22 September 2018
22 September 2018 | 1120hrs
Grand Copthorne Waterfront, Singapore
Chinese Perspectives on Dialogue in a World of Conflict and Violence
“Harmony in Diversity” (hé ér bù tóng) is a rather famous Confucian motto. It is widely regarded by many Chinese as a valuable ideal or guiding principle to be upheld in order to preserve a peaceful relation among the religions as well as that among nations. This lecture aims to go beyond this rather preliminary impression by exploring further the possible contributions of the Confucian approach to dialogue in a world of conflict and violence.Through a brief comparison with some other views in Chinese culture, this lecture argues that Confucianism is relatively more capable to address a world of conflict and violence. It further proposes that a Confucian approach to cross-cultural dialogue can be derived from the Confucian virtue of shu, concept of zhongyong, and ethical guidelines concerning retribution. This approach will benefit not only the avoidance of conflict and violence, but also the inter-group reconciliation which are particularly needed in a post-conflictual context. Although there are also certain limitations to the Confucian approach to inter-religious relations, these limitations can be overcome partially through dialogue with some other cultural or religious traditions.
It is my honour to be invited to give a presentation on dialogue in a world of conflict and violence, which is a topic particularly important to the contemporary world. Some decades ago, many scholars, especially sociologists in the western world, attempted to understanding the roles of religions in the contemporary world mainly in terms of secularization, assuming that the overall trend of development is to see the decrease of influences of religions on social and political issues. However, in the last few decades, there has been a phenomenal global resurgence of religions which increasingly exercised tremendous influences on social and political issues. No matter whether one continues to understand the relevant phenomena in terms of secularization with certain revisions, more and more scholars and government officials began to realize the important roles played by religions in international relations.
Probably due to the impacts of mass media, most of the news coverages of the roles of religions in international relations are rather negative, focusing only on violent conflicts among religions and on terrorist attacks which are associated with but not necessarily motivated by religions. It is rather unfortunate that the positive roles played by religions in conflict resolutions and the enhancement of world peace are seldom mentioned. In fact, there are some concrete cases illustrating the positive roles of religions in peace-building, including how interfaith dialogue contributed to reconciliation. However, the majority of these studies are related to the Western perspectives or contexts. As a person living in Asia, I have to ask the question: how about the Asian perspectives?
Given the huge diversity of Asian cultures, it is basically impossible to cover all the Asian perspectives in one lecture. I thus would like to focus on the Chinese perspectives, which I am more familiar with. However, considering the time for this lecture, it remains very difficult to cover all the Chinese perspectives, which may include not only the perspectives of Daoism and Mohism, but also those of Chinese Buddhism, Chinese Christianity, Chinese Islam, Chinese Communism, etc. I thus would like to further narrow down my scope and concentrate on the Confucian perspective for the following two considerations.
Considering from a historical perspective, Confucianism emerged and formed mainly during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-255 BCE) which is also known as the Spring and Autumn (770–476 BCE), and the Warring States (475–221 BCE) periods, when China was in serious socio-political turmoil and torn apart by civil wars. In order to rectify this situation, Confucius (551-479 BCE) proposed to cultivate some relevant virtues, e.g. benevolence (rén仁), and to restore the ritual (lǐ 禮) developed during the Western Zhou dynasty (1016-777 BCE) when China was more unified and supposed to be in a proper order. It is thus possible to say that in contrast to the ideal of cosmic harmony advocated by Daoism, the Confucian ideal is characterized mainly in terms of social harmony. In terms of strategy, Daoism emphasizes “non-action” or “no intervention” (wú wéi 無為), which may practically mean staying away from politics and escaping from conflict as far as possible in order to achieve some sorts of natural harmony, whereas Confucianism aims to restore proper social and political order through active involvements in the cultural, political, and social spheres. Moreover, in comparison with Mohism, which advocates for a pacifist position and appeals to some supernatural beliefs about gods and ghosts, Confucianism endeavours to address a post-conflictual or even post-violent situation, and is based on a particular understanding of human being. With this extremely brief sketch, one may understand why in comparison with Daoism and Mohism, Confucianism was more influential in the social and political spheres in pre-modern China, and is thus expected to be more relevant to the dialogue in a world of conflict and violence.
Considering from a contemporary perspective, it is rather well known that Confucianism exercised tremendous impacts on the development of traditional Chinese culture and also shaped to a certain extent the East Asian responses to modernity. In fact, the Singapore government had made certain efforts in promoting Confucianism too. Regarding dialogue in a world of conflict and violence, it is noticeable that the Chinese government proposes to replace confrontation (duì kàng對抗) with dialogue (duì huà對話) in order to deal with the divergence among the nations or countries. It also promotes the strategy of “seeking convergence and preserving divergence” (qiú tóng cún yì求同存異) when dealing political or cultural differences, and repeatedly emphasizes the slogan “harmonious society” (hé xié shè huì和諧社會) which is identified as one of the ideal characteristics of the Socialist China. All of these seem to be inspired by Confucianism, especially the motto “harmony in diversity” (hé ér bù tóng 和而不同) found in The Analects (lùn yǔ論語).
Due to the historical and contemporary significances of Confucianism, it is very important for us to understand the Confucian perspective on dialogue in a world of conflict and violence. In fact, there are some studies concerning the implications of the Confucian motto of “harmony in diversity” for intercultural dialogue. The aim of this study is to go beyond these prevalent studies by (1) offering a critical evaluation of the limitations of the approach associated with the motto “harmony in diversity”, and (2) exploring how Confucianism may cast light on the dialogue in a world of conflict and violence in a more adequate way.
I have to declare beforehand that as a scholar of Religious Studies, with certain interests in inter-religious relations. I dare not to talk about international relations in front of the experts at Nanyang Technological University. What I am go to share with you are merely my very preliminary explorations of Confucianism, especially whether and how the Confucian perspective may enrich the current discussion concerning inter-religious dialogue in a world of conflict and violence.
Reconsidering Harmony in Diversity
With regard to the motto “harmony in diversity”, it is important to note that it is quoted from the Confucius’s saying “jūn zǐ hé ér bù tóng, xiǎo rén tóng ér bù hé” (君子和而不同, 小人同而不和) recorded in The Analects (13:23), which has many English translations.
- D. C. Lau translates the whole verse as “The Master said, ‘The gentleman agrees with others without being an echo. The small man echoes without being in agreement.”
- According to Arthur Waley, it is to be translated as “The Master said, the true gentleman is conciliatory but not accommodating. Common people are accommodating but not conciliatory.”
- Wing-tsit Chan’s translation reads, “Confucius said, ‘The superior man is conciliatory but does not identity himself with others; the inferior man identifies with others but is not conciliatory.”
Admittedly, the motto “harmony in diversity” itself is an admirable ideal. According to the motto, the true or valuable harmony should include and preserve diversity instead of homogeneity. It respects the diversity, and not disregards the diversity or suppresses the divergent voices. In other words, the Confucian idea of social harmony is not to be understood as or reduced to achieving certain agreement or uniformity in opinion; instead, harmony involves certain tensions. One may perhaps assume that based on this principle, if everybody can respect each other’s distinctiveness or divergent voices, there may be no conflict, not to say violence. However, there are several critical questions to be raised against this motto:
- In its original context “harmony in diversity” is to characterize the personal attitude of “gentleman” / “superior man” / “noble person” (jūn zǐ君子). One may ask the question whether this principle of “harmony in diversity”, which seems to be primarily a matter of personal attitude, is applicable to the sphere of international, intercultural or inter-religious relations.
- The original context of the motto contrasts the attitude of “noble person” with the “sameness without harmony” practiced by the “inferior person” or “small man.” The question is: Is it realistic to expect that all the persons or parties involved are “noble persons” or “ladies and gentlemen” who practice “harmony in diversity”? Is it practical (or too naïve) to assume that all people or the nations behave like “noble persons”?
- How far the principle of “harmony in diversity” can be practiced in a world of conflict and violence? The principle, if practiced well by all the parties involved, may contribute to the prevention of conflicts, but the problem is whether the principle can be upheld and practiced in a post-conflictual situation full of violence. Does it mean that a noble person may simply say: I respect the others’ violent ways of life, though I do not identify myself with these? Whether and how far this attitude of “harmony in diversity” may contribute to the post-conflictual reconciliation?
- The translation “harmony in diversity” may convey an ideal which is not only too high but also potentially totalitarian. The term “harmony” may be often associated with the harmony in music. This may imply that though there are different voices, they complement each other nicely and contribute to a harmonious whole in their respective ways. In order to discern how the diverging voices from all the constituent parts will eventually fit together to form a sort of harmony, one has to assume a rather dubious “transcendent” position, which is above all the constituent parts. The question is not only whether there is such a position or viewpoint, but also who or which can represent this “transcendent” position or viewpoint.
- In a context of conflict and violence, there will be some dissenting voices demanding for justice rather than simply accepting the prevalent “harmony” or status quo. How to deal with these voices of disharmony? In the political sphere, it is quite possible that under the pretext of “harmonious society”, any dissenting voice of protest, which seems to be not in harmony with the melody of “harmonious society”, will be suppressed or “harmonized out” in a hegemonic way in order to maintain the harmonious atmosphere or stability. Eventually the dissenting voices may be excluded from the dialogue or harmony. Is this a proper approach to deal with the dialogue in a world of conflict and violence?
In short, the attitude of “harmony in diversity”, even if it is applicable to the public sphere, may be too ideal, optimistic, or even naïve, considering (1) the concrete post-conflictual situation; (2) the actual situation of humanity that not all human beings are “ladies and gentlemen”; and (3) the difficulty of discerning or achieving harmony in an idealistic sense.
Considering the possible limitations of “harmony in diversity”, one may have to explore if Confucianism can offer an alternative approach to dialogue in a world of conflict and violence. In comparison to the approach based on “Harmony in diversity”, this alternative approach would be more realistic in three aspects.
- First, it may have to respect the reality that not all people are noble persons and it is possible that the majority are not “ladies and gentlemen” at all.
- Second, this alternative approach should address not merely how to prevent conflict and violence, but how to deal with the conflict and violence already taken place. In other words, in order to prevent an escalation of conflict, one has to deal with the post-conflictual reconciliation.
- Third, its primary aim is to achieve negatively the absence of conflict and violence, rather than “harmony” in a positive and idealistic sense.
This more realistic approach is perhaps also in line with the letter as well as the spirit of Confucius saying. As the translations prepared by Arthur Waley and Wing-tsit Chan indicate, it is not necessary to translate and interpret the word “hé” (和) in terms of “harmony” (hé xié 和諧). Instead, it can be translated and interpreted in terms of “conciliatory” which is associated with “reconciliation” (hé jiě 和解) or “peace” (hé píng 和平) and can be interpreted as co-existence without conflict or violence.
With this more realistic approach, the question remains: Is it possible to solve (partially or tentatively) conflict, and even to achieve certain reconciliation through dialogue, especially in a post-violent context? In order to address this crucial question, one has to ask some rather fundamental questions concerning not only the Confucian understanding of human being and inter-personal conversation, but also the Confucian understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Human Being in Confucian Perspective
The Confucian understanding of human being differs from the mainstream of modern western understanding by emphasizing on relationality, which is embodied in (1) its emphasis on the social relationship among human persons, and (2) its understanding of the relationship between body and heart/mind (xīn心).
Regarding social relationship, Confucianism advocates a radically relational understanding of human being and emphasizes that one’s personhood is constituted primarily by one’s social relationship. As Henry Rosemont, Jr. puts it, the Confucian understanding of human person is mainly in terms of “role-bearing persons” rather than “rights-bearing individuals” which is often associated with modern western culture.
Regarding the relationship between body and mind-heart, it is noticeable that early Confucianism used a variety of words to describe the human phenomena, including body (tǐ體), desire (yù欲), emotion (qíng情), will (zhì志), and heart/mind (xīn心). The usage of these terms, especially “body” and “heart/mind”, indicates that Confucianism does affirm the distinctive role heartmind plays in human person and makes a terminological distinction between “body” and “heartmind.” However, unlike the western mind-body dualism, what Confucianism advocates is a holistic understanding of human being. As we are going to see, these two concepts refer actually to two different aspects of human person, and should not be understood dualistically as two different kinds of entity belonging to two separate realms.
The word “heartmind” refers primarily to the internal organ commonly called “heart”, which, according to Confucianism, is part of human body and under the influence of the vital force (qì氣) from other parts of the body, including the sense organs such as ear and month, but heartmind also has the ability to reflect on one’s own life and can direct, through will, the vital force and thus affect our body, especially facial appearance. Given these considerations, the Chinese word xīn心is usually translated into English as heart/mind, mind/heart or heartmind in order to reflect the Confucian view that,
“The activity of mind cannot be divorced from the feelings of the heart; the cognitive is inseparable from the affective. There are no rational thoughts devoid of feeling, nor any raw feelings lacking cognitive content.”
Though Confucianism tends to assume that all human beings share this heartmind equally, heartmind refers functionally the cognitive, emotional and evaluative activities of human person, rather than metaphysically an eternal soul which is separable and functions independently from the body.
As some contemporary scholars of Confucianism notice, this understanding of human person does not only make Confucianism definitely different from the Cartesian mind-body dualism, but is also comparable to the contemporary understanding of the relationship between brain and mind implied in the recent scientific developments, especially neuroscience. It is suggested that according to Confucianism, our cognitive function, including moral cognition, is “embodied cognition” because “most of ordinary moral judgments and actions are based on moral emotions deriving from involuntary and reactive states of the body.” The Confucian emphasis on the embodied emotion as a necessary or even essential component of the moral mind and moral dispositions is very much in line with the recent scientific studies of moral cognition that our moral judgments and emotions are dependent on or affected by the body.
Confucian Virtues for Dialogue
The Confucian relational understanding of human person is reflected in its understanding of moral reasoning. It is noted that Confucius actually gave three different answers to the question what is benevolence (rén仁). The first one is “love people” (rén zhě ài rén仁者愛人), and the second “Do not do to others what you would not desire others to do to you” (jǐ suǒ bù yù, wù shī yú rén己所不欲, 勿施於人), which is considered a negative expression of Confucius’s own more positive formula that “If one desires to establish oneself, establish others; if one desires to attain a good end, help others to attain their good end.” (jǐ yù lì ér lì rén, jǐ yù dá ér dá rén 己欲立而立人, 己欲達而達人) The third one is “to control oneself and restore/practice proprieties (li) is ren.” (kè jǐ fù lǐ wéi rén克己復禮為仁) Putting these three answers together, one may find that the Confucian moral rationality implies not only a universalization principle that all people should will for the wellbeing of all people, but also a principle of reflective transcendence, which involves self-reflection and thus self-control toward moral actions.
Perhaps one may also note that in line with the Confucian understanding of human person outlined above, desire plays an important role in the Confucian moral reasoning, not only explicitly in the second answer, but also implicitly in the first and third answers. Etymologically speaking, the word “love” (ài 愛) in the first answer includes “heatmind” (xīn心) at its centre in the traditional Chinese character (though not in the contemporary simplified character 爱) and is thus implicitly associated with desire. The “self-control” in the third answer may include the control of one’s desire in regard to the others (including the other’s desire) and/or the relevant propriety. This other-regarding character of Confucian ethics is particularly embodied in the Confucian virtue of “reciprocity” (shù恕), which is explained in terms of the so-called “Silver Rule” or “Negative Golden Rule” that “what you yourself do not desire, do not impose on the others.” (Analects 15.24) The word shù, which may be translated as “reciprocity”, “altruism”, and “other regarding”, may refer to “putting oneself in the other’s place.” It may also be interpreted as “empathetic understanding of others” because etymologically speaking, the word shù恕in Chinese consists of two parts – the upper part is rú 如 (sameness or likeness) and the lower part xīn心 (heartmind), and the combination of these parts means placing one’s heart in a position similar to that of another person.
Roger Ames succinctly summarizes the Confucian relational understanding of human being in the following way:
“In this Confucian model of the constitutive relations of role-bearing persons, then, we are no ‘individuals who associate in community,’ but rather because we associate effectively in community we become distinguished as relationally constituted individuals; we do not ‘have minds and therefore speak with one another,’ but rather because we speak effectively with one another we become like-minded and thrive as a family and community; we do not ‘have hearts and therefore we empathetic with one another,’ but rather because we feel effective empathy with one another we become a whole-hearted, self-regulating community.”
The implications of the Confucian relational understanding of human being for our topic are quite clear. Given the Confucian understanding of human being outlined above, one may understand why Confucianism emphasizes on social harmony which is believed to be not only good for the society as a whole, but also vital for the human persons involved. Furthermore, according to the Confucian understanding of human being, human beings should have the empathetic and communicative ability to form harmonious community.
Confucian Approach to Inter-Cultural / Inter-Religious Dialogue
For Confucianism, human rationality is embedded in human body and thus affected by the bodily emotion and moral disposition. Besides, human rationality is also tremendously shaped by the concrete social relationship as well. However, this does not necessarily imply a sort of nihilistic relativism or relativistic nihilism that excludes the possibility of cross-cultural and inter-personal communication. It is because according to Confucianism, human rationality is in a sense originated from Heaven (Tiān天), who or which endowed people with the virtue of benevolence as well as capacity for moral reasoning so that they can respond to other people with empathy. All these may imply that even though people have diversified values, cultures, religions, etc., there are certain affinities among human beings as persons who are endowed with the capacity for empathy, sympathy, compassion, etc. This may be illustrated by making references to the Judeo-Christian tradition. What I would like to mention is not merely the Golden rule that “Always treat others as you would like them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12) which echoes the Confucian Silver Rule, but also the teachings in the Hebrew Scriptures that we should be good to the strangers because we or our ancestors were strangers in Egypt before (e.g. Deut. 24:14-22). Although Christianity was intolerant towards some other religions in some periods of its history, with these scriptural or spiritual resources, together with its experience of being persecuted, Christianity could develop a tolerant and sympathetic attitude towards people of other religious identities. It is noticeable that the reasoning behind this advocacy for tolerance also echoes the Confucian Silver Rule mentioned above that “Do not do to others what you would not desire others to do to you.”
The implications of Confucian relational understanding of human being for inter-cultural, including inter-religious, dialogue can be summarized into the following points:
- Inter-cultural dialogue is necessary because our cultures are diversified and our rationality is relational as well as contextual.
- Inter-cultural dialogue is possible because our rationality, which is related to morality and emotion, allows us to have certain degree of empathy with other human beings.
- The aim of inter-cultural dialogue is not to achieve uniformity of opinion, but to maintain the harmony in which we can preserve our diversity and thus respective identities. This does not assume or require that all human beings are equally rational or with equal intellectual ability. It is because the aim of inter-cultural dialogue or conversation is to find out not the most rational or convincing argument through rationalistic debate, but the most acceptable solution which may benefit most of the people involved.
- In this kind of dialogical relationship, a sort of propriety (lǐ禮) should be observed and certain self-control or self-discipline is required. In the context of inter-religious encounter or dialogue, this propriety or self-control may include the respect of other’s basic human rights as well as the practice of tolerance and respect.
Resolving Conflict Through Dialogue
This approach to dialogue is not merely a theory reconstructed by scholars, but also an approach practiced by ordinary people and has contributed to the maintenance of social harmony. There was a relevant research project conducted by a small group of social scientists. In order to summarize the findings of their field observations on how conflicts were resolved in rural China, they propose a term “Zhongyong rationality”, which is distinctively informed by Confucianism and yet separable in principle from Confucianism. The word “Zhongyong” (zhōng yōng中庸) consists of two parts: zhōng 中means literally the middle, and yōng 庸 commonplace. Since it is reminiscent of Aristotle’s “doctrine of mean”, when the book Zhongyong 中庸, which is one of the four books of Confucianism, was translated into English, it is titled Doctrine of Means. However, it is quite necessary to clarify that the Confucian advice to “adhere to the middle” does not mean spatially the middle point of two poles, but to take an appropriate position and to avoid taking extreme measures; in a similar vein, “mean” implies situation-specific and timely rather than the mathematical mean, and the word yōng 庸 refers to usefulness, application, etc. The researchers find that,
“In deliberating upon the most appropriate course of action possible, the individual with a zhongyong mode of orientation pays special attention to interpersonal dynamics, weighs the possible consequences of different actions, and strives to maintain harmony in the social world. With this holistic perspective in place, the individual is ready to exercise self-discipline even in seeking personal satisfaction.”
This zhongyong mode of action or rationality is both “instrumental” and “communicative.” On the one hand, it requires certain calculation and aims at achieving social harmony effectively.
“To engage in zhongyong action, on the other hand, entails the ability to stand outside of oneself. The Confucian expression is to extend oneself towards others. Viewed from this perspective, zhongyong rationality shares at least one common ground with communicative rationality, namely to assume a dialogic mode in social interaction.”
It is important to note that this kind of communication is different from the communicative action suggested by some western philosophers who advocate for a rationalistic debate aiming at finding the most logical or rational solution. In contrast, the Confucian approach aims to find a solution acceptable to the parties concerned and thus to maintain the social harmony, through understanding not only the reason but also the feeling or desire of the parties concerned.”
Perhaps I may add that though the research project makes use of the term zhongyong to describe this approach to conflict resolution, similar views can be found in some other early Confucian texts. For example, the book of Xunzi 荀子 also mentions the proper procedure for reaching some sorts of rationality or reasonableness through conversation, including the expression of one’s opinion without hurting the partner’s feeling, not to take winning the debate as the goal, but how to maintain a humble, open and fair manner in the conversation or debate.
The “Zhongyong rationality” outlined above may be quite useful in preventing conflict and to a certain extent can resolve tensions or even some minor conflicts, but it remains unclear as to whether and how it can address properly a context full of violence.
Confucian Approach to Forgiveness and Reconciliation
In order to address the question about dialogue in a post-conflictual context with violence, especially the dialogue among the partners already involved in conflict and violence, we may have to consider first the more fundamental issues concerning reconciliation as well as the related issues such as apology and forgiveness.
According to Samuel P. Oliner’s analysis of some representative cases of inter-group reconciliation, there are several important elements contributing to reconciliation, including: altruism, apology, and forgiveness. According to Oliner’s research findings, “there seems to be a linear relationship between empathy, altruistic behavior, love, apology, and forgiveness that frequently leads to reconciliation and a restoration of harmonious relationships.” In fact, Oliner published rather extensively on altruism before. He suggests that altruism manifests in different religious traditions, including Confucianism, especially the Silver Rule. For Oliner, closely related to altruism is empathy, which is the cognitive and/or emotional reaction to the other’s pain or danger and plays an important role in the process of reconciliation. In his own words,
“Empathy seems to be a crucial ingredient; no real apology or forgiveness, or indeed reconciliation, is possible if it is based on self-interests. Taking the place of the other is what allows people to take the risks necessary for repairing human relations, on both interpersonal and intergroup levels.”
Oliner’s research seems to indicate that Confucianism, with its emphasis on the virtues of benevolence (rén仁) and reciprocity (shù 恕), which may be translated as altruism and empathy respectively, should be very relevant to reconciliation. However, it is equally important to note that Confucianism takes a rather cautious approach to forgiveness.
Concerning the Confucian position on forgiveness and revenge, a locus classicus is the conversation in Analects 14:36, where Confucius was asked “What do you think of repaying hatred with virtue?” (yǐ dé bào yuàn以德報怨) And, Confucius’s reply was “In that case what you going to repay virtue with? Rather, repay hatred with uprightness (yǐ zhí bào yuàn以直報怨) and repay virtue with virtue.” (yǐ dé bào dé以德報德) Confucius’s reply seems to reject not only the position of “repaying hatred with hatred” associated with the principle of “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” (associated with the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament) but also the position of “repaying hatred with virtue” associated with the Christian advocacy for forgiveness and “love thy enemy” in the New Testament. Confucius’s idea of repaying hatred with “uprightness” (zhí 直) seems to emphasize more on justice or righteousness rather than on forgiveness. But what does “uprightness” mean? It is interesting to note that the same word “uprightness” (zhí 直) is used in another famous conversation in the Analects (13:18), which reads:
“The Duke of She told Confucius, “In my country there is an upright man named Kung. When his father stole a sheep, he bore witness against him.” Confucius said, “The upright men in my community are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.””
For some critics, Confucius’s endorsement of the concealing of one’s family member betrays the problem of nepotism in Confucianism as well as its inadequacy in social ethics, for it places the family or blood relationship above the common good or public interests, especially social justice. However, to be fair to Confucius, the tenor of the story might be merely that embodiment or implementation of “uprightness” should depend on the concrete relationship involved. It does not necessarily imply that the same response should be made universally and regardless of the concrete situation. In other words, if it is within the family, “uprightness” might appear to be quite “lenient”, but this “lenient” approach may not apply to the public sphere.
In fact, other than the option of “repay hatred with uprightness”, Confucianism is also open to the other options of “repay virtue with virtue” and “repay hatred with hatred.” The Book of Rites (Lǐ Jì禮記), which is a Confucian classic with some words ascribed to Confucius, records some further details on the rites and social customs which were supposed to reflect the situation of Zhou dynasty and treasured by Confucius and his followers as the norms for a harmonious society. In its Chapter 32, it reads, “The Master says: if repay virtue with virtue, the people are counselled (mín yǒu suǒ quàn 民有所勸); if repay hatred with hatred, the people are reprimanded (mín yǒu suǒ chěng民有所懲).” (Translation mine)
With this openness to revenge, there were a number of traditional commentaries on the Book of Rites, elaborating further how revenge should be carried out. According to a study of these texts and commentaries, Confucianism deals with revenge largely within the framework of the five cardinal relations, which include not only those associated with family or blood relationship (namely parent-child, husband-wife, and brothers), but also the relationship not genetically related (namely emperor-subject and friends). If anyone of those who are within the boundary of the five cardinal relations is killed, one has the responsibility to seek for revenge on behalf of the deceased. Among these relationships, there is certain priority, and the revenge should be done in different ways accordingly. If the revenge is for one’s parent, one should proactively chase after the killer and seek for revenge anytime and at all cost. If it is for one’s brother, one should make oneself ready by carrying weapon all the times and take the revenge whenever the opportunity comes. If it is for one’s friend, one should not risk one’s own life for the revenge as long as one’s parents still alive or the killer is living in another country. Other than the variety of appropriate approaches to revenge in accordance with the five cardinal relationships, the cause of killing should be taken into consideration as well. Firstly, if it is due to lawful / just killing, no revenge is allowed. Secondly, if it is due to unlawful / unjust killing, one should let the government arrest the killer first and then handle according to the law. However, if no arrest is made, revenge is allowed. Thirdly, if the killing was made by mistake rather than intended, one should try to reconcile first; but if reconciliation is not successfully made and the killer refuses to escape to another country in order to avoid the revenge, revenge is allowed.
These rather elaborated guidelines on revenge seem to suggest that Confucianism does not have a hard and fast criterion or universal principle on revenge. Instead of taking forgiveness as a matter of “categorical imperative”, Confucianism takes maintaining or restoring the social order or harmony as the ultimate aim, and considers forgiveness and revenge in a more practical manner. It affirms that without excluding the possibility of revenge, one should be open to the possibility of reconciliation when applicable. Although whether and how to revenge may depend on the exact relationship and the concrete situation involved, the basic principle of justice should be observed and the law and order should be maintained whenever possible.
Concluding Remarks on Dialogue for Reconciliation
When considering the Confucian approach to reconciliation, perhaps one may recall the aforementioned Confucian concept of shù (恕). In modern Chinese, the word shù (恕) is often used to form the expressions meaning “forgiveness”, including “kuān shù” (寬恕) and “ráo shù” (饒恕). However, as it is mentioned earlier, the meaning of shù (恕), instead of being restricted to the meaning of forgiveness, actually relates to the “reciprocity” in the Silver Rule, which includes on the one hand an empathetic understanding of the others, especially other’s desire and suffering, and on the other hand sort of critical reflection on oneself, particularly one’s own desire as well as action. Through empathetic understanding of the others, one may understand deeply the actual inflictions experienced by the others, or the reasons behind the others’ inflictions on oneself. Through critical self-reflection, one may examine sincerely whether and how one might have inflicted the others – intendedly or not. Based on the Silver Rule, if one desires to be forgiven (or not to be un-forgiven), one has to be forgiving (or refrain from unforgiving the others). In a similar vein, if I desire not to be refused a genuine apology the others owe me, I should not hold back the genuine apology I owe to others. All these may lead to genuine apology as well as its acceptance, fair consideration of appropriate compensation leading towards restorative justice, and effective way of avoiding future conflict. In short, the virtue of reciprocity (shù 恕), which is advocated by Confucianism and can be found in ordinary human being, can contribute to the formation of a forgiving atmosphere or culture which may benefit the process of peace-building or reconciliation.
Of course, Confucianism is not panacea. It has its possible limitation(s) or drawback(s). Due to certain historical reasons, the Confucian understanding of human society was quite hierarchical and patriarchal, and this hierarchical relationship may affect negatively the conversation or communication among human persons. It is noticeable that the five cardinal relations emphasized by Confucianism, with the exception of the relation among friends, are hierarchical relations, which usually will make apology from those of the higher positions (e.g. emperor or father) much more unlikely or difficult than the apology from those of lower positions (e.g. subject or child). This inequality within the relation may apply to the relations between husband and wife, or even between male and female in general. The irony is that it may be more often to have those who are with power and authority to hurt those who are inferior in terms of power and position. The forgiveness from the powerless will be easily ignored or even abused by those who are in power. This makes the dialogue on free and equal basis among citizens rather difficult, not to say the “dialogue” between the ruler and the ordinary people. This sort of hierarchical or even patronizing attitude associated with Confucianism may make the dialogue within a society dominated by Confucianism very problematic, but perhaps less so in the inter-cultural or inter-religious dialogue among cultures or religions of equal status in a pluralistic setting. Different from the hierarchical or patronizing attitude associated with Confucianism, some religions suggest that the person of the higher status should take the initiative to be humble or to “empty” oneself in order to communicate effectively to those of lower status. This can be found not only in the Christian message of divine Incarnation or accommodation, but also the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of skillful means that based on his / her compassion as well as wisdom, the Buddha or bodhisattva will communicate in different ways in accordance with the levels of understanding of the sentient beings concerned. Perhaps through dialogue with these religions in the global context, Confucianism may be able to overcome some of its own limitations and to contribute in a more significant way to the dialogue for the reconciliation in a world of conflict and violence.
Last updated on 07/05/2019