Some years ago I gave a mini-lesson on plagiarism to a Chinese student who’d submitted a first essay full of unsourced quotations. I showed her a classical Chinese passage from the ancient Confucian text “The Mencius,” in which Mencius quotes and cites Confucius by name.

“See?” I said. “Even ancient Chinese scholars cited their sources.” My lesson didn’t quite have the desired effect.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It would be rather like a Chinese professor quoting the King James Bible to make a moral teaching point to an irreligious British student. Such an antiquarian exercise can fall flat because the teacher presumes, as I did, a historical cultural connection that the student doesn’t identify with.

Some intercultural and English language education theorists go a lot further than I did about such historical cultural connections. They argue, for instance, that East Asian students’ Confucian cultural heritage influences their learning styles and attitudes, which can clash with Western teaching methods.

Presumed behavioral traits such as a collectivist sense of harmony that discourages critical thinking, passivity, deference to teachers and plagiaristic proclivities — even struggles with thesis statement writing — are all explained as manifestations of an often unconscious, ancient Confucian influence. Readers teaching in Japan or to East Asian students abroad may wonder how correct this conclusion is. I can hint at some answers here.

Beliefs have waxed and waned

In the past, this alleged Confucian influence was used to explain the perceived backwardness of Asians relative to Western civilization. Today, cultural identity politics and education theorists’ cultural hypersensitivities require a different approach: This alleged influence now points to cultural differences that must be understood and respected.

Culturally respectful or not, such approaches seldom ask whether Confucianism is in any state today to exert the influences claimed for it, and whether even in the past Confucianism was actually encouraging the behavioral traits supposedly associated with East Asian students.

Unlike religious traditions like Buddhism, Confucianism did not weather the transition to modernity very well. By the 14th and 15th centuries, classical Confucian texts had taken center stage in examination systems selecting officials to staff bureaucracies in China, Korea and Vietnam. Neo-Confucian academies educated samurai for bureaucratic jobs in early 19th-century feudal Japan, though recent research has shown that their examinations were less meritocratic, and less focused on Confucian texts.

Generations of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese youth rote-learned the Confucian classics and endured a grueling regimen of provincial, regional and national examinations to qualify for bureaucratic office. Confucian values were also central to imperial court rituals. These Confucianized political, ritual and educational cultures were swept away by education reforms, political revolutions and colonization in the early 20th century.

However, Confucianism has survived in other forms. Today it’s making a popular comeback in China, and the Communist government has acquired a taste for Confucian slogans. But Confucian revivalism dates back to the late 19th century, when Japanese scholars such as Inoue Tetsujiro used their European philosophical training to revamp Confucianism as an academic philosophy, and as a constituent part of a national morality distinct from “Western individualism.”

Political leaders in late 19th-century Japan and in postwar Taiwan and South Korea were also keen on developing mass education systems to make their citizens literate, obedient and disciplined enough to fulfill national industrialization goals. These leaders — aided by scholars like Inoue — superficially preached Confucian values such as harmony, loyalty and filial piety to instill nationalist sentiment in schoolchildren and army conscripts.

At least some of the behavioral traits claimed for East Asian students, including strong deference to teachers and lack of critical thinking, likely have a shallow 20th-century heritage in the modernized mass education systems of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Still, it’s worth pointing out what’s wrong with suggesting that Confucianism provides the cultural programming behind such behavioral traits.

History of debate and dissent

Let’s start with critical thinking and student passivity. Two-and-a-half millennia ago, during the Warring States Period in China, Confucianism started out as a tradition of critical thinking. Confucians called for a return to the rites and the moral cultivation of a previous era of sage kings, rebuked princes who failed to live up to their moral standards, and refused to work for them if they ruled unjustly. Mencius even suggested that the most tyrannical princes could be overthrown and executed.

Early Confucian texts record lively dialogues between students and their masters, and students were not afraid to speak up if they disagreed with their masters. Confucians disagreed with each other and they also came in for philosophically sophisticated criticism from rival thinkers such as the Mohists, Legalists and Daoists. Another early Confucian, Xunzi, recommended the study of persuasive speaking for princes eager to combat these “heretics.”

Even in later eras when Confucianism was reinvented as a state doctrine and rote-learned by students, there was room for dissent. So the 16th-century scholar Wang Yangming famously accused this scholastic Confucianism of being an obstacle to moral self-knowledge. As political philosopher and Confucian scholar Sungmoon Kim told me, “The entire history of Confucianism was propelled by critically minded thinkers.”

What then of plagiarism? Culturally sensitive education theorists explain that what Westerners denounce as plagiarism is, for people reared in Confucian cultures, a means for paying homage to and learning from the ideas of revered scholars. They therefore recommend a culturally respectful, gradual approach to teaching “Western-style” anti-plagiarism norms to Asian students.

Ancient Chinese scholars, who understood the difference between respectful allusion and literary theft, would not have been flattered by this “cultural respect.” Applied linguist Dilin Liu notes that Chinese writers were already criticizing plagiarism by the eighth century. The Wen Ze, a 12th-century textbook teaching essay writing to examination candidates, also condemned plagiarism.

A millennium-long academic arms race pitted examination officials against candidates trying to bribe, cheat or plagiarize their way to a coveted diploma. Today, leading Chinese universities are struggling to enforce plagiarism rules in the face of widespread corruption and weak legal backup.

If East Asian students and researchers plagiarize, it’s not because of some archaic cultural programming; it’s because modern institutional cultures tacitly condone plagiarism, or lack clear policies for explaining and combating it. In any case, researcher plagiarism rates vary greatly between East Asian countries, and they vary between “Western” countries too. Like everyone else, East Asian students and researchers are more likely to plagiarize if it is easy and if there are strong enough incentives to do it.

Stereotyping the 1.5 billion

East Asia today is a vast, culturally diverse region of 1.5 billion people. Its national education systems are in flux, and are the battleground for struggles over national identity, teaching methods and academic integrity, much as they are in America or Europe. Students emerging from these education systems are less likely to conform to “Asian learner” stereotypes.

Anglo-American teachers seeking insight into their students’ learning styles and expectations should research their modern schooling cultures and ask them about their education experiences. For instance, Narahiko Inoue, an expert on competitive debating at Kyushu University, told me that a focus on entrance examination preparation in Japanese schooling has led to a neglect of public speaking, and generated an over-reliance on textbook and teacher authority that discourages more spontaneous, critical thinking.

There may also be motivational, confidence and language proficiency problems lying behind, say, classroom passivity and reluctance to engage in critical thinking and debate. All of these issues can be resolved with patient instruction and improved foreign language skill.

Lastly, teachers may find — as I have, after watching Japanese female students jokingly “talk rough” and flip the bird at their male peers — that ritual propriety and deference aren’t what they used to be.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University, and has published widely in philosophy and philosophy of education.

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