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Sinologist Bryan W. Van Norden calls for more wisdom and understanding in relations between US and China

By Chen Mengtong Updated Jan.1

The statues on the eastern pediment of the United States Supreme Court building. From left to right sit Confucius, Moses and Solon

Completed in 1935, the US Supreme Court sits across from Capitol Hill, standing as the embodiment of the country’s judicial power. But lesser known is that among the sculpted figures on the pediments is ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. Why does a figure of a Chinese thinker sit atop the US’s highest courthouse?  

With this question in mind, Bryan W. Van Norden, a sinologist and professor of philosophy at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York state, shared his insights with China News Service on how Chinese philosophy has influenced America in the past, and how it could enlighten China-US relations today.  

Having researched Chinese philosophy for over 30 years, Van Norden has translated multiple Chinese philosophy classics, such as Mengzi (Mencius). The scholar has long advocated abandoning the Western-centric viewpoint, as well as prejudice and misunderstanding.  

The Chinese edition of his most recent book, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, will be published soon.  

CNS: Why does a statue of Confucius appear on the US Supreme Court? Many Americans are not aware of this.  

Bryan W. Van Norden: The Supreme Court has two pediments, one on the west side, and one on the east side. The west side has figures representing abstract concepts. That’s the main entrance to the US Supreme Court building. As you go up, the middle figure on the west side is Lady Justice. There are other figures representing abstract concepts around her. The east side is the opposite side of the Supreme Court building. People don’t see that as often, because it’s not the main entrance. So, if you’re just visiting the Supreme Court building, if you have business, or if you’re a tourist, usually you see the west side, but the east side is very interesting. The central figures on the east side are, left to right, Confucius, Moses and the Greek lawgiver Solon.  

CNS: What’s the meaning behind the design of the figure of Confucius? Some say his figure symbolizes morality, while some others think it represents education.  

BV: The architect [Hermon A. MacNeil] who designed the Eastern Pediment, said, “I picked these three figures to represent the Eastern origin of a lot of our civilization.” It’s interesting: It is the Eastern Pediment and it’s the Eastern origins of our civilization.  

CNS: How did Confucius and his philosophy influence America in its early years?  

BV: In the 17th century, there was a real craze of interest in Confucianism among figures in the West. This was a period called the Enlightenment, when the foundations of modern democracy and modern science were being laid. People adopted Confucius as the secular saint of the Western Enlightenment. And this was a very common view. Now, the founding fathers of the US were part of this Enlightenment Movement. It turns out that many of the founding fathers specifically referred to Confucius in positive terms. For example, just a few names, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and John Adams. The Supreme Court building was actually built fairly late, it was started in the early 20th century. But even so, I think the architect was aware of the great influence Confucius had.  

CNS: In the building’s profile by the US Supreme Court, Confucius is introduced as a lawgiver, rather than a saint or an educator, as in the Chinese context. Why is that?  

BV: From a Chinese perspective, it’s a little strange to list Confucius as a lawgiver. But the thing is, most Americans, even the ones who admired Confucius, didn’t know about the dispute between the Legalist School and the Confucian School. So when they wanted to pay their respect to Chinese civilization, the only figure they really knew well was Confucius. They just weren’t clear on the distinction between etiquette and ritual versus actual law. They respected Confucius as a moral figure. So they picked him to represent one of the foundational traditions in the world.  

CNS: What is the attitude toward Confucius and Chinese culture in contemporary American society?  

BV: The attitude of people in the US toward China and toward Chinese culture is very complicated. On the one hand, you have people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and many intellectuals who very much respect the Chinese tradition and love the Chinese people. But you also have many people who look down upon the Chinese tradition and disrespect the Chinese people.  

CNS: In your opinion, what’s lacking in China-US interactions now?  

BV: Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who had the most influence on Western political philosophy, were very individualistic, emphasizing things like selfishness as a human motivation. While classical Western philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, are similar to Confucius in being more communitarian, and emphasizing the fact that humans in part are social animals. The earliest political philosophy of people like Plato and Aristotle emphasizes the fact that humans are part of a community. In the West, we’ve lost sight of that fact. I think that’s one source of misunderstanding that Americans don’t understand the way in which Chinese people can work together to solve a common problem.  

CNS: You have written articles saying that the US must understand and learn Chinese philosophy. Why do you believe that?  

BV: Confucianism, as [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has said, is a very important aspect of Chinese identity. Now China [and] the US are, in my opinion, the two great superpowers. It’s very important for each side to understand the other. Because of American cultural influence and things like movies and television, many people in China know, at least a little bit, about American culture. But still, many Americans are very ignorant about Chinese culture. As a result of [former president Donald] Trump’s negative attitude toward China, fewer Americans are studying Chinese than studied it a few years ago. So I think with that, it’s very important for the US to learn more about Chinese culture and Confucianism, because the US and China are the two great superpowers, and need to learn about each other to get along productively in the future.  

CNS: What about Confucian philosophy can enlighten China-US relations?  

BV: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”  

This article was originally published by WE TALK, a China News Service production. Reprinted with permission from CNS.