confucianism in modern society

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

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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

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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

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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.

Virtual Confucius 虚拟孔子

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Shortly after coming to power, Chinese president Xi Jinping promised to rejuvenate his nation through the ‘Chinese Dream’. This would see China become a strong, civilised and harmonious socialist modern country by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic (Ljunggren, 2015). Although previous national concepts such as ‘peaceful development’ and ‘harmonious world’ have been deployed, one of China’s greatest hurdles to realising its national dream has been identified by critics to be its lack of “soft power” (the ability to shape others’ preferences and interests through attraction).

In recent years, the Chinese government has aimed to spread its influence by creating Confucius Institutes around the world. These interactive spaces, however, have not significantly raised a favourable political image of China abroad (Xie & Page, 2013). Additionally, a gap in spreading cultural values to the younger generation, both domestically and internationally, has continued to widen for China making it difficult to promote a strong national image.

In many cases, when culture is not communicated from generation-to-generation, intergenerational tensions arise “from competing understandings of the rights and responsibilities of young people and the autonomy and freedom they should be entitled to” (Mansouri et al., 2015, p. 6). Further, generational gaps also make it difficult to promote and protect ‘intangible cultural heritage’, which UNESCO (2017) defines as the skills, knowledge and customs that are passed on to the rest of the community. When present in communities, passing on traditional skills and customs can encourage a sense of belonging which helps individuals feel part of society at large (Sandis, 2014).

Since the social and economic value of cultural transmission is important for developing states, whose cultural heritage comes under increasing pressure from the processes of modernisation and globalisation (Techera, 2011), a few academics have begun to examine virtual reality as a way of communicating Chinese cultural values to younger generations, while also promoting China’s influence abroad.

Confucianism, in particular, is a relevant system of thought that has been integrated into everyday practices of several Asian cultures. For the younger generations, Confucianism has been gaining popularity in books and cinema. For instance, the book written by Yu Dan about Confucius sold more than 10 million copies, indicating a high demand for Confucian knowledge in modern Chinese societies (Sun, 2009). While less successful, the 2010 biographical drama Confucius (孔子), directed by Hu Mei and starring Chow Yun-fat, also had blockbuster sales for China’s domestic audience despite missing the mark for many international film critics (Groves, 2009; Marsh, 2010).

Building on these attempts of using modern communication technology and popular culture to communicate cultural heritage, a recent study from the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia has designed a new form of cultural play, where users explore cultural values and teachings through a digital media platform called Confucius Chat – “a philosophical conversational agent which models Confucius knowledge and teachings” (Cheok et al., 2017, p. 328).

Providing interactive and personalised advice from virtual Confucius, which is not possible in passive media such as printed books or film and television, Confucius Chat provides on-the-screen responses generated from classical texts, Confucius’s disciples, and general facts about the names of ancient countries and dynasties. In that sense, as well as providing relevant Confucian knowledge content to audiences who use social networks as key sources of information and advice, interactive technology such as Confucius Chat has the potential to promote Chinese values and culture beyond formal institutions and government-led projects.

The way the technology works is by identifying sets of topics and user inputs to create appropriate responses. For example, the user input “What is your name please” maps to two templates in the system’s database, identifying both the template “PLEASE” and “WHAT IS YOUR NAME”. Since this sentence includes the word ‘please’, the response automates to “Thank you for being polite”, with the second reply “My name is Confucius”. For this example, both templates match all the worlds in the input sentence, resulting in a score of 1.0 (Cheok et al., 2017).

Virtual Confucius 1

Image: Cheok, A.D., Edirisinghe, C. & Karunanayaka, K. (2017). iSage mobile app: an extension of Confucius Chat system [Screen Shot].

The score divides by half for more general templates on topics such a ‘love’, ‘family’, and ‘money’, which offers random output relating to passages that may discuss these topics. Importantly, if the output sentence contains any words from the forbidden word list, “which is a list of words Confucius will not discuss, for example God and Jesus, the score will be 0.0.” (p. 337), meaning that the system will not respond.

Key benefits to this type of technology include active experience as an important condition for enjoyment. As Wang et al. (2012) state in their article on using artificial intelligence to create a virtual interactive philosopher, “more freedom should be given to users to freely explore things in which they are interested” (p. 3). Using short and fast interaction to generate Confucius’s responses as well as an easy-to-use interface where no prior knowledge is required to interact with the system provides outreach to audiences who describe interactive cultural play as “just like talking with [a] read friend” (Cheok et al., 2017, p. 342).

Virtual Confucius 2

Image: Cheok, A.D., Edirisinghe, C. & Karunanayaka, K. (2017). iSage mobile app: an extension of Confucius Chat system [Screen Shot].

Currently, the Confucius Chat system has been extended into an Android mobile application, iSage Confucius, which allows people to talk to virtual Confucius on their smart phones by typing or selecting questions. The server processes the incoming request, and returns the answer given by the system’s algorithms and recorded templates (Wang et al., 2012).

While current algorithms sometimes gives unrelated answers and lack the ability to comprehend words without semantic meaning, such as people’s names, interactive technology could become another avenue for spreading China’s cultural heritage. Targeting the younger generation in the developing world and the West plays into China’s “charm offensive”, which is slowly increasing in the global networked information space.

Achieving Social Order, Harmony and Peace in the Workplace – The Confucian Way

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In today’s modern society, most people spend a significant portion of their day at their workplace. Companies invest millions of dollars into employee well-being programs and identifying ways to retain their most valuable assets.

Many studies have confirmed that a positive harmonious workplace directly correlates to productive work environment, increased revenue and the overall success of an organization.

According to the Confucian philosophy, the maintenance of social order, harmony and peace is created and maintained by adopting the five virtues  within the five cardinal relationships:

-Ruler to subject
-Father to son
-Husband and wife
-Elder brother to younger brother
-Friend to friend

If we viewed each company’s work environment as individual ‘societies’, would a modern Confucian approach be valuable by applying the 5 virtues to the ’employer to employee’ relationship – similar to the ‘ruler to subject’ relationship? How would one interpret the five virtues within this environment?

Employers can adopt Ren 仁 – ‘Benevolence and humaneness’ by upholding high standards of behavior through their everyday actions and treating their employees with respect by “not doing onto others as you would not wish done to yourself.” In return, employees would feel valued and empowered in their workplace.

It would be in an employer and employees’ best interests to adhere to Li 禮 – by following laws that have been created to govern workplaces such as workplace health and safety legislations and laws that protect employees from discrimination and sexual harassment. This will ensure that all employees can enjoy a safe and healthy work environment.

Yi can be upheld by employers identifying the need to (and also by encouraging all their employees to) always do good, and also to recognize what is right and wrong  and using moral intuition to make the right decisions and having the best moral interests of their company at heart. This is particularly relevant in situations where an employer or employee may be tempted engage in activities for their self interests such as receiving bribes.

Everyone makes mistakes, but it is only when employer reflects on them and correct themselves as part of adopting Chi 智 – moral wisdom that they and their employees can continue to build a stronger company in the future.

When all employers and employees in a ‘workplace society’ practice Xìn 信, by being integral, honest and faithful, this will ultimately contribute to a harmonious, productive peaceful work culture that leads to success.



Confucianism and Domestic Violence

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Domestic violence against women remains a major societal issue in the modern day, as witnessed by the latest media reports about celebrities and the Australian Government’s active media campaign on television and online.

In China, landmark domestic violence legislation was introduced in March this year, reflecting the need to address the problem in their society. Europe has created the ‘Council of European Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence’ with a total of 42 countries signing the treaty as of last month.

So what would Confucius say about domestic violence, and in particular, violence against women?

The Confucian philosophy teaches its followers that the maintenance of social order, harmony and peace derives from respect and strong emphasis on the following five relationships:

-Ruler to subject
-Father to son
-Husband and wife
-Elder brother to younger brother
-Friend to friend

It dictates that people should act towards each other within these relationships in harmony and peace at all times, thus in an environment where any act of violence would not be accepted. Respect and harmony is achieved through adopting the five virtues namely:

Ren 仁– Benevolence and humaneness, defined by the philosopher himself as “one should see nothing improper, hear nothing improper, say nothing improper, do nothing improper” and “not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself”

Li 禮 –  Rites, which has undergone extensive interpretation throughout history but can be translated as following “customs” and “rules”. Following the “rules” in our society would include adhering to the common law such as the laws that protect women from violence.

Yi – Moral disposition to do good, and also to recognise what is right and good and using moral intuition to do the correct thing in all circumstances.

Chi 智 – Moral wisdom, by sourcing knowledge of right and wrong via the famous Confucian quote, “By three methods: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Xìn 信 – Integrity, by displaying honesty and faithfulness.

It can be easily understood that anyone who practices all of these virtues would be unlikely to engage in any form of domestic violence, and particularly in this context, within the relationship between husband and wife.

However, consider the latest one minute Australian Government television advertisement below.

Under closer examination, it can be seen that this advertisement supports how disrespect and not adhering to the virtues in all of Confucius’ valued relationships can contribute to domestic violence tendencies. For example:

– A young boy disrespects a young girl by pushing her over, thus not practicing
‘Ren 仁’ in a friend – friend relationship.

-A father making a disrespectful comment about women to his son, thus not ‘saying nothing improper’ as per Confucius’ teachings.

-A young man not practicing “Yi 義” when he fails to use his moral intuition to correct his “brother’s” disrespectful actions against a woman in a group situation.

The advertisement further conveys that society needs to break the cycle of domestic violence by discouraging disrespectful behaviours from a young age. This can be aligned to the virtue of Chi 智, whereby humans need to reflect on their past actions and apply their knowledge gained to improve their moral wisdom.

This is one of many examples how Confucianism is still relevant to modern society behavior today.

Confucius and the Cultural Revolution – 50 years on

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Monday marked the 50th Anniversary since the start of former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. During this devastating period in China, immense cruelty was demonstrated between the country’s citizens, resulting in over 1.5 million deaths across the nation and over 36 million people suffering some form of political violence.

In 1973, Mao launched a political propaganda campaign against Confucianism named ‘Criticize Lin (Biao), Criticize Confucius Campaign’, where he openly criticized Confucius and his teachings. Red Guards attacked the Temple of Confucius, Qufu and vandalized the Cemetery of Confucius as part of the campaign.

Anti Confucius

An anti-Confucius poster printed in 1974 by Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe (Shanghai People’s Press). Source:

Traditional Confucian values of filial piety and existing in harmony were acted against to the extremes, with one lawyer admitting in 2013 that he had sent his mother to her execution in 1970 by writing a letter to the authorities informing them she had called Mao a ‘traitor’.  The strong Confucian values of the relationships between teacher – student, emperor – people, father – son, husband – wife and importance of family unity were deemed by Mao as inferior, and citizens were encouraged to turn against each other through betrayal and violence. Young people challenged authority and respect at home, school, university and in their workplaces.

This vitriolic denunciation of Confucius continued until the demise of Mao, ending the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

The views on Confucianism from the leaders of China has come a long way, as reflected with President Xi Jinping personally endorsing the philosophy in his keynote speech at the 2565th birthday anniversary commemoration in 2014. He stated that “Confucianism and other schools of thought in Chinese history all adhered to the principle that theories must serve the management of state affairs and benefit real life.”


President Xi Jinping, points at a bust of Confucius in the China pavilion of Frankfurt Book Fair he attended while still serving as Vice President in 2009. Source:

Furthermore, in 2013, China introduced the “Elderly rights law” which attempts to enforce adult children to visit their elderly parents, which mirrors the strong Confucian emphasis on filial piety.  The government has even extended the use of Confucian philosophy to prisoner rehabilitation, unveiling the first Confucius classroom in a prison last week.