In the upcoming week, China will celebrate the birth of a sage whose influence has endured for over two millennia. Confucius, a towering figure in the realm of Chinese philosophy, continues to cast a profound shadow on the nation’s cultural landscape. His philosophical legacy has not only shaped China’s historical development but remains a vital force in its modern socio-political fabric.
In recent decades, China has experienced a reawakening of traditional culture, leading to a resurgence of interest in Confucianism, a school of thought deeply rooted in the teachings of Confucius. This revival has captivated both academics and the general public, marking what many observers describe as China’s return to Confucius.
However, amidst this resurgence, some Western scholars and media outlets have raised doubts about the authenticity of China’s newfound fascination with Confucianism. They contend that it has been co-opted for political posturing, with a few even suggesting that its principles have become obsolete in contemporary China.
Nonetheless, Wei Heli, an esteemed Chinese scholar specializing in Confucianism, argues that the ancient yet evolving wisdom of China still serves as the spiritual cornerstone of the nation’s collective consciousness and political ethos in the modern era.
Why Confucianism Endures:
Confucianism is characterized by two principal dimensions: moral ethics and political principles. It persevered as the dominant force in traditional Chinese culture after Dong Zhongshu, a philosopher and statesman during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), dismissed the numerous intellectual schools of thought that had flourished during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770-221 BC) in favor of Confucianism.
This monumental shift reshaped the political landscape of ancient China, as Confucianism became the official ideology of the state, firmly embedded within the hierarchical structure of Chinese imperial governance for the ensuing 2,000 years.
Wei contends that the enduring appeal of Confucianism is rooted in the essence of the philosophy itself. At its core lies the concept of “Ren (仁),” a term that encapsulates a broad spectrum of virtues, including benevolence, humaneness, and righteousness. From this foundational concept sprouted a comprehensive framework for managing familial relationships, self-improvement, and the governance of the state.
Wei elaborates, “The left side of the Chinese character ‘Ren’ means ‘person,’ and the right side is ‘two,’ which reveals that ‘Ren’ can only be realized when there are at least two subjects. Despite being separate individuals, we find our best selves in our relations with others.” This concept, Wei explains, extends beyond individual interactions to encompass familial, communal, and national relationships, even reaching out to relationships between humans and the entire world.
Confucianism’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of all relationships provides an effective means of organizing and uniting individuals and society. This resonates with the idea of the “Great Unity” proposed by Dong Zhongshu, underpinning a vision of harmony and cohesion.
Another critical aspect contributing to Confucianism’s enduring relevance is its concept of unifying heaven, Earth, and humanity. This concept provides a moral foundation for political authority, anchored in the doctrine of the “Mandate of Heaven.” Wei explains that this perspective diverges from Western traditions, which posit the existence of an external transcendence to be worshipped, often leading to the formation of religious faiths. In contrast, China’s approach is grounded in the idea of immanent transcendence. It suggests that through self-cultivation and self-knowledge, individuals can perceive the “Mandate of Heaven” and harmonize their actions with the natural world.
The Resilience of Confucianism:
Confucianism’s political dominance in China was thought to have waned after the abolishment of the imperial examination system during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), as officials were no longer selected based on their knowledge of Confucian classics.
However, Wei argues that Confucianism never truly faded in modern China, despite Western analyses suggesting otherwise. He asserts, “The ethical aspects of Confucianism have been deeply ingrained in the psyche of modern Chinese generations.” One illustrative example is the structure of Chinese families, which tends to be more tightly-knit compared to Western counterparts, reflecting a stronger sentiment for familial bonds.
Moreover, Confucianism’s enduring spiritual influence can still be discerned in pivotal policies shaping modern-day China. The concept of Chinese modernization, as elucidated in a report by the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2022, underscores a path to modernity infused with Chinese characteristics—emphasizing peaceful development and harmony between humanity and nature, in stark contrast to Western narratives centered on aggression, colonization, and expansion.
Wei contends that this divergence stems from the differing philosophical underpinnings of Western and Chinese traditions. Western modernization often underscores confrontation and hegemony, whereas traditional Chinese thought prioritizes harmony and coexistence. This approach is reflected in China’s promotion of the “Kingly Way,” wherein benevolence governs the political order. According to Wei, “Those who are benevolent love others and will not hurt others.”
China’s proposal of “building a community with a shared future for mankind,” a global public good aimed at addressing global deficits in governance, trust, peace, and development, embodies the essence of Chinese culture—the unity of heaven and humanity. Wei explains, “Western tradition believes in the division of heaven and man, thus man conquers and makes use of nature. The idea was especially prominent after the Industrial Revolution and the era of mechanization.”
In contrast, Chinese culture, rooted in Confucian wisdom, envisions a world where humans coexist harmoniously with nature. This perspective deviates from Western traditions, where such ideas, while present, have not been as central.
Wei concludes that China’s pursuit of a distinct model of modernization, grounded in its own tradition and Confucian values, is an ongoing endeavor. While the West has forged its path to modernity based on its own traditions, China seeks to chart a different course—one that offers a promising vision for the world’s future, rooted in its unique cultural heritage and the enduring wisdom of Confucius.