Friday, 22 January 2010

confucius he say...

Very little that happens in Hong Kong makes the news internationally. Stories that do invariably have a sensationalist angle to them, such as the case of the phantom acid thrower, which made the BBC’s World News recently probably because in the latest attack tourists were among the injured. Another example is the sordid wranglings over the will of eccentric billionaire Nina Wang, Asia’s richest woman, some details of which can be found on the BBC News website. ‘Little Sweetie’, as she was affectionately known locally, died in 2007, apparently leaving her entire fortune to a local fung shui ‘master’. Given that in Hong Kong fung shui is principally a vehicle for extorting money, and any self-proclaimed ‘master’ is certainly a charlatan, some degree of skullduggery is likely. It could be years before the case is resolved, but don’t watch this space for updates, because you won’t get any.

Meanwhile, one local story that doesn’t appear to have been picked up by the international news media is the campaign to have the birthday of Confucius declared a public holiday. My first reaction was to applaud: Hong Kong is already well provided with public holidays, but one more wouldn’t hurt. Apparently, it would, however: there is a local ordinance restricting the number of public holidays each year to seventeen, and the quota has already been filled. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Hong Kong is amenable to the idea of scrapping Easter Monday—a hangover from the days of British rule—and replacing it with a holiday on the twenty-seventh day of the eighth lunar month.

So why do I think this would be a bad idea? After all, you might think, not for nothing is Confucius known in China as the ‘Great Sage’. However, a closer examination of Confucian philosophy reveals the damage that this man has inflicted on the country in the past, succinctly summed up in the phrase ‘filial piety’. Without doubt, China was technologically the most advanced civilization in the world 2,000 years ago, at a time when Britons were still painting themselves blue and the Americas were home only to hunter-gatherers and civilizations that never got beyond the Bronze Age or used the wheel, except on children’s toys. A list of Chinese inventions from this period includes the magnetic compass, fore-and-aft sails and the stern-post rudder, which enabled China to develop rapidly as a seafaring nation—Chinese ships sailed as far as India during the Han Dynasty (206 BCAD 220). By the time of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), widely regarded by scholars as the zenith of Chinese civilization, woodblock printing, gunpowder and silk, together with a sophisticated device for detecting and measuring earthquakes, had been added to the list.

So what went wrong? During the early part of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism had taken hold in China, but Tang officials regarded it as a disruptive influence and contrary to Confucian harmony, so much so that in AD 845 a massive purge was launched, resulting in the destruction of more than 4,000 Buddhist monasteries and 46,000 temples. Confucianism thereby became the dominant ideology in China. However, this so-called Confucian ‘harmony’ was based on a hierarchical system with the emperor at the top and women right at the bottom, with each individual owing allegiance to those higher up the hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid, the emperor's duty was to attract “all under heaven” to be civilized in Confucian harmony. In practice, this system also meant that sons had a responsibility towards their fathers (‘filial piety’) rather than parents to their children. This backward-looking philosophy, combined with the fact that Chinese civilization developed in relative isolation from the rest of the world, bred an insularity and disdain for other cultures that is reflected in the Chinese name for China: ‘Central country’ (right).

Fast-forward to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He (1405–33). With a fleet of the largest ships on Earth at that time under his command, Zheng was dispatched with orders to sail to “the countries beyond the horizon, all the way to the end of the Earth.” His mission was to display the might of Chinese power and exact tribute from the “barbarians from beyond the seas.” During these voyages, Zheng sailed as far as Calicut in India, Ormuz in Persia, Jeddah in Arabia and Mogadishu in present-day Somalia. A Chinese map (see below) purportedly dating from this period suggests that Chinese sailors may have ventured even further afield, although the authenticity of this map has been widely questioned.

Following Zheng’s last voyage and his subsequent retirement, the emperor and his court officials, motivated by Confucian ideals, decided that there was nothing more to learn about the world, so both the ships and Zheng’s logs were wantonly destroyed. Within a hundred years, Portuguese sailors were venturing further and further down the west coast of Africa, eventually reaching the Indian Ocean, and Ferdinand Magellan had led an expedition that successfully circumnavigated the world. Consequently, instead of the Chinese discovering Europe, European sailors discovered China.

By the eighteenth century, the big European colonial powers (the French, the Dutch and above all the British) were in the process of grabbing as much of Asia as they could lay their hands on. And although China remained more or less intact, save for the enclaves of Macau and Hong Kong, it endured systematic humiliation throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the eight-nation alliance that finally suppressed the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion in 1901.

It was not until Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) that Confucius was finally denounced as a reactionary, but China is now a forward-looking country that is on course to become the hegemonic power of the twenty-first century. However, when the country finally achieves this, the Chinese will discover that, like the British in the nineteenth century and the Americans in the twentieth, everybody hates you when you’re top dog.


  1. Dennis, this is by far the most interesting post I've read in weeks. Thank you for tinkering with my perspective. I'm looking forward to more of it.

  2. I often wonder what the original founders of any number of philosophies and religions would think about the manner in which their doctrines were put into practice by their later acolytes. It seems that any system can be twisted for the purposes of those who seek to obtain and hold power.

    An interesting bit of history.

  3. You know China so well! I agree Confucius' idea did more damage than good to China, especially during the recent millennium. There was the first anti-Confucianism movement during early of 20th century (it was called 5.4 movement, I guess you probably know well about it). Mao's cultural revolution has beaten Confucianism to death, but it was its extreme action made many Chinese people reconcile with Confucius now.
    For many Chinese people, in order to have self confidence, they must find something good about their ancestors (just like they must find something good about their parents). This lack of independence (which is the consequence of Confucius' teaching) made them feel impossible to throw their ancestors' outdated even stale ideas away.

  4. Thank you Yun Yi. Of course, mine is the analysis of an interested outsider, so I appreciate your perspective as an "insider".


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