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Book Review: Confucius and the Chinese Way, by H. G. Creel

2017 August 8
by Ian Welsh

Statue of Confucius from Rizal Park in ManilaAmong ideologies and religions, one of the longest lasting and most influential was Confucianism. Confucianism was the most important ideology of the Chinese for about two thousand years, and China was either the first or second most advanced region of the world for most of that time (India being the other contender.)

The review is of an older book, published in 1949, before Confucian influence was so heavily hit by the rise of Communism.

Confucianism, by that time, was seen as an essentially reactionary philosophy: Everyone should know their place and stay in it, worship their ancestors, obey their parents, and so on, but Creel argues, convincingly, I believe, that Confucianism was a radical project at the start.

Confucius lived in a period of warring states. Huge armies were raised, battles were frequent, taxation and levies were harsh, and maiming and torture were common. Ordinary people were much afflicted, as noble families fought it out to see who would unify China.

Confucius believed that the welfare of the common people should be the goal of ruling, and he set out to do something about it. That something was to create a philosophy, and a teaching, which produced officers for the lords, officers who had been trained to believe the common weal was the goal of rulership.

Confucius astutely noticed that there was no formalized training for officials and created it. He wasn’t the only one to so notice: The legalists and the Mohists did as well, but in the end, it was his system that worked.

Confucius decided to build off human nature as he observed it: He noted that parents tend to love their children and care for them, and that children love their parents. He tried to take that love and transfer it to officials and rulers. Rulers were to treat those below them as beloved children, and those below were to obey their rulers as parents.

Confucius wasn’t a fool, of course. He understand that this could be abused, so he noted that if a ruler didn’t act like a loving parent, with beneficience to those he ruled, then he wasn’t actually a ruler, but a tyrant, and duty was to oppose him.

A ruler should pick the best officials, and leave the governing to them, with an eye to flourishing of all.

Confucians should act out of benevolence no matter the circumstances, or even the results. Confucius recognized that one could try to do good, and though “Heaven” could frustrate one, the merit lay in trying. Thus, a man who tried could feel secure that he had done his duty, whether he succeeded, or even was ever appointed at all. Willingness and ability to serve was enough.

Interestingly, Confucianism was most successful in two periods: before the unification of China and for something over a hundred years afterwards. The Confucians were quite popular with the people, and princes wanted their support. When the first Emperor of China won, he did it primarily through Legalist doctrines (individuals exist only to serve the state, and the Emperor is the absolute ruler), but his dynasty was soon overthrown with the aid of Confucians, and the first few Emperors were good Confucians, until an ambitious and smart one came along who decided to gain control over the Confucians.

How he did so is a lesson which should resonate though history: He formalized teaching of Confucianism with appointed masters and teachers with stipends and so on. He chose them, he controlled their finances. Confucianism seemed to benefit from this, but, of course, it put Confucians and Confucianism largely under Imperial control. From that point on, Confucianism (very generally speaking, we’re talking about two millenia of history) was never again so beneficial for the people, and much more of a prop for the ruling class.

The Confucian sages and scholars had been, to use the modern word, co-opted.

A few summers ago, I read a large number of books on Confucianism, and for my purposes this was the best, because what interested me most was the life cycle of the ideology: How it rose, how it gained power, and how it fell.

Confucius, famously, died thinking he was a failure (as Jesus may have, and many other reformers). Only after his death did his teachings become influential, and the day they truly took power, it seems to me, is when the days of their full benefit became numbered.

This is normal for ideologies, and Confucianism got a far, far longer run, than most at being beneficial.

Seeing this cycle play out millennia ago is a nice antidote to studying more recent rises and falls; such as the relating to the end of New Deal liberalism with Reagan/Thatcher, or the end of the world system put in place after Napoleon.

It is also, in some ways, a master class in the details of ideology creation: Confucius created a system which had innate rewards for those individuals who followed it, which was beneficial to the governments which adopted it, and which was able to create a large group of people who wanted it to continue, while ensuring a wide support base in the population.

All of this makes for fascinating reading, and I recommend this book highly, though it’s old and may be hard to find a copy.


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23 Responses
  1. Richard permalink
    August 8, 2017

    Mohism (which combined elements of Communism, Christianity, and Rationalism)* also was foremost about the care of the common folk, but Confucianism won because it was more expedient for hereditary rulers with power, giving them more justification.

    * Same is true of Christianity and Communism and many other ideologies/theologies when they start out, but the more successful ones are the ones hardest to pervert, which is is why Communism is a failure and Libertarian Nirvana always remains a fantasy.

  2. bowtie jack permalink
    August 8, 2017

    Actually it’s not that hard to find a copy of H G Creel’s book.
    Go to bookfinder.com which lists 150 million books, many heavily discounted.

    A word of caution:
    Bookfinder posted prices INCLUDE shipping (yay!), EXCEPT anything linked to Amazon which will add on about $4 for shipping (boo!). Be warned!

  3. drfrank permalink
    August 8, 2017

    Creel presents Confucianism as an ideology of bureaucratic service and suggests that it filtered into the West in the time of the Roman Empire, which accounts for the Roman’s success in administering a vast territory.

  4. Willy permalink
    August 8, 2017

    The better philosophies have workable ideas for dealing with the morally insane. It’s a shame the west doesn’t have workable ideas for those who enable them, the rationally insane.

  5. bruce wilder permalink
    August 8, 2017

    The Yellow River cradle of Chinese civilization afforded an opportunity for a “hydraulic” civilization to emerge and prosper if it could fashion the capability to accomplish and administer social cooperation in production of public goods on an enormous scale. The bureaucracy and culture to support those achievements were an amazing social innovation.
    .
    The West created hierarchical civilization around the ancient Mediterranean, a civilization that collapsed in a spectacular fashion in the fifth and sixth centuries. Chinese civilization has had historical cycles — not unrelated to the difficulties of keeping hierarchical politics and its achievements working. But, nothing comparable to the Fall of Rome or of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and the European Conquest.
    .
    The initial comments made me wonder why leading Chinese ideology might be explicitly adaptive of hierarchy, but Western European ideology seemingly in denial or deliberately maladaptive. Neoclassical economics and neoliberalism talk incessantly about “markets” scarcely acknowledging the dominant role of hierarchy in organizing the economy (at least over the last 150 years).
    .
    Scale is an underlying motivation or foundation. But, managing scale and its attendant corruption requires both idealism and hypocrisy, loyalty and resistance. Ultimately, if cooperation at scale fails to produce a surplus, it fails; if it does produce a surplus, it succeeds. Philosophy might be an enabling virtue or a convenient apology or just foolishness amid the ruins.
    .
    Do we think Confucian philosophy genuinely aided the rise of Chinese civilization at any time, or was it simply along for the ride?

  6. sid_finster permalink
    August 8, 2017

    Also worth pointing out the struggles between Confucian scholars and the enunchs of the Imperial Court.

  7. Willy permalink
    August 8, 2017

    Neoclassical economics and neoliberalism talk incessantly about “markets” scarcely acknowledging the dominant role of hierarchy in organizing the economy (at least over the last 150 years).

    Seems lately that when the invisible hand gives invisible money to invisible power, there’s no invisible ruler to rap the naughty knuckles.

    If you’d tell the neo folks “Confucius say, return good for good; return evil with justice” they’d probably just respond “Confucius say, attack the evil that is within yourself, rather than attacking the evil that is in others.”

    I’ve been trying to find out what Confucius say about that, but no luck so far.

  8. godfree Roberts permalink
    August 8, 2017

    There were many who, at the time, accused Mao of throwing out the Confucian baby with the ancient bathwater, but it was not so.

    Such accusers were elites whom Mao sent for some much-needed re-education in Confucius’ core value of compassion.

    Mao’s peasant upbringing, in the eyes of the elite, disqualified him ab initio from inclusion in their Confucian Magic Circle, but he was, in thought and deed, an ardent Confucian. That does not mean he unquestioningly accepted everything the Sage wrote.

    But he did commit to memory and constantly reminded colleagues about the centrality of Kang Youwei’s Confucian classic, Book on the Great Community and embraced Kang’s goal of radical Confucian xiaokang and datong societies.

    And people, including the current president of China, listened to Mao. Xi Jinping grew up in the poorest village in China. He credits those seven years with his political maturation and his dedication to seeing that, by 2020, poverty is completely banished, every Chinese has his own home, plenty to eat, a job, health care, a dignified retirement and a good education for their children: a Confucian xiaokang society, in other words.

    China will transition to a xiaokang society in 2020 and, (very ambitiously) to datong in 2049. Thanks to Mao, the Confucian.

  9. realitychecker permalink
    August 8, 2017

    Enough already. When will they stop torturing and eating dogs, and retreat from their multitudinous stupid superstitions?

    That’s what I want to know.

  10. August 8, 2017

    No stupider superstitions than the west.

  11. realitychecker permalink
    August 8, 2017

    @ Ten Bears

    We have plenty of stupid superstitions (religion, anybody?), but the Chinese really take it to extremes.

    Good luck, bad luck, the constant drive to extinction of grand animals for the sake of getting an erection. Gimme a break.

    But for hanging a live dog to beat him, and skin him alive, because they believe he will taste better if he was in great pain and terror when he died (see Yulan Dog Meat Festival), they have earned a permanent place on my Shit List.

  12. August 9, 2017

    Well worth the price of admission.

  13. August 9, 2017

    Japanese eat shark fin soup, slicing a shark’s dorsal off before dumping it back into the ocean, alive, to sink to the bottom of the ocean, alive. Anglo-Europeans eat goose vomit. India Indians eat brains culled from live monkeys. I have eaten the heart of a bear I had just shot, after seventeen dogs ran it three miles up the side of a mountain.

    Not butchering rabbits, my friend. No one group of people – there is only one race: the human race – holds the corner on cruelty to our cousins.

  14. realitychecker permalink
    August 9, 2017

    @ Ten Bears

    I don’t mind if anyone eats goose vomit, and neither does the goose lol. (Although I suspect the goose might resent the way he is induced to produce the vomit.)

    I do object strenuously to unnecessary infliction of pain and death for stupid reasons. Therefore, I hold it to be a moral position to look down on any society that still embraces blood sports and cruel practices at the expense of animals who cannot consent. IMO, we are just animals ourselves, and our automatic claims of superior status are dubious, at best.

    Barbaric, savage behavior gets my goat. I don’t care who is doing it, it is unacceptable behavior, and I want to see it punished.

    I’m just funny that way.

  15. V. Arnold permalink
    August 9, 2017

    Ten Bears
    August 9, 2017′

    The children have not understood the mother’s teaching; many cultures (tribes); many mores and norms.
    The not “understanding” is the thing that divides us and always will.
    As I’m sure you understand; this Usian culture is one that infantilizes and enforces docility; rather than encouraging critical thinking and personal explorations of life and what it has to offer; and the subsequent dangers therein.
    But life also teaches that the dangers are another of the mothers teaching and encourages an exploration of that as well.
    Life is nothing if not explored…

  16. realitychecker permalink
    August 9, 2017

    @ V. Arnold

    “Life is nothing if not explored…”

    I guess that explains why some choose to live where child prostitution is conveniently available to “explore.”

    Got it. Some people just can’t conceive of any dividing line between toleration of diverse cultural mores and total amorality.

    Which kind of explains how we have gotten to where we are.

    And would also explain the self-righteousness of slave-owners, I guess.

    Thanks for enlightening us./s

  17. Ché Pasa permalink
    August 9, 2017

    Fortunately — or unfortunately depending on your point of view — we don’t have an Emperor and we’re ostensibly self-governing, not ruled. So the Confucian way, while it has many points to recommend it, doesn’t really apply to our situation.

    One thing to keep in mind, however, is that governance is more and more chaotic, and the systems we’ve long relied on are more and more unstable. This gives us wars without end and economic stagnation or misery for the many (benefits beyond imagining for the few, the lucky few). It gives us sabotaged and crumbling infrastructure and the inability of the public sector to do much about it. It helps give us the stark and growing divide between cities and the hinterlands.

    The yearning for rule by an Emperor (“God-Emperor” to the imaginative) to solve these growing crises once and for all is understandable. The Second Coming of the Lord was always supposed to be that, but in the interim a Presidential icon will have to do.

    For his partisans, Obama was that; they never lost their faith and belief, and it’s unlikely they ever will. Much the same is true of Trump partisans. It doesn’t matter to them what he does or doesn’t do, he fulfills an emotional need and that’s all they seem to care about — much as has been the case with every other celebrity raised to high office.

    The question is, ultimately, whether our experiment in self-government is exhausted and at its end. If so, what’s next? Should we embrace rulership by God-Emperors? Succumb and submit with the hope that whoever takes the throne shall be wise and good and understand the Analects?

    Some are quite ready, nay eager, to do that.

    Some of us continue to resist.

  18. Willy permalink
    August 9, 2017

    Nobody partisan should have supported the giving away of so much to China. I try to remind wingnuts wherever I can that their people were also complicit in allowing the empowerment of an atheist abortive communist country so much that it could be the next world leader. Maybe that’ll help get their heads out of their asses.

  19. bruce wilder permalink
    August 9, 2017

    @ Ché Pasa

    We need political hierarchy to organize the economic system at the scale of human activity and population, but we do not seem to be able to manage it properly along any of several dimensions. We have not been able to manage guarding of the guardians, or holding leadership to account to a mass public, especially thru generational succession.

    China was able mobilize under hierarchy repeatedly over the long arc of history, but anacyclosis never stopped. And, fundamental problems — overpopulation pressing down on agricultural productivity chief among them — were, as far as I know, never recognized or addressed even indirectly before the 20th century. The idea of holding the Emperor to account by the Mandate of Heaven has to strike us as quaint though it is not so far from some authoritarian concepts in the West ranging from absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings down to the Caudillo.

    The actual dynamics of Chinese politics, I believe, were often not very different from those manifesting in various European states during nation-state formation with various socio-economic classes contending chaotically for power.

    In the West, the Roman Empire, which organized hierarchically to solve a somewhat different set of problems from those of the hydraulic civilization of the Yellow River and later the Yangtze, as i mentioned, collapsed catastrophically. There were no shortage of attempts to revive the Roman state — some whisper of historical memory was heard down thru the centuries — but it never happened. But something else did happen in political evolution: parliamentary representative democracy (fronting for an oligarchy significantly scaled up from the 16th or 17th century onward) complemented by an emerging bureaucratic state and bureaucratic enterprise.

    When “external” or “outside” threats or challenges compel the oligarchy and its supporting cast of elite technocrats to want the society and its political economy to perform well in some general sense, the power of hierarchy to organize at scale can make itself felt as achievement and progress, but the oligarchy and its cadre of elite technocrats have inherently mixed motives as soon as their membership recognize the possibility of the elite prospering from the decay of the society and corruption of the system of governance.

    Recognition of the same set of “corrupt” possibilities from the bottom does not necessarily motivate a remedy. Cynicism and suspicion tends to be indiscriminate, to undermine all elite initiatives, regardless of their particular merit. Some of our own oligarchs in America saw that an appropriately self-defeating ideology could be synthesized and fed to the idiots as libertarianism, but I digress.

    It seems to me that “objectively” there are too many people to prosper on this planet in our present and immediately prospective modes of production. Our oligarchs and their technocratic cadre are thinking aloud about making most of the population redundant and, perhaps, engineering a society of superhumans, by concentrating the profligate use of resources in few hands. The fantasy of self-driving Uber is just one form this takes. (Could the name “Uber” shout any louder?) The self-defeating resistance is off “rolling coal” or at least driving their SUVs in denial.

    You make a point about how many people have been in denial about who and what Obama is and was. I agree that a lot of people ostensibly on the center-left in their politics simply refused to see who he is and for whom he chose to carry water. The refusal to prosecute Wall Street or break up the banks was a choice with profound albeit delayed consequences. I mention this to people enamoured of Obama and they nod, but they do not really “get it”. I see that as not understanding how society functions, but I do not think it means they believed Obama was god-like; it seems like they did not think he was responsible at all for doing anything more than sounding good in a banal way on teevee.

    (There are other people who hate Obama, but they are often completely incoherent in their reasons, perhaps falling back on racism or the craziness of birtherism.)

    In the completely different context of the politics of the EU and the Euro, there’s no charismatic figure, but there’s a centre-left politics that decries Brexit as a variant on incoherent Trumpian populism and never acknowledges any of the “mechanical” problems of European governance, which have disabled popular self-government at the nation-state level.

    Maybe you could argue that the Idea of Europe has the mesmerizing effect of the idea of the Mandate of Heaven and the Emperor’s authority. Still, it is puzzling to me how stubbornly people can refuse to confront the very real problems of governance created by the idealistic and absolutist embrace of “the four freedoms”.

  20. bruce wilder permalink
    August 9, 2017

    Nick Bilton, Vanity Fair
    “over and over again, various sources told me that Zuckerberg had grander plans in life and wanted to be “emperor.” ”

    File that under news you can use, I guess.

  21. August 9, 2017

    As I have observed downstream, the problems we face today, with a population flirting with ten billion on a planet that can barely sustain one, is the systems we rely on are obsolete, dating to when the population was a quarter, or a tenth, of what it is today.

  22. Hugh permalink
    August 9, 2017

    Confucius was born in 551 BC. China was unified 300 years later in 221 BC by the first Qin emperor who was a Legalist, not a Confucian, as Ian notes. But you know the Han were pretty squirrely too. They are right up there with the Houses of Lancaster and York in England, the Valois in France, the Borgias and Medici in Italy, the early Roman emperors, the Persian emperors, etc. The wonder is that any of them could cohere for any length of time at all.

    Nor did Chinese bureaucracy prevent the Chinese state from falling apart periodically over the next 2,000 years. As for Mao, I suppose you could make the argument that he was an anti-Confucian Confucianist. But I tend to see the Cultural Revolution as more Trotskyist, permanent revolution, a move to keep a new set of elites from entrenching themselves. It was ill-conceived, poorly executed, and ultimately failed, spectacularly.

  23. Ché Pasa permalink
    August 10, 2017

    Bruce W:

    Of course the US is a de-facto empire, and the president is a de-facto emperor — built in to the framework of the nation, the gloss of constitutional self-governance notwithstanding.

    Until fairly recently, there were legal and institutional constraints on the powers and authorities of the president/emperor, but those have been pretty much jettisoned in the last couple of decades. Certainly the various emergency and anti-terror (“”) acts following the attacks on 9/11/2001 have had a transformative effect on the government and the American people.

    The inability of Congress to function wrt various domestic issues has been highlighted during the first few months of the current regime, and that inability can easily be used to cancel limited remaining congressional authority (which Obama bent over backwards to restore) especially if/when the New Model Guns of August are fired.

    Thus the transformation from self-governing republic to autocrat ruled empire will be complete.

    The only problem is we don’t have a Good Emperor on the throne.

    Nor is there one in waiting.

    Not even Zuckerberg.

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