Exploring Confucian values in modern society: Insights from Roger T. Ames

(chinadaily.com.cn)| Updated : 2024-07-10

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Editor's Note: The 10th Nishan Forum on World Civilizations is being held in Qufu, Shandong province, the hometown of Confucius, from July 10 to 11, aiming to promote traditional Chinese culture and strengthen international cultural exchanges and cooperation. China Daily is inviting experts and scholars in related fields to share their insights into Confucianism, traditional Chinese culture and the dialogue among various civilizations.


Roger T. Ames, preeminent sinologist and translator of classical Chinese philosophy, humanities chair professor at Peking University, and professor emeritus of Philosophy at University of Hawaii at Manoa. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

Q: How do you think Confucius' values contribute to modern civilization and cultural inheritance?

A: For me, the most important underlying values of Confucius are "和" (harmony),  "仁" (benevolence) , "义" (ritual), and "孝" (filial piety).

The "和" not only means "harmony", but an optimizing symbiosis (优化共生体系) that celebrates equity, which doesn't just mean equality but also means justice and diversity (和而不同); the "仁" is not altruistic "benevolence", but a recognition that if your neighbor does better, you do better (己欲立而立人); the "礼" not only means "ritual", but an aesthetic transformation of the human experience into something elegant and refined; the "孝" not only means "filial piety", but a recognition that familial affection is the primordial basis for the human experience, more fundamental than thinking or reasoning (亲亲or亲情).

Q: You have been dedicated to the study of Confucianism for many years. Which aspects of Confucian thought do you find most appealing? How have they influenced your perspectives on modern society and global cultural exchange?

A: Confucian philosophy provides an alternative to the ideology of individualism by recognizing the interdependence of everything in the human experience, grounded in the institution of the family. We cannot overestimate the importance of ancestral sacrifices (祭祀) as the source of the Chinese written language in oracle bone script (甲骨文) and the source of the basic moral vocabulary of Confucianism, such as righteousness (义), propriety (礼), and harmony (和). Confucian philosophy takes as its project the civilizing of the human experience.

Q: In the context of globalization, how do Confucian values integrate and interact with Western and other cultural values?

A: Confucianism from its earliest times has been adaptive, with the orthodoxy emerging through the synchronization of available cultural resources. It is a syncretic, hybridic, and evolutionary philosophy grounded in zoetology (生生论) rather than something permanent and unchanging ontology (本体论). China's great philosophers such as Li Zehou are all eclectic, combining Marxism, Confucianism, and Kantianism. This embodies the basic meaning of "和而不同" (harmony in diversity).

Q: The 10th Nishan Forum on World Civilizations is scheduled to be held in Qufu, Shandong from July 10 to 11 this year. Could you share your experiences and insights from previous forums?

A: I was part of the planning committee for the first Nishan Forum on World Civilizations many years ago. Nishan forum is important as a civilizational dialogue focusing on culture, shared histories, values, ideals and so on, rather than on economic and political issues. Such a dialogue is necessary to bring the different cultures of the world into conversation, and serves as a source of cultural collaboration and growth. In our time, it is important that the world come to know China and Chinese culture better than it does.

Q: What advice do you have for the younger generation to better understand and respect different cultures in the context of globalization?

A: Confucian philosophy is grounded in family and personal cultivation, the isomorphism between family, state, and the world that grows through education (家国天下同构 in Chinese). The Master said, "The young should be held in high esteem. After all, how do we know that those yet to come will not surpass our contemporaries? " (子曰:后生可畏,焉知来者之不如今也?) We must encourage the next generation to take advantage of all of world culture in shaping the new cultural order we need to extend the human experience.