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Book Review: 'China's New Confucianism' by Daniel A. Bell

May 30, 2008

The renowned political philosopher writes on the revival of
Confucianism transforming Chinese politics and society.
By Michael Levitin
The Los Angeles Times
May 25, 2008

"China's New Confucianism"
Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society
Daniel A. Bell
Princeton University Press: 258 pp., $26.95

Last fall, on the eve of Confucius' birthday (Sept. 28) and the
International Confucius Culture Festival, I visited several of
China's 2,000 Confucian temples, including a palatial complex in
Qufu, the sage's hometown, one of the three great examples of
classical Chinese architecture. What struck me in conversation with
the locals was not how much they revered their ancient philosopher
but how practical his teachings have become in hypercapitalist China.

This revival is the subject of political philosopher Daniel A. Bell's
trenchant and surprisingly personal "China's New Confucianism." Bell
was the first foreigner hired since the Cultural Revolution to teach
humanities at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University; one of the
few Western professors in the country, he enjoys a unique
outsider/insider perspective. His book ties the resurgence of a
Confucian ethics rooted in self-examination and a moral social order
to the changes overtaking China's political structure. And it reveals
Bell's own journey of self-discovery, as he embraces those kernels of
Confucian principle that steer him toward "the good life" as teacher,
father, husband and long-term foreign resident in China.

Evidence of a Confucian comeback is everywhere: in the boom in
secondary-school and university courses on Confucian classics and in
"an explosion of conferences and books on Confucianism." Yu Dan's
self-help-styled "Reflections on the 'Analects' of Confucius" (2006),
for example, has sold more than 10 million copies and attracted more
literary attention, Bell jokes, than anything since Mao's Little Red
Book. Spacious, family-oriented "Confucian" architecture is on the
rise. And the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and cultural
center, had 140 campuses in 36 countries as of mid-2007.

Bell's book, which grew out of a series of essays in Dissent, is
written in a loose, conversational tone and peppered with pithy
sayings of Confucius. ("Do not impose on others what you yourself do
not want"; "Filial and fraternal responsibility is the root of
humanity and compassion.") Focusing on a few examples -- the humane
attitude toward karaoke-club prostitution, efforts to tame
nationalism and improve sportsmanship in advance of the Olympics, a
more balanced relationship between employers and the 120 million
migrant workers -- Bell shows that the 6th century BC philosopher is
an ever more useful guide for dealing with the complexities
confronting modern China. Communist Party officials are judged by
adherence to such Confucian values as filial piety and family
responsibility (many dye their hair black, because Confucius teaches
that white-haired people shouldn't have to work).

Bell debunks such stereotypes as the totalitarian control of
intellectual discourse and encourages his readers to resist judging
China by Western values -- namely, democracy and human rights.
"[T]here is no reason to expect that China will -- or should -- have
the same set of moral and political priorities when it engages with
other countries," he writes. Confucius taught that government's first
obligation is to secure the people's basic subsistence and only
afterward to address the individual's rights. "The idea that certain
rights can be sacrificed for the sake of enriching the people is not
nearly so controversial in China," he argues. "If there's a conflict
with liberal democratic theory, the problem may lie with liberal
democratic theory."

At the core of Bell's book is his speculation on the long-term
effects of the Confucian revival. China under Mao assumed a Legalist
policy (strong state sovereignty, harsh laws) that helped restore its
global footing. One reason Mao's brand of Marxism worked was that it
incorporated elements of Confucian self-criticism, emphasizing that
"demands should be directed at oneself before being directed at
others." But as the gulf between rich and poor widens and
social-justice issues such as the chaos in Tibet threaten the
Communist Party framework, "new left" intellectuals envision the
eventual replacement of Marxist ideology with something like a
Confucian socialist republic. China's drive toward economic growth
may be fueling political control, Bell notes, but "hardly anybody
really believes that Marxism should provide guidelines for thinking
about China's political future." What next? "It is not entirely
fanciful to surmise that the Chinese Communist Party will be
relabeled the Chinese Confucian Party in the next couple of decades."

The book is not without faults: Its author tends to meander off
subject and fails to provide basic background on the historical
impact of Confucius' teachings. But Bell compensates with lively,
original chapters, like the Socratic dialogue between a modern-day
Confucius and an "American-trained Chinese liberal thinker" who
debate the virtues of meritocracy. In a prescient chapter titled
"War, Peace, and China's Soft Power," Bell explores the teachings of
Mencius, a founding father of Confucian thought, whose condoning of
war only if it is morally justified still informs China's tempered
approach to foreign policy. "Confucian theorizing on just and unjust
war has the potential to play the role of constraining China's
imperial ventures abroad," he writes. Frequent reference to America's
Iraq debacle makes clear who his intended audience is. *

Michael Levitin is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.
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