The thin line between thought-provoking and misleading information

There are two reasons why this post is written in English. The first and more obvious reason is that I planned to reach a larger audience anyway by occasionally writing English posts on certain topics.  The second and maybe more subtle reason is that this post is a response to and quotes an article written in English. When I was in Shanghai earlier this year, I read an issue of Shanghai Daily, an English-language newspaper which caters mainly to foreign tourists and expatriates, but is also read by numerous Chinese students and learners of English. Hoping to find some quick information about the weather and an upcoming typhoon in Taiwan and southern China, I eventually came upon a provocative article on Confucianism. The article, written by German scholar and Peking University humanities lecturer Dr. Thorsten Pattberg, claims that European philosophy and education have failed to leave a positive impact on society and moves on to conclude that current European social development in a way resembles Confucianism.


Shanghai Confucius Temple

As I am far from being an expert, I may not be able to adequately judge the current influence of Confucianism on Chinese or any other Asian societies. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Confucian ethics as well as the so-called five bonds have deeply influenced the countries that today are the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. While not all marks Confucianism has left on these cultures may be seen as positive from a European standpoint, others, such as filial piety, the high value of education or the deep respect for teachers are certainly desirable. In his article, Dr. Pattberg stresses these aspects and tries to link them to recent changes in European cultures. Since most people in Europe have little to no knowledge about Confucianism, it is of course interesting to compare recent European developments to Confucian traditions, but in the end it is much more a mere coincidence than a conscious step to imitate Asian principles.  Therefore, the article’s title, “Confucianism by other names appeals in Europe” is more adequate than other sections of the text which postulate a “Confucian way of Europe”.

Confucius Taipei

Taipei Confucius Temple

What is really provocative about the article, though, is the way Dr. Pattberg depicts European culture and education, especially if one considers that a large part of his audience are Chinese students who may not know much about Europe. On a theoretical level, the article judges that Europeans have “never experienced a spiritual enlightenment such as Buddhism”. This non-individual use of the term enlightenment is very vague and can possibly be interpreted only as a reference to the influence of Buddhism on societies in Asia. From such a point of view and considering the fact that both Christianity and Judaism have deeply influenced every aspect of European culture, it could be said just as well that Europe also experienced its very own spiritual enlightenment. Later on in his article, Dr. Pattberg states that “not a single European philosophical system has stood against time” and thus devaluates European philosophy as a whole. On the contrary, if one takes a look at European philosophy as one continuous development, it is hard to find a single aspect of (post)modern European life which has not been thoroughly influenced by philosophy. This includes innumerable examples from Kantian ethics and human rights to today’s omnipresence of technocratic thinking fueled by the philosophies of Descartes and a number of 19th-century thinkers. Of course Confucianism may be more pragmatic and thus more visible than European philosophy, but this does not justify a devaluation of Europe’s traditions, especially not for someone educated in the humanities.

On a more practical level, Dr. Pattberg praises China’s unified education system and at the same time denounces the French and German education system. Apart from obvious flaws of the Chinese system that are not going to be discussed here, it has to be said that the article’s negative depiction of the aforementioned European systems is vastly exaggerated. Of course France’s Grandes Ecoles are in a way an “exclusive club”, but it could be argued just as well that earlier forms of education in France such as the Collège or the Lycée are perfectly democratic in the sense Dr. Pattberg states European systems are not. However, possibly the most provocative statement for someone working as a teacher in Germany is the article’s comparison of the German three-tier school system to India’s caste system. While the German system is of course debatable, it is by no means true that a student is condemned to a certain career or school type by birth, especially if one considers that it is relatively easy to change school types and pursue further education.

In the end, everything depends on the individual and cultural point of view. The cultural trait which Dr. Pattberg derogatorily calls “self-centered” from a Chinese point of view could be seen very positively as individualism and freedom from a European or, even more so, American point of view.  Of course provocative statements can be a good way to provoke not only outrage, but also thought and thus be useful to help intercultural understanding and realize that the right way to approach other cultures is neither idealization nor demonization. However, providing potentially inexperienced readers such as the Chinese students who read Shanghai Daily with exaggerated provocative or simply wrong information about a culture they are not familiar with may not be such a good idea after all.

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