Westerners have always believed that a core of values and beliefs – their own – should be embraced by all of humanity. In the package, just to mention the main concepts, we find individualism, liberalism, equality, freedom, the rule of law, democracy, the free market. It is on these concepts that Western dominance over other civilizations was based, but today the West is in crisis and the East is ready to take its place in the new world order.
China of Confucian origin has in fact followed a path exactly the opposite to that of the West. Confucianism imprisons man’s action within society with strict rites and rules. We can even speak of a pre-established model that embodies a very specific moral-political construct established by Confucius himself. The basic assumption, the Tao – or Dao -, can be translated as Way or Path to follow, or better still an ethical principle valid for each man. Each person must tame their passions and put them in the Way. On the other hand, feelings are considered “good” if they are in tune with the social feeling, just as desires are accepted as long as they address essential needs. Confucius actually innovated the Chinese cultural landscape using the words of the wise. Using the past to improve the present.
From a political point of view, the state has supremacy over society, and this over the individual. As Confucius preached, there is a hierarchical order that can be summarized in five types of human relationships: king-minister, father-son, husband-wife, brother-brother, friend-friend. Hence filial piety to be implemented in the family, fidelity to authority and righteousness, benevolence and altruism in other general relationships. Furthermore, Confucian ethics is based on work for the good of society, respect for those above and solidarity with people. And again: if Westerners place the emphasis on personal rights, Easterners place it on the obligations of the individual towards society. If for the first the person is at the center of everything, for the second the community.
A concrete example, still visible today in China, is a curiosity related to the architecture of the houses. Not all Chinese people have a private bathroom, kitchen, or lounge in which to relax. The housing part is a few tens of square meters precisely because all the other rooms exist at the community level. That is, they are shared among the inhabitants of the same building in perfect harmony. The same predicated by Confucius.
But more specifically, what is Confucianism? There are those who call it a religion, others a philosophy. In general, this term refers to the set of ethical-religious ideas developed by Confucius around 400 BC and handed down by his disciples over the following centuries. The philosopher Kong Fuzi, later Latinized in Confucius, elaborated a moral and social doctrine to put an end to the spiritual decay of China, at the time overwhelmed by corruption and serious political upheaval. The core of Confucianism is the concept of virtue, which must be both the basis of the family and the state. Not only that: it is the very presence of virtue that can make anyone a superior man. But it is precisely the concept of community idealized by Confucius that in a subsequent historical period was of help to the Communist Party, to its idea of collectivization and political legitimacy.
The only difference between people is the different degree of virtue possessed by individuals. It is of little use to belong to one social class rather than another: the rich are not necessarily virtuous, just as the poor are not necessarily a fool. Confucius calls virtue ren. a Chinese word that can be translated as “humanity, kindness”. With the ren therefore we mean the availability towards others, the same that generates harmony and order in a community. If there is inner harmony, then there is also social harmony. Hierarchy is therefore fundamental, because in every society there must be those who command and those who obey. In any case, the sovereign must find himself in this condition not by birth but because he is more virtuous than others.
Therefore, it is only through the principle of virtue that a family can be happy and a just state. To ensure that the family and the state are such, some essential elements are necessary: charity, justice, study, sincerity and rituals. The first two are part of the relationship that must be established between citizens; study is the activity by which everyone can find virtue in their heart; sincerity comes from studying. Rites instead serve as norms for ideally regulating a society.
Confucius intended to revive the ideals of the past to cure the ills of the present; refer to the values of yesterday to guide the society of today and tomorrow. In a short time, Confucianism became the moral teaching at the basis of Chinese society, and it is back in vogue even in the present era. In every historical period something is always needed in which the people can believe, and here is that Confucian morality, left to burn under the ashes, returns to the protagonist and becomes the fundamental cog in the race of the Dragon to conquer the world. This is why rediscovering Confucius is fundamental to understanding the logic followed in foreign policy by China, that is, China with which we are most likely to interface.
Federico Giuliani is a young journalist and writer. After studying political science with a specialization on North Korea, he went to the country to get to know it closely. From this experience he made a book North Korea, travel to the bunker country (Mauro Pagliai editor, 2017) and recently published a second historical-political study on the country The Unknown RevolutionInside North Korea: socialism, progress, modernity (La Vela editions, 2019).
In photography: a statue of Confucius in front of the Temple in Nanjing © Wikimedia Commons.
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