Monday, June 2, 2014


The case for eliminating Confucius from China's Confucius Institutes

Kerry Brown makes the case that China should find a new cultural figure to represent it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 3:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 3:25am

Kerry Brown
For all the controversy surrounding the opening of hundreds of Confucius Institutes across the world in the last decade, one crucial factor has been overlooked: Confucius himself.
The institutes, funded partially by the Chinese government through its Hanban organisation, have been accused of operating as propaganda outfits. They have been criticised for being part of a sinister global campaign by a cash-rich Communist Party to brainwash outsiders and win the Chinese government illicit influence abroad.
But there is a less dramatic interpretation: the proliferation shows Beijing understands the theory of soft power projection but not its implementation and real practice.
The issue here is simple. If you wanted, as a modern Chinese, to promote a deeper understanding and a more favourable attitude towards your country and its culture, why choose a figure as unattractive, remote and contentious as Confucius to represent you? Confucius is well known, for one thing. But then, Goethe is hardly a household word in America or the UK and yet the Germans have named their cultural outfits abroad after him. And the British Council and Alliance Francaise carry names of no one at all, while doing work which has been compared to that of the Confucius Institute.
The very Communist Party now lionising Confucius attacked and vilified him just four decades ago. Surely it would have been better to use someone with a less difficult recent history to represent the culture abroad.
On top of this, there is the question of the values with which Confucius is associated: patriarchal, hierarchical, and conservative. Why celebrate in 21st century China a figure who is linked to these old ideas when you are also promoting your country as innovative, outward-looking and modern?
Add to this the remoteness and elusiveness of Confucius as a historic figure, and the problem is only compounded. In the Analects, he comes across as stuffy and elliptical. His near contemporary Mencius is at least clearer, if less well known. He communicates in paragraphs rather than staccato ambiguous sentences. And as even the best scholar of Confucius would admit, we know almost nothing about him as an individual. Why hang a soft power campaign on a figure so historically vague?
Finally, there is the biggest issue of all. Chinese history teems through its long and diverse course with wonderful, vivid, inspiring figures. Many of these deserve to be better understood and known than Confucius. Some were political figures, such as the sole female empress Wu Zetian from the 7th century, or the great Qing figures of 300 years ago from emperors Kangxi to Qianlong.
American scholar Patricia Ebrey has just written a good biography of Song emperor Huizong from 1100 showing that he was a painter, calligrapher and poet whose work still holds up today. And unlike with Confucius, we can study works that came directly from Huizong's hands. There was, of course, the slight matter of him being a disastrous political leader - but for a cultural institution, should that disqualify him?
Outside the realm of politics, there are the great Tang poets Du Fu and Li Bai. Their works speak of common human emotions and aspirations in a way that Confucius never does. Or artists like the wonderful Han Gan, whose portraits of horses are still so moving after more than 1,000 years.
Scientists such as Bi Sheng might be worth considering to help illustrate the notion of a China now working on its innovation. A figure like this would also reinforce the message that China was a science leader long before the transformative thinkers of Europe appeared on the scene. With such an array of inspiring figures, why on earth would China choose a philosopher from two-and-a-half millennia ago?
I have a modest proposal to make to the Chinese government: it should seriously consider renaming the new institutions, and there is one truly great figure about whom everyone can agree: Sima Qian, the father of Chinese history, who lived in 100BC, produced a body of work which is accessible but also very modern in its concentration on the psychology of its many subjects.
There is a link, too, with Confucius, because Qian is the sole decent source for the biography of the philosopher - even if his portrait of Confucius is a little unflattering.
And unlike Confucius, Qian is someone we can truly know. The tragic story of his castration after he criticised the emperor, combined with the fact he still continued his great work, sends a great message for victory in the face of disaster.
As a human, a historian of genius and a cultural figure, Qian is truly great, and someone who should be celebrated across the world today. And Sima Qian Institutions, in view of the courage of the person they are named after, would be much harder targets for those looking to criticise them.
Kerry Brown is executive director of the China Studies Centre and professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney

Is there a CHINA? 
Has there ever been a "CHINA" in more than name and geography? 
The Han population of China is "approximately" 92%. A figure that almost dictates the answer to "is there one China". 
Two problems: 
a) The word "approximate" which is mandatory when considering all statistics in and about China unless you have full faith in the source.
b) The reality of the answer to the question of "how many Provinces are there in China?"
23 Provinces, but 34 in total. 
4 Municipalities, 5 Autonomous regions (Provinces with large [usually majority like Tibet] minority populations, 2 Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong and Macau).
The Central Government of China would be quick to add a 24th "entity": Taiwan.
Think of the "is there a China" question in the context of these divisions. 
One suggested uniting factor is Mandarin, the language taught in all Chinese schools. This permits a universal language. Chinese in all parts of the country can speak with each other. 
But does that make a nation? 
More than India certainly where there is no common language and where 447 languages separate Indians. (14 additional former languages are now extinct.)
But beneath the Mandarin umbrella in China there are many Chinas:
Traditional Chinese classification lists seven groups, comprising:
• Gan
• Guan
(Mandarin or Beifanghua)
• Kejia
• Min
(including the Hokkien and Taiwanese variants)
• Wu
(including the Shanghainese variant)
• Xiang
• Yue
(including the Cantonese and Taishanese variants)

OK, 7 groups, but then take just one small part of China, called Gan (in green). There are 9 dialects:

  • Leiyang dialect
  • Yichun dialect
  • Yingtan dialect

Depending on who is counting (we're back to "approximate") there are 200 dialects in China. These are not dying dialects; they are active, alive and well.
My decade of teaching in China began with the first of a series of festivals when I was introduced to the way many freshmen in college congregate and get to know each other: By Province. 
During the annual Lantern Festival when candles are strung under balloons and sent aloft and candles inside paper containers are floated on water, I wandered among the groups of students gathered in their Provincial circles large and small. 
Their common language was their Provincial dialect not the Mandarin they all knew. 
Their food preferences were their Provincial cuisine.
Their mantra was: "My province has the most beautiful women in China" (said with a smile.) 
The men may have been the handsomest but that was an afterthought.
These were not competitive circles. The most beautiful or handsomest or finest food were not aggressive assertions, they were rather the definitions of who they were and where they came from. But beneath that surface there were the cultural differences.
I had Haka students in my classes. They are a niche minority with a strong culture. An educated eye can spot someone who is Haka, a trained ear hears Haka when it is spoken distinct from other Provincial dialects that may be modifications of Mandarin.
In the area where I lived (Shantou about 300 kilometers up the South China Coast from Hong Kong) Chauzhou is the local language. It is an ancient Chinese language that has legitimate claim to being a "foreign" language. 
The first time I went downtown with a group of Mandarin speaking students, we went into a local shop where the shopkeepers and their customers were speaking Chauzhou. My students who were my living dictionaries prepared to translate for me. They looked at me with somewhat pained expressions: "We have no idea what they are saying". So Chauzhou is more than a dialect. Linguists have categories to separate these arcane differences. What it means on the ground is that Chauzhou people have a private language that permits them to escape the earshot of other Chinese and maintain their differences.
It also explains the strength of the local culture that has often been at odds with the parade of authorities from ancient China to modern China.
It also explains why you will find Chauzhou people all over the world. They live by the sea, they live from the sea, their pirates benefitted from the sea, and the world has been their oyster for centuries, nay millennia.
The Chauzhou are Chinese. But while the challenge was never put to Chauzhou in recent times I often wondered which of their "nationalities" would take precedence if they had to choose been China and Chauzhou.
In the China of 2014 much is made of the universal problem of the wealth gap between rich and poor, the growth of the Middle Class in China, and the impact of the new Chinese dollar billionaire class. 
Less is written and spoken of the rural-urban differences in China. This is where culture comes in.
I asked my Chinese girlfriend once whether I would ever meet her father and mother. She comes from a lower middle class small town family. Her father is a migrant worker. Her brother being the male child was the first to get a University education. He became a schoolteacher, married and has the classic one-child (male) family. 
My girlfriend went through mandatory Middle School education and was then on her own. No money for high school and beyond, neglecting the fact that she is her brother's equal, if not superior, in intellectual potential.
"Will I ever meet your father”?
"If you ever met my father he would kill me."
That is traditional China speaking. 
(Disclosure: We are decades apart in age and that barrier alone would have challenged many cultures.)
Outside China you may say the same general spirit can apply. A traditional Jewish family is not overjoyed when a child marries into a Roman Catholic family, much less a Muslim family. Mormons take on risk marrying outside their faith and on and on.
But the "kill" part of my girlfriend's reaction was not entirely in jest. Foreigners; i.e. non-Chinese, are not on in most traditional Chinese families. Sure it is changing among some of the Middle Class and the rich.
One of my students married a U.S. Marine Corps pilot she met in grad school, "coup de foudre" (love at first sight as the French say). Their US civil wedding preceded a traditional Chinese wedding with both families sharing the joy.
Yes there are changes, but they are still the exceptions, far behind the cross-cultural unions of North America and the European Union, where traditional national walls have crumbled to create the opportunity for individuals to transcend their restrictive cultures.
That restive culture is still a part of the many Chinas. And it is not limited to the rural-urban split. I wrote previously of the male dominated culture of the Chinese Communist Party. The reverence for the male child in China transcends other considerations and still dominates the hopes of Chinese couples.
Surveys consistently show the same bias in many other countries too. But there is a growing body of childbearing age in the developed world that answer: "we I/we don't care", or "I'd prefer a daughter/daughters". (Disclosure: I did prefer girls and would again).
None of this begins to address the differences among the "other" Chinese, the minorities.
Back to "approximately".
Officially there are 55 different minorities in China. Their Chinese schooling may be in Mandarin, but their "native" language is much more than a dialect. Their cultures are decidedly different from "Chinese" culture (and Confucius has no role in most of their cultures, but then neither do any of China's ancient royalty.)
Significant minorities? 
8.5% of the Chinese population or about 280-million people, (more than 80% of the population of the USA). 
(The title and thesis of the book that is needed = SIZE MATTERS in China.)
The question of "Who should represent China" in Ms Brown's op ed in the South China Morning Post applies, as does my retort: "Should anyone represent China"? 
Look at the question another way, and Ms Brown implies as much but still believes there is a better representation than Confucius.
Today's China may be an accumulation of its 3-5000 years of history. How many countries and cultures can trace their origins that far back and show the significance that China represents today? Yes the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Persians and some of the tribes of Latin America have long histories, but the links today are more in museums than in daily life.
And China today too can be seen in the same light. Today's young Chinese have little if anything in common with their ancestors. The country has grown so rapidly in the last 50 years, a growth that continues to accelerate, that there are more than generational gaps between grandparents-parents and children.
The family in China remains what it has always been Tradition. Family is the core of Chinese culture. The world's largest annual migration of Chinese going home to celebrate the Chinese New Year with family is the physical manifestation of ancient tradition.
But once home the differences are evident. The love of family is a given, as if it were a law, but the underlying gaps have moved beyond the generational gaps that are worldwide. Grandparents and parents who experienced the Cultural Revolution and periods of famine that cost the lives of 40-million - "approximate" - Chinese. Grandparents and parents whose marriages were often selected by their families or the Maoist era of the The Party. Grandparents and parents who had no restrictions on the size of their families, but whose life expectancy may have been as little as 35-40 years. They are survivors of a time that anyone who has not lived it cannot understand beyond the facts in a book. Grandparents and parents whose education was limited, sometimes non-existent, whose illiteracy rates were 80% plus.
China's population today has universal education through Middle School and literacy stands at 95%. That is not an approximation. It is one of the few statistics that does not seem to be questioned.
(The equivalent US figure is debatable at best. At least 23% of the US population is not functionally literate. Absolute illiteracy adds another 15%. But if "approximate" characterizes Chinese statistics, "debatable" characterizes these US literacy statistics.)
Turn the page to the "new" Chinese, anyone born after 1979 when the current economic miracle was born. The new Chinese have known what every economist would have said was impossible: 35 years of economic growth between 7.5-10+%. Every year better than the year before. Enough food for China to become an exporter of food. 200-400 million people (there goes another "approximate" - a big one) people lifted out of poverty. The number may be approximate, but the fact is indisputable: the largest economic migration out of poverty in human history.
And yet these generations of Chinese are still clustered in the family as they always were. It is not even the analog to the digital generation analogy that works outside China in developed countries. It is the story of the disconnected and the totally connected. The no phone to the smartphone generation gap. Insular isolated China to globalized China. Below the Party political male dominated culture lays the increasingly female educated culture (where have the men gone despite the fact that there are still more men than women in China?) More professional and career women (as is true in other countries as well.) These are educational, and cultural realities that 60-80year olds who come from experiences that are akin to coming from another planet can navigate with difficulty or not at all. 
There is a new China almost every day, an innovative and growing China that strains the young generation to keep up, and keep abreast of wave after wave of change. The older Chinese were left behind some time ago and continue to recede. 
Remember the question?
Who should represent China?
No one is the answer I suggest. 
The old IBM motto might be worth considering Think Ahead. 
Confucius would be bewildered at best in today's China. As Ms Brown points out, much of what we wrote, obtuse as it was, is outdated; and worse: irrelevant. His view of women is abhorrent.
And why is a symbol or representative necessary? 
My argument comes full circle. 
Given the many Chinas I describe, which one is "the China" that will be represented? 

Who will represent the individual Chinese when there is not a collective Chinese?

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