THE RETURN OF CONFUCIANISM IN CHINA TODAY
Wednesday 26 November 2014: conference The return of Confucianism in today's China by Anne Cheng, Professor at the College de France, Chair of Chinese Intellectual History.
Confucius, a major representative of Chinese thought, lived from 551 to 479 BCE, making him a contemporary of the Buddha in India and of the pre-Socratics in Greece. Like Socrates, Confucius left no doctrinal writings and his teaching is known by his famous Interviews which were transmitted by his disciples. In these Interviews it is about how one becomes a full human being. Learning, which is the first character that the Interviews begin with, is a key word in Confucian thought. It corresponds to his intimate conviction that human nature is eminently perfectible. For him, man is capable of improving and perfecting himself ad infinitum, it is a being who is destined to learn. We can speak of a Confucian bet on man. Learning is an experience which engages the whole person in his entire life and which is shared with others: learning is learning to make oneself a human being. Our humanity is not a given but it is built and fixed by the exchanges between the beings and in the search for a common harmony. The crystallization of Confucius' bet on man is summed up in a character 仁 Ren which can be translated as humanity, human quality or quality of human relationship. This character is composed of the radical man and the sign two: man only becomes human through his relation to others. A great Confucian exegete defines the word Ren as "the concern that men have for each other because they live togetherWhat would today be called human solidarity. It is therefore this human-centered teaching of Confucius that has been decisive in the Chinese conception of man and his relations within the socio-political body for nearly 2 500 years.
The vicissitudes of Confucius in Chinese modernity go through phases of destruction of about a century between the 1860 (Second Opium War) and the 1960 (Cultural Revolution) years. Japan, entering modernity with the Meiji era, asserts its rise in triumph over imperial China in 1895 and Tsarist Russia in 1905. The Chinese elites' awareness of Western supremacy and, in Asia, that of Japan, which has embarked on a policy of reforms, is considered a model to follow. A reform attempt on the Meiji model in 1898 is aborted. In 1905, China abolishes the examination system that has been the bedrock of the imperial regime for two millennia and this marks the beginning of a modern Chinese-style secularization process. The imperial regime and the Qing dynasty collapse definitively to make room in 1912 for the very first Chinese republic proclaimed by Sun Yat-sen. The same year, the big mandarin school became the University of Beijing on the Western model and the first rector removed from the curriculum all the traditional teaching on Confucian classics. Since then Confucianism no longer has scriptural support since the study of the classics has been eliminated and it no longer has institutional support. The crisis that has the deepest and most lasting impact is the movement of 4 but 1919. Chinese modernity would be defined by science and democracy and translated into violence directed against the Chinese tradition identified as Confucian. Confucianism is held responsible for all the ills China suffers and its material and moral backwardness. We must get rid of the Confucian tradition which is assimilated to all imperial history to ensure the survival of China in the modern world. At the end of the Sino-Japanese conflict and the civil war between Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist government and the 1949 communist forces, they set up the People's Republic of China. The flight from Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan is accompanied by that of many intellectuals hostile to Marxism. Maoist China is experiencing a destructive paroxysm with the Great Proletarian Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 which appears as a radicalization of the movement of 4 but 1919.
Between the 1860 and 1960 years, the figure of Confucius had a descent into hell passing first by a loss of corporeality then by an intellectual destruction to end in a physical and material destruction during the Cultural Revolution. From 1980 we observe a spectacular reversal that is first felt on the periphery of mainland China. Western observers explain the spectacular economic rise of the "four little dragons" (Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea) with a culturalist interpretation. Confucianism then passes from the status of obstacle to modernity to that of central engine of modernization. In 1978, Confucianism is the subject of a first conference aimed at its rehabilitation. In 1984, a Confucius Foundation is created in Beijing under the aegis of the highest authorities of the Chinese Communist Party and, in 1992, during a trip to the southern provinces, Deng Xiaoping quotes the Confucian Singapore Lee Kuan Yew as a model for China as it launches the Socialist Market Economy. The paradox is that the same people who participated in the eradication of Confucius in the 1970 years made him erect statues all over the country.
Around Confucius, in official speeches, there is an opportunity to exalt a glaring revenge on Western supremacy that has been awaited for at least a century by China. If Confucianism has little to do with economic development, it does serve the political ends of authoritarian rulers, be it in Beijing, Singapore or Seoul. These authoritarian rulers find it convenient to take over the Confucian values of stability, discipline and social order as opposed to the West, whose decline is due to its bias of individualism and hedonism. Since our entry into the third millennium, the Confucian process is taking the form of a bundle of intricate and complex phenomena that affect all of mainland China. We can distinguish four levels while knowing that they are far from being watertight: the political level, the media, society in general and intellectual circles. In the political sphere, the priority of current leaders is to maintain social stability in order to foster long-term economic growth. In 2005, Hu Jintao launched the slogan of Société d'Harmonie Socialiste: it is a question of drawing on the resources of the Confucian management of the social code to propose an alternative to Western liberal democracy. This slogan comes in all shades and in all forms, both in official speeches and in commercial, advertising or educational speeches. The name of Confucius is today carrier in the economic market but also in terms of symbolic figure. Confucius Institutes, which have sprung up all over the world, are threatening to supplant the departments of Chinese studies of universities. These Confucius Institutes are in fact the armed arm of Chinese propaganda. The Analects of Confucius are subject to various forms of instrumentalization on all levels: political, educational, intellectual, etc. Regarding political propaganda, at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, a painting presented aphorisms from interviews chanted in slogans by Red Army soldiers disguised as Confucian scholars. It is particularly in the educational world that the Talks play a central role. Movements for the revival of traditional Chinese culture tend in extracurricular settings to promote methods of mechanical repetition and rote recitation of Confucian classics from earliest childhood. Courses, seminars or internships are offered by universities for the business world and are devoted to classical culture. There are also private initiatives by Confucian activists, both in urban and rural areas, who find the Internet a means of communication and dissemination of unprecedented scale and effectiveness.
An interesting paradox is that the image of Confucius used most often is that which is due to Jesuit missionaries.