China’s Confucian Revival

Dent, Minn.


China’s Confucian Revival

Dent, Minn.

Orville Schell is at it again! In “China’s Quest for Moral Authority” [Oct. 20] he claims that China needs to heal itself from centuries of foreign “humiliation.” The anodyne is a revival of Confucian tradition: “China’s current attention to Confucianism suggests that the Chinese…have begun to feel the moral void from which their government operates.”

There are two problems with this:

1. It is not the Chinese people who are urging the revival of Confucianism. The Confucian institutes spreading throughout the world are under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry–not the initiative of private, locally based educational institutions.

Throughout Chinese history, the government has tried to enforce its legitimacy by making Confucius into an imperial icon. Beginning in the nineteenth century Confucian temples were erected. Confucius’ birthday was celebrated in September. In a recent upgrade, the birthday party included a dance once reserved for the emperor.

2. Confucianism has joined the revival of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. By being used to serve the state’s policy of transforming past resentments into an ideology of moral equivalency with the West, Confucianism has lost its dynamism. The government has enforced guidelines on the limits of the interpretation of Confucian tradition. Beijing has replaced the Maoist dictum “The East is Red” with the exaltation that Confucian “harmony” (ho) will lead China and the world to a purer community. In sum, China’s Confucianism for export is just tradition redux and is inimical to the creation of a moral authority.



Orville Schell’s article is very inspiring. However, he misplaced a couple of Confucius’ sayings. It was in Book VII of his Analects, not in the Works of Mencius, that the Master said, “Riches and honors without justice are to me as fleeting clouds.” And it was in Book III of Mencius, not the Analects, that we find “The moral power of a Junzi is like the wind, while the moral power of the common people is like the grass. When blown, the grass cannot but bend before the wind.”


Schell Replies


If “Schell is at it again,” one is left to wonder what Schell’s former violations of Richard Kagan’s delicate sensitivities may have been. Because one points out China’s new yearning for a more ethical basis for living, this hardly makes that person a raging neo-Confucian evangelist. (Although I can think of worse things for which to be denounced, and I do find the Sage’s teachings a step up from Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought.)

Yes, having tried to debunk Confucius during its Maoist revolution, the Communist Party is now trying to revive it, and it does sometimes look like something of a state-sponsored palliative for the spiritual malaise that hovers over China. But ordinary Chinese themselves are showing a renewed fascination with Confucius, buying books on Confucian thought, enjoying TV programs on Confucian philosophy and even reading the Four Books in classical Chinese. So the movement is a top-down and bottom-up affair, not simply something foisted on people from on high.

And, yes, Confucianism has lost much of its dynamism over the last century, but that does not stop many from yearning for a little cultural succor from the past to fill the void left by the nihilism of Mao’s revolution and then Deng Xiaoping’s market-driven counterrevolution.

China has to turn someplace for renewed ethical, spiritual and cultural balance. Indeed, it is turning in many directions, to Christianity, Buddhism, Falungongism, Islam, Taoism and other crypto-traditional cults. Each has won many converts.

The point is this: as China continues its relentless course of self-reinvention, many Chinese are beginning to seek more than material wealth. Having had periods in which China flirted with Western answers, Chinese now seem eager to find more home-grown, Chinese answers. In this regard, Confucianism is logical and tempting.

My thanks to Richard Low for his perspicacious clarifications.


Constitutional Conventions

Portland, Ore.

For decades Daniel Lazare has been obsessed with the notion that the Constitution is the root of our country’s most intractable problems. This obsession stems from Lazare’s anxiety about textual meaning. He cannot accept that no text is self-explanatory, that no text possesses one essential meaning.

Lazare’s anxiety is evident in his review of Laurence Tribe’s new book, The Invisible Constitution [“No Exit,” Oct. 20]. Lazare also thinks we could rewrite the Constitution, and then somehow we would all agree upon its meaning. “After all,” he explains, “if an editor cannot understand a particularly convoluted bit of prose, he will ask the author to revise it.” Likewise, considering some of our disputes over constitutional issues, Lazare argues that the American people “should order a rewrite” of the Constitution.

Lazare’s argument represents an extreme form of originalism–even more extreme than Justice Scalia’s. Scalia argues that meaning stems only from the original text, so the text should be interpreted using only the words in the original text, as the words were used at the time it was written. Lazare argues that meaning stems only from the original text, so any disputes over interpretation signify a need to rewrite the original text!

Lazare is an originalist; Tribe is not. And Lazare has been calling for a new constitutional convention for at least ten years, most notably in his book The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy. So, naturally, Lazare would use his review to voice his reactionary anxiety over textual meaning and rehash his old polemic for a new Constitution.


Lazare Replies

New York City

I really wish people would read book reviews before dashing off letters in response. Contrary to Steve Kasner, I did not argue that the Constitution is the root cause of America’s most intractable problems, that a text can or should be fully self-explanatory or that rewriting the Constitution would lead us to all agree upon its meaning. After all, a democratic Constitution is one a majority agrees on, not a totality. I also did not write that “meaning stems only from the original text” but, to the contrary, argued that a text as rife with gaps and inconsistencies as the Constitution is essentially meaningless and that any attempt to make sense of it is doomed. Instead of resorting to ever more ingenious methods of interpretation, we should simply fix it, and the fact that we can’t even imagine how to start is indicative of how paralyzed democracy in this country has been since its inception. A truly sovereign people would not put up with a government beyond their effective control for an instant, much less two centuries.

So Kasner might want to take another look at my review. He might also want to give The Frozen Republic another glance since it nowhere calls for a new constitutional convention.


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