Monday, May 16, 2011

The Last Confucian Empire

Since 200 BC, the Confucian philosophy had been adopted by the Chinese political system as the moral foundation of it governance. It was integrated so deeply into every aspects of the Chinese culture, that until the most recent century it was impossible to separate the Chinse culture from the Confucian teachings, in much the same way as the western cultures from Christianity. “The Great Teacher” was truly the un-crowned emperor.

The Confucian moral foundation was build on the five principle relationships: emperor and his subjects, father and children, husband and wives, older brother and younger brothers, teacher and students. In these relationships absolute obedience is required. For example, children should obey their father, wives should obey their husband, and everyone obeys the emperor. Life’s sole purpose is to fulfill the expectations of these roles. The five relationships are also omnipotent, in that they are the only things in this universe that matter. Confucius said: “I don’t know about life and why should I care about after-death?”. There was no interests in where we came from, where we are going, or anything that’s non-human. Everything in the universe exists to serve the humans, and as long as we maintain harmonious relationships amongst ourselves, the universe will conspire to serve us. This is contrary to the Greek philosophies which seek the meaning of life by trying to understand the truth in all realms, including those we do not understand yet. There is no such thing as seeking truth for its own sake. This ignorant altitude had not only stalled China’s progress for centuries, but also contributed to the destruction of its environments and habitats.

When China first began its modernization efforts in 1850, both the government and the society initially thought they could simply adapt the modern technology without changing its values. There was no urge to “derive its power from the consent of the governed”, for example. This ‘mal-adaptation’ had lead to such disasters, that by 1930, the effort to defend Confucian culture had been abandoned and replaced by culture reforms that still continued to this day.

Why had the Confucian values lasted for so long? To answer this question, we need to trace its root to back where it all began. When agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago, there were many arable land and few people, therefore the early farmers were highly mobile and retained their paleolithic values and flat hierarchies. In early Chinese history, there were many records about clans migrated away from despotic rulers, and one of Confucian’s most admired emperors was Yu, who was basically a hydraulic expert that developed arable lands in order to attract subjects. At around 1000 BC, Chinese population had saturated the available lands and migrations were no longer possible. This created the conditions for the rulers to become tyrants. Facing the Malthusian challenges, Confucianism was the right idea at the right time for the right people, namely the rulers. Its main design principle was stability, not enlightenment. It gave the rulers the mandate to govern, with no need for the blessing from higher authorities like God, and with few guarantees for the people. For over 2000 years, the Confucian model mostly worked, except for the periodic collapses of corrupt regimes due to the lack of accountability. As China moved away from the agriculture and into the industrial age, Confucianism and its Neolithic values simply became irrelevant.

The regime in China today is really the last incarnation of the Confucian empire. Absent of a living emperor, the ‘elite’ bureaucrats govern the people not by their consent, but by their self-imposed mandate. However, the empire had been doomed since the end of the neolithic age, and subsequent attempts to sustain it only drove more Chinese away from the country, if not from the culture and language altogether. In the modern world where each new generation becomes more enlightened, the static view of Confucianism has relegates itself to a footnote in history. The Last Confucian Empire will follow too.