In Search of the Core Value of Life:
Confucianism and the Perplexity of
The institutional basis of modern society has established on capitalism, democracy, urban civilization and the rule of law, while science and art form the backbone of its culture. Having contributed in numerous aspects to the well-beings of mankind, though, these institutional and cultural achievements did not really provide the core value of life for us. However, without a solid grasp of the core value of life, no matter how much we have obtained or achieved in the modern society, human beings are still unable to have peace in their mind, less to say in their life. As a contrast, Eastern philosophy and religion in general, and Confucianism in particular, though failed in creating a modern society, are exactly expert in providing a path of exploring the meaning of life and offering answers to it. Over the long course of human history, vast changes have occurred, but human nature remains the same. Since the basic principles of Confucianism have survived the test to which time has put, they may still be very valuable for the mankind even in the modern era. Therefore, if we want to look for the core value of life, Confucianism may still provide a meaningful answer to this difficult question.
1. Structural Elements of Modern Society and the Loss
of Core Value
We need to, first of all, analyze the major characteristics of the life style of modern society if we want to understand the perplexity of modern people. In order to do so, we need to find out the structural elements that dominate the life of moderns. The history of the modern history of the world tells us that capitalism is the primary structural element of modern society. Without a market-oriented economy empowered by capitalism, an enhanced productivity that is fundamental to the so-called modern life style will not be possible. To increase the national output or productivity is by now the most important concern of most modern states. In order to be classified as a modern nation, this issue seems to be more important than the nature of the regime. Dominated by capitalism and market-oriented economy, people in modern society tend to prioritize their income or wealth as the most important issue in life. To many, having better income means a better life, a life with better enjoyment and socially and politically higher status. However, although it is human nature to pursue wealth and accomplishment, this kind of pursuit by itself can not really satisfy the psychological and spiritual need of the people, and often leaves them with a sense of loss in the end.
The second characteristic of modern society is democracy, which advocates respect for individuality, protects human rights, promotes transparency of political governance, and implements legalization in all institutions. Though not without many deficiencies, it is approximately the best political system that human
beings enjoy so far. However, majority rule prevails in the operation of a democratic regime. In the eyes of the commonalty, there is no sacred role model to be held in great reverence. The number of votes determines success or failure, even the right or wrong. Consequently, a sort of collective value or selection oftentimes fails people’s true sense of value. With the expansion of capitalism and accentuation of personal interests, the entire society has grown more and more vulgarized. Since majority rule is how market-oriented economy and democracy function, vulgarized value and taste will certainly overextend its reach. So far, we have found that no advanced society knows how to cope with this kind of problem. As a result, in the latter half of the twentieth century social norms and moral standard have been going downhill.
In a matured democracy, a constitution and the spirit that it represents remain the value shared by all. The essence of democracy lies in the rationalization of political governance, protection of human rights, and allowing every citizen to enjoy adequate liberty on the premise that other people’s liberty is not directly violated. However, all these do not really respond to the core value of life. Protection of human rights affirms the basic rights or value all humans are entitled. But it does not serve as origin of value of life either. The concept of liberty represents the highest value and serves as the kernel of political, economic, cultural even socio-ethical operations. Liberty is a truly precious quality which all the value of life and morality itself sets its backdrop against. However, what is provided by liberty is the freedom to choose, which by itself can not serve as a real guidance of life. In the world where the idea of liberty and democracy rules, people who are overwhelmed by the sense of loss are still everywhere. By now, it is more and more clear that the systems of democracy and liberty do not suffice to
solve this issue about core value.
The third prevailing dimension of modern society is urban civilization. Modern life features urban civilization as one of its main structures. This is a special phenomenon in human history, owing to the fact that before the twentieth century, most people lived in rural areas. The aim of city structure is to achieve the highest efficiency in a relatively small space. Corollaries from the device of urban planning include negligence in humanity and isolation from the nature. Taking speed and efficiency as top priority, the situation is getting worse in most big cities around the world. Crowded space, isolation from the nature, demanding requirements for working in capitalist society etc., all add up to the oppressions in modern cities.
The fourth dominant characteristic of modern life is the rule of law and contract. These two elements shape the relationship we have with each other and with the society. Law and contract do not necessarily make people feel bad or uncomfortable. Owing to the complex and multifaceted character of human being, it does take many regulations to direct and assure the proper relationships between everyone. Therefore, the invention of the rule of law and contract could be viewed as one of the greatest achievements in human civilization. However, law can only regulate our basic obligations to the society, not the value of life. While contract, which weighs benefits and lost, or rights and duties from the beginning, is only utilitarian. Moreover, contract and regulations basing on law are unavoidably rigid and mechanical. They can not bring something that can touch our heart or ignites true emotions.
2. Cultural and Intellectual Crisis in Modern Society
In the twentieth century, most Western countries have felt in common a cultural and intellectual crisis. In order to fully understand the nature of this crisis, we have to study the basis of modern higher culture, namely science and art. Science and art form the basis of modern Western culture in that science provides the framework for modern worldview, and art nurtures peoples’ mind and heart under the worldview as such. Therefore, the nature of modern science and art, and people’s view of them are in the first place to be examined.
A. The Crisis of Science and Rationality
The downfall of the authority of reason and the faith in truth in the twentieth century forms the greatest intellectual crisis in Western history. Science can be best described as precise and systematic understanding of the empirical world. Scholars in the twentieth century found that subjectivity, uncertainty and diversity always remains regardless of the subjects of research, be they natural science or social science. Discrepancies lying in the interpretations of the basis of this physical world make it less possible to reach an integrated system. Differentiation and divergence among mathematics, logic and empirical natural sciences has become phenomenal. As for the study of humanities, it has never succeeded in equating itself with natural science, so it is left far behind when it comes to the analysis through the “scientific methods.” Research fields in humanities are so differentiated that it is never possible scholars can reach consensus in higher level.
scientific truth evolves with time.1 Meanwhile, Hermeneutics reminds us of the
limitation of positivist approach and scientific method, while maintaining that the so called truth is only interpretation.2 The optimistic viewpoint of the possibility to
attain absolute truth is shattered. Knowledge, for most people, is merely a means for problem solving, instead of a criterion of truth or value. The significance, solemnity and traditional motivation of academic research, which relies mainly on the idea of truth, is gone. It is no wonder that fewer and fewer people believe that science and philosophy have the capacity to provide the value for life.
Modern science leads not only to the decline of the idea of truth but also the forming of an “iron cage” of life. Modernization is, as Max Weber indicates, a process of intellectualization and rationalization. Devices such as market-oriented economy, democracy, urban planning, rule of law, and academic research are product of rationality and knowledge. The process of rationalization makes sure everything is “on the right track”—in an organized, systematic, standardized and efficient process. The cold, mechanical, rigid rules that govern modern people can only encourage the desire to escape.3 Modern artistic movements such as
Romanticism, Impressionism, Primitivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, deconstruction and Postmodernism all cry for the liberation from the “iron cage” by revolting against the standardized and reified modern life style.4
1 Thomas Khun, in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, points out that
science does not progress via a linear accumulation of new knowledge, but undergoes periodic revolutions, also called paradigm shifts.
2 See Gadmar, Truth and Method （translated and edited by Garrett Barden and John Cumming.
New York: Crossroad, 1984）
3 See Gerth and Mills ed. From Max Weber (New York : Oxford university press, 1946) ; Gao,
Cheng-shu, “Rationalization and Capitalism”(Taipei: Linking Books, 1986)。
B. The Crisis of Modern Literature and Art
Science, knowledge and rationality can not provide the core value of life for modern people.5 Then how about art? In our time, art is often taken as the only
redemption of life by many people, especially the so-called highly educated people. However, more and more people also begin to realize that the classic criteria of beauty and virtue are collapsing. Since the criteria of traditional value are not convincing enough, is it possible for us to set up a new standard with the basis of aesthetics? New theories emerge in the 1980s: the base of genuine knowledge and morality falter, while the aesthetic experience is genuine. So people turn to building up the value of everything on the backdrop of the aesthetic experience. 6Does this approach fulfill our needs? In order to answer this question,
we have to look back at the contemporary history of literature and art in the Western world.
After 1960s, new ideology of literature and art started to break away from all existing criteria of art. As a matter of fact, no criteria are to be admitted or accepted in this new ideology. The breakout launched in the school of literature and art, and then spread to the entire circles of thoughts. After 1970s, deconstruction, founded by people like Jacques Derrida, has voiced out and
5 For a detailed discussion of the sadness, longing for the nature, vitality, emotions and passions
of intellectuals, see Saul Bellow, Herzog (New York: Viking Press, 1964)。
6 As to this new approach, scholars once tried to re-organize Kant's three great critiques, which
deal respectively with pure reason, morality and judgment. Kant maintains that a critical study of pure reason is the basis of true knowledge, and it is the groundwork of a further discussion of virtue and beauty. Contemporary philosophers apply an exactly opposite approach—they see aesthetics experience as a starting point while reviewing the issues of truth and virtue. See Paul Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Taste (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1997, 2nd ed); Paul Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom : Essays on Aesthetics and Morality, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Salim Kemel, Kant’s Aesthetic Theory (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).
marked its significance. Following the legacy of Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger to question the authority of knowledge and truth, Derrida maintains that everything falls victims to arbitrary definition encompassed in the network of texts and languages, while human beings always entitle themselves to objective truth. The idea to subvert every objective truth and the denial of all detectable information has been trendy in the humanities since 1980s. Post-modern literary criticism, philosophy, historiography and even social science have been put forth one after another, and this phenomenon epitomizes a point of no return: a path of diversification, liberation, and subversion. The call for subversion grows stronger and stronger, and it has provided the best excuse for audacious artists to act in a self-indulgent and frenzied fashion. 7
The purpose of modern art lies in ceaseless change, innovation and differentiation in and of itself. Because only through new symbols, colors and styles, artists and viewers can be exposed to a new sensation of vision, olfaction, hearing, and touch. That too is almost the only way to arouse new inspiration. So we can say the contemporary history of literature and art is, as a whole, a history of senses and imagination extracted from new styles, skills and contents.8
Therefore we have seen an overall development that has never happened before the twentieth century. When there seem no possibilities of more varying and diversifying styles, people start to feel tired. Lao-tzu once tells us that “the five
7 Popular literary works in the present times is an ample evidence of the emptiness and horror. The
works of Albert Camus, Haruki Murakami, Saul Bellow, of existentialism, eschatology, and of the Beat Generation are some of the best examples, just to name a few.
8 A contemporary research claims that the arrangement and creation of aesthetic form is the
essence of art. The same contents may vary drastically with different arrangements of form. See Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory （ Oxford: Blackwell, 1983 ） , 1-17, 95-97, 134-141; M. H. Abrams, Glossary of Literary Terms （Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993 ）, 120-121, 246-248, 273-275, 284-286.
colors blind the eye; the five tones deafen the ear; the five flavors dull the taste.”9
With more innovation and richer styles and skills, what has represented by contemporary art is a sense of sorrow, loss, degeneration, and sometimes a state of frenzy, horror and hallucination.10 In the old time, the purpose of art is to bring
about catharsis. The contemporary art, instead, brings about disillusion where there is life’s final destination, which no one has control. It is natural that artistic and literary works are inclined to amplify frustrated or painful feelings that are common occurrences in daily life since the beginning of time. However, with the help of a highly-differentiated, solitary, over-refined development, human mind is more easily crushed, and emotions drifted farther away.
Resorting to presentation of degenerated sense, modern art features a refined and divinely-beautiful fashion to represent itself. Now we are also introduced to all grotesques in sensory satisfaction, mischief, exposure and narcissistic manner. Once an intensive stimulus is prescribed, be it a new interest or feeling, this sort of work seems to be consecrated as art. A highbrow partaker remains faithful to his own ideas, while a lowbrow cares solely about success in market awareness and thus does everything peculiar to attain this objective. So regarding the mainstream of art work, we are again presented by the touch of frenzy, confusion, indulgence, melancholy and suffering.11Then, art does not seem to provide us access to core
value of life.
9 “Lao Tzu”, Chap. 12.
10 In the films of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowki’s Trois Couleurs and La Double Vie de
Veronique, we discover different presentations of pursuit emphasis on the individual's life and beauty. All of them are masterpiece of artful achievement. Flashes of creative reveries coincide with screen fades and bursts of suppressed music, stylized subjective shots narrate the story deeply in humanity. Nevertheless, a tone of sadness lingers in the movies all the time.
11 The works of van Goah, Picasso and Dali are typical cases. Those who have a taste for browsing
To sum up, the basic structure of modern economy, politics and law has made possible on the one hand a prosperous and orderly life style, while on the other promoted a tendency to commercialize, consumerize, vulgarize, dehumanize and reify everything. Modern learning, art and current values also can not provide the kind of core value that people could cling to. People in general may still have the longing for truth, good and beauty, but was often discouraged by the modern situations as stated. However, life in the modern world, like always, is still subject to imperfection and obstacles. Perplexity originated from inner and external causes follows closely, only to make life more challenging. Now that humans encounter the situation that there is nothing served as core value in which they can take root, it is not surprising that they seem unable to cope with the various challenges in life. The constant frustration accordingly generates a radical sense of rootlessness, insecurity and meaninglessness. No matter how much one enjoys, experiences or possesses in his own life, deep down inside his heart he will find it difficult to maintain the peace of mind. This is the warning sign of the absence of core value.
3. Confucianism and The Challenge of
What good does Confucianism do to cope with this situation? There is no easy answer. We have to first clarify the correlation between Confucianism and modernity so as to verify whether or not they are able to be compatible with each other, then to further discuss what the core value advocated by Confucianism means to all humankind, and finally decides the role it plays in modern society.
The ethnic groups that have been strongly affected by Confucianism nowadays total more than 1.7 billion worldwide,12mainly residing in mainland
China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, South East Asia, among other regions all over the world. Aside from the Greater China areas, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan had their value systems shaped in accordance with the course of Confucianism in their early history. This is why they have developed a similar version of philosophy of life with that of Confucianism. Historically, Confucianism and Buddhism often helped to form the core value systems of the above people. Despite the fact that Taoism has deeply rooted in the peripherals of Chinese civilization, it has lesser influence on Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Nevertheless, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism oftentimes complement each other in these areas. The source of the core value systems of these ethnic groups has never been restricted to Confucianism only. However, Confucianism often proves to be representative of the value systems cultivated in these cultural systems. 13
Among all the other non-Western cultural systems, Confucianism has felt the greatest impact from the West. Its importance has been declining drastically and is virtually at stake now, especially in areas covered by Chinese civilization, where Confucianism has originated. To a greater number of ethnic Chinese, Confucianism is regarded not only archaic but crumbled and fallen. As a contrast, civilizations dominated by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have not been similarly subject to the same impact, in that those value cultural systems that base themselves on religions are difficult to be changed unless those aforesaid beliefs suffer overall eradication or a thorough religious conversion movement. To any one of those civilizations, any attempt to uproot the traditional religious beliefs that prevail for centuries means no less than suicide. This is the reason why not any form of autonomous eradications of these beliefs has ever happened here, even
ghost population is found all over the mainland), 23 million in Taiwan, 7 million in Hong Kong, 3 million in Singapore, 70 million in Korea, 130 million in Japan, and 80 million in Vietnam. According to OCAC (Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission Taiwan), global ethnic Chinese total about 1.749 billion.
13Confucianism is conventionally considered a school of thought, which is developed from the
teachings of various early Chinese philosophers. In this article, however, I hold that the remarkable feature of Confucianism is that it is the encapsulation of classical tradition, which has been put into consolidation and reorganization by Confucius, and later scholars. Those who embrace the core value advocated by this classical tradition fit into the school. Confucianism contains the learning process and reflection of this system. Securing its core conviction and value in learning and reflection, Confucianism neither falls to the category of religion a religion nor is supposed to be maintained by faith. The way and view of life of this school requires modification and amplification by Confucianism.
though these cultural systems experienced Western colonialism to a far more intensive degree than Chinese civilization did. As a matter of fact, some of their residents have evolved into fundamentalists. This reality reveals at least one thing about these civilizations: they tend to be conservative, and reject modernity as much as possible while confrontation occurs.
Cultural tradition of mainland China has suffered the most impact from Western civilization, mainly because China synchronizes its pursuit of modernity with the anti-tradition movement (aiming particularly at Confucianism, as well as Buddhism, Taoism, Ying-yang Schools, etc.), while Japan, Korea, Singapore and even Taiwan have never seen such a full-scale movement to combat traditions. The consequence it brings about is both clear and ironical: China has lagged far behind in the course of modernization. Japan, the most successful case, turns out to be the country that takes most advantage of the traditional value systems of Japanese Confucianism and feudalism. As to such countries that have lesser attempt to act on anti-tradition movement as Taiwan, Korea and Singapore, what is achieved is a much higher degree of modernity than China does. Therefore we conclude that traditional value systems representing by Confucianism do not necessarily contradict modernity. On the contrary, they nourish its development.
We should not, however, attribute the series of radical anti-tradition movements in China in the last century merely to the misunderstanding from the contemporary Chinese or any misfortune. Since China is much larger in total area, it is way too complicated to figure out any clear solutions to its social and economic issues at the time the country was in crisis. The anti-tradition movement in China has its own cause. Herein we do not intend to trace all its historical backgrounds as it will be too time-consuming. What we can basically outline is that for people of a country that faced domestic and diplomatic crisis at the same time, it was natural that they demanded an immediate reform. However, the fact is that this country it too sizable to summon a quick response to the emergent need of full scale changes in not just political but also economic, social, and cultural conditions to cope with the harsh realities of the second half of nineteenth century. Worsening by too many demanding issues taking place at one time, the poor management of its political governance never had a chance to fight back. Without enough time to catch its breath, invasions from the Great World Powers forced the country to welcome the tide of revolution, which took the initiative to attack its traditional culture. China had long constructed its political, economic and social structures on Confucianism. The cause of the fact that Confucianism has become the target of condemnation does not come from nowhere. Nevertheless, major players of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Communist Party of
China, both of whom took the lead in the revolutionary activities, as well as those anti-traditional intellectuals in academic and cultural spheres are, nonetheless, “semi-modernized” social elites who had featured solid backgrounds of Confucianism. A series of revolutionary activities that provoked political, social and cultural changes made the country pay dear price but reached a bitter result. Looking back at the modern history of China, Confucianism is both the key to its success and failure. All its gain and loss, glory and lament are intermingled with each other without clear distinction. However, if we view the non-Western world as a whole, Confucian civilizations, including China and other more successful examples in East Asia, still are the territories that enjoy the greatest achievements resulting from modernity.
4. The Core Value of Confucianism and Modern
Confucianism is not a religion. What lies in Confucianism that makes it distinct from religion is that the former features practical and resilient characteristics. Moreover, it honors morality and idealism and pays respect to family and social order. If we attempt to modernize Confucianism, these intrinsic elements will form a solid basis we can rely on to work for a modified version. Still, we have to abandon some attributes that fail keeping up with times in Confucianism, including some moral judgments and philosophies, and the models of its social and political life. Just because Confucianism does not fall to the category of religion, most of its value systems that are attached to traditional social structure have a tendency to collapse while overall changes occur. If the political, social and judicial systems of Confucianism have been well replaced by modern institutions, does it still matters in a modern world? Why do we assume that it still contributes to solving the perplexity confronted by modern humankind? Two phases are required to analyze the above questions. First, we have to clarify what the core value that Confucianism is able to offer to the society; second, we have to verify whether this core value will go seamlessly with existing political, economic and social structures and further improve or even re-shape these systems.
We have mentioned that Confucianism is literarily at stake now, but it is hard to deny that there still lies in its core value the irrefutable truth that remains even firmer as time goes by. If we are to elaborate the meaning underlying this system, it is necessary for us to probe into the backdrop where it originated. Confucianism is a product that generated by Chinese cultural elites after deep reflection upon all aspects of humanity and tradition when a disturbance spreads around the national institutions and cultural grounds during the crisis of the Zhou dynasty. Confucius reinterprets the foundation which King Wen, King Wu and Chou-kong depend on to rule the country that falls apart after long-term changes. He seeks for a right plan to re-establish social order by sorting out the essence of the institutions and culture from the chronicles of the Zhou dynasty, whose early period is a time when everything centers around “li,” a practice that includes all kinds of institutions, ritual, propriety, etiquette, etc. The functions of political, social and cultural realities are accordingly incorporated into li during the antiquity. After a thorough study of the cultural systems of not only Zhou but earlier dynasties, Confucius discovers that the root of li is jen. This is how he secures jen as the core value of life. jen may be described as an affectionate and friendly disposition of mind, which is naturally generated while humankind interacts with all living things in the world.14By the same token, it is the realization that an individual is never be able
to exist without other people and the entire world. Therefore this mindset of gentleness finally endows life with true meaning and meanwhile strengthens it. He who holds on to the virtue of jen shows respect, love and care to other human beings, myriad things under the heaven, and the origins of everything, while he who does exactly the opposite shows complains and resentment, thus causes harm to all that is around him. The ways of life of these two types of persons are worlds apart.
14Fan Ch'ih asked about benevolence. The Master said, "It is to love all men." （”The Analects‧
Yan Yuan” ） The Master said, “When the man of high station is well instructed, he loves men;”（”The Analects‧Yang Huo”）The Master said, "The determined scholar and the man of virtue will not seek to live at the expense of injuring their virtue. They will even sacrifice their lives to preserve their virtue complete.” The Master said, "Virtue is more to man than either water or fire. （ ” The Analects‧Wei Ling Gong” ） Mencius said, 'That whereby the superior man is distinguished from other men is what he preserves in his heart - namely, benevolence and propriety. The benevolent man loves others. The man of propriety shows respect to others. He who loves others is constantly loved by them. He who respects others is constantly respected by them. （Mencius Li Lou (part two)）
Confucius sees the nature of the crisis prevailing in existing institutions, so what he basically does is to find out true meaning of humanity and culture that could serve to be the basis of any ideal social system. During the antiquity, the ideal system proves to be composed of the norms of li. Its spirit, adjusted in accordance with the change of times, is the practice of jen. By practicing both of these principles, humanity and society could reach perfection. Confucius thus constitutes the golden rule of his theories: jen is categorized in the human mindset, while li is all about a proper way of getting along with people and the standardization of ritual and ethics. If these two principles are put into thorough practice, then the practitioner will experience such pleasure that could carry his away, so much so he has to let it off by music or any other kind of art form. From the perspective of Confucianism, music and art are two archetypes to symbolize the better state of life. Everybody has the potential to reach this kind of joyful state when he is moved deeply inside. What should be manifested by an art form, according to Confucianism, is in line with what the artist extracts from his sincerity and good intention, as well as the combination of the truth, good and beauty, instead of the particularity from an individual. 15This aesthetics serves the
purpose to perfect life, letting every individual share equal consideration, and thus it facilitates the betterment of individuals and communities.
B. The Basic Need of Human Nature
With dramatic changes of modern society, do these traditional value systems still hold true for the present situation? Perhaps most of us assume that it is inevitable for modern institutionalizations to commercialize, consumerize, vulgarize, differentiate and isolate all value systems, and each of us is awarded liberty, affluence, pleasure and infinite possibilities, so we have to quickly shed the confinement of tradition to embrace the privilege provided by such blessings of the new era as ceaseless enjoyment of life and innovation. Yet, if we go back to the ultimate objective of all kinds systems and culture, we will learn that it should be an access to the peaceful state of mind, thus to constantly make a betterment of life itself. Any modern system or culture that deviates form this track of objective certainly requires criticism. The purpose of all systems and cultures is to serve human beings. If it fails this aim, mankind will feel lost in spite of the liberty and
15The Master said, "If a man be without the virtues proper to humanity, what has he to do with the
rites of propriety? If a man be without the virtues proper to humanity, what has he to do with music?" （ ” The Analects‧Ba Yi” ） "It is from Music that the finish is received." （ ” The Analects‧Tai Bo”）;”Liji‧Yue Ji”
enjoyment they possess. If it does fail the purpose, something must be wrong about the nature of the system. This is exactly what is happening now and the predicament has made itself clear. To try to solve the difficulty, we have to learn what humanity needs in essence.
The greatest achievement of Confucianism lies in the fact that this philosophy realizes the very need of humanity. It also maintains that institution and culture should change the time, but the principles of humanity are everlasting. Confucius points out that in li, there lies a changing factor. That is, institution and culture should catch up with the change of the times.16 Modern people adopt modern
institution and culture, while the basic principles of humanity remain the same. Human beings have the same genes with those of their ancestors hundreds of thousands years ago, so do their needs. The main reason why Confucianism remains the center of philosophical systems in China is that it sticks to the core value and basic needs of humanity—jen. The moment a man feels most peaceful, joyous, glorified and solid is when he treats everything under the sun with love and sincerity. If we observe the Chinese character jen closely, we will discover that it is composed of two of the same hieroglyph, both of which mean a “human being.” So the word jen implies collaboration and affinity between two people.17
As we all understand that it the relationship between two people form the basis of any other relationship. As long as a man treats his fellows with affection, he will feel peaceful and joyous. The starting point of Confucianism is that we should treat other everyone under heaven with kindness. By doing so, we will have a peaceful state of mind and then live harmoniously with everything on earth.
This principle, while carried on for thousands of years, has been somehow considered clichés nowadays. But let’s ask ourselves—are we any better in the state of mind, especially when comparing to that of our ancestors thousands of years ago? Why don’t we, who live in the modern world, take these “clichés” seriously if we repeatedly fall into emptiness, absurdity and all sorts of worries? We have to find out about whether there exists any truth remaining in these clichés. Take a psychological research for example. All the psychological study
16 “The Analects‧Wei Zheng”Confucius said, "The Yin dynasty followed the regulations of
the Hsia: wherein it took from or added to them may be known. The Chau dynasty has followed the regulations of Yin: wherein it took from or added to them may be known. Some other may follow the Chau, but though it should be at the distance of a hundred ages, its affairs may be known."
17“Zhong Yong”:” Benevolence is the characteristic element of humanity, and the great
exercise of it is in loving relatives. Righteousness is the accordance of actions with what is right, and the great exercise of it is in honoring the worthy. The decreasing measures of the love due to relatives, and the steps in the honor due to the worthy, are produced by the principle of propriety.”Shuo Wen”
reveals that human personality shapes into a fixed pattern in his early years. The most complicated complexes almost always originate from the relationship between individuals and their parents. Consequently it is this relationship that decides how the individual correlates with the reality of the world, that is, how the individual gets along with his parents tunes up how he deals with the rest of the world. Thus psychologists come to a simple conclusion that if young children do not obtain enough love and care from their parents, it is almost inevitable that they will suffer disturbance and fear, and never reach inner peace in their whole life. These troubled feelings, to be sure, emerge in all possible ways so that obstacles arise accordingly while they push themselves forward in the course of life.18No
matter how hard they try or to what extent they acquire knowledge, wealth or power, there is no cure for this anxiety that has planted while their personality takes shape, especially when they keep refusing to face what is happening inside.19Modern society has seen its largely increased numbers of psychological
disorders. Melancholia has ranked among top five in the leading causes of death in Western countries. This information tells us people spend all their efforts on pursuing material satisfaction, academic achievement and a variety of amusements have failed discovering true essence that settles their heart and soul. However, the answer to it is relatively simple and clear: without kindness (jen) and love, life withers away. Emotional needs can never be replaced by the possession of any material goods. Eventually it is our family where we acquire kindness and love. The reason why the ancients Chinese put the most emphasis on three of five relationships, parents-and-children, husband-and-wife, elder-and-younger-brother, is because these factors involve family value. The purpose of the advocacy is to make sure that every individual grows up in an environment filled with love and affection. Yet the household is not the limit of the jen principle. The rest of the other two, including the friendship and social-political relationship, further clarifies how an individual expands his scope of relationships so as to place his
18 See S. Freud, General Psychological Theory (New York: Collier Books, 1963); S.
Freud, On Dreams; Tr. by James Strachey, (New York: Norton, 1952); H. S. Sullivan,
The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (New York: Norton, 1953). The source of anxiety
does not necessarily originates from the person’s relationship with parents. However, this relationship is almost always the key factor.
19 S. Freud, Character and Culture (New York: Collier Books, 1963). For many
musicians, writers and scholars, the source of their creativity or motivation comes from an inherent anxiety. Likewise, for a large proportion of entrepreneurs and politicians, what motivates them to work hard is a want of fortune, success or power. Tracing back to its source, it is, still, a feeling of anxiety or insecurity.
love and affection upon every living creature in the world. This is the core value that Confucianism has been faithful to for thousands of years.
Confucianism mostly thinks highly of affection than any other things, though, “by nature, men are very alike; by upbringing, they grow wide apart.” 20 The
complicated nature of human mind makes it difficult to have people get along virtually well with each other. Therefore other than jen, li is also advocated by Confucianism. li can be interpreted as an adequate life style, as well as an appropriate way of interpersonal relationship.21When social order was kept
properly and every citizen generally shared the peace of mind, China was renowned as a country of courtesy and righteousness. Now all these decent qualities are washed away by the wave of modernization. Rudeness and brutality become the synonym of this country instead. After the collapse of the structure of five relationships, the definition of obligations and rights blurs, which stirs people to conflict in a more constant fashion. With the help of global movement of liberation and subversion, morality existed in family and society declines more rapidly as ever. The standard of the principle of human relations also sees its change, which multiplies social and psychological crisis. Children are the very victims to the injury that has made to their personality and spirit, and the influence is going to extend to at least three generations to come. Obnoxious crimes have occurred commonly in Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and the United States. While the family structure that supports the society starts to collapse, the condition of human existence gets even worse. While an individual is attacked on his weakest part, that is, his most intimate relationship, he gets distressed and even traumatized, without doubt. A broken family is the most unbearable hardship one can confront in his whole life, and the negative results are most difficult to control if there appears any. We have discussed why Confucianism praises family value in terms of parents-and-children, husband-and-wife, elder-and-younger-brother relationships among five ethical relationships. This system, while remaining relatively more stable, provides a healthier environment for individuals to grow. Practiced successfully in pre-industrial society for thousands for years, Confucianism has people substantially secure their life under the shelter of family and ethical relationships.
C. Basis of Value in A New Age
20 “The Analects‧Yang Huo” 21 “Zhu Zi Yu Lei‧Volume Six”
What we understand clearly, though, is that conventional family value does not apply to modern life in all aspects. Nowadays some Chinese keep criticizing this tradition, and they do it with justification. A system that has sustained for thousands for years is bound to be inflexible and immoderate. Life style in modern society has largely differentiated from that of the antiquity. That’s why conventionalities undoubtedly require modifications. Still, we find families of modern society are getting more and more dysfunctional. Let’s take a look at Taiwan as an example. What we confront in the earlier period is the struggle between new concepts and old ones. Within decades of years after the martial law is declared ended, desire and greed introduced by greater liberation makes the island experience the process of deterioration. Now Taiwan’s divorce rate surges to such a new high that it ranks number one in Asia, almost equating 25 percent. Thus, how can we expect children to grow up in a satisfactory environment? Confucianism, however, tales account of self-cultivation on an individual level, and of family value on an institutional level. It attempts to get human mind settled by re-establishing the most intimate relationship of an individual, which proves to be the essential part for him. The attitude is worth our focus attention. Confucianism is, de facto, what we can count on to work out an updated version to efficiently facilitate the morality principles of family in a modern era.
The reason why Confucianism praises filial piety and fraternal duty resulted from the fact that parents and siblings are the persons an individual first encounter when one’s life begins. The attitude cultivated during the process of upbringing determines one’s way of life.22A person who holds filial piety and fraternal duty is
more likely to show gratitude and modesty to the world. This is so different from the attitude we take in modern society. Pleasure, possession and fulfillment of desire are the new guidelines of life. Paradoxically, satisfaction in life cannot be achieved unless we have lesser desire and more gratitude in mind. One subtle truth about human mind is that only when we feel the warmth from the world, we will have a secured feeling and sense the meaning of life. It is hard to imagine that a person who establishes a cold, intense, struggling or loathing relationship with the world is able to have the peace of mind. So much eloquence and written classics elaborated by Confucianism is nothing but an appeal to resorting to one’s original mind/heart, that is, making the human mind/heart restored to a good relationship with the world. 23 Starting out on a basis of kindness (jen), the idea is to take the 22 “The Analects•Xue Er”The philosopher Yu said, "The superior man bends his attention
to what is radical. That being established, all practical courses naturally grow up. Filial piety and fraternal submission,-are they not the root of all benevolent actions?"
23 Mencius said, "Humaneness is the mind of human beings. Rightness is their path. To
abandon the path and not follow it, or to lose the mind and not know enough to seek it: this is a pity indeed!" When people lose their chickens and dogs, they know enough to look for them, but
following into action: to devote one’s every effort, to be accountable in words and deeds, and to do righteousness. Learning and education, on the other hand, are another focus of Confucianism. It guides people to receive education on the basis of good intention in one’s mind. After cumulating adequate knowledge and capacity, one can gradually practice the duty in life according to these steps: cultivating oneself, putting family in order, governing the country, and making peace with the world. This is the rule of thumb for an individual to make contribution to the common good.
The core value advocated by Confucianism is, to preserve a warm, loving, grateful, humble, kind mind/heart, which we call the mindset of jen. We try our best to live up to this standard firstly when it comes to basic interpersonal relationships like our close relatives and friends. We also have to extend and expand our mind/heart, together with the knowledge pursued in this process, until the whole world feels the warmth and peace our mind/heart could bring to it. Clearly stated, though, it is never easy to fulfill the criteria since life comprises nothing but a series of challenges. One has to overcome endless internal deficiencies in personality and ability, as well as to break through all kinds of difficult circumstances in order to achieve the above goals. It always leaves room to improve while every individual moves forward to reach the ideal state of jen. Featuring a one-step-at-a-time strategy to overcome one’s own shortcomings and external disadvantages, Confucianism offers a life with energy and meaning.
There is no way that the inner peace and joy can be replaced by wealth, enjoyment, academic or artistic achievement, no matter how much they could be. Nor can the affection among relatives and friends be substituted by the so-called high civilizations. The reason why Confucianism is widely accepted by both of the literati and the illiteracy and represents their core value is because it directly indicates the essential needs of humanity. Without true affection at heart, nobody is free from feeling empty and lost in spite of the advancement of civilization. Human beings are always apt to feel discontented. Yet, Confucianism takes it seriously to realize what is needed in humanity in the most profound level, so as to drive away the void of it.
The core value provided by Confucianism does not contradict modern society. Since the philosophy originates from the moral reflection upon the decline of li during the Zhou dynasty, it embeds in itself the competence to reach beyond the existing system. Confucius emphasizes that li has to keep up with times. Institution and culture can change if necessary, while the core value carries on. Modern society, with all its achievements and deficiencies, has to lay its when they lose their mind, they do not know enough to seek it. The way of study and inquiry is none other than the search for the lost mind. “Mencius Kao Tzu (part one)”
foundation on modern institutions. So how can the ideal of Confucianism collaborate with modern institutions and culture? First we have to indicate that the affection at heart and the spirit of li and music always hold true to humankind. It is not too demanding for an individual to put jen and li into practice. All we have to do is to elevate our mind/heart, cherish the relationship we have with people around us, and set ourselves free from the slavery of desire. By doing so, an enriched life with sweetness will be in our reach. Once the true nature of us is fulfilled, the received attitude of thinking much of high social status, bodily satisfaction, pleasure or property will be overtaken and subdued.
With much easier access of everything in life, temptation seems to be everywhere in modern society. Desire that break through the restrain of traditional value systems and norms seem impossible to control. Since the human desires feature an outward tendency, over time man become more and more restless. If one does not know how to cherish what he already has in life, the worries about future and unfinished business will keep troubling him. No matter how much one owns, nothing makes satisfaction possible. When it comes to male and female relationships, more and more people in this modern era want to indulge themselves in desire and passions. This way of life leads both parties to astray easily. Males and females clash with each other more frequently because everyone sticks to one’s own ego and addictions. With the advancement of civilization, human mind tends to differentiate more, so what we are left with is more collision and solitude. This, we have to assert, is not the right path for human beings. Yet, it will take us a very long period of time to restore a healthier attitude toward life, an attitude not being so much bound by fame, wealth, desire and egocentrism. We appreciate the contribution made by capitalism, democracy, legal system and urban civilization, but we have to admit that an unhealthy tendency has grown out of them and borne fruit that fails everybody’s original expectation and brings them to collective downfall.
The core value advocated by Confucianism is true humanity and caring for other people. Categorized as a value system, it does not counteract the instrumental rationality that modern society subsists on, such as market economy, industry, commerce and urban life style. It also would not, theoretically speaking, contradict those practices such as democracy, science and reason, and rule of law, though there are many conflicts involved in reality. Nevertheless, the core value advocated by Confucianism bears great compatibility since it belongs to the realm of basic human nature that has survived the challenges from all kinds of socio-political situations and different doctrines in history. If the essence of Confucianism is properly obtained, the value it provides is still compatible with
those aforesaid practices. Capitalism, democracy, urban civilization, rule of law, and science and art help to construct the framework of modern life, so we can secure rationalization without difficulty. The core value presented by Confucianism does not contradict with these rational portions of these practices, and it help to correct any deviation that derives from them, thus to make the reality closer to perfection. This objective is never easy to achieve, though. What is to be done includes major adjustments in every institution and policy, as well as to purify the heart and mind. As long as we do their best to absorb the achievements of the modernity and try to elevate its content via the spirit of Confucianism, it is highly possible that we can create a better East Asian culture for the whole world.