Michael Schuman, Time magazine’s correspondent for Asia, has done a difficult thing. He has produced a book introducing new readers to a great subject in plainly written English, while explaining with considerable force the ideas related to that subject, which happens to be one on which academics and politicians hold strongly differing opinions.
Confucius was a semi-aristocratic job-seeking intellectual in the 6th century BC, with big ideas about how human beings should conduct themselves. He attracted a few disciples at the time, and long after his death their successors, rather like Jesus’s followers, set down his supposed ideas and principles, accounts of which differed greatly from the start. These varying ideas have animated Chinese rulers from the 2nd century BC to the present day and are applauded and applied in Asia’s democracies – as well as in Singapore and China, where they are employed to bolster authoritarian regimes. As Schuman says, one must not blame sages and religious figures of the past for the ways in which unpleasant or dangerous leaders distort the original doctrines to justify appalling acts.
Schuman is very fair-minded. Confucius himself, he says, ‘comes across as something of a social climber and self-promoter, constantly networking and schmoozing in his efforts to land a good job. He at times appears as an arrogant, insufferable know-it-all who lectures and hectors those around him with irritating persistence.’ While