“Confucianism,” says historian Hiroshi Watanabe, “is perhaps the most powerful political ideology yet conceived by the human race.”


Indisputably, a set of doctrines associated with an ancient Chinese sage known in the West as Confucius (551-479 B.C.) held sway over much of East Asia for close to 2,000 years — an extraordinary achievement. But then modernity came along and Confucianism was either outgrown, as in Japan, or overthrown, as in China, and who missed it? Few, probably, among the masses whose poverty it countenanced, or women whose subordination it endorsed, or lovers of freedom to whom it had little to say.

Confucian metaphysics is prosaic in the extreme. Watanabe (in “A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901”) boils it down to this: “In this world, there is heaven and there is Earth. Between heaven and Earth lives mankind. There is no other world. What Buddhists and others may say about this world being illusory is simply not the case.”

Heaven, Earth, man. Nothing else. No gods, no transcendent reality. There is nothing special or elevated about mankind. “Each thing,” Watanabe explains, “has its naturally appropriate way of being.” Proper to mankind’s way of being are the “five relationships” and the “five virtues.” The five relationships link father to son, ruler to vassal, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend. The five virtues are benevolence, righteousness, rites, wisdom and faithfulness. Individuals and societies ruled by them are in harmony with the universe. Deviation from them invites chaos.

All the virtues are (or at least seem) readily comprehensible, excepts rites. To moderns, rites are either irksome or aesthetically pleasing; peripheral either way. To Confucius they were crucial. They replace laws. More accurately, they render laws, lawyers, law courts and policing unnecessary. Central to rites, hardly distinct from them, is music. Confucius sees life as an intricate dance, every step orchestrated, every word, gesture, facial expression, scripted. The scriptwriter, so to speak, is “Heaven.” A benevolent ruler who follows the script is a “son of Heaven”; he will reign over a state as orderly as the motions of the planets or the progression of the seasons. A ruler who is not benevolent will dance out of step, and his state fall into anarchy. Such a ruler has forfeited the mandate of Heaven and is fair game for a popular uprising. So the master taught.

In Japan, Confucianism was warped by the rulers who governed in its name. The Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1867) and the Confucianist scholars it sponsored stressed obedience, ruthlessly enforced, over benevolence, lovingly tendered. Wherein lay the Tokugawa regime’s claim to represent Heaven? That question eventually toppled it, though the uprising was aristocratic rather than popular.

There is a peculiar fascination in philosophies that time has passed by. Nakae Toju (1608-1648), samurai-born, retired from active official life to found a Confucian school in his native village in Shikoku, where he wrote “Dialogue with the Elder.” The dialogue is between a sage-elder and an eager disciple. In answer to the disciple’s question, the elder discourses on filial piety.

“Each of us,” Toju’s elder said, “possesses a spiritual treasure unique under Heaven.” This is filial piety, the reverence and obedience children are bound by nature to show their parents, and subjects their rulers. “This treasure is fully in accord with the sun above us and is fully apparent to the four seas below us.” The filial piety in those below calls forth benevolence from those above — and vice versa. “When you order the realm under Heaven, all under Heaven are pacified; when you govern the state, the state is in order; when you organize your household, your household is regulated … when you follow it in your heart your heart is clear. … When people take good care of it, the ruler has a long, prosperous reign over the four seas; the various lords live in splendor in a unified realm … and the common people store up their goods and take pleasure in them.”

How charming, how quaint! Is it, perhaps, something more as well? Surveys conducted in the 1990s by Danish scholar Geir Helgesen show 90 percent of South Koreans agreeing with the statement, “The ideal society is like a family.” More surprising, to Helgesen, is that 75 percent of Danes felt the same way. Denmark is probably as un-Confucian as South Korea is Confucian. Might the Confucian “family-state” be some kind of universal ideal?

One of the most innovative and influential Confucian scholars of his day was Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725). In his autobiography, he recounts a criminal case he was involved in as a magistrate. Here we see Confucian justice in action. It’s a bewildering spectacle.

It concerns the murder, in 1711, of a man by his wife’s father and elder brother. The victim is a merchant of Edo (present-day Tokyo) who vanishes while traveling on business. His wife, awaiting his return at her father’s house in the country, grows anxious. What can be keeping him? One day a body is found floating face down in the river. Fearing it’s her husband’s, the woman implores the village headman to investigate. Her fear proves justified. Worse still, her father and elder brother turn out to be the murderers.

The question Arai is called upon to settle concerns not them but her: Is she guilty of a crime against filial piety? True, when she appealed to the headman she had no idea she was inculpating her father. That merited consideration, to be sure. Arai reports: “The head of the (Confucian) Academy submitted the opinion that if this woman had knowingly reported her father’s murder of her husband to the authorities, she should be condemned to death. But if she had acted out of ignorance, she should be sentenced to penal servitude.”

Arai’s more liberal interpretation saved her — on one condition: that she shave her head, become a nun and retire to a convent. This she did — with gratitude for having been spared? With resentment at having been convicted? We shall never know.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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