In Class With Sam Yamashita: "Asian Traditions"
The following is an edited excerpt from a classroom discussion in the course in Asian Traditions taught by Professor Sam Yamashita during spring 2009.
Yamashita: Last week we continued our discussion of medieval China and the three so-called “slow changes” that took place in this extended period that runs from Song into the Ming Dynasty. In addition to economic and technological changes, I talked about interesting intellectual changes that resulted in something modern scholars call NeoConfucianism…
Today, let’s talk about NeoConfucianism and whether you think the ruling elite shared a discourse, and what you’ve found in your reading to support your point of view.
Kelly: All these writers had a stake in the potential of individuals and faith in their ability to create an ideal society based on morality and collective responsibility. When they developed this new Confucianist dialogue in response to Buddhism and Daoism; there was an idea that humans are innately good and full of intelligence and can produce an effective society.
Yamashita: Did anyone argue against the idea of a shared discourse?
Eliot: I didn’t feel that there were a lot of shared ideas. I was looking at Wang Anshi, and it seemed his primary concern was the Chinese state and his secondary concern was the welfare of the people. In his writing, he supported the service exemption law and the benefits he listed were meeting the manpower and financial needs of the state and strengthening military power. Instead of arguing for the benefits of the people, he was arguing for the state.
Yamashita: Wang Anshi did write some poetry where he expresses some concerns for the people, the hungry and the homeless, but it was not included in your reading. That might lead you to change your thoughts. What would be something that would make you think that someone is not a Neo-Confucian? Mr. Chang has suggested it might be a preponderant interest in the state as opposed to the individual.
James: It would seem to me from the reading that Neo-Confucianism was more secular than spiritual, that what would disqualify one from being a NeoConfucian would have to do with an obsession with spiritual beliefs and less dealing with the state and the secular.
Yamashita: Because Neo-Confucians were very interested in the state, in the welfare of the people, you’re saying if someone were obsessed with individual spiritual cultivation that might disqualify them?
Christopher: I would say they would be disqualified by advocating withdrawal from any social or political institutions.
Yamashita: In concrete terms what would we look for?
Christopher: If someone spent weekends away at a monastery and wasn’t attentive to family.
Yamashita: Let me play the devil’s advocate. We’ve all recognized to some degree that there are Confucian and Legalist elements [in what you read]. What if we consider leaving out Legalist elements and have a discourse that is highly Confucian—maybe even eliminate Legalist elements. Would that work?
Cosimo: I think it would not work quite as well to get rid of the Legalist traditions because it seems to somewhat ground Confucianism as far the state is concerned. A lot of Confucian morality has to do with family relations and filial relations and I feel like the Legalist additions to it allows it to apply more to state relationships.
Yamashita: But remember that some of us believe that what is most important is the person as opposed to law, and so couldn’t we just choose good Confucians, people who were well versed in Confucian philosophy and practice and trust them with making sure that Confucianism is grounded and having them execute the policies of the state?
Cosimo: I suppose it’s theoretically possible. I’m not sure if it was done in practice.
Yamashita: Anyone want to argue strongly that one could have a state that was run exclusively on Confucian principles?
Christopher: I saw them grappling with that problem in their discussions about the examination system. They saw that forcing people to know all the Confucian classics did not necessarily create good people; it created people who were good at memorizing books. A lot of them advocated creating a more personal examination system that involved conversing with people and learning whether they had good moral sensibilities.
Calum: The only way you could stick to Confucian ideas is if you had an incredible cult of personality but you would still have to have a law component because that cult might be powerful enough around the capital but to make that cult be feared you would have to have a legal element that would be effective 1,000 miles away.
Yamashita: So you think it’s possible if one is careful. What if we were to shift to the other side of the equation and eliminate Confucianism and have a state run solely according to Legalist principles, focusing on law and punishment?
Leslie: With states that are larger and have more people I feel it would be better to rule more with the law than Confucian ideals; if you have a small town where everyone knows everyone else you have a sense for how people are and what morals they abide by. In a large state you can’t know what people believe and how they act and in order to control that and create civility it would be more important to have laws that can keep people in check.
Ian: I don’t think it’s possible to have an entirely Legalist state—the Legalist system doesn’t provide morality or values and creates an atmosphere where people were out for themselves. I could see a legal system combined with Buddhism and Daoism.
Yamashita: That’s an argument for combining Legalism with Confucianism or maybe Buddhism or Daoism. In point of fact, most individuals who passed the civil service exams were familiar with Legalism; they knew the Chinese classics but they also were familiar with Daoism and to some extent with Buddhism, and we see this best in their private writings, poetry and essays, in their paintings and their inscriptions. The elite was pretty well versed in all these things. Legalism and Confucianism were main elements in their public lives and Daoism was central in their private lives; some combination of these three religions and philosophies mattered. So it’s an interesting case that, whether by accident or design, this elite was trained internally and externally; trained as private individuals but also public personas as well.
Legalism is a classical Chinese philosophy that dates from the Zhou period (771-221 B.C.E.) and promotes the use of law, reward and punishment in governing.
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) followed a period of Mongol rule and found China changing its orientation from a maritime to a continental state.
Neo-Confucianism was a synthetic philosophy that was created during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and combined Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist ideas, practices and institutions.
Song Dynasty (960-1279), one of China’s great dynasties, is regarded by students of world history as the most advanced state of the day.
Wang Anshi (1021-1086) was a brilliant statesman, reformer and poet who proposed a series of state-centered reforms known as the “New Laws” that included a farm loan program and state marketing system.
M-L: ... I want to talk about the last chapter of Sinclair’s book where she discusses the implications of unorthodoxy—the “so what?” question. She’s going back to some extent to what Mann and Ornstein were saying about bad legislative process leading to bad policy. Do you think that argument is right?
Scott: She seems a lot less critical. I think she says it arises from necessity more than Mann and Ornstein do. I don’t know that they see it happening from necessity as much as it is a lack of willingness to compromise. I don’t think she buys into that.
M-L: I think that’s fair.
Andrew: Sinclair spends a lot of time in the first chapters of her book explaining the origins not so much of unorthodox lawmaking but the triggers that caused it. In the Mann and Ornstein book, it’s about the history of how things got worse without really explaining why.
M-L: Do you end up where Scott does? Is she less negative?
Andrew: I think so. She says there’s been polarization but talks about a lot of things that, almost out of necessity, caused these things to happen. It’s almost logical. I don’t want to say that Mann and Ornstein are surprised by what happened, but they’re certainly more emotional.
M-L: They’re certainly offended. She’s less offended. Is hers a better book to close the semester with? If you close with Mann and Ornstein, people will be pretty pessimistic. Sinclair says, OK, so it’s a rough time, we’re going to be OK. ...
Joseph: ... She makes a point at the end that maybe there are some good things about this too; that maybe the party that is the most intense about issues is going to come out as the winner in the end. She also talks about the fact that passing fewer bills overall isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s a more balanced view.
M-L: What’s changed is that 15 years ago when you would read the conclusions of books like this, there was often this conversation about the tension between accountability and responsibility. On the one hand, members of Congress had to be accountable to their constituencies and had to be able to get themselves elected and reelected. On the other hand, they were responsible for governing and making law and, sometimes in order to do one thing, they had to ignore the other. The idea was that one of the most corrosive challenges to responsible, good policy-making was how all these people were running for reelection and how that was the most corrosive influence. There has been this shift in the last 10 or 12 years where the thinking is that the most corrosive influence is that they are so polarized that they are more interested in beating each other than they are in making good government policy. I think that, to some extent, Sinclair is still in this old school, where she is saying that if you give these people authority to make policy and do it responsibly, they’re going to be able to work out legislation that is acceptable in terms of quality. She certainly doesn’t like how ugly it’s become, but I don’t think she’s as terrified that it’s going to destroy the world. ...