China: The coming of age of Political Confucianism?

Written by Andy Yee

Confucius is enjoying a revival as the state ideology of China. Over the past few years, ‘national studies’ (guoxue) focusing on Confucianism and traditional culture is popular among officials, scholars, students and the public at large in China. Overseas, hundreds of Confucius Institutes have appeared around the world. Confucius is also evoked to declare China’s view on peace, as the Confucius Peace Prize was created in 2010 as a response to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The most symbolic official endorsement yet comes last month, when a Confucius statue was unveiled on Tiananmen Square, the political heart of China.

Political Confucianism as state ideology

The origin of this Political Confucianism might be traced to Jiang Qing, a leading scholar of mainland China New Confucianism. Jiang calls for a restoration of Confucianism as the state ideology, distinct from both Western-style democracy and Soviet-style communism. As Xujun Eberlein wrote in The China Beat in June 2008:

Democracy is Westernized and imperfect in nature, Jiang Qing points out. If applied to China, a western style democratic system would have only one legitimacy – popular will, or civil legitimacy. Such uni-legitimacy operates on the quantity of votes, regardless of the moral implications of decisions taken. Since human desire is selfish by nature, those decisions can be self serving for a particular majority's interest. Because of this, Jiang Qing argues, civil legitimacy alone is not sufficient to build or keep a constructive social order.

The uni-legitimacy criticism makes senses to me because western countries, which have evolved the concepts of sufferance, law, tolerance and community standards over hundreds of years, have a broad base for governance. China, on the other hand, does not have this same evolution. Western democracy simply dropped onto China is likely to face pitfalls parallel to those seen in Iraq. The foundation of majority rule alone is not sufficient to provide good governance.

In contrast, the Confucian state Jiang proposes is tri-legitimate: it carries numinous, historical, and civil legitimacy simultaneously. In particular, the governmental body consists of three mutually constraining institutions that represent religion (members chosen through community recommendation and Confucian examination), cultural tradition (members based on sovereign and sage lineage and by appointment), and popular will (members elected), respectively. Jiang Qing believes that such a structure would avoid many of the mistakes that appear inevitable under a uni-legitimate system.

In 2009, Prof. Wang Rui-Chang of the Capital University of Business and Economics further summarized the rise of Political Confucianism as follows:

Political Confucianism is a newly emerged school of thought addressing political and social reform in Mainland China. It challenges the current prevalent democratic movement, both inside and outside of China, which proposes governance with legitimacy wholly resting on the ballot. Instead, Political Confucianism advocates the wisdom of “centrality and harmony” contained in Confucianism, especially the Confucian tradition of Gongyang School that flourished in the Han and late Qing dynasties in China. It is aimed at revitalizing Confucianism and reconstructing the politics of the Kingly Way in the modern global context.

The symbolic erection of the Confucian statue in Tiananmen has renewed the debate about Political Confucianism in China. As Cheng Li, Chinese politics expert at the Brookings Institution, comments, Confucianism ‘is such a big basket you can select whatever you want. They will ask people to behave appropriately, not too aggressive, not use violence and don't pursue revolution.’ Several writers and bloggers view it through a Machiavellian lens, arguing that it is a tactic adopted by the ruling Communist Party as a solution to the various social problems in China, while maintaining its political dominance. Human rights activist Guo Baosheng recently wrote in China in Perspective:


Political Confucianism provides the answer to various political problems in China. It can act as the state religion, modify and beautify Marxism, invoke the hierarchical politics of the Kingly Way to whitewash authoritarianism, and act as a defense to constitutional democracy, freedom and equality (‘Under Political Confucianism, China’s future development is the Kingly Way and not democracy, and the Kingly Way means the “politics of sages”’ – Jiang Qing), promote ethics and social responsibility to save China from a moral crisis, defend local culture against Westernization, alleviate the world’s fear of a rising Communist China, and act as a culture for global penetration and expansion.

As to how Confucianism is applied in China’s conduct of foreign policy, writer Zhu Jiangguo provides us with a recent example from last month. Writing in Hong Kong’s Cheng Ming Magazine, he links the unveiling of the Confucius statue in Tiananmen with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the US one week later:


On one hand, it is a show of weakness to the US by Hu Jintao. Hu wants to reassure the US that Marxism-Leninism doesn’t need to be afraid of – although the Chinese Communist Party still internally upholds Marxism-Leninism, it is just an illusion. Globally China is holding the flag of Confucianism. 320 Confucius Institutes are opened in over 90 countries, but never a Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Deng school! The act of ‘Confucius stationing in Tiananmen’ will further reassure the US – today China officially switches from Marxism-Leninism to Confucianism. At most, China is a ‘Confucius socialist society’. But on the other hand, it represents a rejection of ‘wholesale Westernization’. Marxism-Leninism is what can be abandoned, but not Confucius traditions such as ‘all land under heaven belongs to the emperor’, ‘learning advanced technology from barbarians to fight agasint them’, and ‘Chinese learning for the substantial, western learning for the useful’.

Mao and Confucius side by side: irony or harmony?

In the middle of Tiananmen Square sits a mausoleum holding the body of the revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. Now that Confucius is placed side by side with Mao, many see the irony – under Mao’s revolutionary campaigns, much of China’s traditional culture, symbolized by Confucius, was destroyed. But others view it as evidence of the progressiveness of the Chinese government, which is ‘saying goodbye to revolutions’. Blogger Sima Huangyuan wrote:


As China’s revolutionary leader, Mao Zedong’s antagonism against Confucius is well known. Mao even said that if the Communist Party one day invites Confucius back, it means that the party cannot rule any longer. This is Mao’s generalization of the highly politicized history of Confucianism. This is because ancient rulers in China liked to use Confucius as a defense for their bad governance. Today, no one will take Mao’s generalization seriously. But one thing is certain; it is that the Chinese government does not view Mao Zedong and Confucius as conflicting political and cultural symbols, but complementary and echoing with each other. This pluralism shows that rulers of China are in the process of ‘saying goodbye to revolutions’, and are progressing with time. 

Some go even further to say that placing Confucius side by side with Mao is the very application of and an important development to Mao Zedong’s revolutionary thoughts. One blogger wrote:


People are debating: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin have all left. Here comes Confucius. How will our great Chairman Mao think? Don’t forget that the ‘Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius’ campaign was led by him. But I think that we don’t need to be surprised by it. Don’t you see that Confucius Institutes are opened in many countries? This shows that Confucianism is widely accepted, which is our country’s honor.


In the past, we shouted ‘Down with American imperialism! Down with the revival of Japanese militarism!’ Under Mao’s leadership, didn’t we build diplomatic relationships with the US and Japan? We need to learn from their advanced technologies to strengthen our nation. Therefore, we need to ‘adopt a developmentalist angle to view the still-developing Mao Zedong’s thoughts.’ This is the essence of dialectical materialism, and the way to inherit and develop Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.

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