An Alternative Vision of Modernity - From a Confucian Perspective

Hegel, Marx and Max Weber all shared the ethos that, despite all its shortcomings, the modern West informed by the Enlightenment mentality was the only arena where the true difference for the rest of the world could be made. Confucian East Asia, Islamic Middle East, Hindu India, or Buddhist Southeast Asia was on the receiving end of this process. Eventually, modernization as homogenization would make cultural diversity inoperative, if not totally meaningless. It was inconceivable that Confucianism or, for that matter, any other non-Western spiritual traditions could exert a shaping influence on the modernizing process. The development from tradition to modernity was irreversible and inevitable.

In the global context, what some of the most brilliant minds in the modern West assumed to be self-evidently true turned out to be parochial. In the rest of the world and, arguably, in Western Europe and North America, the anticipated clear transition from tradition to modernity never occurred. As a norm, traditions continue to make their presence in modernity and, indeed, the modernizing process itself is constantly shaped by a variety of cultural forms rooted in distinct traditions. The recognition of the relevance of radical otherness to one¡¯s own self-understanding of the eighteenth century seems more applicable to the current situation in the global community than the inattention to any challenges to the modern Western mindset of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. For example, the outstanding Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Leibnitz and Rousseau took China as their major reference society and Confucianism as their major reference culture. It seems that toward the twenty first century, the openness of the eighteenth century as contrasted with the exclusivity of the nineteenth century may provide a better guide for the dialogue of civilizations.

In light of the ill-conceived hypothesis of the "coming clash of civilizations," the need for civilizational dialogues and for exploring a global ethic is more compelling. Among the Enlightenment values advocated by the French Revolution, fraternity, the functional equivalent of community, has received scant attention among modern political theorists. The preoccupation with fixing the relationship between the individual and the state since Locke¡¯s treatises on government is, of course, not the full picture of modern political thought; but it is undeniable that communities, notably the family, have been ignored as irrelevant in the mainstream of Western political discourse.

East Asian modernity under the influence of Confucian traditions suggests an alternative model to Western modernism: (1) Government leadership in a market economy is not only necessary but is also desirable. The doctrine that government is a necessary evil and that the market in itself can provide an "invisible hand¡¯¡¯ for ordering society is antithetical to modern experience in either the West or the East. A government that is responsive to public needs, responsible for the welfare of the people and accountable to society at large is vitally important for the creation and maintenance of order. (2) Although law is essential as the minimum requirement for social stability, "organic solidarity" can only result from the implementation of humane rites of interaction. The civilized mode of conduct can never be communicated through coercion. Exemplary teaching as a standard of inspiration invites voluntary participation. Law alone cannot generate a sense of shame to guide civilized behavior. It is the ritual act that encourages people to live up to their own aspirations. (3) Family as the basic unit of society is the locus from which the core values are transmitted. The dyadic relationships within the family, differentiated by age, gender, authority, status, and hierarchy, provide a richly textured natural environment for learning the proper way of being human. The principle of reciprocity, as a two-way traffic of human interaction, defines all forms of human-relatedness in the family. Age and gender, potentially two of the most serious gaps in the primordial environment of the human habitat, are brought into a continuous flow of intimate sentiments of human care. (4) Civil society flourishes not because it is an autonomous arena above the family and beyond the state. Its inner strength lies in its dynamic interplay between family and state. The image of the family as a microcosm of the state and the ideal of the state as an enlargement of the family indicate that family stability is vitally important for the body politic and a vitally important function of the state is to ensure organic solidarity of the family. Civil society provides a variety of mediating cultural institutions that allow for a fruitful articulation between family and state. The dynamic interplay between the private and public enables the civil society to offer diverse and enriching resources for human flourishing. (5)Education ought to be the civil religion of society. The primary purpose of education is character-building. Intent on the cultivation of the full person, schools should emphasize ethical as well as cognitive intelligence. Schools should teach the art of accumulating "social capital" through communication. In addition to the acquisition of knowledge and skills, schooling must be congenial to the development of cultural competence and appreciation of spiritual values. (6) Since self-cultivation is the root for the regulation of family, governance of state, and peace under Heaven, the quality of life of a particular society depends on the level of self-cultivation of its members. A society that encourages self-cultivation as a necessary condition for human flourishing is a society that cherishes virtue-centered political leadership, mutual exhortation as a communal way of self-realization, the value of the family as the proper home for learning to be human, civility as the normal pattern of human interaction and, education as character-building.

It is far-fetched to suggest that these societal ideals are fully realized in East Asia. Actually, East Asian societies often exhibit behaviors and attitudes just the opposite of the supposed salient features of Confucian modernity indicate. Indeed, having been humiliated by imperialism and colonialism for decades, the rise of East Asia, on the surface at least, blatantly displays some of the most negative aspects of Western modernism with a vengeance: exploitation, mercantilism, consumerism, materialism, greed, egoism and brutal competitiveness. Nevertheless, as the first non-Western region to become modernized, the cultural implications of the rise of "Confucian" East Asia are far-reaching. The modern West as informed by the Enlightenment mentality provided the initial impetus for worldwide social transformation. The historical reasons that prompted the modernizing process in Western Europe and North America are not necessarily structural components of modernity. Surely, Enlightenment values such as instrumental rationality, liberty, rights-consciousness, due process of law, privacy and individualism are all universalizable modern values. However, as the Confucian example suggests, ¡®¡¯Asian values" such as sympathy, distributive justice, duty-consciousness, ritual, public-spiritedness and group orientation are also universalizable modern values. Just as the former ought to be incorporated into East Asian modernity, the latter may turn out to be a critical and timely reference for the American way of life.