February 19, 2020
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The Confucian Epilogue

And what of the Humanities? In China, as here, an ethical-normative mist is rising.

The Confucian Epilogue

“Ladies and Gentleman, Welcome aboard the Harmony (Hixie Hao) Bullet Train from Shanghai to Beijing.” It is a bullet train. China is. But one that is chaotic, serpentine and ever-morphing. And the humanities, it appears, shall provide the harmonious anchorage to its dizzying pace. A dominant section of its practitioners and policy makers believe that to be the role of humanities in contemporary China. In a recently concluded symposium to assess the directions Humanities studies is taking around the world held at Nanjing University—one of the top C9 League Universities in that nation—it was instructive to witness the way the Chinese academia and artistic community perceive emerging trends and imagine their role in them. This provides us with a fresh view outside of the dominant Euro-American and South-Asian paradigms for humanities studies. It also allows us a sense of how one of the major economic powers of the world is currently thinking about culture and literature within patterns of economic growth; how it is trying to come to terms with its own internal, tortuous debates, started after Mao’s death in 1976, and at the same time guardedly welcoming the world to share and exchange diverse viewpoints—thanks to its open-door policy. In fact, understanding the way China thinks and responds to artistic and literary debates makes an interesting comparison with the way humanities studies are being shaped now by the liberal policy-makers and academics in India.

A Triptych

The triangular ideological axes within which the Chinese questions may be framed are well chalked out: accommodating Mao and the official version of socialism in a changed world, negotiating with non-Marxist Western economic motivations, and a grand return of Confucius and his ameliorating ethical ideal. According to the formulation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the current political system is the primary stage of socialism, a transitional phase to a higher and superior form of socialism. But there is a deep aversion to utopian thinking and to Mao’s rejection of the moral and cultural past during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  The CCP no longer stresses class struggle; nor does it oppose private property. The legal system is also being overhauled to that end. This is how Daniel Bell, one of the leading intellectuals at Tsinghua University in Beijing (who often writes to provide a moral raison de etre for the present dispensation) expresses it, drawing a parallel with India, “That is why Marx justified British imperialism in India: yes, it would be exploitative and miserable for Indian workers, but the foundations would be laid for socialist rule.

”The fact of the matter is that no one is really sure what the ruling elite intends as far as socialism is concerned. In the short term, the communist government will not be confined to Marxist theory if that conflicts with its intention of providing stability to the nation and its wish to remain in power.  But Western ideas of rights-based liberalism is also found wanting, for that too conflicts with nationalist sentiments and local practices. To fill the moral vacuum that such scales of economic ambition must create, the official circle has taken refuge to Confucius and his followers, a harmonious and peaceful option, one that can both counter western style democratic values, extreme forms of nationalism and sects like the Falun Gong. Confucian thinking—a baggy term with its wide variety of forms and interpretive scope—is the perfect recipe for offering the compunctions of an economically growing nation a moral rudder. It stresses love, thrift, filial piety, family responsibility, cultural homogeneity and so on, and floats around more as a cultural fulcrum in the public consciousness. For the government, emphasizing harmony means showing a concern for all classes. Internal disturbances must be handled peacefully, not by violent class conflict. Internationally, the idea of a harmony-loving nation allays fears of military adventurism and an economic explosion. This workaholic nation must also apparently critique itself by setting an example of being morally upright. Such indoctrination must start young—millions of schoolchildren are now studying the Confucian classics, including in many local initiatives outside the formal system. Several high-profile companies in China instil training in “culture” that is grounded in Confucian values and the classics, to inculcate loyalty, responsibility, meritocracy and philanthropy.

The official circle has taken refuge in Confucius, a harmonious, peaceful option, one that counters both western democratic values, extreme forms of nationalism and radical sects.

Indeed, responsibility is in the air.  Corporate intervention and assimilation of good citizens within the system is also the baseline from which the current Indian political class speaks. And the deeply conservative academic-managers are gung-ho too. It has begun right from schools where the first lessons of pop-morality are being proposed. Moral blueprint, thus prepared, will then be taken to the next level, as in the case of Delhi University, which is just about to implement a particular interpretation of Gandhi in an ‘Integrating Mind, Body and Heart’ course in its new 4-year undergraduate programme where “ the student will be asked to seek incidents and episodes in her own life and world that resemble these incidents and episodes from Gandhi's life and she will have to study her own responses (or the responses and actions of the personages involved) in comparison with the responses of Gandhi to the extent possible.” Gandhi is the safest and most useful wager for all in India. The language and scope of the debate will nevertheless be given a definitive scholastic-virtuous direction: seeking truth, compassion, honesty, piety, austerity, safe, rigorous bodily practices and non-violence as guiding missions in life. This is how political conflict is being papered over in both China and India, by instituting and managing a gigantic process of social engineering.

Neutered Politics

At ‘The 3rd International Symposium on Humanities in the World’ at Nanjing University last month, this pervasive quest for harmony through Confucian values became obvious as we listened to successive Chinese academics speak on aspects of humanities studies in their country, even as it became clearer that what they each advocated actually fractured such a New Confucian journey into intriguing byways and detours. Professor Wang Ning of the topnotch Tsinghua University at Beijing, for example, was for unflinchingly ‘highlighting the humanistic spirit’ in liberal arts education in China, outlining a zealous variety of  Confucianism placed within new frameworks of global culture, while Tong Quiang of Nanjing University harked with philosophical conviction back to the age of local Chinese Classics. Yet a third strain was putting Chinese arts and literatures in a sociologically-comparative mould with the West, as did He Chengzhou of Nanjing University on dance-drama and Wen-Chin Ouyang of the University of London on networks of literature. What was conspicuously missing from this multi-toned symphony was politics—and therefore did a presentation that examined the ravaged political in the humanities by Soumyabrata Choudhury of the Centre for Studies in the Social Sciences, Kolkata, ring alarm bells for many of the Chinese scholars in the audience. Those among the Chinese who felt otherwise expressed their solidarity with us quietly, sometimes seething with resentment at being intellectually shackled by mainstream senior colleagues. Their thoughts, however, are not entirely constrained, as a couple of not-so-harmonious papers proved.

China is planting Confucius Institutes all over the world map, while India is going down the route of Business English. Both sacrifice the critical function of the arts.

An excellent case-study that bears out this simmering inner conflict in Chinese humanities studies is provided again by Daniel Bell, in an imaginary dialogue he constructs between two professors, one a Confucius-descendant he names Professor Kong and the other his mildly-perturbed interlocutor, Professor Hu. The two venerated academics are set up fictitiously to debate trends in the humanities on television. Professor Kong believes categorically in the following objectives of humanities higher education: assimilation of the ‘great works’, explanations and empathetic alignments with subject matter, memorization of exemplary writers, the absolute authority of the teacher in class, upholding meritocracy with the complete absence of social classes, humility, temperance, sensitivity, compassion and musical education for all. Professor Hu repeatedly avers, ‘…there’s certainly a need for more critical thinking in China!’ but Kong is serene and stern at the same time: ‘My ideal is a kind of harmony in diversity: a harmonious community where different kinds of people contribute to making society into a harmonious whole. The aim isn’t to eliminate difference, but rather to educate people so that different roles and perspectives contribute to making a harmonious whole, similar to an elaborate dish with distinctive flavours.’

In India too, we can see today an uncannily-similar obsession with using the humanities in higher educational institutions to impart moral and ethical training to make ‘good’ (read malleable) human beings of adult students. The foremost role of the humanities in all contexts—to foster critical, edgy, avant garde and contrarian thinking—clearly appears dangerous and audacious to policy-makers and thinkers of both these aspiring superpower nations. But a similarity as well as a difference surfaces in the framing of guidelines for education in New China and New India—and this lies in the arena of language training. China, perhaps for its different colonial history and persistent imperial ambitions, is confident, if not arrogant, that everybody who wants to truck with its ascending economy will learn its language to do so. ‘Your Chinese Teacher’ DVDs abound, and no one on the streets even bothers to say ‘No English!’, they merely stare you down with distaste if you cannot pronounce the name of a metro station the Chinese way. Abroad, the Chinese government has been promoting Confucianism via branches of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and culture centre similar to France’s Alliance Francaise and Germany’s Goethe Institute (so far, however, the emphasis has been on language teaching rather than the promotion of culture). The first Confucius Institute was set up in 2004, and 140 campuses have since opened in 36 countries (as of mid-2007).

Our honourable leaders in education, on the other hand, are falling over backwards to encourage the likes of British Council to lead a ‘Learn Basic English’ revolution in India, and our universities are already teaching Business Communication instead of Victorian novels in English Literature honours courses, presumably for the BPO job-market. The model remains language training, sacrificing a more critical function of the arts and humanities in both cases, as literature—again astonishingly true of both China and India—at best refashions itself slowly into a benign ‘world literature’ model of making local minutiae available for a conspicuously-defensive cultural consumption. This emphasis on the utilitarian aspect of language is in sync with the ‘techno-utopian’ aspirations that the Chinese have unabashedly proclaimed as their higher education blueprint for the 21st century.

Bazaar Language

Many Chinese scholars and artists understand acutely the methods of this social engineering: the construction of morality and of civilisation in keeping with a socialist market economy.

One trusts, however, that it is not the end of ideology in China. It is too complex and varied a nation to be thus harnessed. Nor will such modern scholasticism reign forever. One witnessed some notable maverick dissension at the humanities symposium itself. Many Chinese scholars and artists understand acutely the nature and methods of this process of social engineering—the construction of morality and the construction of civilization in keeping with a socialist market economy. The moral planning that goes with it is a certain kind of nation-building exercise. Gan Yang, in a powerful and influential article, ‘Memories Construction and Structures of Tradition’, defines tradition in this case not as identity or memorialisation, but a ‘technocratic-utopian’ renewal project—this is ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’—a brake to ‘stop the runaway engine of modernity’. Here is a leap into moral time, where tradition turns into a useful re-embedding tool for preparing an exemplary society. Values become instruments of reform and modernization. In another controversial essay, ‘Liberal Socialism and the Future of China: A Petty Bourgeois Manifesto’, Cui Zhiyuan calls this arrangement a shareholding-cooperative system which seeks to moderate the social consequences of divisions and hierarchies. Leading intellectuals of the New Left such as Wang Hui have long been calling for social justice, reiterating that China’s first priority should be to address the huge gap between rich and poor, and to secure the interests of the disadvantaged. It is evident that while the happiness-seeking bourgeois in the economic sphere is a creator of industry and accumulation, in the cultural sphere he is clearly for the solidity and persistence of all things. Hence, the required dose of saccharine sentimentality.

In India, for the UPA government, Gandhi is perhaps the Confucius-comparable figure with mass appeal for moulding impressionable young minds toward a compliant New India, but it is possible that more strident masculinist figures may be produced instead by the Hindu Right in the near future if political winds churn and turn. However, we should hope that in our still-limply-seething democracy, policy-makers and fellow-travellers both inside and outside the government will not be able to muffle and contain every intractable voice of protest fermenting in nooks and in crannies, in secret and in public, in vast cyberspaces and the ubiquitous underground. In India, as much as in China.

Prasanta Chakravarty and Brinda Bose teach in the Department of English at the University of Delhi and are co-founders of MargHumanities. A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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