|The Confucian Monarchies
of the Far East
| Though often overlooked, the Confucian monarchies of the Far East stand out among all civilizations of the world for their longevity, learning and cultural impact over such vast and diverse an area. Yet, like many things Asian, this system can seem contradictory and often confusing to the Western observer. A Confucian monarchy is both democratic and absolutist, both religious and secular, both innovative and reactionary, they are a little bit populist and a little bit "Divine Right of Kings". It is though most amazing that the Confucian monarchies managed to last for so long, a fact alone which should warrant infinitely more study and attention than these government recieve. Confucianism was old even when Qin Shihuangdi established the "first" Empire of China and, with some slight interruptions, held sway over the "Middle Kingdom" until 1911. In fact, during the mid-20th Century, under the military expansion of Japan, there was even something of an attempted revival of Confucian monarchism across East Asia.
Even those areas not directly ruled by Confucian empires were influenced by them to various degrees. Confucianism, though it became a controversial subject among the Catholic missionaries, particularly the opposing viewpoints of the Franciscans and the Jesuits, was at the same time a system of government that was admired by Catholic priests like Matteo Ricci, due to the emphasis on morality, virtuous leadership and the guiding hand of "Heaven" in the affairs of the nation; but also by the "Enlightened" Deists of liberal Europe, because Confucianism gave spiritual ceremony and style to what was essentially a secular government, devoted to reason and learning. However, although this was a definite help in the stunning scientific and literary advancements of nations like China and Korea, I cannot help but notice that in modern Asia, it is the nations where religion and government were most bound together, that have managed to survive, such as Japan, Thailand and Cambodia.
It is unfortunate that the primary force behind the last effort to revive Confucian monarchism (though they didn't exactly follow it themselves) was the Japanese, a fact which tainted the system to many Westerners. Japan believed in the ideal of "the whole world under one roof", and came up with a colonial client system based on Confucian monarchy, first through their relationship with the last Emperor of China, which led to the establishment of the Empire of Manchukuo. Due to the Japanese occupation, the Manchu government was largely a charade, but nevertheless, on paper and in the schools, particularly early on, the official basis of the Empire of Manchukuo was the system of Confucian morality, the elevation of learning and virtue and great loyalty and reverence for the Emperor, to whom a shrine had to be present in every school and government building throughout the country. Later on of course, Japanese culture came into competition with this way as Japanese language and the Shinto religion, focused on the Japanese Emperor were pushed in Manchukuo.
Korea, of course, had always had Confucianism as the heart of their monarchy before their conquest by Japan and of course continued to exist long after, traces remaining still today, at least in South Korea. However the Japanese also sponsored the restoration of the independent monarchy in Vietnam, which had been ruled by the French, whose presence and culture had had a disasterous impact in many ways for the Vietnamese. The new Prime Minister, Tran Trong Kim, was a famous Confucian monarchist (pro-Japanese of course) and the new "Empire of Vietnam" (Quoc Gia Viet Nam) was based on the principles of Confucianism, but bowing to obvious changes in the country, also introducing constitutionalism, with elected assemblies; unfortunately though, as Japan did not push for independence until 1945, the new regime had no time to prove itself before the Communists took over and the Emperor abdicated his authority to the government of Ho Chi Minh.
The most fascinating thing about Confucian monarchy is that it provides a form of religious devotion, and thus stability, to what is essentially a secular form of government. Learning is revered, along with the Confucian moral code, all of which is geared to maintaining a stable and functioning government. The liberal Deists of Europe admired the system because officials were advanced on the basis of merit rather than social standing, it was based on education and moral principles developed by a teacher, totally apart from any sort of organized religion. However, in Asia itself, and to many other Europeans, it seemed an inherently conservative system. The Mandate of Heaven, the core of Confucian legitimacy, though manifested by virtuous leadership, was based on the premise of a supreme divine being. Today, Confucius is seen as one of the most influential conservative thinkers of all time. It was hierarchical with a strict ranking system from Emperor to subjects, husbands to wives, parents to children, older siblings to younger siblings and friends with friends, which was the only relationship in which one was not in authority over the other. The basics of the Confucian monarchy is to use "sacred" rituals to reinforce loyalty to the Emperor and to the Confucian principles of ethical behavior. Although it gave the emperor semi-divine status, unlike Western monarchies it also gave him a heavy responsibility, linking his morality with the national welfare, and stated that the Heavenly Mandate could be withdrawn and the emperor overthrown if his rule became corrupt and immoral. It was this system which effectively ruled the Far East with considerable success for literally thousands of years.
|Alexandre de Rhodes, missionary to Vietnam|
|Matteo Ricci, missionary to China|