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The Misconception of Confucianism in Asian Culture

Dr. Manfred Osten

HENN Akademie, October 15, 2009

Today in China Confucianism is again official doctrine, after having been opposed and banned under Mao Tse Tung during the Cultural Revolution. In the meantime, ten Confucius institutes in Germany are now particularly promoting the learning of Chinese. 140 German grammar schools are now offering Chinese and by 2015 at least 100 million people in Europe should speak the language. We can get a glimpse of the programme of Sinisisation though the language, which for the western world is associated with challenges, of which we are, as yet, barely aware. This applies in particular to an area, which we can summarise as ‘know-how’ and in which it becomes apparent what intellectual capital the Chinese possess: error culture, social behaviour geared towards politeness and gratitude and the cognitive principles of the Chinese language form a unique context of life-long learning.

Confucian error culture is a positive error culture, whilst the western one is negative. The west has developed mechanisms for not perceiving and for suppressing errors. Added to this is the fact that the occurrence of errors engenders a reflex response of looking for the guilty party, whilst error analysis itself is delayed. Their sources include a guilt culture of Christian origin, as well as the reason-orientated, logocentric picture of the world and people of the European Enlightenment, which promotes a perfectionist, zero error attitude, which is geared towards good and correct, true and false.  Indeed, this has helped the natural and engineering sciences to achieve great success. In my view, the understanding of non-linear processes keeps this attitude within limits; the same applies to our distinct hierarchies. Complex processes, of which climate or the financial crisis are part, have consequences, which are increasingly beyond our cognitive and prognostic skill. More and more relevant information is failing to reach the functional elites. Added to this is the current erosion of our memorial culture, which obstructs access to the error archive of the past – and this, in a situation where error susceptibility is increasing.

Confucian error culture goes back to rice grower culture, which is based on the family collective, the giving and taking of water and the immediate recognition of errors. Everything is geared towards preserving the fundamentals of existence. Forms of behaviour imparted by Confucian education, which are sometimes difficult for us to understand – for example, the willingness constantly to apologise for errors which are barely noticed – serve to develop collective intelligence and social skills. The latter includes great frankness in the face of errors and an attitude of politeness and gratitude towards the teachers as being those who have more experience than oneself. Frankness about errors and a willingness towards excellence- orientated “upward learning” enable the collective to optimise their learning – a strategy which became famous as the Toyota system in business management. In other words, there can be no question of a principle of equality but rather of continuous improvement in the form of collective achievement. Learning from Confucian learning has a long tradition in Germany: The great philosopher of the Enlightenment and polymath, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, attempted to obtain stimuli from the positive error culture of Confucianism, as to how Germany and Europe could find their way out of the barbarism of the 30 years’ war. And Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose name features in the German cultural institutes, was a great admirer of Confucius, and, probably more than he was aware, the Confucius of Weimar propagated the latter’s thoughts himself in a characteristic way.

Dr. Manfred Osten, born in Ludwigslust in 1938, studied law, philosophy, musicology and literature in Hamburg and Munich, as well as international law in Luxembourg. In 1969, he wrote his thesis titled “Über den Naturrechtsbegriff in den Frühschriften Schellings” (About the Term of Natural Law in the Early Writings of Schelling). In the very same year he joined the foreign office, where he worked at German diplomatic missions in Paris, Cameroun, Chad, Australia and Japan. Between 1995 and 2004 he was the General Secretary of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Bonn. He publishes predominantly cultural-scientific and cultural-historic texts.

Manfred Osten