'Confucianism' and China - Transcript

Duration of podcast: 00:36:34

Interviewer: S

Interviewee: J


S: Welcome to the Nordic Asia podcast a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region.

My name is Satoko Naito and I'm a docent at the Centre for East Asian studies at the University of Turku in Finland.


S: Today it's my pleasure to welcome Doctor Jyrki Kallio of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. He's a senior research fellow specializing in Chinese foreign policy and East Asian Regional issues with expertise also in Chinese political culture and traditional philosophy. He has translated several Confucian classics including the two I believe most canonical texts; The analects and Mencius. Thank you very much Jyrki for joining me today.


J: Thank you, it's my pleasure.


S: Thank you. A few months ago, you were on an episode of this podcast to discuss China-Finland relations with Andreas Bøje Forsby of the Nordic Institute of Asian studies. You spoke about Finland as maintaining a largely pragmatic relationship with Xi Jinping's China, including through fruitful economic relations.

S: But now you're back to talk about Confucianism. So my first question to you really is from a place of true awe and admiration; how did you come to develop your current expertise in both contemporary Chinese foreign policy and classic Chinese thought?


J: I guess that is a good question that would come to the mind of many. And first of all, I have to say that I don't consider myself an expert in classical Chinese philosophy. It's a huge field and there's a lot to learn, every day. And I still feel like I'm in in in the middle of the learning process. And actually, my interest to-wards the Confucian Classics so that I even started translating them started from my need and desire to learn more to understand more about Confucianism.


J: Because I've been following China for a very long time. Before I entered The Finnish Institute of international Affairs about 10 years ago, I was working for the Finnish Foreign Ministry for about 18 years as a career diplomat. I was working mostly on China. And then when I joined the FIIA.


J: I realized that, I was looking at China but there's a lot of Confucian phrases being used by the Chinese leaders, for example Hu Jintao and his héxié shèhuì, The Harmonious Society, inserted into the, into the rhetoric. I visited the Shanghai Expo in 2010. I noticed there was a film that shown to all Chinese participants who entered the China Pavilion at the exhibition.


J: Which was all about harmonious society and what it means, and it was all explained through Confucian quotations. Then I thought that I really need to understand: are the Chinese leaders quoting correctly, do they understand what they’re talking about, are they trying to perhaps utilize the words of the sages in a particular way or what? Then I realized I need to learn more about Confucianism myself. My understanding certainly at that was rather shallow.


J: Since I have been doing translating from classical Chinese, Guwen ghuanzi before that. I knew that's the best way of really getting into text and really understanding is translating it because then you really have to think what the different think about the terminology and really try to understand yourself before you can then explain to the to the readers what it what it means.


J: So that's how it started. I published my translation of The Analects, the Lun Yu, in 2014. And that same year, actually at that time when the book was in print, I was in Beijing participating at the conference of the International Confucian Association.


J: It's huge conference at the opening ceremony which was held actually at the Great Hall of the people in Beijing. Xi Jinping delivered the opening address. so then I realized I am really onto something.


S: I see, thanks, that’s fascinating. I would love to hear more about how the CCP is using Confu-cian rhetoric. But first, for the basics: aside from The Analects and Mencius, in readings of early modern Japanese history, so 17th-19th centuries, with regards Confucianism , I often come across the Four Books and the Five Classics. but is it just one way of grouping the texts. What exactly are the Confucian classics?


J: Again, there are no easy answers to any other questions relating to Confucianism. Although, many text-books like to say “okay these particular five for instance of the Confucian virtues, these particular four or five or 13 or whatever are the Confucian Classics” and so forth. But there have been different lists and categorizations over different times. Already in the earliest followers of Confucius they start to mention


J: five books, which referred to books that either Confucius himself knew or supposedly knew. I don't know if he actually had any of these you know books, they were all at that time they would have been consisting of huge scrolls of bamboo sticks bound together. And they would have been very rare and very expensive, and Confucius was very poor for most of his life at least.


J: But anyway, the certainly does quote Songs, Histories and Rites so these are the three of the five Classics that Confucius knew himself to an extent. And then there are two other books that are supposedly have been compiled by Confucius: The Spring and Autumn Annals, which is the history of the state of Lu which was the home state of Confucius.


J: And then there is the Book of Music as well. But that has been lost. During the Han Dynasty, since the Book of Music has been lost the place of the fifth classic was taken over by Yi Jing , the Book of Changes which I don't personally believe that Confucius had any interest towards. But during the Han dynasty it was very popular, it was fashionable to study the Book of Changes.


J: And so, it was it was said that Confucius also compiled some commentaries for that so that then became part of the five books. The sort of the Confucian canon the most important Confucian books, it started to grow overtime in addition to the five books.


J: then later also Mencius and Confucius’s own, or compiled by his disciples, The Analects, became important books as well. The Canon grew to 13 books by the Song dynasty.


J: And there's a Neo-Confucianism just as you rightly said Zhu Xi, and before him already some other Neo-Confucians, felt that among these 13 classics, there are four that are more important than others. Those would have been the Analects and Mencius but also two chapters of the larger compilation of the Rites called Daxue or TaiShie, The Great learning.


J: And Chungqiu Or Tsungjun which has been translated in many different ways. And it's really debatable what the title of that book means. That was the set of four books that really became the most important for the rest of the Chinese Imperial era, around 1100s.


J: Then there are other books of course that are outside the Canon but are still very important for the development and understanding of Confucianism, such as the Xunzi. He unlike Mencius who has the Latinized name. In Chinese he is Mengzhi.


J: Xunzi was a contemporary of Mencius just, just a bit later, probably was born around the time when Mencius died and his book is the second significant work of an early follower of Confucius, but it never got the position as in the Confucian canon.


J: That's why it was never given a Latinized name because when the Jesuits were in China, you know, they only knew Mencius, nobody was talking about Xunzi because that was condemned at that time as an unorthodox take on Confucius. But in reality, Xunzi was very influential during the Han Dynasty and early Chinese Imperial era.


J: Because Xunzi, although you know he was very much a follower of Confucius, he was also a realist and his political thought was such that the later prime minister of the first emperor of Qin, Minzhu, was one of his students. Also, Han Fei who was who was one of the most famous philosophers of the so-called Legalist school.


J: He was also Xunzi's student. So, his ideas were really very important because he was promoting the kind of more down-to-earth practical philosophy than Mencius for instance. But he has been later by Zhu Xi the Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi among others, he was condemned as a as an unorthodox thinker and that's why his writings were not accepted as a part of the canon.


J: It's also interesting when we talking about the Confucian canon—sorry, like you can see I can go on for long, were these things there was a compilation of the Confucian classics that was put together during the Tang Dynasty.


J: And interestingly enough It contains Daodejing and Zhuangzi in the selection. So there was no clear borderline early on between the different schools of thought. And it was only later on that it became more important to differentiate Confucianism from the other schools of thought, for instance Daoism and then later on with religions like Buddhism.


S: So, as you said, nothing to do with Confucianism is very simple. I think even the term Confucianism could be problematic, for some, because already Mencius, who was a couple of generations after Confucius, there are changes, or developments, at least in emphasis, in his writings. But if you could distil the Analects, what are the most significant tenets of Confucius’s Confucianism, if we can call it that?


J: First of all it is very right but you said that if the Confucianism as a term it's very problematic. Of course, it's a term used outside of China. In China itself there's another term which refers to Confucianism. But it was a term that pre-existed, predates Confucianism and existed before Confucius. Confucius was a Jū himself. Right, but that's another point


J: We can perhaps you know discuss another time, but the main tenets Confucius and his teachings, I think he was very much concerned of making an impact in the society of his time. And he was gathering disciples, students, who he hoped would then become functionaries, civil servants, or advisors to the rulers and help to guide, direct the development of the society towards the kind of ideals that Confucius himself felt that


J: were necessary. Now, these ideals he himself always said that he did not create, he only transmitted. So, he was using these examples from ancient history.


J: But of course, he's being modest on one hand, and being very shrewd on the other hand because of course he was interpreting history in the way that he wanted to interpret history. So he was very much creating, he was creating the kind of idealized past that never probably existed. And one example of how he did this is I think one of his main innovations, and that has to do with the with the term Junzi, which we usually would translate as nobleman or gentleman.


J: We can come back to why we are always talking about men later, but that was Confucius’ society. Any-way it's a term that in its original meaning that still comes forth in many texts contemporary to Confucius. It’s “prince”, son of a ruler, and he made that term suddenly refer to everybody. So that everybody should aim to become prince in a mental way. Of course you can't be born a prince but you can become as noble as a prince was supposed to be. And so he make this this very concrete term into an abstract ideal.


J: That was, I would say this very revolutionary. Because suddenly then he was so, you know, giving this Junzi of the becoming a prince as an ideal to everybody who is not of noble birth. And that has to do with, that brings us to finally perhaps to your question, which is what is the main tenets of Confucius’ teaching. And that is that he was really encouraging his followers to, through learning, and through following teach-ers, to become enlightened persons.


J: Such persons who would be able to then judge what is right and what is wrong by themselves so that they would not need to be told by someone else, you know, how one should live a good life, and then to use that knowledge to become a gentleman, to become a nobleman, who would then through his own example guide the society towards the direction where more and more people would also follow those same ideals. So I think that is the main tenets of Confucius it was really all about personal enlightenment.


S: I see. Is that why Confucianism or Confucius’ thoughts are often described as being humanist.


J: That is probably one reason, but again When I was translating Mencius, I realized how much later Confu-cianism is really influenced by Mencius. He has really been much more influential and many of the things that we today would understand as Confucian, they really come from Mencius for the first time. And this humanism, this ideal is much more strong in Mencius because he was the one who was then saying that the rulers should take the well-being off of the population of the of the people in account. He was the one who was saying that


J: that if the ruler is a is unjust, then the people have the right to overturn such a such a ruler, such a ruler does not deserve the trust of the people. So, there are many things actually that come much stronger forth in Mencius. There’s also such a thing as a different societal roles of people. Confucius was he was very strong and saying that we should follow propriety, the old ways the rites and rituals.


J: But it was again Mencius who make that into a much more sort of a stricter, who then sort of explained what that really means in terms of how people live, and he was the one who was then saying that every-body should know really behave in their own role. Husband should be a husband, wife should be a wife, father should be father, son should be son, ruler should be ruler, minister should be minister and so forth.


J: It is mentioned by Confucius, but it was really Mencius who really brought this idea most strongly, much more strongly to the forefront of Confucianism.


S: Okay. So this leads us to a question I’ve had about Confucianism and that’s the kind of ten-sion, between what you mentioned earlier—that anyone could become a gentleman or a nobleman, you can work your way up, you don’t need to be born into a certain class—the basis of the civil service exam system—so on the one hand, you have this kind of meritocracy, and on the other, you have em-phasis on what you just mentioned, on people having to adhere to rules, and certain status within soci-ety. So am I simplifying it by thinking that these are conflicting notions, of merit-based versus inherent-ly hierarchical systems? Or is it just about Confucius vs Mencius?


J: There is, you're quite you're absolutely right in thinking that there is an internal conflict there. It's a conflict that that was present from the very early times. Confucius was very strongly in favour of choosing the able people into office, to the extent that there has been some very early Confucian texts that have been unearthed from a grave in the 1990s the so-called Queding Corpus, which is very interesting because it reveals the discussion that was ongoing, and this probably predates Mencius, even.


J: There's a discussion going on which seemed to suggest that the right way of giving the throne, the rulership of a country. Would be to give that to the able, to the most able person not to your male descend-ant.

J: This of course changed when China became an empire, the Han Dynasty took power and all that, and then then this sort of became natural that it always should be the oldest male heir that should get the throne. But that probably you now if Confucius had been alive at that time, he might have objected to that to that thought. Mencius, he was already living at the time when the society was changing, and he was he was already seeing that you know that's the way that things are.


J: And so, he was sort of creating a set of thought where the Son Of Heaven, as a ruler, his position is hereditary. But it's not really hereditary as such, it's because of the heaven gives that person be that the right to rule. So he was sort of then giving the, sort of putting the responsibility for this, and claiming the heaven for creating this system. At the same time, when it came to civil servants and people below the ruler,


J: then it should be their ability that that that would be the defining factor on who is chosen into office and who is not. But at the same time, Confucius was very strongly saying that everybody has to become a per-son who is, you know, able to define right and wrong himself.


J: Again, he was not talking about women so we can't really say “herself” in this in this context. But Menci-us felt that yes, that's true, but at the same time, societal order needs people to behave in certain roles, in certain times, and that means that even though a minister knows what is right and wrong and he has the responsibility to advise the lord to do what is right.


J: Nevertheless, he has to obey and be loyal to do the ruler. A son must tell his father that his father is about to commit a mistake but still the son must obey the father in the final sort of the that has to be the end result. There was this conflict from the from the very early times on and then when we come to the later Imperial Confucianism, when the Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty emperors tried to make Confucianism fit, or sort of to make it digestible for the common people,


J: so they created this set of very strict rules into which Confucianism was supposed to be sort of potted, and those put a strong emphasis in the societal roles and for people knowing their place. And this is what has been called vulgar Confucianism by scholars, is something that really made Confucianism into this kind of a straight jacket.

S: I see.


J: When we jump into the revolutions in China in the early nineteen-hundreds, people, the revolutionists, the Republicans, they were accusing Confucianism as being the, you know, the most important reason of why China is so backward, and unable to develop, and why the society is so ossified in following old ways. They were saying that is because of Confucianism but in reality that is


J: the blame goes to this vulgar Confucianism, the attempts of the Ming and Qing Emperors to make Confucianism into something that's it originally I would say was not.


S: I see. I definitely hope to return to discuss the 20th century and current state of China and Confucianism, but now, because, you've already mentioned this a couple times, about the women problem, the lack of mention of noblewomen or gentlewomen as you’ve said earlier. Really, one com-mon criticism of Confucianism is its close association with patriarchal oppression, let’s say. Can you address this issue, what do you make of the absence of women in these early texts?


J: Yes, there's no way of denying that Confucius himself and his early followers and for a very long time majority of Confucians, they would have been very male-centric and proponents of the patriarchal society that If one wants to be sort of lenient towards them then one has to understand that they were just, Confucius was interested in the betterment of society, he wanted to have people in office that would follow his ideals the ideals that he said and then make the make the.


J: Make the world a better place. But in his time, it was a male-centered society, so he was talking to other men, particularly men of his own social stratum, the so called shi, the knights, that then later became called scholar-officials. So that was his main audience, and it is sort of natural than that he would not talk about women or to women, because women had no place, or no role to play in the society at that time.


J: But then there have been already during the Han Dynasty, there was a female historian who actually followed in the footsteps of his[her] brother and took over the work as a historian who wrote one very influential book about how women should behave.


J: And she, on the one hand she repeated the same kind of thoughts that were prevalent during her time, that women should be obedient and sort of subject to the master, which would be, you know, the father or the husband or elder brother, but always the male in the family. But at the same time she was also questioning why would only male children be allowed education.


J: She actually quotes the Rites. And she says that there it says that children of the age of seven or so should start to learn to read and write, it does not say men, so why should women be left outside of this? So you know she was in this regard as she was a very revolutionary and there’ve been other Confucian thinkers, male thinkers, who have also been discussing about the role of women and reminding people that really you know why should women be left out and particularly when looking at Confucianism in present day.


J: I myself would have no doubt that if Confucius were to write today, he would of course see the world as it is today and then you know. Look at things very differently.

J: yeah


S: Right. Of course as you say always putting things in historical context in this societal context is important. The historian that you mentioned, I'm going to say her name very badly, is it Ban Zhao?

J: Yes, exactly Ban Zhao yes.


S: She’s very influential also in early modern Japan, she is often included in collections of stories of exemplary women. And Mencius and Confucius also both appear, but as sons of other exemplary women,within these collections of stories about exemplary women. So these mothers were both young widows, and spent all of their energy to educating their sons. So at least the mothers of Confucius and Mencius, in later retellings of their lives, are praised and idolized, quite widely.


S: I would finally like to return to the issue of the contemporary Chinese Communist Party and this kind of Confucian Revival. Previously, under Mao, any kind of discussion of Confucius was condemned, but now, Confucianism is really officially embraced, as you mentioned. But in my understanding, Confucian-ism really does not seem to adhere to Marxist-Leninist thinking. How do you see the government incorporating Confucianism into their party ideology?


J: It's a fascinating thing to watch what is happening in China. And in this regard now this whole Confucian Revival, there’s been a lot of studies about it, and really it's a very multi-faceted phenomenon. But I guess the main sort of the driving force behind the Communist party for promoting traditional values, and in particular Confucianism again, has to do with the fact that there's a realization in China that there's a spiritual ideological vacuum.


J: Communism is no longer workable as an ideology because the society is no longer Communist. So, they are trying to promote these traditional values as a basis from on basis of which it would be possible to build a new national ideology for China. I think it’s something that is very much an ongoing process.


J: But while they are, and one factor behind this is that the Communist party is adamant in saying that there are no such things as universal values, such as human rights. China should have the right to create its own set of values on the basis of the rich Chinese cultural tradition. So, it's also very patriotic to try to promote these traditional Chinese schools of thought and try to create something Chinese instead of this these universal values.


J: Now whilst the Communist party is doing that, of course they have to be very selective. There are things in Confucian thought that are not applicable to communism or socialism at all. For instance, when I was done translating Mencius, I was I was asked by Finnish radio of a couple of times that, you know, what would Mencius have to say about today's China? And my answer was that he would be pleased with some things, such as it seems that the people, you know, their livelihood has improved, the country is stable, its united - unity was very important for Mencius.


J: But he would not be happy about the Communist Party dictating people of how to think. Because in Confucianism, it is very important that the people should learn to understand by themselves, through personal enlightenment, what is right and wrong and not to be dictated by the Party to decide whether something was right or wrong.

J: And since the Party, sort of, it started the revival, at the same time, there's been a lot of happening at the grassroots level as well.


J: First of all, there's a very lively discussion going on in China about what is Confucianism all about, what are its main tenets, and it’s not an easy question to answer for anybody. But it's really fascinating to see that discussion is ongoing in China because many people, they do doubt that the Communist party, you know, should have the monopoly in deciding what Confucianism is and how it should be interpreted.


J: Then there are these all kinds of other grassroot phenomena as these Confucian Sunday schools, as I would call them. Parents send their children to study, to learn by heart, Confucian classics over the week-ends or summer holidays because they believe that, you know, these old ways, there's something good about them that makes children perhaps behave better. Or I don't know, but it's also very interesting, so there are very many different kinds of things happening at the same time.


S: Right. I wish we could keep going, but unfortunately we’re limited in time. Confucianism is, as we’ve discussed, not simple, it’s endlessly fascinating and continues today to exert influence obviously in China as well as East Asia and beyond. Thank you for your insights today, Jyrki.

J: Why it's my pleasure again. So thank you,


Thank you again. That was Jyrki Kallio, and to our listeners, thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration and studying Asia.