State main contradiction between Confucius thought and western version of philosophy, and applying this to argue how the traditional Chinese philosophical school

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That which is not practical can not be spiritual either - State main contradiction between Confucius thought and western version of philosophy, and applying this to argue how the traditional Chinese philosophical school introduction. Every spiritual principle must stand the test of practicability. Spirituality is the science of sciences. Chinese philosophy is closely linked to the grassroots realities of human life. Take any Chinese philosopher, relate any age, you will find that humanism is the main theme underlying their writings. Chan is no exception. To write such a mammoth book and reveal the minds of successive Chinese philosophers is an arduous task and Chan has accomplished it creditably. With such an authentic work at hand, to understand, compare and contrast the Western version of philosophy and the Confucius thought becomes possible. When one has the continuous and consistent thought processes related to Chinese philosophy, the study is rendered authentic and understanding the intricacies of the Chinese mind, easier. The book is an anthology of 2500 years of Chinese philosophy.

To know Confucius in the proper perspective, the pre-Confucian and post-Confucian China needs to be understood well. Only then the process of comparing Confucius to the Western version of philosophy can be initiated with authenticity. For the English-speaking reader, this book is an asset and the mirror to gaze in to the philosophical heart of China. , In our impatience and ignorance, we come to question whether there is after all any relationship between life and philosophy. The topic-range covered by Chan is as long as the Chinese Wall. He covers the pre-Confucian period and reaches up to Maoist China. It is a big leap and he has left nothing untouched—Buddhism, Taoism, neo-Rationalism, and neo-Idealist movements, Western Philosophy etc. Chan’s book is all the more handy to  discuss the main contradiction between Confucius thought and the Western version of philosophy because, Chan is well-known for leaning on the Confucian side of the Chinese tradition and this man’s personal faith is Christianity. That makes it  a unique combination.

Confucius was the man behind the Confucianism beliefs. Among many other standards, Confucius established standards for proper table etiquette and for the appearance and taste of Chinese food. One of the standards set by Confucius (you might have noticed this at an authentic Chinese restaurant) is that food must be cut into small bite size pieces before serving the dish. This is a custom that is definitely unique to the Chinese culture.

To cite a simple example, Knives at the dinner table are also considered to be a sign of very poor taste by those who embrace Confucian beliefs. The standards of quality and taste that Confucius recommends require the perfect blend of ingredients, herbs and condiments–a blend which would result in the perfect combination of flavor. Confucius also emphasized the importance of the texture and color of a dish, and taught that food must be prepared and eaten with harmony. Interestingly enough, Confucius was also of the opinion that an excellent cook must first make an excellent matchmaker (A serious…). When one attempts the comparison and contradiction between the Confucius thought and Western version of philosophy, one has to view from the point of view of the present global scenario. How modernization has tempered the traditional Chinese philosophy is the moot question. In the processes of industrialization, urbanization, advancement in information technology and globalization, the human communities have lost sight of common values in forming a cohesive whole and, as a result, all sorts of social contradictions and conflicts manifest themselves.

A sense of collectivity is disappearing, ethical norms are tattered, and such social ills as environmental decay, poverty, racial and social discrimination, and violence, which threaten co-prosperity of humanity, are all the more prevalent. In this context, where do the Western philosophy and Confucius stand? To bring the wisdom back into philosophy is the concern of both the ‘schools of thought.’(Meaning presently, for the purpose of this article Confucius and Western philosophy) The pages of human history daubed in bloodshed related to World War I and II, the cruelties at Nanking, the atomic catastrophe at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, color and race, annexation of territories, aggrandizement for more and more wealth, ask the crying question. How to make this Planet Earth heaven-like? The answer is simple and direct. Eyes full of understanding, hearts full of love and the life that refuses conflicts—enough! These alone are enough! It is the human beings who can work for and bring world peace and social harmony. Neither Confucius’s China nor the Western Philosophy has been able to achieve this. The word wisdom hardly finds appreciation in Western philosophy. Even though learning has been the central philosophical concern for Confucius, as for its practical application, the modern leadership of China has miserably failed. The extraordinary commercial success that has been achieved by China is not due to Confucius principles, but by adopting the western methods. To that extent China has been influenced by western philosophy.

No one will deny that human beings are rational and civilized creatures with faculties to think creatively, to work cooperatively and to feel empathy with other human beings in sorrow and pain. The Confucius philosophy and the tenets of Western philosophy are in full agreement with this. War, conflict and division are not compatible with the nature of human beings. Therefore, they need not be taken for granted as inherent in mankind’s fate. It is a heart-breaking reality of our time that racial and religious conflicts in the post-cold war era alone claimed more than five million lives. Renewed wars and conflicts (take the example of Tibet in Confucius’s China and the example of Iraq War as for Western philosophy) of today jeopardize all the post-cold war efforts for genuine co-existence among human beings and attainment of a sustainable world peace. Nonetheless, human beings possess the wisdom to learn lessons from history and past experiences. Human history vividly demonstrates that if we truly unite together and pool our wisdom, we can accomplish tasks which seemed humanly impossible.

It is here that the Confucius thought and the Western philosophies meet, but in the method of application of the principles into practical application they depart, and exhibit their differences. Whatever are the subtle contents of the Western philosophy, the greed and aggrandizement for accumulation and grabbing of wealth by meanest of the means, has been the practice with traders and governments of the West. The Western Colonial Imperialism resorted to small and big wars, interfered and suppressed the people whom they attacked and ruled. The Opium War in 1840 hurt China, its prestige and economy both. This set the Chinese intellectuals thinking, they began to adopt western methods to come out of the rut of poverty. The western thinkers led by Kant, criticized the colonial imperialism. In China, Deng Xiaoping’s peace and development, Hu Jintao’s harmonious society, are nothing but the application of principles enunciated by Confucius. Though the principles involved are not much dissimilar (both Chinese and Western philosophy), their application by the rulers varied and even during the present times, they vary considerably, as many social and political factors come to play. Harmony is tolerance and co-existence. Harmonious situation in the society shows lots of elasticity– values, different lifestyles and socio-economic systems co-exist, tolerate and in many cases accept the values of others. The challenges for human beings are varied, depending upon the situation in which they are placed.

One reacts to the situations as per the level of progression of one’s mind. However, compulsive good people and compulsive bad people exist in every area of human activity. For a businessman, how to be a good human being and do business at the same time(business mostly involves making profit at other’s cost), how to be ethical and tough, how to maintain personal relations and at the same time be professional, when the opportunity is there, make profits and yet remain not greedy, are  the challenges.  Applying the philosophical and spiritual principles in the practical situations is toughest of the tasks. Truth at all times, truth at all costs!—is it possible or is it feasible? Ask Confucius!-he comments on the mind-set of such people. They are guided by Li—Confucius explains it in detail about the nature and practice of Li. People who follow the principles of Li, are enthused by their internal moral base, they stick to principles, behave truthfully and decently, integrity is their watchword, stiff challenges, difficult choices and problems do not matter for them. They live life in its trials, tribulations duty and beauty with honest dispositions.

Around 500 BC, Confucius highlighted the notion of Li. The subject and rules and regulations enunciated by Li, can be compared to the modern management techniques and personnel management. The import and basics are the same, the applications areas have undergone changes, in keeping with trends in the society impacted by materialism, industrial and internet revolutions. He discusses rites and rituals, the code of conduct for small issues like tea drinking, mourning, governance, how to dress, and mainly interactions with human beings. High obedience to the law of Nature is the cornerstone of Li principles. Li has several subsidiary aspects. Some of the issues are, reverence, courtesy, propriety, ritual and ideal standards of conduct. These principles were ingrained in the day to day activities of the Chinese people to such an extent, it continued for centuries. Confucius and Chinese culture became synonymous. Li is not a moral code that you read, understand and implement. It has to be cultivated like spirituality is cultivated by physical and mental austerities. It demands certain pre-conditions from the people, like integrity, treat every human being with dignity, commit oneself to honesty and discipline, and not give up the practice of Li, in any adverse situation.

When we compare Li, with the current workplace ethics and management principles, they are centered around cut-throat competition and to achieve success by all means. Shirking responsibility and buttering people, through corrupt practices has become the way of life. You speak to win, hijack others, even the words like please and thank you have become rare commodities, and even that wishing, is done as a mater of formality, not from the goodwill of the heart. This is the gift of the Western philosophy, as is it applied to various commercial activities today. The opposite of Li is insensitivity, opportunism, bullying, treating others as irreverent…the broader application of such an attitude can be seen in the Iraq War. Whatever is the ruse, whatever are the statements issued for public consumption, the war was fought for purely economic hegemony and with the greedy eye on the oil-wealth.

Li means to search the ‘wealth’ within the individual. Total integrity is achievable only with the support of the internal truth. That state is achievable when one works with oneself. A Li individual needs to make the day today review of one. It involves contemplation and self-reflection. One needs to be the scientist of one’s inner world and analyze every thought, the good and bad of it, with a scientific attitude. The intellectual vision of the scientist is not clouded by the sentimental emotions of a poet or the deeper discoveries of mystic and his penetrating perception. The scientist observes a phenomenon and carefully notes down his observations of data. Similarly, when through right living and correct practices of Li, an individual gets fully integrated within; he comes to see things as they are, stripped naked of his attachments, vanities, preconceived mental dreams and their associated ideas. In contrast to the principles of Li, the perspectives of Kant, one of the greatest Western philosophers, is much different. Kant comments about keeping the legal rights relationship among people in natural state without coming into conflict with the government. Kant tries to explore the ways to establish a universal harmony of human’s external relationship. He even talks of an international order and calls for the international community to respect the autonomy right for all people and opposes powerful imposition  of the will on the weaker ones. Kant has given to the western world excellent books on various topics and the issues are discussed well. But where is the lacuna? Where does the Western Philosophy fail? Why people are unhappy on so many issues? Devoid of its relationship in real life situations, a philosophical text becomes a dead book of idealism and not a dynamic philosophy, which can bring hope, joy, succor and solace to the generation. There must be an intimate relationship, therefore, between a dynamic philosophy and life, just as there should be a definite relationship set up between a musician and his accompaniments for good music; between the plants and the blossoms on it so that they may become the source of fruits. When there is any revolutionary change in the philosophical ideologies and concepts of a generation, the entire pattern of life in the society changes.

Confucian Classics dominated the ideological scene in China from its beginning; they were considered an all-time authority, but its contents are a matter of faith, one need to believe them unconditionally, they can not be judged and are not the subject of experimentation and well-founded scientific research. Believe them for your total welfare, disbelieve them for the ruin of your life—was the attitude of the Chinese people. This is quite in contrast to the Western philosophy. Bacon remarked, “Knowledge is power.” Later on it was developed as philosophy called, “Positivism.” It concerned two main issues. It recognized only scientific methods and experimental, verifiable facts. It contended that only sensory perceptions are the objects and sources of knowledge. It advised the philosophies, including western traditional ones, to generalize and describe scientific knowledge in phenomenal field.


Philosophers, whether Confucius of China or Kant of Western Philosophical School, do not operate independently! That is to say, their teachings are subject to the influence of social, political and economic conditions of the time. And at certain periods of history, when convulsions of social, political and economic changes overtake a community, the philosophy controlling and influencing them, must be mobile enough in its non-essentials to swing and change, yield and accommodate, relax and embrace the new demands that have been created in the society under the new impulses set forth by the revolution. That philosophy, which is not versatile enough to respond properly to such inner throbbing of a society or a community, will perish under the weight and sway of the onrushing progress. History of philosophy clearly indicates this intimate wedlock between philosophy and life, but somehow or other in our haste and hurry, in our impatience and ignorance, we come to question whether there is after all any relationship between life and philosophy.

Sitting somewhere on the fence that divides Planet Earth and heaven, Confucius and Emanuel Kant must be discussing this question


                                                 References Cited:

Chan, Wing-Tsit: Book: A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy.

Paperback: 874 pages

Publisher: Princeton University Press; New Impression edition (April 1, 1969)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0691019649

ISBN-13: 978-0691019642

Article: A Serious Conversation Between Confucius and John Dewey: Getting Wisdom –Retrieved on May 12, 2008.


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