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  • Berliner China-Hefte/Chinese History and Society 41 (2012), pp. 43-62

    Gu Zhengkun

    Confucian Family Values as Universal Values in the 21st Century Family – Nation – World

    This paper aims to answer a challenging question: what sort of values are held to be relatively more acceptable and valid than others in the 21st century? In my opinion, the best choice is the Confucian value system, which, derived from the traditional family-like society, is the most universal moral guide for mankind that has ever been offered by any society in the past. The paper begins with the startling argument that Confucius is not the originator of Confucianism. I contend that Confucianism is mainly the result of the combined efforts of many of the cultural elites of ancient China and that Confucianism, historically, as a complete set of values, is a necessary and natural ideological product of the ancient Chinese family-like societies. I then provide a comparative study of family- nation vs. state-nation, power through examination vs. power through democracy and many other values, both Western and Chinese. There is a discussion on the values established in the Rites of Zhou which I see as a family contract dating back to the ancient Chinese nation. Confucius’ main contribution to Confucianism is carefully revalued according to the facts. Needless to say, the family-like social structure which is bound to encounter modernity is also given some necessary reflection. Finally, I suggest that the values of Confucian worldism should be placed above other sorts of values, such as the values of interest groups and “The world should be structured as one family.” My aim is to prove that the Confucian family value system provides the most valuable experiences that can be used by human beings to return to an excellent family-like social structure and value system. This most ideal social structure and value system can be summarized in three words: family – nation – world.

    Who is the Originator of Confucianism? Confucius (551-479 BC) is widely held to be the originator of Confucianism, but this belief is not based on solid facts. Confucianism has been accepted in various academic and non-academic circles as a doctrine with a complete set of Confucian terms, such as

    (ren yi li zhi xin benevolence, righteousness, rites, knowledge, and integrity) but it was not advanced or constructed by Confucius himself. My denial of Confucius’ authorship of Confucianism is backed up by Confucius’ own confession: “I do not voice my own original ideas but just narrate and expound the ideas of the ancients whom I like most and have deeply believed in” (Lunyu: Shu´er).1 In voicing these sentiments, Confucius was not being modest or self-effacing. After all, he was one of the most honest among the ancient Chinese scholars. Around 1,600 years after Confucius made the above statement, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the great and representative Confucian scholar in the Southern Song Dynasty, offered convincing annotations in praise of Confucius’ modesty, characterizing a morally perfect person ( sheng ren) “whose sense of humility grows with the progress of his moral improvement” (Zhu 1992).2 Zhu maintained that Confucius “did not advance any new ideas of his own but



  • Gu Zhengkun


    just disseminated the old ideas of ancient emperors though he indeed edited the Book of Odes, emended the Book of Rites and the Book of Music, explained the Book of Change and expurgated the Spring and Autumn Annals” (Zhu 1992)3 and that Confucius was too modest to rank himself among the worthy scholars who had preceded him (ibid.). In other words, since Confucian ideas had been in circulation long before Confucius was born, he could hardly be seen as the source of these ideas. This however begs the question: Why didn’t Confucius advance new ideas? Did he decline to be an originator? Was it because he lacked the ability to produce original ideas? No. The true reason is that Confucius was too erudite to deny the fact that ideas concerning politics and moral values had already been developed by his predecessors to such a high degree that later scholars, such as he, had little chance to add or detract or outshine. This immediately brings to mind the biblical saying that there is nothing new under the sun, and the remark made by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) to the effect that we can only repeat in different ways what the ancients have already said. This does not mean that Confucius had nothing to do. After all, not all his contemporaries were really able to understand the meanings of these ancient ideas. The historical documents were written in glyphs that challenged even the learned scholars of the time and there was a need for modernized versions, popularized interpretations, more systematic classification and organic integration. And it is precisely here that Confucius saw his mission: as the most erudite scholar of the age, when the system characterized by the Rites had been totally destroyed, he was the only scholar truthfully qualified to take on the task of dealing with the legacy of collected wisdom that was to be handed down from ancient China. He perceived it as his sacred mission to edit, revise, annotate, interpret, and transmit the ancient culture. The task that the age had entrusted to him of preserving the ancient wisdom was so incredibly compelling that Confucius simply did not have the need or the time to voice his own original ideas. This was a time when scholars were needed to save the old and precious cultural heritage from being lost forever, rather than to construct brand-new theories. Confucius therefore chose to base his narrative on the ancient wisdom and to restrain himself from proposing new ideas, to “transmit, but not to innovate” ( shu er bu zuo) (Lunyu 7:1). This was the best strategy for him to adopt for the monumental task of maintaining the cultural heritage and the best attitude, for which the Chinese nation with its treasure of ancient wisdom will forever be indebted. Naturally, Confucius occasionally voiced criticism of others for putting forward so-called original thoughts without aspiring to sure mastery of the ancient cultural traditions. He was proud not to belong among those who randomly published so- called creative ideas, “There are scholars who have invented new ideas without the true knowledge of ancient wisdom, fortunately I am not one of them” (Lunyu: Shu’er).4 This self-knowledge of Confucius is a moral quality that many scholars lack. Contemporary scholars sometimes tend to over-emphasize the importance of being creative and naturally infer that Confucius must have had the same sort of character, with the result that Confucius’ words “transmit, but do not innovate” are persistently misinterpreted as words



  • Confucian Family Values as Universal Values in the 21st Century


    of pure self-abasement or modesty. Originality is indeed seen as praiseworthy in the contemporary world, but this was not necessarily the value that Confucius sought. A good explanation of this point is found in Zhu Xi’s Annotations to the Analects of Confucius. As Zhu states, in the era in which Confucius lived, a rich accumulation of political systems and theoretical creations was already in existence and Confucius was only required to synthesize and generalize the great and manifold doctrines of morally perfect sages and political leaders in order to bring them all together (Zhu 1992).5 Zhu suggested that “narration and interpretation” ( shu) may not be less important than original creation. This judgment might seem extreme to the modern ear, but the social conditions of the age when Confucius lived and worked have to be taken into account (ibid.).6

    Who, then, to be precise, is the originator of Confucianism? This is the question that is naturally asked in the contemporary world, above all, in the West, where it is taken for granted that any theory must be the output of a single theoretician. I do not intend to refute this modern logic, but it is necessary to repeat the question: Who, to be precise, is the originator of Confucianism? Careful study of this question opens our eyes to the fact that several potential candidates present themselves for consideration, rather than only one. The earliest amongst these are the Emperors, Yao and Shun (2357-2208 BC)7, in the Xia Dynasty, King Wen, and, in particular, the Duke of Zhou (1100 BC)8 in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), because the core of what we call Confucianism today is located mainly in the political, ethical, and economic systems that characterized the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties, which had the Rites as their central ideology. Confucius knew of the rites of Xia and Shang but his knowledge was far from sufficient, because of the scarcity



    7 Yao and Shun are mentioned in many Chinese historical records and articles. Doubts have sometimes been expressed as to their existence, but these have never really been proved valid. Most Chinese scholars, ancient and contemporary, have tended to consider them as true figures in history although statements about their actual roles and activities vary according to the different authors and times. One thing is certain: even if it is finally proved that Yao and Shun did not exist, there is proof that some of the ideas embodied in the later Rites of Zhou were in circulation long before the Dynasty of Zhou. Confucius had great admiration for the reigns of Yao and Shun. He stated that their government was run so smoothly and naturally that even if it seemed that nothing had been done, in reality, everything had been done; that