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A Book Review on Classical Confucianism

February 10, 2016 10:20 AM
By Merlene Emerson in InterLib Magazine

Book on Classical Confucian Political Thought"Classical Confucian Political Thought - A New Interpretation" by Loubna El Amine

Confucius 孔夫子 lived during the Spring and Autumn Period of China, preceding the Warring States Period, at a time when China was divided. His teachings first recorded in the Analects, circa 5th century B.C., have been widely studied over the last 2 millennia. It is therefore a bold claim by the author, Loubna El Amine, that she has come by a new interpretation of the great classical works.

El Amine, an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, makes clear the aim of her book to "reconstruct the political vision offered in the early Confucian texts", rather than comment on the application of Confucianism to politics today.

However, with recent revival in interest in Confucianism evidenced by the proliferation of Confucius Institutes around the world, the publication of this book is both timely and relevant. Notably, President Xi JinPing has referenced Confucius in recent speeches, and turned to the sage as inspiration for the role of the Chinese state in fulfilling the Chinese Dream.

Through analysis of 3 main classical texts: the Analects, the writings of Mencius 孟子 and of Xun Zi 荀子(not to be confused with Sun Tze 孙子), El Amine explores the relationship between ethics and politics, the importance placed on a harmonious society and the justification for political order.

Of particular interest is the chapter on the "Ruler and Ruled" and the ideal qualities of a political leader: to be correct and trustworthy and with a love for the people. If only we could select our leaders in the West based on those credentials as well! However with few checks within the system and a tendency towards incumbency and stable succession, there are not many avenues for change nor empowerment of the ruled.

This is where the role of ministers come in, and even today we refer to our civil servants as Mandarins. Chosen through rigorous methods of selection based on merit, the ministers are the ones to deal with everyday affairs and in maintaining order within society through regulations.

It has been said that it is impossible to understand East Asia today without understanding Confucianism. The classical works have lent legitimacy to the upholding of traditional values, respect for one's elders and authority, and for forging national identities and unity. El Amine's academic work places Confucianism in its historical context by distinguishing it from other schools at the time, such as "Legalism" and "Mohism". Confucian rule does have the merit of being tempered by the concept of "ren" 任, a Confucian virtue meaning "kindness", which requires a government to look after its people.

Viewed largely as a philosophy rather than a religion, Confucianism provides a guide to the cultivation of virtues within society and in government. But one cannot easily dismiss references to the metaphysical in the classical texts, such as to Heaven and its mandate. In the last chapter, El Amine concluded that Confucians accept that "tian" 天or heaven imposes limitations on human action, and success is where we have done our duty and not from deriving a certain outcome. In some ways this sounds fatalistic and El Amine admits that it is beyond the scope of her book to examine if there were elements of the sacred or the religious in early Confucianism.

This relatively slim book of 196 pages belies a wealth of thought and study into some of the most well-known Chinese classics and is peppered with references to other academics in this field. El Amine has undertaken the challenge of analysing the 3 classical texts thematically and in a clear objective style teased out their underlying political theories.

It would be easy to cherry pick the odd Confucian quote to substantiate any point of view or action, but far more ambitious to revisit the classics to answer the perennial question of how to order society and maintain peace. For this we can only compliment her for departing from the usual focus on virtues and ethics and seeking out evidence on more mundane institutional mechanisms such as rituals, regulations and punishment in achieving a harmonious society.