Study of Confucius and Confucianism Since 1949

Paper Info
Page count 19
Word count 5377
Read time 20 min
Topic History
Type Research Paper
Language 🇺🇸 US

Introduction

China has experienced rapid economic growth over the past five decades to become the world’s second-largest economy. According to Tan, the rapid growth that the country has witnessed is partly attributed to the socio-cultural beliefs and practices that inform work ethos and human relationships (4). The culture in China is significantly different from that which is practiced in other parts of the world. Strong family ties, loyalty to the state, and the desire to promote communal success are more common in China than it is in western countries. This culture has played a major role in eradicating absolute poverty that was rampant in the country for a long time (Shi 99). The author believes that this culture was strongly championed by Confucianism which has been popular in the countries for several centuries.

Confucius (551-479 BC) was a Chinese philosopher who gained prominence as an adviser to the rulers of his country. He believed that the success of his people and country depended on the unity and ability to address common problems without allowing personal differences to get in the way (Zhu and Razaque 139). He promoted various concepts meant to enhance trust and respect among people while at the same time embracing hard work and creativity. He insisted that those trusted with power must act with fidelity and with the interest of their subjects at heart. On the other hand, people had to demonstrate their loyalty and support to the rulers. Confucius also talked about the importance of cherishing the family unit. He believed that the country can only be successful if individuals were concerned about and committed to their families. The aim of this paper is to discuss how the study of Confucius and Confucianism has fared in China since 1949.

The Rise of China as a Global Power

China has experienced massive economic development over the past seven decades. Before the Second World War, China was going through a civil war (Rošker 158). The political instability in the country made it impossible for it to achieve economic success. It was also suffering from constant attacks from Japan, which had a superior economy and military (Guo 1052). When the war came to an end, China was one of the countries that benefitted significantly from the Marshall Plan. It received massive economic support to help it restore its economy after the devastation of the war. During this period, Mao Zedong had emerged as the ruler of the country.

Chairman Mao first embraced both the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as political allies at a time when the country was still facing an existential threat from Japan (Fung 39). However, the ruler leaned toward the Soviet Union because of the common political leadership structure between the two countries. Mao believed that the country needed to shift from agrarian practices into an industrial economy. He introduced various socio-economic strategies meant to improve productivity and eliminate unnecessary wastage. Having come from a humble background, Mao was keen on promoting communism as a way of eliminating cases where a section of the society had more than it needed while others suffered extreme poverty.

Mao popularized various concepts of Confucianism in China from 1949 to the early 1960s. One of the concepts that he emphasized was loyalty to the state (Li and Cheong 96). He used the support he received from its allies, especially the Soviet Union, to crush any form of political rebellion. He made sure that the Communist Party had absolute control of all the socio-political and economic activities in the country. He then initiated various socio-economic policies meant to make the country more productive and less reliant on foreign aid (Cao 67). Some of these policies failed to achieve their economic goals but helped in instilling communism and in enhancing government control.

The rapid growth of the Chinese economy and its rise as a global power started in 1986 when the country embraced an ‘open-door policy’ which opened up the country to foreign investors. The government supported the development of a private sector and market economy as a way of promoting economic growth. The communist government realized that it needed to liberalize its economy to spur the needed growth. The strategy worked, and as Walker explains, by 1992, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked the Chinese economy as the third-largest in the world (90). Only the United States of America and Japan had larger economies at that time. The IMF also noted that China’s economy was growing significantly faster than that of the first two largest global economies.

China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in November 2001, a move that allowed it to sell its products to the international markets. The long period when the country had closed its economy to large multinational corporations allowed local companies to grow (Li and Cheong 71). By the time the country joined the WTO, most of these local Chinese firms were large enough and had the financial muscle to compete with major rivals in the global market. Most of these firms targeted developing countries in Asia, South America, and Africa with relatively cheap products. Although the quality offered was compromised, these firms understood the fact that these customers were more concerned about the price than the quality of goods that they purchased. The economy of China continued to grow rapidly and by 2011, it had surpassed the Japanese economy to become the second-largest in the world after that of the United States (Cao 88). The country’s economy has remained on an upward trajectory and it has the potential to surpass that of the United States to become the world’s strongest economic powerhouse.

As the economy of China grew, it also started gaining global political influence not only in the region but also on a global scale. In 1995, China started testing its missiles and other military exercises along with the Taiwan state, in a move that the global community considered a deliberate provocation of the neighboring country and an attempt to influence its elections. In 2001, China and Russia invited Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to form Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Fung 56). It was a move to strengthen its geopolitical position in the region. Two years later in 2003, China launched its first manned spacecraft as it sought to join the space war. In 2012, the country demonstrated its military power when it defied the international community and when it started military installation in the South China Sea (Zhu and Razaque 142). The country has also been keen on forming strategic alliances with Russia and many other developing nations around the world. It has already surpassed the United States as the world’s largest exporter of manufactured products and food items.

The rapid rise of China into a global power is partly attributed to its unique culture that is based on Confucianism. Rošker explains that the government of China has absolute power over the normal activities of the Chinese (160). It has allowed it to enact and implement policies meant to strengthen the economy. She explains that the belief about loyalty to family and state has largely been used to justify copyright abuse in the country, especially that which targets foreign companies (101). As such, it has become common for Chinese companies to steal the intellectual rights of foreign firms and use them to manufacture substandard goods which are then sold to the emerging markets in Asia and Africa (Guo 1054). The attempt by the global community to punish such companies has often failed because of the unwillingness of the government to prosecute such cases. It is necessary to investigate how various concepts of Confucianism have made the country a powerful nation and how its study has fared in the country since 1949.

The Philosophy of Confucianism

The philosophy of Confucianism has widely been embraced in China and Korea for several centuries as a tradition, religion, way of governance, way of life, and humanistic religion. According to Tan, the golden rule of this philosophy is that one should not do to others what they would not want others to do to them (2). The philosophy emphasizes the need to create an environment where everyone feels respected and able to get the support they need to achieve success in life. Confucianism was concerned about the growing individualism in society and the approach that many people took to amass wealth at the expense of the majority. To him, such a society where a small section is very rich while the rest live in abject poverty is a recipe for socio-political disaster. As such, he set principles that he believed would guide humankind into a peaceful coexistence despite the possible contradicting goals. The following are the major principles championed by this philosophy.

Righteousness

One of the virtues that are strongly upheld by this philosophy is righteousness. It refers to the need for a person to embrace a moral obligation to do the right thing at all times without the feeling of being coerced (Walker 112). In a society where cases of conflicting interests are common, it is critical for people to act in a way that is self-beneficial at the expense of the majority of the population. If such self-centered acts are not contained, society will be chaotic and societal systems can easily crumble. As such, it is essential for people to act with restraint, knowing that they have an obligation to protect the interest of society. It means that before one takes a given action, they have to consider how others will be affected too. One’s action should be based on the desire to benefit self, but not at the expense of others. Righteousness also cherishes the need to help others overcome their challenges without expecting any direct benefit from them. This principle is meant to create harmony and eliminate crime in society.

Honesty and Trustworthiness

Confucianism believes in honesty and trustworthiness as essential values that people should embrace in a society. Those who are in positions of power have a perfect opportunity to abuse their offices to engage in corruption. This philosophy upholds honesty and trustworthiness for both the rulers and their subjects. A ruler should understand that society relies on their ability to be fair and committed to the truth as a way of upholding social justice (Zhu and Razaque 88). Corruption erodes public confidence and inhibits normal economic growth. It creates an environment where people fail to follow the law because they know there is always an alternative but an illegal way of achieving desired goals. Those who believe in Confucianism detest lies because it is the root cause of many social problems. In this case, the responsibility of promoting loyalty and trustworthiness is placed on leaders. They have to be role models in society and demonstrate people can always succeed by doing the right thing and without relying on undesirable practices.

Loyalty to State and Authority

One of the principles of Confucianism that has remained popular in China for many centuries is loyalty to the state and authority. Confucius believed that a society can only remain cohesive and successful if power is centralized (Li and Cheong). As such, it required the people to demonstrate their loyalty to the state and authority through their actions and utterances. It holds the belief that leadership comes from God, and as such, it is the religious duty of everyone to respect those who have been given the responsibility to lead. China has a highly centralized leadership system despite the liberalization of its economy (Cao 127). The government has absolute power to define the life of people in the country.

Fact Because citizens believe in absolute loyalty to the authority, people are comfortable with such authoritarian governance structures. They have embraced it as a way of life and a responsibility that they have to the government. Since 1949 when Chairman Mao founded the People’s Republic of China, successive regimes have embraced authoritarianism as the best way of governance. Citizens have no authority to define policies set by the government. The governance style has helped the government to crush the rebellion and other forms of social unrest while at the same time promoting an enabling environment for businesses to thrive. It has also created a system where the government can control the business environment in a way that is beneficial to local Chinese corporations at the expense of foreign companies. It is not possible for a business to flourish without the support and protection of the government of the host country.

Propriety, Ritual, and Etiquette

The philosophy embraces etiquette as a virtue that one has to embrace to have a social order in society. A code of polite behavior is essential in a society where people strive to respect one another. Fung explains that one has to start by respecting self to earn the respect of other members of society (78). The behavior of an individual should reflect the virtues and norms of society. In China, absolute respect for those in authority is considered the right social order. On the other hand, it is common for one to challenge those in authority in the United States and other western countries (Zhu and Razaque 139). When one is working in China, they are expected to understand the local culture and beliefs that define their behavior. It becomes a ritual as they constantly strive to do the right thing at all times.

Loyalty to Family

The philosophy of Confucianism highly cherishes loyalty to family as a critical factor for social order and communal success. It defines a family as the smallest social unit where the rule of law has to be defined (Shi 97). A parent has a responsibility to provide for their children. They have to ensure that all basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and healthcare are provided. Parents also have to ensure that they take their children to school and provide them with the needs they may have to achieve success. They have to be role models, always helping their children to be the best they can achieve. On the other hand, children also have a responsibility to their parents. They have to respect and follow their guidelines at all times.

Respect for authority starts at home, with the child respecting the elders. At a certain age, it becomes necessary for the child to provide support to the aging parent. Strong family ties among the Chinese explain why most elderly parents opt to stay with their adult children instead of going to live in care homes (Li and Cheong 53). In the United States, it is common to find such parents staying in homes for the elderly where they receive professional care from nurses and other social workers. In China, the strong bond and communal approach to life have created a culture where when the parents have provided care for the child into adulthood, it becomes the responsibility of the child to care for the parent.

Benevolence and Humanness

The last principle of Confucianism is benevolence and humanness. According to Rošker, kindness is a virtue that defines an individual’s commitment to helping others even when they know they may not benefit directly from their actions (159). It involves being human and doing the right thing to others even when faced with major challenges. Confucius believed that one of the best ways of eliminating evil practices in society is to be kind. When one is offended, they should not be quick to take retaliatory measures. Instead, they should try and understand why one acted in a given way and if they were justified to do so. Kindness creates an environment where people become keen on protecting the interest of others as a way of enhancing unity (Guo 1054). This virtue was specifically promoted among those trusted with positions of power.

The philosophy requires leaders to be kind and considerate when handling their subordinates. This principle has selectively been applied by Chinese leaders since 1949 when the republic was created. In most cases, those who are in leadership in the country use their position of power to frustrate individuals considered to be enemies of the state. Confucius warns against such practices as they may lead to a revolt among the masses when they feel neglected and oppressed. One of the main sources of authority among political leaders is the belief that they care about the interest of citizens. Care and concern are demonstrated through acts of kindness and commitment to the rule of law. When such measures are not taken, it becomes difficult to rule.

Confucianism in China’s Domestic Politics Since 1949

The massive economic growth of China started in 1949 under the leadership of Chairman Mao. However, many leaders and philosophers helped entrenched some of the cultural practices currently popular in the country based on Confucianism beliefs. Duke of Zhou is one such philosopher who focused on Confucius and modern China (Walker 72). Working closely with the ruling class, Zhou’s work focused on promoting loyalty among citizens and respect for authority. He managed to tie most of his teachings to religion, emphasizing that respecting those in authority was a sign of one’s commitment and love towards God.

Zhu Xi was another prominent neo-Confucianism philosopher in whose work focused on communist China (Fung 104). His main concern was to improve family life, society, and governance during the Song dynasty. He argued that the only way of having a successful society is to start by having stable and successful families. As the smallest social unit within the kingdom, rulers had to ensure that families are properly taken care of so that they could take part in the normal development of the society. The work of these neo-Confucianism philosophers paved way for Chairman Mao’s China.

Confucianism during the Mao Era

Mao Zedong, popularly known as Chairman Mao, was born in a peasant family on December 26, 1893 (Zhu and Razaque 140). Growing up, he embraced Marxist-Leninist ideologies and he believed that the country’s social structure disfavored a section of people. He believed that there was a need to change the governance system and to create a society where people had the capacity to have access to basic needs. He was involved in various civil wars such as Autumn Harvest Uprising which took place in 1927 and the Chinese Civil War. He gained a massive following as he was seen as a champion for the peasants. Chairman Mao finally defeated the Nationalist government and founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

During the reign of Chairman Mao, Confucianism was practiced selectively and in a way that favored the government. Mao started by fighting the rich landlords and bourgeois believed to be in control of the country’s economy (Fung 70). He endeared the government to the masses by convincing the people that he was fighting for their rights by ensuring that the rich do not take advantage of the poor. He promoted communism as a means of ensuring that the national wealth is fairly distributed to everyone. He introduced major economic policies meant to transform the country into an industrial powerhouse. The Great Leap Forward was one such policy meant to transform the country from an agrarian to an industrial country (Cao 82). However, this initiative was a major failure as it led to a massive drop in food production. Millions of Chinese died of starvation because of this economic plan.

Studies have shown that although some of these policies and initiatives were major failures, he was successful in crushing the rebellion and building a politically stable country. The introduction of the Socialist Education Movement in 1963 was specifically meant to promote loyalty to the government and authority among children from a tender age (Li and Cheong 52). This education system was designed to instill the belief that Chairman Mao and his government were the reason for stability and socio-economic success in China. His position was elevated from that of a God that not only had to be respected but also worshiped (Walker 79). He believed that the real revolution capable of toppling the government often starts in learning institutions. As such, the best way of eliminating such an occurrence would be to brainwash learners into believing that he was the right leader capable of guiding the country into greater success. He also introduced Cultural Revolution in 1966 to further promote loyalty among citizens of his country (Tan 77). It was another initiative to strengthen his grip on power.

Confucianism was a major tool that Chairman Mao used to strengthen their position as the ruler of the country. He positioned himself as the authority that had to be respected by all Chinese. He was successful in promoting beliefs about communism based on concepts of Confucianism. There was a deliberate attempt to empower individual families socially and economically. At the same time, the government continued to become more powerful and forceful in crushing any form of rebellion. Loyal citizens had the responsibility to report the activities of the dissidents and help the government in limiting their influence (Shi 101). During this period, China gained political stability partly because of the support from Russia and the fall of the powerful Imperial Japanese Empire. He managed to create political order in the country that was necessary for enhancing the economic growth that the country has witnessed.

Confucianism Today and the Communist Party

The Communist Party today has taken a stronghold on the leadership of the country. The government constitutionalized the one-party status, limiting the ability of the masses to define those who ascend to the top leadership position. Under this system, there is a pyramidal electoral structure (Zhu and Razaque 144). People’s Congress, which is the lowest level of political leadership, is directly elected by the people. They have to be loyal members of the Communist Party. Congress, with the guidance of the top leadership of the party, is responsible for approving senior leaders of the party. Chinese citizens have almost no direct control over the person who becomes the ruler of the country. Confucianism has relatively remained strong in the country under the Communist Party. It has enabled the government to justify some of its governing policies such as the limitation of media freedom.

State-Supported Comeback of Confucianism

The state-supported comeback of Confucianism is viewed as a deliberate attempt by the government to suppress any form of civil unrest in the country. Mainland China has remained relatively stable politically and citizens are comfortable with the governance structure (Guo 1051). However, some forms of rebellion have been witnessed in Hong Kong and Tibet where a section of people feel that they deserve a better governance system. The state has used some of the principles of Confucianism to justify its actions, especially its authoritarian rule. Loyalty to the state and authority is one of the principles of this philosophy that the state has found to be relevant in enabling it to suppress any form of political rebellion. People are expected to religiously respect those who are in power and avoid any form of confrontation. Despite the massive economic transformation and success that the country has witnessed over the past seven decades, the political leadership has remained the same. The people are comfortable with this form of governance because of the ancient beliefs and teachings passed on to them based on the Confucianism-based education system.

Xi Jinping Embraces Confucius and the Classics

When Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he was committed to following in the footsteps of his predecessors. It was critical for him to ensure that power remained as centralized as possible. Just like most of the rulers before him, he had a major responsibility of convincing the Chinese that the government was focused on protecting their interests (Rošker 161). As such, he embraced some concepts of Confucius and the classics, especially those which emphasized citizens’ loyalty to the state. The president faced a major challenge in his attempt to demonstrate his support for Confucianism.

The Communist Party was highly critical of this philosophy in the 1970s as it was seen as an impediment to the one-party state policy and dictatorial governance that the state had embraced. During this period, many nations around the world, especially in Africa and parts of Asia, had just gained independence from the European colonizers. It was becoming apparent that democracy was a popular governance approach that was supported by many people around the world. Confucianism also seemed to support the need to have a government where people’s voices can be heard and respected. As such, the Communist Party became critical of this concept as a way of protecting its legitimacy.

When President Xi came to power, one of the important decisions he made was to pay homage to Confucius. He acknowledged that his teachings were relevant then and they still are now. Humanness, fairness, integrity, loyalty to the government, respect and love for the family, righteousness are some of the fundamental principles of this philosophy that he noted were important for a nation’s growth and stability (Fung 45). These were virtues strongly proposed by Confucius when he was teaching about the social order and a nation’s growth. The only issue that the president faced when championing these policies is that the party that brought him to power had discredited Confucianism in the past. He had to remain loyal to the party and demonstrate his willingness to continue with most of its traditions.

The attempt by the Communist Party to embrace Confucianism after years of rejecting it started with President Xi’s predecessor in 2010 (Cao 90). The government allowed for the erection of a large portrait of Confucius at Tiananmen Square during the commemoration of his birthday. However, the initiative was not as successful as the government had expected. It received criticism, as Walker observes (57). This effort is discussed in the section below. President Xi was not deterred by this failure and has openly discussed his support of the philosophy in various forums.

Yu Ying-shih: Chinese Communists are not Confucianists

Professor Yu Ying-shih has spent several decades studying Chinese communist party and its application of Confucianism as a philosophy of leadership. Yu came to the conclusion that the Chinese communist party is not following Confucianism strictly as was taught by Confucius and his followers. Instead, the state has been keen on selecting specific principles which are suitable for suppressing any form of rebellion. One of the fundamental goals of Confucianism is to create a society where the gap between the rich and the poor is as minimal as possible (Li and Cheong 41). It was meant to eliminate cases where some people lacked the basic needs for survival while others has more than they can consume in a lifetime. Modern-day China has embraced various concepts of capitalism that favor the ruling class and their close associates.

The country is currently home to the second-largest number of billionaires while many people still live in abject poverty. The government has created an environment where the rich can increase their wealth using means of production at their disposal. The communist state has abolished most of the socialist economic policies and instead, it has embraced capitalism for the benefit of the few. Communist principles and the philosophy of Confucianism is only used to protect those who are in power (Tan 11). The large Confucius statue erected in Tiananmen Square, shown in figure 1 below, is meant to remind the Chinese of his teachings and principles towards life.

Some scholars believe that the statue only serves the purpose of ensuring that the Chinese remain loyal to the power. While the leaders expect everyone to remain loyal to their teachings and philosophy, those in power have failed to do the same. Honesty and trustworthiness are some of the fundamental teachings of this philosophy. However, the government has failed to live up to this principle by allowing those close to the government to amass massive wealth. Individuals considered rebels are frustrated and some of them were even killed to ensure that the reign of the Communist Party lasts as long as possible.

Confucius Statue Erected in Tiananmen Square
Figure 1. Confucius Statue Erected in Tiananmen Square (Ford 1).

The teachings of Professor Yu Ying-Shih and other Chinese scholars in the United States and other parts of the world have had an impact on the political environment in China. Some have started questioning the legitimacy of the Communist Party and the relevance of the one-party state in an era where democracy has become a universally accepted form of leadership. When the government erected a large Confucius statue in front of the Communist Party museum in central Beijing, a section of the society members questioned its relevance, especially given the fact that the party had criticized some of its principles, especially on economic factors. The statue immediately became controversial and the government realized that it was necessary to take immediate action (Shi 99). The government made plans and it was swiftly removed from that site to avoid further political tension. It was a further confirmation that although the ruling class is interested in using Confucianism to legitimize their authority and limit any form of rebellion, it is not willing to strictly follow all the principles. Figure 2 below shows the site at which the statue had stood before being taken down

Confucius Statue at Tiananmen Square Taken Down
Confucius Statue at Tiananmen Square Taken Down (Huang et al. 2).

Confucianism as a philosophy is becoming increasingly relevant to a significant number of people in China. They have realized that most of his teachings focused on creating an environment where everyone was concerned about the well-being of other members of society (Zhu and Razaque 76). The Communist Party rose to prominence because of its promise to fulfill the principles and policies that Confucius had promoted. However, it is becoming evident that the party is only interested in keeping power and suppressing all forms of civil unrest that threaten its existence. The Chinese government has maintained authoritarian rule and expects its citizens to follow the law and avoid challenging the legitimacy of the government. Confucius argued that while it was the responsibility of the subjects to remain loyal to authority and the government, it was the mandate of those in power to demonstrate honesty and willingness to protect the interests of the people (Rošker 29). The rate at which capitalistic practices are growing in China is a sign that communism only remains relevant in governance.

China has used Confucianism in its foreign policies in different contexts. Cao explains that China’s foreign policy focuses on creating an environment in the international community that is favorable for the sustainable growth of domestic companies (45). To achieve this goal, China has been using the concept of mutual growth, which is part of the teachings of Confucianism, to create international trade partnerships. In Africa and other developing countries, it has been promoting the idea of an alliance of equals to convince these countries that it is interested in their welfare. It has been using the same concept with developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom to strengthen trade ties (Walker 87). The strategy has worked well for China and currently it is the largest exporter in the world.

Conclusion

Confucianism is an ancient Chinese philosophy that has remained relevant and relatively popular for several centuries. Confucius was a teacher and an adviser to the ruling class. His works focused on ethics, moral and social philosophy both among the ruling class and theirs subjects. Chairman Mao relied heavily on most of his teachings to create a powerful military and political party that led to the foundation of the Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China. He convinced peasants that the party was interested in creating a society where interests of the poor will be taken into consideration by the government. Mao’s successors were concerned about some of these teachings, especially in the 1970s, to ensure that the Communist Party remained firmly in control of the country. As the country continued to achieve massive economic and political success in the global arena, it has become necessary for the government to embrace some of these teachings. Recent rulers of China have demonstrated their support for Confucianism principles as a way of justifying the party’s continued rule.

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