Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search of humanity, connection, love, unity, harmony and beauty, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a team, community and people. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, accommodation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.
November 18, 2021
Understanding China: Geography and Confucianism
Five thousand years ago, a mature agricultural civilization was already formed in the Yellow River and Yangtze River basins in Eastern Asia, the Chinese civilization. The northeast of this civilization is cold Siberia, the north and northwest is the desolate Mongolia Desert, the west are the Tianshan Mountains and Kunlun Mountains with an average elevation of 5,000 meters, the southwest is the Himalayas known as the roof of the world，the south are the rugged Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and dense tropical jungles, and the southeast and east is the vast Pacific Ocean. These natural barriers, insurmountable in ancient times, cut off China's ties with the outside world. Protected by these barriers, the Yellow River and Yangtze River basins enjoy a warm climate and abundant rainfall suitable for agriculture. This unique geographical environment determines many characteristics of Chinese civilization.
Geographical barriers prevented the ancient Chinese from reaching out, allowing them to develop their own unique and exceptional culture. They also protected China from foreign aggression, making it the only civilization that lasted for five thousand years without interruption. The ancient Chinese thought that the land they lived in was the whole world, which they called “Tian Xia”, literally, “Under Haven”. The Yellow River and Yangtze River basins are located in the center of “Tian Xia”; thus, China is named “Zhong Guo”, or literally, “Central Country”. Richly endowed by nature, China is much more developed than the surrounding uncivilized lands. The gregarious Chinese peasants attached to their farmlands are not interested in exploring the outside world. They built the Great Wall to protect themselves from the harassments of the nomads from the desert. This 21,000-kilometer Wall, standing from east to west at the front of the 15-inch precipitation line, is the dividing line between agrarian life and nomadic life. The nomads who entered the Great Wall would be assimilated by the farming culture, and the Chinese who entered the nomadic areas would be assimilated by the nomadic culture. So Chinese civilization is the product of its geographical environment. The Chinese are proud of their culture because China has been the most prosperous and advanced country until the Industrial Revolution.
The closed geographical environment also caused their holistic worldview. (See Pluralism vs. Monism.) The Chinese world is not a pluralistic world composed of many sovereign countries, but a monist world with China being the only civilized empire under Heaven. The surrounding ethnic minorities are not countries on an equal footing with China, but vassals in the Chinese tributary system, many of which have been gradually Sinicized and become part of China. In 221 BC, Qin (pronounces Chin) completed the unification of China, established a centralized government, abolished enfeoffment, set up prefectures and counties, and unified writing system, currency, vehicle tracks, weights and measures. All Chinese dynasties after the Qin followed the Qin system. Although China has fallen into divisions many times, it all ended in reunification because that is the only way that matches their monist worldview and can bring lasting peace.
With that monist worldview comes the Confucian outlook on society, which, too, is holistic. The Da Tong society, or great unitary society, described in the Confucian classics is a society where people all care about the wellbeing of society as a whole, the wise and virtue are selected to govern, honest people live in harmony, the weak and sick are taken care of, and there is no evil and crime. It is the ideal society of the Chinese people. Unlike Western societies where individuals are deemed independent and autonomous, responsible only for their own interests and have no obligation to others, the Confucian society is like a big family where members rely on and cooperate with each other. They seek common ground and set aside differences, putting communal interests above personal interests. Confucianism regards human beings not as independent, autonomous beings but community members who are born into relationshis with roles to play and responsibilities to fulfil. They follow etiquettes designed to maintain social harmony, just like tango dancers need to observe the milonga codes in the milongas. These etiquettes were practiced by the West Zhou (Approximately eleventh century BC-771 BC) people. Confucius (551 BC-479 BC) and his disciples were the interpreters and advocates of these antique etiquettes.
This Da Tong society is a society for the people. A Confucian ruler is a guardian of the people from whom derive his just powers. "The ruler is the boat; the people are the water. Water can carry the boat, and water can overturn the boat." Said Confucius. Mencius (372 BC-289 BC), another Concucian sage, also said: "The people are the most important, the regime is the next, and the monarch is the least." Confucianism holds that the legitimacy of the ruler comes from the people. A regime that loses the mandate of the people is doomed to perish. The ruler, therefore, must have the people in mind. This people-oriented thinking has a profound influence on Chinese politics. Sun Yat-sen's Three People's Principles and the CCP's purpose of serving the people all originated from it.
Out of people-oriented thinking, Confucianism advocates that rulers should exercise benevolent governance. In Chinese politics there has been disputes on whether to use soft power or highhanded way to rule. Qin’s unification of China was achieved by using military force, severe penal laws and raw power. In 134 BC, Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty accepted the suggestion of the great Confucian Dong Zhongshu to replace other schools of thought with Confucianism exclusively and practice benevolent rule. Since then, Confucianism has become the orthodox in China. Confucianism opposed Legalists’ idea of using harsh punishments as the main means of ruling and advocated ruling by virtue and education, thus started the tradition of emphasizing morality and learning. In 587 AD, Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty established the imperial examination system, which combined the education system with the official selection system, further prompted Confucian leaning and the formation of the mandarin or bureaucrat class, the litetati. The imperial examination system lasted until 1905. China's modern civil servant selection system was developed from the imperial examination system. Many researchers believe that, compared with Western electoral democracy, China's meritocratic system is more capable of producing leaders with high ability and moral integrity, as attested by China’s amazing achievements over the past 40 years. In the past, the imperial examination system failed to prevent dynastic cycle. The Chinese try to fix that by political reforms such as establishing collective leadership, self-correction, discipline inspection, anti-corruption, mass supervision, age limit, term limit, impeachment procedures, etc., to improve their system and prevent it from becoming a dictatorship.
Also out of people-oriented thinking, Confucianism advocates equal distribution of wealth and opposes the practice of competing for monetary gains, using immoral means to accumulate wealth, and widening the discrepancy between the rich and the poor. Confucius said: “Rulers should not worry about not having enough but inequality.” This egalitarian moral view has encouraged rulers to exercise benevolent governance, but it also has caused the tendency of emphasizing morality over economy and agriculture over commerce. The CCP’s egalitarianist practice during the first thirty years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 reflects that tendency. To correct it, Deng Xiaoping proposed to let some people get rich first in the early stage of reform and opening up. Later, the Chinese government also introduced policies for poverty alleviation, common prosperity, and anti-monopoly, etc., carrying on the Confucian egalitarian ideal but giving new emphasis on economic development and leading the people on the path to common prosperity. (See Tango and Equality.)
Another Confucian thought that has a profound influence on the Chinese people is the Golden Mean. (See Meeting in the Middle.) Confucius believed that a gentleman should be humble and polite, moderate in words and deeds, impartial, and not go to extremes. The Golden Mean is regarded by the Confucians as the primary virtue of a gentleman. It must be pointed out, however, that these Confucian values are incompatible with Western liberalism and individualism. The Chinese’s lack of the arrogant, daring, rabid and aggressive spirit of many Westerners, Confucianism is probably to blame. The Chinese now have realized that both morality and personal freedom are important and neither should be neglected. Too much emphasis on morality will limit people's initiative and creativity. Too much emphasis on personal freedom will exacerbate conflicts and inequality. The balance between the two is crucial, but it is not easy to achieve. From the twelfth century onward Confucian ethics has been developed by Neo-Confucianists into rigid spiritual shackles that bound people. Western liberalism and individualism are the opposite extreme. The Chinese now are working to build a harmonious society with both social ethics and individual freedom.
The peaceful life of the Chinese finally came to an end. In 1840 the Western powers blasted open the door of China with warships and guns, forcing the Qing government to sign a series of unequal treaties for ceding territories and indemnities. Under such humiliation and the realization of the gap between China and the then already industrialized West, the Chinese began to look for ways to save their country. In the following seventy-nine years they tried the Westernization Movement, the Reformation Reform, the constitutional monarchy, and the Republican Revolution, all of which failed. In 1919, the May Fourth New Culture Movement broke out. Willing to try anything in a desperate situation, some Chinese blamed Confucianism for China's failure and proposed to bring it down and replace it with Western electoral democracy and capitalism. Other Chinese, also disappointed in Confucianism, turned to Marxism-Leninism and called for the establishment of a socialist China. In the end, the side that received the support of the people won. In the first thirty years after the founding of New China, the Chinese, while facing the Western blockade, tried to cross the river by feeling the stones and did many groundwork for future development, such as land reform, women's liberation, literacy education, industrial infrastruture, primitive accumulation of capital, etc. Many lessons were learned from trial and error. In 1978, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the CCP examined the achievements and mistakes of the previous thirty years, made the decision to reform and open up, and opened the door of China to the world.
You all know what has happened afterwards. In just 40 years, China has leaped from a poor and weak country to the world’s second largest economy, become the world’s largest manufacturing powerhouse, lifted 770 million people out of poverty, created the world’s largest middle class population with per capita income increased by 23 times compared with 1978, become the largest trading partner with more than 120 countries, and is playing an increasing role in international affairs. Unlike some Western powers who practice hegemonism, bullying, subversion and extreme pressure diplomacy, China’s diplomacy stands fast to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, namely, mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, along with China’s One Belt One Road initiative to build a community with a shared future for mankind. These foreign policies have obvious Confucian influence and are supported by more and more countries in the world.
These achievements rejuvenated the Chinese people's confidence in their own culture, which for thousands of years has been the source of strength for the Chinese nation. The core values of Chinese civilization were established by Confucianism, without these values there would be no socialism with Chinese characteristics. No doubt, Confucianism is a monument to the Chinese people's search for a development path that is uniquely Chinese. It embodies the collective wisdom of generations of Chinese people. It is not perfect and needs to be improved to meet the challenges of new times, but it is immortal because it lives in the language, culture, life, conducts, relationships and hearts of the Chinese people. It has been replenished, enriched, and tested by generations of Chinese, and will continue to have a profound impact on their quest for a better future.