William Steig (1907-2003) was an American cartoonist. The cartoon that I like best showed a sad-looking man juggling a number of small balls. The caption read, “Most of the time I’m alone with my ritual.” I think I once encountered the living prototype of this cartoon character. I sat across the table from him at an academic conference. As soon as he was seated he took out all the objects in his jacket and trouser pockets—reading glasses, ballpoint pen, pocket diary, cell phone, some loose pieces of paper, wallet, clean handkerchief, keys on a key chain and, separately, car keys, English and Swahili pocket dictionary. He put all the objects in a line in front of him. He seemed troubled, kept looking up as if waiting for instructions, then re-ordered the objects on the table in a different sequence. That’s all he did repeatedly during the session, never said anything, and finally put everything back in his pockets and left the room.
I can claim no expertise on Confucianism, but I have wondered for a while whether some recent actions of the Chinese government can be explained in terms of Confucian rather than Marxist thought. So here goes. President Xi Jinping of China has taken some steps to re-institute the study of Marxist ideology in the Communist Party, including “scientific atheism.” Young party members are encouraged to sing the songs of the Cultural Revolution and stage the performances of its propaganda machine (“The East is Red”). The situation is changing with regard to official religion policy, though that policy varies from province to province. Thus in one province Christian crosses and other highly visible religious symbols were forcibly removed, while less conspicuous symbols were left undisturbed. President Xi has spoken favorably about religious traditions deeply indigenized in Chinese culture—Taoism, Buddhism—as contrasted with Christianity and Islam. Taoism is a rather obvious case for Xi’s preference, Buddhism less so (given its affinity with Tibetan “splittism”). I think it is correct to say that the regime cannot quite make up its mind, especially about Protestantism. The obvious problem with Catholicism is its foreign headquarters. The case of Protestantism is more complicated as seen from Beijing: On the one hand, the Protestant ethic is supposed to be good for modern economic development—something that Beijing fervently wants. (Some six years ago, when I had a conversation with the head of SARA, the State Administration for Religious Affairs, housed in what used to be the palace of an imperial concubine, he startled me by mentioning Max Weber’s view of Protestantism.)
On the other hand, Communist functionaries, then and now, are well aware of the role played by Protestants in agitating for human rights and democracy—something not wanted at all by the Party. This role is still important in Hong Kong, South Korea, and other uncomfortably close-by places. I will make the assumption that President Xi is a very intelligent politician, free of Marxist ideology, who recognizes that it can be used at times as li (ceremony) to legitimate the only thing that truly interests him—the continuing monopoly of power by the Communist Party—without giving credence to the empirical presuppositions of its absurd “theory.” Ceremony will not be allowed to interfere with the cold interests of Confucian statecraft. Everything will depend on how those interests are perceived at any given time. Come to think of it, politicians in Western democracies have an intuitive understanding of the relation between power interests and the symbolism of ceremony—as when Nancy Pelosi a few days ago said that Democrats should become a bit more flexible on the issue of abortion in order to win back the white working-class people who were wooed away by Donald Trump’s “populism,” or when Evangelicals voting for Trump despite his alleged lechery fell back on the old ritual of Christian forgiveness (after all, none of us is perfect and all of us sinners must be washed in the blood of Jesus).
I’m quite confident that Confucianism in its early history understood li as not just symbolizing the cosmic order but as maintaining and altering it. For example, if drought was caused by the failure of seasonal rains to appear at the appointed time, the imperial court had rituals at hand to force the rains to do what they were supposed to do. Ritual has the purpose of maintaining and restoring the tao, the proper cosmic order, in what we call nature, the political order, the family, the built-up world (architectural ritual), the human body (traditional Chinese medicine). A special multifunctional ritual is the taichi, well described as a meditational dance, in which human bodies direct their spiritual power into the real world. Confucianism rested on the foundations of the much older magical worldview of Chinese folk religion and the separate cult of Taoism. Confucianism, the product of a cultural elite, tempered the cruder magical aspects of the earlier worldview. It is some 300 years older than the Common Era by which we organize time. It should not surprise that the original worldview brought forth different, sometimes contradictory schools of thought.
Two important Confucian offsprings were the schools of Yun Kuang (a.k.a. Xunzi) and Mengzi (called Mencius in the West). Both sprang up during the turbulent period of the Warring States (c. 313-228 BCE). They differed in their views of how human nature relates to the cosmic order. Mencius had a more optimistic view, of a sort of natural law inscribed in all human beings. There is the most famous parable of Mencius: Even the most hardened criminal, coming upon a toddler playing perilously close to a ravine, will have the impulse to pull the child back into safety. An orderly state can be built on this beneficent human nature. Xunzi had a more pessimistic view of human nature, even when it is faced with the endangered toddler. After all, there are evil men who enjoy their capacity to hurt an innocent child. And some men will want to know whether the child belongs to their own tribe, or the enemy tribe on the other side of the lake. Xunzi has been called the founder of the legalistic school: One cannot rely on social order to be directly built on li, meaning the natural law in the hearts of Mencius’s compassionate criminal. One must have positive law to establish and enforce the proper order. This li supports the state, which is itself the source of law. If my idea of Marxism serving the Communist state has any validity, that is certainly an application of Xunzi’s pessimistic legalism, far removed from Mencius’ belief in the inherent goodness of men.
Tu Weiming has been in the forefront of the recent revival of Confucian thought in the United States and China, and elsewhere as well. This school of thought has produced an impressive package of scholarship, but for Tu and some others it has gone beyond objective scholarship to an affirmation of a Confucian faith. After teaching Chinese philosophy at Harvard for many years Tu became director of the newly established Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. Though he moved to Beijing Tu retained a tie with Harvard, and continued to be both an expositor and an advocate of Confucianism. Over the years Tu has strongly criticized the widespread view that Confucianism is not a religion but only a system of social and political ethics.
Tu argued that a much more profound humanism can be based on a cosmology of interconnectedness between the human world and all other worlds. He was critical of the modern worldview in which man is alienated from all these connections. Beginning in 1956 Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) started gigantic project—a philosophy of history as a huge move from compactness to differentiation, away from the kind of cosmology which Tu admired. The first three volumes came out quickly, dealing with the ancient Near East and classical Greece, each of which broke up the primordial unity through what Voegelin called “leaps in being.” The original project intended to cover all the great civilizations, including China and Rome, and conclude with the modern world. Voegelin was a genius, but the project was too much even for him. It was never finished, but it placed the Chinese case in a very different conceptual scheme than Tu’s—and, I think, a more balanced one. Tu and I got into a rather sharp debate (though we always remained friends): I said that I had a big stake in the alienation he deplored, but which I valued as the precondition of individual freedom.
It is many years ago since I first landed in Chinese territory, though it was not on the mainland (that came somewhat later) but in Taiwan, at the beginning of my series of East Asian discoveries. It was also my first experience of the distinctive trans-Pacific jetlag. I arrive in Taipei barely conscious, took a taxi to my hotel, and promptly fell asleep. Of course I awoke early, went to the window and had my first glimpse of a prototypical Chinese scene. I looked out at the large hotel garden. About twenty elderly men and women were doing something I had never seen before. In the faint light of early dawn the little group went silently through the graceful movements of the taichi. I was very impressed and said to myself—“Oh my God, I am in China!”