To kick off with this series, I will begin with Confucianism. That is because the note that I received, The Politics Book, explores political ideas in first and foremost chronological, then geographical order. I find much sense in sequencing in this manner as well, because ideas are more often than not built upon pre-existing ideas, in terms of time and space in order and proximity respectively. Hence, the understanding of earlier ideas from the same geographical location (a secondary criteria) would provide incremental understanding on later ideas. So, Confucianism, obviously proposed by a person named Confucius (his Latin name), is the topic of discussion today.

History of China in Confucius’ era

In order to understand a man’s idea, we have to first understand the circumstances facing him in his time; this is why the author chose to elaborate on the history of that time first and it shall thus be how I construct my post as well. There is a point in the Chinese history, in 770BCE, that started an era called the Spring and Autumn Period. This was a golden age in China when various dynasties in China coexisted relatively peacefully in their own separate states. This time of peace and prosperity gave the dynasties enough breathing space to focus on the pursuit of education. The twin factors of peaceful environment and the emphasis on education gave rise to greater freedom of expression. Naturally, the Chinese, as do all humans, jumped to the opportunity to exercise these greater freedom. The expressions that comes with the exercise of such freedom exist in various forms: art, literature and philosophy. Besides the variety of such expressions, the mere scale of such an exercise in freedom of expresssion gave rise to the boom in the field of art, literature and philosophy, as per the forms that the expression took. This intellectual and artistic boom is known as the Hundred Schools of Thoughts. The boom created a new class of scholars and they were mostly appointed in courts of noble families as valued advisors and administrators. As valued advisors and administrators to the noble families, they held considerable influence, allowing them to propagate their ideas rather effectively. These scholars were appointed based on merits rather than family-connections, which gave them the tendency to produce ideas that were meritocratic, therefore anti-hereditary. Their great influence coupled with their anti-hereditary ideas shook the very foundation of the Chinese political structure at that time, which was based on the ruling justification of Mandate from Heaven. This paved way for the fluorishing of Confucianism during and after the Han Dynasty, which is after the Spring and Autumn period, Warring States period and the Qin Dynasty in chronological order. As history goes, the Partition of Jin occurred and China transitioned into an era of intense warfare called the Warring States Period, marking the end of the Spring and Autumn period.

Confucius Life Leading Up to His Conception of Confucianism

So where exactly does Confucius fit in this page of China’s history other than the impact of his idea from the Han Dynasty onward? Confucius was one of the political philosophers produced in the Spring and Autumn period. He worked as a servant and studied in his spare time. As an outstanding scholar in an era of peace and prosperity, he was greatly valued and was thus appointed as an administrator in the Zhou Court, a noble family’s court. As a person who was appointed based on his merit, he was naturally meritocratic in ideal. However, he still retained the conservative view that hereditary-ruling should still exist at the ruler-level, perhaps he was unable to shake off the conservative side of the Chinese culture that was grew on him, just like any other human beings. In any case, it was during Confucius time as a court administrator that he witnessed the dynamics between the ruler, his ministers and their subjects. He also became keenly aware of the political fragility of his state. His experience as a court administrator provided him the inspiration to develop his political philosophy of Confucianism, “a framework that (he believed) will enable rulers to govern justly, based on his own system of moral philosophy.”(The politics book | Hardback, 2013).

Confucius’ Moral Philosophy

Influenced by the Chinese culture that he was in, Confucius moral principles are mainly: loyalty, duty and respect. Faithfulness and sincerity/honesty are 2 additional but less emphasized  virtues. These are the virtues that Confucius thought would make a junzi (gentleman). Much like Aristotle, he was a strong believer of an example-based method to become virtuous (see the Virtue Theory post). Confucius thought that rulers should strive to be junzi, setting an example for his subjects to follow. The reason why Confucius believed that leading by example would be an effective way to inspire positive change is that he was also a believer of reciprocity: just and generous treatment will be met with just and generous response, or what goes around, comes around.

Confucianism as a Political Philosophy

Guided by his moral philosophy, Confucius designed a political framework in hope of bolstering the political fragility back in his time. What he proposed was a simple social hierarchy as shown below:

The basic structure of the hierarchy already existed before Confucius proposed this. What was new about Confucius’ proposal was the additional role that each stratum of societal pyramid should perform. At the top of the pyramid is the sovereign, which refers to the ruler or the monarch. The ruler’s responsibility was to possess all the virtues of a junzi, leading his subjects by example. The most integral part of the hierarchy lies in the middle stratum of the pyramid, which houses the ministers and advisors – the segment of society that Confucius was in. This segment of society must most especially exhibit the virtues of duty and loyalty. Loyalty is of utmost important as the ministers are the hands of the ruler, tasked to translate the ruler’s virtues into the executions of his policies and ideas. Dutifulness is, of course, important as well because they are to perform their jobs dutifully in order to answer to the masses. The most important role of the masses, who are at the bottom stratum of the pyramid, is therefore to respect the authority of both the rulers and his ministers as a form of reciprocity. The other virtues should come naturally to the masses if the ruler fulfill his role of being a junzi and his ministers translate his virtues into the executions of his policies and ideas smoothly. Confucius also says that it is the ministers are also to exhibit junzi characteristics as they represent the ruler on the grassroots level.

Hereditary of the Ruler

This is the conservative side of Confucianism. Confucius thought that it was ok for the ruler to be dynastic and hereditary. This, however, was justified with a rather puzzling logic: he streamlined the social dynamics into 5 constant relationships: sovereign/subject, father/son, husband/wife, elder brother/ younger brother, and friend/friend. Hence, “just as the family provided a model for the relationships within society, the traditional respect shown to parents extended also to ancestors, and this justified the hereditary principle.” (The politics book | Hardback, 2013). In my own opinion, this line of logic is incomprehensible. Maybe I’m too stupid to understand this logic, if that is the case, I hope I can be corrected one day. For now, I am in the opinion that Confucius was just manifesting his belief of the Mandate from Heaven Principle in a different form. Why do I say so? Confucius himself did write about his belief of the Mandate from Heaven. He wrote on his “hope that society could be organized and governed in accordance with the Mandate from Heaven, which would help to unify the states vying for power.”(The politics book | Hardback, 2013). His view on hereditary principle is essentially the equivalent of the Mandate from Heaven Principle, except that it was stripped of all the godly elements. The Mandate from Heaven principle indirectly implies the hereditary principle as it confers the title of the “Son of Heaven” to the ruler/sovereign. Hence, the son of the son of heaven makes him the grandson of heaven, still kind of important and thus fit to rule. However, the Mandate from Heaven also has another element: the vulnerability of the sovereign. The Mandate from Heaven can be used as a justification to overthrow the sovereign if the Heaven wills it. Two of the most common signs of “Heaven’s displeasure with the sovereign” accepted by the people are famine and natural disasters. Similarly, Confucius also argued that the sovereign is not unassailable as an unjust sovereign can and should be removed in a Confucius system. In fact, he encouraged the assassination of a tyrant sovereign as a necessary evil for the greater good. The greater good, he argued, is the result of a strong and stable government.

Meritocracy in his own stratum of social hierarchy

Confucius belonged to the middle stratum of the pyramidal hierarchy that he proposed (see above). It is the idea of meritocracy on this level that showed the progressive side to Confucianism as meritocracy on that level in all courts, not just the noble families’ courts, was revolutionary. He argued that since the ministers are duty-bound to serve the common masses, responsible for delivering policies and ideas of the sovereign effectively, and they should embody the virtues of the sovereign, they should therefore be chosen from the most educated bunch. Education, in Confucianism, includes moral education.

Rituals as a showmanship to good character

A lot of Confucianism is about displaying the virtues of a junzi. Confucius recognized that it wasn’t just about embodying the value, but exhibiting it was important too. This is because the cornerstone of Confucianism is the value of leading by example. For the people to follow the sovereign and the ministers’ examples, they need an avenue or platform to be exposed to the display of such virtues. In China back then, Confucius thought that the best way to do it was through rituals and ceremonies. These rituals were not only performed by the sovereign and ministers, public servants in general should also participate in order to maximize the positive effect of leading by example in the society. Naturally, with the sovereign and all his representatives, his ministers and their subjects, acting in accordance with the virtues of a junzi, it is easy to see how the whole of society can be driven to strive for Confucius’ version of moral perfection.

Law and Punishment 

Confucius rejected the version of laws that he lived with, which was based on religion. Confucius advocated a more humanistic version of the laws. He also based his laws on the principle of reciprocity. Framed in terms of restriction, his reciprocity principle took the form of the Golden Rule in negative: What you do not desire for yourself, do not do unto others. However, Confucius was not an advocate of the mantra: an eye for an eye. Instead, he saw stern punishments as unproductive in instilling the sense of right and wrong in convicts. What he preferred was the usage of shame to do the job. He felt that the combination of a society based on the principle of lead by example coupled with the shaming of the convict help them to “develop a sense of shame for any misdemeanors and learn to become truly good.”(The politics book | Hardback, 2013). I’m not sure how that logic works, but since I am in fact living in an Asian culture in Singapore, I can somehow grasp the logic. In my opinion, it is tapping on the strong social force that commands every individual. We are all social animals, and our social circles and reputations are extremely important to us. This is so important to us that any huge compromise of our reputation or social circle, leading to our “social suicide” can actually further lead to mortal suicide. This is evident through several cases of people being driven to the edge of suicide or fall to depression because of social reasons: isolation, marginalization, separation and shaming. In today’s context, the most prevalent one would be cyber bullying which took the act of shaming online. This shows how powerful social force is to us. Thus, shaming uses this force against us, and drive us to make changes that makes us better.

Legacy of Confucius in China

Confucianism did not fluorish during Confucius time. He tried again and again to advise for change but he was ignored because of his implied refusal to explicitly justify the hereditary principle based on the Mandate from Heaven, and also for the simple reason that meritocracy would threaten the power of ministers who were appointed based on the hereditary principle. In essence, nepotism and conservatism remains a societal hurdle that Confucius could not help his society to overcome in his lifetime. When China transitioned into warfare during the Warring States Period, Confucianism became even more obsolete due to its unsuitability in times of war. During war time, more emphasis was given to bolster the authority of existing ministers and rulers and quick decision-making. The force of nepotism only grew stronger and there was little time to ponder about morality and how to become a junzi. It is during this time that The Art of War and Legalism flourished instead. Only after China was unified under the Qin Dynasty and passed on to the Han Dynasty when China was more peaceful and less authoritative then Confucianism was adopted as the official philosophy of the state under then Han Dynasty. Confucianism came to characterize the Chinese policy since then, most notably in the introduction of the Imperial Examination, which continued till this day in China in the form of the gao kao to select the most well-educated into the public service – a meritocratic imperative advocated by Confucius in the middle stratum of the social pyramidal hierarchy. The China that we see today is still philosophically guided by Confucianism, championing the values of leading by example and sincerity as exemplified by the Chinese president Xi Jiping’s crackdown on corruption among the public servants and his governors. Politically, the modern aspect of the Chinese society did away with the dynastic nature of the ruler due to the unstoppable force of modernism. Today, it seems like the meritocratic nature of the middle stratum of the hierarchy stretched to even the ruler level, as the communist party selects and promotes based on merits – as seen by the governing capability of the top officials and governors and the recommendation-based promotion system.

Confucianism in Singapore

The only other country today that adopts Confucianism as a guiding political philosophy is Singapore, which only came to be so under the leadership of its late founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. What is missing in these modern Confucianist countries, however, is the usage of rituals and ceremonies to showcase the virtues of a junzi. This might be the missing piece needed for the ruling party to cement their support and gain the trust of the masses. This is especially for my country, Singapore, as the ruling party was accused of being too detached from the situation on the grassroot level, costing it to lose considerable support in the 2011 General Election. Although the party recovered support in the most recent election with a landslide victory, it was done through giving in to populist sentiments. This short term solution should be treated as it is – short term and thus temporary. Instead, we need to find a way, perhaps using the media, to substitute the rituals and to connect the politicians more with the common masses. The most effective example of such use, although a morally dubious one, is Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Does it not strike you as interesting that the first presidential candidate with such an active engagement in social media can win the US presidential election despite his failure as a moral human being? However, twitter is limited by words. People want to see photos and videos, providing them with visual engagement and the personal touch with the politicians. Even though the privacy of the politicians will be compromised, it is necessary in my opinion. The stakes are higher when you put in the political stability of the country and the benefits it brings – it is, in fact, the biggest strength of Singapore that allowed it to prosper till this day as a Chinese-majority micronation surrounded by Malay-majority giants. Confucianism has served Singapore well, bringing it the meritocratic element that underpins our success in governance. If we want a change in the fundamental way we do policies (by simply casting votes for the opposition), it is going to have to be well justified. That justification will have to match in propotion with the threat against Singapore’s survival because we are a small nation. A small nation making mistakes have an exponentially higher degree of consequences compared to big countries. We don’t have second chances. So unless we are already facing an existential crisis, Confucianism and an incumbent party that champions it should be the way our politics work.

Conclusion 

Confucianism is a political philosophy that is based on traditional Chinese values, the principle of leading by example and reciprocity. These values characterizes the hierarchical system that Confucius proposed. Although conservative when it comes to the sovereign, his most lasting and revolutionary idea is the meritocracy on the ministerial and administrator level. This philosophy was further bolstered through the emphasis on the importance of rituals and ceremonies as showmanship to facilitate leading by example. Laws and punishments in a Confucius state also generally makes better use of shame rather than just pure stern punishments, though this is the less important element of Confucianism given its lesser adaption in contemporary Confucius societies. Since the Han Dynasty, Confucianism had taken root and characterized the Chinese policies and the moral compass of the Chinese masses, his legacy continues even till today in contemporary China. This ideological spillover to my country, Singapore, was most fortunate as it contributed to our founding father’s policy decisions and brought us decades of prosperity and unexpected survival till today. The dynastic element of Confucianism was done away for good, but the omission of the ritualistic element of Confucianism is a puzzling thing indeed. I sincerely believe that the implementation of the ritualistic element in Singapore, which would come in a vastly different form – media – will be a politically beneficial initiative. For now, I urge my fellow countrymen to exercise cautious and prudence when casting votes in the future. Changes for Singapore will be highly impactful, be it for the better or for the worse. Fundamental changes will occur if there is a change in the incumbent party. It will have ripple effects on top of the multiplier effect inherent of our smallness. Thus, it is important and rational to not take the risk of compromising the incumbent’s position as long as it is still evidently the more competent party. Confucianism has served us well thus far in Singapore, so I implore Singaporeans to think also of the loss of Confucianist elements as a form of opportunity cost when voting for the opposition. Contemporary politics aside, I will explore The Art of War in the next post – a well known political treatise proposed by Sun Tzu during the Warring States Period in China.

Signing off,

Jackson

Bibliography

The politics book | Hardback (2013) Available at: https://www.dk.com/uk/9781409364450-the-politics-book/ (Accessed: 16 January 2017).

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