the opposite of honesty. You'll come closer to li by thinking of dance steps, or -- to continue the teamwork metaphor -- the plays that great football teams smoothly execute. Confucius sees life as a stream of social interactions.
Comfort the aged, keep your bargains at work, your word with friends, your vows to your spouse, and take time to love kids. That's the heart of the li. When every member of the team is infused with team spirit and you all know exactly how to run each play -- that's successful li. Confucius believed the Chou really did all this, and that was why they ruled China peacefully for hundreds of years. The only mystery, for Confucius, is that we know exactly what works, yet we don't do it. Confucius once sadly said that he had never met anyone who could do goodness "with his whole might even as long as a single day." (4.6) He had never seen anyone whose "moral power was as strong as sexual desire." (142.17) (And he hadn't even met Woody Allen.) Confucius isn't self-righteous: he said he himself didn't get his will fully under control until he was seventy -- a very modest admission, when you think about it.
7. The Political Significance
It's one thing to describe a good society and another to tell you how to get there. In the West we divide the public from the private, but by working on the family, Confucius believed a ruler could cure all the problems of society too. Since the term "family values" was captured by the far right, I hesitate to use it, but Americans of all political persuasions have begun, in the late 1990's, to come around to Confucius's conviction. A great English philosopher, John Ruskin, once remarked that he had little interest in discussing prisons. If you got the schools right, you wouldn't even need the prisons, Ruskin argued. Confucius starts earlier. Get the families right, and all the rest of society will take care of itself, including the schools. That's just life, he would say. Life is lived in families, good families produce good individuals, bad families produce bad ones, so the most important job of any political system has to be: get the families right. A country's families are its building blocks, its most important social institution. The really wise man, his followers said, works on the "trunk" of the tree, he doesn't fuss with the endless little branches shooting off from it. "And surely proper behavior toward parents and elder brothers is the trunk of Goodness?" (Analects 1.2) "Be filial [dutiful], only be filial and friendly toward your brothers," Confucius claims, and "you will be contributing to government." (Analects 2.21)
My students at San Francisco State University are familiar with the truth of this. Families from Korea or Vietnam or Mainland China arrive here with poor English and little money. They live in "bad neighborhoods" with high crime rates, like the Tenderloin. (Americans attribute great moral influence, social critic Jane Jacobs once observed, to grass and trees. Place shattered families in a housing project full of lawns and they'll reform, the 1950s used to think.) The intact Asian families attend schools with high dropout rates. They do fine. We attribute too much power to our schools to change lives. Confucius would only ask about the families, not the schools, and the majority of these families are strong. There are exceptions, of course-- but they are exceptions, not the usual thing.
Since the 1980s it has become common to speak of Asian Americans as a classic immigrant success story, and to praise the Confucian family system for it. That praise finally made the Asian American leadership nervous, for it was sometimes coupled with indirect attacks on other groups. "The system works. If they can do it, why can't you?" Asian American leaders now call this the "Model Minority" myth. No-one wants to be the teacher's pet-- especially if your example is used to shame other minorities.
As Sau-ling Cynthia Wong protests, "the Asian immigrant family remains a much analyzed and greatly romanticized institution." (38) She dates the model minority thesis from an influential 1966 New York Times Magazine article, "Success Story Japanese-American Style" (243).
Ronald Takaki, in the standard work, Strangers From Another Shore: A History of Asian Americans, spends five pages analyzing statistics, trying to deny that Asian-Americans are a success at all. We understand Prof. Takaki's anxiety when he ends the section, saying "Significantly, Asian American 'success' has been accompanied by the rise of a new wave of anti Asian sentiment. On college campuses, racial slurs have surfaced.... 'M.I.T. means Made in Taiwan." ...Nasty anti-Asian graffiti have suddenly appeared... in the elevators of classroom buildings: ..."Stop the Chinese before they flunk you out!" ... Meanwhile, anti-Asian feelings and misunderstandings have been exploding violently in communities across the country...." And he wrote this five years before the Rodney King L.A. riots, which saw concentrated attacks on Korean-American stores. When he argues so anxiously that Asian success is a "myth," Prof. Takaki seems to have been contemplating one of the oldest proverbs in Asia, "The naill that sticks up gets hammered down." (474-484)
Takaki rightly argues that figures on family income are slippery-- the whole family might be at work in a modest 7-11. But educational attainment, a clearer litmus test, confirm the success story the income statistics implied (at the very least.) The U.S. Census bureau reports that "Almost one out of seven (14 percent) of Asian and Pacific Islanders age 25 or older have a graduate or professional degree-- almost twice the percentage for white (8 percent) and three to four times the rates for other minorities." (pp. 29-30, "America's Minorities," William O'Hare, Population Bulletin 47:4.) If the Hawaiian Islanders, a large, impoverished population, succeed in having their U.S. Census status changed from "Asian" to "American Indian," those percentages will fly even farther upwards. As for the future, when Americans between 16 and 24 were classified "school only," or "school and work" or "work only" or "Neither work nor school" , forty nine percent of the Asian Americans were "school only." Non-Hispanic whites had only 26% in school full time.
8. Love of Learning: the second step to the good society
Cconfucius's system, remember, was a practical proposal to rulers who wanted to reform society. In his system, the first step to the good society must be strengthening the family. The second step is inculcating love of learning.
Confucius loved learning and intelligence so much that he kept no more than polite respect for birth and wealth and rank. If not a democrat, he is what we now call a "meritocrat." He thinks that helping the best and brightest to rise will strengthen a society. He says over and over, he taught anyone who came to him, even if they were so lowly born and so poor that they couldn't pay him in money, just some strips of dried beef. (7.7) "If even a single peasant comes and asks me a question, I am ready to thrash the matter out, to the very end." (9.7) As recently as fifty years ago you couldn't have gotten Oxford or Yale to agree to that admissions policy.
Confucius's very careful (even clever) use of words like "gentleman" enlarges them beyond the aristocracy to cover anyone refined by learning. That's a revolution: you're not born a gentleman, you make yourself one through study. "Culture cannot make gentleman!" an offended lordling splutters at one point, "A gentleman is a gentleman." (12.8) Not for Confucius. "It is possible," Confucius tactfully conceded, "to be a true gentleman and yet lack Goodness." That is, he won't deny that a nobleman's son is a "gentleman" in some sense of the word, no matter what he does. "But there has never yet existed a Good man who was not a gentleman." (14.7) Even to the Victorians that would have been a shock-- any lowborn chap at all could make himself the equal of a nobleman's son, just by reading books? Outrageous! "A gentleman makes demands upon himself. A little man makes them upon others." (15.20) In other words, you could make yourself a gentleman though learning, goodness, and personal responsibility. And Confucius was preaching this radicalism 2500 years ago, to a far haughtier aristocracy than England ever saw.
The Han dynasty put these revolutionary ideas into practice. They began the famous Civil Service system in which government posts became available to many, regardless of low birth, provided they were bright enough to pass rigorous exams on the Confucian classics. This system was so successful it lasted (on and off, despite wars and corruptions) until 1911 AD. As many have observed, China's substitute for democracy was meritocracy, and it was a very successful one. People didn't mind not having a vote, as long as they knew that they could rise very high through hard work. There is not, to this day, a native democratic tradition anywhere in Asia. Yet the governments are only considered tyrannical if they fail to preserve the meritocracy that Confucius insisted on.
9. Confucian Values and Western Values
Asian American literature has become largely a speculation about the Confucian family heritage: its blessings and its costs. The tight-knit extended family we encounter in novels like The Joy Luck Club and movies like Dim Sum is Confucian. First generation and second generation, like my air conditioner loving niece, battle it out. [FIGURE1] Amy Tan, second generation, starts The Kitchen God's Wife, "Whenever my mother talks to me, she begins the conversation as if we were already in the middle of an argument." The strain of maintaining, in individualistic America, a system which sees "proper behavior toward parents and elder brothers" as the very "trunk of Goodness" weighs on all the generations.
Nor did Confucianism have much interest in the sisters. We do. Where does the Kitchen God's American feminist wife fit in? In the Asian Confucian system women seem condemned to play supporting, rather than starring roles. (Notwithstanding Confucius' willingness to suspend his life for three years to mourn his mother.) Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and other feminist American authors wrestle endlessly with the downside of Confucian values.
There were costs to China too. No Western country could follow Confucius uncritically now. At best, we can salvage. What is the proper attitude to parents, Confucius is asked. "Never disobey!" he replies. He is asked again. "Never disobey!" (2.5) This powerful loyalty created very stable political structures in China, from the Han Dynasty on. People who behave dutifully to their parents and elder brothers never start a revolution, the Analects claims. (1.2) For nearly two thousand years China was the largest, most prosperous, most civilized country in the world. There were invasions, wars and corruptions, but nothing to equal our Dark Ages, and the endless Wars of the Roses, among a hundred petty states.
But one has to notice that China was conquered by foreign tribes several times, principally the Mongols, who founded the Yuan Dynasty that Marco Polo encountered, and the Manchu, who became the Qing (or Ching.) The West's long dark age may have helped China drift along, becoming more and more sclerotic.
After the West got off its back and started the Industrial Revolution, China faced competition from us for the first time in millennia. Within fifty years the British had humbled China, and begun the era of Western domination. Once the Industrial Revolution arrived, change became the "only constant." Confucianism helped keep China rigid and it fell behind. You can't tell if a man is good by whether he obeys his father while his father is alive, Confucius actually says once. If, after the father dies, the son mourns for three years as ritual prescribes, and during that time still does "everything exactly as in his father's day, that is a good son indeed." (1.11) In the timeless pre-industrial agrarian world, China could survive like that, but once the industrial revolution started us on the road toward our current pace, that had to go. Go it did, but too late for China, which fell disastrously behind the West, and was brutally exploited by the European powers during the 1800s.
And as for "never disobey," that authoritarian attitude has had terrible costs as well. This morning, in Tienanmen Square, directly in front of Mao's tomb, I watched jackbooted troops doing showy exercises with machine guns. It is June, the sixth anniversary of the Tienanmen Massacre of the Beijing students, and the government has already arrested a group of people who made a silent demonstration there. These troops will use those machine guns, and the quiet circumspect people in the Square know it. I had taught in Beijing the summer before tienanmen, and students from the college where I taught were shot down. As I watched, trotting in formation like show horses, mouths set, eyes blank, the words went through my mind, "Never disobey! Never disobey!"
10. Confucianism compared to Western religion: this world, not the next
The West-- the Anglo Saxon West, in particular-- can be proud of its role in building democratic systems that greatly enlarged the number of humans who were perceived to have "human rights," work which we continue to pioneer. Asia admires us for it. The 1989 student rebels in Tienanmen Square constructed a giant replica of the Statue of Liberty. On the videotape of the massacre, you can watch it slowly, eerily fall, while the troops fire. (If philosophers like Richard Rorty really wanted to know what the West would be like without the Enlightenment they could come watch the soldiers trotting through Tienanmen Square.)
That said, we have much to learn from Confucius. His program for social reform by strengthening the families, by inculcating love of learning, and by working toward meritocracy is impressive and practical.
What he finds it possible to do without is also very intriguing. To begin with, Western philosophers from the Age of Reason till now have been startled by the Confucian ability to live without any interest in supernatural religious thought. He promises no afterlife and dislikes speculating about it. Confucius spoke as little as possible about ghosts and the supernatural (7:20) and when someone asked him about proper procedures for "serving" ghosts and spirits, Confucius only replied, "Till you have learned how to serve men, how can you serve ghosts?" -- a kind of shrug. (11.11) He assumes that humans, though their powers, can improve their life. In 500 B.C., as Marvin Nathan points out, that was a revolution in human thought: instead of gods, or even God, humans run the show. "The Master took four subjects for his teaching," the Analects records, and none of them is God or heaven: "culture, conduct of affairs, loyalty to superiors [that includes the family hierarchy, of course] and the keeping of promises." (7.24)
Confucianism has been justly called "religion," but it isn't one in the common Western sense, for we Judeo-Christians expect a "religion" to involve the supernatural. Confucianism is more what we would call a "system of values" and of "ethical behavior." The topic of the supernatural isn't left out, but it's avoided. Confucius himself is neither God nor prophet.
Just as people in the West may go to church yet observe many ancient superstitions (like erecting buildings with no 13th floor), the Confucian family exists in the middle of a great number of folk religious practices which are much older. Educated people may laugh at talk of ghosts and spirits, but people with peasant roots -- many of the people who came to America seeking opportunity-- carry on a great number of folk practices, together with their Confucian family values. There is nothing in Confucius about keeping a picture of the "kitchen god" in your kitchen, as the mother does in Amy Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife. The many folk gods have found a physical home in the obliging Taoist temples, though they have nothing to do with the classical Taoism of the Tao te Ching. The Baiyunguan, the central Taoist temple of Beijing, is crammed with doll-like of figures of the Jade Emperor and Suntse Nyang Nyang, the "Grandma who gives male children." The Western god is famously "jealous," as we know from the First Commandment, but in Asia-- as in classical Greece-- all the gods practiced co-existence, and you could patronize as many as you wished. At the Baiyunguan my sister-in-law places her money in the large glass tank, kneels on the cushion before the figure (who sometimes wears a beard made of real hair), "kow tows" (literally "kou-tou," "knees then head," in other words, she bows). When the monk, watching her, hits his gong, her prayer comes to the Jade Emperor's attention.
At the Confucian temple on the West side of town, the Kong Miao, there's none of that. No monks, no gongs, no prayers. Is "temple" even the right word? Early missionaries encountering what they called "temples" built to Confucius filled with people bowing before his statues projected the Western term "religion" onto Confucianism. Think, instead, of the Lincoln Memorial. People make family trips to this giant seated figure, get teary eyed in front of it, read reverently to their children his words carved onto the walls, and leave feeling somehow strengthened and rededicated to Lincoln's sacred ideals. A man (or woman) from Mars could easily confuse their behavior at the Memorial with religious "worship."
Now imagine if the government decided it would be good for the country if there were copies of the popular Lincoln Memorial in all our cities, perhaps inside a small walled park, where one could find a quiet place for reflection; and even a small library attached, where we could be re-inspired by Lincoln's writings. Not a bad idea, in fact. Such are the Confucian "temples" and such is the veneration in which East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia) holds Confucian values to this day. He has "temples" in most cities, often located next to a library or school.
11. Confucianism compared to Western religion: Humanism, not mysticism
The central East Asian philosophy then is humanist, not mystic. Americans studying China must take care to abandon the popular misconception (almost an article of faith among aging Hippies and the New Age) that China is more mystical or "spiritual" than the West. China's central current is humanist, practical, Confucian.
Confucius, far from being a mystic, is uninterested in matters beyond this life. He feels no need to speculate, with Jesus and Paul, about the origin of the universe or the end of time. Christians assume no one can live until they figure out Who made the world and whether we go anywhere after death. The Confucianists-- like the Old Testament Jews, who never speculated about life after death-- are perfectly satisfied with this life. Their whole interest is in how human beings can best get along while enjoying it.
For that reason, Confucius does share Jesus's interest in the "Golden Rule." In fact, he's more interested than Jesus, whose main concern is with the dawning Kingdom of God, not with how humans can best live together down here. Five hundred years before Jesus, the Rule appears no less than three times in the Analects, in a refined version with a typically practical moderate twist. Confucius carefully says, "Do not do to others what you would not like yourself." (12.2) He considers the Rule central: when asked if there were "any single saying that one can act upon all day and every day," Confucius replied, "Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you." (15.23)
Jesus will later say, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Why the slight difference from Jesus's version? Oscar Wilde had complained about Jesus's version, saying "Do not do to others what you would have them do to you! They may not have the same tastes!" Wilde would know. From that point of view, Jesus's version is overheated, intrusive. You decide what's good for everyone based on your own likes. One of Confucius' principles was "moderation" or "the Mean." (6.27) Confucius's carefully phrased version gets the most good out of the Golden Rule without sending you bustling out to impose yourself on everyone. That's typical of his careful, moderate, workable philosophy.
On the other hand, as polymath author Joel T. Smith points out, Jesus's version is "proactive," while the Confucian version is, by comparison, passive. Jesus acts; Confucius, too cautious, abstains. The Western ideal became the charismatic young preacher, Jesus, out and about challenging the world. The Eastern ideal became Confucius, who is always pictured old, and who said he had finally won control over his will only in old age. We might see, in these two archetypal figures, the Western preference for youth and action, and the Eastern preference for age and its cautious wisdom.
12. Confucius and Jesus: contrasting role models
The Westerner, comparing those two role models, must also wonder if Christianity accidentally predisposes us to weaker families, and thereby to Western loneliness, alienation and identity crises. The contrast between Jesus and St. Paul, on the one hand, and Confucius on the other, couldn't be starker. Look at the role modeling. Jesus famously rejects Mary and his family, in his eagerness to serve God. "Then his mother and his brothers arrived; they stayed outside and sent in a message asking him to come out to them. A crowd was sitting round him when word was brought that his mother and brothers were outside asking for him. 'Who are my mother and my brothers?' he replied. And looking round at those who were sitting in the circle about him he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'" (Mark 3:31-35) "His parents were astonished to see him there, and his mother said to him, 'My son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.' 'Why did you search for me?' he said. 'Did you not know that I was bound to be in my Father's house?'" (Luke 2:48-50)
If you accept Jesus as the Son of God, perhaps that needn't bother you. But the apostles are presented as ordinary people who rightly abandon all social and personal duties to serve Jesus. They're not praised as good fathers, good community members, dutiful sons, supportive husbands. On the contrary, they're praised for abandoning all those "ordinary" roles for supernatural goals. "Peter said, 'What about us? We left all we had to follow you.' Jesus said to them, 'Truly I tell you: thee is no one who has given up home or wife, brothers, parents, or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be repaid many times over in this age, and in the age to come have eternal life.'" (Luke 18:28-30) Ironically, one wing of feminism accuses Jesus of being a "patriarch," a term which means "rule by the fathers." We may say, if only he were a patriarch! Not only isn't Jesus a father, he pulls fathers out of their homes. Anyone unwilling to give up being a patriarch, unwilling to abandon "wife, brothers, parents, or children" is doomed. St. Paul, a notorious misogynist, reluctantly approved marriage, but said it would be better if everyone "kept under the body" and lived celibate like him: loving no wife, nurturing no child, comforting no aged parent. The end of the world was at hand. Nothing ordinary mattered anymore.
13. Confucius and Jesus: Pleasure and guilt
Christianity began with hostility to the pleasures and satisfactions of this life. Pleasure appears in the very first lines of the Analects as a normal human goal. "The Master said, To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learned, is that not after all a pleasure? That friends should come to one from afar, is this not after all delightful?" (1.1) By St. Augustine's time, the 300s, Christ's and St. Paul's tendency to look at this life as no more than a giant College Entrance Exam for the next life, had hardened into real hatred for "the world, the flesh and the devil." Christ had said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven, and the Sermon on the Mount is full of statements blessing the poor, the meek, the lowly. Passages like that led the German philosopher Nietzsche to write Christianity off as a sour-grapes religion for the underclass ("slave religion") which "transvalued the values," turned all their misery into virtues, as if they'd made some sort of noble choice to be poor and lowly. We in the West retain a nagging suspicion of "worldly" success. "Sure he's rich, but is he happy?" We feel guilty for wanting the good things in life and for envying those who have them.
One of the most attractive things about Confucianism, I think, is that it never "transvalues the values." Of course, you want to be rich and famous, Confucius says. It's natural. Relax. "Wealth and rank are what every man desire.... Poverty and obscurity are what every man detests." You may be poor, but Confucius (unlike Jesus) doesn't make you feel guilty on top of it, because you wish you weren't. The moral question isn't whether you want to be rich and famous-- that's only natural -- the moral question is, what are you willing to trade for it? "If wealth and rank can only be retained to the detriment of the Way he professes," the truly good man must "relinquish them." (4.5) And Confucius did.
Confucius's whole system deals with how you might go after wealth and honor without becoming someone you're ashamed of being, or someone who helps ruin life for everyone else. Confucianists have no problem with the Beatles making a million dollars by making a billion people happy. If you got your Rolls by serving a better burger, enjoy it! To Christians, this whole hearted enjoyment of innocently gotten gains can look suspect, materialist, "shallow." As if misery were "deeper" than happiness, Nietzsche notes with scorn.
In the end, someone comparing Western and Confucian philosophy, is struck by the absence of so many topics we consider problems. I suggest it may be a healthy absence.
Confucian philosophy believes that if you've got a job you like, a family that loves you, and you're able to afford to take care of your aged parents-- secure in the knowledge that you'll be cared for and respected in your turn-- not only will you be happy, but you'll be a productive member of society. And that's it. The personal and political are solved. Confucianism doesn't bother to speculate about the "afterlife" or "alienation," or the "meaning of life" or "identity" or "eschatology" or countless other Western philosophic "problems." The person described above isn't alienated, knows who he is, knows why he does what he does. Perhaps the great number of philosophic "problems" the West mulls over is a sign that we're asking the wrong questions. Historically, we started with the wrong assumptions about what we like and what would make us happy; perhaps because the Christians started with a life-despising philosophy remarkably indifferent to the worthwhileness of loving a spouse, nurturing a child, doing work you like, taking your place in the community. Perhaps our sense that life is "mysterious" and our sense that life is full of philosophic "problems" is nothing but a confession that we've failed to figure out what works. Confucius has the calm and simplicity of one who knows.
14. Summation: the global significance of the contemporary Asian American experience
As I hope I've shown, however, to take him whole would paralyze us, and cut us off from our great and successful tradition of extending human rights. Yet he knows so much -- and knows, it seems, exactly what we've paid too little attention to.
I would venture then that the Asian American communities are engaged, in their daily lives, in a project of world historical significance. It has fallen to them to try to salvage what works from the Asian system, and graft it onto what works from the Western American-- the wildest of the West-- discarding the worst from both. Their success in America (low divorce rates, high graduation rates, rising incomes) is early evidence that this new balance they've forged is a success.
The awesome project forced on Asian Americans -- the synthesis of East and West, of Confucius and feminism and the Statue of Liberty -- is the central topic of new Asian American literature and arts. For that reason, their literature and art has a global philosophic significance beyond its undoubted historic significance to American culture. The 21st century will be the era in which East and West shrunken together into a single global village, wired together by electronic nets and webs we cannot even image, will be forced into the work of synthesizing a global culture -- the work Asian Americans now pioneer. Further Reading: My quotations come from the unpoetic but faithful translation by Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius, New York: Random, 1989 reprint of New York: Macmillan, 1938. Waley's long introduction is dated, but still suggestive. My own article is indebted to Schwartz, Benjamin, The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U.P., 1985. Schwartz frequently takes issue with Fingarette, Herbert, Confucius: the Secular as Sacred, New York: Harper, 1972, another esteemed work. Marvin Nathan's introductory lectures on Confucius, long ago, also left their mark on my ideas, as have discussions with Joel T. Smith. D.C. Lau's admirable version of the Analects is easier reading than Waley's, but paraphrases more, so that it loses some accuracy. Long, useful introduction and helpful notes; much assigned. (New York: Penguin, 1979.) Serious students will want to own the facsimile edition of James Legge's pioneering work of scholarship, his 1893 version of the Analects and the Confucian classics, "The Great Learning" and "The Doctrine of the Mean." (New York,: 1971 facsimile of Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893 2nd revised edition.) Though badly dated, this inexpensive book, available in a Dover paperback, contains the Confucian text as Legge knew it side by side with his (fussy, Victorian) translation, and a running commentary on the terms and characters. Legge, an English missionary, went to the East in 1839, and was patronized by Joseph Jardine, one of the British robber barons who created Hong Kong. He published the first version of this book in 1861, so the 1893 revision has a lifetime's experience behind it.
Anyone interested in Chinese, or in a more advanced philosophic analysis which works with language should try A.C. Graham's Disputers of the Tao, which discusses Confucian philosophy with references to the senses of his terms. Useful works from the People's Republic of China, for those who want the Chinese characters and terms, are Analects of Confucius, a bilingual translation by Cai Xigin (Beijing: Sinolingua, 1994) and Chen Jingpan's Confucius as a Teacher (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1990 reprint of 1940).
The debt to my Western sources may be omitted from this article on Confucius, and was credited in my Into the Light of Things: the Art of the Commonplace from Wordsworth to John Cage, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1994. I will only mention Jack Miles' recent book God: a Biography, New York: Knopf, 1995; and my students in Humanities 345: Humanism and Mysticism, for many years. Returning to Confucius, my greatest debt has been to my wife, Simei, my brother in law, Prof. Y.F. Du, formerly of Beijing; to countless relatives (particularly my nieces Sarah Chan and Xiao Yan Huang-Lee) and to relatives and colleagues in Beijing, particularly the late and much missed Xianrong Shi; to this volume's contributors, whose articles I've been editing and discussing these last four years; and to years of Asian and Asian American students who responded to my lectures on East and West in their essays.
For nonpartisan discussions of U.S. Census statistics, see the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau's pamphlets; particularly America's Minorities: the Demographics of Diversity" Population Bulletin 47:4 Dec, 1992.