Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra Times columnist and author of Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography.
Melissa Conley Tyler’s reminder that there might be different ways to ‘think’ (or, to construct the formulation another way, ‘decipher the way of the world’) is timely. Engaging with the International Confucian Association will assist us in understanding this deep philosophical and intellectual tradition. Nevertheless, and particularly if we want to understand the dynamics of Chinese society today, it’s vital to look beyond the academic theory and understand how Confucianism is being used today.
Living in Singapore in 1998 it was impossible to escape the rhetorical challenge posed by Kishore Mahbubani's Can Asians Think. Yet just one year later, in the midst of economic crisis, the arguments underlying his collection of essays suddenly appeared far less compelling. And this is the secret to dissecting Confucian thought today.
What we are engaged in here is less an attempt to discover the world as it is and more a project aimed at constructing a particular sort of society. It is a method that emphasises and privileges particular social structures and relations.
You don’t need to spend long attempting to get to grips with the ideas underlying the theory before it becomes obvious that there are serious disputes about the meaning of Confucius' texts. These arguments began less than a decade after Confucius’ (孔夫子 Kǒng Fūzǐ) death in 479BC. Interpreting Confucianism is very much about making the past serve the purposes of the present. Of course theoretical insights should, initially, be examined on their own terms, but this doesn’t mean critical faculties should be suspended.
Plato (427-347 BC), for example, bequeathed Western philosophy a similarly rich legacy of techniques and ideas. Nevertheless, few today would see his Republic, with its prescriptions banning poetry and laughter, as providing any sort of guide for modern society.
Similarly with Confucius’ thought. Watch the hands of those speaking, as well as their lips. Don’t simply listen to the prescriptions of authoritarian states such as China and Singapore. Examine why they might be advocating particular strands of thought. You may find an entirely different agenda is at work.