This guide accompanies the following article(s): Sor-hoon Tan, “Democracy in Confucianism,”Philosophy Compass 7.5 (May 2012): 293–303, DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2012.00481.x

Author’s Introduction

Debates about the relation between democracy and Confucianism have seen views that range from attempts to show that some form, or at least the seeds, of democracy could be found in Confucianism, or that it is compatible with liberal or other forms of democracy, to the other extreme of labelling “Confucian democracy” an oxymoron and using Confucianism to criticize the excesses of Western liberal democracies or resist democratization based on Western liberal models and argue for alternative forms of good government. Has there been and can there be democracy in Confucianism? Do East Asian societies with a cultural legacy of Confucianism have to choose between their cultural heritage, and perhaps identity, on the one hand and democratic values associated with modernity on the other, and if so, how should they choose? These questions are highly relevant for today’s East Asian societies, and also important for other societies interacting with East Asian societies. They help us understand the influence of Confucianism on East Asian thinking about politics and government and may influence the political development of those societies. Exploring the question may be enlightening by raising questions for contemporary political philosophies and offering alternative views about democracy and good government.

Author Recommends

Angle, Stephen. Human Rights and Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

This book examines the Chinese discourse about human rights, and argues for a way to take human rights seriously without riding rough shod over Chinese intellectual tradition.

Bell, Daniel A. Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

This work argues for an alternative to liberal democracy, based on key values and institutions the author identifies with Confucianism, that he believes would be more suitable for East Asian societies. See also criticisms and Bell’s response in Philosophy East and West 59 (Oct 2009).

Chan, Joseph, “Moral Autonomy, Civil Liberties, and Confucianism.”Philosophy East and West 52 (Jul 2002): 281–310.

This article identifies four elements in Western concepts of moral autonomy, and argues that only two can be found in early Confucian texts. It constructs a case for civil rights based on the “thin” moral autonomy found in Confucianism.

de Bary, Wm. Theodore. The Liberal Tradition in China. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1983.

The author argues that, despite China’s reputation for despotism, there is a limited kind of liberal tradition to be found in Confucian philosophy of personal cultivation, conscientious dissent, and pursuit of sagehood.

de Bary, Wm. Theodore and Tu Wei-ming, eds. Confucianism and Human Rights. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Contributions to the debate about human rights and Confucianism by important scholars, including Irene Bloom, Julia Ching, Henry Rosemont, Chung-ying Cheng, and Peter Zarrow.

Elstein, David. ‘Why Early Confucianism Cannot Generate Democracy.’Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 9 (Dec 2010): 427–43.

This article argues against proponents of “Confucian democracy” with a detailed analysis of the Pre-Qin Confucian texts, and concedes only the possibility of “Confucian-inspired democracy.”

Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Democracy of the Dead: Dewey, Confucius, and the Hope for Democracy in China. La Salle: Open Court, 1999.

With the context of significant cultural and historical differences between China and the West, this book argues that liberal democracy does not suit China, but an alternative democratic future might be found for China in John Dewey’s conception of democracy.

Journal of Chinese Philosophy 34 (June 2007), special issue on Democracy and Chinese Philosophy.

Rosemont, Henry, Jr. ‘Which Rights? Whose Democracy? A Confucian Critique of Western Liberal Tradition.’Confucian Ethics. Eds Kwong-loi Shun and David Wong. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

One of the strongest critics of attempts to “import” rights concepts into Confucianism, in view of the many inadequacies of liberal democracy itself.

Tan, Sor-hoon. Confucian Democracy: A Deweyan Reconstruction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

This book argues that Confucianism and Deweyan democracy, which emphasizes community without sacrificing individual freedom, provide a way of reconciling Confucianism with democracy. It approaches the issue through comparative philosophical analysis of key concepts of community, freedom, equality, and authority, and the relationship between ethics and politics in western philosophical discourses and in early Confucian texts.

Online Materials

“On the Compatibility between Confucian Principles and Democracy.” [Online]. Retrieved from:

Xu Keqian maintains that the direction of China’s political development is democratic and attempts to contribute to the effort to find indigenous cultural resources for “a democratic Chinese system with Chinese characteristics.”

The China Beat: “China, Democracy, or Confucianism?” [Online]. Retrieved from:

A post by Xujun Eberlein discussing the work of Jiang Qing, a contemporary Chinese thinker advocating a conservative institutional Confucianism that challenges Western liberal democracy.

Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy blog: “Confucius: Democracy’s Advocate.” [Online]. Retrieved from:

A string of discussions with several contributors sceptical about democratic interpretations of Confucianism, and some arguing for non insidious authoritarian regimes with Confucian virtues.

“Democracy, Human Rights, and Confucian Values: Reconstructing Confucian Political Thought for China’s Development.” [Online]. Retrieved from:

Video Recording of a lecture given by Joseph Chan, Professor of Politics at the University of Hong Kong, in the Cornell Program on Ethics and Public Life (Mar 2012).

Sample Syllabus

Week I: Introduction, context and key options

Elstein. “Early Confucianism.”

He, Baogang. ‘Four Models of the Relationship between Confucianism and Democracy.’Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37 (2010): 18–33.

Tan. Confucian Democracy. Chapter 1.

Tan. ‘Democracy in Confucianism.’Philosophy Compass 7.5 (May 2012): 293–303. doi: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2012.00481.x

Week II: Liberal Interpretations and Confucian humanism.

Chen, Albert H.Y. ‘Is Confucianism compatible with Liberal Constitutional Democracy?’Journal of Chinese Philosophy 34: 195–216.

De Bary. Liberal Tradition.

Tu Wei-ming. Way, Learning, and Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. Chapters 1 and 8.

Week III: Confucianism and Rights.

Angle. Human Rights and Chinese Thought. Chapter 1.

Chan. “Moral Autonomy and Civil Rights.”

de Bary and Tu. Confucianism and Human Rights. Chapters 1–7.

Week IV: Confucian Critiques of Liberal Democracy.

Bell. Beyond Liberal Democracy. Chapter 6.

“Comment and Discussion” on Beyond Liberal Democracy by Dallmayr, Fred, Chenyang Li and Sor-hoon Tan, with response from Daniel Bell, Philosophy East and West 59 (Oct 2009): 523–60.

Rosemont. “Which Rights, Whose Democracy?”

Week V: Confucian alternatives in political philosophy.

Ackerly, Brook. ‘Is Liberalism the Only Way Toward Democracy? Confucianism and Democracy.’Political Theory 33 (Aug 2005): 547–76.

Angle, Stephen. Sagehood. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapters 10 and 11.

Chan, Joseph. ‘Democracy and Meritocracy: Toward a Confucian Perspective.’Journal of Chinese Philosophy 34: 179–93.

Sim, May. ‘A Confucian Approach to Human Rights.’History of Philosophy Quarterly 21 (Oct 2004): 337–56.

Week VI: Pragmatist Confucian Democracy.

Hall and Ames, Democracy of the Dead.

Tan, Confucian Democracy.

Focus Questions

  • 1
     How do early Confucians view politics and good government?
  • 2
     What kind of roles do the early Confucian texts permit individuals or the people in politics?
  • 3
     Does early Confucian philosophy, perhaps in its humanism and its emphasis on the government’s responsibility to care for the worst off, at least implicitly value freedom and equality, or support democratic life?
  • 4
     Is a Confucian community necessarily undemocratic due to its emphasis on ritual propriety that many view as promoting hierarchy?
  • 5
     Which other aspects of Confucianism are anti-democratic?
  • 6
     What kind of alternative(s) would modern Confucian political philosophy offer viz-a-viz liberal and other conceptions of democracy?