The Confucian Way of Europe
―Europe’s Path to a New Humanism? – by Thorsten Pattberg
Few people realize the great appeal of Chinese thought in today’s Europe. Germany for example is de facto undergoing a transformation away from sheer philosophical idealism and violent Christian doctrine towards a lofty Confucian pragmatism.
Although Germany is conservative about its deep affection for the Far East (it still doesn’t officially recognize ‘multiculturalism’), it will adapt to China eventually, and I’m not just referring to its 28,000+ Chinese students, the impact of the Confucius Institutes in all of Germany’s cultural centers, and Germany’s economic dependency on China.
No, I base my argument about the Confucian revolution on three recent developments in Europe: in religion, education, and intellectual culture.
In European culture, we witness an ongoing secularization – far more evolved than that in the very radical and religious United States. Confucianism or ‘ruxue’ was never a religion (neither is Buddhism, by the way) but rather a code of conduct to create a harmonious society – the very kind of peaceful and tranquil society that socialist New Europe now aspires to become. The European parliament in Brussels, unlike Europe’s egocentric national governments, resembles a council of sages – pragmatic technocrats, not charismatic seducers.
Next, look at European education. It isn’t completed yet, but the trend goes to the unification of its fragmented educational systems, just as China unified its examination system beginning from the Han Dynasty, c. 200 BC to 220 AD. The Bologna Accords from 1999 in particular will mean better assessment and thus the promotion of ability, not birth right, as the major mechanism by which the governments should promote individuals into the civil services.
This is new territory in Europe. France in the past had its exclusive club, the grandes écoles of the rich and powerful; and Germany always had its three-tier school system, comparable to India’s caste system. Generally speaking, in Europe the upper class and the rest never met in education in a life time.
Europeans, based on their history and their culture in general show less scholastic aptitude than East-Asians. We mentioned the class-society, but Christianity, too, discourages learning; Catholicism, because God is to decide one’s faith anyway; and Protestantism because of the Lutheran doctrine: to each person (only) his profession.
The Confucian tradition according to Professor Tu Weiming of Peking University holds that all human beings have the potential to become sages or ‘shengren’. This is a bit like the Buddhist notion that all humans have a Buddha nature; it should open up very attractive ways for personal growth and self-cultivation for the New Europeans.
Shengren are very different from European thinkers; they embrace the critical spirit of learning and mastering from within society, embrace social harmony, and thus cultivate a holistic world view. China’s wenming has no philosophers. Philosophy is a very Hellenic and Judea-Christian discipline. China instead has its own distinct form of humanism, like in ruxue and daojiao. Over the course of millenia, the Middle Kingdom produced tens of thousands of shengren, junzi, shiren, and sixiangjia. Maybe the closest equivalent for Europe would be this: an intellectual community of sages, gentlemen, scholars and historians.
Next, I noticed the rise of filial piety or ‘xiao’ in Europe. Europe in the past was notoriously detached from both its elderly and its offspring. Parents were not obliged to pay toward their children’s education, and the young were encouraged to “break” with the old. The result was young people in the hands of warmongering governments, and old people left in solitude to die in nursery homes. This is very different in Cultural China, where the family bond is holy.
This brings us to the greater nature of Confucian humanism, namely the Confucian family value system. As Gu Zhengkun, a professor at Peking University explains: China is a society based on family values, while Europe is a society based on interest groups.
China to this day tries to apply a moral code among its members as if they were, so to speak, a single big family — the Chinese wenming. Europe, on the other hand, was a place of self-centered individuals who joined various interest groups. That is why China could unite already in 221 BC, while Europe till the late 20th century was a scattering of fractioned competing nation states.
In fact, the sure path to European unity doesn’t lie in more laws, but in pragmatic ethics similar to that of datong (harmoniousness) or zhong-yong (the middle way), and certainly not a continuation of the Christian ‘sense of mission’ to subdue the rest of the world. Although Europeans never experienced a spiritual enlightenment such as Buddhism, the day may come – many hope – when Europeans learn to co-exist with non-European traditions.
If Europe were to unite, it would give rise to a new archetype equivalent to that of the Chinese junzi; a bit like the British gentlemen in the days of the British empire, but only quite. Institutions of the size of entire civilizations do just that: they create new possiblities for human attainment and self-cultivation that go beyond the offerings of small states.
With the exodus of the small European nation state mentality, not only Christianity will lose its appeal, but so will philosophy, a Greek invention. I’ll explain:
If we look at New Europe today, there isn’t a single philosopher left (America, despite all its pretence, never had any). All the philosophies of the past have proven either erroneous or they collapsed. Even Jürgen Habermas is called just this: a historian and thinker.
This scarcity of philosophers, which really means the end of philosophy, corresponds with the advent of Eastern thought that always preferred scholasticism and historical analysis over speculative system-building. Not a single European “philosophical system” has stood against time, while the works of historians and scholars present us with a more realistic empiricism and useful knowledge.
As Ji Xianlin, the linguistic sage of Peking University, used to quote from the Dream of Red Chamber: “A thorough insight into worldly matters arises from learning; a clear perception of human nature emanates from literary lore.”
This is the Confucian way of Europe: A Lofty pragmatism, the Love for learning, and a New humanism.
A version of this article has been published in Shanghai Daily.