Tu Weiming – The World’s Leading Confucian Scholar

Tu Weiming – The World’s Leading Confucian Scholar

Professor Tu Weiming on Confucian Humanism and the Ethic of Responsibility

This is a transcript of a public lecture held at Stanford University on Feb 21st 2012.

See Stanford lecture on video by Marek Jeziorek:

The Confucian zheng rendered as “politics,” zhengzhi in Modern Chinese, is defined as “rectification,” also the character政  zheng. It means to rectify the status quo so that it becomes correct. The assumption is that the right people, right institutions, and right ideas are defining characteristics of right politics.

The 君子 junzi, or sometimes rendered as the shi junzi, the functional equivalent of what I want to argue the modern idea of the intellectual, are considered the right people to rule. The junzi in this sense is very different from the Greek idea of the philosopher, the Judaic rabbi, the Hindu guru, the Christian priest, the Buddhist monk, or even the Islamic ulama.

Even though an intellectual in that sense carries functions comparable to them, as exemplar, as a knowledgeable person, as a wise person, and also as a person endowed with some spiritual exercise. This idea, the modern idea of the intellectual, of course is from the Russian notion of a member of the ‘intelligentsia,’ but in the Russian tradition it is very clear that anyone who is an intellectual is definitely a critic of not only the government but the establishment. So (Andrei) Sakharov was an intellectual, but (Mikhail) Gorbatchev will never become an intellectual in terms of that definition. Modern Chinese have been deeply under the influence of this idea. […]

In the classic sense of the junzi as maybe a public intellectual was politically engaged, socially involved, and culturally sensitive and informed. So, the idea is very much a person of the word, and yet transforming the world from within; he is in the world and not of the world.

The right institutions are made, again in the classical sense, of 礼 li and 乐 yue, ritual (or civility) and music. For Confucius, the paradigmatic personality is the Duke of Zhou who is considered a major builder, constructor of the so-called Zhou system: a humane, effective, and enduring political system of governance that is trust-worthy, responsive, and responsible. So Mencius defines this particular kind of politics as ren-zheng – as humane governance. I will say, this is of course my own interpretation, that five human resources are tapped to develop this kind of politics.

First, I would call this the principle of subjectivity, which means personal integrity and self-cultivation philosophy. The second one is populism. In other word, the leadership is for the people, and in a sense even of the people, but not by the people. This is one of the reasons that there are democratic roots; but democracy as a form of government never developed in China, and the Chinese are still struggling to become one. There are a number of features about this notion of institutions. One assumption is that those who are more powerful, influential, and have more access to both material and non-material resources should be more obligated to the well-being of the society at large. So in this sense the emperor, the ruler, should be totally public-spirited, ideally. The ruler can never become a private person, he is always public. […] Throughout his life, the public gaze is always on him: there is one person that would record his behavior; another person would record everything he said; and whenever he was in the situation like eating, if he over-ate then the eunuch would plead him to take care of his health for the nation, and his sex life was also carefully observed, so he is in Hegel’s notion the least free. He is always in the public domain. So, this is a kind of control that is considered extremely important. It is not legalistic, but ritualistic and symbolically very powerful. Then, the assumption is that the intellectuals ought to be on the side of the people, rather than on the side of the ruler. The famous statement from Mencius 民为贵,社稷次之,君为轻 – people are the most important, the state is next, but the ruler is the least important. And of the course the modern idea of serving the people, maybe is very much of a modern coinage, is that the ruler is entrusted by heaven to take care of the people is deeply rooted in even before the time of Confucius.

In this particular context there is another feature, another resource the ruler and the intellectual has to tap, that is historical consciousness, which means society comes into being through a process of evolution. […]. … It is very different from either Hobbes or Locke – the notion that society comes into being politically because of some contractual relationship. From this point of view it is imagined, a fiction: no society ever existed because of contract – People state of the nature, then come together and then form an contract and then society is formed. It is always a historical process involving all kinds of forces, often beyond the control of a group, not to mention the individual.

But it is also a transcendent dimension, often used euphoric of heaven. I realized that a number of people used this as a functional equivalent of the French idea of the divine right of king. I will argue it is just the opposite. The notion of the mandate of heaven is diametrically opposed to the idea of the divine right of king, because of the notion of rights, like in human rights, originally occurred as the rights of the rulers or the rights of the aristocracy to claim some privileges. But in the Confucian tradition heaven sees as the people see; heaven hears as the people hear; heaven does not impose some kind of divine right to any individual. Heaven reflects the will of the people. So in this case the mandate of heaven is a regulatory system controlling the ruler. The ruler is not only controlled by people because of the possibility of rebellion, but is also controlled by the cosmic order. So if the ruler fails to perform and then not only the people will try to rebel against him but heaven will also abandon him. That is the idea of the laws of the mandate of heaven which is always related to the feelings of the people. If the people suffer then the mandate of heaven will be lost.

The fifth one is the future orientation. Any policy or politics is not designed for the present; is not the distribution of wealth and power for a contemporary situation, but is always with the view to the future. Of course some the notion of bai shi, hundred generations. […]

So, if you want to design something what the Duke of Zhou was doing, and Confucius wanted to do, is always for future generations as well.

What are the implications? First of the all, the society is a form of organic solidarity, again Durkheim’s notion, rather than a mechanic solidarity. So, the fundamental difference between the Confucian approach and the legalist approach – you know the emperor Qing who organized the incredibly powerful modern bureaucracy was a legalist – the difference is this: from a legalist’s point of view there are two kinds of professions that are essential, one the farmers, the other is the military men, the soldiers. Because a society, a nation needs the productivity on the one hand, and defense on the other, some times aggression as well. And this is form a Confucian point of view a mechanistic solidarity. The legalists were against merchants because it is difficult to control them, and they are certainly very contemptuous of intellectuals. You know, they buried intellectuals alive and burning books were things the legalists were interested in doing. And Mao Zedong once made the remark that the legalists only buried 400 intellectuals; I was able to get rid of two million, or twenty million. So the legalist idea is mechanic, arbitrary, and the Confucian idea is more organic. The division of labor is very important. Not only the farmers, the artisans, the merchants, but also the intellectuals should all be recognized and take part in the process. And of course I even mentioned once that the Book of Mencius is a defense of the role of the intellectual. The intellectuals cannot produce, cannot manufacture, cannot exchange goods; but they are not useless because they help the governance and some times, in an idealized sense, they can be critics and even teachers of kings.

The second one by implication of course is meritocracy. It is not election in the modern sense. You know we have the term 选举 xuan ju as a modern concept which has not yet really occurred in the nation, even though a billion people are voting on a village level. But xuan ju in a classical Chinese sense meaning xuan, to select from above, ju which means to select from below. So, these rulers, these intellectuals are not only hand-picked by the rulers but also recommended by the people. So that is the way to create that elite class.

And the core values, I am jumping ahead, some of the core values that can easily be contrasted with liberal-democratic ideas, but I don’t want to give you the impression that they are exclusive dichotomies; they are complementary, but with difference emphasizes. For example, there is more emphasizing on justice or equality. Not enough on freedom, especially the individual freedom. A greater emphasize on the sympathy and compassion of the leaders; not enough on the rationality. Instrumental rationality, especially important in defining the efficiency of bureaucracy, is never asserted as the real quality of the ruler.

A ruler is not a calculator. A ruler ought to be a well-developed person, therefore sympathy and compassion. And legality is important. The law is the minimum requirement for security and maintenance of order. But it is civility, li again, because only through the notion of li can the people develop a sense of shame. And without a sense of shame it is difficult not only to govern the place but also to allow people to flourish.

In a highly idealized sense, politics is a mechanism to provide security, economic well-being, some form of prosperity, and education, for the best opportunity of human survival and flourishing. So it is very different from the conception that the political process is the minimum condition for security. Great values such as spiritual values are totally individualistic, you know you have the difference between the public political process and the private matters of the heart, but in the Confucian notions these two are very much fused.

Of course in this sense I already mentioned responsibility. Responsibility is not even distributed. And the people who are powerless, for example the homeless may not have any responsibility at all except survival. The survival ability of a homeless is a dignity in the broader sense of the term, but the ruler or the people who are well endowed have a much broader sense of responsibility. And in this sense certain level of social security or social solidarity and social harmony is more of a priority than individualism or even individual dignity.

In this sense the question about human rights is very difficult to develop in China as many of you know versus the responsibility of the elite. The possibility of the functional equivalent of the rise of the people is by imposing very strong sense of responsibility of the elite. If the rulers are held responsible, for the well-being of the people, not simply to protect their rights,  then the functional equivalent of some of the rights for the people to claim, not the rights in the political sense, but the rights economic, social, cultural. […]

Even responsibility from time to time is not enough. You have to have a sense of decency. If the billionaires are not decent, even though they are responsible, then society can still be milked dry by them. So, in a very extreme case, I respect your right, I am a billionaire, you are a homeless. I have no obligations whatsoever to help you. I respect your rights. If I give you one dollar which means I am exercising some kind of altruism, not control or implicated by my rights, or by your rights. But if I am powerful and influential and you don’t have any of these resources, if you make claims of the elites for some of these things then certain functional equivalents of rights may evolve. Of course, this is a highly controversial point.

And in this sense, the private versus the public again is not a very clearly distinguished feature of the Confucian tradition. A distinction has to be made between private and personal. Private, from John Steward’s point of view, is the kind of privacy that protects many things you want to be confidential. You don’t want to let people know your salary and so forth. These are private matters. But personal is something you feel strongly but not only you don’t mind discussing it but you think these things you feel strongly about are disputable,  debatable, and of course they are also forfeitable, because there is a public accountability. The Confucians are very much concerned about personal involvement. So you don’t study something as a science totally distinguished from your involvement, especially in the political sense.

You know about [Max] Weber’s distinction between politics and sciences. But the Confucian notion about politics is very much about personal involvement, yet it is not private. And the public spiritness is always considered a positive way. I will give you an example, again a simplistic one: you have to move beyond your self-centeredness and selfishness to become public; you move away, you move above your private realm, otherwise you will not be able to experience or enjoy the warmth of even your own family.

Family is private then, but nepotism will have to be overcome. So the family will not be simply a private domain. […] Finally, the public spiritness is to move from the self all the way to the world and beyond.

In the opening text of the Great Learning is the notion “from the emperor to the commoner” each without exception should regard self-cultivation as the root. But this statement is preceded by a rather elaborate statement about the ancients who wish to bring peace to the world, which means all under heaven. […] The ancients must first govern their states; wishing to govern states they must first regulate families; wishing to regulate families they must first cultivate themselves. […]

So, the major politics as so understood has its own perspective on power, legitimacy, and law. This is substantially different from our modern conception of what politics really is. The priority of the moral basis of politics of course is taken for granted. It is inconceivable that the people who are involved in the politic process are not involved also in terms of their self-cultivation. Those who practice the art of science or managing the state of affairs will have to be people with personal integrity and ethic of responsibility.


Tu Weiming: Lifetime Professor in Philosophy and Director of Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies (IAHS) and World Ethics Institute Beijing (WEIB) at Peking University and Research Professor and Senior Fellow of the Asia Center at Harvard University.

Key terms: intellectuals, elite class, election, meritocracy, junzi, governance, ruler, responsibility, statecraft, public spiritness, ethic responsibility, Confucianism, legalism, privacy, legitimacy, selection, human rights, humanism, WEIB, IAHS, intelligentsia, public intellectual, Stanford