Author: Krzysztof Gawlikowski
Institution: SWPS University
Year of publication: 2020
Source: Show
Pages: 36-76
DOI Address:
PDF: ap/23/ap2302.pdf

Western individualism versus Confucian apotheosis of community and group identity

The study presents one of the fundamental differences between Western and Confucian civilisations: individualistic western interpretation of self versus Confucian group-self (we-self) and group identity. The study starts with Hong Kong scholars’ opinions: which western concepts are entirely alien to Chinese tradition. According to them, an individual is not treated there as the highest value nor has attributed ‘innate dignity’, as in the West. Equality is rejected, because all social relations are based there on a hierarchical order. The concepts and ideals of individual autonomy, of self-direction, freedoms and rights had also been unknown there, like many other western concepts, since they have Christian and Greek-Roman roots. The author subscribes to F.W. Mote’s conclusion that there is a ‘cosmological gulf’ between Chinese and western civilisations. The author considers right Qian Mu’s opinion that the creation of social, human nature of each individual is a fundamental concept of Chinese civilisation, hence the state is treated as a kind of one gigantic school, in which all citizens are considered ‘pupils’, and all ‘chiefs’, from father to emperor, as respected ‘tutors’. The principle of maintaining harmony and unity excludes various partial visions and different personal political options since consensus is required and individual criticism, in particular towards all ‘authorities’ is condemned. The study presents various explanations and concepts of ‘Confucian self’ (Chinese, Japanese and Korean), among them ‘group self’, ‘contextual self’, ‘enlarged’ and primitive ‘small self’, ‘multiple self’, self as a ‘centre of relationships’, ‘dependent personality’, ‘sacredness of group life’, the idea of group unity ‘being one in soul and body’, etc. The author presents in detail Roger T. Ames’ concept of Confucian self as ‘focus-in-the-field’ indicating that it explains well the different social position of individuals, which could vary from ‘small’ and insignificant to ‘gigantic’. The study outlines as well the religious Chinese context of such concepts. Owing to such an emphasis on group and not personal self, it is difficult to understand properly and adapt the fundamental western political concepts such as human rights and liberal democracy since they serve autonomous individuals lacking in East Asia. The study outlines the education process and the essential concepts of how children have to be educated in the Confucian tradition. These realities change, of course, but slowly and merely partially, since the traditional concepts still serve well social needs and efficient modernization. In the end, the author indicates a broader cultural context in which such concepts of self could operate. For instance, Confucian tradition glorifies harmony, accord and maintaining consensus, whereas it condemns struggle, quarrels and open criticism of others, in particular of authorities. Western individual protests and criticism challenge this approach. When the Christian concepts of brotherhood, love of one’s neighbour and equality were lacking, and all other communities in the same country are treated as ‘alien’ and ‘potentially harmful’, it was difficult to form national identity and solidarity. Moreover, under such circumstances, wide interests and engagement in politics of the state could not appear. Hence ‘culturalism’, based on group cultural identity, instead of nationalism evolved. The western individualistic spirit of adventure, traveling, seeking something new was also lacking, on the contrary, the Confucian ideal was to live together with one’s family in a native village/community. This cultural and social context is an obstacle to this day to the adaptation of western institutions and values related to individual.


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