Tuesday, December 5, 2006


Why the Confucian China would not Wage a War Against Iraq

-- The Proposition of 修人观



I want to start with an argument that if the Confucian China were the U.S. (it’s very important not to miss the Confucian here), it would not wage a war against Iraq. This argument is based on my proposition that the Confucian philosophy holds a “修人观”. means cultivation/ education. has two levels of meaning: human beings and oneself. This proposition is mainly concerned with three aspects: 1) “由下至上”: the Confucian philosophy is from bottom to top, i.e. it starts at a personal level and then rises to family, community, state, and then the cosmos; 2) “由内而外”: like an extending ripple, to exert an effect on others or the cosmos one should start by cultivating oneself, only then can one affect the people and objects he has relationships with; likewise, in order to influence other states, a country should start by developing itself; 3) “成己成物成人(仁)”: consummating oneself, consummating other events and being a consummate person, these are the desired results of cultivation / education.

By saying the Confucian China would not wage a war against Iraq, I do not claim that it is because one should repay ill with beneficense, Confucius believes that punishments are necessary, and punishments should be given to where punishments are due. As said in the Analects: “(If one repay ill with beneficense, ) then how would one repay beneficence? Repay ill will remaining true. Replay beneficense with gratitude.”1 This leads us to believe that it might be possible for the Confucian China to wage a war against Iraq if 1) Iraq is identified as ill; and 2) by going into war we are actually remaining true. However, both assumptions are controversial. So instead of focusing on the justification / injustification of the Iraqi war, this essay attempts to discover the way in which the Confucian China would solve the Iraqi problems if it were in the position of the U.S..

The Confucian China has the capacity to go into a war; it is not an armless country. This could be drawn from a conversation between Zigong and Confucius when “Zigong asked about governing effectively. The Master said to him, ‘Make sure there is sufficient food to eat, sufficient arms for defense, and that the common people have confidence in their leaders.’” Armory and force is necessary in protecting a state against its enemies, and unfortunately, necessary in maintaining order within an morally imperfect state. However, Confucius goes on to say that “If you had to give up one of these three things… Give up the arms (first)”. That is to say among these three necessities of governing, arms is dispensable. This is because when the common people have food at eat and have confidence in their leaders, they themselves would not revolt and when attacked, they would be able to unite together and fight against the enemies. This passage goes on: “If you had to give up one of the remaining two,” he (Zigong) said, “which should be given up first?” “Give up the food,” he replied, “Death has been with us from ancient times, but if the common people do not have confidence in their leaders, community will not endure.”2 Now we can see that Confucius places common people’s confidence in their leaders on a higher position than deaths. Why? My understanding is that it’s not the confidence itself that is important but a leader who is worthy of such confidence, a leader that is similar to the Platonic philosopher-king. And the becoming of such a leader also requires education / cultivation.

The sense of “from bottom to top” is clearly showed in Zhongyong, as it says: “In general there are nine guidelines in administering the empire, the state, and the family: cultivate one’s person, esteem those of superior character, be devoted to one’s kin, respect the high ministers, be inclusive of the whole assembly of ministers, treat the common people as one’s children, attract the artisans, be tolerant of those from afar, and cherish the various nobles.”3

Moreover, if you observe how the Chinese character is formed you’ll find there is some truth to the notion that ren (human, person) is the foundation of all phenomena in the Confucian philosophy. Starting with (authoritative conduct), this is is its perfection; and , which is the basic component of a state (国家) is formed by several people, and ultimately, , which is, in fact, a very interesting character. You can see the in it, meaning the people is a part of tian, but not only that, the two strikes also have meaning. As far as I’m concerned, the upper one refers to the position of tian as above human beings and the middle strike refers to the responsibility human shoulders, which is carrying out the xing (“natural tendencies”) tian has given us, so ren is not only a part of tian, but also an active part. Furthermore, notice that the upper strike is placed upon ren, this could mean 1) the divine influence of tian on human beings; 2) ren is what holds up the tian; tian relies on / is built upon human activities/ conducts; so it shows the creative role human plays in the tian-ren relationship.

That is why I think Confucian philosophy is a from-bottom-to-top philosophy, both in a sociological sense and in a cosmological sense. It is important to note that the bottom here doesn’t mean low in terms of importance, it means personal, yet foundational.

The second aspect of my proposition, from inner to outside, is fairly straightforward. It means a person effect others and the people by cultivating himself first. When Zilu asked about what constitutes exemplary persons. Confucius said, “The cultivation of himself in reverential carefulness.” And when Zilu pursued the answer, Confucius said: “He cultivates himself so as to give rest to others… He cultivates himself so as to give rest to all the people. He cultivates himself so as to give rest to all the people:– even Yâo and Shun were still solicitous about this.” 4

This inner to outside notion plays a key role in Confucian China’s decision in not waging a war against Iraq. “Those near at hand are pleased, and those at a distance are drawn to you.”5 It shows the kind of Confucian idealism of governing by modeling, not governing by law and principle. Unlike western tradition in which to change others is done by making them change, the Confucian tradition is about making oneself better / adjusting oneself so as to show the others what is proper. As Confucius put it: “Governing effectively is doing what is proper. If … (the governor) lead by doing what is proper, who would dare to do otherwise?”6 So in an idealistic Confucian China, the best way to solve the problems with Iraq is not by fighting against it, but by educating our own country, our own people about ren (), by being a model and effecting the Iraqi leaders and their people in a positive way. When that is achieved, “what need is there for killing”?

The last is the notion of consummating. Confucius has very high standards for consummate persons, such persons should be wise, free from desires, bold, cultivated, “and who in addition, have become refined through observing ritual propriety and playing music”. Yet because of the lack of morality in the status quo, Confucius says that “if on seeing a chance to profit they think of appropriate conduct, on seeing danger they are ready to give their lives, and when long in desperate straits, they still do not forget the words they live by – such persons can also be said to be consummate”7. Being such a consummate person requires one to constantly educate oneself, and exercise the creativity tian has given him. Zhongyong says: “Creativity is self-consummating, and its way is self-directing.” And since the Confucian philosophy is concerned with relationships, not individuals, this “creativity is not simply the self-consummating of one’s own person; it is what consummates events.” Zhongyong goes on to say: “Consummating oneself is authoritative conduct; consummating other events is wisdom. This is the excellence of one’s natural tendencies and is the way of integrating what is more internal and what is more external. Thus, whenever one applies this excellence, it is fitting.”8 Because authoritative conduct and wisdom are criteria for a consummate person, it could be concluded that 修人 is a consummatory process that includes the consummation of oneself and events.

It is interesting to note that the Confucian philosophy is not the only philosophy that is concerned about consummation in a relational context, in Chapter 1 of John Dewey’s Art as Experience, he says: “For only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living. And when the participation comes after a phase of disruption and conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic.”9

Now we can draw the conclusion that the Confucian tradition holds a 修人观 that advocates consummating oneself and events as a way achieve one’s consummation and advancing to reach harmony in a family, a community, a state, and between states.



1 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. 14.34

2 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. 12.7

3 Ames, R., & Hall, D. Focusing the Familiar. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. 2001. XXII

4 Legge, James. The Analects Of Confucius, The Great Learning, Doctrine Of The Mean. New York: Dover Publications, 1971. The Analects: 14.42

5 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. 13.16

6 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. 12.17

7 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. 14.12

8 Ames, R., & Hall, D. Focusing the Familiar. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. 2001. XXV

9 John Dewey, Art as Experience, Perigee Trade. July 5, 2005

Related Posts by Categories