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Reviewed by:
  • New Essays in Chinese Philosophy
  • Michael R. Martin (bio)
Hsüeh-li Cheng , editor. New Essays in Chinese Philosophy. Asian Thought and Culture, vol. 28. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. xiii, 256 pp. Hardcover $48.95, ISBN 0-8204-2878-2.

This book contains fourteen papers from over one hundred presented at the Fifth International Conference of Chinese Philosophy held at the University of California, San Diego, in 1987. While each paper can be read on its own, the editor has arranged them in six groups in an effort to provide a sense of cohesion. The groupings may appear somewhat strained or arbitrary at times (at least two of the papers included under "Moral Sense and Moral Justification in Life," for example, might just as well have been among those on "Revitalizing and Reconstructing Chinese Philosophy"), but a strong point of the book is that several issues and themes do recur from time to time across the articles, with points of view varying just enough to give the reader a valuable added perspective. Indeed, several of the essays that might on their own appear overly scholastic or smug, come to life when read in the wider context.

In one of the most readable essays in the collection, Tai K. Oh discusses Confucianism in the context of the modernization of East Asian businesses. Oh gives a tough-minded account of Confucianism in terms of hierarchy, obligations, and formalities. Of the five Confucian cardinal relationships, four are hierarchical and only one a relation of equality. In the four hierarchical relationships, the roles of the subordinate are prescribed and the roles of the superior left more vague. Oh explains the proverbial Confucian harmonious social order starkly in terms "maintaining absolute loyalty and obedience to authority" (p. 82). This emphasis helps explain not only the vertical character of many Asian business organizations, he suggests, but also the alleged Confucian characteristic of exclusiveness in dealing with others.

The hierarchical structures are maintained by systems of obligation, particularly the obligations of the subordinate to the superior. The emperor or father figure or company chief all become unassailable. "In the society as whole, the lack of superior to subordinate obligations has led to dysfunction in some respects," Oh writes (p. 83), citing as results a sense of general distrust and a hostility that is repressed with respect to one's superiors but vented downward to subordinates. "The higher the authority, the more absolute it becomes. . . . The distrust that pervades Confucian organizations . . . produces highly self-centered, individualistic managers. . . . The main organizational method of motivation is fear, and strict and thorough control of employers" (ibid.).

Formalism enters in, too, through the socialization process by which individuals "learn the stylized responses appropriate to every situation. Individuals are [End Page 404] judged entirely by the way they fit into the prescribed patterns for interpersonal relations. Being polite means adhering to the prescribed formal model, and is the principal measure of one's virtue" (p. 84). Being caught out, in this context, results in feelings of shame and loss of face, "the ultimate social disaster in East Asian society" (ibid.). The ritualistic patterns make communication difficult and in extreme cases lead to double standards, deception, and hypocrisy.

While defenders of Confucius may feel that Oh goes too far or paints too stereotyped a picture, many a liberal working in any number of Asian organizations will recognize what Oh is writing about, whether his descriptions reflect an ideal Confucianism or not. Oh himself seems to regard the nature of Confucianism as clear and settled, and does not take up the question of whether Confucianism might be reinterpreted or advanced somehow to meet the objections implicit in some of his more provocative descriptions. (He mentions Japan as avoiding some of the excesses of hierarchical organization in Korea and China, but gives little sense of how far modifications might be taken and still count as Confucian.)

On the narrower question of whether Confucianism is good or bad for business, Oh is somewhat ambivalent. One can think of motivation by fear, self-centered managers, ritualistic patterns of communication, and so on as negative things harmful to good management and business success, but are they...


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pp. 404-407
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