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  • Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective
  • Sor-Hoon Tan (bio)
Wm. Theodore de Bary . Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. 196 pp. Hardcover, $27.95, ISBN 0–674–04955–1.

The problem of human rights is not one of "individualistic West" versus "communitarian Asia." Drawing on the thoughts of key Confucian thinkers and aspects of Chinese history, Wm. Theodore de Bary, in Asian Values and Human Rights, rejects any claim that modern human rights conceptions are exclusively Western, culture bound, and inapplicable to China or the rest of Asia, and that communitarianism in China (or Asia) can be identified with the authoritarian state.

Central to the recent association of Confucianism with authoritarianism is the concept of "Asian values," which is problematic, given the cultural diversity of Asia. According to de Bary, the most likely source for the concept of "Asian values" is Singapore, and "the further identification of the Asian model of development with Confucianism, an idea that could only have come from Singapore itself." In a recent (December 1998) program on CNN, Singapore's Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew—often portrayed as the chief promoter of "Asian values"—acknowledged [End Page 421] the great diversity of cultures in Asia and denied that he had used the term "Asian values," let alone identified it with Confucian values. To be fair to the many Asians who have played some part in the human-rights discourse, a closer examination of the relevant literature, both academic and nonacademic, is required, and more convincing evidence (than a New York Times report) for the attribution of views should be included, at least in the footnotes, of this new book.

The over-simplification in the introductory discussion is more than compensated for by the excellence of the main body of the work, in which discussions are much more nuanced and both textual and historical evidence employed persuasively. De Bary's rejection of any attempts to interpret Confucianism as "statist" by offering an alternative account of Confucian communitarianism, locating it in social institutions mediating between the family and the state, deserves serious attention.

While the concept of a radically free-standing, autonomous individual is foreign to Confucianism, individual persons are not subordinated to the group and established authority. The central Confucian tenet of self-cultivation affirms the worth and dignity of the person, as a self shaped and formed in the context of a given cultural tradition, its own community, and the natural environment to reach full personhood. The Confucian position favors neither self nor society, but looks for a balanced relation between the two.

Introducing Confucianism into the human-rights discourse requires thinking first in terms of "rites" and only secondarily in terms of laws. Though Confucius has been viewed as distrusting the law and putting his faith in the power of virtuous example, de Bary argues that personal virtue and social institutions are mutually implicated. Rites are fundamental institutions, each "a basic constitutional order" that is an essential correlate of virtue. The problem for those defending a Confucian view of human rights lies in the weakness of institutions that are intermediary between the family and the state—rendering Confucianism vulnerable to a "statist" conception of community, in contrast to a participatory community or consensual law. The dominance of the state in imperial China has periodically been challenged by the Confucian tradition. In the history of community schools and community compacts, we can see brave, though unfortunately unsuccessful, attempts by Confucian thinkers to develop a civil society mediating between family and state.

De Bary examines the teachings of prominent Confucians like Mencius and Zhu Xi with regard to the aim, curriculum, and setup of schools. A key intention of Zhu Xi and other Confucians was that education should "bridge the gap between local autonomy and central authority." This intention was ultimately frustrated. Efforts in the Song dynasty to establish a country-wide school system proved fruitless. Community schools were set up in the Yuan dynasty, but declined [End Page 422] during the Ming despite an initial increase in their number. General education became bifurcated: elite schools at the county level were oriented toward...


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