Reflections from Nishan

15:42, November 01, 2010      

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I was honored to be invited to participate in the first Nishan Forum on World Civilizations, which has just concluded. The forum brought together scholars and theologians from around the world with the goal of furthering global dialogue about values. It also aimed to celebrate the vision of Confucius, who is believed to have been born at Nishan, and the ways in which Confucianism might contribute to our shared world in the coming years.

The forum offered much food for thought. I left the forum excited about the increasing role that Confucianism seems poised to play in our world, though also with a few worries. Let me explain.

Twenty-five years ago when I first traveled to China as a student, I had a conversation while traveling on a train that I still remember. I was talking with some fellow passengers and one asked me why I was studying Chinese. I replied that I wanted to study Chinese philosophy. "Oh," he said. "You mean Marxism and Leninism." He was very surprised when I explained that in fact I was interested in Confucianism. Back in the United States, many of my college professors were also surprised. In fact, one of them told me that if I persisted in this odd plan, I would never find a job in the philosophy profession.

Times have changed. In China, there is now considerable talk about a revival of Confucianism, though what that will ultimately mean is not yet clear. In the United States, I am happy to say that my pessimistic teacher was wrong, and in fact the number of professors teaching Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist philosophy in universities is slowly growing. Many American students are interested in studying Chinese culture.

For some of them, of course, their main motivation is the idea that they can do business in China and make money. Others, though, are attracted to Confucianism as an inspiring source of ideas and values. They grasp the truth in Mengzi's teaching that morality is rooted in universal sentiments, like the empathetic response one would feel upon seeing a baby about to fall into a well. Other students are drawn to Wang Yangming's doctrine of the unity of knowing and acting.

They can see the wisdom in this idea that when one correctly perceives all the moral contours of a situation, one will thereby respond to it correctly. I also encourage students to reflect on the insights that many Confucians, but especially Sunzi, had into the important role that ritual has in sustaining our human communities.

What is striking about all this is that we in the United States are studying Confucianism not just so that we can better understand Chinese culture and Chinese people. Of course, mutual understanding is important. That is one of our goals. But for me and for many of my students, the significance of Confucianism goes beyond understanding "the other." They find that it can help them understand themselves. We are reacting to Confucianism not as a closed cultural system that is only relevant in China, but as an open, global philosophy that may be as relevant in the United States as it is in China.

Are we all becoming "Confucians?" Probably not, but I think it is quite an open question right now what it means to "be a Confucian." My students and I are coming to see Confucian teachings as vital to making sense of our world and our experiences. We do not tend to think that Confucius had all the answers, however.

In China, I have observed many different attitudes toward Confucianism in my recent visits. This is inevitable. One reason is simply that China is diverse, complicated and changing! But another reason is that Confucianism itself, both historically and today, has played many different roles in people's lives. In different guises, it has guided childhood education and state policy, religious ceremonious and personal spiritual quests.

Less positively, it has been invoked to support tyrannical emperors. In the early 20th century, it was widely blamed by Chinese intellectuals for leading to a rigid ritual code that made it difficult to respond flexibly to the many challenges China faced. In today's China, the different contexts in which one hears Confucianism invoked or disparaged are just as diverse. Much of what is happening, I find to be very exciting. But there are a few attitudes that I would like to caution against. These concerns crystallized in my mind when thinking about a question that a journalist at the Nishan Forum asked me. He said, "Do you think Americans should be worried about the rise of Chinese culture?"

The philosopher's answer to this (and almost any other) question is: it depends what you mean by some of your words. In particular, the "rise of Chinese culture" can mean different things. On the one hand, it could mean a greater awareness on the part of both Chinese and non-Chinese about the great traditions of Chinese philosophy, religion, literature and art.

I have written above about some ways in which my students and I have learned from such a heightened awareness of Confucian insights, and I believe it would be a good thing if more people — Chinese and non-Chinese — were to take these sorts of insights seriously, as guidance for their lives and as a means to better understand the universe. This kind of "greater awareness" is perfectly consistent with simultaneously being moved by insights and values from other philosophical and spiritual traditions. In this sense, the rise of Chinese culture would lead to a greater sense of possibilities as well as the challenges of finding new ways to integrate perspectives as we all seek to live fulfilling lives in our ever-changing world.

On the other hand, I believe that some people have a different vision of the "rise of Chinese culture." Rather than thinking of Chinese culture as open, changing, and composed of parts (texts, insights) that can be constructively employed in many different places, some people think of Chinese culture as "a civilization," as a monolithic whole, and as equivalent to the Chinese nation. According to this kind of opinion, the only way for China to occupy a more significant role in the world is for Chinese culture — by which they mean Confucianism — to be more influential.

Chinese people must become thoroughly Confucian. Perhaps foreigners will "convert" to Confucianism. Admittedly, this vision fits with the way that some Americans think about the world, as Samuel Huntington infamously articulated in his book "The Clash of Civilizations." According to this way of thinking, cultures are single units that compete with one another, and one's nation only succeeds in such a competition if one's culture "rises." If this is the right way to think about the "rise of Chinese culture," then I suppose Americans should be worried about it!

No one at the Nishan Forum explicitly said that the "rise of Chinese culture" should be understood in the way described in my last paragraph. But to some degree, I think that many participants — both Confucian and Christian, both Chinese and non-Chinese — made some assumptions that suggest the closed, monolithic idea I was just describing. The language of multiple "world civilizations" easily leads one to think that each national culture is distinct and that they do not and cannot overlap.

Much of the talk at the forum was about understanding the differences and similarities between Confucianism and Christianity, but this risks forgetting that each tradition grows and changes, and even at a single point in time has many different interpretations. It also makes it hard to see where there is room for Confucian ideas in America or Christian ideas in China, unless it is through competition and conversion. Furthermore, it makes it difficult to understand that there can be Confucian Christians and Christian Confucians (and many, many other possibilities).

The Nishan Forum was a splendid event, and I believe that Confucianism has a great deal to offer to, as well as learn from, our diverse world civilization. So do other Chinese traditions, even though I personally find the most insight in Confucianism. So the rise of Chinese culture is and should be a great thing for the world. We should all be happy that Chinese scholars and now many public officials are encouraging the study and practice of Confucian values and texts. We should also be happy that thanks to the pioneering work of scholars like Theodore deBary at Columbia University, Tu Wei-ming at Harvard University, and my own teacher Donald Munro at the University of Michigan, Americans have started to learn about and from Confucianism. So long as we all can embrace an open attitude toward our traditions and their roles in world civilization, the future looks very bright.

By Stephen C. Angle, Wesleyan University

(Editor:张心意)

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