The Reinvention Of Confucianism In Northeast Asian

Societies Essay, Research Paper Subject: International Relations of Northeast Asia Tutor: Date: Essay Title: ‘Confucianism in North-East Asia’ Question:

Societies Essay, Research Paper

Subject: International Relations of Northeast Asia



Essay Title: ‘Confucianism in North-East Asia’


Word Length: 3132

The following is an examination of Confucianism is Northeast Asian states. In particular the essay will focus on China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in an examination of how each of these states has individually adapted and reinvented Confucian ideals and notions to serve the specific circumstances of each state. The essay will trace the reinvention and subsequent development of what can be termed ‘neo-Confucianism’ as an aid or hindrance in the economic development of each state. There are clear patterns that emerge in the examination of Confucianism in Northeast Asia mainly concerning the use of Confucianism as a convenient label, particularly by Western scholars to describe and explain the economic success and dynamism of East Asian economies without paying reference to the particular circumstances under which industrialization took place. Secondly, how within the states themselves, Confucianism has been reinvented time and time again in different and unique forms to serve the function of giving legitimacy to the regime in power and rationalize it actions in power as well as the means with which power is preserved. At the same time, Confucianism has offered many advantages to Northeast Asian states – in an adapted form- in pursuing industrialization and capitalist modernization in the post World War II period. In examining this phenomenon it is important to pay particular attention to the deep separation between Confucian ideology or social philosophy and how it was used in practice as well as the degree of influence Confucianism had in the development of those states.

It is perhaps best to begin the examination with a broad outline of what Confucianism as a social philosophy is, its political significance and why it has been taken up as an ideology.

As an ethical system Confucianism is concerned with correct relations between superiors and inferiors and stresses mutual obligations, such as correct example on the part of the former and loyalty on the part of the latter. Individualism is subordinated to harmony within a group; the family was traditionally the paramount social group. It has a strong emphasis on order, stability, hierarchy and filial piety. It is male-centric and elitist in nature. A clear social hierarchy emerged in Imperial Chinese society with the Emperor and his immediate family at the top. Under him were the ’scholar gentry’, who became the administrative elite. Below was the warrior caste , followed by the land – owners (whose sons made up the warrior caste), then followed by the peasantry and finally, at the bottom were the merchants. Over time, the social philosophy of Confucianism merged into a kind of civic-religion that has existed in East Asian societies to the present time.

In government, Confucianism supports “enlightened authoritarian rule” by a centralized bureaucracy, not popular democracy. In traditional Confucian societies, government was supposed to be the reserve of an educated bureaucracy, namely the ’scholar gentry’. In Confucian philosophy, a central tenet is the ‘mandate of heaven’ given to the emperor or leader which can be lost but not in tandem with existing social order. As such Confucianism in it original form can never really be revolutionary.

Having outlined the basic tenets of Confucianism, how was it adapted applied to Northeast Asia in a contemporary sense? We can examine this by tracing the ‘re-invention of Confucianism’ within each of the above mentioned Northeast Asian states individually. At the same time we can examine what the social philosophy of Confucianism can and has offered these states in aiding and improving the industrialization and modernization processes. It is appropriate to begin with China as Confucianism is an indigenous product of the country.

Confucianism in China is also the most complex and contradictory of the Confucian states both in terms of its economic development and the changing role that Confucianism has played in China. At the same time China is perhaps the best example of how Confucianism has been reinvented and used to serve the ends of its reigning leaders. As Chan points out; there has been a “periodic demand on the service of Confucianism in Chinese history”.2 This can be seen in the governing practices from the Qing dynasty to Mao Zedong, and presently with Deng Xiaoping. Here we will begin with the contradictions of Communist rule in China. Lucian W. Pye in his examination of Confucianism in East Asian societies gives us the cultural dimensions of Chinese society, based on Confucianism which gives China its specific fixation with its leaders and how they “reign” rather than effectively rule or govern. China more so than any other of the Asian states has been unable to effectively adapt Confucianism to become utilitarian in achieving modernization and industrialization. The main reasons for this are firstly China’s dilemma with power which historically can only be expressed in moralistic terms and secondly seeing relations always in hierarchical terms and attributing almost unlimited potential to those at the top.3 Power as ritual or status with the leader being the center of all and an end unto himself, embodying the whole collective has meant that China has had serious problems in moving toward modernization. With the advent of Communism in 1949, Confucianism was seemingly rejected as valueless as a social philosophy in favour of Mao-Zedong thought. However in reality it may be said that Mao himself became the New Emperor, receiving the mandate of heaven. Certainly his social policies of the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” indicate this. Mao sought what Lifton described as “revolutionary immortality”. The Chinese people accepted the leader’s vision of a bright tomorrow unquestioningly. The Chinese have a unique tendency or psychological clique which Pye calls the “pleasure of suspending disbelief”.4 Lifton notes with regard to the “immortalization of [Mao's] words” how “the leaders words have become vehicles for elevating him, during his lifetime, to a place above the state itself or its institutional source of purity and power, in this case the party”.4 Thus the exaggeration of the “great man as leader” and who is an amplification of the “Confucian model of the father as the ultimate authority in the family” demonstrates how ideology is divorced from reality in China and in particular, in its Confucian tradition.

Under communism Mao was essentially the Emperor, the red army could be seen as the warrior caste with the administrative bureaucracy of the CCP as the scholar gentry and finally below them the peasants. This demonstrates how deep – rooted traditional Chinese social hierarchy is. The communist revolution and the “socialist state” that ensued very much resemble imperial China in reality. This may be attribute to what Pye sees as a near psychological fear of social confusion or disorder in Chinese society which makes them crave a leader who unifies the nation by his very presence.5 In China the invocation of Confucianism has been inherently negative an stifling toward any movement for modernization. This is largely based on China’s inability to adapt Confucianism to serve as a utilitarian rather than symbolic and conservative force as well as its tendency to focus on ideology and symbolism without real content.

The same can be seen in contemporary China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. His program of opening up China under the slogan of “it is glorious to be rich” has once again seen the invocation of Confucianism ineffectively merely as a legitimizing agent. Deng has invoked Confucianism within the context of encouraging people to “jump into the sea” to become rich and set a Confucian example to others. In this sense Confucian familial traditions can be effective in achieving those ends; for example utilizing family savings or credit from relatives as well as space otherwise available for family living in other words the ‘family model’ applied to larger economic pursuits. However; how are these pursuits reconciled with the official party ideology of Marxism-Leninism?

Recent developments in China such as the re-emergence of multiple means of ownership and production, the stock exchanges and other capitalist developments can not be justified in terms of official party ideology. Thus, according to Chan, the “political and economic policies being pursued in Deng’s China necessitated another rationale for its legitimization…it would seem that Confucianism has been once again called upon to fulfil this need.7 In addition other “Confucian States” are pointed to as examples of economic success without any regard given to the reality of what their development entailed.

There is a further irony in this calling up or re-inventing of Confucianism to serve the purpose of the government. A recent book published by He Quinglian, entitled “China’s Pitfall” examines how Deng Xiaoping’s urban reforms has essentially led to benefiting a limited number of people , who thanks to their position (usually within the party), have plundered the public good – the savings of the masses and the environment. Through what she has called the “marketization of power” there has been an increase in the number and rip-offs and sordid means to achieve wealth as well an increase in corruption. In her view this process has led to an abandonment of responsibility and political cronyism. In her words. “the championing of money as a value has never before reached the point of holding all moral rules in contempt” and the “economic good faith [of China] has been compromised”.8 This added with the family orientated consumerism, the creation of a ‘neuveaux rich’, increased emphasis on ’sign value’, schools for the aristocracy and environmental degradation has directly distorted Confucianism if not undermined it totally with respect to traditional moral standards which are at the heart of the philosophy.9

In China it seems that Confucianism is always called upon to create a ‘fig leaf legitimacy’ to whatever agenda the government is pushing, no matter how contradictory. China, more specifically, does not seem to be able to call upon the beneficial aspects of Confucianism to aid in it development. In China what we see is definitely not an unfolding of Confucian traditions but rather a convenient use to give legitimacy to any agenda. As such China cannot be regarded as a Confucian state while at the same time not being able to escape the pitfalls of Confucian hierarchical arrangements which breed inequality.

Japan on the other hand can be seen as a state that has used and adapted Confucianism as a social philosophy while at the same time being able to reconcile some of the contradictions which their Chinese counterparts have not been able to overcome. Japan has not only been able to effectively re-invent Confucianism to aid it in some way in becoming an economic exemplar in the region and the world, but it has also been able to combine what can be called “merchant Confucianism” with the best of Western practices. This also has to be understood within the context of the particular circumstances, following World War II, which pushed Japan by necessity to economic reconstruction and advanced modernization.

In Japan, unlike in China, Merchant values became elevated and Confucianized rather than denigrated. As Pye points out, the Japanese turned to Confucianism with a completely different rationale: “the Japanese thus turned to Confucian rules of moral discipline and ethical imperatives into guidelines for aggressive action, both for the samurai warrior in making war and the chonin merchant in making money”. 10 As such the Japanese linked Confucian values to achieving material success. The other benefit imported from Confucianism and adapted specifically by the Japanese is its ability to harmonize power and loyalty with aggressive competitiveness. This was the essential tenet that has aided Japan from an economic development point of view. The blending of feudalism and Confucianism produced a more purposeful, goal -directed concept of power in Japan than in the bureaucratic “virtuocracy” of either imperial or Maoist China.11 Essentially the Japanese have been able to maximize loyalty and competitive competence which aided its economic development.

The Japanese actively sought to find the best practices world wide and utilize and improve them, they also saw this use of Confucianism a means not only to confront the West but to beat it on its own ground.12 In Japan, Confucianism was evoked to assert Japanese superiority and Nationalism. It has been successful in this regard and it is little wonder that Western Scholars and academics have attributed the economic success of Japan and other Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) to some inherent quality based on Confucian values, lest they may be forced to admit that they were beaten at their own game. The economic success of Japan and the ‘mini-dragons’ can be more accurately attributed to the post World War II context. The role Japan played in the American containment strategy is central. Japan’s ‘Peace Constitution’ with the famous Article 9 renouncing war meant that external security was no longer a concern for Japan as the United States took on the role. The American aid and domestic markets were opened and extended to Japan. The advent of the Korean war also facilitated this process as did the needs arising from the Vietnam war a decade later.12

Certainly Confucian values, unique to Japan, have been moved from the ‘family model’ to the industrial sector and values such as worker loyalty, and the dependency on superiors in Japanese society, but at the same time one must not disregard the specific circumstances and timing of the Japanese entry into industrialization.

However at the same time the role of the Japanese Zaibatsu or huge industrial conglomerates and the nature of the Japanese Industrial landscape with corporatised unions, worker loyalty all suggest an underlying ‘Neo-Confucian’ value system within the countries economic and business relations. It could be said that the Zaibatsu have been given a kind of economic ‘mandate of heaven’ such is their domination of the economic landscape. Japan, as such, can be seen as the most Confucian society in the modern sense.

Korea and Taiwan can be examined in tandem for the similarities in their economic development are many. They are also considered the small Confucian states who were very much shaped by not only their larger neighbours of Japan and China respectively; but also by US presence in the region during the cold war.

There are unique adaptations of Confucian traditions present in each of the states. Korea has developed into a bold “risk taking culture” with a strong element of “social solidarity”. Korea has combined the purposefulness of the Japanese model with the elitist sense of virtue of the Chinese seen in their Yangban class or Chaebol (huge conglomerates). There are strong elements of “virtuocracy” which has created an insecurity that in turn produced a people who were self starters.18

However the context in which these economies flourished is a more important factor in examining the success. Within the cold war and post-cold war contexts both states received enormous amounts of US aid while playing roles in the strategy of containment. The US to a greater extent shaped the economic landscapes of both economies through initiating land reform and export-led economic growth. There were massive infusions of US economic aid that opened markets for Taiwan manufacturers. In Korea the successful adaptation of Japanese methods. That is, the state guaranteed cheap credits to the industrial conglomerates if they would pursue state-determined lines of growth and development. The same could be said of Taiwan. These factors combined with Authoritarian styles of government by Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan and Park Chung-hee in Korea suggests that rather than attributing the success to the benefits of Confucianism, it was a typical state-directed or command capitalism which initially introduced from the outside by US pressures and aid.19

At the same time Confucianism was invoke by both Chiang Kai-shek and Park Chung-hee as a ‘fig leaf for legitimacy’ as the legitimacy of their rule was a problematic factor in the process of social, political and economic development. Once again we see the use of traditional Confucian values called upon by leaders at their convenience in order to assert some legitimacy.

Thus there seem to be two schools of thought with respect to the idea that Confucianism either aid or impedes economic development of Northeast Asian economies. The first is the position taken by American based scholars such as Rodercick MaFarquhar and Tu Wei-ming which suggest that Confucianism has been helpful in Advancing these countries economically and as such there is an “Asian model” which is an alternative to the West. MaFarquhar points out that “if Western individualism was appropriate for the pioneering period of industrialization, perhaps post-Confucian collectivism is better suited for the age of mass industrialization.14 Tu Wei-ming points to the way Confucianism can be used to overcome “the deficiencies of capitalism in the West” such as social division. However Dirlik points out that such explanations primarily come from the West and mostly from the United States such that the most recent re-invention may in fact be and ‘American Confucianism’.15

The other school of though disregards Confucianism as an explanation for the rapid industrialization and economic success of East Asian Economies saying that institution builders reinvented Confucianism, invoking it to win worker loyalties at a low cost. The reality was the emergence of ’strong centralist state regimes’ or authoritarianism in a post-war context. This system of strong state regulatory systems was effective in bringing about a state-induced capitalism. As Petras explains the “the community cooperation and export competitiveness were attributed to Confucianism [retrospectively]….the crucial fact is that this social order came together in a particular historical moment- post revolutionary Asia- was forgotten.16 A complete disregard of the influence of Confucian culture is probably no more appropriate in explaining the success of East Asian economic success than attributing it wholly to Confucianism.

A more appropriate explanation is what Dirlik terms the “circumstantial function of Confucian values”, that is, “Confucianism as a factor that can be a positive force for development when the right set of structural conditions and economic policies are also present.17 This position basically explains the role of Confucianism and what it has offered Asian societies in circumstantial terms such that while Confucianism may not have been conducive to the emergence of capitalism, it may play a positive role once capitalism has been introduced from the outside. This is clearly the case when noting China’s failure or Confucianism as a hindrance to development as well as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan who capitalism was introduced from the outside. Taiwan has also developed a utilitarian form of Confucianism in the Japanese line and prospered economically unlike the mainland.

From the above examination it can thus be said that Confucianism does have a utilitarian as well as a power function. It can be used to enhance the effectiveness of capitalist states once it has been introduced externally such as Japan has but more often it has been re-invented time and time again by leaders of various East Asian states to provide or give legitimacy to whatever agenda they are pursuing. At the same time Confucian “virtuocracy” and a focus on the symbolic and status elements of the social philosophy can be a hindrance for development as has been the case with China.

Confucianism does have a positive role to play in the development of East Asian states provided is carefully adapted and changed to serve a utilitarian purpose rather than being an end unto itself and stifling social progression and mobility. More accurately, one must examine the particular context in which Confucianism is called upon to determine how effective it is as a social policy or ideology. The key in examining this is to determine the gap between the ideology of Confucianism as called upon by a particular leader, and the reality of its application and use by society. In China the gap is great and has thus meant Confucianism has been a hindrance to modernization. In Japan, the gap is not great and Confucianism serves a constructive role within Japanese social and economic relations. In Korea and Taiwan the gap is not so great but the context in which each economy developed and is ensured means that Confucianism still plays a utilitarian function in each society.

1. Binyan L and Link P., A Great Leap Backward ? (New York Review of Books, Oct 8, 1998)

2. Borthwick M., Pacific Century: The Emergence of Modern Pacific Asia, (Allen & Unwin, 1992).

3. Chan A., Confucianism and Development in East Asia, (Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol.26 No.1, 1996)

4. Clemens W. C., China: Alternative Futures, (Communist and Post-Communist Studies 32, 1999).

5. Deyo F. C., The Political Economy of the New Asian Industrialism, (Cornell University Press, 1994).

6. Dirlik A., Confucius in the Borderlands: Global Capitalism and the Reinvention of Confucianism, (Boundary, 2:22:3, 1995, pp 229-273)

7. Godement F., The New Asia Renaissance: From Colonialism to the Post Cold War, (Routledge London & New York, 1997).

8. Lifton R. J., Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-Tung and The Chinese Cultural Revolution, (Pelican Publishing, 1970).

9. Mackerras C., Knight N (eds), Marxism In Asia,(Croom Helm, London & Sydney, 1985).

10. Mendle Wolf, Japan’s Asia Policy: Regional, Security, Global Interests, (Routledge, London, New York, 1995)

11. Petras J., The Americanization of Asia: The Rise and Fall of a Civilization, (Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol.28, No.2, 1998)

12. Pye L. W., Asian Power and Politics: The Cultural Dimensions of Authority, (Harvard University Press, 1985).

13. Yahuda M., The International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 1945-1995, (Routledge, 1998)

14. Zhao B., Consumerism, Confucianism, Communism: Making Sense of China Today, (New Left Review No. 69, April-May, 1997).3