Published on 2023.01.04

Confucianism’s answer to the modern times

Is Confucianism still vital? Is Confucianism outdated? Can Confucianism respond to the problems of modern society and the modern era?

In my teaching experience, I often encounter with similar questions from the floor. Very often, those who raise the questions are not those who understand Confucianism. On the contrary, a majority of them do not know Chinese culture and find Chinese culture unfamiliar to them. Then, why do they develop such stereotypes and attitudes towards Confucianism? This is caused by the lack of self-worth towards our own culture due to past history, and our self-confidence is weakened due to the confrontation from Western societies.

Reflection upon the lack of self-worth towards Chinese culture:

The lack of self-worth towards our culture is beyond rationality, which results in the lack of pride underlying the conscious of our people. They regard all traditions as worthless and want to totally get rid of them. As a result, Chinese culture has been set aside for over a hundred years. Contemporary Chinese people become unfamiliar with our own culture, which is attributed to unfamiliarity, the lack of understanding, and the lack of self-worth (this is due to the lack of ambition of those individuals, rather than the problem of the culture per se). Therefore, they view everything related to Chinese culture with despise. This is the major reason why Confucianism is not well understood nowadays.

The prominent figure of Neo-Confucianism, Master Tang Chun-I, delivered a profound reflection upon such phenomena in his article On the drifting of Chinese people. He pointed out that the mentality that “in one’s mind, one could not independently evaluate oneself, but needed the affirmation from foreigners, then one finally believed that their own things are valuable”, is a de facto mentality of slavery. If we could not get away from such mentality, we Chinese people cannot find independence in spiritual level.

The value and meaning of Confucianism in the modern era:

If we get away from the mentality of slavery and adopt the independent mentality to objectively evaluate our times, we will find that the modern world, which is dominated by Western culture, has many pressing problems in cultural, social, and vitality of humankind.

What is the major crisis faced by modern society? Is it the lack of knowledge, skills, machinery, or resources? It isn’t so. It is the withering of one’s mentality, one’s spirituality, one’s vitality, the distance among human beings, the fragmentation of the families, the conflicts among generations, the outflow of desires that leads to traumas, the emptiness rooted from the lack of motivation and meaning in life, and the disillusionment of one’s visions. Therefore, one does not know what can be accomplished in their lives. When everybody regards one’s freedom of choice as the ultimate creed, each of them eventually becomes lonely individuals. When they face important themes of their life, for instances, “Should I get a divorce?”, “Should I take abortion?”, “Should I leave my parents?”, “What is justice?”, “What is right and what is wrong?”, they would take their own decisions while others, no matter how intimate, cannot intervene. Because of the “freedom of choice”, one cannot talk about one’s own life and visions, and even cannot talk about good or bad, and cannot comment on whether a behaviour is right or wrong. This is all rooted from “freedom of choice” and everything becomes “it is up to you”. Therefore, our interpersonal relationship is regressed to superficial level of accompanying one to play and to enjoy, while our daily conversations are filled with the discontent with our workplaces. Interpersonal relationships are becoming more and more superficial and light. We seem to know one other but at the same time we are unfamiliar with one other. This is the tragedy of our times.

On social level, the isolation among persons, the confrontation and enmity among nations, the polarization of society, the rise of populism and extreme nationalism, the wave of anti-Globalization, eventually lead to various wars. The warning signal towards modern civilization and culture has already been hoisted.

Confucianism can provide answers to our times:

Since Confucius’ time, the core of scholarship in Confucianism is humanity. From Confucian point of view, the essence of human nature is to “connect” (tong, 通), connecting to others as well as other persons’ hearts. Therefore, Ren (仁, often translated as “humanness”), which is the central tenet of Confucius, is actually an ideograph comprising two human beings standing in parallel. The essence of life can be revealed by the interaction and communication between persons. When we were born, the bonding between parents and sibling were formed, then later come with the bonding between couples, sons and daughters. When we come to work, we will face the relationship between superordinates and subordinates. Through these relationships, I could eventually find what is “I” through “We”: Who am I? What to do? What is right and what is wrong? How to maintain justice? What kind of living could help settle my heart?

Confucianism values one’s morality (De, 德) and emphasizes the construction, creation and maintenance of a world of values, which could lead to the growth of personal life, giving rise to the vision that the world could become a cultivated one. Confucianism provides a value system rooted from the essence of life and guidance to one’s life, helping us to become a honourable person based on a life that is not deviated from the path of wisdom. This also helps us to achieve higher level of moral values in our life. Confucianism teaches us that we should become a human based on Ren and behave based on Yi (義righteousness).

Those who are educated in this way could live a real life with direction, motivation, creativity, and sense of responsibilities. In the Confucian vision of “cultivating a person then the whole society”, one values one’s own morality and manners. When all members of the society could keep on reflecting oneself, devote oneself to others, value the moral obligations in human relationships, and know how to respect each other, every family will foster love, belongingness, and supportiveness. In this way, a society will become harmonious. In the meantime, civilization will develop and become more profound with time.

The human being can live with dignity.

The above mentioned values of Confucianism are exactly what are required for encountering with crisis in modern times.

Confucianism’s answer to crisis in the future:

The core of Confucian scholarship is “human”, and has very concrete answers to the question “What is human being?”. From the concept of “Ren” (Humanness, 仁) raised by Confucius and the demarcation between human and animals proposed by Mencius to the idea of “seeing through one’s heart in pursuit of the right way” (心即理) proposed in the Song Dynasty and Ming Dynasty, it is clear that Confucianism has a very profound understanding of the subjectivity of our life.

In our times, it is very clear that the era of man-made lives is soon to be launched. If we need to “create” a new “life”, how can we differentiate “human” and “machine”? This requires the clear understanding of what is “humanity”. The moral issues related to man-made lives, as well as issues like subjectivity and free will, could be well replied by Confucianism.

Also, the era of metaverse is coming. In this metaverse, the planning issues of society, social structures, and human relationships, could also be responded by Confucianism.

Furthermore, the development of quantum physics, eventually supports the idea that human consciousness can intervene the quality of substances. This is a paradigm shift, which leads to the reflection upon the questions of “human mind”, “consciousness”, and “nature of life”. This is the exactly the area of expertise in Confucianism.

Therefore, in this time, if we can study Confucianism in a deep manner and have a good grasp of the insights, we can contribute to the development of civilization of humankind in the modern times by providing valuable advice.

Dr. Rex Chan

Adjunct academics of the Dharmasthiti College of Cultural Studies, Chief supervisor of teenagers.
Bachelor in Arts (Chinese Studies and Philosophy), The University of Hong Kong.
MPhil in Chinese Philosophy, Wuhan University and PhD in Chinese Philosophy, New Asia Institute of Advanced Chinese Studies, Hong Kong.
Over 15 years of teaching experience, including life education, youth training, philosophy lectures, cultural and history courses, teachers development training and organizer of various reading Clubs in Hong Kong.

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