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
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
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.