AN INQUIRY INTO THE POSSIBILITY OF A THIRD-PHASE DEVELOPMENT OF CONFUCIANISM
Is there the possibility for Confucianism to have a third-phase development? In saying this we mean to regard the school of thought advocated by Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi during the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States as the first-phase development of Confucianism. After the Han Dynasty Buddhism spread to China. Under the impact of Buddhist ideas, a Confucian school of idealist philosophy emerged during the Song and Ming dynasties. It greatly pushed forward the Confucian doctrines and constituted the second phase development of Confucianism. Over the last century, Western Civilization has found its way into China. Especially around the time of the "May Fourth"  Movement Marxism was also disseminated into our country, having an even bigger and more serious impact upon China's traditional thought and culture. Under such circumstances, is it possible for Confucianism to have a third-phase development? Can it be brought back to life? Can it still have a role to play in China and the world? In my opinion, it is perhaps too early to conduct an all-round discussion of this issue. However, to raise questions and opinions from certain angles in an attempt to push the inquiry forward may prove helpful.
In discussing whether it is possible for Confucianism to have a third phase development we must, first of all, acquire a clear understanding about the basic spirit of Confucianism. Regarding this basic spirit there have been in the past, and may be in the future, a variety of different views. The existence of different views is not necessarily a bad thing; it may help deepen the study of this issue. In clarifying the basic spirit, I think attention should be paid to two parts: the thoughts that have been constantly effective in the entire course of the development of Confucianism, and the thoughts that still have vitality today. By combing the two for consideration we may perhaps discover whether a third-phase development of Confucianism is possible from a certain aspect.
Running through the entire course of the development of Confucianism are two basic elements which still bear a major significance for us today: one is idealism and the other humanism; the two are connected.
Confucianism is a kind of idealism. Starting from Confucius, this school of thought has cherished the ideal of having a society in which "right principles prevail" and has made every effort to materialize the ideal in the real world. Despite its acknowledgment of the unattainability of such a goal, it still insists that one should foster the ideal and dedicate oneself to realizing it in the spirit of "Doing the impossible." Therefore when Zigong asked Confucius: "What if one can generously give to the people and provide relief to them?Can that be called benevolence?" Confucius answered: "One who behaves with benevolence must be a saint! Even Yao and Shun fell short of that." Evidently, Confucius did not regard the society of Yao and Shun's time as man's highest ideal. What then should we see as an ideal society? According to the Confucians, an ideal society is an ideal, which has the possibility, but not the necessity, of being realized. Despite the fact that an ideal society has never been realized before, it is a matter of fundamental importance, a problem of one's attitude toward life, whether or not one should seek to realize it. The Confucians' belief is that one should ceaselessly seek after it. This is why people at that time criticized Confucians as "being ignorant of world affairs."
Though it is not necessary that an ideal society be realized in the real world, as far as the Confucian philosophers are concerned, it can be realized in their minds. Why was the West Inscription by Zhang Zai so highly respected by later Confucians? Because it embodied the Confucian spirit of seeking to realize an ideal society, plus the fact that Zhang Zai had already built in his mind the ideal society. True, it was important whether the ideal society in which "the people are my brothers and I share my things with them," as Zhang Zai conceived, could be realized in the real world, but more important was whether one could have a world outlook in pursuing an ideal society. Therefore the last sentence of West Inscription says: I carry on my pursuit when alive, and rest at ease when I die." While one lives, one has a duty to fulfill. The duty is to exert oneself for the realization of the ideal "world of commonweal." It can be said that this is an attitude of "concerning oneself only about cultivation instead of gains." Whoever holds such an attitude toward life has a clear conscience. Today we need more than ever such an attitude.
Confucianism is a kind of idealism for which humanism is a prerequisite. Why is it that man must have an ideal and seek to build an ideal society?According to the Confucians, man is the most important factor in the world because he can "formulate ethics for the universe, provide sustenance for the people, carry forward consummate learnings into posterity, and win peace for thousands of generations to come." Confucius said: "Man can enhance the Way and not the reverse." The "Way" or the "Way of Nature" is an objective existence, but it needs to be enhanced and carried forward by man; it has to be effected by man through practice. How can man embody the "Way of Nature"? If, as the Confucians envisaged, man can understand how "Heaven is integrated with man," "knowledge is integrated with practice," and "feeling is integrated with scenery," man can then attain the loftiest realm of being a man. In other words, man can congeal in his heart the ideal of the true, the good and the beautiful.
The integration of Heaven with man, knowledge with practice and feeling with scenery are the three basic propositions the Chinese traditional philosophy about the true, the good and the beautiful; they are the ideal realms the Confucian school has been trying to attain. Why is it that Confucianism is in pursuit of the three integrations? In my opinion, Confucianism is nothing more than a teaching regarding how to behave oneself, namely, one should set a demand upon oneself and hold oneself responsible to the world and the nation. This is a very common question, but involves a task extremely difficult to fulfill. Whoever has attained such an ideal realm of the true, the good and the beautiful is a saint.
Although the proposition of integrating Heaven with man is designed to illustrate the relations between man and the entire universe, it begins with man as the center of the universe. Zhongyong (The Golden Mean) stated: "Being honest is the Way of Heaven. Striving to be honest is the Way of man. An honest man hits the right Way without difficulty and understands it without deliberation. One who conforms oneself on the Way of Heaven without qualm is a saint." Therefore a saint not only behaves in conformity with the requirements of the Way of Heaven, but also assumes as his responsibility the fulfillment of such requirements. In living a life in this world, one should not behave passively; rather, one should "make unremitting efforts to improve oneself" in order to embody the ceaseless flow and evolution of nature. In this way, man will set a demand upon himself; he will find a reason for his existence and foster a lofty ideal. In this light the most important thing is for one to "integrate one's understanding with one's behavior" so that one can have an unified viewpoint on understanding and behavior in terms of morality and self-cultivation. The three programs and eight articles outlined in Da Xue (The Great Learning) tell us exactly what this is about. It is said in Da Xue:
The Way of the great learning lies in shedding light on the bright principles, being close to the people, and stopping at nothing but the utmost good. Those in ancient times who wanted to shed light on the bright principles for the world had to first bring order to their own kingdoms. To bring order to their kingdoms they had to first bring their own houses to order. To bring their houses to order they had to first cultivate their own moral character. To cultivate their own moral character they had to first set their minds straight. To set their minds straight they had to first foster a sincere desire. To foster a sincere desire they had to first carry knowledge to the utmost degree. To carry knowledge to the utmost degree they had to first inquire into the properties of things. Having inquired into the properties of things, they were able to carry knowledge to the utmost degree. Having carried knowledge to the utmost degree, they were able to foster a sincere desire. Having fostered a sincere desire, they were able to set their minds straight. Having set their minds straight, they were able to cultivate their own moral character. Having cultivated their own moral character, they were able to bring their houses to order. Having brought their houses to order, they were able to bring order to their kingdoms. Having brought order to their kingdoms, the whole world would be at peace.
This is a process of knowledge, but still more a process of moral practice. Many must have an ideal, and the highest ideal is to "achieve peace" so that human society can attain a realm of "Great Harmony." In turn, the world of "Great Harmony" requires that everyone should set for himself the requirement of being a man, a reason for being a man, and "not do to others what one does not wish done to oneself." Noted Confucius: "To implement my principle is nothing more than being honest and just." Whether the ideal society of "Great Harmony" can be attained or not remains, of course, a question. But a Confucian must have such a goal and find pleasure in pursuing it. To lead one's existence in the world and be a man, one must find pleasure in doing so and appreciate the creation of the universe. To have a true appreciation of Nature one must be able to display creativity and man's spiritual realm in reproducing the "creation of the universe."
One must be able to show why man should be a man, to create poetry and prose "masterpieces," paintings of "superb workmanship," and music like "the sounds of nature." This is why art requires that "feeling be integrated with scenery." Wang Fuzhi observed: "In name feeling and scenery are two things, but in reality they are inseparable. Those gifted in writing poetry are capable of unlimited wit. A witty line naturally has feeling in the midst of scenery and scenery in the midst of feeling." "Once feeling is integrated with scenery, a witty remark is ready at hand." When one enters the realm of creation, it will be a realm in which the true, the good and the beautiful are integrated with one another. This is precisely where the meaning of life and the highest ideal of mankind lie. Confucius described himself as "doing things at will without violating rules at the age of seventy." Probably it was the ideal realm as mentioned above. Indeed, it must be the realm of a saint when whatever one says and does is in harmony with the entire universe, society, and one's own frame of mind.
That the continued existence of Confucianism still has a value is due perhaps to the sole fact that it provides a reason for being a man. It is most difficult for one to be a man, still more to maintain a harmony between oneself and nature, society and others, or between one's inner and outer sides in body and soul. Is such a requirement unnecessary in today's world? Confucianism only tells us the reason for being a man. We should not set demands on it in other aspects, and it should come as no surprise that it suffers from some inadequacies.
THE PROBLEM OF HARMONIOUS
IN ANCIENT CHINA
In my essay "On the Problem of Truth, Goodness and Beauty in Chinese Philosophy," I suggested that the conceptions of truth, goodness and beauty rest on three propositions: the unity of Heaven and man, the unity of knowledge and action, and the unity of sentiment and scenery. Among these, the unity of Heaven and man is the most fundamental, and it is from this that the other two unities are derived. The unity of knowledge and action requires that people realize both the "heavenly Way" and the "human Way," and practice them in daily life, while the unity of sentiment and scenery requires that people express Heaven's work in their thoughts and feelings.
Why did the ancient Chinese philosophers pursue these three unities? In my opinion, Chinese philosophy does not engage in investigating the external world, but is concerned rather with pursuing internal human values. In other words, traditional Chinese philosophy teaches people how to be human by making demands upon themselves, i.e., to cherish an ideal form of human life. Sagehood is defined by the attainment of the three unities. Beginning with Confucius, Chinese philosophers have always aspired to the creation of harmonious societies, and have attempted to bring them into being. Even when unsure of the outcome of their efforts, they still consider the endeavor to be obligatory. Thus it was said of Confucius that he "knew the impossibility [of the task] and yet continued to do it." The ideal societies they sought are characterized by harmony; for example, the Confucian description of a society of "great harmony" in the Li Yün chapter of the Book of Rites, and the "small country with a small population" in Chapter 80 of the Daoist classic Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching). Such communities exhibit a concordance between man and Heaven, a unity of knowledge and action, and an intermingling of sentiment and scenery.
But these ideals may not be realized in the actual world. Whether we should pursue the ideal of harmony is a matter of attitude. Ancient Chinese philosophers believed that some of their ideals might only be realized in their minds. Why was Zhang Zai's "West inscriptions" so highly esteemed by later thinkers? I think it is because the essay reveals the spirit of an ideal harmonious society. The essay begins: "People are my compatriots; things, my fellow-beings," and ends "Living is following my nature; death, my tranquility." When alive, one must fulfill the responsibility of realizing the ideal of "great harmony." Thus one can enjoy serenity without feeling shame to the end of one's life.
This search for an ideal harmonious society differs from Western humanism, though it can be looked at as humanism of a Chinese type. According to the ancient Chinese thinkers, only human beings are the most important link between Heaven and Earth. Sages are capable of "establishing the mind of Heaven and Earth, determining the destiny of human lives, restoring discontinued traditions of learning from the past, and commencing a period of supreme peace for one's descendants. "Hence the Confucian notion that men can expand the Way, rather than the other way around. Although the Way of Heaven is an objective Being, it needs human embodiment. According to ancient Chinese thought, a man can embody the Way when he understands the unity of Heaven and man, practices the unity of knowledge and action, and creatively reveals the unity of sentiment and scenery. Conceiving of the loftiest possible realm of humanity, one may concentrate on the above-described ideal in one's mind in order to actualize it. Such a realm harmonizes individual words and deeds with all human societies and even extends this harmony to the whole universe. In traditional Chinese philosophy, the major role of human beings is to "be human" in pursuing the ideal of a harmonious society. As the central element in nature and the community, man assumes a great responsibility.
Chinese philosophy profoundly influenced the Chinese national mentality. I believe that this mentality reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese thought-culture.
In brief, the Chinese mentality may be characterized by the pursuit of harmony and unity. Most distinguished Chinese philosophers viewed reality positively and endeavored to transform the conflict-ridden societies in which they lived into harmonious communities. Although their ideals and doctrines did not bring about actual political changes, Chinese rulers used philosophical ideas as window dressing. For instance, the ideals of great harmony and supreme peace degenerated into emperors' reign-titles, and rulers called themselves the emperor or empress of Supreme Peace. Peasant revolts throughout history used "supreme peace" as a catchword for their righteous cause. At the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220), the Yellow Turban Rebellion used the slogan "The Way of Supreme Peace" to organize farmers; Song dynasty (960-l279) peasant-revolts were aimed at "destroying all inequality in order to achieve supreme peace"; in modern times, the peasant-rebellion led by Hong Xiuquan (Hung Hsiu-ch'uan) was known as the "Supreme Peace Army" (Taiping Jun) belonging to the "Heavenly Kingdom of Supreme Peace" (Tai-ping Tianguo).
Despite its preeminence in the Chinese mind, the ideal of attaining supreme peace has never been actualized. At most, the illusion of "supreme peace and a prosperous world" was realized during short periods of history. Chinese traditional idealism is basically fantasy. Past sages might have promulgated the ideal of "governing the country and bringing peace to the world" with true sincerity, but since its actualization is impossible, their intentions have to be looked at as little more than idealized feudalism.
We can observe that Chinese thought has always been characterized by a search for unity. From its earliest beginnings, Chinese philosophy stressed the unity of two concepts, or the mutual relationship between several concepts. In the Book of Changes, Qian and Kun (later yin and yang represent concepts of duality in unity, the "Great Principle" chapter in the Book of Rites was based on the system of "five elements" related through dualistic unities. Once Heaven and man were looked upon as dualistic philosophical concepts, Chinese philosophy began to place more emphasis on the unity of Heaven and man. This way of thinking is rational in its stress on harmony and unity, and in its objection to excess and insufficiency.
Under certain conditions, this ideal is beneficial to social stability and social development, as well as to the investigation of the actual relationships between objects. Social development requires a period of relative stability, while thought-cultures benefit significantly by mutual assimilation and confluence. History has alternating periods of maintaining the status quo and reformation. Since the Qin and Han dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220), China has been in a state of great unity. Situations of fragmentation or division were always temporary. The Han people and the minority nationalities formed a unified country while at the same time assimilating foreign cultures. Based also on the concept of unity, Chinese medicine stresses an organic connection between man and his environment, between the human body and human spirit, between the organs of the body, as well as between various remedies. Qi (vitality) was used to explain the unity of things and the reason behind their mutual influence. There is a similarity here to the findings of modern physics.
Despite the contributions of Chinese philosophy, we cannot overlook the shortcomings in this national way of thinking. An overemphasis upon harmony and unity resulted in the prolonged stagnation of feudal society, the slow growth of capitalism, exaggerated national pride and a lack of progressive thinking. Chinese traditional philosophy lacks a systematic epistemology and a tradition of logic. Theoretical thinking in Chinese philosophy has not undergone analysis, and is rich in terms of the cognition of essences, similar to some of the conclusions of modern science. But without the necessary analysis and argument, it cannot develop into modern science. Because of the excessive attention paid to mutual relationships and unity and the total disregard of advanced anatomy, the traditional Chinese failed to mature along the path taken by modern science in the West. We must reform our traditional ways of thinking, applying logical discourse and scientific epistemology to the concepts of relationship, unity and cosmic harmony. We should stress specific analysis, avoid the long-recognized shortcomings in our philosophy, and make good use of the tenets of Western philosophy, in order to establish a school of scientific philosophy with Chinese traits. (Translated by Yuk Wong).
- Written by: doc