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Confucius - Old Ideas for a Modern China?

Updated Friday 3rd July 2015

Professor Roel Sterckx explores how the philosophy of Confucius still influences modern China.

Statue of Confucius Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Professor Roel Sterckx Confucius, by Wu Weishan at Clare College, Cambridge For several weeks in 2011, a 31-foot bronze statue of Confucius by the sculptor Wu Weishan stood in front of the National History Museum in Beijing. This was a uniquely curious historical interlude: ancient China’s exemplary sage shared the view with Chairman Mao. The unveiling of the statue prompted a flurry of commentary at the time. Was this an ominous sign for the rediscovery or rehabilitation of Confucius and the traditional values he represented? Were China’s leaders voicing an ambition to turn to China’s pre-imperial and imperial past as a source for contemporary political and moral values? In the wake of China’s extraordinary social and economic transformations could Confucius fill the cultural and political void which had been occupied by Marxist ideology? The statue, however, soon disappeared to an obscure position in a courtyard. This had always been the plan …, claimed government officials.

Competition with Mao proved too challenging but the public revival and re-endorsement of Confucius in recent years can hardly escape the eyes of anyone observing China. The master has returned in biographical drama: a movie starring Chow Yun-fat as Confucius was screened in 2010.  The most public manifestation of this phenomenon outside China are the hundreds of ‘Confucius Institutes’ established worldwide by the Chinese government in recent years.  These institutes promote the officially endorsed narrative of Chinese culture and history. But why does the People’s Republic of China borrow the Confucius figure as a brand?

The historical Confucius (551-479 BCE) lived 2500 years ago but was only known in the Western world after the late sixteenth century when his name, Kong Fuzi (Kong Qiu), was Latinized by Jesuit missionaries. The China in which Confucius was living was very different from today’s state. It was a time of rival states that were perpetually at arms, attempting to gain supremacy. The Chinese empire did not unite until 221 BCE. Confucius lived through what he saw as a collapse of civilization. Therefore his philosophy was first and foremost motivated by the search for social harmony. Confucius argued that rather than functioning as individuals, humans are social beings whose prime duty it is to play a role in a network of relationships and within a set hierarchy. This starts by respecting authority within the fabric of the family and ends up with knowing one’s place in relation to the state, which he called the “father and mother of the people”. Confucius’ taught that those who govern ought to restore society to a perfectly balanced order that once existed back in the golden age.

"...those in power should be enlightened so that subjects heed their advice."Confucian values served to build the “harmonious society”, a term revived by Chinese authorities today. Sons ought to obey their fathers, the young should demonstrate unquestionable respect for the elderly, and a code of immutable rituals should guide private and public life. Moreover, all subjects of the monarch ought to be content with their station in life. The premise here is that those in power should be enlightened so that subjects heed their advice. He held an indefatigable belief in the power of practical education combined with the ambition to emulate one’s teachers and become good members of society. This makes up the Confucian recipe for the perfect moral and political order.

Anyone in power would no doubt find virtue in some aspects of Confucian ideology. The participants in China’s so-called “Confucian revival” today are diverse and they cross social strata: “national study classes” for Communist Party members and company managers offer interpretations of the Confucian Classics at substantial fees. As the epitome of the incorruptible gentleman, Confucius can offer a role model for both business and the public good.  Some among the aspiring middle classes send their children to courses where the youngsters read, memorize, and recite large chunks of the Confucian Classics for moral guidance. In the academic world, a number of philosophers and political scientists have now embraced various forms of Confucian thought as an alternative ideology to mend social ills.

Both Communist Party members and their strongest detractors seem to detect in Confucius a source for universal values that can be exported beyond China. Ever since the age of the historical Confucius, rulers, intellectuals and commentators have moulded the Master in the image of their own agenda and selectively interpreted his ideas to suit their own purpose. And while Confucius today no longer represents the ills of China’s feudal past in the eyes of its rulers, it is hard to imagine that those who avail themselves of the Master’s teaching today would agree with all his ideas. Because Confucius once intimated that whenever those in power are unable to provide justice and order, they have lost the Mandate of Heaven, and they can be rightfully dethroned.

 

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