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Monday, September 21, 2020

On Cities and Tongdong Bai's Confucian Modernity

[The following is a version of comments that I have been invited to give at a book symposium being hosted by the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy at the City University of Hong Kong in October. It'll take place via Zoom, unfortunately. I'll get back to Hong Kong again someday, but not this year.]

Tongdong Bai’s Against Political Equality: The Confucian Case is a sprawling, ambitious, and often (though not always) compelling book. Going far beyond its title, Bai’s book does not only thoughtfully add to the ever-increasing literature on the relationship of the Confucian tradition to arguments about egalitarianism, meritocracy, and liberal democracy generally, but also aspires to make a comprehensive case for a Confucian alternative to liberal modernity entirely. Such a philosophical and historical claim might seem to be biting off more than any one book could ever chew, but there is much to be learned from the Confucian perspectives Bai brings to bear on the book’s many topics. In these comments, I will focus solely on the provocative framing which Bai sets up so as to situate the alternative which he spends the rest of the book describing, a framing which presents a way of conceiving of the Confucian tradition that leads directly to questions that, under some common interpretations, Confucianism had been assumed to have no answer.

Foremost among these interpretations is the assumption that the “familism” of the classical Confucian tradition--which Bai explicitly centers his analysis upon--is inapplicable to, or at least greatly constrains it direct applicability to, the modern world, which Bai himself characterizes as centrally involving the establishment of “large, populous, well-connected, mobile, plebeianized states of strangers” (p. 26). Given that, to quote L.H.M. Ling, classical Confucianism converges all the “various domains of human activity--political (ruler-to-subject), familial (father-to-son, parent-to-child), conjugal (husband-to-wife), and fraternal (brother-to-brother, friend-to-friend)--into one set of family relations writ large,” the notion of discovering in the Confucian tradition an arrangement that provides guidance to a society of characterized by mobility and anonymity is a surprising one. Bai’s argument this was accomplished through “the introduction of compassion-based humanness as a virtue,” thereby providing “a bond for a society of strangers” is powerful, though not, I think, entirely persuasive (p. 120).

That classical Confucianism lays out a moral and social system of signification and ritual which as a matter of theory served, and in practice through Chinese history frequently did serve, to tie together people beyond their basic family or village units is well understood. It is more commonly the case, however, that this understanding underscores a “civil,” as opposed to a “civic,” formulation of the possibilities for a Confucian politics. That is, the civilizing aspects of Confucian universalism are seen as not tied to any particular place or community, but rather to the simple fact of humans being everywhere in community with one another, beginning with the family and expanding out to potentially encompass anyone that any other given person could name (and be named by), thereby give real affective meaning to the obligations and bonds between them. As A.T. Nuyen put it, it invokes an “outward expansion of the individual self to a universal framework that encompasses the whole world.” How well can that vision of ritually realized civil relationships be adapted to the socio-economic reality of diverse populations capable of independent movement pursuing distinct, private goals in pluralistic civic spaces? Here, Bai qualifies his suggestions somewhat, and these are exactly the points where I find his basic framing of his argument most provocative.

Bait presents the centuries-long period of transition from the Zhou dynasty, through the Spring and Autumn periods and the Warring States period, until the establishment of the Qin dynasty (roughly 770 BCE to 221 BCE, a time which he abbreviates as the "SAWS"), as a time of modernization--though not the “modernity 2.0" brought on by the “industrial revolutions” of western Europe which “eluded traditional China” (p. 26). Nonetheless, as the SAWS saw the collapse of Zhou-era feudalism and its replacement with “a few large and populous states in which the kings had to deal with thousands of strangers without the nobility-based delegatory system available to them anymore,” Confucianism emerged in part as a response to “the demand for new political orders” which this early modern moment required. Bai elucidates this interpretation through some innovative use of well-known passages from the Mencius (in particular 1A7, with the story of King Xuan of Qi), concluding that “after the collapse of close-knit communities in feudal times [meaning the Zhou dynasty], the lord of a state lost the motive to care for his people, most of whom were now total strangers.” The Confucian tradition, in the hands of Mencius, presents compassion and humaneness “as a new bond between the ruler and the people, and as a new motivation for a leader of state to rule his people.” Thus the humane meritocracy of classical Confucianism, Bai goes on to argue, thus should be understood as a philosophical resource of direct applicability to the challenges facing liberal democracy today, since Confucian compassion and fellow-feeling were articulated in very socially similar--if very culturally distinct--milieus of modernity (p. 122).

My struggle with this--in many ways ingenious--justificatory argument is that Bai’s attempted association of the unique circumstances of the period of Confucianism’s emergence with the same period in European history which bequeathed so many of the conceptual developments that get lumped into “modernity” (the rise of skepticism and individualism in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the scientific developments of the Renaissance period; the development of advanced capitalist forms as changes introduced by travel, exploration, technology. and imperial expropriation were codified into government and law in the 16th and 17th centuries; etc.) simply lacks one of the fundamental elements which his own original description depended upon: urban spaces of genuine mobility, diversity, and personal subjectivity. This is not to deny that the ancient Chinese cities of Linzi, Yangzhou, Jicheng, or others lacked any sprawling or cosmopolitan character; on the contrary, the evidence is clear that many did. But for the Confucianism of Bai’s SAWS “modernity” to be truly accepted as, in his words, an order fit for “a society of strangers,” then it must incorporate some analogue to the kind of “heterogeneity of anonymity,” to quote Stephen Schneck, which slowly but surely emerged through the changing urbanism of Late Middle Ages and the 15th and 16th centuries in Western Europe. It is not clear that is the case.

Bai suggests, in reference to the long periods of disruption in Chinese history, that the overwhelmingly agricultural and local “close-knit society of acquaintances” which most take to be the default character of Confucian communities might be better seen as temporary refuges which developed in the wake of turmoil, or perhaps even “a mistaken projection of contemporary observations on the whole history of China.” His support for that revisionary argument is thin, however. Thus he follows this argument with the observation that “even if we accept the judgment that the economy of traditional China was agriculture-based, and its villages were societies of acquaintances that were mobile...only at a rather slow pace,” that still doesn’t account for “the mobility of government officials who were often not even allowed to take a post in their hometowns.” He thus argues that his interpretation of Mencius’s emphasis upon the bonds provided by humaneness is compatible with a “dual structure...in which there were communities of acquaintances on the level of the common people and societies of strangers on the level of the political and commercial elite.” Admitting that “for businessmen and officials in traditional China living in cities, their economic base was still often in rural areas, and thus they couldn’t sever the ties with the communities of acquaintances they grew up in,” he concludes that “[n]onetheless, the bond developed by Mencius for the society of strangers remains relevant” (pp. 123-125).

On that I certainly agree! It is vital to consider, as Bai does, how the bonding power of Confucian humaneness can open up our conversations about representation, gender equality, health care, civil rights, international institutions, and so much more, all of which most Westerners have tended to conduct alongside unquestioned assumptions about liberal democracy. But it is equally vital to acknowledge that those assumptions became as widespread as they did not solely due to the success of liberal democratic states, but also because those states recognized, and institutionalized practices pertaining to, the new, transformative forms of human life that were the creation of the modern urban space. The cry of the apocryphal 15th-century German peasant--Die Stadtluft macht frei!--reflected far more than the particulars of feudal law, but rather a general appreciation of the diversity, privacy, and distant formality that urban spaces came to offer in modern Europe. Thus have arguments about strengthening the kind of intimacy and community which the shift from gemeinshaft to gesellschaft arguably weakened, perhaps fatally, always had to struggle against accusations of agrarian nostalgia, and find ways to express themselves in the context of modernity’s seemingly inevitable liberal and urban character.

It is unfortunately that Bai, in this fine book, did not consider building parallels between what he presents as the modernity-compatible Confucian conceptualizations of humaneness, and the large literature on republican civic virtues, civil religion, and other communitarian and neo-Tocquevillian forms of social organization that have emerged over the past 35 years, especially considering that a great deal of that literature has both similarly struggled to clarify its theories in light of the rural-urban divide, the controversial place of elites, and other matters which clearly relate to Bai’s own reconstruction of the classical Confucian tradition, as well as having frequently connected with the Confucian tradition itself as well. Without that comparative work, the conceptual reach of some of Bai’s most interesting arguments remains an open question. To posit the classical Confucian tradition as possessing conceptual elements that can resolve the same theoretical dilemmas as liberal democracy, by virtue of that tradition being rooted in and have developed in response to similarly “modern” conditions, means that Confucianism must possess, within its teachings about civil morality, resources that can be adapted to not only the context of “strangerness” which elites may encounter in carrying out their ritual roles and responsibilities (as hypothetically adapted to the contemporary moment), but also the “mass strangerness” that the characterize modern civic spaces.

As a further example, Bai’s discussion of such civic spaces when conceived in terms of the nation-state and international relations generally, following what he labels a “new tian xia model,” is rich and thoughtful. But it, too, bypasses the space which must exist between, at one end, those street-level communities of moderns which will invariably partake of an urban character--the “ballet” of strangers who nonetheless acknowledge one another, as Jane Jacobs described so well--and at the other end, the sovereign state. Bai, influenced by an argument by Friedrich Nietzsche, dismisses the idea of there successfully existing under tian xia “quasi-autonomous communities,” since “a small community with even a few thousand people may not be able to maintain even the most basic technologies and institutions to sustain itself as a significant competing unit” (p. 177). But while it may have been reasonable for him to set that question aside while demonstrating the ability to extend Confucian arguments into current global debates over state competition, it reveals, again, something missing: an argument about how, and to what degree, classical Confucian humaneness, and the civilizing connections it enables, can be brought into modern civic spaces of urban diversity, subjectivity, and contestation.

My belaboring of what appears to me as a gap in the original framing of Bai’s argument should not be taken as a greater criticism than it actually is; disputes over the actual “modernity” of classical Confucian ideas do not compromise the value of what Bai suggests regarding the prioritization of equality, as well as much more, in modern life. Bai’s work stands as a great accomplishment, even if the way it presents its valuable political engagements may be less than fully persuasive on their own.