Class Notes

Confucianism in China Today

An ancient philosophy makes a comeback

By Paula Marantz Cohen | December 4, 2012


During my recent visit to China, the subject of Confucius, the legendary Chinese philosopher and teacher who lived between 551 and 479 B.C., came up on numerous occasions. Many students I spoke to expressed their reverence for his teaching and told me that they were reading The Analects, the compilation of aphorisms attributed to him. This was a surprise, given that the Chinese Communist Party had condemned Confucianism as a reactionary philosophy.

But Confucian ideas are now making a comeback. Eighty Confucius Centers in the United States and more throughout the world are partially funded by the People’s Republic of China. This embrace of the ancient philosopher is thanks, in part, to the spirit of openness and reform sweeping through many areas of Chinese life. But it is also due to the nature of Confucian ideas, which support the continuity of Chinese history, from which Communist ideology cannot be excluded.

One striking thing about The Analects is its similarity to some of the teachings of Aristotle. The notion of aiming for a mean—a balance of behavior and emotion— is central to both philosophies. As Confucius puts it: “Perfect is the virtue which is according to the Constant Mean!” So is the idea of emulation as a basis for the development of character. For Aristotle, the way to become a good person is to copy one, though he neglects to explain how to find such a person or how the original good person was formed. Confucianism is better at answering those questions. Reverence for elders—“filial piety”—is central to Confucianism. This translates into emulation of those older than you, usually within your family, where behavior can be most closely observed. The elder need not be perfect to be a source of emulation, as expressed in the following aphorism: “When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them.” Family tradition is not just an artificial rite; it is the means to self-development.

The idea of modeling the self on respected elders explains why Chinese students have such a hard time questioning or disagreeing with their teachers, a tendency that has been blamed for what some people say is a lack of innovation in Chinese culture. New ideas are suppressed in favor of more established wisdom—one of the hallmarks of Chinese history has been the diligent study of certain revered literary works. Until the 20th century, civil service exams contained questions regarding esoteric texts that seemed highly impractical within the context of the jobs in question. In this, the Chinese resemble the French, who also put a premium on often “impractical” literary study—one of the reasons why Nicolas Sarkozy’s barbs against the classic French 17th-century novel The Princess of Clèves may have lost him the presidency.

What holds for elders and for revered literary works also holds for the past in general: “Confucius said, ‘The Yin dynasty followed the regulations of the Hsia: wherein it took from or added to them may be known. The Chau dynasty has followed the regulations of Yin: wherein it took from or added to them may be known. Some other may follow the Chau, but though it should be at the distance of a hundred ages, its affairs may be known.’”

Confucianism sees a continuity of meaning over time. The idea of taking from and amending the past fits well with the advent of Communist ideology. It assumes a continuity in change, even if that change appears radical, and it enforces reverence for new leaders if these leaders seem to possess what Confucius would call “perfect virtue.”

The reverence for Mao Zedong can be understood as a function of this sort of thinking. Mao put himself forward as the ultimate father figure and the purveyor of a certain kind of aphoristic philosophical wisdom. His Little Red Book served as a replacement for (or perhaps an extension of) the Analects.

As China becomes more open, Confucian thinking is likely to focus more intensively on it. This is why the revelation of recent political scandals in China is so disruptive. It calls into question a deep-seated Confucian sense that leaders should be models. By the same token, the one-child policy (which has shifted attention from the past to the present and future) and the increasing commercialism of Chinese society are not in line with Confucian thinking. They may be just the antidote needed to keep the resurgence of this ancient philosophy in check.

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