by Wm. Theodore de Bary

“Constructive engagement,” as the slogan for a new phase in the Clinton administration’s China policy, nevertheless covers a retreat to an older policy; it is virtually the same as the one pursued in the Bush years, which Bill Clinton had attacked in his 1992 campaign. Now, having failed, for predictable reasons, to deliver on his bold promise to stand up for human rights in China, Clinton has had to fall back on the Bush position, while of course claiming it as his own.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never made such a commitment to democratization, instead defending the one-party rule (as in the so-called “dictatorship of the peoples’ democracy”) as the only realistic alternative to the endemic threat of an archy—an argument effectively foreclosing any democratic development. Indeed, hard-liners in Beijing have even ruled out “peaceful evolution” to multi-party democracy, and this obdurate stand goes unchallenged in the PRC.

More seriously however we come to the heart of the problem: despite all outward professions, there are traditional practices, social institutions or even habits of the mind and heart that stand as obstacles against the practical observance of human rights in certain cultures. In both the East and West, these obstacles can be addressed once we recognize both their existence and more importantly, the fact that these can be addressed substantially within the terms of their own culture, once we take the trouble to understand these terms. This latter point is crucial, and it is the main burden of this essay: human rights issues can only be resolved in the long run by genuine multicultural dialogue—whether conducted people-to-people, through intellectual engagement or by diplomacy—based on mutual understanding, not cultural separatism. No amount of pressure, economic or political, can do the same. On the other hand, do not infer that perfect mutual understanding is in prospect, or that everything else should await such an unlikely consummation—understand, however, the effort to understand is where the process must start.

In the opening line of the Analects, Confucius sets the matter in perspective when he speaks first of practicing what one has learned in the present, sharing the experiences with friends from afar, and finally characterizing the truly noble man as one who is unembittered even if he is unrecognized by others [especially the ruler]. The first two lines express the idea of a self shaped in the process of learning from others, but the last line conveys the sense that this should produce a person able to stand on his own. Later described as “learning for one’s self,” in contrast to approval, or “learning for the sake of others,”—that is to say, for his true self-development, rather than to gain social acceptance or political advancement.

This concept of a fully realized personhood is reaffirmed in Confucius’ concise resume of his own life experience:

At fifteen I set my heart on learning.

At thirty I was established [stood on my own feet].

At forty I had no perplexities.

At fifty I had learned what Heaven commanded of me.

By sixty my ear had become attuned to it.

At seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing.

Here Confucius characterizes his life-long learning as centered on his own self-development and self-fulfillment in the course of meeting the demands of Heaven. Judging from the rest of the Analects, what he learned had much to do with his relationship to others and his sense of responsibility for them. Yet, here he describes his life experience as one of inner growth in response to the providential guidance of Heaven—a higher moral authority in the universe (Heaven’s Way as defining his own mission in life). In his case “Heaven’s command” (Tianming) is not the same as a dynastic mandate, though it shares with that Mandate responsibility for what Heaven ordains morally and politically. Instead, his is a mandate and vocation to public service that demands difficult and unexpected things of him. Not easily accepted at first, it eventually brings him a sense of personal freedom and self-fulfillment.

This is no less true of the human condition and the human ideal as we see it in Mencius, for whom the Way and the imperatives of Heaven are found in the innermost depths of one’s own being. Moreover, among the other two classic texts that Confucians later constitutes in the canonical Four Books, the Mean (Zhongyong), while paying due respect to social roles and obligations, extols above all personal sincerity or integrity (cheng), which means being true to one’s innermost self, especially when one is not observed by others or answerable to them. In the same vein, the famous Eight Items of the Great Learning give clear priority in the first five items to the individual’s self-development, before extending this further to family or state.

It is these texts and these concepts that later became formative of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation, reaffirming the morally responsible and affectively responsive self in the face of profound philosophical challenges from Buddhism and Daoism. And it is the same sense of the Way and its rightness, deep within one’s self, from which a long line of Ming Neo-Confucian scholars from Qian Tang, Fang Xiaoru, Hai Rai and on down to Liu Zongzhou, drew the conviction and courage to challenge Ming despots. When one risks one’s life, as they did, in order to be true to one’s innermost self, it cannot be thought of as merely performing for others, fulfilling a social role or conforming to the values of the group. Though it would be equally inappropriate to call this true self-centeredness simply a from of “individualism” (if by that one means individual freedom of choice or emancipation from social constraints), it does affirm a strong moral conscience, shaped and formed in a social, cultural process that culminates, at its best, in a sense of self-fulfillment within society and the natural order.

No less difficult, Confucians’ critical self-reflection and reappraisal of their own past experience, though still valid as a critique even of the present situation, remained in the realm of Confucian ideas and fell well short of any effective implementation. Thus we have reason to question whether an approach to human rights suffices if it simply cites as “Asian values” abstract ideals set forth in earlier tradition. In some recent discussions of human rights, it has been thought enough, in refutation of the Asian Values thesis, to find in Asian traditions and mostly in classical Confucian writings, some evidence of values akin to human rights concepts. For this purpose, quotations may be drawn from the Analects of Confucius, the Buddhist sutras or the pronouncements of the early Indian ruler Asoka, to illustrate their humanitarian sentiments.  Still such classic statements serve only a limited purpose. While they can illustrate traditional ideals or axial values—which are by no means insignificant—such quotations fail to address the historical realities of China in later terms or contemporary circumstances in which current human rights issues are embedded.

What happened to Confucians’ attempts to implement and live by ancient ideals is of crucial importance. Their success in practice and the limiting conditions in which Confucians tried to act upon are questions quite relevant both to the implementation of human rights and the pursuit of economic development today. Problems of continuity and change in the evolution of major traditions must also be considered. One should not take the sayings of Confucius and Mencius, alone, to represent what was instead a historically developing, yet conflicted Confucian tradition. Confucianism should not be thought of neither as static nor monolithic.

Some of the best Confucian minds came to such a realization in the modern period, and therefore a constitutional order supportive of democratic values and human rights, though not at all an assured prospect on Confucian grounds or Chinese calculations alone, nevertheless was not alien to Confucian thinking nor out of line with the growing critique of dynastic rule. Evidence comes from twentieth century Confucian spokesmen’s subsequent acknowledgment of the need for such constitutional processes and from other East Asian societies’ ready acceptance of them.

In relation to the Confucian preference for rites instead of laws, however, the need for a constitutional order to replace dynastic law points to a weakness in the Confucian approach to government because it relied so heavily, so long and so unavailingly, on the moral restraints of ritual to curb the excesses of autocratic power.

The same question also arises when one considers the status of women as an area of particular concern for human rights. Here, we also find that Confucian concerns for human dignity and norms of ritual respect for the human person were insufficiently borne out in the actual status and treatment of women. In fact, some of the severe limitations imposed on women in the name of Confucian ritual contradicted such norms. Indeed this very tension within Confucianism and Chinese society, over its humanitarian professions, may account for the comparative susceptibility, rather than determined resistance, to Western standards by Confucian-influenced societies in East Asia.

Selection from Constructive Engagement with Asian Values

on 11 March 2005 Columbia University


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