Canadian Tsinghua professor Daniel Bell tells City Weekend about China's Confucian revival and how it can explain why karaoke is so wildly popular in East Asia yet wildly embarrassing in the West.
Daniel Bell, author of China's New Confucianism, has held a position as a professor of political philosophy at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua university for 5 years. Originally from Montreal, Bell earned his PhD in communitarianism from Oxford, after which he taught in Singapore and Hong Kong. He recently gave a talk for his new book at Beijing's Garden Books.
City Weekend: What is the new Confucianism?
Daniel Bell: It's a reinvention of Confucianism meant to answer current needs in China. It promotes a sense of social responsibility to curb the recent rise of individualism and economic competition. It also involves the teaching of ethics to society at large.
CW: What are some examples of new Confucianism in modern Chinese society?
DB: The opening ceremony of the Olympics (which was approved by the government) was a clear example. Also, the new Confucius Institutes meant to promote Chinese language abroad, which are named for Confucius.
CW: With Confucianism's emphasis on duties to the family, is it incompatible with a sense of civic-mindedness?
DB: In Confucianism, ties begin in the family, but they don't end there. Ties are to some extent supposed to extend to those outside the family. But it's still a very important question--how to make it work in practice.
CW: What can the West learn from Confucian practices?
DB: Well, unless there is a huge crisis in the West, there won't be a widespread effort to learn from Confucianism. But treating elders with love and respect is certainly a value that deserves to be adopted.
CW: Confucius has been a large part of Chinese society for over 2,000 years. How many new Confucianisms have there been?
DB: That's a good question. It's constantly being reinterpreted. Most recently, people are finding that economic modernization leads people to be very competitive and individualistic. Confucianism, to a certain extent, is meant to remedy these problems. A Confucian view says that the good life lies in having rich social relations, and this can help counteract the problems of modernization.
CW: I was intrigued by the teaser in the description of your book that alluded to why karaoke is bundled with prostitution in China. Can you explain that?
DB: The basic idea is that singing is an important way of promoting harmony. Singing is also an important part of daily life in Korea and Japan, two countries that also have strong Confucian traditions.
CW: Exactly, in the West we think singing in public is one of the biggest ways to embarrass yourself.
DB: Right, well it could be that having a tonal language helps the Chinese become better singers, but at it's most basic level, singing is a way to promote harmony. The moral point of singing is not to sing well, but to promote harmony.
Daniel Bell's China's New Confucianism can be purchased at Beijing's Garden Books.
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