A new battle for Confucius

2010-03-04Asia Times

BEIJING - At a time when the thoughts of Chinese philosopher Confucius are enjoying a revival both inside China and outside the country in the form of Confucian Institutes, the first complete English translation of the work of Confucius' earliest philosophical enemy, Mozi, has been published in Hong Kong [1].

Confucius and Mozi [2] engaged in fierce debates in the fourth and third centuries BC and Mozi was possibly more popular, but by the 19th century he was all but forgotten.

Ian Johnston, author of the translation, has concluded a landmark endeavor. He has neatly and briefly summed up all past scholarship on Mozi and cleared up much of the textual corruption of the original, The Mozi, all the while defining the philosophical importance of Mozi's thought.

But most of all, with this work Johnston has provided new food for thought about the real traditions of Chinese culture, and here Mozi and his original book are particularly important. Mozi was Confucius' original antagonist and to his book we owe the first recognition of Confucians as a group of thinkers, although they were branded with a possibly derogatory word, ru, softies. Mozi devoted two chapters to expressly refuting the ideas of the Confucians.

Possibly it was because of this fierce hostility that when Confucianism became a state ideology, as it has been since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Mozi was left in a dark corner of Chinese thought. He was rediscovered almost 20 centuries later when China confronted huge political, military, economic and mostly cultural challenges from the West.

Mozi's systematic approach proved to Chinese intellectuals that China was also capable of strict logical argument of the Western kind and that Mozi's stringent arguments were also passed onto some of his Confucian antagonists. All the fathers of modern Chinese thought - Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, Feng Youlan - agreed in re-evaluating Mozi's tough presentations on Confucius' suggestive yet soft passages.

In the 17th century, when Western Jesuits embarked on the daring task of spreading Catholicism in China, they found in Mozi some cultural basis for belief in a Christian God. Mozi's religious faith in a "will of Heaven" lent some grounds to the Jesuits to argue that Christianity was not totally alien to Chinese culture. Centuries later, the Jesuits' efforts helped Chinese who were willing to modernize without giving up all of their traditions to confront Western culture with a piece of their own philosophy - Mozi.

Furthermore, Mozi's doctrine of "universal love" sounded like the idea of Christian love propagated in the 17th century, as well as like the drive to egalitarianism by the communists in the 20th century.

Opposition to communism, meanwhile, had gained a deeper philosophical basis as it was conducted in the name of the standard official ideology of many dynasties - Confucianism. Communism was seen as deeply anti-Confucian, just as Mozi's thought.

After the birth of communist China in 1949, leader Mao Zedong confirmed this reading by promoting the study of Mozi, and thus presenting himself to all Chinese who wanted the modernization of China as the real heir of Liang Qichao, Hu Shi and Feng Youlan. Mao even branded some of his communist fellows, like Zhou Enlai and other moderates, as "Confucians".

With Mao's demise in 1976, Beijing's new intellectual opposition to Maoist ideas naturally gradually rediscovered Confucius during the 1980s and 1990s. Confucius also has the extra advantage of providing a common ground with politically separate Taiwan, which is pervaded by Confucian thought.

Johnston's translation arrives amid a global revival and popularization of Confucius and Mozi's serious work can hardly be expected to dent Confucius' "pop status", but it offers an alternative vision.

Importantly, the book provides a basis to reconsider an important aspect of Chinese traditional thinking - military strategy. Johnston is the first person to provide both a credible Chinese textual reconstruction and a translation of Mozi's military chapters. Mozi theorized about defensive wars and his followers, the Mohists, were renowned tacticians who helped organize the defense of small states being attacked by larger ones.

This was at a time when small states were being gobbled up by large ones competing for dominance in the Chinese central plain. The aggressive theories of famous strategist Sunzi helped conceive those and many other future wars of attack, whereas Mozi argued against aggressive wars.

It is very likely that, as popularly described in the unsuccessful 2006 Chinese-Japanese movie production Mo Gong, in the Third century BC Mohist militants aided small states to withstand attacks and then tried to apply radical political and social reforms that went against the interests of the local elites.

Johnston's translation of Mozi could cast new light on Sunzi's theories and Chinese strategic thinking. It's possible that gong, a word commonly understood as aggressive war, at the time meant more precisely war by a large force against a small one, as Lu Xiang, a modern student of Sunzi argues in a forthcoming essay. This kind of war is what Sunzi preferred and Mozi opposed.

If this is so, Mozi's ideas are deeply in contrast not with one but with two important branches of Chinese thought, Confucius and Sunzi. This, in turn, proves the diversity and richness of ancient Chinese tradition and that modern Chinese do not have to fear straying from the main Confucian course. One can be fully in harmony with Chinese traditions even by turning against one or two traditional thinkers.

In other words, Chinese cultural identity is not only marked by the famous pair of Confucius and Sunzi. Perhaps in a world in which most states are small and weak and a few large ones might want to impose their dominant culture and military strength, people might want to study more of Mozi.

1. The Mozi: A Complete Translation by Ian Johnston (Translator). The Chinese University Press (December 15, 2009). ISBN-10: 9629962705. Price US$85, 1,032 pages.

2. Mozi (470 BC to ca 391 BC), original name Mo Di (Master Mo), lived in China during the Hundred Schools of Thought period (early Warring States Period). He was born in Tengzhou, Shandong province. He founded the school of Mohism and argued strongly against Confucianism and Daoism. During the Warring States Period, Mohism was actively developed and practiced in many states, but fell out of favor when the legalist Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) came to power. During that period many Mohist classics were ruined when Qin Shihuang carried out the burning of books and burying of scholars. The importance of Mohism further declined when Confucianism became the dominant school of thought during the Han Dynasty, disappearing by the middle of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) . (2010-03-04 Asia Times)


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