The Karaoke Classics

A view from inside China’s Confucian revival.

How do China’s classical philosophy of Confucianism and the contemporary popular pastime of karaoke group singing go together? And why might this be interesting to Canadians? Read China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society and you will find out. In nine substantive chapters and two appendices, Daniel A. Bell delivers on his promise “to uncover and explore distinctive and deep aspects of Chinese culture” in their “contemporary manifestations.” His politics are clear: a rising China needs to be understood by the world’s western powers and an appreciation of the Confucian realities of what is often referred to as communist China will help defuse misunderstandings and the dangers of unnecessary conflict between Us and Them.

Bell, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, works to foster this mutual understanding from a particular standpoint: he is a Montreal-born and western-trained political theorist, with humanist and communitarian leanings, who speaks on the basis of his professional experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and now Beijing “as a teacher and self-styled Confucian educator.”

Taken alone, this self-identification is somewhat vague: what is it to be a Confucian today? Confucius’s avowed followers since the sixth century BCE have been surprisingly varied, ranging from the Han Dynasty syncretist Dong Zhongshu to contemporary Harvard philosopher and “New Confucian” Tu Weiming. But almost all take seriously some fundamental tenets of classical Confucianism: the relational nature of all ethical decisions (the idea that ethical obligations to others vary, depending on one’s relationship to them—as parent, child, in-law, teacher, student and on and on), the principle of civilizing passions rather than suppressing them and the centrality of family and filial piety (care of parents, deference to elders), as well as political ethics that accept hierarchy based on educational merit and stress the state’s responsibility not to guarantee liberty but subsistence.

Daniel Bell’s book speaks to the endurance of these classical ideas, with his goal to show that there has been a profound and pervasive Chinese “revival of the Confucian tradition in politics and everyday life.” Focusing particularly on the country’s growing urban middle class, he offers a mix of personal narrative and more theoretical arguments. These cover three broad topic areas of interest to general readers wondering what on earth is really going on in China today: politics (domestic and foreign policy), society (family, work, labour relations, popular culture, and—in 2008—sport and the Olympics) and education (on the nature of critical thinking, teaching political theory in China and this new Confucianism).

Bell’s approach is resolutely iconoclastic and, he claims, Confucian. He aims to entertain and instruct, but he also aims if not to offend then at least to chide western academic and cultural presumptions. This is the job of the Confucian educator, he says: “the task of the morally committed individual is to resist the excesses of the dominant [intellectual/cultural] fashion in order to bring things into balance.” So, those who are sure proper scholarship should be “objective” (or at least safely harnessed in abstract theoretical frameworks) and who embrace ideas of modernity (or the Good) that include the sanctity of individual rights, electoral democracy and contractual protection of labour, along with the perniciousness of prostitution—be prepared for rebalancing.

Bell’s approach comes together in his spirited treatment of the recent Chinese karaoke boom, hardly the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Confucianism. But he connects this trend with Confucius’s advocacy of music and the relationship-building effect of singing together. True to his claim in a later chapter that “Confucians Needn’t Be Old, Serious and Conservative,” Bell then goes on to defend the parallel rise of a new form of prostitution, in which karaoke hostesses charge clients for sexual favours between songs. He explicitly engages the questions that leapt to my mind: Is this bad for women? Bad for the family? Is it moral? His answers are relativistic and pragmatic, much like his reading of classical Confucianism. He is less concerned with abstract virtue and more concerned with actual relationships and their social consequences. He makes a reasonable argument for a form of prostitution that builds something more than a cash nexus in the sex trade, constrains passions with the sociability of group singing and limits extra-marital sex to time-limited engagements (contrasted to affairs with co-workers or others that may compete with the marriage, and therefore family, bond).

Not my conventional, Fung Yu-lan understanding of Confucianism. Nonetheless, Bell makes a compelling case that such views can be argued from the tradition’s fundamentals. He notes, for example, that in the early 20th century, Confucian philosopher Kang Youwei proposed the idea of annual marriage contracts between two men and two women. Despite any drawbacks of that particular proposal, Bell ultimately argues, “one way of civilizing the sexual urge is to legalize alternative forms of marriage involving more than two persons … The idea of monogamy stems from Judeo-Christian values and societies with different cultural heritages need not be bound by such ideas.”

This startling conclusion captures Bell’s appropriation of Confucianism and his approach to explaining contemporary China. He makes a similarly challenging assessment of democracy’s prospects there: don’t hold your breath. Bell maintains that most government officials and intellectual elites in today’s China would instead endorse something like “a strong, meritocratically chosen legislature that would have constitutional priority over the democratically elected house.” Furthermore, he argues that a meritocratic legislature selected by Confucian exams would probably be a better arbiter of the public good than standard democracy (or, to be fair, than the communist party’s authoritarian rule). If sex is okay in Bell’s Confucianism, so is elitism. In this he is on solid ground so far as the classics are concerned.

His application of this Confucian approach to the contemporary polity is, if nothing else, arresting. What I find astonishing is the Maoist resonance to Bell’s description of the role of a Confucian lower house: “the national democratic legislature’s main function is to transmit the people’s (relatively uninformed) preferences to the meritocratic house.” The parallel of part of this ideal-form to Mao’s “mass line” is obvious to those familiar with the history of the Communist Party of China. “From the masses, to the masses,” said Mao, although in his case the meritocratic elites intended to both learn from and lead the common people were communist party cadres and not Confucians.1

But Bell’s proposal is far more interesting than this partial parallel. Indeed, the resonance with Maoism underscores how Confucian Mao’s sinified version of Marxism-Leninism was, as much as it raises an ironic continuity with Mao’s mass line politics.2 And Bell’s challenge to most westerners remains clear:

“Should we complain just because [the proposed Confucian] system doesn’t satisfy our ideas about democratic rule, or should we allow for the possibility that there are morally legitimate, if not superior, alternatives to Western-style liberal democracy?”

This is as much a rehearsal of the classicist’s debate with the modernists as a Confucian confrontation with liberal or socialist ideologies. But whether discussing sexual or national politics, Bell offers a sympathetic, nuanced approach to China that counsels tolerance and reason, informing the general reader reliably and concretely about the significance of Confucian ideas in China today. This is a helpful counterbalance to breathless journalistic accounts that either anticipate electoral democracy around the corner or lament pervasive state repression. Indeed, both electoral experiments and official suppression of dissidents occur in China, but the vibrant, diverse urban population that Bell documents is part of the mix, and a disproportionately important one, as it includes the intellectuals and the financial middle class.

Bell cannot cover everything, of course. Readers will not get a literature review of studies on Confucianism in the 20th-century or post-Mao People’s Republic of China, nor will they get much sense of contemporary discussion. For that story, readers will have to turn elsewhere.3 Yet Bell’s broad characterization of the varieties of Confucianism in China today seems to me accurate and helpful for his purposes: apolitical (“be good”), state-endorsed (“be obedient”) and left-communitarian (“be a gadfly”). The book’s two very useful appendices expand briefly on the first and the third varieties, but Bell leaves the presentation and defence of the second to your local Confucius Institute.4

Since Bell is employed in China, it is hard for him to address the conflict between the left-communitarian Confucianism he supports and the “be obedient” version that Beijing authorities prefer; the danger of new Confucianism supporting repressive government is a topic he does not address directly. Nevertheless, his views are clear in his trenchant criticism of former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kwan-yu’s Confucian authoritarianism.

Sometimes I think Bell goes wrong, as in his presentation of the contemporary ideological scene in Beijing. His section on “The End of Ideology” really describes the end of Marxist orthodoxy, which is certainly true. But Mao Zedong thought is something different, and more persistent. I fully believe that most of the professors and students Bell works with do not even mention Mao, but that is not the same thing as the end of ideology. That most people in China do not believe the latest pronouncements from the CCP and probably cannot enumerate the “Three Represents”—the principles at the core of the party to advance social productive forces, culture and the interests of the majority—does not mean that the positive values (that is, explicit norms) of Maoism and, more so, the ways of thinking and reasoning from decades of Maoist study are dead. From labour demonstrations to intellectual debates on agricultural problems, Mao’s example, Maoist goals and Maoist ways of making a point continue to appear (for better or worse) across China.5 Rather than the death of ideology, I see the death of orthodoxy, with the resultant pluralization of ideologies in contemporary social and intellectual life. The Confucian reawakening that Bell documents is certainly occurring, but along with a revival of Chinese liberalism amongst the intellectual elite, all blending with remaining habits and hopes from Mao’s China.

China’s New Confucianism is also important for its contribution to a refreshing reversal of the direction of China studies. Bell is not unusual in taking the stand of a sympathetic foreigner offering his suggestions for China, but he makes Confucianism part of his analytical method and not just the object of his analysis. Many Chinese intellectuals use the ideas of Habermas, von Hayek or Weber, but few anglophone intellectuals use those of Confucius, Mencius or Xunzi.6 Bell thinks we should, and not just for studying China. I agree.

Of course, Bell is not the first to make this argument, nor does he claim to be. He follows in the footsteps of Roger Ames and Henry J. Rosemont Jr. (whose translation of Confucius’s Analects he uses in this book). Bell’s book most reminds me of Rosemont’s challenging A Chinese Mirror: Moral Reflections on Political Economy and Society, whose left-communitarian reading of American life uses Confucian thought to critique the faults of contemporary commercial society. Likewise, Bell presents Confucianism as a developmental political philosophy of community and basic social justice that balances private (conservative) and public (progressive) good. He knows western philosophers have wrestled with these issues (his first book was on western political theory), but he is inviting us to include Confucian thought substantively in this conversation. If we do, it will change the conversation in ways that promise to build one bridge, at least, between people of good will in China and western societies.

Of course, such readings of Confucian political philosophy by Bell or Ames or Rosemont do what Chinese (or sinophone) readings of liberal philosophy or critical theory do: they change the use of the borrowed ideas as they are brought into the target conversation. Gloria Davies has demonstrated that critical theorists in China—such as Gang Yang and Wang Hui—use post-modern theory in ways that western critical theorists would not and that critical theorists outside China do not find interesting. This is largely because sinophone discourse takes a decidedly non–post-modern stance, assuming truth can be known and that theoretical interventions are about showing personal moral qualities that will qualify the disputant to lead others in the search for correct theory. Chinese theorists make these assumptions because they make sense to that discourse community, and yet they find it useful to bring in ideas such as “civil society,” “public sphere” and “discourse analysis” to enrich and extend the Confucian and Maoist strains in their talk. In a similar way, we must assume that we westerners (anglophone, francophone or other) will “distort” Confucian concepts such as filial piety, ren (humanity and relational ethics) and junzi (the exemplary person) in similar ways. Bell’s stress on the most appropriate form of legislature is a case in point: he spends much more time on issues of political representation than most Chinese thinkers because republican government (and its woes) is on our minds.

I am much more comfortable debating civil society or filial piety in print than I am applying Confucian ethics to labour arrangements for my domestic help or—save me—exploring karaoke, as Bell does. I am a proper, lettered sinologist with a reputation to consider; personal information in a professional context is just too much information—except, as a historian, I believe what E.H. Carr admonished years ago: when reading history, study the historian first. So Bell’s self-revelations nag; they are kind of interesting and do help me see where he’s coming from. They also reflect his cheerful and slightly self-mocking challenge to China specialists: Confucius says the political (and professional) is personal. What are you going to do about it? Well, I know what I am going to do. The next time I’m in Beijing I am going to look Daniel Bell up—and maybe invite him to karaoke.

  1. The locus classicus of Mao’s thinking on the “mass line” is his 1943 “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership,” reproduced in the third volume of the Selected Works of Mao Tse tung (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1965).  

  2. Stuart Schram has noted the parallels and debts in Maoism to Confucianism, albeit with fundamental differences, in The Thought of Mao Tse tung (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).  

  3. A good place to start is Contemporary Chinese Philosophy, edited by Chung-ying Cheng and Nicholas Bunnin (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), especially its afterword on contemporary trends, and Benjamin Elman’s Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002).  

  4. An excellent, short policy analysis of the China’s Confucius Institutes is given in Xiaolin Guo’s Repackaging Confucius: PRC Public Diplomacy and the Rise of Soft Power (Stockholm: Institute for Security and Development, 2008) and available at  

  5. See Re envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China, edited by Ching Kwan Lee (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).  

  6. For a vivid portrayal of the sinophone discourse that uses western liberal and critical theory, see Worrying About China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry by Gloria Davies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).