Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Confucian Filial Piety and Science in China

This essay will attempt to show that the Neo-Confucian ideal of the family structure and Confucian system of patriarchal domination, especially the practice of filial piety, in conjunction with the conservative approach with which Confucian practitioners take towards social change shaped the formation of scientific works and methods, and the public policies which govern them, within China prior to the European intervention into the empire.
For Confucius, the family structure is a key element for the social fabric and is the basis for the structure upon which society and politics should be built.  The family is a patrilineal institution: everything is built about the head of the household, the father.  In his Analects Confucius states on multiple occasions the importance of a three year mourning period upon the passing of one’s father
, the purpose of which is the recognition of the sacrifices made by the father in raising a son and to make certain that the proper respect is observed by others in the community.  He is not always so stringent on the length, however he believes that it is important the deed itself not be overlooked.  It is obvious in the reading of the Analects that Confucius has a strong feeling towards the conservative approach; he longs for the way things once were and stresses that, although the rites may be of an older generation, and many have been allowed to lapse, that the institution itself provides the strength for the continuation of a struggling society.  It is this particular belief, the conservative approach, which in a way limits the expansion of the sciences while at the same time reinforcing the specialization of the sciences.  By expansion it should be taken to mean the ‘exponential growth’ of the number of fields being under study, i.e. the steady increase seen in the ancient post-Pythagorean Mediterranean area.  Specialization should be understood as the opposite of expansion with enquiry into the specifics of one or a few fields and with limited or no derivation into other sciences.  Where expansion tends to focus on a blanketed approach to the sciences attempting to cover all bases, specialization tends to approach the science with a fine-toothed comb focusing solely on a singular issue.  Western historians would traditionally have classified the Chinese method of specialization as limiting the corpus of knowledge, however it is my belief that this technique is especially necessary for Chinese science and that Chinese science could not continue to exist and develop in an expansionistic environment due to social and political concerns.
China is the epitome of a bureaucratic society and has been developing as such since at least 200 B.C.E. (HSCI 3133 1/21/10).  One of the consequences of a highly bureaucratic society is that with political change comes sweeping changes in the bureaucracy: specifically that with changes in power structure, come changes in the policies.  “One of the most noticeable peculiarities of astronomical systems is the frequency with which the government changed the official one.  This in turn motivated astronomers, inside and outside the civil service, to design new ones in the hope that they would be adopted” (Sivin 40).  The bureaucracy encourages the specific, continued enquiry into an already perfected science in order to keep ones current position or improve upon it and greatly discourages treading into unknown territory in order to keep from looking as the black sheep among a flock of white.  Further, funding for scientific studies must often be obtained through assignment by the bureaucratic powers and as such tends to favor the more conservative, defined sciences.
The social structure is built in such a hierarchical manner that it would be impossible for a rapid expansion to occur.  In other words, the system prevents constructive, horizontal dialogue.  Scientists were often assigned to a patron- much like those in Medieval Europe, but without a central university system for the exchange of ideas- and would pass their discoveries or results upwards.  There would be little need or want for collaboration between scientists unless a competing scientist appeared within the sight of one’s patron.  This system necessarily limits the interchange of ideas because a patron does not want his competitors in the court system to receive an advantage in measurement.  Therefore the only method of development left in such a system is strictly vertical: a scientist would select an apprentice, likely an orphan because another’s son would be seen as the property of the father to not be independent until the father’s death, and require him to memorize and copy the traditional canon and to participate in the practice of the science at the time when the master felt the apprentice was ready.  The innovation in Chinese science stems from ‘building upon the past’ (HSCI 3313 1/21/10). 
How exactly is it that the bureaucracies and patronage systems work in as consequences of the Confucian philosophy?  In essence the Confucian family system is comprised of the father, or head of the household, followed by the wife, the eldest son, second eldest son, etc.  “Ideally the house sheltered ‘five generations under one roof’” and “…the patriarch had authority over all household members and controlled the patrimonial property” (Bray 93-94).  In other words, the household would contain a long lined succession of power, with a clearly defined structure of domination, and a single entity wielding ultimate and final decision over all others.  It is clear how this style is mimicked in any bureaucratic system, with a clearly defined structure of power and line of succession, with ultimate decision, especially in matters of dispute between equals, resting with the figurehead.  There are many reasons for why the father holds ultimate decision in matters of family and property, but most important are that the sons and other descendants owe the father for the years he has dedicated to raising them and that his many years of experience greatly outweigh any experience of his descendants.  He would not be expected to make a decision which did not favor his own son and as such should be held in the highest regard.  This devotion to father-figures carries over into the political realm of the emperor who should be seen as having only the best for the people in his decision making.  An emperors goal, much like a father’s, is to shape his nation so that it will govern itself effectively once he has gone.  According to Mencius, the greatest successor to Confucius, the virtuous ruler will go without food before allowing his own people to starve.  It is this ideal which is the basis for the entire Chinese patriarchic system both in the familial and political spectrums.  Furthermore, this type of bureaucratic system greatly limits the capacity for radical change due to its ingrained belief of the Mandate of Heaven.  In fact, the system has remained largely unchanged over the last 4000 years of Chinese history.  While the governments may change, the bureaucracy remains the same.  Even the great Communist revolution merely replaced an Imperial Dynasty with a political party, while the structure remained the same – although the constituents of the structure likely saw great turmoil.
A Chinese scientist is an artisan, unlike the European scientist who would abhor at that comparison and claim himself a philosopher; for the Chinese leave the philosophy to the monks and sages.  He does not seek to radically alter the ways which have been followed for many generations, merely to build upon the corpus of knowledge which already exists.  This is how the methods of specialization benefit China more so than the method of expansion.  By increasingly perfecting the specifics of the science, they adhere to and reinforce the Confucian ideals and conservative approach.

Works Cited
Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1986.
Moon, Suzanne. HSCI 3133. January 21, 2010. Class Notes.
Sivin, Nathan. Granting the Seasons: The Chinese Astronomical Reform of 1280. New York: Springer, 2009.

This article was originally written Februrary 14, 2010 for OU HSCI - East Asia Science and Technology.

No comments:

Post a Comment