Daniel A. Bell (2008). China’s New Confucianism

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Daniel A. Bell (2008). China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society

China's New Confucianism


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“Falling to act on what is seen as just is a want of courage” (2.24/4/21). These concluding words from the second book of Confucius’ Analects could be a corollary to the book we review here today. Its author, Daniel A. Bell, is Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy and Director of the Center for International and Comparative Political Philosophy at Tsinghua University (Beijing) and, according to Princeton University Press’s website, “one of the few Westerners to teach at a Chinese university” (!). Well, surely Bell is one of the few Westerners to hold an important position at a Chinese University, but not one of the few to teach there. In fact, since ab auctoritate fallacies are in play here, let me advertise this review with the following words: “César Guarde, also one of the few Westerners to teach at a Chinese university, readily and gladly debunks this book for you.”

Now, let me tell you, I do not possess any special knowledge that Bell does not have. We probably know exactly the same, but he suffers a Confucian “want of courage.” I recommend readers to take a look at Jay Nordlinger’s article, “Scholars with Spine: Notes from the field of China studies,” where he quotes Andrew Nathan: “Western scholars who keep their head down … are not all ‘lily-livered liars and knaves.’” After reading Bell’s China’s New Confucianism I ought to disagree: Yes, they are.

China’s New Confucianism examines modern Chinese politics, society, and education from the perspective of what he calls a socialist interpretation of Confucius. The main thesis presented here is that Marxism and Maoism are already irrelevant in China and they have disappeared from Chinese education, with Confucius taking its well-deserved place as the leading figure of China. Since the book is full of personal experiences and observations, let me give you one of my own: Last year I read what I just wrote in these four or five lines to three different classes of Chinese students and their reaction was, well, they basically laughed hysterically.

So, in order to demonstrate that China is now under a new socialist Confucianism and that they have forgotten Marx and Mao, Bell reviews Chinese customs and manners and traces their origins back to what he calls a “left Confucianism” inspired by the writings of Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi (pp. xvi-xvii) –Confucius was, it seems, ahead of his time, a Chinese Maximilien de Robespierre who had already developed left politics before they even existed! History had finally come to an end with the authentic socialism: Confucius, the First Emperor, Mao Zedong, and Confucius, The alpha and the omega.

Maybe Bell believes this Confucian Messianism can be found in the Confucius Institutes that China has been setting all around the world. But these Institutes are in fact a propaganda mouthpiece of the CCP, which is short for Chinese Communist Party, not Chinese Confucian Party –in case you wondered. Yes, Confucius is being taught in schools and universities, but we are no longer in the Cultural Revolution. They also teach Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Nietzsche. And “being taught” is not even the same as “being properly taught.” The author forgets that Confucius was “rehab” on October, 1989, just a few weeks after the Tian’anmen Massacre, and in the same spot the students were killed on June 4. And Gu Mu’s speech on Confucius “rehab” (he was then Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) should not be missed: he not only ignored the CCP’s witch hunt against Confucianism, but he went as far as to say that the Tian’anmen “Incident” was the result of the “spiritual pollution” that had been contaminating the real Chinese tradition.

But as you may have heard, China has changed a lot since the 90s. In fact, it has changed so much that on September 27, 2009, one year after the publication of Bell’s book and in the same university he works, Tsinghua University, students joined the compulsory events that all Chinese universities organize every year for their new alumni: “Long Live Mao Zedong’s Thought” and “The Chinese People Will Rise from Here.” Not a word on Confucius in the commemoration of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.


“Long Live Mao Zedong’s Thought” at Tsinghua University (September, 2009).


“The Chinese People Will Rise from Here” at Tsinghua University (September, 2009).

Since Daniel A. Bell is “one of the few Westerners to teach at a Chinese university,” he surely knows what is being taught there. During the Cultural Revolution the Maoist curriculum was 100% communist and new teachers were hired on the basis of their commitment to Mao’s interpretation of communism, so universities were filled with loyal soldiers and ignorant peasants, rather than eminent scholars. The situation has changed somehow: Now the curriculum is not just Maoist, and eminent teachers and loyal soldiers share the pulpit, the only condition being that you do not criticize the CCP. For reasons of space I will discuss Chinese textbooks and compulsory classes in another post. Let’s just say that some of the books that every single student of any university, no matter what their major is, has to study and be examined in include: Essential Points of Modern Chinese History, Introduction of Mao’s Thought and the Theoretical System of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Introduction to the Basic Principles of Marxism, and Ideological and Moral Cultivation and its Legal Foundations. They are part of a collection entitled “Key Textbooks for Research and Construction of Marxist Theoretical Studies” (Makesizhuyi lilun yanjiu he jianshe gongcheng chongdian jiaocai). I don’t know about you, but this sounds all too Marxist and Maoist to me.

A student majoring in Optics from an important university once told me that if they do not write their homework praising the CCP “we may have problems in the university.” Although this student is currently majoring in Optics, he/she has to attend Marxist propaganda events and use recommended materials such as Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, Jiang Zemin’s Thought on Science and Technology and –surprise– Daniel A. Bell’s  The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. Does it ring any bells?

In fact, communist indoctrination starts as early as primary school. Young students are introduced to “Politics” and they should show their loyalty to the Marxist-Leninist thought they are being brainwashed with. Common books and editions of important Western thinkers and philosophers are always introduced from the same point of view: Karl Marx. For example, a selection of Nietzsche’s works is prologued in the following way:

“In regards to the position of Nietzsche’s philosophy in the History of Philosophy, an analysis of its progress from the point of view of Marxist philosophy, and a criticism of it all cannot be all contained in this short prologue to the translation. Hence, I trust interested readers will do this homework themselves.”

And also in the same book:

“Who is world’s greatest philosopher? To this question, I answer it is Marx.”

Thus, to assert, as Bell does, that “officials and scholars do not talk about communism” (p. 8) is, plainly and simply, to lie. The only reason there is an increasing interest in Confucian Studies is that the CCP wants to control what is being said about China, both within and outside the country. And Confucius Institutes have been playing an important role here. The report of a speech in November 2011 by, Li Changchun, China’s propaganda chief between 2002 and 2012, runs as follows:

“The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for extending our culture abroad. It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”

Or as Minister of Propaganda Liu Yunshan wrote in the People’s Daily newspaper (7/9/2010):

“Make sure that all cultural battlegrounds, cultural products, and cultural activities reflect and conform to the socialist core values and requirement.”

And China Radio International Director Wang Gengnian, in the same newspaper:

“We should quietly plant the seeds of our ideology in foreign countries, we must make good use of our traditional culture to package our socialist ideology.”

If you are interested in this topic, I recommend you read Marshall Sahlins short book, Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware.


But Bell does not only talk about the emergence of “left Confucianism” and the dismissal of Marxism in a “Changing Society” (Does that mean that other societies do not change?). The first part of the book deals with Chinese politics and it starts with a classic –capitalism is baaaaaad. Bell shows his self-imposed ignorance with statements such as this:

“The capitalist mode of production treats workers as mere tools in the productive process and puts technology to use for the purpose of enriching a small minority of capitalists” (p. 4).

Excellent description of the Chinese socialist system, under which most workers earn so little that they are unable to leave the country by themselves, while a small minority of CCP officials enrich themselves with public funds. And of course, let’s not forget American imperialist policies:

“In the United States, the political future is constrained, for better or worse, by constitutional arrangements that have been in place for more than two centuries. […] In China, by contrast, the political future is wide open” (p. 3).

So “wide open,” in fact, that there has been no relevant change in the last 66 years of the People’s Republic of China. The constitutionally-restricted-United-States have revoked, “for better or worse,” the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation. They also liberated Europe from the Nazi regime and introduced the Four Liberties, essential for the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Civil Rights Acts of the late 50s and 60s, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights –which China, by the way, did not ratify. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China has killed millions of Chinese citizens who did not accept the state-sponsored ideology, who were not communist enough, who professed a religion deemed dangerous, who fought for freedom of speech, or who were born as second child. The is no de facto racial segregation in China, but if you are a foreigner you will experience some “limitations”: maybe you will find a hotel that does not accept “foreign guests;” maybe your bank will deny you the right to operate your account online; or maybe some unimportant library such as the National Library of China won’t allow you to borrow any book. But hey, cheer up! China’s political future is “wide open.” Tell that to the peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong who were harmed or arrested in the past months by the CCP-sponsored police, who in turn was aided by CCP-sponsored triads.

Now, this book’s most interesting section is the one Bell dedicates to Chinese society and some of its most rooted traditions: prostitution. Don’t worry, young junzi candidates (a junzi is the exemplary Confucian man), because to engage in sexual intercourse with karaoke waitresses behind your wife’s back is “left Confucinism.” I ignore what kind of places Bell frequents and what type of acquaintance he has –I’m not here to judge anyone–, but when in China I visited KTVs weekly, and I have never find any cases of prostitution there. As far as I know, these are night clubs with prostitutes who engage in the practice with one or more clients who go there with the excuse of singing. Because the best way to improve socialization in these cases is not music –as the sages said–, but what Chinese people call “3P” or threesome –something the author attributes to a Chinese lack of inhibition (!).

Something should be said here. Something actually very serious and quite gruesome. Those businessmen who engage in these activities are not just having sex with prostitutes –most of the time, they are teenage girls, no older than 16, who are subjected to many humiliations by individuals and groups alike, who are forced to have unprotected sex –and not just the classic oral and vaginal sex– with different customers at the same time, risking STDs and pregnancy. Take note of this: institutionalized statutory rape with STDs and pregnancy, also known as “left Confucianism.”

So, what are Bell’s arguments on Confucian KTV prostitution? He basically quotes a few lines from Xunzi, a Confucian philosopher: “Music, in short, ‘can make the hearts of people good’” (p. 64). Nothing, it seems, needs to be said about lust and prostitution in Confucius, Mencius, or Xunzi, the three most important Confucian philosophers. Nothing but personal opinions to sustain a rather poor defense of bordellos. No Chinese tradition at all. So, let’s take a look at the Confucian Classics:

“It is a rare thing for glib speech and an insinuating appearance to accompany virtue.”

“Glib speech, an insinuating appearance, and excessive solicitude –Zuoqiu Ming thought this kind of conduct shameless, and do I [Confucius].”

“To follow the example of those who are under the influence of their depraved lusts? It is like he who dies in the morning and is forgotten by the evening.”

In fact, all Confucian texts identify lust (se, yin) as unmoral and, since the author seems to believe ancient Confucian rituals and KTV-bordellos can be somehow connected, maybe he should remember some words from the Confucian Classic of Rites:

“The music was intended to illustrate virtue; the ceremonies to restrain lust.”

Finally, the author takes on the issue of the Confucian roots of Chinese education. In order to show this, he creates a poorly constructed dialogue between a Confucian philosopher and a modern liberal philosopher, which is obviously based on Malebranche’s Entretien d’un philosophe chretien et d’un philosophe chinois (1707). The Confucian philosopher portrayed in the book is not Confucian at all –well, maybe he is a “left Confucian”– and the “liberal philosopher” is neither liberal nor libertarian (I honestly ignore what Bell means by “liberal” here). The conversation is similar to any Platonic dialogue, since the Chinese philosopher brings his interlocutor to aporia with a series of non sequitur. One would say that Bell’s understanding of the academia and Western educational institutions is a bit childish and far away from reality. For example, according to the “liberal” philosopher versed in Western values, academic conferences and meetings are a source of antagonism and harsh criticism –Really? Name one– where the good points are often ignored:

“Of course there is always a gap between the ideal and reality, but the same is true of Western-style critical thinking: instead of advancing truth as it’s supposed to do, it often degenerates into petty debating and humiliation of one’s ‘oponents’” (p. 112).

I guess I am a good example of that, right? But I would say that this behavior is closer to any Chinese congress, meeting, or publication, where anyone who does not agree with the Party policies –“to boldly quote” Marx, Engels or Mao even if you are talking about farming potatoes– is humiliated and called names such as “traitor.” Do not think this is funny at all: I have seen such humiliation with students who were quoting Western research in their Linguistics dissertation, just because they did not refer to “Chinese” authors such as Marx (sic!) or Mao.

Harmonious relations and “affective ties” between the participants of these meetings would be the key for a real critical thinking –probably followed by a Confucian KTV party. Chinese achievements in Science or anything else speak by themselves. If you do not believe so, ask their first Nobel Price Liu Xiaobo, who still enjoys the “affective ties” of “left Confucianism.”

One of the main problems of Bell’s book is its tendency to distract the reader with precise and very scholarly descriptions of Chinese traditions –such as ritual in Xunzi (pp. 38 ff.). But then we are told that he will “discuss three different settings of hierarchical rituals widely practiced in China […] not specifically discussed by Xunzi” (p. 46). This is just an example of “red herring”, a piece of information which is intended to be distracting us from the real problem –that modern Chinese rituals are not Confucian. Unless Bell truly believes “rituality” and “respect your elders” only happen in China.

Likewise, Bell’s arguments against Western thought are the usual liberal (as in socialist) criticism we are all used to, furnished with logical fallacies, vague descriptions, or lack of objectivity. If the author really wishes to study how to build a prosperous Chinese society with Confucian values, he should rather look at South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, instead of Soviet Union.

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