Cultural Diplomacy News (CDN)
Dr. Christian Soffel (Professor of Asian Studies, Ludwig Maximilians University; Germany) & Dr. Du Lun (Chair, Deutsche Konfuzianische Gesellschaft)

16.09.2011 - Interview conducted by Sai Yang & Hilary Au Yeung Skek Ling

Q) Prof. Soffel, it seems as if there is a misunderstanding in many parts of world with regard to Confucianism; namely that it seen as a religion. Do you think this is because of some sort of communication breakdown, or that Western people simply see Confucianism in China in the same way they view Christianity in Western Culture? How do you think we can adjust this idea of religion-oriented approach in understanding Confucianism?

A) Prof. Soffel: Actually, it is really debatable as to whether Confucianism is a religion or not. Regardless of whether people are speaking from within China or indeed western countries, many have identified many elements of religion in Confucianism: there are organizations; one classic scripture; and some temples for Confucianism. Therefore, if we want to discuss this question, we have to go back to the question of what the definition of religion is. Basically, we found that many people in China, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan, believe in the basic concepts of Confucianism alongside their own religions, without collision or contradiction. Don’t ask whether Confucianism is a religion or not; what is important is to strengthen of ideas of Confucianism. You can be both a Confucian and a Buddhist or a Christian at the same time without any trouble.

Q) Would you agree that many Western people confuse, or at least associate, Confucianism as a religion or ideology entangled with Maoism or Marxism, and therefore view Confucius Institutes somewhat suspiciously?

A) Prof. Soffel: I think it is a mistake of the Chinese government, or at least a misguided judgment, by allowing Confucius Institutes to be too easily interpreted in this misleading way. In fact, if you do the research carefully, you will find that the content of lectures taught in Confucius Institutes have nothing to do with Confucianism. Most of the courses are language classes. Therefore, it would be better to choose another name, rather than Confucius. If we compare, for example with the Goethe Institute, it is noticeable that Goethe was not a religious leader, but a writer without too many religious ideas. In this sense, we could identify Lu Xun as a Chinese equivalent. We call it the Goethe Institute, rather than “Christianity Institute” or “Martin Luther Institute”.

Q) But most people in China regard Confucianism as a kind of concept, or lifestyle; they wouldn’t think religious elements within Confucianism is that strong. For example, there are really few Confucianism temples in China and people rarely go there.

A) Dr. Du Lun: It doesn’t matter that westerners regard Confucianism as a religion. There is no doubt that there are religious elements in Confucianism. For example, the idea of “heaven” (or “tian” in Chinese) is indispensable in Confucianism. Without the religious or transcendental elements, Confucianism couldn’t really be very profound. As such, we view Confucianism in a synthesized way; it is political, philosophical, as well as religious. Of course, the religious organization in this context is different from that of in western culture. In Chinese society, especially folk culture, there are many rituals similar to religious ones, but they are different from Confucianism. As we said today, we have to have different perspectives in viewing Confucianism, such as political Confucianism, neo-Confucianism, Confucianism as a big tradition, as well as small tradition, which is also taken as the Confucianism among ordinary people in folk culture.

Prof. Soffel: I think the reason why some Germans are sceptical of Confucius Institutes, is the suspicion that they are involved with, and backed by, communist ideologies and organizations in the name of Confucius. There is a fear that the notion of dictatorships and other political ideologies will be appraised and disseminated under the pretence of the Confucius Institute.

Dr. Du Lun: We should have mutual understanding. The biggest difference between our organization (Deutsche Konfuzianische Gesellschaft e.V.) and Confucius Institute is that we study Confucianism and hope to understand each other among different cultures. It is not a matter of trying to influence another culture.

Prof. Soffel: I don’t think that Germans afraid of the dissemination of Chinese culture, it is rather the fear (perhaps) of ideas of Communism and absolutism. They are afraid that the Confucius Institute will teach absolutism in the name of Chinese culture. Germans are quite sensitive about absolutism with its historical background.

Q) There are a growing number of Confucius Institutes in Europe. Do you think they can be as successful as other language and cultural institutes such as the British Council, Alliance Françoise?

A) Prof. Soffel: They are quite successful at present. There are many Confucius Institutes founded in many places, and this is important for China since their ‘soft power’ is seen to be quite lacking at present. However, it is very difficult for China to use soft power to influence other countries, because China is a country with political dictatorship, which is the crucial problem. Meanwhile, the strong idea of patriotism, as we mentioned many times, also matters.

Q) So the political system in China directly affects the development of the Confucius Institute?

A) Prof. Soffel: We cannot change the ideology. We cannot change the ideology in Germany to accept absolutism and patriotism. It is absolutely impossible. I am not trying to judge which one is good or not, but it is really impossible to move on. I think it would take two or three hundred years to change the situation.
Q) OK, but can we say that there are still many people in Europe who have a misunderstanding about China because of the country’s political system?

A) Dr. Du Lun: Of course there is certain misunderstanding, but in China there is also a misunderstanding of Europe, since our image of other cultures is influenced by our own culture. As for soft power, this is something that cannot be simply ‘created’ intentionally and artificially; we can simply refer to soft power in terms of the attitude of others. If others think your culture is good and attractive, as Joseph Nye puts it, this is where the soft power lies. We cannot make soft power by ourselves.

Q) With the rise of Chinese economic power recently, more and more Western countries have started to learn, or at least know something, about China. Can we therefore say that economic power is the base of all the other powers - including ‘soft power’?

A) Prof. Soffel: From the Chinese perspective, I think its biggest issue is its lack of self-confidence. I have been to China many times and communicated with local people there; although the economic power in China is rising, the confidence of Chinese people isn’t. I think the self-confidence will eventually come, but maybe one or two generations after the rise of power. In thirty to fifty years, the Chinese people will have a healthy self-confidence and won’t feel the need to try very hard to gain recognition and acceptance from other cultures. It really takes time, but it can happen in the future.

Dr. Du Lun: I don’t agree so much with Dr. Soffel. The lack of self-confidence is obvious. However, because of economic growth, many people go to another extreme of being too arrogant, which should also be avoided.

Prof. Soffel: I think that the arrogance of Chinese people is superficial; they actually feel inferiority. With the huge population in China, the situation in China is quite complicated. The conflicts between the diverse nationalities, the historical burden, and all kinds of domestic problems all contribute to the sense of inferiority of contemporary Chinese people.

Dr. Du Lun: Have you heard of Gan Yang, who studied in the United States for a long time and then went back to teach in Hong Kong University and Sun Yat-Sen University? He appeals to the Chinese people to redefine themselves and think about western culture in contemporary Chinese cultural context, as well as Chinese culture. We started to accept western culture about one hundred years ago, when the situation in China was quite different from now. Meanwhile, we have to re-understand our own culture, which is quite crucial for us, since many people still hold the old idea of Chinese.

Prof. Soffel: In any case, we should not be too pessimistic. It will be much easier for your generation than my generation, with the convenience of communication and travel. In my time in 1970s and 1980s, travelling to China was not that difficult but there was no Internet and was nowhere near as convenient as it is now. Therefore, I am quite optimistic about the future exchange of Chinese culture with other cultures.
Dr Du Lun: We should learn about our own culture better, and use it as the basis from which we can learn about western culture. On the other hand, we should not feel so arrogant. Each country and culture is equal. As the globalization moves on, we should pay more attention to diversity, which is the basis of harmony. As Confucius puts it, “the gentleman aims at harmony, and not at uniformity. The mean man aims at uniformity and not at harmony”. In other words, we won’t appreciate a symphony if the orchestra was comprised of all the same instruments, all playing the same music.

Q) Do you think it is temporarily impossible, or at least very hard, to export Chinese culture in global context? If so, how can this situation be improved?

A) Prof. Soffel: I think it takes time. For example, if you want to export Chinese culture in Europe, you should leave out all the sensitive issues. The Deutsche Konfuzianische Gesellschaft, for example, disseminates Confucianism without any relationship with Chinese government, or indeed any other governments.

Dr. Du Lun: The goal of our organization is not to disseminate, but to have mutual understanding of each other. If we want to help the Europeans understand Chinese culture, we shouldn’t try to disseminate or persuade people.

Prof. Soffel: Yeah, that’s also my idea. We just want to understand Chinese culture; we are not persuading people to accept it. That’s our basic principle. It’s worth remembering that many Chinese people have a prejudice of European people. For example, many still associate Europeans with the strongly disseminated religious ideas of the 17th, 18th and 19th century.

Q) Can we say, then, that if China seeks a greater understanding of Chinese culture in the West, political background and controversial elements should be kept away?

A) Prod. Soffel: Yes, and the patriotism in China also. I know it is quite difficult; this is part of the education of contemporary China. The idea of patriotism is quite new - it started from around the 18th century in Europe, with the rise of nations. In China we can say it started in about the 19th century - one hundred years later than Europe. When Europe (at least partially) rejected this era of patriotism following the two world wars, China did not. Maybe China needs patriotism for its current development, and I am not saying that patriotism is necessarily a bad thing, but if they really want cultural understanding in the West, they will have to scale down their patriotism. 

Dr. Du Lun: Take Olympic games as an example; we can see clearly that there is big difference in the way in which China and the United Kingdom host this global event. I talked with a professor who studied politics in China; he insisted that patriotism is a necessity for current Chinese society and the development. In twenty years, if China has the chance to hold Olympic games again, the government would do it in the British way rather than the then Chinese way. China won’t be so urgently in need of global recognition and acceptance in twenty years when it is strong enough. It is the reflection of China’s lack of confidence.