Since the beginning of the 21st century, the most prominent topic in the world has been the “rise of China” which affects all parties concerned. First and foremost, it affects the western countries that have led the development of the modern world during the last five hundred years; the rise of China means that the “US-Euro-centrism” is called into question and faces challenges. At the same time, the rise of China also raises expectations from the non-western countries including the Arab world and the relatively poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America for choosing an approach different from the western model.
If we review the macroscopic history of China, it has had its own set of grand state philosophy which came from the sage rulers in ancient times and was later collected by Confucius in the Great Learning. The purpose of the Great Learning is to promote the good innate virtue of human beings, to encourage people to repent genuinely and make a new start, and to enable people to reach a supreme state of mind. People who want to rule the world must first govern their own country; to govern their own country, they must first manage their families and clans; to manage their families and clans, they must first cultivate their own characters; to cultivate their own characters, they must first correct their mindset; to correct their mindset, they must first be sincere; to be sincere, they must first acquire knowledge; the method of acquiring knowledge lies in understanding and researching everything. Through the understanding and researching of all things, people can then acquire knowledge and create sincere ideas; with sincere ideas, their mindset will be correct; with correct mindset, they can cultivate their own characters; with cultivated characters, they can manage their families and clans; after properly managing their families and clans, they can govern their country; after successfully governing their country; they can rule the world. Starting from the head of the state down to the civilian population, all men and women must take self-cultivation as the fundamental principle. If this fundamental principle were disrupted, it would be impossible to govern families, clans, the country and the world. Similarly, it is impossible to do things successfully by ignoring priorities and confusing cause and effect.
The fundamental difference between the traditional Chinese state philosophy and the western philosophies lies in a different basic understanding of human nature. In traditional Confucianism, while Confucius himself did not explicitly advocate that all men are born good and rarely discussed humanity, fate and heavenly laws, nonetheless, as the founder of Confucianism, he really did lay the foundation for asserting the good innate virtue of human beings. Confucius advocated that benevolence (仁) is the intrinsic nature born in everyone. Mencius' view on the good innate virtue of human beings has actually inherited and further developed the Confucian teaching of benevolence. The Neo-Confucianism represented by the four masters of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 CE), i.e., Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 (1017-1073 CE), Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085 CE), Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107 CE) and Zhang Zai張載 (1020-1077 CE), and especially the great scholar Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200 CE) of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE), who culminated its quintessence and combined profundity with virtue, furthered the advocacy of the good intrinsic nature of human beings based on the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. In other words, the belief of the good innate virtue of human beings is the mainstream thought of the traditional Chinese culture. However, since the western world has been deeply influenced by the Christian culture, the concept of “original sin” has become immersed into all the theologies, ethics, theories of human nature and philosophies of life. As a result of this deeply rooted concept of original sin, the theory of the good innate virtue of human beings has encountered difficulties to blossom in the West; instead, the theory of human nature being evil surprisingly has become the mainstream thought. For example, among the famous western philosophers in the near-modern days, the Briton Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679 CE) in his masterpiece Leviathan (The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, commonly called Leviathan) advocated that human nature is evil. He concluded that in the so-called “pre-state” or “natural state” (status naturalis) “all people were at war with all people (bellum omnium contra omnes),” which was no different from animals slaughtering each other and grabbing food in the jungle.
The mainstream thinking of the traditional Chinese culture has always advocated the good innate virtue of human beings. Therefore, Confucius said: “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.” This is to say: in governing the country, using the rule of law to guide the people and to punish them when they violate the law will only make them seek to avoid the punishment without sense of shame; although superficially they do not dare to act in an evil manner, their evil thoughts have never stopped! If the ruler can set the example and teaches by example rather than by precept, then people would submit themselves to its appeal and follow suit. However, since the appeal may differ in degrees and depths from one person to another, people must be taught to observe propriety and rules; then they not only would feel ashamed of doing evil things, but also would discard their evil thoughts. This is Confucius’ idea of the rule of virtue, supplemented by the rule of law. As Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086 CE) said: “Law is a partial book,” it can only manage the external behaviors of the people and forbid them from acting in an evil manner, but it cannot extort them to good deeds. In fact, all proper education tries to awaken the consciousness of those who receive the education for self-study, self-discipline and independence. The best people in the world are those who are able to train and guide themselves (groom a person's behavior, etiquette and entire personality). Only in this way can they be their own master. If a person cannot train and guide himself, the result is the need for someone else to train and guide him. Then, it would be difficult for him to be his own master.
The Christian world in the West has always advocated the “original sin.” Their understanding of human nature can be summarized as “Trust is certainly good, but control still better”. This kind of thinking has had a profound impact on the political philosophy of the modern western countries; therefore the western countries have always advocated the “rule of law being the best policy.” The reason for the theory of contract taking root in the hearts of the western people and becoming the main content of the contemporary Creditor's Rights in Civil Code cannot separate itself from the “rule of law being the best policy.” The theory of contract is an embodiment of the autonomy of private laws in the people-to-people relationships, unlike those in China, which are maintained by “benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trust;” it regulates the external relations of the two parties by the agreement in their expressed meanings. As a result, even the legitimacy of the State to the end has to rely on the theory of contract. However, what hides behind the theory of contract is extreme distrust between people; and this explains why there is a saying like “Trust is certainly good, but control still better.” The flaws in using the rule of law are the discretionary bullying and exploitation of the weaker party by the stronger party that holds the rights of interpreting the text of the contract; this makes fair contractual relationships non-existent. In particular, since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 CE in the United Kingdom, Herbert Spencer in the distant United States, insisted on the introduction of Darwin's theory of biological evolution into the field of social philosophy. He developed a cruel and unfeeling Social Darwinism which opposes any social security policy protecting the rights to life and work of the weaker people, as it would prejudice the natural course of social evolution. This Social Darwinism played a role in fueling the fire of capitalistic-colonial imperialism that had combined with liberalism and individualism, thus deepening the internal contradictions in the western world and the suffering of the people in the non-western world. The history of the struggles within the western world in the last five hundred years intensified more and more. These include the domestic struggles of a country between the emerging bourgeois class and the aristocratic class that already had vested interests, the struggles in the nineteenth century of the working class against the bourgeois class, the struggles of women against male chauvinism and patriarchy and the struggles to snatch overseas colonies or expand national interests; the two world wars are actually the results of conflicts within the western world. While in the non-western world, all the unspeakable heinous crimes committed were related with this western concept of human nature, state philosophy and Social Darwinism.
As the chief architect of China's reform and policy of opening up, Deng Xiaoping proposed “building socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Of course, this is no longer the rigid dogma of the past, but a greater harmonious and mature socialism with a truly historical and dialectical point of view in dealing with the generation and development of new ideas of industrial society. Therefore, we can be very calm and confident about proposing the “socialist market economy” without over-stretching the equivalence of the market economy with capitalism, and furthermore, without arbitrarily negating things in capitalist society. Similarly, we can stepwise build a democratic rule of law with no need to use the phrase “bourgeois democracy” for a comprehensive denial of representative democracy. Instead, we will regard building a “socialist state with rule of law” as the focus of our current work.
We must recognize that the conditions for developing “socialism with Chinese characteristics” are different from those in the West. The “socialism” we want should be able to both inherit and improve the good traditions of liberalism (such as fair competition, independent personality, open-mindedness, private enterprises and so on), while the so-called “Chinese characteristics” refer to matching the actual situation in China: they should contradict neither the current reality nor the traditional culture of China; they should liberate thoughts and seek truth from facts. The traditional culture is the spiritual asset, instead of a liability, for completing the modernization of the State. The Confucianism created by Confucius and the later Neo-Confucianism that was infused with Buddhist and Daoist quintessence are the mainstream thoughts of the traditional Chinese culture. The attitude of seeking reasons and respecting rationalities of Confucianism can serve as the basis for the meeting of thoughts of the Chinese culture and the western culture. Here, I will use the Confucianism as an example to discuss the method of combining the excellent Chinese traditional culture with liberalism and socialism.
First, we need to point out that Confucianism (especially Neo-Confucianism) not only connects to liberalism, but also reinforces liberalism. The value of liberalism lies in its reasoning about the freedom, self-discipline and independence of human personality to establish the dignity of a human being and uses this as a basis to regulate the exercise of state power, subject to the constraints of human dignity and human rights. This can be confirmed by item (1) of Article 1 of the Basic Law (Grundgesetz, Constitution) of the Federal Republic of Germany formulated in the post-war era, namely: “Human dignity is not blasphemous.” In the history of western philosophy, the philosopher who emphasized human dignity the most and raised “human dignity” to a level above human rights can be none other than Immanuel Kant (1724-1804 CE). Kant once said: “A human being is an end in himself” (Selbstzweck) and “acts in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means.” The main reason for this argument is that people are rational and, therefore, an end in themselves. In fact, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716 CE), Christian Wolff (1679-1754 CE) and others were deeply influenced by Neo-Confucianism, and their rationalism is just the basis of Kant's transcendental rationalism. Neo-Confucianism has inherited the view of good innate virtue of human beings from Confucius and Mencius. It further advocates that man’s body is the quintessence of the five primary elements (water, fire, wood, metal, earth) of nature, but man’s possession of five constant virtues (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trust) makes him greater than the five primary elements, so man is overlord of creation. Likewise, another famous scholar Zhang Zai stated in his writing Ximing 〈西銘〉 that people are born by their fathers/Heaven and mothers/Earth; and from the perspective of the relationship between Heaven and man, he proved that human beings are greater than the primary five elements of nature, are overlords of creation, respect Heaven, and of course should respect the people themselves --- the sons of Heaven and Earth. Because man is the son of Heaven and Earth, therefore, in addition to his body which is the quintessence of Yin 陰 and Yang 陽 and the primary five elements, he has also been given the rule of Heaven. This is why Cheng Yi would say: “The good innate virtue of human beings is the rule of Heaven.” From the perspective of Neo-Confucianism, there is obviously a reinforcement of the proof of the human dignity of Kant.
The ideal of benevolence can relieve the shortcomings of liberalism. “Benevolence” is the Confucian ideal of the highest personal character. Benevolence is not abstract and distant; it is reflected in our daily life in ordinary circumstances. The form of the character Ren仁 represents “two (Er 二) men (Ren亻) make Ren (benevolence),” namely the most important use of benevolence is the proper handling of human relations. The biggest modern ill of western liberalism is its entanglement with individualism and the fact that it places too much emphasis on individual freedom. As a result, once the seemingly attractive concepts of individualism and liberalism are combined, we see the phenomenon of public violence with the strong bullying the weak and the majorities brutalizing the minorities. But the ideal of Confucian benevolence is just right to alleviate the drawbacks. Only by properly handling the human relationships can we build a harmonious society. And mutual civility and consideration are the prerequisites for good relations.
Neo-Confucianism can ease the over-inflated emphasis on rights. With over emphasized individualism comes an over-inflated awareness of private rights which can also be alleviated by Neo-Confucianism. In modern industrial society, human relationships are more complex as well as substantially weaker than those in agricultural society. In order to maintain the normal operation of modern industrial society, human relationships rely on the regulation by legal norms. Therefore, the cultivation of people’s consciousness of their rights is becoming increasingly important. Only with a clear-cut awareness of their rights can they learn to respect the rights of others as well as know the limits of their own rights. However, people trained by modern western education often do not allow others to infringe upon their own rights while restricting the rights of others as much as possible. This is also the main reason behind the interpersonal tensions in modern society. It is really “superiors and inferiors trying to snatch profit from each other;” why then will the people not become more and more alienated from each other? Neo-Confucianism has always advocated “being strict with oneself and lenient with others.” The rights of others should be respected and people should strictly demand themselves not to restrict the rights of others; even if there is an opportunity to take advantage, people should be disallowed from doing so. Only in this way can a man be a person of noble character. As for his rights, sometimes he may deliberately forfeit them whereas he could have argued for them; this would instead reveal his nurture as a virtuous man. This is the reason why Neo-Confucianism can alleviate the over-inflated consciousness of individual rights.
Furthermore, there is the relationship between the material world and us. Over the past three centuries, capitalistic-colonial imperialism dominated the western world and encouraged blind pursuit of economic growth resulting in over-exploitation and serious damage to the natural environment. The non-western countries after World War II also sought to catch up and together joined the ranks that damaged the ecological environment. This has intensified the global warming problem and led to many natural disasters. The indicated contradiction of harmonious coexistence between people and the natural environment has become the major issue that mankind cannot but face seriously. Neo-Confucianism can provide extremely valuable advice in this area to regulate the ecological disasters brought about by capitalism, colonialism and imperialism. Exactly from this perspective, Neo-Confucianism recognizes everything existing under the whole Heaven and us as one inseparable and integral entity. How dare we not care about the material world and our physical life! Therefore, “freedom” is by no means the freedom to do whatever we want. Any exploitation and development of the natural world also have their inherent limitations rather than allowing unbridled indulgence of human desires and passions in uncontrolled development, which finally lead nature to bite us back!
Thus, only by starting with “freeing yourself of wrong-doings and evil thoughts” following Neo-Confucianism and self-improving our personal integrity, can we truly implement the ideals of liberalism. Otherwise will appear the abuses of the rich getting richer, the poor poorer, the strong bullying the weak and the rich bullying the poor. The concept “people are the roots of a country; if the roots are firm, the country is tranquil” in Confucianism is the foundation of Chinese democracy, which then should be the cornerstones of all the national institutions. Let democracy become a popular sentiment and remember that “He who wins the support of the people will flourish, he who loses the support of the people will perish” to ensure that representative democracy does not become a corrupt politics.
The Confucian principles of fairness at all levels and of putting the group first can reinforce western socialism. After abandoning the out-dated feudal hierarchy and through innovation, they can lead to socialism (with Chinese characteristics) and reinforce western socialism. Especially the realm described in the article “The Great Togetherness” (Datong 〈大同〉) of “The Operation of Etiquette” (Liyun 〈禮運〉) of The Book of Rites (Liji 《禮記》) has been the “ideal order” for the Chinese intellectuals since ancient times. It means that the world is for all the people under Heaven and each of the virtuous and talented people is in the correct place doing his best, respecting integrity and fervently exhorting harmony; that widowers, widows, orphans, the old without children, the disabled and the diseased – are all well taken care of and no longer feel helpless. This will provide a fundamental solution to the shortage of supplies and the excessive demand of materials in life, so that people can value trustworthiness, cultivate harmony with each other and construct a community of “The Great Togetherness.” Comparing this society of great togetherness originated from the Confucian ideals with the socialist ideals derived from improved capitalism, the former has its own natural calm and bright side, which deserves to be a solid reference. In fact, Confucianism has always advocated the principle of fairness at all levels. Confucius stressed that “The bigger worry is not wanting to have more when there is not enough, but is unfairness.” Implementing the principle of fairness at all levels can reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the process of modernization and enhance social harmony and stability while protecting the individual’s survival rights and development rights. It will also take care of the interests that all sectors and all regions should have so that “each person is provided for.”
As for the principle of putting the group first advocated by Confucianism, it is family-centered or clan-centered and expands to the country or the world. Especially the Great Learning promotes the virtues of putting oneself in another's place; if necessary, people can sacrifice personal interests for group interests. The system of values of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” formed by combining the legitimate interests of the individuals with the common interests of society as a whole has resolved the issue of opposing individuals and groups in the western tradition. That is, it has abandoned the binary thought patterns of either “individual or group,” but not both. This can help the construction of a new human morality.
If the Neo-Confucian view of an “ideal order” can be extended to the whole world, it would enlighten people with wisdom to improve the existing international order. In fact, since ancient times, the interactions between China and its neighboring countries have followed the principle of “the king urging his pursuit of the game in (only) three directions, and allowing the escape of all the animals before him” of the Kuai Gua (Kuai Hexagram) in the Book of Changes (there are 64 hexagrams for describing different events). In short, the principle of interactions between countries is to take care of one’s own share of work first; whether or not other countries are interested in interactions is up to their self-determinations. Therefore, since ancient times, China has always acted in “good faith to others,” that is by first treating neighbors with good faith from the bottom of the heart by avoiding bullying of all the people under Heaven; next, “forgive others as I have excused myself” means to extend the forgiveness to the neighbors to show the world one’s own selflessness. All the Chinese policies applied to foreign countries were out of benevolence, so that all neighboring Asian countries received its benefactions and good fortunes. So why did those countries not respond with intimate contacts with China? A comprehensive survey of the seven voyages of Zheng He 鄭和 (1371-1435 CE) shows that wherever his Treasure Ship Fleet went, all people showed respect at the mere sight of its strength and expression of goodwill. China not only did not invade the territory of any country, but also restrained the powerful and helped the weak, eliminated the pirates and upheld international justice. This benevolent attitude toward international relations derived from the Confucian classics of the Great Learning, the Book of Rites, the Book of Changes and others, is far more civilized than the power politics of the western colonial imperialism in recent five hundred years.
In fact, the traditional benevolent politics of China can provide the basic principles for a more reasonable and more just international order and for achieving that all nations get along peacefully with one another. The Confucian conviction of good innate virtue of human beings is undoubtedly a necessary condition for the perpetual peace in the world. Only with such a conviction can we cure the evil prejudices like the so-called “whites’ noblesse oblige” and “inferior races;” and only with this conviction can we create conditions for mutual respect, even mutual admiration between peoples with their own characteristics. Therefore, we should give full respect to the histories and cultures of the different countries. All people are no less than the “crown jewels of Heaven and Earth” and are “greater than the primary five elements of nature.” However, due to their birth places being at different latitudes and longitudes, they had to adapt to different climates, geographies and natural environments, hence have created and developed their own different customs, lifestyles, as well as social, economic, cultural and political systems. These are the diverse histories and cultures created by the group of people who are “greater than the primary five elements” and are the overlords of creation under different natural conditions in order to survive and adapt. We believe that, if the Chinese people since ancient times had been born in equatorial Africa, then the history and culture created by the Chinese people of today might not be much better than those of the equatorial African peoples; similarly, if the equatorial African peoples since ancient times had been born in Western Europe, then the histories and cultures created by the equatorial African peoples of today might not be much worse than those of the Western European peoples. This is because, regardless of skin colors, we are all born by our fathers/Heaven and mothers/Earth and possess the same five constant virtues--benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trust. We all have the same feeling of commiseration, feeling of making allowances, feeling of shame and dislike, and feeling of right and wrong. The conviction of good innate virtue of human beings in Confucianism is undoubtedly a necessary condition for the perpetual peace in the world.
We should fully respect the current states of all countries. The status quo of different countries results from their own histories and cultures. Because, when they are affected by external impact, they will respond continuously. This responding and testing process definitely creates turbulences and as a consequence will break the equilibrium of the original system. The internal and external interactions will surge on until the next equilibrium point is reached. In fact, no cultural system can be closed. Since the existence of human beings the cultural systems themselves have been constantly adjusting because of new natural conditions or perhaps because of interactions with other cultures. But more importantly, different cultural systems always continue to interact with each other whether through conquest or through merger by natural integration. This is a long process during which there is the gradual formation of a common language, customs, habits and creeds. After World War II, the non-western countries declared independence one after another. However, despite their claimed political independence, in fact, the colonial mother countries and their agents still firmly control the cultures and economies of the non-western world. The colonial mother countries still often dictate these non-western countries, even if it occurs through the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank by providing loans or financial assistance in a manner that is somewhat obscure and appears civilized, so as to continue their controls of the non-western countries. To establish an international community of long-term peaceful coexistence, we should respect the status quo of the different countries. Especially the western countries should voluntarily bear responsibility for the current situations of the non-western countries. They should terminate as soon as possible their manipulations of the non-western countries and return to them the rights of dignity and autonomy that they deserve to have.
The western countries should fully respect the rights of the non-western countries to independently choose their development path. According to Confucianism, anyone who has made his resolution can become a man of virtue and wisdom. In fact, men of virtue and wisdom are the best kind of people in the world and they can train and guide themselves; they are also people of independence. On the contrary, most people still cannot train and guide themselves, so that others have to train and guide them; then they are not their own masters. All men desire to be their own masters, rather than be someone else's slave. Similarly, every country desires to become its own master and choose a development path on its own; because, only this country understands itself the best. Even if it makes a wrong choice, it is willing to bear the consequences itself. For a long time, the western countries have understood this within their own countries. Especially during the Enlightenment period, what the emerging bourgeoisie tried hard to break was the “paternalistic regime.” Quoting the words of Kant, “so a ‘paternalistic regime’ where the subjects, as minors, cannot decide what is truly beneficial or detrimental to them, but are obliged to wait passively for the head of state to judge how they ought to be happy…would be the greatest conceivable despotism.” The democratization of the modern western countries, in fact, has been the process of rejecting the paternalistic regime. But the irony has been that the western countries always treat the non-western countries as “minors.” Speaking nicely: I am doing this for your own good; speaking bluntly: I do not believe that you have the ability to distinguish what is good for you!
China's rise is a convincing fact showing that a non-western country can cultivate a path out of self-development by not having the paternalistic style of guidance. If China can do it, it means that other non-western countries may also be able to succeed in doing it. What matters the most is not to merely copy the Chinese experience, but to be realistic, and cultivate strategies of development in accordance with the specific circumstance of the country. On the one hand, non-western countries should neither exactly copy the experiences of western countries nor those of China; but, on the other hand, they should not only learn from the experiences of China, but also those of the western countries. In particular, they should try hard to seek new elements from their own historical and cultural traditions that are beneficial to their modernization.
Different countries should maintain good and equal exchanges and dialogues. Over the years, the international exchanges have been influenced by the western colonial imperialism and have followed the principle of safeguarding the national interests. If the exchanges between countries only talk about “profit” rather than “justice”, the result will inevitably be the strong bullying the weak and the majorities brutalizing the minorities. The two world wars, in fact, were the comprehensive conflicts of the internal forces of growth and decline in the western world. That is basically the dissatisfaction of the latecomers who had surpassed the old-timers against the arranged rules established by the original powers. As for the non-western countries, they have never had the room for bargaining and could only endure in silence the will of the strong powers. The interactions between countries, being just the same as the relationships between people, should follow the moral law of universal validity instead of the principle of naked interests. That is to respect other countries like we respect ours and to recognize the world must come together as one. Since ancient times, although viewing itself as a Celestial Empire, China rewarded its tributary neighbors with largess, which meant to show “giving more and getting less”. China never questioned or intervened actively in the internal affairs of the vassal states and would provide assistance only when they made requests of help from China. China also has never imposed its etiquette, culture, institution, and system on the vassal states. On the contrary, many vassal states admired the Celestial Empire and voluntarily sent people to China for studying; envoys and students dispatched to China from Japan in Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and then the Taika Reform (Dahua Gaixin大化改新, in the year of 645 CE, based on Confucianism from China) are well-known examples. This set of thinking of China is undoubtedly most precious in the reconstruction of a fairer and more equitable international order. Only by following this line of thought can a genuine dialogue of equality between the developing and developed countries become possible. And only by doing so can the exchanges between the two sides achieve true equality.
This shows that Neo-Confucianism has played a crucial role in the last three decades in the process of reform and opening up. And in the future, it surely will play a more important role to further the all-round modernization process of China. The core values of Neo-Confucianism, such as “benevolence, righteousness,” “benevolent politics” and “all people being my brothers and sisters, all things being my companions” will inevitably become the positive factors for constructing a more just, more rational and more peaceful international order in the process of the rise of China.