The Impact of Confucius: A Q&A with Michael Schuman

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Veteran Asia correspondent Michael Schuman, now living in Beijing, has reported from various parts of East Asia for a range of publications. He was writing for Time Magazine when I met him in Hong Kong several years ago. Confucius and the World He Created, his most recent book, was published by Basic Books in March. I caught up with him last month by email with a few questions about the philosopher who has come to intrigue him so greatly — and with whose life and ideas, he’s convinced, anyone interested in the changes taking place in East Asia should be familiar. 

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Let’s begin with a broad question: Why another book about Confucius? After all, there have plenty of translations of his writings. In addition, in recent years several scholars, such as Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson in Lives of Confucius and before that Annping Chin in The Authentic Confucius, have tried their hands at writing books about him aimed at least partly for general readers. What made you feel inspired to take him on as a subject — and what is unique about your approach to his life, work and influence?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: My goal in writing Confucius and the World He Created was to explore the real-life influence Confucius has had on history and modern society. I thought there was a need for a book not just about the philosopher and the tenets of his doctrine, but also about Confucius’s impact — how the ideas and the legacy of China’s most famous philosopher have shaped the world we see around us every day. Some 2,500 years after Confucius first fashioned his doctrine, his ideas still hold tremendous sway in East Asia over how government treat their citizens, how CEOs manage their employees, how children get educated, how husbands, wives and children interact, and how people in the region see themselves and their role in society. We can’t understand East Asia today, therefore, without an appreciation for Confucius. That ranks the sage with Jesus, Mohammad, the great Greek philosophers, and the Buddha as one of the founders of human civilization.

Yet despite his role in history, I don’t think many in the West know all that much about Confucius. That, I decided, was actually quite dangerous. Amid the history-altering shift of power from West to East, enhanced knowledge of Confucius is critical for making sense of global affairs. China, South Korea, and other East Asian societies are wielding greater and greater clout in international politics and the global economy, and if Americans intend on dealing with the region’s ascent, we must become much more familiar with Confucius. Simply, we ignore Confucius at our own peril. It was important, I felt, to bring him to vibrant life, to introduce the sage, his teachings, and his impact through straightforward language and colorful anecdotes so any reader could understand the sage — and in the process, the world today and in the future.

I know from both your book and from a recent commentary you did for the Financial Times that you don’t accept Xi Jinping’s interpretation of Confucian thought. What do you see as the main misleading way some modern heads of state, from Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore to Hu Jintao and now Xi in the People’s Republic to Chiang Kai-shek on the mainland, have approached “Confucian” ideas of governance and rule?

Singapore’s Lee and now China’s Communist leadership have advocated a very self-serving reading of Confucian political doctrine. Their position has been that democracy is not universal as we in the West assert, that Chinese have a different political tradition — based on Confucianism — and that, therefore, Chinese societies are better served by top-down, illiberal regimes. Reading Confucian philosophical texts, you can see how Lee, Xi, and others have arrived at that conclusion. In Confucius’s ideal government, authority was to be held by one person: a “sage-king” who was so wise and virtuous that his rule would uplift the common man not just materially, but spiritually. Confucius also saw society as a hierarchy of superior-inferior relationships, in which people were to be deferential to authority.

Lee and Xi have latched onto these concepts to suggest that authoritarian rule is rooted in traditional Chinese culture. But in doing so, they sidestep some other, critical aspects of Confucius’s political thought. The perfect Confucian government was based on benevolence, not coercion. A truly virtuous ruler would have no reason to resort to force — the people would cherish his leadership and follow him willingly. Confucius is very clear on this point in the Analects.

For instance, an official once asked Confucius if he should kill all those who didn’t follow the proper path, “In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill?” Confucius responded: “Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good.”

Elsewhere, Confucius also insisted that good rulers should be open to advice and criticism. In The Classic of Filial Piety, another important ancient text, Confucius recoils in horror when his interviewer asks if always being obedient was the way to be filial. Confucius said that a minister had a duty to “remonstrate” to his ruler to ensure good government.

However, President Xi today is intensifying a crackdown on dissent, freedom of speech, and civic action of all types. By Confucian standards, that means Xi is not a benevolent ruler. Xi desires absolute power for himself and his Communist Party and hopes to use Confucius to achieve it; the sage’s ultimate goal was to constrain absolute and arbitrary power. What Lee and Xi have done is twist Confucius’s teachings to make it appear the sage favored autocracy, when in reality he opposed it.

You emphasize the importance of going back to the Analects when assessing Confucius, so I’m curious about which translation or translations of them you relied on and why.

I relied on translations by James Legge and D.C. Lau, mainly because they are both widely available and read. I thought it was also important to use Dr. Lau’s version to get a Chinese perspective on the translation.

Finally, I’d like your thoughts on Qufu, the hometown of Confucius that I visited in 2014. What do you think the sage himself would make of the place in its latest incarnation as a tourist draw and pilgrimage site? 

My guess is that Confucius would be a bit horrified by how he is perceived and treated today. In the Analects and other ancient texts, such as the famous biography of the sage compiled by Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, Confucius is often portrayed as humble and self-deprecating, always doubting his virtue and seeking more knowledge. I think he’d be mortified by the way in which he has been praised and venerated over the past 2,000 years. His embarrassment would be even more pronounced since the governments that have adopted him as a symbol, both in imperial and Communist times, take his name in vain. They claim to honor him but don’t abide by his principles.