Confucianism and Contemporary Chinese Politics



This article examines the relevance of Confucianism to contemporary Chinese politics. While some dismiss Confucianism as irrelevant or even harmful, others emphasize its positive and enduring influence. The study begins by reviewing debates on the relevance of Confucianism, a discussion that has never stopped since China’s entry into the modern world system. After some of the weaknesses of previous debates have been identified, an assessment is made of aspects of Confucianism, followed by a brief prediction of a continuing but limited influence for Confucianism in China.

Few, if any, doubt the historical importance of Confucianism to East Asia, and particularly China. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1953) characterized the period from 800 to 200 BCE as the Axial Age and regarded key thinkers during this period such as Confucius, Socrates, and Gautama as exemplary individuals, each one a “paradigmatic personality.” Confucian influence was strengthened after the decision in 140 BCE by Emperor Wu (the sixth ruler of the Han dynasty) to turn Confucianism into a state ideology. Prior to the 1911 Revolution which ended the Chinese monarchical system, Confucius was very much an uncrowned king. Subsequently, despite its declining status in the past century, Confucianism has continued to shape Chinese attitudes and behavior.

At the turn of the millennium, the question of whether Confucianism remained relevant to contemporary politics continued to attract much attention (De Bary 1996; Dirlik 1995; Hahm 2005; Magnarella 2004; O’Dwyer 2003; Peng 1997; Rozman 2005). Several factors have contributed to the renewed attention being paid to Confucianism. First, Confucianism has gained influence in a rising China. The reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping have undermined the communist ideology, changed China’s socioeconomic system, and increased China’s international status. One consequence has been Confucianism’s reemergence out of the ashes of communist rule. Second, ideological conflicts such as those witnessed in the Cold War have given way to new kinds of international competition and conflict. Samuel Huntington (1993), for instance, predicted a clash of civilizations, particularly between Christianity on the one side and Confucianism and Islam on the other. Finally, the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s provided ammunition for critics of Confucian values. In the 1980s, many had heaped praise on Confucianism for its contribution to the success of the East Asian model. As it had taken credit for the economic miracle, “Asian values,” especially those of Confucianism, took some of the blame for the financial crisis (Fukuyama 1998).

There are two broadly different views concerning the contemporary relevance of Confucianism. One side of the debate dismisses Confucianism as irrelevant to contemporary politics. This verdict, delivered by Joseph Levenson (1969), reverberates even today. In this view, Confucianism was ill-equipped to deal with the process of modernization. As a result, it lost its institutional base after the demise of monarchism, withdrawing from the historical stage. The other view claims a continuing influence for Confucianism. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, contended that Confucian values could remedy deficiencies and excesses in Western culture and politics, including the emphasis on rights over duties and the assumption by governments of family roles (Zakaria 1994). Kim Dae Jung, subsequently South Korea’s president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, dismissed East Asia’s antidemocratic values as a myth (Kim 1994). Many Chinese scholars acknowledged that Confucianism and the modern West place a different emphasis on communitarian values and individual autonomy, respectively, but found Confucianism nonetheless compatible with individual human rights (Chan 1999; De Bary and Tu 1998).

Any serious attempt to discuss the relevance of Confucianism to contemporary politics presents difficulties, not only because Confucianism has layers of meaning, but also because politics itself lacks clear boundaries. A popular textbook, for instance, identifies four themes in comparative politics: the interaction of states, the role of the state in the economy, the democratic idea, and political culture (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph 2006). The dividing line between politics, the economy and culture, for instance, is by no means clear, and Confucianism has had an effect historically in each of these spheres.

To analyze the importance of Confucianism it is useful to first provide an overview of previous debates. These can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century, when China was forced to open its door to the outside world. They intensified after Confucianism was dethroned as China’s state ideology in 1905. Such an overview allows for an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of these earlier debates. This article then goes on to consider Confucianism according to John Rawls’ principles of justice, distinguishing between those facts of Confucianism that remain relevant today and those that do not. The article concludes by predicting a continuing but limited influence for Confucianism in the future.

Ups and Downs of Confucianism

The changing fate of Confucianism in modern times can be summarized by two concepts adopted from a world-system perspective: secular trend and cyclical rhythm (Shannon 1996, 127-54). The secular trend is characterized by the declining status of Confucianism, which had been held in high regard during the Qing dynasty, a Manchu dynasty that governed China from 1644 to 1911. Facing unprecedented challenges from the West, Confucians initially dismissed modern knowledge as foreign and frivolous. Later, some claimed that China’s own science and technology had been lost during book burning carried out under the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE). After the initial reluctance to accept Western insights had been overcome, Confucians subscribed to a new and more accommodating maxim: “Chinese learning for the fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Japan’s defeat of China in 1895 made the Confucian elite realize the importance, indeed the urgency, of studying Western legal and political institutions. The Russo–Japanese War of 1904-05 left no doubt that departure from Confucian traditions was necessary for China’s survival in an imperialist world. The subsequent abolition of the time-honored civil examination system in 1905 both reflected and reinforced the decline of Confucianism. Although reverence for Confucius continued to be listed as a major educational principle and Confucius was still accorded the highest sacrificial rites, the status of Confucianism in China would never be the same again. As the country moved toward modernization, Confucianism lost much of its influence.

Amid the secular trend lie cyclical rhythms; these refer to a repetitive pattern, extending over the centuries, of decline and ascent in the status of Confucianism. Following the overthrow of the monarchy, in the Republican period (1912-49), Confucianism was in retreat. It lost its luster in the wake of the Republican revolution, becoming subject to ridicule and insult during the New Cultural Movement. After the Nationalists began to rule the country in 1927, Confucianism recovered a measure of its lost status. A similar pattern can be seen in perspectives on Confucianism in the People’s Republic of China (1949 to the present). Anti-Confucianism was a major part of the Maoist era, culminating in the overly hostile Cultural Revolution (1966-76). After Deng Xiaoping launched the reforms, Confucian influence began to rise once more, slowly yet steadily. To some degree, the regard for Confucianism in the West has undergone similar fluctuations. In early modern times, Europe held a fairly positive view of Confucian politics (Creel 1960, 254-78); later the attitude turned more negative, less because China had changed for the worse than because Europe had changed for the better. In the twentieth century, the Weberian view of Confucianism dominated intellectual thinking. In his work published at the beginning of the century (Weber 1964), Max Weber maintained that in contrast to Protestant ethics, Confucianism had inhibited capitalist development in China.

Let’s be more specific on the fate of Confucianism in China after the 1911 Revolution. Initially Confucianism fell into neglect and Confucian scholars experienced hard times (Chow 1960b). Without a paid ministry or priesthood, Confucian practices had always depended on official support from the regime. After the revolution, the sacrifices to the sage were neglected and Confucian temples abandoned. Confucianism itself fell victim to power struggles, its doctrines exploited by reactionaries including monarchists and warlords. Necessity dictated that President Yuan Shikai restore the official sacrifices to Confucius, as he did in mid-1913. Many proposed that Confucianism become China’s state religion. Those supporting the idea considered that Confucianism would provide a moral standard for the nation. Others, including the Nationalists, disagreed. They championed religious freedom, with some viewing religion altogether as an anachronism. China’s draft republican constitution—a result of compromise—recognized Confucianism as the basis for moral education. However, two short-lived attempts at the restoration of monarchy blemished the reputation of Confucianism, tipping the balance in favor of anti-Confucianism. In the first, President Yuan briefly set himself up as Emperor in late 1915, stepping down shortly thereafter amid public outcry. The second effort saw pro-Confucian military governor Zhang Xun restore the last Manchu Emperor to the throne, in July 1917, a move that failed within a fortnight.

The spread of new cultures further undermined the influence of Confucianism in China. In the early period of the Chinese republic, new schools mushroomed, foreign ideas were introduced, and many Chinese returned from abroad after having lived and studied in Europe, the United States, and Japan. Starting from 1915, the New Cultural Movement had aimed at promoting a new linguistic style and new ways of thinking. The following year, Yi Baisha fired the first shots at Confucianism in the New Youth magazine. Although acknowledging that Confucianism had often been exploited by autocrats for their own purposes, he faulted Confucius himself on four points. First, Confucius had advocated unlimited authority for rulers, preferring the rule of men to the rule of law. Second, he had not encouraged his disciples to raise questions, hence laying the foundation for orthodoxy and hostility to independent thinking. Third, Confucius often lacked firm opinions, thus becoming open to misunderstanding and misuse. Fourth, Confucius was more interested in becoming an official than in making a living, easily falling under the control of autocrats (Cai 1982, 268-70). Chen Duxiu, the leading figure of the movement, acknowledged the historical role of Confucianism in addressing moral issues and satisfying spiritual needs, but contended that Confucianism could not meet the needs of modern China, becoming therefore an obstacle to further Chinese development (Lin 1979, 56-81). What concerned Chen most was Confucian advocacy for a return to the past and his obeisance to monarchical politics. As late as 1933 Chen was continuing to call for wholesale westernization in China.

A near fatal blow to Confucianism was dealt by the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (Chow 1960a). After the postwar Paris peace conference decided to hand the German-occupied Shandong province (the birthplace of Confucius) to Japan, Chinese students took to the streets in protest, since China and Japan had both been on the winning side in the war. At this time, Confucianism was singled out as the source of China’s backwardness and weakness, condemned as both harmful to individual freedom and to Chinese national strength. Many people wanted to “smash Confucius’s shop,” preferring to turn to “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science” for help. Although the disaster of the First World War led many Conservative thinkers (including Yen Fu and Liang Qichao) to believe in the superiority of Confucianism, it was the competing doctrines of liberalism and communism that were in the ascendant.

The nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek honored Confucianism, although he himself had converted to Christianity. His regime embraced the “Three Principles of the People” of the founder (and first president) of republican China, Sun Yat-sen, as the state ideology. Sun—regarded by the Nationalists as the founding father of their movement—described Confucius as an advocate of democracy. From this point of view, China predated the West in developing a democratic philosophy. Where China lagged behind Europe was therefore not in political ideas, but rather in material civilization. It was, in fact, the West that needed to learn from China when it came to politics and political philosophy. Sun also embraced Confucius’ notion of social harmony, preferring that approach to Marx’s theory of class struggle (Creel 1960, 279-85; Gregor 1981).

While the Nationalist constitution took its cue from the Western democracies, it did incorporate elements of Confucian tradition. Along with the three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—the nationalist constitution included two more branches derived from Confucian tradition. The examination branch was responsible for selecting public servants: that is, government officials; the control branch was responsible for monitoring their behavior. In 1934, the Nationalist government decided to make the birthday of Confucius a day of national celebration. Even on the eve of the entry of Communist troops into Guangdong province in 1949, the retreating Nationalists honored the 2,500th anniversary of the sage’s birth.

The fortunes of Confucianism reached their nadir during the Maoist era. While previous governments may only have given lip service to Confucianism, none previously had expressed forthright opposition to it. Although Confucianism had already receded into the background, Mao was bent on consigning it to the dustbin of history. For Maoists, Confucianism served as the ideology of the exploitative class; Confucianists aspired to restore the old order. Confucius’ notion of social harmony contradicted Marxist tenets concerning the class struggle (Solomon 1971). As noted, anti-Confucianism peaked during the Cultural Revolution, so much so that in 1967, with at least Beijing’s tacit consent, young Red Guards raided and desecrated both the Confucian birthplace and his burial ground. In his final years, Mao launched the so-called “Anti-Lin Biao and Anti-Confucius Campaign,” an extraordinary combination that managed to attack his once-designated successor (now deceased) and a once-venerated sage (interred for nearly two-and-a-half millennia) all at the same time.

Although the hostility to Confucianism did not end altogether with the death of Mao, Confucianism survived to outlive Maoism. Deng reintroduced the civil service examination, a traditional Confucian concept. Indeed, Beijing’s attitude toward Confucianism has softened in the aftermath of the 1989 democratic movement. Gradually, the post-Maoist Communist Party regime has even gone so far as to resort to Confucianism so as to alleviate ubiquitous social conflicts and to ease the impact of foreign cultures. In February 2005, President Hu Jintao launched a nationwide campaign to promote a more harmonious society, an official position that clearly touched a chord among Chinese scholars and the public. Recently the study of Confucian classics has become a fashion. At The People’s University of China, one of China’s top universities, situated in the capital, a separate college has been established especially for “guo-xue” or national learning—an institution devoted, in part, to the study of Confucian thought. The China Confucius Foundation decided to proceed with publication of a standard portrait of Confucius in September 2006. No fewer than 80 “Confucius Institutes” have now been built around the world to extend China’s influence, and to enhance China’s soft power, understood as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments” (Nye 2004, x).

Looking back at these developments, several problems can be identified in different treatments of Confucianism over time. First, attitudes toward Confucianism have often come under the sway of passion and partisan interests. Raw passions of a hostile character are exemplified by Qian Xuantong, whose pro-Western sentiments led him to call for the abolition of the Chinese script, and by Wu Zhihui, who vowed not only to refrain from reading old books—a perhaps reasonable position—but to throw them into latrines. Out of self-interest, revolutionary governments in the early Republic era and then again in the Maoist era were unsympathetic to Confucianism. Conservative governments in the Nationalist era and in the reformist era were determined to be deferential. As Kam Louie put it, the demand for change correlated with anti-Confucianism while a desire for stability correlated with pro-Confucianism (Louie 1980, 147). As a result of this polarization, and the link between politics and attitudes toward Confucianism, many discussions of Confucian thought and practice were argumentative and unbalanced.

Even when discussions were free from acrimony and self-interest there were difficulties, with the terms of Confucianism far from well-defined. Three layers of meaning in Confucianism can be discerned, with the whole compared to a concentric circle. The inner circle contains Confucian doctrine, which is not devoid of incoherence and ambiguity. The result, historically, was the development of two major branches, headed by Mencius (372-289 BCE) and Hsun Tzu (298-238 BCE), respectively. Like most ancient doctrines, Confucianism can be subject to various interpretations. It is a fact that different ways of punctuating the Confucian classics can produce different meanings. For convenience, Confucian doctrine as understood in this article is mainly based on Confucius’s Analects and his successor, Mencius’Book of Mencius. The intermediate circle contains the Chinese state’s ideology, which was based on, but different from, Confucian doctrine. As an instrument that was used to serve the interests of the ruling class, Confucian ideology emphasized what the ruled should do for the rulers, deemphasizing what the rulers were expected to do for the ruled. Finally, Confucian traditions constitute the outer circle. Although Chinese traditions were complex and evolving, Confucianism played a very important role in Chinese traditions with the former often equated with the latter.

It should be noted that the impact of Confucianism on China has been exaggerated. A wholly cultural interpretation of economic and political development in any society is full of pitfalls and omissions (Jackman and Miller 1996). Culture can never provide an adequate mono-causal explanation and it did not require Marx to understand that a cultural interpretation may not necessarily be the most appropriate or compelling one. In any case, although Confucianism was often China’s dominant school of thought, other influences—Legalism, Buddhism, and Taoism—were also important and should not be overlooked. Lucian Pye (1988) found two competing and contradictory political cultures in China: orthodox Confucianism and a heterodox blend of Taoism, Buddhism, and regional beliefs. He relied on both political cultures to explain the political development of China. After Confucianism was established as a state ideology, China experienced variable fortunes, its power and prosperity waxing and waning. It would be unwise to rely on one constant element—Confucianism—as a means to explain diverse outcomes.

Irrelevant and Relevant Components

Discussion in this article of the contemporary relevance of Confucianism relies upon three points. To begin with, the term “Confucianism” is used to refer to Confucian doctrine, rather than to state ideology and traditions. Confucian doctrine is the fundamental part of Confucianism and is relatively well-defined. Second, Confucianism will be broken down into several components. Since Confucianism is rich and complex, it would be simplistic to pass judgment on Confucianism as a whole and in any case an overall assessment necessitates a study of its specific components. Finally, since a lack of criteria renders discussion unfruitful and unconvincing, John Rawls’ two principles of justice will be used as the basis for assessment. Rawls’ first principle aims at maximizing basic liberties for everyone, while his second one is committed to ensuring welfare and equal opportunity for all (Rawls 1971, 60-1). It is important to point out that these two principles are broadly consistent with Confucian ideals, as testified by the Record of Rites, a major Confucian classic:

When the great Tao was in practice, the world was common to all; men of talents, virtue and ability were selected; sincerity was emphasized and friendship was cultivated. Therefore, men did not love only their parents, nor did they treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment was given to the able-bodied, and a means was provided for the upbringing of the young. Kindness and compassion were shown to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they all had the wherewithal for support. Men had their proper work and women had their homes. They hated to see the wealth of natural resources undeveloped, [so they developed it, but this development] was not for their own use. They hated not to exert themselves, [so they worked, but their work] was not for their own profit. . . . This was called the great unity. (Fung 1966, 202-3)

Following Rawls’ emphasis on the necessity for liberty, welfare, and equal opportunity, however, it is evident that Confucian attitudes toward profit, hierarchy, law, and family lack relevance to contemporary Chinese politics. One of the most important functions of all modern governments is to facilitate economic growth and development, which leads to the creation of personal wealth. The Confucian contempt for profit is detrimental, however, to the development of commerce and industry. Confucianism tends to cast suspicion on profit (Brook 1999). Confucius made a distinction between a gentleman—a person who understood righteousness—and a petty man—a person who understood profit (Confucius 4:16). At the opening of his book, Mencius wondered why the king sought his advice on bringing profit to the kingdom, as Mencius considered it sufficient simply to be benevolent and righteous (Mencius 1A:1). The dichotomy of profit (li) and righteousness (yi) remained entrenched in Confucian tradition. Little wonder that merchants ranked lowest in the traditional Chinese class system. There is no denying that suspicion of profit was rather common in the ancient world. The Christian Bible (Mark 10:25), for example, says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. But profit-seeking is encouraged, not stigmatized, in the modern world. It is not accidental that Deng popularized the slogan “to get rich is glorious” at an early stage of the economic reforms. Nor is it accidental that the current Chinese government invokes Confucianism to offset excessive materialism.

The Confucian preference for hierarchy likewise appears outdated, if not harmful. Confucius suggested letting lords be lords, subjects be subjects, fathers be fathers, and sons be sons (Confucius 12:11). He enjoined the young to obey the old, and women to show obedience toward men. Mencius divided society into two groups: those who labor with their minds govern others, while those who labor with their strength are governed by others (Mencius 3A:4). Indeed, other major religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, share a similar view on hierarchy, and a respect for hierarchy permeates all traditional societies and even modern democracies. It is not hierarchy, however, but equality that represents the human ideal in the contemporary world.

The Confucian aversion to law can hardly lend support to Chinese efforts to establish the rule of law. Unlike Legalism, which was imperial China’s first state ideology, Confucianism prized the rule of men over the rule of law. For Confucius, if a ruler’s personal conduct is correct, his government will be effective without the issuing of orders; however, if his conduct is incorrect, he may issue orders but will not be obeyed (Confucius 13:6). Confucius went further, viewing the rule of law as harmful. If the people are led by laws and guided by punishment, he argued, they will try to avoid punishment but lose the sense of shame. If they are led by virtue and guided by propriety, however, they will preserve their sense of shame and become good (Confucius 2:3). There is nothing wrong in advocating ethics, but it is misleading to obviate the need for law in a society. While no society can survive without morality, Confucius mistook a necessary condition for government as a sufficient one. Unlike traditional societies, small in scope and simple in nature, modern states have to be based on the rule of law. The current Chinese government stresses the importance of the rule of law, and some scholars, such as Pan Wei, have suggested that the rule of law needs to take precedence over political democratization (Zhao 2006). In this battle, Confucian values represent more of a liability to the Chinese than an asset.

The Confucian overemphasis on family likewise seems ill-suited to the modern world. Few would deny that the family is the basic social unit in human society, but in Confucian ethics, filial piety was the supreme virtue. Confucius disapproved of one man who testified against his father for stealing a sheep, arguing that fathers and sons should shield one another (Confucius 13:18). Mencius wrote that Emperor Shun should abandon his empire and run away with his father if the latter committed a murder (Mencius 7A:35). The exaggerated emphasis on filial piety, an integral part of Confucian values, has had a negative impact on many aspects of Chinese society. It fostered loyalty to authority and impeded individual freedom; it contributed to a long tradition of corruption among Chinese officials (Balazs 1964, 10; Lin 1935, 180); and it undermined attempts at economic modernization (Levy 1963). Even today, nepotism causes major problems in Chinese government and politics.

On the other hand, many Confucian values remain pertinent to contemporary Chinese politics. What distinguishes Confucianism is that it accorded great merit to particular virtues, especially benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), and propriety (li). Benevolence and righteousness are not difficult to understand, but propriety perhaps needs some clarification. It came to mean the accepted standard and represented self-discipline and mutual respect in social life. Confucius advised people to follow what many people know as “the golden rule”: do not do to others what you would not like done to yourself (Confucius 12:2). His doctrine of “the middle way” called for moderation and compromise. As William Theodore de Bary (1996) correctly pointed out, while Confucian ethical standards may have seemed too high for the Confucian elite, it was better to have high standards than to have low standards (or none at all). Seung-hwan Lee has argued that Confucian virtues can enrich and complement a liberal approach that gives priority to rights (Lee 1996, 376). This is especially true of current China. Although China’s reforms have increased the standard of living, moral standards and behavioral norms are far from satisfactory. Even Beijing has realized the gravity of this situation, with the result that in March 2006 President Hu came up with “the eight glories and the eight shames” (Cody 2006), combining Confucian and modern virtues.

One of the most important—perhaps the single most important—legacies of Confucianism is its commitment to education and learning, fundamental to Chinese aspirations and much in evidence in Chinese families both in China and overseas. Indeed, Confucian educational goals and methods may not be up to modern standards. For example, Confucians lacked the inclination to discover the natural rules that govern the world and showed little metaphysical interest (Weber 1964, 154). Nevertheless, such lapses should not obscure the contemporary relevance of this very important Confucian value. Confucius believed in human educability and carried out his own teaching without class discrimination (Confucius 15:38). Furthermore, he advocated intellectual honesty, acknowledging what is known as known and what is unknown as unknown (Confucius 2:17). His modesty and open-mindedness also set an inspiring example. He described himself as a transmitter of knowledge rather than a creator (Confucius 7:1) and said that he would find a teacher when traveling with two others (Confucius 7:21). His emphasis on education went hand in hand with a firm commitment to meritocracy. The civil service examinations provided equal opportunity and social mobility, offering respected employment based on objective assessments of intelligence, learning, and ability. This was an approach that set imperial China apart from Europe, India, and Japan. In the contemporary world, these values—education and meritocracy—are widely accepted and have proven beneficial to both political democratization and economic modernization (Friedman 2005; Johnson 1995; Whitehead 2002).

The call for a government to act benevolently represents an important part of Confucian doctrine. Confucianism is not “democratic” in the strict sense of the word and was sometimes used as the ideological underpinning of oriental despotism. Indeed, Samuel Huntington called “Confucian democracy” an oxymoron (Huntington 1991, 75-76, 298-311) and Immanuel Kant declared a paternal government as the “greatest conceivable despotism” (Kant 1991, 74). Yet Confucianism opposed despotism and advocated a benevolent government (Fukuyama 2005; Hu 1997). Confucius believed the interests of rulers and people to be closely related and mutually beneficial (Confucius 12:9). Among the three prerequisites of government—sufficient food, sufficient weapons, and people’s trust—Confucius viewed the last one as the most indispensable (Confucius 12:7). He advised that people should be enriched and then instructed (Confucius 13:9), cautioning rulers against four things: cruelty, oppression, injury, and meanness (Confucius 20:2). Mencius went even further than Confucius in the defense of people’s rights and interests. He categorically put the interests of people before those of their rulers, ranking the people, the country, and the sovereign in descending order of importance (Mencius 7B:14). Mencius even went so far as to defend the people’s right to rebellion. For him, killing a despot did not amount to regicide (Mencius 1B:8). Although the ancient notion of “mandate of heaven” sanctioned the right to rebellion (once the “mandate” was lost), Mencius popularized this idea. It was for that reason that Emperor Taizu of the Ming dynasty decided to remove images of Mencius from Confucian temples (Hu 2000, 40).

It is also worth emphasizing that the Confucian preference for harmony and peace stands China and the world in good stead. Confucianism demonstrates a fundamentally pacifist attitude (Hu 2006). It is an approach that cherishes harmony without uniformity. In the view of Confucius, a gentleman gets along with others without necessarily agreeing with them (Confucius 13:23). When Confucius was queried by a duke concerning military tactics, he claimed some knowledge of ordering sacrificial vessels but none concerning warfare (Confucius 15:1). Confucius advised against a planned attack by saying that leaders should not concern themselves with scarcity but rather with uneven distribution, not with poverty but with discontent (Confucius 16:1).

Mencius denounced offensive wars, in effect categorizing them as a war crime. For Mencius, wars cost too many casualties and so even the death penalty was insufficient for those who launch a war; military experts—those who specialized in the knowledge of war—deserved the most severe penalty (Mencius 4A:14). Mencius regarded all of China’s wars in the Spring and Autumn period (from 722 to 481 BCE) to have been unjust. While the central authority might wage a punitive war against a local ruler, Mencius counseled that rival states should not attack one another (Mencius 7B:2). He argued that boasting of military expertise was a grave crime, whereas a benevolent king had no rivals anywhere in the world because he could win the support of the people, even oppressed people in a country not his own (Mencius 7B:4). When one king asked Mencius how to achieve world peace, this Confucian sage pointed to unity as a solution, attaching his hopes to the one who would not enjoy killing (Mencius 1A:6). The Confucian tradition praised a wang (a king) who relied on moral force and disparaged a ba (a hegemon) who relied on physical force. For Confucianism, moral force—not physical force—made people submit willingly. Thus wang-dao (the kingly way) would triumph over ba-dao (the way of the hegemon). In our time, China’s rise in power has caused fear of the “China threat” and many have cited historical examples showing the troubles caused by a rising state (Schweller 1999). The Chinese government has invoked Confucian pacifist values and traditions in an attempt to dissipate such concerns, promising that China will not covet hegemony but only seek peaceful development (Zheng 2005).

The Future of Confucianism in China

Two predictions concerning the future of Confucianism in China seem safe. First, Confucianism will no doubt continue to be at work for several reasons. Although Confucianism has some weaknesses and lacks contemporary relevance in certain respects, much of Confucian doctrine represents ancient wisdom that has stood the test of time, at least for the Chinese, and will continue to be valuable. Human cultures have a preference for rules with considerable sustaining power. Even when the rules are unsatisfactory, those who disobey them will suffer, at least in the short run. Despite passionate and strenuous efforts to denounce and destroy Confucianism on the part of radical iconoclasts, both during the New Cultural Movement and during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and despite the institutional and socioeconomic changes in modern China, Confucian values stemming from China’s long history as a distinctive society and culture continue to exert an influence among China’s large population. In this, both national identity and cultural pride play a role. Many Chinese detractors of Confucianism did not necessarily admire Western cultures, but they blamed Confucianism for China’s miserable predicament. As China has become more powerful, prosperous, and self-reliant, many Chinese take comfort from and pride in Confucianism as an expression of Chinese values, traditions, and culture. Confucian influence is not limited to mainland China or to the Chinese people. Confucianism has had an influence in Taiwan and Singapore, but also in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, in different degrees and in different ways, as well as in Chinese communities scattered all around the world (Tu 1996). As a result, the presence of Confucian values can be seen both in China and beyond. This is not likely to change.

On the other hand, Confucianism will never be able to reclaim its former preeminent position. It is not conceivable that this ancient doctrine could serve as a comprehensive guide to the modern world. No one should be surprised by the declining influence of Confucianism, one that parallels the experience of many other major religions in the contemporary world (Diamond, Plattner, and Costopoulos 2005). Its recent rise in popularity is very much a reaction to its unduly low status in the past century, but it pales beside its status a century or more ago. Even in today’s China, capitalism and communism are more influential than Confucianism. Other values, too—individualism, nationalism, and globalization—will continue to compete with Confucianism for influence. Confucianism will not determine China’s future development: rather, its fate will hinge on the success or failure of modernization in China. Confucianism may be treated as a counterweight to Western cultures, but with all their influence it can hardly undermine their dominant status for the foreseeable future.


For their comments and suggestions, I would like to thank Xiaoming Huang, Stephen Levine, Joseph Smith, and Ming Xia.