Confucius or Confusions – Addressing happiness and democratic freedom in contemporary Asian Studies

The 2021 TAIWANfest aims to re-think Asia through the lens of Taiwan and Korea, and Josephine Chiu-Duke, PhD, will address the taboos around Confucianism and its theoretical legacy to 21st Century thinkers on Sept. 4.

“I hope my talk called Confucius or Confusions will allow the audience to dismantle and put aside any previous prejudice and negative impressions on Confucianism,” says Chiu-Duke, professor of Chinese Intellectual history in the Department of Asian Studies of the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Josephine Chiu-Duke, professor of Chinese Intellectual history in the Department of Asian Studies of the University of British Columbia (UBC). | Photo courtesy of UBC

Chiu-Duke says that negative attitudes toward Confucianism may be related to the fact that its teachings have been and can be appropriated by political powers as an official ideology.

The professor addresses the necessity, however, to distinguish systems of oppression from classical schools of knowledge.

“Official Confucianism basically absolutized the relations between rulers and ministers, husbands and wives and fathers and sons”, she says. “Such absolutized relations completely replaced the reciprocal ones originally advocated by Confucius and other classical Confucian scholars. Modern scholars have described the ‘official Confucianism’ as ‘Confucianism outward, but Legalist inward.’”

Chiu-Duke further explains that Classical Confucian teachings always emphasize individual moral autonomy.

“Mencius, the second most important Confucian scholar once said: ‘above he is not ashamed to face Heaven; below he is not ashamed to face man.’ Based on this teaching, throughout Chinese history, we see that there have always been courageous Confucian scholar-officials who chose to speak up on behalf of the public well-being,” she says.

Against oppressive powers, Chiu-Duke acknowledges that many have risked their own benefits, often giving Mencius’ words cited above as an answer. In her analysis, many modern scholars have identified the tradition of protest as a liberal tradition in China, and also regarded it as a foundational source for the Confucian idea of human rights.

Questions on happiness and democratic freedom

In the talk, Chiu-Duke will challenge the audience with a simple question about whether people would choose freedom or happiness if necessary.

“Such a question was mentioned in a great 19th Century Russian novel. From my point of view, in today’s world ideally no one should be forced to make such a choice, but we have seen the sorrowful situation Hong Kong has been subjected to,” she says.

The professor remembers that Hongkongers could enjoy both freedom and happiness before the imposition of the national security law. Now, she provokes, Hong Kong has become a city where freedom is basically forced to wither away if not dead already.

“Also in China, where the government started to talk about the revival of the glory of the nation-state, appropriating Confucianism as a value system that will help revive this system,” Chiu-Duke says.

She addresses the strategic usage of such slogans, stating that their appropriation may very well be just a political slogan, and has nothing to do with granting their people –such as the Hongkongers – the enjoyment of their lost freedom.

Chiu-Duke invites all readers to attend the 2021 TAIWANfest, acknowledging that Canada is a democratic country and a multicultural society that believes in and upholds all the liberal values and basic human rights.

“Taiwan, like Canada, is a democratic,” she says, “and a multicultural society, and in the past decade TAIWANfest has been enriching and strengthening our pluralistic values as well as demonstrating how people in Taiwan cherish and treasure the same liberal values as we do in Canada.”

For more information please visit