To what extent are the Chinese Confucian

Introduction and Definition

Confucianism is a compilation of the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BCE). Confucius was a thinker, a teacher, and a philosopher with political involvement. Confucius is the founder of the Chinese Ru school of thought; so the apt term for Confucianism would be Ruism. Confucian ideals and teachings have been an integral part of people’s lives in China for thousands of years because they have touched every domain of human concern. Confucianism principally is thought of as a way of life. At a point in history, it was considered even as a primordial religion since it was intensively followed by the Chinese royalty as well the commoners since conception. Confucianism could be arguably called the tapestry of Chinese civilization as it has produced thoughts, rituals, and outlooks toward life that is alive even after two millenniums. This proves the extent of Confucian permeance in Chinese history encompassing aspects such as politics, philosophy, art, habits, ideology, cosmology, values, and ethos.

Confucianism[i] was propagated over centuries by various intellectual traditions which find their origins in the Confucian thought. Furthermore, Confucianism also spread due to its endorsement by the nobility and intellectuals. The thought was also readily accepted by the commoners due to its nucleus being day-to-day conduct and matters of simple virtue one should uphold in life instead of complex epistemic or theological concerns. Confucius, or Master Kong as he is known, did not believe himself to be the founder of some new order or a developer of any new teachings. Rather, he considered himself a transmitter of the values of the early Zhou period that he regarded as exemplary in terms of conduct and the values governing them.

The society in Confucius’s period, he believed, was deteriorating in its moral sense and descending into disorder due to political instability. Confucius thought that this wrongful state of affairs could only be corrected through the values of the past, the righteousness which had prevailed through the society earlier by the King Wen, King Wu and the Duke of Zhou. Confucius looked to the past to picture the future he wanted to see because he believed that the ethical precepts of history contained all that was needed to heal the corrupting social order.


What does Confucianism contain?

Confucianism was, in its most basic sense, rules of conduct. Hence, it could be called entirely humanistic in nature. These rules were provided both for the commoners and aristocrats of the time. Anyone could follow the teachings of Confucius because, as noted above, Confucianism mainly focused not on an understanding of abstract but with concrete behaviour to be inducted in one’s daily life. This was true whether one’s station in life was to be a peasant or the King. This method of resolution of problems was highly practical. It believed in achieving social harmony through values of self-cultivation. In his discussions, Confucius often put forth the concept of ‘Junzi’ or the superior man. Earlier, one could be a ‘Junzi’ be by one's bloodline. However, Confucius taught that the only prerequisite to be a ‘Junzi’ is merit. He also drew comparisons between 'Junzi', the Superior man, and ‘Xiaoren’ an inferior person. Another important concept in Confucianism is Tian. Tian is a metaphysical force that meant “heaven” but has come to be equated with “God”, peculiar to the Zhou Dynasty. It is the realization of Tian and to act according to the Way or Dao. This Tian is an active force, guiding and helping the humankind in their ethical dilemmas.

To follow Confucianism, one must follow the five values it espouses:

1) Ren: Humaneness or Humanity

2) Yi: Righteousness

3) Li: Civility or Proper rites

4) Zhi: Knowledge or Wisdom

5) Xin: Integrity or Faithfulness

Along with these five virtues is an important, cornerstone virtue of Xiao or Filial Piety. [ii]


Confucianism in Modern China

Confucianism thrived in the Chinese society for a very long duration until the 19th century along with an assortment of other cultures and traditions. It has so far played an active role in shaping China the way it is. However, it is fairly agreed that though the Confucian values might have remained constant bearing the sands of time, their underlying meanings are distant from what they meant for Confucian in his time and age.

This was reversed during the period of 1916-1921 in the ‘May Fourth Movement’ when a mass violent crusade against the political, intellectual, social, and the cultural paradigm of China took place. This movement was against the Western imperialism and the Chinese traditions and cultures seen as deadweight to the country's progress. The people participating in the movement held the view that these cultures were the reason for China’s stagnancy and the bog it had ended itself in, and of course, Confucianism was one of them. The popularity of Confucianism declined further during the time of the Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong, who further propagated Communism and militarism in China trampling upon Confucius and Confucian values in his speeches and writings. During the 19th Century, the popularity of Confucian values was starkly lower than what it was earlier. And it was soon shifted considerably to take a very distinct place in Chinese lives.

However, since a couple of decades, the interest of the people towards Confucianism has thawed. Added to this is the support from the China’s Communist Party of China (CPC). Ironically, it was CPC in the past that rallied against Confucianism as one of their reforms for the country. This sudden shift in the perspective towards Confucianism within a century of its banishment is what makes the story interesting. Why does Confucianism, even after a bloody revolution, interest people? What does Confucianism, which is more than a couple of millenniums old, have to offer to anyone today? Is there an inherently selfish and political reason to Confucianism’s resurgence by CPC? Or is it the case that a culture if permeated enough into the society cannot be torn from the minds of the people in it? There are quite a few ways to look at the issue, especially when the case we are talking about goes beyond just political, social, or cultural frames.

One basic way to look at it would be to notice the inner discontentment of the people during the economic growth spurt of China which propelled the country towards previously unattained heights of progress. Communism, being the central ideology, stripped the people of any religious or spiritual support that they might need or desire in their lives. Focus on the material gain being one of the central aspects of Communism, it is completely possible that the Chinese experienced a dissatisfactory vacuum which communism could not fulfill. It could also be the case that trying to erase one’s culture would create some sort of disconnect between the individual and identity since culture is one of the relevant variables through which people define themselves. This so far seems conjectural, but it can be further concretised with evidence through statistics, polls etc.[iii] Along with the economic growth of China resulting in an inflow of finances, have come along a new set of moral problems of corruption, environmental degradation through pollution, precedence given to progress and development over everything else. The Communism of China, based foundationally on an economic ground is insufficient to address these problems of ethical and moral nature. This vacuum of values in China might be a good reason for its waning anti-traditionalism and increasing social notice of Confucianism. It provides the people lost in the consumerism and economic greed with a sense of identity necessary to bring about favorable conditions in their lives. They feel connected to their earlier traditions and culture further strengthening their bonds with the Chinese identity, giving them a familiar moral outlook to look at the world with. Now, this loss of identity might not just be about simply economic reasons, but also due to globalization.[iv]

Globalization --bringing about the world closer in a flux and potpourri of cultures and traditions-- could make one feel disoriented about one’s cultural and social identity when the country itself in a rapid transition of economy and lifestyle. And during this, it is quite probable that one would turn towards the very cultural identity one tried hard to discard. Moreover, a few of the Confucian values are lucrative enough to be adopted. This is not a strong reason, but it adds to the argument when the bigger picture is seen, for example, the value of “filial piety.” For a family-oriented and a collectivistic mindset like the Chinese, the meaning of the term could be taken as worship of one's ancestors rather than straightforward worship of parents. For many, this value is acceptable and worthy of adoption. The reasons listed here are listed from the outlook of an individual, or someone who is a part of the Chinese society.[v]

As mentioned earlier, the interesting part of the discussion is not the common man turning towards Confucianism. It is the ruling CPC turning towards Confucianism. Vehemently propagandizing anti-traditionalism during its coming to power, CPC itself has now set up Confucius centers all over the world. Furthermore, it encourages learning Confucian literature and accepts Confucianism as a part of China’s identity. Daniel A. Bell (2006) says that this is due to the failure of Marxism as an ideology; the state is turning towards Confucianism to maintain the social order and to give itself legitimacy. He says that though China is being recognized as a Communist state, the people hardly have any faith in the principles of communism today. Since the Party itself seeks ‘a harmonious society’, a term mentioned in Confucianism, too, Confucianism seems a rewarding path to take. Michael Schuman in his interview with Simon Worrall says that China though communist in its principles has achieved the growth with old fashioned capitalism. This produces a direct contract between their actions and their values they say they espouse. So now in order to provide a justification for this contradiction, the government is looking for an ideology which fits both the actions and their values. He says that this exactly is reflected in the actions of the past emperors when they used Confucianism to justify their authority and their rule. Now, China has always been mistrustful of Western values and ideals and if they do not want to turn to these, they believe that their rich past offers them enough to borrow for their problems. The CPC might also have another reason to support Confucianism, and this is to show that China has a rich culture and they themselves aren’t something new or Western. They want to say that they are an extension of authentic Chinese thoughts and structure. Perhaps narrow, but an extension enough.

Another very probable reason might be that China is propagating Chinese culture in a bid to warm the world to them and build better Sino-world relations. While the world sees China as someone who is fierce and militaristic, sharing of cultures might seem like a friendly step to take. But to extend a cultural handshake, one must accept the hand as a large appendage of its even larger history. And the CPC has been doing that by financing and setting up Confucius Institutes all over the world, with currently about 480 institutes in over 6 continents. This can alternatively be seen as a tactic to extend China as a soft-power. Soft-power is when a country tries to achieve its objectives not through coercion or violence but through engaging in an economic and cultural trade-off. As a bid to improve China’s image, standing, and acceptability while earning favorable exchanges with the other countries, the previously renounced Confucianism can be offered as a genuinely Chinese product and as an age-old remedy to the problems the world. Apart from this, it also acts as a limit that even China faces due to globalization, capitalism, and societal moral erosion.



Now that fact of the revival of Confucianism is undisputable, the thought has been the topic of extensive study for various scholars. Political order and intellectuals in China have been reading and researching while promoting Confucianism at the grass-root level as well as internationally through their centers. However, what is difficult to hypothesize is whether this trend will continue in the post-modern Chinese society, with Confucianism gaining increasing importance if not rivaling then at least shadowing its golden-age, or whether it would be cast away to make way for new ideals when its purpose has been served.



John H., Evelyn Nagai Berthrong, (2004), Confucianism – A Short Introduction, One World Publications

Daniel Gardner, (2014), Confucianism – A very short Introduction, Oxford University Press

Jana Rosker, (2014), China’s modernisation: From daring reforms to a modern Confucian revival of traditional values, Anthropological Notebooks, Vol. 20 Issue 2, p89

Lu Leng, Michael Salzman, (2016), The Renaissance of Confucianism in Contemporary China from the Perspective of Terror Management Theory, Sociology and Anthropology Vol. 4(2), pp. 52 – 58

Sébastien Billioud, Joël Thoraval, (3/2008), The Contemporary Revival of Confucianism, China Perspectives

 Saki Kohira, (4/4/2014), Confucianism in modern China,

 Joseph A. Adler, (4/14/2011), Confucianism in China Today, Pearson Living Religions Forum: New York

 Daniel A. Bell, (2008), China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society, Princeton University Press

 Guoxiang Peng, (2010), Inside the Revival of Confucianism in Mainland China: The Vicissitudes of Confucian Classics in Contemporary China as an Example, Oriens Extremus, Vol. 49, pp. 225-235



[i]One understands Confucianism primarily through Lunyu or Analects which contain the basic sayings of Confucian that were posthumously compiled by his followers. Along with this, there are the Five Classics- the Book of Changes, the Book of Songs, the Book of History, the Book of Rites and The Autumn and Spring Annuls. Zuozhuan is a narrative history thought of as a commentary on the fifth Confucian classics. Along with it, there is Mengzi or Mencius, the writings of a fourth-century follower of Confucianism.

 [ii]I have tried to list out the very primitive and the key terms of Confucianism for the reader to get a rudimentary idea of what Confucianism is before we approach the crux of the article since it would prove to be a disconnect for the reader with their familiarity with the topic mentioned later.

 [iii]I would not further delve into the issue due to its immense potential for discussion definitely beyond the scope of this article. I would merely try to list down the probable reasons for the revival of Confucianism since indulging in these questions itself makes the topic intricate enough.

 [iv]Qui Fen mentions the writers who have mentioned the context of globalization in the wake of the revival of Confucianism.

 [v]Though I haven’t used the hypothesis given in the paper I have referenced, the particular disconnect that I mentioned in my article, is quite similar to the ‘human crisis’ mentioned in the referenced paper. 



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