Subject: International Relations of Northeast Asia
Essay Title: ‘Confucianism in North-East Asia’
The following is an examination of Confucianism is Northeast Asian states. In particular the essay will focus on China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in an examination of how each of these states has individually adapted and reinvented Confucian ideals and notions to serve the specific circumstances of each state. The essay will trace the reinvention and subsequent development of what can be termed ‘neo-Confucianism’ as an aid or hindrance in the economic development of each state. There are clear patterns that emerge in the examination of Confucianism in Northeast Asia mainly concerning the use of Confucianism as a convenient label, particularly by Western scholars to describe and explain the economic success and dynamism of East Asian economies without paying reference to the particular circumstances under which industrialization took place. Secondly, how within the states themselves, Confucianism has been reinvented time and time again in different and unique forms to serve the function of giving legitimacy to the regime in power and rationalize it actions in power as well as the means with which power is preserved.
At the same time, Confucianism has offered many advantages to Northeast Asian states – in an adapted form- in pursuing industrialization and capitalist modernization in the post World War II period. In examining this phenomenon it is important to pay particular attention to the deep separation between Confucian ideology or social philosophy and how it was used in practice as well as the degree of influence Confucianism had in the development of those states.
It is perhaps best to begin the examination with a broad outline of what Confucianism as a social philosophy is, its political significance and why it has been taken up as an ideology.
As an ethical system Confucianism is concerned with correct relations between superiors and inferiors and stresses mutual obligations, such as correct example on the part of the former and loyalty on the part of the latter. Individualism is subordinated to harmony within a group; the family was traditionally the paramount social group. It has a strong emphasis on order, stability, hierarchy and filial piety.
It is male-centric and elitist in nature. A clear social hierarchy emerged in Imperial Chinese society with the Emperor and his immediate family at the top. Under him were the ‘scholar gentry’, who became the administrative elite. Below was the warrior caste , followed by the land – owners (whose sons made up the warrior caste), then followed by the peasantry and finally, at the bottom were the merchants. Over time, the social philosophy of Confucianism merged into a kind of civic-religion that has existed in East Asian societies to the present time.
In government, Confucianism supports “enlightened authoritarian rule” by a centralized bureaucracy, not popular democracy.
In traditional Confucian societies, government was supposed to be the reserve of an educated bureaucracy, namely the ‘scholar gentry’. In Confucian philosophy, a central tenet is the ‘mandate of heaven’ given to the emperor or leader which can be lost but not in tandem with existing social order. As such Confucianism in it original form can never really be revolutionary.
Having outlined the basic tenets of Confucianism, how was it adapted applied to Northeast Asia in a contemporary sense? We can examine this by tracing the ‘re-invention of Confucianism’ within each of the above mentioned Northeast Asian states individually. At the same time we can examine what the social philosophy of Confucianism can and has offered these states in aiding and improving the industrialization and modernization processes. It is appropriate to begin with China as Confucianism is an indigenous product of the country.
Confucianism in China is also the most complex and contradictory of the Confucian states both in terms of its economic development and the changing role that Confucianism has played in China. At the same time China is perhaps the best example of how Confucianism has been reinvented and used to serve the ends of its reigning leaders. As Chan points out; there has been a “periodic demand on the service of Confucianism in Chinese history”.2 This can be seen in the governing practices from the Qing dynasty to Mao .