Chapter 7: Confucianism and East Asian Political Culture

I. East Asian Political Culture

An interesting exchange on the importance of political culture in political development appeared in the pages of Foreign Affairs in 199?. Lee Kwan Yew, long-time leader of Singapore and political godfather of the "Asian values" movement, articulated growing East Asian resistance to western political influence and western ideas of democracy in an interview entitled "Culture is Destiny." In a subsequent issue Kim Dae Jung, long-time fighter for democracy in South Korea and leader of the opposition there, replied with an article "Culture is not Destiny." Kim did not so much defend the West as the idea of democracy, asserting that democracy is consistent with traditional Asian values and that certain historical East Asian political concepts and practices were antecedents to modern ideas of democracy.

Does political culture matter? Is a political culture approach more fruitful than a political institutional or political economic approach in understanding democratization in East Asia? Actually, one does not need to choose between exclusive alternative approaches. To understand a phenomenon as complex as democratization one needs to understand its institutional, economic, and cultural aspects. It is not a question of "either or" but of "both and." Certainly in cases of East Asian democratization there are complex interactions between institutional, economic, and cultural dynamics. Sometimes political culture can be seen as an expression of differences in historical, political, and economic development. Sometimes political culture must be seen as an independent variable. Often political cultural analysis points in the same direction as institutional or economic analyses and can be seen as one aspect of a phenomenon with many dimensions.

Political culture should never be reified. Political cultural analyses that tend to blanket statements like "All Japanese are thus and so because Japanese culture has always been and always will be thus and so." are grossly simplistic and just plain wrong. Political culture is dynamic. It evolves over time in response to changes in people's lives. This chapter will lay great stress on the importance of Confucianism in understanding the political cultures of the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese people, especially Chinese outside the People's Republic. But what Confucianism is, how it is understood, and what it means for human behavior is radically different today than two thousand years ago, or even 50 years ago, just as the effect of Christianity on western political culture has changed over historical time. Political culture should not be a box to put people or nations into, but a way of understanding political change.


East is East and West is West

Is it even appropriate to make sweeping generalizations about East Asian culture? East Asia encompasses about 2 billion people, more than a third of the entire population of the planet. It has many peoples with many different traditions and many different histories. Naive westerners have often fallen into the trap of lumping together disparate Asian cultural currents into false generalizations about the mysterious, inscutable Orient. The pre-modern East Asian philosophical heritage is rich and variegated. The great traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam are as different from each other as they are from western Christianity or western humanism. As important as they are, these organized philosophical systems capture only part of the rich heritage of the different peoples of the region who have a wide variety of local folkways and beliefs which have mixed together with the more systematic philosophical systems and produced a multiplicity of syntheses and variants.















South Korea









In particular, for most of their history, Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia were separate cultural zones with little interaction and distinct paths of development. There were significant differences between the Northeast Asian Confucian tradition and the more eclectic Southeast Asian cultures. With the exception of Vietnam, Confucianism has had much less impact on Southeast Asia than successive waves of Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic influence. Indigenous animistic beliefs retain greater sway in many areas of Southeast Asia than in Northeast Asia. The peoples of Northeast Asia are largely physically separated by natural geographic barriers and thus Japan, Korea, and the core of China have historically been overwhelmingly ethnically homogeneous--one people in one nation with one culture. But the physical boundaries in Southeast Asia are not as formidable, leading to complex interactions of different peoples and nations and ethnically intermixed cities and nations. Some scholars even contest the idea of a Confucian zone, noting the separate political development of Japan and Korea and the key role of nationalistic elites who define themselves largely in terms of rejection of foreign culture, including in some cases resistance to Chinese influence.

It is essentially true that for most of their history Northeast and Southeast Asia have developed relatively independently of each other. It is also true that before the 20th century it would have been erroneous even to think of Southeast Asia, and to a lesser extent Northeast Asia, as a single cultural region. But in the modern era the peoples of East Asia have increasingly been pulled together by a common history. European imperialism, the second world war, the Cold War, and globalization have all presented the peoples of East Asia with a similar experience and similar imperatives. All the peoples of East Asia faced either western colonization, neo-colonization, or massive political dislocation to avoid colonization. All East Asian nations felt the death and destruction of the second world war, although the devastation was greater in China and Japan. All East Asian nations went through wrenching regime changes either during the war or soon thereafter or both. With the exceptions of Japan and Thailand, all East Asian nations faced the common experience of independence struggle and the common problems of constructing a new post-colonial polity and society. Most of the nations of the region were pulled together on one side of the Cold War and shepherded into close political ties by the American effort to create a united anti-communist front.

Perhaps most importantly in terms of creating commonalities of experience, the peoples of East Asia have been drawn together by the increasing economic and political integration of the Pacific Rim in the last few decades. The level of interaction between the peoples of Northeast and Southeast Asia has expanded dramatically, fostering not only the development of common ways of doing business, but also heightened perceptions of common interests and greater appreciation of commonalities in historical experience with the West, from the age of imperialism up to the current western led globalization.


When we think about what holds the "West" together as a common culture, we consider the level of economic and social interaction between western peoples, the common historical experiences they share, and shared perceptions of identity and interest. Throughout the 20th century the peoples of East Asia have increasingly been pulled together by economic and social interaction, common historical experiences, and shared ways of looking at the world. The ethnic, religious, and national differences between East Asian peoples remain great, much greater than those between Western peoples. No sensible observer would assert either that there is a long history of cultural unity or that today there is a monolithic, homogeneous East Asian culture. But it is hard to ignore the changing sense of cultural identity that is accompanying the economic and political integration of the region.


There is a much stronger argument that the peoples and nations of East Asia are converging into a somewhat similar pattern of development than that the region is entering onto a universal path of modernization as defined by the Western experience. Because of their historical experiences and their place in the contemporary global division of labor, the nations and peoples of East Asia are becoming more like each other than like Westerners.

Economically, these nations are rapidly modernizing, but in a world system which is already occupied by major capitalist powers and powerful multinational corporations. In this sense they resemble late European modernizers like Germany and Russia more than more historically liberal capitalist nations like England or the U.S. The nations of East Asia face similar problems of developing within a system already constructed and dominated by the West. This has led them to adopt similar strategies of state-led industrialization, export promotion, and neo-mercantilism, what has been labelled here the developmental state. The relatively open markets of liberal capitalism are not attractive to nations who would be bound to lose out to foreign-based transnational corporations in such market competition. The "tigers" of East Asia have all followed a strategy of penetrating western markets. But at the same time they have consciously limited western penetration of their markets, which if unchecked would freeze them into a permanent position of inferiority.

Historically, the cultural and philosophical systems of East Asia differ quite significantly from each other, almost as much as they differ from Western Christianity or Western rationalism. But all peoples of East Asia have undergone the common experience of western cultural penetration, the undermining of traditional values, and the subsequent social and psychological disorientation this has caused. In most of East Asia, economic vitality has been accompanied by a resurgence of traditional values and a sense of identity rooted not in global universality but local particularity. That is, East Asians are less likely to believe they are economically successful because they have become like modern westerners, than to believe that they are successful because they are different from (and perhaps better than) contemporary westerners. The fact that the new "Asian values" philosophy may have as little to do with the real historical past as the "restoration" of the Japanese emperor in early modern Japan is not really the issue. The question is whether the peoples of East Asia tend to think of themselves more as having signficant commonalities with westerners, or as having unique ethnic and national identities, or as sharing a common value system with other East Asians.

In the political sphere, most post-colonial East Asian regimes have faced great problems in creating social order and political cohesion. Artificial boundaries, ethnic cleavages, religious divisions, gaps between rich and poor, disparities between city and country, and differences between rapidly modernizing and traditional sectors all threatened to reduce post-colonial states into chaos. While western states often faced similar difficulties during their political development, in East Asia these problems tended to be compressed into a relatively short period of time. Political institutions had to be artificially created rather than evolving relatively naturally over time, as was generally the case in Western Europe and North America. It is no wonder that the different cultural legacies, economic circumstances, and political predicaments led East Asians to evolve somewhat different political institutions and cultures from the West. For all these reasons, the convergence brought on by modernization and globalization is more likely to be between East Asian nations than between East and West.

II. Western Misperceptions about East Asian Political Culture

Even if there are certain commonalities among East Asian political cultures, are westerners able to truly understand East Asian culture? Certainly the history of western attempts to understand East Asia should give one pause. The stereotypes that passed for scientific observations of East Asian culture during the age of imperialism existed largely to flatter western imperialists. The image of the inherently dishonest "wily oriental gentleman" not only led the western imperialist to feel morally superior, but gave him justification for cheating and abusing Asians. The stereotype of the Asian mired in mysticism and magical thinking allowed the westerner to feel that his science and his god were superior. The image of the Asian cowed by hierarchical authority allowed the western imperialist to think of himself as a morally superior democrat, and even more importantly justified western colonial domination as an expression of the wants of the Asian rather than desires of the imperialist.

Contemporary western scholars imbued with a greater sense of cultural relativism flatter themselves that they have risen above such arrogance, and in fact, crude stereotypes of Asians have been largely, if not completely, purged from western scholarship. But it is still true that often western studies of East Asian political culture say more about the West than Asia.

For example, take two of the more insightful books of East Asian political culture, Lucien Pye's Asian Power and Politics and Bell et al's Toward Illiberal Democracy in Pacific Asia. In his pioneering work on Asian political culture Pye asserts a fundamental dichotomy in Asian and Western concepts of power. According to Pye, Westerners think of power in rational, instrumental terms--they seek power in order to accomplish other ends. But Asians are characterized as thinking of power as an end in itself. To Asians power is a symbolic and nonrational expression of identity.

Pye marshalls an impressive body of evidence to support his position that Asians think of power in symbolic rather than instrumental terms. He leaves no doubt that Asians often think of power in nonrational, noninstrumental terms. The problem is in the dichotomization of Western rationality and Asian nonrationality. Westerners too often conceive of power in nonrational terms. One astute observer of the Clinton presidency has commented that some people want power to "do something," but others want power to "be somebody," and that Bill Clinton clearly fits in the latter category. In other words, Bill Clinton can be seen as motivated mainly by a nonrational, symbolic conception of power, as conceiving of power a measure of his personal identity and worth, rather than a means to any instrumental goals he might want to achieve. Whether this portrayal is fair to Bill Clinton or not, narcissistic, ego-tripping politicians are hardly unique to Asian politics. Pye's dichotimization of Western and Asian forms of power is only a step away from the old caricatures of Westerners as rational and scientific vs. Asians as irrational and superstitious.

Bell et al make an important contribution to the growing literature documenting that a new form of regime with a new form of ideological legitimation and a new type of political culture is emerging in East Asia. They convincingly argue that the "illiberal" democracy of East Asia is significantly different from western liberal democracy. They do an admirable job of empirically analyzing the contours of "illiberal" democracy.

Where Bell et al's analysis breaks down is in their idealized characterization of western liberal democracy. They end up comparing the real political systems of East Asia with a totally idealized version of western liberal democracy, and of course, coming to the conclusion that real East Asian regimes do not come up to the standards of western liberal democracy. At a deeper level, one can see the inherent bias in favor of western systems over East Asian systems in the very term, "illiberal" democracy. The new regime type is a priori defined by what it lacks according to western standards, i.e., liberalism. It is no wonder that starting out with such categories, they come to the conclusion that East Asian regimes do not measure up. Like Pye, Bell et al's empirical descriptions are essentially accurate, but the theoretical framework that drives the analysis reveals more about Western ways of thinking than it does about East Asian systems.

III. The Confucian Legacy

The philosophical heritage of pre-modern Asia is rich and variegated. Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, shamanism, animism, and various indgenous folk traditions have all played important roles in shaping how East Asians think about their societies and their polities. So why focus primarily on the impact of Confucianism on East Asian political culture? One simple practical reason is that I cannot do the other philosophical traditions justice. There are others much more knowledgeable in these traditions and their modern variants. I have lived for roughly a decade Japan and Korea, two different societies with strong Confucian heritages, worked in their companies and universities, and talked at great length with students from both elite and more typical backgrounds. Thus I have a knowledge rooted in experience about Confucian culture that I lack regarding many of the other Asian philosophical traditions.

But the main reason to focus on Confucianism is that it is the most important philosophical tradition in shaping contemporary East Asian society and political thinking. Confucianism was the dominant philosophical tradition in China, the philosophy of the "Middle Kingdom" which overshadowed East Asia for the better part of two millenia. The influence of Chinese culture and thus Confucianism on Japan, the most important Asian power in this century, was immense. From learning to write using Chinese characters to modelling its political system on the Chinese royal court, the Japanese, in myriad direct and indirect ways, have been profoundly influenced by Chinese culture and Confucianism. So too have Korea and Vietnam.

The influence of Confucianism on Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese culture remains enormous, similar in magnitude to that of Christianity in the West. Like traditional Christianity in the West, Confucianism has been under assault in the modern world and has lost its former position of philosophical predominance. Western imperialism and its cultural impact overwhelmed the Confucian political establishment in China and its neighbors. Japanese nationalist militarism and Chinese communism both tried to displace traditional Confucianism, and to a certain extent succeeded, at least in terms of political ideology. No modern state bases its authority or legitimacy on traditional Confucian principles of governance.

However the influence of Confucianism is not just located in the dead past. While the Confucian court of the Chinese emperor is long gone, Confucianism continues to shape the daily lives and the way of thinking of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese. These peoples share similar ways of thinking about family, gender, age, work, education, the individual and the group, etc. which differ significantly from the West or any other cultures. Families, companies, schools, informal social groups in Confucian societies take a characteristic form because of the residue of Confucian philosophy.


Moreover, a new or renewed East Asian political philosophy has begun to form in recent decades, which has at its root a kind of neo-Confucianism. No one yet knows how important a role the Asian values movement will play in the Pacific world in the 21st century. But it is becoming increasingly appparent that if a pan-Asia-Pacific political philosophy does emerge, neo-Confucianism will be at its core.

It is important to keep in mind the contrast between the contemporary neo-Confucianism and the classical Confucianism of the Chinese emperor's court, Chinese political elites, and the political leadership of nations on China's periphery. Classical Confucianism has been largely washed away by the tides of modernization. Yet the way people in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam live and think is still largely shaped by a surviving Confucian cultural heritage. The influence of Confucianism on modern East Asia can be compared with the influence of the Greeks and Romans on contemporary western society. Classical Greek language, logic, and rationalism, not to mention Athenian style democracy, still exert a signficant influence on contemporary Western society and thought, even if their original form has been lost. So to does Roman law and the Latin language. In a similar manner, a significant residue of Confucian thinking remains in the minds and lives of the people in Confucian societies.

The greatest residue of Confucianism can be seen in the everyday lives of ordinary people, at the social-psychological and micro-economical level. The values of familism, patriarchy, respect for elders and superiors, the work ethic, thrift, emphasis on education, harmony, and the avoidance of conflict are all salient residues of Confucian philosophy.

Key Elements of Confucian Culture

Perhaps the most important value in the Confucian system is familism. Confucius taught that the highest value was filial piety, a term that is difficult even to translate into the English language because there is no truly equivalent concept in western philosophy. Confucius was once asked to comment on a case where a son knew of a father's crimes and turned his father in to the authorities. Confucius castigated the son for violating the ethic of filial piety. Now it is true that in the West family is also highly valued and that many western sons have hidden the crimes of their fathers. But there are few important western ethical teachers who would laud such sons for exemplary moral behavior.

Confucius took the family as the model for all of society. He argued that if the family is well ordered, the local community will be well ordered, and if the local community is well ordered, the nation will be well ordered. If the emperor attended to family duties and other families followed the emperor's example, the nation would prosper.

The Confucian system is also patriarchal. Women were taught the three obediences. In their youth, women must obey their fathers, as adults, women must obey their husbands, and in their old age, women must obey their sons. Confucian society is patrilinear. In classical Confucian society the birth rate was high to ensure a male hier. In contemporary Confucian societies where the birth rate is low and the technology available, female fetuses are often aborted. In South Korea today, six male children are born for every five female children. That is a quite succinct statement of the different value put on men and women in Confucian societies.

In Confucian societies, the authority of the father figure is extended to all those who are older. Just as the family is the model for the rest of society, the father is the model for authority in other institutions. In classical Confucianism, the highest duty of the emperor was to correctly align relations within his family. Like the father, older people were due respect and deference--not just senior citizens, but older brothers and sisters, older students, and older colleagues.

In contemporary Confucian societies age differences that would be irrelevant in western societies are crucial to ordering social relations. When I first taught English in Korea, I was surprised to find that within the first three or four questions people would ask me my age. What is your name?, Where are you from?, How old are you? was a typical sequence of questions at an introduction. In a Japanese company every employee knows who is his sempai (senior) and who is his koohai (junior). The rare situations where a superior position in the technical hierarchy are held by a younger man cause major social headaches for all parties because rules of proper social behavior are contradictory.

Confucianism also puts greater value on the group than the individual. The family, not the individual is put at the center of the philosophical system, and other social groups are treated as extensions of the family, in which the individual should subordinate herself to the many. One must be careful in applying this generalization because one can easily fall into the old western stereotype of soulless Asian ants with no individual identity. People in Confucian culture have their own individual identities, but they are more likely to subordinate their individual preferences to those of the group, and are more likely to be pressured into suppressing individual points of view that differ from the group. To take a mundane example, when I have gone out drinking with groups of Korean students, almost every time, all the students have drunk the same drink. In an individualistic American party, some would have beer, some would have wine, some would have cocktails, etc. But in Korean student drinking culture, it is more important to have the social solidarity of a shared drink than to meet everyone's individual tastes. The group is more important than the individual.

Education is another fundamental Confucian value. Most American educators who teach in a multi-ethnic environment know the superior academic performance of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean-American students. Confucius taught that the superior man cultivated himself through the pursuit of knowledge. The Chinese government recruited officials into the bureaucracy through a rigorous examination system that predates western civil service exams by almost two millenia. Today not only governments but also the East Asian conglomerates that permeate the global economy recruit through a competitive examination system that puts a premium on formal knowledge and prestige of educational institutions. Individual success in the Japanese and Korean economic systems is largely determined by passing exams, particularly company and university entrance exams. By western standards, Japanese and Korean children have a truncated youth. By the time they are teenagers they are immersed in "examination hell," studying to pass entrance exams to prestigious secondary schools so they will have a better chance at the all-important university and company entrance exams.

Confucian societies also manifest a high savings rate. Part of this high saving rate can be attributed to economic policy, but a large part must be attributed to cultural values. Confucius taught that the superior man was moderate in his appetites. More importantly in contemporary East Asian society, the family and sometimes the community act as a kind of informal credit union. Familism combined with the modern wage economy leads extended families to save and pool their resources for investments like starting small businesses or purchasing housing.

Contemporary Confucian societies have a powerful work ethic. When I taught night classes at Japanese companies, the salarymen not only worked until I arrived at 7 or 8 p.m., after an hour or more of English lesson they often went back to work. Classical Confucianism is not the source of the contemporary East Asian work ethic. Confucius made a radical separation between physical and mental labor and discouraged the superior man from undertaking mundane labor. But the contemporary East Asian work ethic and exam fever is clearly linked to a range of Confucian values. While Confucius himself did not extol ordinary labor, in the modern context, values like the desire to contribute to the family and advance its social position, obedience to the father and elder males, emphasis on cooperation within groups, and subordination of the individual to the group combine to produce a strong work ethic in companies and schools.

Probably the most important micro-level Confucian value for the study of democracy is the emphasis on cooperation and harmony and thus the avoidance of open conflict. In Confucian societies form generally takes precedence over substance. The quality of relationships are more important than rationality or efficiency. Formal etiquette and polite manners are highly valued. Philosophiclly, yin and yang, the two contrary forces of nature, are represented as halves of a circle, expressing monistic harmony rather than dualistic conflict. Of course, conflict exists in Confucian societies as in any human society, but it is expressed differently.

To take a mundane example, when I was working for a Japanese company, I proposed a project to my supervisor. He assured me it would be considered. After not hearing for a while, I had to bring the subject up again. He said it was under consideration and asked me to discuss it with his supervisor, which I did. After more time passed, I inquired again. I was told they were studying it but needed more information. Finally, I got the picture. The project was not going to happen. But nobody was ever going to directly tell me no. From what I could put together later, the proposal was discussed but never actually rejected.

Now such stories are also common in Western bureaucracies. However, this kind of avoidance of conflict or unpleasantness is much more frequent in Confucian cultures. Avoidance is perhaps the principle way of dealing with potential conflict. Moreover, not only do Japanese or Koreans avoid open conflict, the rarely even report unwanted information to superiors. At least in its official doctrines, Western culture celebrates honesty and open communication over avoidance of unpleasant situations. In western mythology, the king who killed the messenger who brought bad news is considered a fool. In Confucian society, the messenger who spoke bad news plainly would be considered a very impolite person. The person who spares his superior a confrontation with bad news or open conflict is a cultural model.


The implications for democratic politics of this cultural pattern of distaste for conflict are serious. Democracy is based on open expression and open confict. Of course, many western people also have a distaste for conflict and the principles of open expression and open conflict are often violated in practice. Even in the West, politicians or political parties that are perceived as too conflictual do not garner much support. But the Confucian values of harmony, cooperation, and avoidance of open conflict place much greater obstacles in the way of democratic practices and procedures.

IV. Confucianism and the Contemporary East Asian State

Confucianism has had a profound effect on the way East Asian individuals perceive and experience their lives. Neo-Confucianism has also had a profound effect on East Asian social and political institutions. Classical Confucianism has been largely discarded as a philosophy of government but the indirect effects of Confucianism on the organization of government and society are still massive. The Confucian cultural milieu interacts with the contemporary imperatives of modernization and globalization to shape East Asian society and government into their characteristic forms.

The influence of Confucian thinking can be seen today in structure of East Asian developmental state. It is important not to overstate the case, but some ways the East Asian developmental state described in Chapter ? is more like the classical Confucian state than the western, liberal state. The developmental state blurs the line between public and private so crucial to western liberalism but largely absent from classical Confucianism. The weak position of the new East Asian states in the Cold War era economic and security order led to the evolution of interventionist, developmental states in East Asia. But the soil in which the interventionist, developmental state grew had been plowed by Confucian culture, which not only placed few limits on the emperor's power, but more importantly, had little conception of any barriers between state and society.


The core Confucian value on the family which so profundly shapes the behavior of individuals also has macro social and political implications which might be characterized as partimonialism. The state and often the company are conceived of as one family and political and economic relations are often conceived of as similar to extended family relationships. The respect Confucianism demands for elder family members becomes expressed in the political and economic realms as deference to and dependence on political and corporate superiors. The mutual obligations of elder and younger family members are often translated into mutual obligations of senior and junior in the company or leader and led in the state. Political and corporate leaders are father figures and thus corporate careers and political influence are shaped by the closeness of the personal relationship to the patron. The effects of this patromonial conception of politics can be seen in a wide variety of political contexts, from the necessity of any large scale economic enterprise in Indonesia to have the sponsorship of Suharto or one of his close relations to the personalistic rather than ideological ties of the factions in Japanese political parties.

The patrimonialism of Confucianism, in contrast to the formal rational legalism of the West, leads to a lack of importance of law. Western philosophy generally calls for a government of laws, not men. However, Confucian philosophy has no such prescription, preferring instead to put its trust in the judgment of superior men. Families are rarely governed by law but rather by the relationships between members, and the Confucian state, conceived as an extended family, puts relationships above law. In ancient China Confucianism emerged as an explicit doctrine in contrast to the competing doctrine of legalism. In the Confucian tradition there are no analogs to the Law of God or the Word of God which in Western culture stood above human relationships and served as a precursor to human law that stands above personal relationships.

To the western mind it may seem paradoxical but at the same time Confucian culture promotes patromonial and personalistic politics, it also encourages bureaucracy. Large-scale, hierarchical bureaucracy was almost invented by the Chinese empire. Today a bureaucratic appartus that shapes economic markets is almost the defining characteristic of the East Asian developmental state. Recruitment and promotion within the bureaucracy through a process of examination was developed in China nearly two millenia before the western civil service system evolved. There are notable similarities between the bureaucratic systems of the Chinese empire and Max Weber's model of the rational-legal bureaucracies of the modern west. But there are also siginificant differences.

Classic Confucian bureaucracy and modern East Asian bureaucracies manifest a mix of meritocratic and patromonial elements. Confucian deference to age and position are often more important in East Asian bureaucracies in establishing the hierarchical ordering necessary for bureaucratic functioning than the rationalistic, legalistic authority of a western Weberian sense. In East Asia bureaucrats are more likely to carry out the wishes of their superiors not because they accept their rational, legal authority, but because it is the duty of good men to obey their elders.

Meritocracy fuses with non-rational personalistic and institutional affiliations in East Asian bureaucracies. The "exam hell" in which Japanese and Korean students compete from an early age for admission into elite middle schools, high schools, universities, and companies via stiff entrance exams is a direct extension of the exam system of the Chinese empire. On its face, this system is impersonal and meritocratic, based purely on performance. However the intense bonds and loyalties forged at schools and companies which are central to recruitment and promotion in both public and corporate bureaucracies are more tribal than rational-legal.

Competition in "exam hell" is so stiff because success at any level increases the probabilities for success at the next level, not primarily because entrance to better schools means better education, but more importantly because access to better schools mean the development of personal bonds and loyalties that translate into improved access at the next level. One need only look at the percentage of Japanese Cabinet members or Diet members who attended Tokyo University or the percentage of Korean cabinet or assembly members who attended Seoul National University to see how the process works. When Korean military dictator Chun Doo Hwan designated his classmate at military acadamy Ro Tae Woo as his successor it was only a highly visible example of the personalistic ties that permeate not only overtly political offices, but also bureaucratic and corporate structures in East Asian developmental states.

Contemporary Confucianist societies, whatever their modern, democratic overlay show a strong tendency toward a state dominated by a leading political party. Whether it was the socialist regimes of China, Vietnam and North Korea or the military states of Taiwan or South Korea, or the corporate state of Japan, one ruling party or faction has tended to dominate. Classical Confucianism demanded universal obedience to the emperor. It further subordinated everyone in the family to the father and elder brothers and every family to local patriarchs who were linked in a hierarchical chain which subordinated everyone to the emperor. Classical Confucianism left little room for organized, principled opposition. Harmony and subordination were stressed over principled conflict or individualism.

In the modern context, the hierarchy, bureaucratization, and emphasis on harmony of Confucian culture has reinforced political economic tendencies toward strong states which can respond to the vulnerable security and economic position of East Asian states in the international system and hegemonic parties which can guide the strong state in a coherent manner. The patrimonial nature of economic and bureaucratic structures has forestalled the development of strong opposition parties. Opposition parties have neither the ideological basis for principled disagreement with the leadership of the dominant party nor the ability to reward followers with the kind of patronage that the dominant party can dispense.

Again, it must be stressed that the Confucian legacy is not an inert force acting on East Asian societies, but a living, evolving part of the some of the most dynamic societies in the world. Classical Confucianism has been largely swept away, especially in the political arena. But a powerful legacy of values and modes of thought remain whose impact on contemporary Northeast Asian societies is hard to overestimate. Moreover, neo-Confucian doctrines are continually being synthesized as part of the strategies of relatively young states, parties, and social blocs to survive and prosper in the competitive global environment. More than a thousand years ago the adoption of classical Confucianism was a self-conscious strategy of national elites in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam to simultaneously strengthen their hold over their own people, unify diverse clans into nations, and develop institutions that would allow them to both compete with and accommodate their powerful Chinese neighbor. Contemporary neo-Confucianism is sometimes an unconscious inheritance, but just as often a self-conscious creation of contemporary national elites seeking to create modern nations with economic, political, and social values and institutions which will help them compete in global society.


Cultural differences between the West and East Asia should be seen holistically rather than as a series of isolated elements. The cultural difference between the West and East Asia is not one thing, but a cluster of things. Each element of Confucian political culture stressed here has some kind of correlate in western culture, just as each important element of western culture has some correlate in Confucian culture. But cumulatively the mix of beliefs, values, and institutions is truly different. Westerners and East Asians are all human beings, but they see their lives through different lenses. Both westerners and East Asians have families, but they experience their families in different ways. Both Westerners and East Asians have a heritage of patriarchy, but the demands of patriarchs are different in the two cultures, and the degree to which the culture has evolved alternative values differs enormously. Both the West and East Asia have bureacracies, but the organization and mission of their bureaucracies are distinct.

(Again, it must be emphasized that) political culture is not static but dynamic, that political culture is created, not just inherited. Cultural differences between East Asia and the West have been narrowing as the level of interaction between East Asia and the West has increased and East Asia has modernized. But as East Asians have experienced the confusion and dislocation of see their old traditions and historic identities erode, a reaction has also set in. New, syncretic ideologies about Asian identity in the modern world have arisen to challenge the equation of modernization with westernization. Increasingly, East Asians have come to believe that their economic success is based not on assimilating western values but on hewing to traditional Asian values.

It is hard to escape two basic facts. East Asians have a different culture and history than the West, and modernization requires a certain degree of convergence in societies. However in political culture perception is as important as reality. In political culture it really matters whether people think the cup is half empty or half full. It is crucial whether modern East Asians think of themselves a fundamentally different or fundamentally similar to modern Westerners. Political leaders like Ichiro Ozawa in Japan who wants Japan to become a "normal country" implicitly assume a universal, western model of development. Leaders like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore or Mohammed Mahathir of Malaysia who assert the superiority of Asian values explicitly assert that East Asians should celebrate their differences with the West. The final legacy of Confucianism to modern East Asians is yet to be determined.

V. Confucianism and Democracy

What is the relationship between Confucianism and democracy? Anyone seeking to pose a simple answer to this question should be reminded about how ideas about the relationship between Confucianism and modernization have changed over the course of the 20th century. For most of the century Max Weber's view that Confucianism was a major impediment to the modernization of East Asian nations prevailed. Weber argued that...

But in the last 20 years the rapid economic development of East Asia has encouraged revisionist thinking which emphasizes the contribution of Confucian values like xxx to the modernization process (Vogel, Chan).

Any philosophical tradition as complex as Confucianism is bound to have several different effects on a process as intricate as democratization. There are certainly elements of Confucianism that are hostile to traditional western concepts of democracy. The Confucian traditions of hierarchy, patriarchy, and patrimonialism are clearly contrary to democratic notions of equality. The Confucian emphasis on the family and the group contrasts with the western, democratic emphasis on the individual and personal autonomy. The intense personal loyalties within the family and group encouraged by Confucianism run counter to the formation of a democratic civic culture in which all citizens and their rights are highly valued. The Confucian emphasis on the judgment of superior men in government runs counter to the western emphasis on a government of laws rather than men. The interventionist state backed by the hegemonic party differs significantly with liberal, pluralist notions of open markets and an open marketplace of ideas with vigourous debate and open opposition. The Confucian emphasis on bureaucracy and meritocracy can seem elitist and anti-democratic.

*Confucianism and human rights

Although they are fewer in number and less remarked upon in the literature, there are also elements of Confucianism that are consistent with modern ideas of democracy. The Confucian concept that governments have a "mandate of heaven" that can be withdrawn if they do not serve the people well is a kind of analog to the western democratic notion of popular sovereignty. The Confucian institution of the censorial, in which the central government sent inspectors to review the conduct of local officials to ensure that their actions were proper and served the people is a kind of analog to western ideas of checks and balances within government. The very revivial of Confucianism and the creation of synthetic Neo-Confucianism is an expression of popular feelings of nationalism and demands for self-determination which are essential for democratic self-governance.

While the picture is somewhat mixed, there is little doubt that most of classical Confucianism is inconsistent with modern western ideas about democracy. Classical Confucianism is not at all about democracy nor can it be seen as any kind of early manifestation of democracy. Many elements of classical Confucianism fundamentally conflict with democratic principles. A few elements of classical Confucianism are consistent with or even supportive of democracy. Most elements of classical Confucianism can fit either autocratic or democratic systems. Confucian values can be mobilized to oppose democracy. Some elements can be modified to support democracy but they alone could never sustain a Confucian theory of democracy. Perhaps the best way to summarize the relationship between Confucianism and democracy is that Confucianism is not so much anti-democratic as non-democratic.

Yet that is not such a powerful indictment of the effect of Confucian traditions on the emergence of democracy in East Asia as it might seem at first. The West also has powerful cultural traditons which are essentially non-democratic. Traditional Christianity, especially traditional Catholicism, encouraged hierarchy, patriarchy, patrimonialism, and obedience to authority. All European states have a history of powerful bureaucracies and deep intervention into what is now thought of a the private sphere. Every western state has at times vigorously repressed political opposition. Almost all western states have at times manifested dominant political parties, or alternatively, duopolistic party systems. In the West as well as the East strong family and other particularistic ties have conflicted with the development of a true civic culture.

Everywhere on the globe, including in the West, democracy is a modern phenomenon which had to struggle to emerge from pre-modern, pre-democratic political cultures. Today western peoples can look back at their pre-modern traditions such as medieval Christianity and see how certain elements, such as the equality of men before God, contributed to the emergence of democratic values. But the fact is the preponderance of medieval Christian values were non-democratic or even anti-democratic. It is not clear that classical Confucianism is any more of an impediment to the emergence of democracy in East Asia than medieval Christianity was to the emergence of democracy in the West.