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The Confucian Ethic of Asian Capitalism : EAST ASIAN CIVILIZATIONS A Dialogue in Five Stages by William Theodore de Bary (Harvard University Press: $ 20 ; 155 pp.)

April 17, 1988|Frank Gibney | Gibney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute, is adjunct professor of Far Eastern Studies at UCSB

Over the last 15 years, Americans have increasingly looked westward at their Asian Pacific neighbors. Although the interest began largely for commercial reasons, given the swelling amount of trans-Pacific trade and now investment, it continued, at least on the West Coast, for social ones--given the large numbers of Asian immigrants coming to the United States. We have now begun to explore some of the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of East Asian societies. "Are there some deep cultural reasons for the cohesiveness and efficiency of modern Asians," we ask, "that make them do so well in business and on university entrance exams?" This is similar to the kind of questions that Asians were asking about Americans and Europeans regarding their factories, professors and gunboats--more than a century ago.

Once we get past the obvious influences of sushi bars, quality- control circles and drugstore Zen, however, the intellectual terrain gets a bit rough. Enter Confucius. "It's these Confucian societies, one hears (or reads), that set such store on family and group relationships." Yet the term Confucian is used in varying and often contradictory contexts. While Confucian capitalists may refer to the economic successes of group Japanese, Koreans or overseas Chinese, Confucian mandarins suggests the kind of rigid, obscurantist bureaucracy that is still a problem in the Peoples Republic of China today.

Columbia University's eminent scholar William T. de Bary has spent a distinguished academic career unraveling the mysteries of Confucianism, Buddhism and other Asian philosophies for his students and the mostly scholarly readers of his classic works on these subjects. Here De Bary has written a short and hugely informative book for the layman. It demands some careful reading, especially for those confronting the development of Confucian and Buddhist ideas for the first time. But the effort is amply repaid. Like a wise lecturer, De Bary brings the reader along to a fresh and rewarding comparison of Eastern and Western ways of thinking--and what the differences mean to us today.

He begins by discussing the Confucian Classics (originally written and adumbrated by Confucius and a great many others). For many centuries before the Christian era, the goal of Chinese scholars was to emulate the "noble man" whose practical wisdom, taught by masters before him, gave him an instinct for following the way of justice and doing right things. Confucius transformed traditional values "into an ethic of personal autonomy and responsibility, still within the spirit and ambiance of the traditional ritual." But Confucianism as it developed in China, with its meritocracy of scholars, was a code of ethics rather than a religion. The Confucian mandarinate, as history was later to prove many times, could easily degenerate into a coterie of self-satisfied test-passers and textual critics.

Buddhism, which came to China and Korea early in the Christian era, had a great humanizing influence on Chinese thinking and Chinese art. "Buddhism was from its beginning," as De Bary describes it, "a homeless wisdom, a mendicant and missionary religion." After centuries of greatness, Buddhism lost much of its doctrinal fervor. Yet its ideas of divine compassion and the sacrifice of earthly desires had their influence on Confucian scholars. It took the great Sung Dynasty teacher, Chu Hsi (1130-1200) to synthesize Buddhist piety into a neo-Confucianism that found a middle way between the overly utilitarian thinking of the mandarinate and Buddhism's other-worldly reluctance to cope with human problems.

Chu Hsi taught that people should seek their own moral self-development while (and through) fulfilling their social duties. He standardized the Confucian Classics for centuries after him. His reverence for education and his insistence on institutionalizing education set a standard in China, Korea and Japan that has produced striking results in our own era. The disciplined surge of Japan's Meiji modernization owed much to the teachings of Chu Hsi Confucianism; and De Bary reminds us that such modern slogans as Deng Xiaoping's "seek truth from facts" have strong Confucian undertones.

When modernization came to Asia in the early 19th Century, the old Confucian philosophy of self-analysis and reflection was discredited as obscurantist. "Even where modernization has not simply been equated with Westernization," De Bary writes, "the progress of the West has set the norm and the pace." He goes on to ask, however, whether the ancient cultural characteristics of Asian-Pacific countries have not emerged to play as important a role as imported Western aid and know-how in their current successes. (". . . The idea that the peoples of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have benefited from the love of learning, commitment to education, social discipline and personal cultivation, fostered by neo-Confucianism, can now be entertained.")

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