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Book Review: China: Confucius in the Shadows – Poonam Surie; By D. S. Rajan

C3S Paper No. 0189/2015

China: Confucius in the Shadows – Poonam Surie

(KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, India; Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, India, 2015, pp 262, Rs 980/-)

When the reviewer was reading this admirable book on China’s greatest sage and philosopher Confucius (Called Kongzi in Chinese, 551-479 BC), who was born around the same time as Buddha, an imagination gripped him spontaneously   that he was on a pilgrimage to that country of ancient civilization. The beauty of this book lies in the   narration done by the author, definitely one of the few Indian experts on the subject,  as she visits   historic spots in China – to mention few, Qufu (Shandong province, birth place of Confucius), Mount Lushan  (  Jiangxi province ,  one of the spiritual and cultural centers of Chinese civilization), and Beijing;  meets different  people and interacts  with thinkers having brilliant minds. It  is so intense  that  the readers, who though  not physically part of her  entourage, invariably get the impression of being together. Also, remarkably she gathers her impressions on the basis of  authoritative  data  (for e.g from Professors Chen Jingpan and  Arthur Waley, the authors respectively of  the  “Background to the Teaching of Confucius” and the “  Analects of Confucius” and Professors Jiang Qing and  Tu Weiming of the Neo-Confucian School).

There is no denying that lives of past generations of the Chinese revolved round the Confucian ideas; this would be so both now and in future. Totally agreeable is the author’s position that the Confucian thought is “inseparable part of the ethos of the Chinese people and of their culture.”   The reason for these  is obvious – the spiritual guidance to the Chinese society coming from  the philosophy of the sage, focusing on humanism, harmony and  the care for the  community  as well as universal moral order. The Chinese people will always cherish what the sage said in his   classics – the I Ching (Book of Changes), the Shang Shu (Book of Poetry), Tso Chuan (Chronicle of Tso), the Kyo Yu (Conversations of the State and Yi Li (Book of Etiquette and Ceremony). The Confucian principles of ‘Ren’ (love or goodness), ‘Li’ (rules of proper conduct) ‘Xiao Chong’ (filial piety- serving parents and kings) and   ‘Zhong Yang’ (doctrine of mean or harmony) had inspired the people and will do so as long as the Chinese civilization lasts.  This being so,  it would be important to note the opinion of the  author that  many regard Confucian value system as old fashioned and opposed to modernity and needs of globalization. She admits, rightly so,   that there is a need for more research of the ideas as many questions may remain unanswered with paradigms shifting  quickly before one can pin down the answer to any specific issue.

On Confucian teachings, coming out prominent is the author’s treatment of four themes   – their appeal or otherwise to the seekers of truth and meaning of life; their rejection in the Mao era,    rehabilitation of them under Xi Jinping’s leadership and lastly, their relevance to the present day world particularly in matters of governance. On the first, she underscores the point that the teachings do not refer to God or about life after death and recognizes the profound insight into human nature contained in the philosopher’s ideas. Meaningful in this regard  is the author’s highlighting  the sage’s words  that “time goes on and on like the flowing water in the river, never ceasing day or night”, which perhaps reveal his thinking that time cannot be turned back and humans should work hard in their limited life period.  Was Confucius aware of the Indian philosophy which speaks about the ‘timeless’ ultimate truth? There can be no easy answer to this question.

A discussion on the second and third themes relating to the influence of Confucian ideas in Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping eras, appropriately finds a place in separate Chapters 10 and 19 respectively of the book. One tends to agree with the assessment that Mao criticized Confucian thought, but also believed in its values; the late Chairman in 1940 asked for summing up of the history  from age of Confucius to that of Sun Yatsen and inherit that precious legacy,  but during the cultural revolution (1966-76), he rejected the Confucian thoughts finding them feudal in character. During Xi Jinping’s time, a trend towards Confucian revival is without doubt being seen. In September 2014, Xi Jinping addressing world scholars attending  a function held at Beijing to mark the 2565th birth anniversary of the birth of Confucius,  said that China  had always been peace-loving, conforming to a trait  that had “very deep origins in Confucian thinking”.

Acceptable is the author’s finding that there is ideological decline in the country which is contributing to a vacuum in China and that Xi desires to fill it with value systems based on country’s traditional culture which include Confucian teachings. However, one feels the necessity to examine the situation going beyond the evaluation of the author. It may not be out of place to mention the position of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the “relationship between cultivating core socialist values and carrying forward traditional Chinese virtues” (“Cultivating Core Socialist Values and Putting Them into Practice”, Liu Yunshan, Qiu shi, Vol. 6 No.3 July 1, 2014,;  that  position demands that while pursuing the former, there should be ‘’critical inheritance” of the latter.  Xi Jinping himself has demanded    retaining of the good cultural values of the past and discarding of the bad in a selective manner so that ‘the past may serve the present and the new may be brought forth from the old’. As such, it is clear that Xi does not give a blanket approval to Confucian ideas. Xi’s real purpose seems to be to use China’s traditional cultural value systems for consolidating the CCP’s  political position in the country.

Chapter 12 of the book deals with the fourth theme- current relevance of Confucian ideas, particularly for governance in the country. Assuming importance in this regard are the author’s recall of the words of Confucius that “if the people have no faith in their rulers, there is no standing for the State”, that “he who rules his state on a moral basis would be supported by the people just as the Polar Star is encircled by all the other stars” and that “ill-gotten wealth and rank are just like fleeting clouds to me”. The implications of these words for President Xi Jinping’s current campaign against corruption in China look obvious.

The reviewer strongly recommends the book to all readers who are inquisitive about the philosophical traditions in China which continue to inspire the Chinese people as well as the leadership in China.

( The reviewer is D.S.Rajan, Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Contributing date – October 17, 2015.

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