Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Confucius Peace Prize

…goes to Vladimir Putin (!). Thank you, Yvgeny, for alerting us to this on the Question Board. Here is a permalink to the New York Times article about it, and below is a lead from that article:

BEIJING — The Chinese committee that awarded this year’s Confucius Peace Prize minced no words in honoring the winner, Vladimir V. Putin, prime minister of Russia.

It praised his decision to go to war in Chechnya in 1999.

“His iron hand and toughness revealed in this war impressed the Russians a lot, and he was regarded to be capable of bringing safety and stability to Russia,” read an English version of the committee’s statement. “He became the antiterrorist No. 1 and the national hero.”

Not only that, it applauded him for “acting as the propagandist of current political events” while still in high school, and for being selected to join the K.G.B. while in college, “which made true his teenage dream of joining the K.G.B.” Much later, of course, came the “large-scale military action towards the illegal armed forces in Grozny, Chechnya.”

This may be disturbing to some, at different levels. Relevant to the blog’s concerns, Vygeny wonders if this is further reason to think that “Confucianism is whatever people in official positions want it to become, that it is a foldable doctrine.”

Steve Angle replies:

This has been a curious saga; the “committee” has been embroiled in controversy for claiming (without permission, apparently) to speak on behalf of a government ministry. I would hesitate before concluding anything from this about what “people in official positions want.” It’s also hard to see this as explicitly connected to any kind of overt “Confucianism.” (It will be very interesting to see what the reactions from the Confucian on-line community are.) Still, you’re certainly right to suggest that this contributes further to the story of the manipulation of the symbol “Confucius” (cf. Confucius Institutes, etc.).

This seems interesting enough to continue discussion about in a main post. Your thoughts are welcome.

(Thanks, again, to Yvgeny for initiating the discussion!)

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November 17, 2011 - Posted by | Confucianism, Contemporary Confucianism, In the News

12 Comments »

  1. Interesting tidbit from the article:

    Mr. Putin received nine of the 16 votes cast, Mr. Yuan six and Ms. Merkel one, Mr. Qiao said.

    Among the 16 voting committee members was Kong Qingdong, a professor of Chinese literature at Peking University who has boasted widely that he is in the 73rd generation of Confucius’ lineage. Mr. Kong is also famously known for cursing at a Chinese journalist on Nov. 7, which has prompted editors at Xinhua, the state news agency, and students at Peking University to demand Mr. Kong’s resignation.

    We don’t know if Kong voted for Putin, however — at least not from the NYT piece.

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 17, 2011 | Reply

  2. Strange story, all the more so since there is this competing prize (Confucius World Peace Prize) supported by the authorities and finally not distributed …
    Earlier this year, we already had the episode of the statue appearing and disappearing overnight in front of the museum on TAM square.
    Manipulating skillfully the figure of the Sage does not seem to be an easy task…

    Comment by Sébastien Billioud | November 17, 2011 | Reply

  3. Irony, Irony, Irony… Awards that appears neither honorable for Confucius nor for peaceful purposes… but only a political retaliation for the Noble Peace Award – which is somehow less or more ironic, but more or less political these days….

    Comment by Huaiyu Wang | November 17, 2011 | Reply

  4. Well, to play the devil’s advocate, with regard to the choice for Putin, 左传 says,

    仲尼曰,善哉,政寬則民慢,慢則糾之以猛,猛則民殘,殘則施之以寬,寬以濟猛,猛以濟寬,政是以和。

    This was in the context of 興徒兵以攻萑苻之盜,盡殺之,盜少止.

    However, I agree that the committee is not well set-up. A committee like this cannot be authentic unless most members are Confucians. (It would be acceptable, in my view, to have non-Confucians in consultatory roles.) Kong Qingdong should not have been there.

    I’m sure most people on this blog would disagree with me, but the problem with the state using Confucianism for whatever suits its purpose derives from a lack of fundamentalism. Instead of reading the Classics to discover right and wrong, one decides what is right and wrong first and then criticises the Classics on that basis.

    Comment by Justice&Mercy | November 20, 2011 | Reply

  5. Interesting points. It might be more correct to say that the Chinese State now uses the “title” of Confucianism for whatever suits its purpose (regardless of obvious contradictions between its policies and Confucian teachings).

    The passage you cited from Zuo Zhuan is intriguing, but may not be applicable directly for this case. (Do you have the vol no./Year of the event in any case?)

    Judging from the Confucius’s words you cited:

    1) Confucius’ praised the militant defeat and execution of robbers/rioters as a good thing
    2) He described the situation in which too lenient enforcement of law and punishment would make people arrogant and defiant, in which situation, the governor would have to implement more adamant measures of correction, which would lead to brutal and violent reactions from the people. It is in this context that the governor should be lenient again. For the adamant and lenient measures should complement each other, as a result of which the way of government would reach its harmony.
    3) It seems that for Confucius, the ideal government should keep the balance between lenient and adamant measures.

    Now for the current case of Putin, it is hardly clear that the crackdown of rebelling states is justified at all – because it is not a clear case of internal riot, but involves interracial conflicts at a relatively outskirt area. To say the least, even if Confucius would approve some aspects of Putin’s action as an expedient means to restore peace with adamant measures, it is hard to see the leniency in Putin’s case, and this case, though acceptable, is far far from an ideal political solution that would deserve a “Medal of Peace” for Confucius…

    Comment by Huaiyu Wang | November 20, 2011 | Reply

    • You said,

      “2) He described the situation in which too lenient enforcement of law and punishment would make people arrogant and defiant, in which situation, the governor would have to implement more adamant measures of correction, which would lead to brutal and violent reactions from the people. It is in this context that the governor should be lenient again. For the adamant and lenient measures should complement each other, as a result of which the way of government would reach its harmony.”

      Well, the way I understand it, what Confucius meant is:

      Adamant measures of correction would hurt the people, in which case one should revert to more lenient measures.

      Btw, this is from 昭公二十年.

      Again, playing the devil’s advocate, do you not think parallels can be drawn with 周公东征?

      Comment by Justice&Mercy | November 21, 2011 | Reply

      • Thanks – I think your interpretation of the word can 殘 should be right on target and in any case better than my hasty reading of it.

        I think military expeditions are very complicated matters (contexts, causes) and it is oftentimes not advisable to draw the analogy between ancient and modern settings of war/expeditions. Maybe a better approach is to ask

        1) Whether the Eastern Expedition of the Duke Zhou is “justified” – why and to what extent?
        2) Whether Putin’s militant approach is “justified” – why and to what extent?

        Comment by Huaiyu Wang | November 22, 2011 | Reply

  6. Thanks, Manyul, for sharing this link and your thoughts with us! Yes, maybe Sebastien is right when he claims that the story about the Confucius prize demonstrates once again that manipulating skillfully the figure of the Sage is not easy – in particular as the Chinese government embraces these traditional values merely as means in order to continue its post-socialist, technocratic, and modernist political agenda. It would be an interesting research topic to see how different this government’s use of Confucian propaganda actually is from earlier uses (for example in the Ming and Qing dynasties). Somehow I fear it is not so different at all…

    And yes, I agree that Neo-Confucianism has never merely been what “people in official positions want” – but nevertheless Zhu Xi wanted his teachings to become the official doctrine of the Chinese state, which didn’t leave critical Neo-Confucians many critical ressources, once his teachings had in effect become orthodox… (of course, radical moral critique by a singular individual has always remained an option, like today, but it has also always been not too difficult to marginalize these individuals). Perhaps Thomas Metzger’s description of political Confucianism under the Qing dynasty is still accurate: his picture of the deep corruption (both morally and psychologically) at the basis of the Confucian scholarly career, the deep identification with power together with the un-realistic belief in one’s ability to transcend this very power on moral terms (or spiritual terms, if you want).

    And my last point: more and more I come to think that we need to think harder about the fate of Confucianism in Taiwan, i.e. in a truly democratic and free state. All these recent blue-prints for a Confucian institutional renewal in China may ultimately prove to be too far removed from political reality in most other modern states where the free competition of thoughts and ideas is a basic fact and there is no central authority that can impose its unified Confucian moral vision on society any more.

    In sum: Confucianism has never merely been what “people in official position want”, but the vagueness of its core idea (a unified moral and political community) has always played into the hands of powerful elites interested in preserving the status quo. Only a democratic state would change this state of affairs, but I fear that democratic societies will become necessarily less and less Confucian over time…!

    Comment by Kai Marchal | November 21, 2011 | Reply

    • I suspect any sufficiently long-lived tradition is going to be susceptible to this, not just Ruism. Certainly there have been and continue to be attempts to co-opt Christianity, Islam, etc. for political purposes. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and how successful the governments efforts to appeal to Ruism will be. One possibility is that ordinary people might be turned off by Ruism if it becomes identified as a government ideology.

      I’m curious about your last comment: why do you think democratic societies will necessarily become “less Confucian” over time? What indications do you see in Taiwan?

      Comment by David Elstein | November 21, 2011 | Reply

    • I agree that overt manipulation of Confucian terms, symbols, and values is likely to lead to cynicism and irony. A good example is “harmonize,” which is now generally used in popular culture (e.g., on Chinese microblogs) in ironic ways. This is not directly aimed at the Confucian usage, admittedly, but it rubs off.

      Comment by Steve Angle | November 21, 2011 | Reply

  7. Hi David and Steve,

    thanks for your comments. Concerning your first point, David: I think I share Charles Taylor’s position that although modern pluralistic democracy are often perceived as a threat to Christian belief, it actually may be a chance: only in a free and pluralistic society, the individuals can embrace the Christian system of belief authentically, without being forced into believing by the existing power structures or other authorities. And I guess the same should held true for Confucianism. However, the trouble with Confucianism is that it has been taken hostage since a thousands of years by the central authority (or, if you want, by the traditional Chinese state)… And even today there are these attempts to “politize” Confucianism in a similar fashion which creates in fact, as Steve righlty observes, “cynicism”. I would add that a general climate of fear is very typical for Chinese traditional political culture. Of course, it is a fascinating task to think about what a free, “modern” Confucianism would look alike. But this seems to be much more difficult as for example in the case of Christianity, where you have something like the King James bible embued with the spirit of freedom and individualism, and where political and spiritual power have been dissociated at a very early stage.

    Concerning your question on Taiwan, David: I think the recent discussions in Taiwan about whether the Four Books should become obligatory reading materials in Taiwanese schools once again have demonstrated that there is a very strong craving for openness and true pluralism in Taiwanese society today (i.e. Confucius AND Shakespeare AND Plato!). Although it seems that we will have these reading materials back after the elections (in case that the KMT wins the elections…), it is actually difficult to imagine that these “Confucians” will be able to impose their unified educational program on the long term (ironically one problem seems to be the lack of qualified teachers!). As soon as traditional familiy values become weaker (which is a necessary product of modernization) and schools do not teach the traditional compulsory Confucianism any more, I am convinced that many Confucian values will disappear on the long run (maybe we will have post-Confucian societies, like the post-Christian societies in Europe). I appreciate Mou Zongsan, but I am rather skeptical both about his claim that political freedom and the Confucian idea of moral/spiritual freedom are compatible and about his way of seeing Confucianism as a value basis for democracy: I do not think that the latter claim actually helps us to understand what democracy is or why citizens in a modern state should support democracy… I know that you have written an article on this issue (which to my shame I haven’t read yet). What do you think?

    Comment by Kai Marchal | November 22, 2011 | Reply

  8. Well, these are big questions. I have no a priori view on whether Ruism can coexist with democracy; I suppose some forms or aspects of Ruism can coexist with or even help justify some forms or aspects of democracy. I rather like Xu Fuguan’s point that democracy makes it possible for more people to develop their renxing, and thus insofar as Ruism holds developing renxing as a good, there is reason to support democracy. Of course, even if he’s right, there’s no guarantee that once democracy is in place, people will continue to support Ruism. There probably will be a direction toward more pluralism, and certainly it seemed to me that people in Taiwan value individual freedom more than Anglophone writers on Ruist politics give credit for. Is this giving up Ruism? To some people, it certainly is, but of course others see it as freeing Ruism from the strictures of the traditional Chinese political structure so it can express the values it always had.

    I do think New Confucians in general overlooked how Ruist values actually imply different kinds of institutions than British-style liberalism, and generally assumed that Ruism could justify the same liberal democratic structure as in Western countries. To me, it’s an interesting question exactly what form a Ruist democracy would take, but I don’t have a good answer at this point.

    Comment by David Elstein | November 22, 2011 | Reply


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