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Xi Jinping’s Neo-Confucianist Turn

Jun 19 , 2018

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A collection of Xi Jinping's speeches and writing on Confucius

The hyperbolic headlines in the Western press regarding Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power obscure the true dynamics of what is occurring in China. Indeed, the shock of authoritarianism’s entrenchment, rather than the “inevitable” shift toward neo-liberal, democratic norms in China, handicaps Western audiences from asking the right questions. After all, conventional wisdom has declared the world to be post-ideological—and ideationally-centric battles relics of a by-gone era. But ideology is alive and well in 2018. Unlike his Western counterparts, Xi Jinping understands this with remarkable clarity. If Xi intends to justify a permanent grip on power and simultaneously encourage a national revitalization, he must offer an ideological model that challenges Western norms, breaks with doctrinaire Marxism, and is wholly and uniquely Chinese.

Here, Xi has taken an almost clerical approach, baptizing China in the healing waters of Neo-Confucianism. Invoking his country’s ancient past in order to define its future, Xi makes a uniquely cultural appeal that fashions a historical continuity between Confucian values and contemporary socialism with Chinese characteristics. Thus, the formal systematization of “Xi Jinping Thought” in the CCP Constitution represents something more profound than a simple power play by an ambitious head of state. A new political epoch has emerged in China, one in which the omnipresent shadow of reform-father Deng Xiaoping is eclipsed by Xi Jinping’s visions of a Neo-Confucian, Greater China. As revealed in The Governance of China, a collection of Xi’s speeches, Xi declares, “Chinese civilization has a long history stretching back to antiquity, now the people of China are working hard for the Chinese Dream.” In order to realize a true national revitalization, Xi knows he must deploy a unifying concept beyond the stale Marxism that no longer depicts Beijing’s political reality.

Xi’s co-opting of Confucian philosophy marks a significant point of departure for the leader of a Marxist party that sought to purge any references to Confucianism during the Cultural Revolution. In a 2013 speech commemorating the 120th anniversary of the birth of Chairman Mao, Xi acknowledged that both the Party and its past leaders had made mistakes. “We dare to admit our faults, correctly analyze them, and firmly rectify them,” stated Xi, “the attitude of a Marxist party toward its mistakes is the most important and reliable measure to determine whether it is truly responsible for its people.” The Party’s troubled history considerably amplifies the dilemma of Xi’s tightrope walk between Maoist heritage and the future Chinese Dream.

But can doctrinaire Marxism and traditional Confucianism co-exist within a contemporary Chinese context? History suggests there is both political and intellectual space in which to accommodate these seemingly divergent concepts. When Xi opines, “remembrance of the past is the teacher of the future,” he seeks to construct a constitutive ideology that accounts for China’s historical greatness and cultural continuity, but that also rallies the entire body politic of Chinese society. The present-day merging of Confucianism with another dominant logic—Chinese Marxism—mirrors, at least tangentially, an ancient Chinese antecedent. In Sources of Chinese Tradition, William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom highlight Confucianism’s resurgence during the Song Dynasty (Chinese: 南宋, 1127–1279), after a period of marginalization that saw both Buddhism and Daoism dominate philosophical discourse. Per de Bary and Bloom, Philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) is largely credited with solidifying what became classified as “Neo-Confucianism,” or the amalgamation of Buddhist and Daoist principles into refined Confucian metaphysics. The Ming and later Qing governments eventually codified Neo-Confucianism as a guiding convention within their respective administrations.

Xi’s rationale for re-introducing Confucius to Chinese society rests on three primary factors: 1) promoting political meritocracy and anti-corruption efforts; 2) pursuing more balanced economic growth to include previously neglected regions; and 3) reinvigorating the Party’s legitimacy and cultivating a consciousness of Chinese cultural superiority. The common thread that binds the aforementioned factors together is a renewed sense of moral accountability and transcendent ideals unique to Confucianism. By turning towards a moralistic Confucianism, Xi can justify purges of corrupt officials, promote the idea of meritocratic governance, address perceived societal inequalities, and draw clear distinctions between China’s political model and the shortcomings of Western democracy. In promoting a Neo-Confucian resurgence, Xi seeks to monopolize a claim to meaning and legitimacy by appealing to Chinese cultural and moral traditions. At the same time, an embrace of Confucianism bolsters Xi’s ability to denounce the proliferation of organized religion in China. Confucianism’s uniquely Chinese character allows Xi to selectively address “moralistic” or “idealistic” notions lacking in Maoist thought without having to borrow from foreign models.

Xi’s primary roadblock in affecting a Neo-Confucian shift lies ironically in his own past statements. Several weeks prior to the 19th Plenary Session, Xi remarked to the Politburo, “If we deviate from or abandon Marxism, our party would lose its soul and direction.” He further maintained that, “on the fundamental issue of upholding the guiding role of Marxism, we must maintain unswerving resolve, never wavering at any time or under any circumstances.” While Xi has certainly made considerable overtures to Confucian thought, his first loyalty remains to the organization that keeps him firmly in power. It is perhaps here that the real question of Neo-Confucianism’s viability will be put to the test. Rather than affecting a reform-minded shift, it is far more likely that Xi’s Neo-Confucian approach will serve to further entrench the CCP as protector and guarantor of “Chineseness.” Of paramount importance is Xi’s ability to successfully co-opt Neo-Confucianism into a rallying cry for a broad swath of Chinese society, not simply die-hard party cadres. If Xi can continue to press for anti-corruption measures and a renewed sense of moral accountability in Chinese society, Neo-Confucianism may be a critical tool.

  • Which of the following imperial practices was formed based on Confucianist principles?

    • 1. The standardization of units

    • 2. The Imperial examination

      The imperial examination was based on the Confucian principle of meritocracy.

    • 3. Hereditary succession

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