China's New Confucianism, by Daniel A Bell

Confucius says: more karaoke!

Justin Wintle
Friday 06 June 2008 00:00 BST

During the Cultural Revolution in China, Confucianism was one of "Great Helmsman" Mao's cherished hates. More recently – as Daniel Bell's book is keen to explore – Confucius has undergone rehabilitation, at least among China's chattering classes. Not since Mao's Little Red Book has any publication been as widely read as Yu Dan's account of The Analects. Confucius is again taught in Chinese universities.

Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, the government has even run a poster campaign urging the capital's denizens to display a Confucianesque "Olympic civility" towards foreigners. Civility – the hallmark of the Confucian "exemplary individual" – is the issue at stake as China seeks to fill the moral vacuum bequeathed by Mao. The new rich seek a return to "civil society" for their children (usually only one) and also for themselves. For Confucianism of course enshrines filial piety, or "respect" for the elderly. There are obvious benefits for the coming oldies from inculcating such time-honoured values among China's youngsters.

Bell, who teaches politics at Beijing's crack Tsinghua University, is well placed to comment on changing Chinese attitudes. He detects signs of a reviving interest in, and practice of, pre-communist traditions, whether in the lecture hall, in the streets, or inside karaoke bars. The latter especially attract Bell's attention. It is within the karaoke bar that the bonding properties of music – so beloved of Confucians – become manifest. If the hostesses offer sex as well as harmonious conversation, that too is as the Sage Master might wish. "I never met anyone," he told his 5th-century BC students approvingly, "who values virtue more than physical beauty."

Moreover (Bell argues) such arrangements, while providing profitable "employment opportunities" for the hostesses, also help preserve the family - the ultimate Confucian good. Husbands may err, but return to base soon enough. Health workers and feminists may grimace, but Bell has a sharp sense of cultural differences. What matters more to him than political correctness is China's political direction. He senses greater inclusivity ahead, though not a Western-type democracy. Dismissing Yu Dan for her lightweight reconfiguration of Confucianism as an inner quest, he prefers Jiang Qing, whose Political Confucianism is distinctly socialist while upholding the role that non-elected wise elders should play in China's governance.

Among the several entertaining surprises that Bell springs on us is an imaginary dialogue between Confucius and a modern, Americanised liberal philosopher. "Professor Hu" urges the Socratic method as a means towards "critical thinking", but Confucius is ready for him. The Socratic method places students too young to have acquired much knowledge under unnecessary stress, he ripostes.

China's New Confucianism wisely refrains from any grand schematic overview. Rather, this is an informed and thoughtful interim response to an important contemporary trend.

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