confucianism in modern society

Video Series: Can Confucianism Save the World? 儒家思想能够拯救世界?

Posted on Updated on


In this public lecture held in 2014, Professors Daniel A. Bell, Joseph Chan, Tongdong Bai discuss the role of Confucianism in the modern world.

With the difficulty of cooperating over issues such as nuclear warfare, terrorism, and environmental protection, has the time come for a globalised, cosmopolitan adoption of  Confucianism? In this series, the three guest speakers develop Confucianism in rather different ways, and the purpose of this panel is to explore how they do that, and how they think Confucianism can save the world. The panel is moderated by Mathias Risse from Harvard University.

Humanism and Education in Islam and Confucianism 人文教育在伊斯兰教和儒教

Posted on Updated on


The meaning of the word ‘humanism’ refers to the significance of human beings in society. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1949) stated, humanism “not only states the question of the human person but also that of society…of the relations between men” (p. 23). Thus, Humanism is about the development of the individual, and about maintaining good relations between people. The emphasis on society is shown in educational thought. For instance, in nineteenth century Germany, teachers of Greek and Latin were called umanista as they taught studia humanitatis or humanistic studies, including literature and history (Kristeller, 1955). Humanities faculties in today’s universities have kept this namesake as most areas of study in these fields are concerned with human nature, behaviour, and action. Subjects like philosophy and politics, for example, reflect on the meaning of humanity and the potential for human beings to achieve dignity, freedom, and significance (Manzo, 1997). However, while these traditions in the West are well-explored in the literature, Eastern philosophies such as Daoism and Sufism are often thought to focus on the supernatural and mystical. This article examines rational humanism from an Eastern perspective by focusing on Islamic and Confucian thought.

The humanist tradition of prioritising the human being’s existence, duties, and potentials is found throughout classical Islam (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). For instance, human beings are thought to be filled with God-consciousness, living to fulfil the task of serving God in their lifetimes. The Qur’an says that God “(is) the One Who (has) made you successors (of) the earth and raised some of you above others (in) ranks, so that He may test you in what He has given you.” (Surah Al-An’am, 6:165). A human’s task is to serve God and take responsibility for their reason. So even though humans are not the absolute rulers of the world, as agents of God, they are responsible for establishing good relations with God, other humans, and the earth. This involves setting up societies based on human values of freedom, peace, and tolerance.

Tan and Ibrahim (2017) also point out that Islam’s ideology of humanism gives people the hope of achieving moral perfection when guided by religion. However, the religious aspect of this statement should not be overemphasised. Although God plays a central role in Islam, the way to God and moral perfection involves cultivating human skills, including reason, empathy for others, and knowledge. Adab is an important Islamic concept here. Abi-Mershed (2009) states that adab originally meant rules of conduct in social and political relationships, but later by the eighth and eleventh century referred to ethical ways of learning and engaging in the world. Through adab, humans can achieve self-actualisation, develop peace in the world, and be closer to the moral perfection of God.

In the Confucian tradition, human relationships and right education are central to harmony and order. As the Analects states, Confucius’s son, Boyu (伯魚), said that his father taught no secret doctrine. He only asked if his son had learnt poetry and the rites (16.13). In that case, learning poetry, music, and rites among a community of friends are important rituals for attaining humanity. Throughout the Analects, it describes how Confucius tried to apply the right pronunciation to the reading of poetry, and order sections of songs in the right order (Analects, sections 7 and 9, for example). Like Islam, the potential to develop moral perfection comes from organising society according to the correct principles, and developing human character through knowledge.

The spiritual side of Confucianism is debated. For instance, some scholars note that central to Confucianism is the concept of tian or Heaven. In the Analects 7.23, Confucius states that Heaven is the author of his virtue, and only Heaven understands him (14.35). Tu Wei-ming (2001) even introduced the idea of an ‘anthropocosmic’ system to describe a worldview where the human relationship to the world is one where tian is in perfect harmony with ren (persons), forming the greater triad of tianren-earth relations. By existing in such a system, human beings are able to achieve moral goodness through the practice of “praiseworthy behaviours, thoughts, and actions of sage-kings” (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017, p. 5). In other words, attaining harmony with tian and human beings is an ongoing and dynamic process where culturally, socially, and cosmically, human beings can be transformed.

On the other hand, while this cosmological aspect of Confucian humanism is discussed, Kato (2016) states that Confucius avoided discussing themes such as human nature and tian in detail. Confucius’s original vision was in the practical and present, while later Confucian scholars extended his doctrines to the metaphysical and spiritual. What this means is that the original Confucian teachings can be understood in ideas about teaching and learning or for Confucius, the here and now.

Western humanism developed from the practice of rhetoric of speech in ancient Athens. In a similar way, Confucianism uses li or private and public ritual to develop social harmony and self-cultivation. Li can be thought of as a system of language and body that communicates with others. Rituals express complex emotions towards ancestors, parents, colleagues, etc., that, accompanied by sincere feelings and intentions, send messages that words alone are unable to express. For example, taking part in tea and coffee ceremonies in Chinese, Japanese, Arabian, and Serbian cultures, sends messages of respect, hospitality, and willingness to take part in social engagement.

Teaching ritual practices is a key part of Confucian education, and it places humanist values of social relationships and human capabilities at its centre. Rather than attain moral perfection through divine intervention or luck, human actions through li are what leads to learning. The Great Learning uses the analogy of “carving and grinding” when discussing moral cultivation (section 3). In general, learning is about repeating, internalising, and applying knowledge. In moral cultivation, a similar process takes place, where self-reflection, correction, and interaction with the teacher places ritual and learning within a communitarian framework (Tu, 1985; Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). With a sincere heart-mind, one can begin to understand what is to be learnt by expressing themselves with the right words. This contrasts ideas about learning that are passive and require constant repetition and remembering. Learning in Confucianism involves investigating things, imagination, and rationality. The Great Learning highlights that students, “encountering anything at all in the world…must build on what they already know of principle and probe still deeper, until they reach its limit” (cited in Gardner, 2007, p. 7-8). The student is required to dedicate themselves to questioning, problem-solving, and in Confucius’s case, learning from the old: to “review what is old as to know what is new” (Doctrine of the Mean, section 27).

Aside from the Islamic emphasis on God-consciousness, Confucianism and classical Islam both situate human beings as central agents that are required to perform moral duties in their lives. Perfection is possible if humans take part in moral education that encourages people to use their faculties of reasoning to achieve adab and li, which involves self-actualisation and building dynamic relationships with others. Such principles are increasingly relevant in the West as higher education learning and teaching becomes commercialised through vocational workplace training.

The Philosopher’s Zone: Confucius says… 哲学: 孔子话 …

Posted on

In this audio clip, The Philosopher’s Zone podcast interviews professor in philosophy Roger Ames on his thoughts on Confucian role ethics. Ames discusses the Western idea of individualism versus the Chinese relationally-constituted self, and what it means to be a person today.

Confucian self

Submit your comments, thoughts, and suggestions in the tab below.

Zen, Confucianism, and Modern Japan 禅宗,儒家,现代日本

Posted on Updated on

Japanese Confucianism
Image: Paramore, K. (2016). Japanese Confucianism: A Cultural History (Front Cover). Retrieved June 22, 2017, from here.

The Development of Japanese Confucianism through Zen

Confucianism continues to be a significant philosophical tradition in East Asia, along with Daoism and Buddhism. Collectively, these three schools of thought are known as the “three teachings” of Chinese tradition. The adoption of the three teachings across East Asia was partly due to travel and trade on the Silk Road. As the Asia Society (2017) notes in their series on East Asian communication, for over two thousand years the Silk Road acted as a transmitter of people, goods, ideas, beliefs, and inventions, where networks of travel spread intersecting religious beliefs and traditions across China, Japan, and Korea. What is unknown to many is that Zen Buddhist monks played a key role in bringing Chinese culture into Japan which contributed to the development of ‘Japanese Confucianism’.

With the territorial and cultural expansion of the Han dynasty throughout the Korean peninsula, the ruler of the Korean kingdom of Paekche (18 B.C.- 660 A.D.), Keun Ch’ogo, sent instructors named Wang-In and A-Chikki, along with a copy of The Analects and the Thousand Character Classic, to the ruler of Yamato (in Japan’s Nara Prefecture) around 404-405 AD. Literate Chinese and Korean migrants were highly valued in early Japan and many of them taught Confucianism as a way of strengthening the imperial institutions and centralising the Japanese state. An example of how Confucianism influenced Japanese politics can be seen in Prince Shōtoku’s Seventeen-Article Constitution, where in the late 6th century Japan’s clan chieftains developed into monarch-type rulers following the Chinese model of rule. In the constitution, an emphasis is placed on harmony and proper behaviour in human relations as well as the Han Confucian three-tiered cosmology in which human obedience is a requisite for Heaven to provide its blessings on Earth:

Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. When Heaven and Earth are properly in place, the four seasons follow their course and all is well in Nature. But if the Earth attempts to take the place of Heaven, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. That is why the vassal listens when the lord speaks, and the inferior obeys the superior acts. (Article 3)

For Tsukahira (1966) however, there is little evidence that Japan consciously sought to model their system on ancient Chinese feudalism. Instead, even during the later Tokugawa shogunate, scholars and statesmen wanted to enhance the dignity and prestige of state institutions by identifying the regime as a Confucian, not Chinese, state.

However, as Confucianism developed in Japan’s political structure, Japanese monks who went over to China brought back both Zen and Confucian thought to the masses. In the book Zen and Japanese Culture (1959), D.T. Suzuki highlights that not only did Zen monks edit and print Confucian textbooks, “instilling fresh blood into Confucianism” (p. 42) through Zen idealism, the monks also compiled these books for popular education in their monasteries. In academia, it was Zen monks like Keian (1427-1508) and Ogyū Sorai (1666-1728) who emphasised the connection between Buddhist teachings and Confucian philosophy by studying the foundational texts, including the Book of Changes (I-Ching), the Book of Odes (Shih Ching), the Book of Annals (Shu Ching), the Spring and Autumn Annals (Ch’un Ch’iu), and the Record of Rites (Li Chi). By following a long line of Confucian thinkers who shaved their head like Buddhist priests, these monks made a combined effort to propagate orthodox Confucianism as it suited the political and intellectual situation in Japan after the country suffered many years of conflict. By promising to “yield practical solutions to the problems of government” (Tsukahira, 1966, p. 109), Confucianism stood against corruption and the growing influence of money in society.

Anti-Buddhism and Neo-Confucian Scholars

Although Confucianism came to Japan in the sixth century, it had largely been confined to Buddhist monasteries. By the late sixteenth century, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu turned to Confucianism, particularly Neo-Confucianism, as he began to build the bureaucracy which would eventually establish over 250 years of domestic peace (Hooker, 1997). As a result, anti-Buddhist perspectives in many Neo-Confucian texts became influential throughout the seventeenth century. For instance, a well-known critique of Zen Buddhism was articulated by the Confucian scholar Itô Jinsai (1627-1705). In the text The Meaning of Words in the Analects and Mencius (Gomô jigi), Jinsai states that the Buddha believed that emptiness was “the way” (dao), and that mountains, rivers, and land masses were all unreal. However, given that for all ages heaven and earth have sustained life, the sun and moon have illuminated the world, and beings such as birds, fish, insects, and trees live as they do now, it makes no sense to say that all is emptiness or nothingness. Instead, this emphasis on emptiness derives from the Buddhist practice of retiring in the mountains and sitting silently while emptying the mind. Emptiness or nothingness exists neither in this world nor outside it, only in the minds of the Buddhists.

Jinsai argues that in real life the principles of harmony, love, and order are found in every aspect of life: from human relations to even the grains of sand (Tucker, 2013). In this sense, the ‘Confucian way’ refers to how people should conduct themselves in their daily lives. As a universal and natural truth, the Confucian way can simply be called dao. By contrast, the teachings of Buddhism exist only because a small group of people follow them. According to Jinsai, with no practical benefits or ways of contributing to social reality, Buddhism becomes completely irrelevant.

Following on from Jinsai’s comments, Confucian scholars also criticised aspects of Zen that were renowned for their anti-intellectualism. Affirming the uselessness of texts and words on the path to realising one’s Buddha-nature, Zen Buddhism puts forward the idea that the universe is a constantly changing state and that the core of being and non-being cannot be captured by fixed meanings of conventional language (Lieberman, 2006). Japanese Neo-Confucianism, on the other hand, was defined in opposition to assertions of semantic emptiness by reasserting the integrity of language, meaning, and discursive truth. As Tucker (2014) notes, “without the crucial role of language, most especially the words of sages, Confucius and Mencius, humanity would hardly be different from beasts” (p. 33). As a result, words and their correct usage were essential to self-cultivation, governance, and bringing peace to the world.

For all the criticisms on Buddhist thought, it should be noted that the role of ancient history cannot be omitted or underestimated. While the Chu Hsi school throughout the Korean peninsula rejected Zen Buddhism “decked out in Confucian grab” (Kalton, 1988), Confucianism became very strong in Japan because it was originally influenced by and combined with Zen as well as Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. For Hiroyuki (2006), philosophical theorizing in Japan usually took the position that Confucianism, Shinto, and Zen were three versions of the same ultimate truth (shinjubutsu sankyō-itchi), especially since Confucian scholars actively promoted ‘Confucian Shinto’ (Juka Shintō).

Confucianism in Modern Japan

Because of the assertion that these three philosophies did not contradict absolutely and could coexist, the legacy of Japanese Confucianism continues to influence Japan today. As Professor Reischauer states in his book The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity (1977), “almost no one considers himself a Confucianist today, but in a sense almost all Japanese are” (p. 214). Many studies have noted the influence of Confucian ethics in education, the workplace, and the role of the government bureaucracy (Ornatowski, 1996), where harmony and right conduct coincides with hierarchical leadership as major characteristics of Japanese organizational culture. However, Confucianism is also understood as being a ‘feudal’ ideology of the past. For example, the work by Japanese sinologist Hattori Unokichi is often criticised for defending Confucian teachings by relying on “Emperor-centered nationalism”, when linking filial piety with Japanese self-sacrifice (Nakajima, 2004). In this way, the relationship between the emperor and the people as compared to that of father and son is criticised as forming right-wing nationalism. With most philosophical departments in Japanese universities also preferring to focus on western philosophy rather than Confucian thought, it would seem that Confucianism currently suffers from a setback in Japan.

An exception to this is the University of Tokyo’s Center for Philosophy (UTCP). Since its founding in 2002, the UTCP has sponsored discussions addressing issues relating to the status of Confucianism in Japanese philosophy. Some academics and journals have also published papers on Confucianism, including Sakamoto Hiroko’s (2009) feminist critique of Confucianism and Azuma Jūji’s (2008) translation of new Confucian documents. For now though, it is unclear whether Japan will relive a Confucian renaissance as China currently has.

The Revival of Chinese Confucianism 中国儒家思想的复兴

Posted on Updated on


How can Confucianism modernize and shape future cultural discourse? Can it help solve global problems in the twenty-first century? China Daily host talks to Stephen C. Angle, a philosopher and professor specializing in Chinese Philosophy at Wesleyan University.

Beyond the Headlines: Chinese Cultural Values and Tourism Behaviour 中国文化价值观与旅游行为

Posted on

In the past decade, Chinese tourists have made international headlines for all the wrong reasons. From setting fire to curtains inside aeroplane cabins to hurdling noodles over flight attendants, news publications have repeatedly asked ‘Why are Chinese tourists so badly behaved?’. Following a quick online search, it is not uncommon to come across articles that list the top 10 most embarrassing Chinese tourists moments or personal recounts of bad Chinese tourist experiences. As one restaurant owner stated in an Aljazeera news report: “They don’t say hello, they don’t speak French, they don’t speak English…One woman came in here and spat on the floor.”

Chinese Tourism

Image: Maxxelli Consulting (2014). Understanding China’s Outbound Tourism. Retrieved June 4th, 2017 from here.

With one in ten travellers worldwide coming from China, however, these reports ignore the significant impact that Chinese tourists have on businesses worldwide. As the World Tourism Organisation reported in 2013, with an increase of 70 million tourists travelling beyond China since 2000, Chinese tourists spent US$102 billion overseas in 2012 alone, making China the world’s biggest spender on foreign travel. Despite these figures, opinion articles that make general assumptions about Chinese tourists as rude, uncultured and ill-mannered reveal that the majority of Chinese tourists are misrepresented and unknown to foreign publics. As academics in hospitality and tourism management Fu, Cai and Lehto (2017) note, there is even a lack of understanding in the literature on what drives the Chinese to travel, and how culture can influence the behaviour of tourists abroad.

The main problem is that while Chinese tourist motivations have been frequently explored, most research has relied on Western paradigms and frameworks that use existing dimensions and terms, such as prestige, romance, and autonomy (Fu et al., 2017), to frame what Chinese tourists desired most or expected to gain from their travel experience. Without completely contrasting Chinese tourist behaviour with their Western equivalents, Fu et al. (2012) state that it needs to be recognised that many Chinese travellers display characteristics driven by their cultural roots. As theorists such as Max Webber (1951) and Geert Hofstede (1980) argued decades before, this means that Chinese people are strongly influenced by the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC).

Whether this refers to valuing concepts such as ren 仁, which can be understood as “tolerance, forgiveness, deference, filial obedience (to parents), faithfulness (to master), wisdom…” (Lu, 1983, p. 29); the moral force of li 礼, which governs correct and appropriate behaviours in relationships; or xin 信 as representative of sincerity and trustworthiness, the individual in Chinese culture is never an individual in the Western sense. Each self in Confucianism is part of a human relationship where individuals are obligated to act and treat others according to Confucian virtues. Fulfilling these obligations adds to the growth and structure of the self, which ultimately builds a stable social and political structure of the state (Kwek & Lee, 2010).

As “one of the most prominent and enduring cultural influences within the East Asian region” (Ng & Lee, 2014, p. 150), Confucianism may provide a cultural backdrop to explain motivational drivers for tourists. In recent years, two main studies were conducted to test whether Confucianism did play a role in influencing the behaviour and motivation of Chinese tourists. The first was a qualitative report where Kwek and Lee (2010) from Griffith University interviewed and observed Mainland Chinese nationals visiting Australia on a corporate/leisure trip. The total participants in the study consisted of 10 guided tours of 64 people, of whom 55 were male and nine were females. For Fu, Cai and Lehto’s (2017) quantitative report, a scale was developed that applied Confucian life domains of self, family, social life, society, and nature to a survey questionnaire that was tested on 507 Chinese residents in Hangzhou who had taken leisure trips prior to the sampling period.

Both studies had similar results: the primary motivation for tourists was to achieve harmony, whether with nature or in existing relationships. While harmony is identified in other motivational frameworks (Pearce & Lee, 2005), maintaining harmony for these tourists has to be understood within a Chinese context. For example, ancient Chinese philosophies like Daoism and Confucianism have long held the view that humans and nature are a unified entity, which diverges from the subject-object relationship between culture and nature in the West (Tang, 2015). As a result, seeking harmony with nature is not a surprising theme in China’s tourism tradition and goes beyond aesthetic appreciation to a means of pursuing wisdom by enjoying simplicity. On harmony within relationships, the majority of Kwek and Lee’s participants noted the importance of avoiding conflict and seeking harmony within group settings (p. 137). As one Chinese tourist from Beijing commented:

“The Chinese people have, for centuries, cultivated the habit to strive for harmony in every situation and as long as everyone is happy, we are also happy to oblige” (Male, early-50s, businessman).

Harmony here refers to peace, acting in an appropriate manner, and having good relationships with others. Given the hierarchical and collectivist aspect of Chinese social settings, harmonious relationships function as a way of promoting personal connections and social norms, such as loyalty and obligation (Chen & Chen, 2004).

Other themes that emerged when observing how Chinese tourists behaved included respect for authority and conformity. In every corporate/leisure tour group for instance, a leader who held the highest social status would take charge in making decisions for the group. To show respect, Kwek and Lee write that members would always look towards the leader for directions and decisions as a way of protecting his or her social face. Whether this involved choosing a restaurant or what activities to do next, members would suppress their personal preferences to conform to the interests of the leader so as not to appear ‘deviant’ (p. 134). Although there are some setbacks to Chinese vertical relationships, including overconcentrating power at the top and leaving little or no room for group initiatives, the underlying idea of respecting authority is to maintain harmony and avoid conflict at all costs.

Finally, in terms of motivations or what Chinese tourists sought to get out of their trip, family togetherness was rated as the second-highest motivation factor (Fu et al., 2017). In that sense, whether touring as a group or in a family setting, maintaining integrity in relationships and developing bonds with others is what influenced why Chinese tourists travelled and how they were expected to behave abroad.

While limited to only two studies, these findings show more to the behaviour and action of Chinese tourists than what reaches the headlines, and provide valuable information for industry practitioners interested in developing desirable vacation experiences to Chinese tourists, particularly when translated into marketing and promotional guidelines. Promoting the potential of a destination should emphasise personal and relationship goals of Chinese tourists and how places can fulfil motivational needs. In the regional context as well, Confucianism as a cultural tradition goes beyond mainland China and includes locations such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. Developing a deeper understanding of what drives Confucian-heritage societies could become a lucrative market base as most of these growing middle-class markets have a propensity to spend on travel (Fu et al., 2017).

For academia, these studies also show the importance of trying to understand phenomena from a non-Western perspective, especially when Western theories and frameworks are not suitable to discuss non-Western settings. As one of the major philosophies of Chinese culture that influences the social and political dynamics of Chinese society as well as the personal and social dynamics of everyday life, understanding Chinese tourist behaviour and motivations from a Confucian background provides a greater understanding of the relationship between culture and tourism.

Book Extract- Lessons From History: Legalists vs. Confucianists 历史的经验与教训: 儒法之争

Posted on Updated on

The New Legalist

The following text is an extract from the book The New Legalist Vol. 1 (2010) compiled by independent scholars and chief editor of the New Legalist website Sherwin Lu, and contract research fellow of the Centre for Chinese and Global Affairs, Peking University Yuzhong Zhai.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin. The extract is from the chapter Eastern Wisdom Can Help Solve Today’s Global Problems: A study of the “dynamically-balanced multi-dimensional whole” worldview (p. 262), raising interesting points about the relationship between Legalism and Confucianism, and the relevance of China’s philosophies to today’s world problems.

“The Chin dynasty ended with a conspiracy at the top on the death of the First Emperor, whose successor, one of his sons, betrayed his father’s Legalist policy by distorting the rule of law and triggered rebellion by the people. But Chin’s Legalist policy was largely revived and continued during the next dynasty of Han. In the later years of the Han dynasty, Confucianist ideology gradually got the upper hand and was finally authorized as the sole guiding system of thought for running the country. Confucianist doctrine had ever since remained the orthodox ideology in China till the 1911 Revolution, though some Legalist practices had been carried on and other Legalist ideas were adopted sometimes by reformist statesman and sometimes at the beginning of a new dynasty on replacing an old, corrupted one.

Why was Legalism defeated by Confucianism in Chinese history? The answer is in the inconsistency in Legalist practice due to the limit of historical conditions. The major inconsistencies are: The social merit system failed to cover the selection of the top ruler (king/emperor)- the throne was still inherited by royals on, and the all-society mutual supervision system failed to reach the one or two most powerful men under the king/emperor on the topmost level of the hierarchical ladder. Therefore, when a Legalist emperor died, the state power could easily be shifted, either through conspiracy or through the work of time, into the hands of weak or morally depraved succeeding emperors and/or power-hungry top-ranking officials, who placed their own interests above those of the people and would not bother to take the pains, as required by Legalist principles, to do the regulating of social life against the strong oppositions from some special interest groups, especially when there were no more threats of rivalry from outside. This inconsistency can only be corrected by a democratic system based on the modern principle of people’s sovereignty, corrected in a way in which the institutional power of the state exercised from the top down and people’s power exercised from the bottom up remain in a constant dynamic balance.

However, except from that loophole, the legalist theories and practices in ancient China were quite successful. The most important lesson from these theories and practices is that, especially at a time of “warring states”, the only way for a people to survive and prosper is to have a strong state under the constant watch of the people and with the institutional power to implement a comprehensive series of social, economic, political and other policies which aim at regulating all different kinds of social relationships towards a dynamic balance between all different interest groups and different aspects of social life, including a constant dynamic balance between the institutional power of the state and people’s sovereignty. And to do this, the atomistic world view, both in its ancient Chinese version, i.e., the Confucianist orthodoxy (except for some of its teachings on the cultivation of personal and socio-political virtue), and in its modern vision, i.e., the Liberalist laissez faire ideology, must be repudiated.

The atomistic pattern of thought looks at society as a mechanical aggregation of millions or hundreds of millions of individual human beings each pursuing his/her own interests. According to this view, the will and interests of a state equal the sum total of all its individual members’ wills and interests. It disregards the fact that the state, as a special kind of social group of human beings, can also have its relatively independent will and interests which can in turn affect the will and interests of each individual member and all other social groups, large or small, within and outside of it. The historical argument between the Legalists and the Confucianists regarding the management of state affairs is a typical case.

The Legalists emphasize the importance of the rule of Law, insisting that, so long as the social law originates in and in line with Tao, i.e., the law of Nature, it will cultivate and fortify virtue in all people and thus ensure a good order for the society, while Confucianists preach that personal cultivation of family virtue based on kinship principles will guarantee social justice, because, according to them, if all people behave virtuously towards others in the “extended family” of the big society. The Confucianists failed to see the family virtue cannot be naturally extended beyond the scope of the family and readily applied to all social relationships because the cultivation of family virtues is based partially on natural kinship feelings and partially on a kind of intuitive perception of people being mutually interdependent, a direct perception by all five senses which is possible only within such a limited circle of “face-to-face” relationships as a family. Beyond this limit, people need extra impetus and motivation, i.e., the rule of law, or the reward and punishment system on the social scale, for the nurturing of social values.

Confucianists also opposed the state’s owning some economic enterprises which were critical to national economy and people’s livelihoods and setting by a large enough quantity of commodity wealth as a necessary financial leverage for regulating the market and other aspects of social life to defend people’s peaceful life from external and internal dangers.

As social atomists deny the necessity of a dynamic balance between the collective entity and the individuals, they inevitably advocate a policy that indulges the advantaged, permitting them to get the upper hand over the disadvantaged. And this policy inevitably results in the split of a society into “two nations”: the privileged versus the underprivileged, and this is the root cause of all social upheavals, mass violence and war. It is the case with the old China under the ideological domination of Confucianism, as well as with today’s world divided into the super rich handful and the poor majority all over the world. In Chinese history, whenever advocates of Confucianist ideas of “virtue” were loudest, it must be a time when social conflicts were approaching a crisis, as was pointed out by Lao Tzu in his Tao Te Ching. Can’t we draw a lesson from history and apply it to a truthful understanding of the world situation today?”

To read more about the Legalist perspective, see the New Legalist website here.