Can the world save Confucianism?

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Thursday June 12, 2014

At a recent public forum on the topic "Can Confucianism Save the World?" Prof Joseph Chan, Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong reflected that we should first ask if “The world can save Confucianism?”

Confucian philosophy is a code of conduct based on ethics and morality and is not a religion. When his student Zi Lu asked him about spiritual matters, Confucius’ response was: if one is not able to serve man, how can serve spirits. Confucius’ philosophy is about conduct and inter-relationships between people or 仁 . Jesus who came 500 years after Confucius added a vertical dimension, a relationship with God. Confucius did not make any claims of being God.

Whilst Christianity was spread through the institution of the church and missionaries, the teachings of Confucius were promulgated in schools and from parent to child, from generation to generation. Confucian philosophy formed the basis of the millennia-old Chinese civil service examination until it was abolished by the Dowager Empress Cixi in 1905. For centuries, Confucian precepts have formed the unwritten code of conduct in Asian cultures in China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea.

The consequence of banning Confucian ideology in China during the cultural revolution was a cessation in the propagation of Confucian precepts. In many other Asian countries today, the transmission of Confucian moral and ethical ideologies is fast being eroded and in some instances even truncated by change.

Comparing China with the neighbouring states, Confucius said that a state bereft of rulers is still better than the backward barbarians with rulers but no virtues or propriety where every-man-for-himself barbaric behavior is the order of the day. A knave (小人), is his vernacular for one who is concerned with his own gains and not virtue. The benefits of instilling a code of conduct and discipline are evident in cultures which have painstakingly ensured its continuity. The orderliness and security in Japanese society attests to their Confucian values. The manner in which they responded to the tsunami compared with the looting and pillaging after hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, has caused the world to marvel at the exemplary conduct of the Japanese.

They were instilled with a moral code which even in the face of calamity without leaders on site to enforce law and order or to tell them what to do, demonstrated their values as they waited patiently for help, formed lines to buy food, did not hoard, plunder and did not “behave like barbarians” in Confucius’ parlance.

Confucius’ student Zi Lu in a discourse with the guard at the city gate was asked where he hailed from. He responded: from the Master (Confucius), to which the gatekeeper quipped: “are you referring to the Confucius who persists on working hard to pursue what he knows full well is a hopeless cause?”

Are Confucian philosophy and precepts still relevant in contemporary world? If it is not a lost cause, perhaps it is time we throw Confucianism a life line.