Confucius Says…Mediate!

By Laura Melton Tucker, June 9th, 2009

Here’s a statistic to chew on: There are more mediators in China, per person, than there are laywers, per person, in the United States. This contrast can be explained by different social, philosophical and historical influences in the two countries. A brief overview provides some interesting implications for the future of mediation and lawyering in both China and the U.S.

In China, mediation is a way of life. Law suits are regarded as a last resort; a vulgar embarrassment to the honor of the individual, the family and the community. Chinese mediation, called “tiaojie” is performed by government officials, but only if the first round of mediation within a family or community fails. Mediation is rooted in the tradition and values of Chinese culture, and can be traced back 4,000 years through folklore. According to one story, a king ruling over a land of disgruntled countrymen must devise a plan to restore peace. He observes that those in the mountains feud over borders, those by the river bicker about home ownership, and everywhere, everyone complains about the inferior pottery sold at market. His solution is to leave his palace to live among the people. By living on the land, fishing in the river and learning to make excellent pottery, he models good citizenship. Within one year, so goes the story, residents offer their land to one another, concede their houses to one another, and make and sell superior pottery. Harmony is restored through the king’s intervention and wise leadership.

In Chinese culture, rites of behavior, modeled by this ancient king, set the moral compass. Confucianism, another guiding influence on Chinese values, teaches that when people behave according to taught patterns, social expectations guide them to live the “right way.” A fear of shame, of losing face, keeps them in line. Consequently, the elders in a family or community, those who set the example, mediate conflicts. In a culture that places value on respecting authority, and entrusts authority to oversee others with benevolence and generosity, the harmony that comes when citizens are content is the culture’s highest value.

In western countries, our moral compass is set by a different standard; one based on justice, impartiality, and fairness. Our judicial system punishes people after they break the law. We place value on individualism and autonomy, which we cherish above the harmony of the whole. Our cultural tradition values independence and opportunity, and while our elders have had their chance, with stories to prove it, each of us has the right, even the obligation, to do it our own way. In fact, this is the highest value of our culture…the freedom to make our own decisions about the way we live.

And yet, there’s change in the air. In the U.S., as prisons and courts overload, mediation as a means of alternative dispute resolution is on the rise. In China, as the internet and media disrupt traditional culture, the govenrnment is responding by further developing its legal system. Consequently, lawyering is on the rise. As the world flattens and we trade customs across cultures, our common desire for peace connects us. Here’s the takeaway: Working to get along with one another is as old as history. Ancient teachings from all cultures share similar messages about conflict and peace. Case in point, in approximately 500 B.C., Confucius said: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

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