A determined yet not exactly fresh look at this “hopelessly authoritarian, misogynistic, and conservative” sage, whose ideas have nonetheless endured and thrived in East Asia.
Time journalist Schuman (The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia’s Quest for Wealth, 2009) finds plenty of intriguing contradictions in the ideas of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), which were largely spread by his ardent followers in the fragmented Analects and other works. The primacy of education, the uses of meritocracy, the sanctity of the filial bond, the subservience of women, the harmonizing sense of knowing one’s place in society—these are some of the salient Confucian tenets. Schuman is not a scholar, and while he infuses his work with historical research, he remains rooted in the present day, seeking clues as to why Confucian ideas were both excoriated by the Chinese (during Mao Zedong’s era) and rehabilitated as a useful ploy for increasing productivity and prosperity in the workforce (since Deng Xiaoping’s era). To reflect the diversity of reception to Confucius’ ideas over the ages, the author divides his chapters by facets through which to view the enigmatic moralist: Confucius the Man, Confucius the Oppressor, Confucius the Businessman and so on. In his own time of squabbling kingdoms, Confucius proposed a revolutionary way of nation-building—not by armies but by benevolence. In language that is often dull and consistently injected with business terminology, Schuman looks at the spread of the sage’s ideas through East Asia, especially the adoption of his teachings by the Han political leadership. Yet by the 19th century, a once-great China had fallen well behind the West. Moreover, while the Communists executed a thorough rejection of Confucian ideas, the modern regimes of China, Singapore and others are keen to resurrect Confucian ideas for economic management.
A plodding look at the many views of this enduring moralist.