Harmonious society not just utopian dream


Global Times - October 27 2010]

Photo: Liu Wenhua

Editor's Note:
China is promoting a "harmonious world." How does the West perceive this? Can Confucianism provide solutions to global problems? Global Times (GT) reporter Zuo Xuan interviewed Qian Xun (Qian), professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University, Roger Ames (Ames), professor of philosophy and Chinese studies at the University of Hawaii, James Hsiung (Hsiung), professor of politics at New York University, Tian Chenshan (Tian), director of Center for East-West Relation at Beijing Foreign Studies University and Zhang Jian (Zhang), professor of Chinese philosophy at Renmin University of China, on the basic principles of Chinese society during the Nishan Birthplace of Sage Forum for 2010 through October 16- 18 in Yanzhou, Shandong Province.

GT: Westerners and Chinese have different understandings of some concepts, such as the concept of "harmonious society," which has become a catchphrase in China. What is the typical interpretation of the phrase in China and abroad?

Qian: A harmonious society, from a Confucian perspective, is not a utopian dream.

It reflects how ancient Chinese sages viewed the world and handled the social problems.

There was a prevailing idea during the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC–476BC) and the Warring States period (475BC–221 BC) that said that the universe exists only because it is in a status of harmony.

Why do we value harmony? It is because we think that only a harmonious society is consistent with the underlying principle of our universe.

However, to achieve harmony, we should first admit the difference between things. That's why Confucius tells us to be he'er butong, or harmonious yet different. Sameness is not equal to harmony because sameness cannot produce fresh things.

So Confucianism thinks there is difference and there is struggle. But the bottom line of struggle is not to disturb the status of harmony.

Ames: China's 20th century has been understood as a kind of "coming together" with the fundamentally entrenched idea of "biantong" or adapting something to its circumstance.

China has been trying to optimize the condition. So from that perspective, "harmonious society" means the unfolding of a constantly changing world.

There is no divine end and no predetermined direction.
Hsiung: First, the Chinese culture comes from our forefathers, who are mainly farmers. They thought that as men are unable to conquer the heavens (tian), they should be an integral part of the heavens or nature in general.

This is one origin of the idea of the "harmonious society." In Western cultural tradition, the heavens and God are more separate.

Second, there are different views of human nature in the Western and Eastern cultural heritage. The traditional Augustinian view in the West proposes that men are born evil and therefore law should be implemented to curb them.

Life is full of struggle and it is unlikely to reach a status of harmony.

And the East thinks the nature of humanity is inherently good and therefore it is possible to achieve harmony.

GT: Does Confucianism provide a framework to solve disputes that arise from differences between people?

Tian: The value of Confucianism does not lie in providing a specific solution for disputes but in its teachings of how to view yourself and make your life meaningful.

Wise people are supposed to understand that people are always different but that it is not necessarily for them to engage in deadly dispute - they could still be agreeable with each other while they are different.

Two practical and high-minded ethical ideals of Confucianism are zhong and shu, that is, "Establish others in seeking to establish themselves and promote others in seeking to get there themselves" and "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you."

There is a similar principle in Judeo- Christian philosophy, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

If one follows the golden rule, then it becomes a case of never engaging in disputes instead of having to solve them. One becomes a lot more resourceful when confronting disputes.

Zhang: China today lacks a strong spiritual support, which has led to the lost of credibility and morality in the society.

The revival of Confucianism will fill the gap because Confucianism has a lot of teachings concerning how to develop relationships between people.

Chinese leaders have repeatedly advocated on the international stage the concept of a "harmonious society," indicating that the Chinese culture is inclusive of other cultures and beliefs.

This basic principle in China's diplomacy is significant in solving ethnic conflicts and international frictions.