China embraces Confucius again

Confucius has returned. In fact he was never far away, not even in the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution. For years the government reviled Confucius as a representative of "old ways of thinking", a lackey of the feudal class and oppressor of slaves. Lin Biao, the disgraced heir apparent of Mao, was condemned not only as a traitor but as "a close follower of Confucius". It has always been like this in Chinese history. In the 3rd century BC, Chin—the first emperor and unifier of China—wanted to do away with history and tradition so that he would become the cornerstone of a new China. He ordered the Confucian classics to be burned and the scholars massacred, much as Mao Tse-tung did.

What happened after Chin is happening after Mao: Confucius is making a comeback. it could hardly be otherwise. China is not China without Confucius.

The ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in deep crisis. Even among Party leaders, it is hard to find a convinced Marxist, even though a portrait of Mao is still hanging in Tiananmen Square. From a pragmatic perspective, the CCP needs to justify its grip on power using the old dynastic rationale: Mao is the founder of a new dynasty and the CCP is his heir. The CCP is no longer a revolutionary party; but a political aristocracy that claims a monopoly on power to steer the country through an economic and social transformation unprecedented in human history and make it a great power. There are no obvious alternatives. The history of China in the 20th century has been so volatile, violent, chaotic and miserable that its citizens appreciate the relative prosperity and freedom, even if there is room for much improvement.

But this leaves the CPP with two great problems: consistency and solidarity. For 30 years the Party has followed the pragmatic approach suggested by Deng Xiaoping: "To be rich is to be glorious." Hence it has followed capitalist development policies. But this has created a problem of consistency within the Party. The Marxist structures and slogans remain, but the ideology has evaporated. What is the source, then, of the regime's legitimacy?

The other problem is social solidarity. China has the largest number of millionaires in the world and the companies with greatest market value. But there are vast differences between the well-developed coastal regions and the poor interior provinces, and between rural and urban areas. Corruption is rife and the socialist safety nets of the 1970s are being undone with nothing to replace them. Demonstrations and complaints have been increasingly frequent. Can the government withstand the stormy seas ahead?

In view of this social turmoil, the Chinese Prime Minister, Hu Jintao, deliberately revived the ancient sage at the CPP's recent five-year congress in Beijing. Hu's slogan of the "Three Harmonies" is clearly Confucian: he-ping (peace in the world), he-jie (reconciliation with Taiwan), he-xie (social harmony). This is clearly a Confucian program.

Ever since Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took control of the main political positions of China at the end of 2002, they have consistently acted as ruler-scholars at the service of the people, in keeping with the Confucian ideal of a good ruler. Many of their slogans, such as "people first", "running the Government at the service of the people", and "seek harmony in differences," are literal quotations from Confucius or his follower Mencius.

The rebirth of Confucian values is everywhere. The Chinese Government has fostered the creation of Confucius Institutes all over the world to promote Chinese language and culture; the curricula in schools and universities pay now more attention to the Chinese classics; it is becoming fashionable in the media to use expressions with Confucian undertones. One of the outstanding publishing success stories of the last few years has been the sale of almost four million copies of a simplified version of Confucius’s Analects.

Confucius’ moral and social philosophy goes directly against the moribund Marxist orthodoxy but the CPP likes its emphasis on order, harmony, sense of responsibility, and authority. As the heirs of the Mao dynasty, they are seeking support for their position.

However, this novel emphasis on Confucian values may be motivated by an honest drive to seek a solid foundation in the quicksands of social transformation. Hu and Wen are fully aware that Confucian ethics imposes reciprocal rights and duties on rulers and citizens. It demands obedience to authority, but imposes on the Government the duty of moral behaviour in favour of the people, to the point that it justifies rebellion against tyranny. They have begun a one-way trip away from Marxist ideology. Furthermore, the new generation of Chinese leaders believes that their first loyalty is to China and its people, not to the CPP. They have a deep sense of mission and responsibility rooted in the Confucian ideals of a good ruler -- even if the West views them as a despotic autocracy.

Confucianism and government

Confucius (551-479 BC) is the most influential thinker of China of the past 25 centuries. He shaped the culture not only of the "Central Kingdom," but also of Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. The canonical texts of Confucianism, the Four Books, including the Analects by Confucius, the Book of Mencius, The Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. These are not philosophical treatises with the logical rigor of Greek thought, but suggestive thoughts open to many interpretations. Confucian orthodoxy today is based on an interpretation made by scholars of the Sung Dynasty, in the 10th to 13th centuries.

Confucianism is a system of personal and social ethics. It does not rely upon supernatural arguments or God, although it is not closed to transcendence. Confucius simply pleads ignorance about the fate of man after death, while insisting on the importance of venerating one's forefathers as a sign of filial piety. Confucius would not regard himself as a secularist. Secularism disdains man’s spiritual needs, but there is nothing in the thinking of Confucius which suppresses man's spiritual dimension.

Confucianism’s starting point is the unity of the three great realities: Heaven, Man, and Earth. The universe obeys its own order and laws and ethical behaviour consists precisely in following those "natural laws." For Confucius, the evil and disorder that visit human beings are a consequence of immorality. In particular, rulers have authority because they have received it from a higher power (tiandao) by means of a Mandate of Heaven (tianming). What exactly Heaven means in Confucian thought is disputed since it is, like many other notions of Chinese philosophy, a vague intuition rather than a formal metaphysical concept. In any case, it is something more than just mechanical laws.

The rulers lose the Mandate of Heaven when they fail to behave ethically. Then the people can legitimately demand a change in government. But so long as the rulers enjoy the Mandate of Heaven, the people are obliged to obey and follow docilely the ruler's decrees. When Hu Jintao invokes Confucian values he is implicitly renouncing both the dictatorship of the proletariat and the tyranny of the market, as well as encouraging his fellow citizens to follow the order that heavens have given to human nature in order to reach personal perfection and social harmony.

Like his Greek contemporary Aristotle, Confucius follows an ethics of perfection. Human beings must be in harmony with the universe, which assumes obedience to laws decreed by heaven. Obedience to the laws of nature requires learning them with self-knowledge and study. Knowing the laws leads to li, a characteristically Confucian virtue that implies the internalization of good social forms. Correct social behaviour results from consistency between external social conventions and internal personal dispositions. Li is the root of ren, a higher virtue, which could be roughly translated as "benevolence": wishing the best for everyone. For Confucius, the virtue of ren begins at home, with one’s family. From there it spreads in wider ripples to all people. Confucian ethics carries a strong domestic flavour: family relations are the foundation and model of all social relations. Ren implies the practice of zhong (fidelity, loyalty) and of shu (mercy, compassion). Benevolence (ren) also leads to the practice of the principles of justice and equity, which are at the core of the virtue of yi.

A virtuous individual reaches moral perfection by seeking in everything a proper balance, the virtuous equilibrium of the just mean, which could be summarized as "know and respect the mandates of Heaven." For Confucius, society must be ruled by virtuous scholars. The calling and mission of a virtuous person is to rule others. This is not seen as an honour or an opportunity for personal benefit, since this should never be in the mind of a person aspiring to perfection. It is simply done in obedience to a mandate from Heaven, which a superior person knows and obeys.

If the current rehabilitation of Confucianism in China is sincere, it confirms that the CCP intends to transform itself into a political aristocracy. It will no longer aim at the dictatorship of the proletariat, but at rule by the best equipped to govern the nation. In this it will connect with previous dynasties, since meritocracy has been for thousands of years a part of the administrative organization of the State through empire-wide competitive examinations.

Another relevant point of Confucian ethics is its emphasis on responsibility. Western liberal democracy is based on an individualistic ethic which focuses on rights and freedom. In Confucianism, however, the individual is a person-for-others. Hence Confucian virtues always have a social dimension. For instance, Confucianism insists on the importance of study and knowledge; but their main aim is not mere personal satisfaction, achievement, or power over nature, but cooperation with others to achieve a harmonious relationship within society and within the universe.

Confucianism and democracy

Confucianism (particularly in the writings of Mencius) is optimistic about the natural goodness of human beings and their progress in perfection. It views society as an expanded version of the family. The patrilineal family system of China created rights and duties for the individuals unconnected to their condition as subjects of the State. In this sense, the Chinese people have enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in relation to the State, although they were subject to important family bonds.

On the other hand, State controlled individuals through those same lineage and family bonds. It depended upon the network of family and clan relationships to function. Therefore, the Confucian emphasis on family relationships, on filial piety, on the need of solidarity among siblings, and on domestic harmony, reflects a political perspective in which it is expected that the basic units of the social pyramid will exercise self-control in favour of the State.

Hence, for Confucius the family is school of virtue and foundation of society. If there are many virtuous and learned individuals, they will be able to run their families properly and the result will be a rich and well governed State. In turn, a prosperous and properly managed State will be in a position to encourage individuals and their families along a path of moral and civic virtue and thus reach social harmony.

Towards a Confucian China

What lies ahead for China if it shrugs off its socialist ideology completely? It is difficult to say, but certainly 21st century China will be deeply influenced by more than 2,000 years of immersion in Confucian values. It will value strong authority; social hierarchies; political consensus; a political elite; and social meritocracy. Some of the forms of Western democracy, even universal suffrage, will exist, but it is likely that political power will continue in the hands of a political aristocracy that will still call itself Communist Party of China, at least for the next few decades.

What happens afterwards, when China has high living standards, a large middle class, and a dynamic ecnomy is anyone's guess. But one thing is certain: China will not allow the West to impose on her a political model. "Study the past to define the future," said Confucius. When Chinese study the history of their encounter with the West, they find a century of humiliation, from 1843 (when China was forced after her defeat in the opium wars to cede Hong Kong to Great Britain) to 1949 (when Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China).This is bound to define the long-term political future of China.

Confucius and Chinese foreign policy

Is a powerful China good for world peace? Will it pursue the logic of power, the logic of self-interest, or the logic of benevolence? The opinion of my Chinese friends is unanimous, as if springing from a collective historical memory. China, they say, has never been an aggressor. The trend of its foreign policy is to attract rather than coerce. As Confucius said: "If those who are close are happy, those who are far will be attracted."

For Confucius and his followers, only selfish and petty people, of those he calls xiaoren -- stunted individuals -- engage in power struggles. A virtuous person, a junzi, must not seek power, but the good of society at large. His internal goodness (ren) comes out in the form of external good manners and propriety (li). These virtues are not merely individual qualities. When a State is truly civilized, which for Confucius is the same as virtuous, it will exert a beneficial influence over the entire world and contribute to global stability, peace, and harmony among nations.

One of the traditional concepts of Chinese culture is the awareness that all peoples form a global community (datong): "All are one under Heaven." This notion goes beyond the vague idea of one human race to which all men belong. In Confucian thought, datong is based on the unity between Heaven, Man, and Earth. This means that the human element (the individual person, the family, the clan, the State, or the whole of human society) has a duty to seek harmony with both Heaven (that is with the superior ethical laws) and Earth (natural resources, the economy, and the management of material things). If humanity clashes with the moral or the economic order, the world becomes a place of conflict, injustice, exploitation, and suffering. Mankind has then lost the Way (dao). When conflict and disunity predominate, the Way is being lost -- a far cry from Marxist dialectics.

Therefore, the great question is how far is whether the contemporary Chinese state is at the service of the dao, or is the dao a tool in the hands of the State? In the last few years China has shown great restraint in her foreign policy, has supported multilateralism, and developed an "charm offensive". But critics accuse her of having exploited the dao to enlarge her sphere of influence (particularly in the Pacific), to isolate Taiwan, to expand her exports, and to secure a supply of raw materials for her economic boom, all of it supported by the modernization of her armed forces and the acquisition of civilian and military advanced technology.

Another key element in China’s foreign policy is the Taiwan question. This is directly linked to domestic policies since those far away will feel attracted only if they see that those close by are happy. While the official relationship between Beijing and Taipei continues to be chilly, the economy of Taiwan is increasingly dependent on China: more than a quarter of Taiwan’s exports and 95% of its external investments go to the Mainland. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese work there. It is a typically Confucian challenge: how to achieve a harmonious relationship in spite of differences.


Modern China is basically traditional China garbed with Western technology and an Enlightenment ideology. China is recovering her confidence and rediscovering her authentic self, which is thoroughly Confucian. A modern re-interpretation of Confucian values could help her cope with rapid social and economic transformation without succumbing to Western excesses of individualism and relativism. Hence, my reading of Hu's promotion of Confucius is that the West should be very positive about China's potential for contributing to world stability and peace. Much will depend on the vision and honesty of her leaders -- on their wisdom and virtue, as Confucius would put it.

Alberto Serna lives and works in Hong Kong. He is the managing director of a publishing company in Hong Kong and is engaged in NGO projects in Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia.


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