(Thanks Stephen Austin who wrote a comment to my post Disappointment And A “Period”! — My Battle With Confucianism Is About to End” a while ago and left a link to his own article, which I found very profound and objective, yet comprehensive. I pretty much agree with every point the author made. Highly recommend to those who are interested in Chinese or East Asian cultures.)
Distortions of Confucianism
– by Stephen Austin
It is the nature of ideas not to exist in their elemental form but for a series of thinkers to add to them and construct extensions and developments of them. These developments are frequently uncharitable, as architects of a certain agenda cherry-pick items they want to further their doctrine. The Koran for example reveals a remarkably enlightened attitude towards women considering the times, with much attention paid to women’s welfare, with provisions for divorce and clear rules laid down about fair treatment. But centuries of patriarchy derailed these ideals. By seizing upon some rather vague remarks on dress and mannerisms, it was possible to hijack these guidelines so that they became central and instrumental in insecure males’ repression of women in society to the extent they are mere extensions of male pride. Men who could only assert themselves as individuals by forcing women into subordination found the pattern they wanted by misrepresenting The Koran.
In much the same way East Asian societies have advanced certain components of Confucianism to inflate and pile on filial piety with a trowel.
Confucius’ Analects do not contain much about filial piety, with much of the over emphasis on coming from Mencius’ book from third century AD. The casual observer’s first impression of South East Asian society might well conclude that that the majority of Confucius’ output comprised filial piety by the amount of references to it and to the extent that families use it to wield power over their offspring. It distends universally, almost as if it has a life of its own, it infiltrates itself into ostensibly innocent reading material so that kids never cease tripping over and getting caught unaware by the never-ending harping on and flogging of filial piety. Kids can hardly touch a work of fiction or essays without the risk of reprimands and admonitions nagging from the pages. Chu Chung-hok, a winner of an award for language teachers at the Polytech University, compiled several classical excerpts into a book divided into themes like ‘filial piety and reverence for teachers.’ We need to remember that this material was intended as an aid to language acquisition for special needs students.
It is little wonder that many students prefer reading in English than Chinese. This inculcation can leap from the unlikeliest of sources.
So it is another example of a small idea being pounced on and made a meal of to serve a particular agenda, just as chauvinism found an ideal vehicle to promote its patriarchal schema with a few sentences in the Koran,
South East Asian societies in general venerate the ancestral, so Confucius is an ideal antecedent to domineer offspring and avoid the delicate balancing acts of compromise and sensitive communication that constitute emphatic parenthood.
Confucian emphasis on filial piety has parallels with Biblical exhortations to honour one’s parents. Confucian references to filial piety are grossly exaggerated and magnified in an attempt to produce textual precedent for bad parenting. The ancient, outdated and indiscriminate instructions totally lack any calibration or flexibility. They give abusive and / or incompetent parents carte blanche to impose unreasonable demands on offspring, disregard their needs, and refuse to communicate. Filial piety is an institutionalised means to ride roughshod over these requirements and provides justification for authoritarianism as a parenting model.
Love and respect for one’s parents is a natural response to a loving upbringing. Love is a privilege earned, not a right. When there is lack of love and respect, the fault is the parents. Filial piety industrialises and instills ‘love and respect’ by brute force. It frees parents from the responsibility of expressing love but entitles them to unconditional respect and unthinking obedience. It validates indiscriminate imposition of a parent’s will. Obedience and ‘respect’ being codified in this way strongly suggests overcompensation for a deep insecurity. It legitimises the wielding of enormous power over children and the forcing of blind, unthinking compliance to often blinkered, self-centered and insensitive demands.
Confucius had plenty of other good ideas. Voltaire and other Enlightenment radicals idealised the Chinese sage. The rise of the Chinese communists of the twentieth century certainly were not impressed by one particular thought Confucius came up with, the idea that any unjust government needed to be kicked out. No, the communists saw that with the population’s minds already grounded in Confucian ideas, the philosopher’s work was an ideal vehicle to warp into an idea of absolute obedience and deference to authority and it is with this context in mind that we find the present day resurgence and promotion of a version of Confucian thinking in China and Hong Kong.
Mao’s vigorous chucking out of anything remotely feudalistic and redolent of the dark days of imperialism certainly did not prevent him from exploiting evil old Confucius to serve as the Chinese leader saw fit. So China’s recent rehabilitation of Confucius was hardly a surprise, an action that followed old, well-worn paths.
Neither was it a surprise to see people commenting in the letters pages that Confucianism was useful as a means to counteract the pernicious western influences that were contaminating Chinese society. These toxicities were responsible for, the writers claimed, teenage pregnancies and compensated dating – the upshots of over-sexualised, over permissive western decadence. Teaching Confucianism would be an effective antidote, the writers preached.
This reasoning betrayed a number of mordant oversights. First, compensated dating originated in Japan, and quickly became entrenched in Hong Kong already imbued with a traditional Chinese mistress culture. Then, the almost non-existent state of sex education has long been a thorny issue here. Lack of political will to reform education is partly responsible, along with excessive prudery and squeamishness from parents and educationalists. Parents often have an unwillingness and even inability to communicate with their offspring, because of the rigid, hierarchal Confucian structure preempting most kinds of empathetic discourse between the generations. So instead of assigning blame to the real problem, we see a classic defence mechanism of ducking the issue and dealing with anxiety-provoking thoughts by attributing them to convenient scapegoats. Promoting ancient principles while accusing systematic censure discrimination against a society are all symptoms of unwillingness to look inwardly to where the root of the problems lay.
This was one more clumsy assertion of Chinese supremacy. China’s rehabilitation of Confucius not only betrays and presages the Communists’ predisposition for imperial ways. It also helps reinforce the widespread and politically inspired delusion that all of China’s ills are symptoms of insidious western influence.