The Wisdom of China?

Porcelain, Filigree and Philosophy
Ever since those many delightful commodities— porcelain, silk, embroidery, cloisonné enamel ware, carved jade and ivory, paintings, wallpaper and the like—were brought into Europe in quantity, there has also been an invisible import. A civilization that could produce such works of art stimulated curiosity, and many thoughtful people tried to understand the remarkable and impressive social theories that dominated Chinese life at the time. They saw a chance to use these ideas, which, though old in China, were newly imported into Europe. Chinese philosophy propounded theories which were particularly useful to the spokesmen for those who were finding that the feudal system of society on the Continent was becoming outmoded.

Did China influence the French Revolution ?
Confucianism became popular, though it was not generally recognised that this was only one of three systems of thought in China. Chinese philosophy, in the Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries, meant only Confucianism which was so eminently to the taste of those who wished to overthrow feudalism. As Maurice Collis remarks in The Great Within, men had freed themselves from the limitations imposed by mediaeval theology and its scholastic metaphysics; they were tiring of the half-mythological speculations of the Renaissance: they had set their feet in a new rational world. The condition of society and the structure of the state, these were the practical problems which they were trying to pose and solve. What was therefore their surprise at perceiving that 2½ thousand years ago in China a philosopher had devoted his attention almost precisely to the same problems and found an answer that worked out in practice.

Similar conditions anywhere at any time give rise to comparable thoughts. Some present-day sinologists say that China thus had its effect on the French Revolution. But history shows that new economic classes in society have little difficulty in rationalising their aspirations. If they cannot find a ready-made philosophy then their thinkers will produce one. If the French bourgeoisie had not been introduced to Confucianism it is doubtful if there would have been any difference in subsequent events. The thinkers in Europe felt that their men must act well if possessing right knowledge and this could only be acquired by the reasoning mind. This was all very modern at that time: it was clearly connected with the great advance then taking place in mathematics and the natural sciences.

Famous men who plugged Chinese Philosophy
Leibniz (1646-1716) made great use of Jesuit missionary publications and in his correspondence mentions “the work of Confucius, the King of Chinese philosophers, which has been published this year in Paris.” In 1697 he published his Novissima Sinica, in which he argued that just as Europe had sent missionaries to China so should China send to Europe to give instructions in government and morality.

Holding such views it is not surprising to find that his metaphysics are tinged with Confucian ideas.

Quesnay (1694-1774) was known as the European Confucius. It was he who, after a study of the Chinese classics, formulated a political philosophy derived from them with the practical object of inducing the Monarchy in France to model itself upon the Imperial Government of China. He saw that the French government was heading for revolution but argued in his book Le Despotism de la Chine (1767) that it could be reformed and saved if Louis XV should become an enlightened despot in the Chinese classic sense.

Voltaire (1694-1778) was another enthusiastic follower of Confucius, and in his play the plot turns upon the thesis, of which the Chinese were so fond, that as soon as the Outer Barbarians (as Europeans were called in China) come under the influence of Confucian culture they mend their ways and lead the moral life.

The feudal system of society in France at this time threw up the theory that the king can do no wrong. Some sinologists declare Chinese theories (including that of the Emperor ruling on approval, so to speak, and that if his rule does not win popular approval he must be dismissed), were a revolutionary force in feudal Europe and helped to influence the social revolution to capitalism which followed. Though men can learn from early history, in general it is the prevailing economic set-up that forms the basis upon which men build their ideas and policies.

Some say “Good old Confucius,” but we say . . .
Even at the present time it is quite normal for the professional sinologists to advocate that the West would do well to follow the teachings of Confucius, and it may be a coincidence, but they seem to find in the teaching of the Old Master many virtues which it would be in the interests of our ruling class to inculcate in us. Such as humbleness in the presence of superiors and submissiveness to the State conservatism of ideas. Some even plug the old French Jesuit theory that Confucius was practically God.

The object here is to delve into this controversial subject to see if the tenets of Confucius can be helpful to the working-class movement

But first let us consider what Confucius advocated. He lived about 2½ thousand years ago and China at that time was in a period of great change. Until then there was ample land for expansion, but the population was increasing along with wealth. State boundaries became contiguous and this was a further cause of the friction which developed into internecine warfare as the more powerful Chinese States swallowed the weaker. But on the other hand, the people still obtained their livelihood from agriculture. Farms in river valleys had to be drained, then dykes built to contain floods. Farms on higher ground necessitated water systems to supplement the rain which in that country is uncertain. The maintenance work on these water installations was heavy and done by human power. Fairly large groups were required to co-operate in this work and so large family groups composed of several generations was the normal unit of society. This, then, was the milieu into which Confucius came. The prevailing insecurity induced him, as is quite usual in such circumstances, to look back to the good old days when the ruling classes exploited their subjects without having to fight for this right. They needed a code of ethics in order to enable their subjects to live peacefully together in these great family units and to keep the unit always submissive to the State, and Confucius, the conservative sage, obliged by consolidating the philosophy which bears his name, though the tenets were practised before his time.

Chinese Ship of State drops the Pilot
This philosophy was useful in China just as long as this system of farming lasted, but in 1949, when a capitalist government seized control they promptly dropped Confucianism as no longer suitable. Workers work harder if their income is kept for their wives and children and not shared amongst many relatives. The modern State taking over control of waterworks dispenses with the need for the old organisations. Ring out the old, ring in the new, cut out the deadwood, including Confucianism —this is Capitalism in China. Mao tse-tung, himself a Confucian scholar, leads this refrain. The ancient wisdom of China arose in an ancient system of society, but now, both have passed away. It is futile to try to resurrect the past.

Why Socialists reject Confucianism
Confucianism does not arise from Capitalist conditions and cannot be used by those living in Capitalism— the Chinese themselves recognise this. It is doubtful if any philosophy makes anything but nonsense outside of the conditions which give rise to it. It is no accident that Christianity, the religion of the slaves of the Roman Empire and which was found such a consolation for the slaves of later times, has failed so utterly to take root in China, a land of yeoman farmers living since time immemorial in civil service controlled State where, domestic work apart, slavery was virtually unknown.

We in the working-class movement have a Socialist philosophy which is all-embracing and leaves no vacuum to be filled by other systems of thought. It deals with the labour theory of value, the class struggle and the materialist conception of history, which point the way to a classless system of society where the means of life will be held in common. Arising from this we have an attitude towards trade unions, war, morals, marriage, property rights, the wages system, trade, religion, yes, and even Chinese philosophy. We leave the nostalgic yearnings of Confucius to the spokesmen who find part of it useful to capitalism, while we are content to explain it, and in so doing, demonstrate the correctness of the materialist conception of history which is the pillar of our Socialist outlook.


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