I’ve heard that it was Confucianism that caused China to fall victim to Western Imperialism in the 19th century, and the reason Mao started the Cultural Revolution his last decade was to correct this imperfection.
However, I believe that the collective culture created in China by Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE)— considered one of the most influential emperors in Chinese history—is the reason that China’s civilization survived for thousands of years without suffering the fate of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The problem is not from Confucianism but a flaw in the way an element of Confucianism has been interpreted over the centuries. In fact, this flaw is buried so deep in the Chinese psyche that Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and the tragic Cultural Revolution were not stopped because of it.
There were powerful individuals in the Communist Party who did not agree with what Mao was doing but did not speak out when they could have. Some of those individuals even suffered during the Cultural Revolution but still kept silent due to the power of piety.
It wasn’t until after Mao’s death that those same people acted and Deng Xiaoping came to power stopping the madness of the Cultural Revolution.
To criticize an elder in China—even when that individual is power hungry, senile or maybe a bit crazy—is considered similar to Christian heresy during the Spanish Inquisition. Piety means elders must be treated with respect as if they can do no wrong. Is there a way to find a balance and fulfil the duty of filial piety?
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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