This marks the 2,500th year since the death of Confucius, one of the most influential thinkers in human history. His birthday will be celebrated as “Teachers’ Day” in Taiwan and at festivals in many parts of the People’s Republic of China on September 28.
But Confucius’s teachings are widely misunderstood, according to Josephine Chiu-Duke, a professor of Chinese intellectual history at the University of British Columbia.
“If we want to understand what Confucian teaching is all about, the number one thing we have to distinguish is between what scholars in the field would call ‘classical Confucianism’ and ‘Confucianism as a state ideology’—in other words, ‘official Confucianism’,” Chiu-Duke told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
In an online presentation at this year’s TAIWANfest in Vancouver, Duke will explain why the difference between classical and official Confucianism is extremely important for the world. Because official Confucianism strongly influences the thinking of the authoritarian leaders of the People’s Republic of China, this has profound implications for human liberty.
Classical Confucianism refers to the teachings of Confucius and the second-most important Confucian scholar, Mencius, who lived from 372 BCE to 289 BCE.
Chiu-Duke said that Confucius and Mencius both advocated for a “reciprocal relationship” between the ruler and the people, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives.
“In The Book of Mencius, Mencius even talks about if the ruler treated you like a stranger—if the ruler treats you like dirt—you can treat him like an enemy,” Chiu-Duke said. “And Mencius even said it is all right to kill a tyrant. So tyrannicide is justified in Mencius’s teachings.”
Official Confucianism takes a detour
Official Confucianism, which emerged under the strong-willed Emperor Wu Ti in the second and first centuries BCE, claimed to be based on Confucian teaching.
Chiu-Duke acknowledged that the emperor retained the Confucian concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which bestows power on a just ruler as the “Son of Heaven”. Under this principle, the ruler could be overthrown if he was unworthy and lost this mandate, which would be reflected in natural disasters that would be followed by justifiable revolts.
But Chiu-Duke said that official Confucianism also reflected and codified the “legalistic teaching” of the Western Han dynasty court under Emperor Wu’s reign.
Chiu-Duke maintained that this official Confucianism “absolutized” the relationship between the emperor and subjects, rulers and minister, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives.
“The minister is bound by the ruler and so on and so forth,” she said. ”In other words the reciprocal relationship between ministers and rulers, sons and fathers, and wife and husband no longer exists.”
Chiu-Duke pointed out that official Confucianism was a compromise between the Han dynasty and Confucian scholars. Emperor Wu would have never accepted Mencius’s advocacy for tyrannicide for rulers who stepped out of line.
However, by establishing Confucianism as state ideology, the Western Han dynasty ensured that anybody who wanted to enter government service had to familiarize themselves with five texts then established as the five Confucian classics.
“They also rely on these classics as the source to judge the dynastic political affairs and even rely on these kind of textual sources to try legal cases,” Chiu-Duke said.
Moral autonomy in classical Confucianism
She emphasized that classical Confucianism imposes a moral obligation on the ruler to improve the well-being of the people. And she suggested that this doesn’t exist to anywhere near the same degree in official Confucianism.
In addition, she said, classical Confucian scholars promoted a belief in “moral autonomy”.
“When they talk about moral autonomy, it already has the implication of personal choice,” Chiu-Duke said. “It already has this idea of free choice, even though they did not use that kind of concept or words to express the modern idea of freedom and human rights. I think this is really important.”
Moreover, Chiu-Duke said that throughout history until modern times, educated Chinese people tried to stick with classical Confucian principles as espoused by Confucius and Mencius when protesting against abusive leaders.
For example, she noted that the May 4 students' movement in 1919 appeared outwardly to want to overthrow everything traditional. However, the way they acted on behalf of Chinese people and Chinese society reflected the spirit of classical Confucianism.
The same tradition was on display in the student protests in Tiananmen Square, which were crushed by the People’s Liberation Army on June 3 and 4, 1989, on the orders of the Chinese government.
Even in Mao’s era, Chiu-Duke said, there were heavily persecuted scholars whose writings reflected the spirit of classical Confucianism.
Taiwan demonstrates classical values
The same spirit has existed in Taiwan and was on display in the struggle to end authoritarian rule in the four decades following the Second World War and bring about democracy.
In 2014, the Sunflower student movement demonstrators in Taiwan railed against a trade pact with China. Chiu-Duke said that most of these students were probably not aware that they weren’t the first generation to fight for democracy in Taiwan.
“But scholars certainly know,” she declared. “And many scholars who teach at university in Taiwan…are aware of this important tradition of protest in Chinese history. And that history has been preserved the best in Taiwan. And you see the result of that tradition in Taiwan.”
This is one reason why Chiu-Duke thinks the world should be paying far more attention to Taiwan because it is where classical Confucian concepts—"one of the most valuable civilizational values”—have been preserved.
“And not just preserved,” she added, “but really practised in people’s daily life, whether they are aware of it or not. So Taiwan, in my view, is sort of a symbol of civilization.”
Taiwan was the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. It has a vibrant film, music, and arts sector and a strong environmental ethic, which is reflected in the country’s ability to grow its economy while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. And it remains one of the most democratic societies on Earth.
“This is something so precious,” Chiu-Duke said. “I think it’s not just for people in Taiwan. This is something our community, our society—and free society in any corner of the world—should be aware of. This is really what I believe.”
Chiu-Duke conceded that she wasn’t truly conscious of all of this until about nine or 10 years ago. But this realization came to her as a result of observing the struggle of Hong Kong people for more liberty from the People’s Republic of China rulers.
“Hong Kong people inspired me so much,” Chiu-Duke said. “They really are something. I think that even they themselves surprised themselves.
“In a sense,” she continued, “people’s longing for justice—people’s longing for freedom—is such that it really touches you.”