Last year I discussed Confucius with my Chinese teacher, who I knew simply as Wu Laoshi (“Teacher Wu”). In response to my question, “What would Modern China be like if Confucius had never lived?”, Wu Laoshi said “It’s impossible to imagine.” To my next question, “What would Confucius think about the state of Modern China?”, he replied, “He would certainly disapprove.” From this exchange we can glean two things: firstly, that Wu Laoshi is a man of few words; and secondly, that it is worthwhile to examine the paradox that lies at the heart of the enduring tradition of Confucianism. On the one hand Confucian ideology is, even to this day, “fundamental to the assumptions and actions of East Asians” (Oldestone-Moore, p. 21); but on the other hand it has been distorted – corrupted even; into a mere shadow of its former self. In this essay I will show that, despite retaining a surface-level resemblance, attitudes to the parent-child relationship in Communist China are fundamentally different to the original Confucian teachings. Furthermore, I will argue that this change should not necessarily be viewed as symptomatic of the moral decline of modern China, but simply as another example of the evolutionary process that is inevitable in any ancient ideology.
Confucius believed that relationships formed the basis of society, and at the heart of humanity lay the relationship between parent and child. One of the very first tenets of The Analects states, “A young man’s duty is to behave well to his parents at home and to his elders abroad” (Waley, p. 84). In essence, “behaving well” constitutes obedience, loyalty, and respect. Confucius termed this behaviour xiao, which is generally accepted to mean “filial piety” in English. Crucially, however, he also added that parents have a responsibility to be kind and nurturing to their children, and to provide “education, care, and moral formation” (Oldestone-Moore, p. 56). For Confucius, relationships gain their strength and stability through reciprocity; and if either party neglects their duties to the other, the very foundations of that relationship are destroyed. Furthermore, in any given relationship, both parties are required to act in a way that befits their status. Confucius introduced the concept of li, which can be loosely-translated as “the careful adherence to protocol”, as essential to the stability of relationships at every level of society, and, by extension, social harmony in general. In Book VIII of The Analects he states, “Courtesy not bounded by the prescriptions of ritual becomes tiresome. Caution not bounded by the prescriptions of ritual becomes timidity, daring becomes turbulence, inflexibility becomes harshness.” (Waley, p. 132)
So how do these attitudes to Family compare with those of Communist China today? At first glance they appear to be very similar. Children are still expected to obey their parents, even in matters that in western families may be considered open to discussion; for instance, what extracurricular activities to pursue and what to major in at university. It should be noted here that I am speaking in generalities and that there are certainly many exceptions to this rule, especially in the comparatively developed eastern provinces. However, after speaking with hundreds of Chinese students about this issue over a period of two years, it became clear that the parent-child dynamic is largely unchanged.
Children are also expected to care for their parents when they reach old-age, a fact that owes as much to the absence of a satisfactory welfare system as it does to the appeal of Confucius’ teachings. Of course parents are still the main providers for their children, but the responsibility of moral formation is now shared by a wider network of people, including grandparents and nannies. This has come as a result of the inclusion of women into the workplace that began with Chairman Mao’s declaration that “women hold up half the sky”. With this policy came a dramatic upheaval of familial traditions and values that still reverberates today. Including women in the workplace was a crucial factor in accelerating economic development, but it came at the cost of sacrificing part of the parent-child dynamic that Confucius valued so highly.
These changes are mostly circumstantial, but there have been other, more fundamental and ideological shifts in the modern Chinese family unit. The One Child Policy has created a generation of “Little Emperors”; children who have been spoiled by two parents and four grandparents with increasingly advanced financial means. These children, who mostly reside in urban areas of China, have grown up without any respect for the Confucian ethic of xiao (filial piety), nor that of li (proper conduct). Through taking and never giving, they have broken the cycle of reciprocity that, according to the Confucian tradition, should form the backbone of all human relationships. They also pose a serious threat to future social stability on a larger scale as, without living virtuously and with benevolence to others, they will never be fit to rule in the Confucian “Way”.
I have already noted that the majority of children still obey their parents in important matters, but the crucial difference is that now this obedience is enacted out of duty rather than sincere feelings of respect. In The Analects Confucius stated that “filial sons nowadays are people who see to it that their parents get enough to eat. But even dogs and horses are cared for to that extent. If there is no feeling of respect, wherein lies the difference?” The idea that children should want to look after their parents in old age is closely-related to the Confucian concept of ren, which is commonly taken to mean “kindness” or “benevolence”. For Confucius, merely going through the motions was not enough. For a relationship to be truly virtuous and strong, the respective duties of both parties must be carried out with genuine love and compassion for the other. To be clear, I am not implying that Chinese children do not possess love or respect for their parents – far from it – rather, I suspect that in many cases their acts of loyalty and obedience are performed in spite of, not because of, that love and respect. Again, I base this observation on personal experience with Chinese students, many of whom talked about honouring their parents’ wishes with an unmistakeable air of resentment.
In light of these changes to the parent-child relationship, it would be easy to fall into the trap of concluding that modern China, under communist rule, has lost its way. However, if we consider for a moment the development of Confucianism throughout the last two and a half thousand years, we can see that the current corruption of traditional values is nothing new. As early as around 300 BC, Confucian ethics started experiencing an overhaul when Han Feizi, a former student of Confucius’ successor Mencius, put forward his belief that not only were common people innately evil, but that there was no way they could be made good. Both of these views deviated dramatically from Confucius’, and led to the creation of an extremely harsh state that ruled by punishment and coercion. Confucianism was all-but forgotten during the Qin Dynasty, but experienced a resurgence during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) before being eclipsed by Buddhism and Daoism in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 906). A reinvented form of Confucianism known as “Neo-Confucianism” was prominent from AD 960 to AD 1644, but has been on the decline ever since. Under Mao, Confucianism was declared a symbol of China’s imperial and feudal past, and thus an enemy of the people and their revolution. In fact, it is only in the very recent past, as the rest of the world has begun taking more of an interest in China and its traditions, that the image of Confucius as a great sage, gentleman, and scholar, has been reintroduced.
In addition to the ebb and flow of Confucianism’s popularity over time, each of the successive rulers to have implemented its ideology has “constructed personae for him (Confucius) that have best suited their own personal needs and political agendas” (McArthur, p. 2). Therefore, when we speak of the corruption of Confucian values in modern society, it is important to make it clear which version of those values we are talking about. If we are talking about the original values as compiled and written down by Confucius’ followers a hundred years after his death, then we must not overlook the severity with which those values were upheld. For example, in order to protect the stability of the parent-child relationship, Chinese law permitted fathers to kill a disobedient child (Oldestone-Moore, p. 98). Is that something we would like to see in modern society? Would that be a welcome return to virtuous tradition? If, on the other hand, we take as our point of reference a more recent and humane incarnation of Confucianism, then we are forced to acknowledge that we are idealising the philosophy of a manipulative and power-hungry ruling elite.
Wu Laoshi was absolutely right when he said that it is impossible to imagine what modern China would be like if Confucius had never lived. The hierarchical structure and system of reciprocity that he insisted should define the parent-child relationship are still visible today, though in significantly altered forms. Where Confucius would disapprove is the ever-diminishing role of ren and li in holding this relationship together. Therefore, the Confucian parent-child relationship has changed not in form but in theory. The motivations that drive these relationships have changed along with social conditions, from love and respect to duty and self-interest. We should not, however, take this to mean that China is experiencing moral decline. Instead, we should see it simply as China adapting its traditional ideologies to fit with social and political change. It’s the reason why we don’t still sell our daughters as slaves, why we don’t put to death anyone who works on the Sabbath, and why we don’t call sex between two men an abomination. Oh wait…
McArthur, Meher: Confucius: A Throneless King (2011)
Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer: Confucianism (2002)
Waley, Arthur: The Analects of Confucius (1989)