For more than 40 years, the dynamic economies of Asia have intrigued me, as I have accumulated varied, in-country experience. For more than 30 years, I have been convinced that Asian success is to be explained by cultural tradition and 20 years ago I co-authored a book identifying Confucianism as the key to this tradition.
A recent government sponsored lecture recognised the influential role I played, as early as 1976, in foreshadowing the economic rise of China, based on identifying the shared cultural qualities of Japan and China. Yet, I overlooked a central quality of the Confucian tradition until 2007.
Then, reading the introduction to the translation by Simon Leys of the central Confucian classic, The Analects, my attention focused on a passage where a town Governor’s query provoked the following rebuke of a follower by Confucius:
Why did you not simply tell him that Confucius is a man driven by so much passion that, in his enthusiasm, he often forgets to eat and remains unaware of the onset of old age.
A moment’s reflection brought home that the Confucian communities of East Asia all are characterised by Confucian qualities of passion and enthusiasm. Their people, whatever their age, their place in society, the nature of their work or their explicit understanding of Confucian classic texts, display this quality of passion and enthusiasm in myriad ways, even if often masked by a form of ritual impassiveness.
Perhaps, nowhere are those qualities more evident today than in the bookshops of contemporary China. These are overflowing both with books, on every imaginable subject - including many thought to be forbidden by unknowing foreigners, and with young people. Hundreds line up in the morning waiting for Shanghai’s New China Bookshop to open. Japan and Korea share much of this quality but as one travels away from Confucian East Asia the passion for books wains visibly.
These societies are all nurtured by long traditions of rich human experience, enshrined in books. People learn from early family customs to value the pursuit of education within a broader community that has both temporal and spatial dimensions. Families pay deep-felt deference to older generations and departed ancestors at the same time as they work to nurture and educate the next generation to play a productive and respected role in communities of the future.
This sense of a rich temporal and spatial identity, defined as much by duties within the community as by individual attributes, marks the dialogues of The Analects and informs Confucian passion and enthusiasm.
Contrary to the impression often given by contemporary Western commentary, it is passion and enthusiasm that most characterises today’s China. Passion and enthusiasm in seizing opportunity is conspicuous at all levels of society. Old people often engage in community activities that express a pride in fulfilled lives. Young people all seem to have a sense of energetic, confident, expectant purpose.
A recent visit to Shenzhen, which was untouched rice paddy fields on the way to Mao’s Beijing in 1976, brings home the productivity of such passion and enthusiasm. Today, it is a modern, grandly conceived city of 15 million people, throbbing with the expectations of its youthful immigrants, most of whom seem to be under 25 years. The city centre is characterised by spacious design that would not be out of place in the old Imperial Capital and soon to be Olympic Host City, Beijing. Already, Shenzhen, a thriving business centre, dwarfs the post-colonial entrepot, Hong Kong.
It is little remarked how readily Confucian passion and enthusiasm has been transformed into economic endeavour and productivity, although it has been on display in East Asia for over 50 years.
Of course, many of the young immigrants of Shenzhen would be surprised to hear their behavioural qualities attributed to the ancient Sage but they are no less marked by the Confucian legacy than an Australian atheist by the West’s legacy of Christian dogma. Still, a determined commitment to reviving Confucian values, simmering little noticed for several decades, is inspiring a strong revival of overt Confucian filial and community values in many parts of China.
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