Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Rectification of Names

On July 10th, the New York Times published an editorial by Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell entitled "A Confucian Constitution for China." It argues that a Confucian "Way of the Humane Authority" is more suited to the needs of China than either authoritarianism or democracy. The essay has provoked much response, in both  English and Chinese. I do not intend to parse through the individual points of Jiang's and Bell's proposal, as that has been done ably by several commentators. As Perry Link observed in a brief response published by the Times on July 13, the chief failing of the essay is its claim to develop a genuine "third way" for China. Though Jiang and Bell demonstrate clearly how their system differs from democracy, which they deem "flawed in practice," they do little to distinguish it from China's current system of authoritarian rule or to explain how it would better serve the Chinese people than the current regime.

Indeed, the only thing to recommend the constitution outlined by Jiang and Bell is its purported "Confucianism." For those of us engaged in the academic study of Chinese culture here in the U.S., such a public exercise in Orientalism is disheartening. The tendency to fetishize aspects of China's venerable culture has always been strong, but one hopes that over time it will be ameliorated by education and expanding awareness.

Progress has obviously been slow, however. As one colleague pointed out in an online forum, a close historical analog for the Times' proposal can be found in the case of Frank Johnson Goodnow, an American scholar who urged the first president of the Chinese Republic, Yuan Shikai, to dismantle the republic and declare himself emperor. Goodnow, like Bell and Jiang, argued that democracy was ill-suited to Chinese culture, and that the Chinese people needed the succor of their traditional institutions. Yuan (who from the outset was an erstwhile Republican) happily took Goodnow's advice, and the result was disaster: China was plunged into a decade-long "warlord period" marked by suffering and destruction. This kind of romanticization of Chinese tradition is rare in the academy today, but it obviously continues to inflect the attitudes and judgment of many cultural leaders here in the U.S.

My own sorrow at this incident is heightened by the fact that, in one respect, I agree with Jiang and Bell. Like them I believe that Confucian tradition will be very influential in the future political evolution of China, and I am convinced that the rich legacy of Confucianism has much to teach thinkers, leaders, and artists of all kinds throughout the world. In that respect, however, the essay in question has done more harm than good. However many romantic notions about Chinese tradition they might hold, Times readers generally know a silly idea when they see one. If this is their only exposure to Confucian thinking on current problems, they can not come away with the impression that Confucianism has much of value to contribute to today's discourse. This is an unfortunate misperception, and necessitates the Confucian practice of "the rectification names." All its readers should be aware that not only is Jiang's and Bell's proposal not very practical, it is not particularly Confucian either. Do not judge the entire Confucian tradition on the basis of this one use of its symbols and rhetoric.

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