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date: 21 September 2023

Confucianism and Educationfree

Confucianism and Educationfree

  • Charlene TanCharlene TanNanyang Technological University


Issues related to the aim of education, curriculum, teaching, and learning are perennial concerns in Confucianism. Within the Confucian canon, two texts, Analects (Lunyu) and Xueji (Record of Learning), are particularly instructive in illuminating the principles and practices of education for early Confucianism. Accordingly, the aim of education is to inculcate ren (humanity) through li (normative behaviors) so that learners can realize and broaden dao (Way). To achieve this aim, the curriculum should be holistic, broad-based, and integrated; students should constantly practice what they have learned through self-cultivation and social interaction. Supporting the curriculum is learner-focused education, where the teacher is sensitive to the individual needs of students. The “enlightening approach” is recommended, where the teacher encourages and guides students using the questioning technique and peer learning. The impact of Confucian education is evident in the creation and flourishing of “Confucian pedagogic cultures” in East Asia. However, a key question confronting a Confucian conception of education is whether such a paradigm is able to nurture critical and creative thinkers who are empowered to critique prevailing worldviews and effect social changes. A textual analysis of Xueji and Analects reveals that critical and creative thinking are valued and indispensable in Confucian education. Confucius himself chastised the rulers of his time, modified certain social practices, and ingeniously redefined terms that were in wide circulation such as li and junzi by adding novel elements to them. Confucian education should be viewed as an open tradition that learns from all sources and evolves with changing times. Such a tradition fulfills the educational vision to appropriate and extend dao, thereby continuing the educational project started by Confucius.


  • Curriculum and Pedagogy
  • Educational Theories and Philosophies


Confucianism comprises a rich tapestry of historical, political, philosophical and socio-cultural traditions that originated from Confucius (Kong Fuzi) (551–479 bce). A prominent theme in Confucianism is education. Confucius himself devoted his whole life to teaching his disciples and persuading the political leaders of his time to enact his educational ideals. The intellectual tradition in education in Confucianism is exemplified in the Confucian canon known as the Four Books and Five Classics (sishu wujing). Within the canon, two texts stand out for their exposition on teaching and learning: Analects (Lunyu) and Xueji (Record of Learning). Analects, which is one of the Four Books, is a collection of the sayings and conduct of Confucius and his disciples. The process of collating Confucius’ teachings started shortly after his death in the form of little “books,” culminating in what we know today as Analects (Ames & Rosemont, 1998). Xueji is a chapter from Liji (Book of Rites) that is one of the Five Classics. It was probably written during the Warring States period (475–221 bce) or the Han dynasty (202 bce–220 ce) (Di et al., 2016). By the time of Xueji, an educational system comprising schools in the villages and a national academy in the capital already existed. Although Xueji was written specifically for students preparing for official positions, the educational principles discussed are applicable to all learners and reflect the essence of Confucian education.

Drawing on Analects and Xueji, this essay introduces a Confucian conception of education in terms of its aim of education, curriculum, teaching approaches, and contemporary relevance. All the English translations of the Confucian texts cited in this article were done by the author, unless otherwise stated. Efforts have been taken to preserve the original meaning and word pattern as much as possible. Any additions to the translation for the purpose of clarification are marked by square brackets (for the complete text of Analects in classical Chinese and English, see Lau, 1979; Ames & Rosemont, 1998; Slingerland, 2003; Chinese Text Project, 2016a; for the complete text of Xueji in classical Chinese and English, see Legge, 1885; Wong, 1976; Di et al., 2016; Chinese Text Project, 2016b).

Aim of Education

The central place of education in Confucianism is stated in the opening passage of Xueji:

If a ruler desires to transform the people [and] perfect [their] customs, [the ruler] can only do so through education! (Xueji I).

The context of the passage is about good political governance. Rather than merely relying on laws, able officials, or virtuous advisors—all good measures in themselves—the ruler should devote attention to educating the people. The goal is to radically change the people by refining their conventional ways of thinking and doing. The reference to transformation and perfection in the above verse signifies that the scope is extensive, going beyond skills training and cognitive advancement to paradigm shift and character development. The actualization of this aim of education naturally requires a normative standard to guide the ruler in knowing whether and when the people have been transformed and their customs perfected. This standard is revealed in Xueji II to be dao (Way), which is the object of learning: “People who do not learn will not realize dao.” Dao is the Way of Heaven (tian) or “guiding discourse” (Hansen, 1989) that is passed down from antiquity. To realize dao is to understand and experience the “vision of human excellence” (Cua, 1989) that forms the basis for human transformation and cultural perfection. As the normative tradition inherited from one’s cultural predecessors, dao contributes to the formation of Confucian ideals and symbolic resources such as texts, cultural artifacts, and ceremonies (Chan, 2000). Dao was modeled and propagated by sage-kings such as Yao, Shun, and Yu of the first three dynasties of China (Analects 8.18, 8.19, 8.20, 8.21). Among the first three dynasties, the Zhou dynasty (1100–221 bce) is singled out by Confucius as embodying dao through its cultural elements, such as the exemplary conduct of its rulers, institutions, and rituals (Analects 9.5).

Dao, while not lost and still accessible to all, is acquired through learning. As stated in Xueji III, “Although the ultimate dao is present, [one] does not know [its] goodness if [one] does not learn it.” That is why Confucius declares that “the junzi (noble or exemplary person) learns for the sake of dao” (Analects 19.7). Confucius also exhorts all to “be firmly committed to love learning [and] hold fast to the good dao till death” (Analects 19.7). Not only are human beings called to realize dao, they are also entrusted with the mission to extend it. In the words of Confucius, “It is human beings who are able to broaden dao, not dao that broadens human beings” (Analects 15.29). To broaden dao is to share in, contribute to, and advance the best of the spiritual, social, political, intellectual, and moral capital and practices derived from one’s cultural tradition.

But how do we know whether and when a person is realizing and broadening dao? According to Confucius, such a person aspires to do all things in accordance with li (normative behaviors). Confucius underscores the pervasiveness of li as follows:

Do not look unless [it is in accordance with] li; do not listen unless [it is in accordance with] li; do not speak unless [it is in accordance with] li; do not move unless [it is in accordance with] li. (Analects 12.1)

Li covers all normative human behaviors that stem from and are accompanied by desirable values, attitudes, and dispositions (Tan, 2013). To realize and broaden dao is to think, feel, and act in accordance with li. Put another way, the pattern of li is the internal structure of dao (Hall & Ames, 1987). Given that li concerns all aspects of human life, individuals need to constantly turn to the guiding discourse in dao to act normatively in specific problem-situations. Instances of li recorded in Analects include offering appropriate greeting (3.7), sitting (10.12), eating (10.10), and even sleeping (10.24). In the context of education, li is manifested in all learning activities, such as establishing one’s aspiration in learning, analyzing texts, asking questions, and making friends (this will be elaborated on in a later section). It is significant that Confucius’ message to political rulers regarding li in Analects 2:3 corroborates the teaching in Xueji I on the importance of education. Confucius advises rulers not to govern the people through harsh laws and punishment. Instead, rulers should “keep [the masses] in line through li and [they] will have a sense of shame and order themselves” (Analects 2.3). Rule by law and punitive measures can, at best, change the people’s outward behavior but not their mindsets and moral character. In contrast, directing the people to adhere to li is more effective, as it transforms not just their conduct but also their value systems. The transformative power of li follows logically from its integration of praiseworthy values, attitudes, dispositions, and actions that originate from dao. When people know and desire to act in accordance with li, they will naturally discipline themselves and be ashamed once their behavior deviates from li.

It is necessary, in order to further understand li, to introduce another cardinal Confucian concept: ren (humanity or benevolence). Ren defines the normativity of li in the sense that to observe li is to possess and demonstrate ren in all our thoughts, feelings, and actions (Tan, 2013). Confucius links li to ren by asking rhetorically: “What has a person who is not ren got to do with li”? (Analects 3.3). Confucius also asserts that “restraining the self and returning to li is ren” (Analects 12.1). To restrain oneself is to control one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions so that one does not stray from the right path of dao. Ren is the overarching and general quality that encompasses all virtues such as reverence, sincerity, empathy, tolerance, trustworthiness, diligence, and generosity (see Analects 12.1, 17.6). Xueji is replete with references to different facets of ren such as respect, love, humility, and diligence. Everyone has the potential to attain ren, as pointed out by Confucius: “Being ren lies with oneself; how could it come from others?” (Analects 12.1). So quintessential is ren that Confucius contends that “the common people need ren more than water and fire” (Analects 15.35) and that a ren person is prepared to “give up [one’s] life to achieve ren” (Analects 15.9). Putting together what we have learned from this section, the purpose of education is for learners to realize and broaden dao by internalizing and demonstrating ren-centered li at all times. Only then can the ruler succeed in transforming the learners and perfecting their customs (Xueji I).


“Curriculum,” as used in this article, refers to the totality of learning experiences provided to students. This means that the curriculum includes not just the contents to be studied but also all planned activities, programs, events, and functions that take place in a variety of learning sites. Following the aim of education to realize and broaden dao through embracing ren-centered li, a Confucian curriculum should be holistic, broad-based, and integrated. First, the curriculum is holistic, as the spotlight is not just on the students’ cognitive progress but also on their affective and behavioral developments. Cognitively, the curriculum is designed to enrich the learner’s intellect (“broaden their learning”) and content mastery (“know their various subjects and acquire a general understanding”) (Xueji V). As for the affective and behavioral dimensions of the curriculum, the same passage stresses the need for students to “revere their studies,” “esteem their fellow students,” “cherish their teachers,” “be firmly set and not likely to regress” in their learning, and engage in “discourses on their studies” with their teacher and peers. Other passages also highlight a commitment to learning (Xueji V), self-discipline (Xueji VI), enjoyment and diligence in studying (Xueji VI, IX), and respect for and trust in dao (Xueji VI, IX).

A rounded education affirms a Confucian mandate for students to transcend theoretical knowledge of dao by appreciating and abiding in it. That mere head knowledge is rejected by Confucius is seen in his call for all to be “a junzi scholar and not a xiaoren scholar” (Analects 6.13). A junzi (noble or exemplary person) is the educational ideal for all human beings. Such a person is “anxious about dao” (15.32), “acts in accordance with li” (15.18), and “does not leave ren even for the space of one meal” (4.5, all from Analects). On the other hand, a xiaoren, literally means “small person,” refers to an immoral person who is the opposite of a junzi. The “scholar” (ru) mentioned in 6.13 is a learned person who specializes in the traditional rituals and texts of the Zhou dynasty (Slingerland, 2003). Confucius’ point is that a comprehensive knowledge of rituals and classics, although crucial, is not sufficient to make one a junzi. This is because a scholar could be well versed yet deficient in virtuous character and conduct. What is needed, beyond knowledge acquisition, are the ren-centered motivation and disposition that are displayed through li. Confucius reiterates the deficiency of mere intellectual knowledge in another passage when he asks rhetorically,

[If a person can] recite three hundred poems but is incapable of performing an entrusted official duty and exercising [one’s] initiative when sent abroad, what good are the many poems [to that person]? (Analects 13.5)

Here Confucius is not claiming that memorizing the poems from Book of Songs (which is one of the Five Classics) is useless. It is noteworthy that he has elsewhere commented, “The poems can give [you] inspiration, observation skill, ability to live with others, and means to express grievances” (Analects 17.9, also see 16.13, 17.10). What Confucius is saying is that a learner should go beyond rote-memorization to conscientiously and prudently apply the ethical lessons derived from the poems to life’s circumstances and challenges (Tan, 2015a).

Directed by ren, individuals are encouraged to reinforce and put into practice what they have learned through self-cultivation and social interaction. On self-cultivation, Xueji IX emphasizes the importance of “cultivating [oneself]” by being “‘reverentially committed to and constantly diligent in [learning].” A person self-cultivates by gradually and steadfastly appropriating the symbolic resources and sharable values from dao (Tu, 1985) that forms the basis of a Confucian curriculum. Self-cultivation presupposes that the realization of dao depends ultimately on oneself. That success is obtained through nurture (self-cultivation) rather than nature is taught by Confucius, who observes that “human beings are similar in their nature, but differ as a result of their practice” (Analects 17.2). Going hand in hand with self-cultivation is social interaction through a variety of activities that take place both in and outside the classroom. The Confucian notion of the self is not a ready-made soul but formed and evolved through a “person-making” process (Li, 1999). What is envisioned are interdependent and mutually beneficial relationships among members of a community. As noted in Analects: “In desiring to reach a goal, [one] helps others to reach the goal” (6.30) and influences others to “become their best, not their worst” (12.16). Ample opportunities should therefore be given to students in a myriad of learning sites to develop and sustain amicable relationships with others (Xueji V), hold fellow students in high regard (Xueji V), select one’s friends wisely (Xueji V), establish a close and warm relationship with one’s teachers (Xueji V, XVII, IX), possess a sense of duty (Xueji VI), enjoy friendship (Xueji IX), and be willing to learn from one’s peers (Xueji XI).

Besides being holistic, the curriculum is also broad-based. Analects stresses the primacy of learning widely (e.g., 6.27, 9.2, 19.6) and broadening oneself with culture (wen) (9.11). The “culture” mentioned in 9.11 is the normative tradition of dao that is encapsulated in the Zhou dynasty. A broad-based curriculum, therefore, introduces learners to varied defining aspects of Zhou culture, such as its literature, arts, and ceremonies. Rather than narrow subject specialization, Xueji V advocates that students “know the different categories [of knowledge] and obtain gain mastery [in them].” Another passage in the Xueji (VIII) refers to the learning of music (“accomplished in the stringed instruments”), poetry (“accomplished in the Book of Songs”), and rituals (“accomplished in the rituals”). The above domains of learning or subjects are part of the six arts (liuyi) in ancient China that consist of rituals, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy or writing, and mathematics (Tan, 2013).

The third characteristic of a Confucian curriculum is its integrated nature. The six arts are not unrelated and discrete disciplines, nor are they taught theoretically without real-life application. Instead, the six arts are interconnected, mutually reinforcing, and practice-oriented, with ren-centered li infused into the total curriculum. Confucius gives an example of the integration between archery and rituals:

The junzi are not competitive. If they must compete, it is in archery. [They] bow and make way for each other before ascending [the hall], [they] offer up toasts after descending [the hall] (Analects 3.7).

We see in the above that even in sports, participants are expected to observe rituals that showcase the ren virtues of courtesy, deference, and sportsmanship. To facilitate the synthesis of subjects, the curriculum should be well-structured and progressive. Xueji V outlines a nine-year program that systematically introduces students to a values-centered, rounded, and comprehensive curriculum. Students start by forming their learning aspirations and learning to analyze texts. They work toward achieving their learning aspirations by being reverentially committed to studying; they also learn collaboratively by being in and enjoying the company of others. They continue to extend their learning and engage in discussions with their teachers and peers. They also build and maintain a close relationship with their teachers as well as make friends judiciously. In the final stage, students further broaden their learning by mastering different categories of knowledge and becoming proficient in learning without regression. It can be observed that the curriculum is structured in such a way that the students learn by “accumulating [what one has learned]” (Xueji IX), i.e., consolidating and adding to the knowledge base. Xueji XX illuminates the learning process by likening it to an apprentice spending hours on making a sieve before progressing to more complex tasks performed by a skillful bow-maker. The idea of widening and deepening one’s learning from a solid foundational knowledge is also propounded by Confucius. He reminds learners “not to forget what one has acquired monthly” (Analects 19.5) and “to keep alive the old in order to know the new” (Analects 2.11).

Teaching Approaches

A learner-centered education is privileged in Confucianism so that human beings can be equipped and empowered to realize and broaden dao. The pedagogies, resources, activities, and learning environments are customized to produce junzi who are filled with ren and conduct themselves in accordance with li. Xueji X disapproves of didacticism where teachers “chant the [texts on the] bamboos” and “advance [the teaching] rapidly without regard for [the students’ abilities to] accomplish [the learning].” The same passage concludes that these teachers “are not sincere in making others [learn], and do not give [their] utmost to [consider the students’] talents when teaching them.” Such teaching is essentially rote-learning that places the teaching content and the teacher rather than the student at the heart of teaching and learning.

Underpinned by a learner-focused education, Xueji XIV urges teachers to be sensitive to the individual needs of students by “knowing [the students’] heart-minds” (Xueji XIV). The word “heart-mind” (xin) in Confucian parlance refers to the harmonization of one’s thinking and feelings. It is the same word used by Confucius when he urges all to “set your heart-mind on dao” (Analects 7.6). He also testifies that he has followed his “heart-mind’s desires without overstepping the line” (Analects 2.4), i.e., without transgressing li. To know the heart-mind of one’s student is to “know [the student’s] difficulty and ease in learning as well as [the student’s] good and bad [qualities]” (Xueji XVI). The teacher should also “develop what is good [in the students] and rescue [them] from [their] deficiencies” (Xueji XIV). Another passage advises teachers not to rush into telling students what to do so that the latter’s heart-minds remain undisturbed (Xueji VI). This implies a teacher who makes a special effort to know the students well, particularly their mental and emotional states, which have a bearing on their learning. Only when a teacher is well acquainted with the students’ personalities, habits, lifestyles, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses can the teacher “enlighten [the students] extensively [according to their needs]” (Xueji XVI).

Following the injunction to leave the heart-minds of students undisturbed (Xueji VI), teachers should refrain from evaluating the students’ learning too early in their studying. This is because early and frequent assessments would only create anxiety in the students and distract them from studying leisurely according to their personal aspirations (Xueji VI). Instead of formal appraisal, the teacher should just monitor the student’s progress in the cognitive (e.g., ability to analyze texts), affective (e.g., desire to take studying seriously), and behavioral areas (e.g., skill in making friends) (Xueji V). The objective is for the teacher to be informed of each student’s learning stage, growth, and potential so that the teacher can provide timely and appropriate interventions. Driving home the benefits of teacher observation, Confucius avers that it is “by observing [a person’s] errors [that we] know the degree of ren [in that person] (Analects 4.7).” A case in point is recorded in Analects. Confucius was initially concerned that his disciple Yanhui was slow in learning, as the latter did not show overt signs of comprehending his teaching. Upon observing Yanhui’s conduct subsequently, Confucius concluded, “When [Yanhui] withdraws and [I] examine [what he does] in private, [I find that he is] able to illustrate [what I have said], so Yanhui is not stupid at all” (Analects 2.9).

A particular teaching approach that is recommended in Xueji is the “enlightening approach” (yu) (Di et al., 2016; Tan, 2015b):

A junzi teaches by yu (enlightening): [leads] the way [for students] without dragging [them]; strengthens [the students] without suppressing [them]; opens [the students’ minds] without arriving [at the conclusion on their behalf] (Xueji XIII).

This approach enables the teacher to encourage and guide students instead of spoon-feeding or indoctrinating them. The adoption of the enlightening approach does not mean that direct instruction by the teacher is unimportant or jettisoned, since one still needs a tutor’s help in mastering the six arts, such as playing musical instruments and learning calligraphy. Rather, the teaching should be done in such a way that the teacher’s “words are brief yet penetrating, subtle yet appropriate, and sparing in illustrations yet illuminating” (Xueji XV). The teacher should also inspire students to go beyond learning the contents to developing the dispositions for learning. As noted in Xueji XV, “a skillful teacher is able to motivate others to follow [one’s] aspiration [to learn].” The results are harmony between the teachers and students, effective teaching, and improved learning outcomes (Xueji XIII).

In employing the enlightening approach, the teacher should not arrive at the conclusion on the students’ behalf. Instead, the teacher should promote reflection and independent thinking in the students (Xueji XIII). Confucius displays the enlightening approach as follows:

[I] do not enlighten [a person who is] not striving [to understand]; [I] do not provide [the words to a person who is] not already struggling to speak. If [I] have raised one [corner] and [the person] does not come back with the other three [corners], [I] will not [teach that person] again. (Analects 7.8)

Confucius fosters contemplation and inferential thinking by providing the initial point of learning and expecting the students to make their own deductions and judgments. Reflection and learning are closely intertwined, according to Confucius: “Learning (xue) without reflection (si) leads to bewilderment; reflection without learning leads to perilousness” (Analects 2.15). A person who learns without reflection will be perplexed, as such a person has not adequately understood what one has studied. On the other hand, a person who reflects without learning is vulnerable to danger, since such a person lacks the requisite knowledge that is gained through learning to shield oneself from mistakes. The teacher should therefore strike a balance between knowledge transmission and independent thinking. Such a balance is achieved by the teacher supplying the necessary facts and intellectual resources without stifling the students (Tan, 2016a). It should be added that inviting learners to think for themselves does not mean that all conclusions drawn by students are acceptable or equally valid. A learner-centered Confucian education, including the enlightening approach, is premised on preparing learners to realize and broaden dao. Hence all the deliberations and judgments made by the students (as well as teachers) should be consistent with ren-centered li within the normative tradition of dao.

Xueji further elaborates on the enlightening approach by delineating two teaching strategies for teachers: the questioning technique and peer learning. First, teachers should stimulate student engagement by asking questions and prompting students to do likewise. In responding to the student’s questions, a teacher should not “rely on rote-memorization” (Xueji XIX), that is, stock answers that do not directly address the questions asked. Instead, the teacher “must listen [to the specific question] and explain [the answer to students]” (Xueji XIX). That the teacher’s reply should correspond to the exact question asked is illustrated by the analogy of striking a bell. Xueji XVIII states that just as a bell gives a soft sound when it is struck lightly and gives a loud sound when it is struck hard, a skillful teacher is one who “gives [one’s] utmost to articulate [the answer to the specific question].”

In addressing students’ questions, teachers are also reminded not to undermine the student’s independent thinking by being too quick to furnish the answers. Both the teacher and students should instead “talk with each other for a long time,” with the teacher guiding the students to analyze the question, scaffolding their thought processes, and leading them step by step toward the answer (Xueji XIX). This process is likened to a woodcutter who chops down a tree by first hewing away the easy parts before removing the knotty branches (Xueji XIX). Xueji includes a caveat that although students are encouraged to ask questions, novice learners are dissuaded from doing so. This is to ensure that they “do not transgress the [proper] grade [they are at] in [their] learning.” (Xueji VI). This instruction is predicated on the Confucian principles of structured and progressive learning mentioned earlier. Before jumping straight into critical discussions with their peers and teacher, novice learners should devote themselves first to acquiring the foundational knowledge. Otherwise, as cautioned by Confucius, they may shortchange their learning by being impatient and opting for quick results (Analects 14.44).

Besides using the questioning technique, teachers should also facilitate active student participation through peer learning. Xueji XI proposes the strategy of xiangguan (mutual observation), which refers to students learning from each other through pair or group work. Peer learning takes place when students engage in “discourses on their studies” with their classmates where they demonstrate their ability to reflect on, evaluate, integrate, and apply what they have learned (Xueji V). In the collaborative process, students listen to and observe one another, correct each other’s faults, share and build on each other’s strengths, and consequently improve themselves. So vital is peer learning that Xueji XII states that “[if a student] learns by oneself without friends, [such a student] will be solitary, uncultured, and limited in knowledge.” The reference to “uncultured” suggests that the purpose of peer learning is not just knowledge acquisition but also the enculturation of ren values, attitudes, dispositions, and conduct. Through peer learning, students are given the platforms to internalize and express instances of li such as “esteeming fellow students” (Xueji V) and “finding joy in friends” (Xueji IX). The strategy of “mutual observation” reiterates the centrality of social interaction discussed earlier where a learner “helps others to reach the goal” (Analects 6.30) and brings out “their best, not their worst” (Analects 12.16).

Contemporary Relevance

Confucian educational thought and practices have had far-reaching and lasting impact on China and other East Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Singapore. Common in these countries are the creation and flourishing of “Confucian pedagogic cultures” (Kim, 2009). Despite variations among them, these cultures share the following primary pedagogic patterns: a premium placed on education, high social status of and respect for teachers, student attention and discipline in class, a firm grasp of foundational knowledge, and repeated practice (Tan, 2015b, 2015c). The Confucian accent on memorization with understanding, reflection, inferential thinking, theory-practice nexus, and peer learning support deep learning, higher-order thinking, lifelong learning, and collaboration—competencies needed by knowledge workers in the 21st century (Tan, 2016a, 2016b). The seriousness with which East Asians view education, coupled with the high standards of teaching and learning in Confucian Heritage Cultures, has arguably contributed to the impressive performance of these students in international large-scale assessments. For example, Shanghai/China, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Japan, and Singapore were consistently the top performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) (OECD, 2015; TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Centre, 2016).

Against a backdrop of contemporary education being increasingly determined by neoliberal agendas, Confucian beliefs in values inculcation and social interdependence are particularly salient for policymakers and educators. The global educational landscape is saturated with the trends of marketization of education, performativity, and global educational governance by international bodies such as the Organisation for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD). Schools are pressured to “perform” by producing measurable results through standardized testing and external audits. Concomitantly, the major frameworks for 21st-century skills are predominantly skills-based and geared towards economic priorities and quantifiable outcomes (Tan, Chua, & Goh, 2015). A ramification of neo-liberalism in education is the marginalization of moral and civic education where the development of ethical and communal values is neglected. This state of affairs is unfortunate, as education should not just be about what a person knows and is able to do, but also, and more importantly, about who that person is and should become. It is therefore pivotal to go beyond skills to cultivate the beliefs, values, attitudes, and dispositions that shape a person’s identity, life goals, relationships with others, and contribution to society. The process of values inculcation necessarily involves the community, since morality originates from and is kept alive by shared standards, social behaviors, logics and ends among members. It is here that a Confucian worldview of education is helpful in shifting our focus from utilitarian, performative, and individualistic concerns to ethical, non-quantifiable, and communitarian goods such as moral self-cultivation, social interdependence, and love for humanity.

Notwithstanding the before-mentioned merits of a Confucian conception of education, a key question is whether such a framework is able to nurture critical and creative thinkers who are empowered to critique prevailing worldviews and effect social changes. Confucius’ statement that he “transmits but does not make; trusts in and loves antiquity” (Analects 7.1) gives the impression that he aims to preserve rather than reject or replace tradition. The desire to conserve one’s tradition and safeguard social harmony may make it difficult for individuals in Confucian pedagogic cultures to challenge authority and social norms, interrogate assumptions and actions, and undertake risk-taking and unorthodox ventures. So is Confucian education inimical to the development of critical and creative thinking in students? A textual analysis of Xueji and Analects reveals that critical and creative thinking are valued and indispensable in Confucian education. Critical thinking, interpreted broadly as skillful, reflective, and responsible thinking that facilitates judgment is an integral component of Confucian education. We have already noted in Analects that reflection (si) is inseparable from learning (xue) and that Confucius expects his students to draw their own inferences. A social critic and reformer, Confucius critiques the prevailing worldviews and norms, castigates rulers of his time for violating li and modifies certain social practices to align them with dao (see Analects 3.1, 3.2, 3.10. 3.26, 9.3). Similarly, Xueji enhances students’ critical thinking capacities through approaches such as asking and responding to questions, partaking in deep discussions, and formulating one’s conclusions.

As in the case for critical thinking, creative thinking, understood generally as novel changes or interpretations of experiences, actions, and events, is acknowledged and cherished in Confucian education. The broadening of dao entails not a rigid adherence to conventions and norms but a creative interpretation and appropriation of symbolic resources and ideals for particular problem-situations. Confucius ingeniously borrowed and redefined terms that were in wide circulation, such as li and junzi, by adding novel elements to them. The concept of li was expanded by Confucius from a narrow meaning of ritual propriety to comprise all normative behaviors that are accompanied by corresponding values, attitudes, and dispositions. The term junzi, historically reserved for aristocrats, was re-imagined by Confucius as the educational ideal for everyone, regardless of one’s birth. Furthermore, a junzi is conceived by Confucius as a creative person who “does not insist on certainty [and] is not inflexible” (Analects 9.4, also see 15.37). Instructively, Analects stresses that a junzi is not “a vessel” (Analects 2.12). A vessel in ancient China is a receptacle used in ceremonial rituals for specific functions and occasions. A junzi is not a vessel in the sense that such a person is not confined to one function or a fixed way of thinking. Instead, a junzi is capable of performing multiple duties by “going with what is appropriate” (Analects 4.10), i.e., using one’s discretion to (re)act innovatively in disparate problem-situations. It follows that Confucian learners, in order to behave in accordance with li, must interpret experiences, respond to events, and construct personal meanings thoughtfully and inventively (Tan, 2016c). Confucius’ pronouncement that he “transmits but does not make; trusts in and loves antiquity” (Analects 7.1) should therefore be understood as his desire to transmit dao (rather than any Chinese tradition or discourse) and his trust in and love of Zhou culture (rather than the ancient past in general). His claim that he is a transmitter of dao does not imply that he views dao as complete and cast in stone. On the contrary, he contributes considerably to the normative tradition of dao by propagating not just the culture of the Zhou dynasty but also selected values and practices from the Xia and Yin dynasties (Analects 15.11) (Tan, 2016d). Analects 7.1 needs to be read in conjunction with Analects 15.29, where human beings are entrusted with the task of transmitting and broadening dao. It follows that critical and creative thinking should be extended to dao itself, where learners reflect on their prior conception of dao and purposefully co-construct a (better) vision of human excellence and guiding discourse for their fellow human beings.

To engender and buttress a culture that nurtures critical and creative thinking, it is imperative for policymakers, scholars, and educators to approach Confucian education as an open tradition. Such a tradition interacts with other traditions, learns from all sources, and adapts to changing times. By inviting its adherents to critique their own social norms, presuppositions and way of life as well as consider alternatives and better ideas, the normative tradition of dao is extended and refined. Confucius alludes to an open tradition when he teaches that we should be prepared to learn from anyone: “When walking with two other persons, [I am] bound to find a teacher among them: [I] choose to follow the good person, and correct [myself] when [I am] with a person who is not good” (Analects 7.22). He also evinces open-mindedness by eschewing certainty, dogmatism, and inflexibility in favor of that which is desirable and productive (Analects 7.28, 9.4, 14.32). Analects also portrays a junzi as a humble person who is receptive to new ideas, tools, and methods to arrive at good judgments (Analects 4.10, 13.26, 15.18).

Being open to other traditions has the added advantage of assisting individuals to identify and rectify the shortcomings of oneself and one’s culture. An example is the research finding that East Asians tend to be strong in incremental and process innovation as well as “imitation behavior,” but relatively weak in questioning existing structures and generating invention and breakthroughs (Tan, 2016c). One way to enrich the understandings, forms, and expressions of critical and creative thinking in Confucian pedagogic cultures is to explore modes of thinking and operations from other cultures, such as Socratic questioning and design thinking, that are more commonly found in Anglo-American societies. Such cross-cultural exchanges, dialogues, and problem-solving are in tandem with Confucian education as an open tradition that welcomes alternatives, new inputs, and external stimuli. Overall, an open tradition heeds the call of Confucius to broaden dao by sharing in and advancing the best of the spiritual, social, political, intellectual, and moral resources from one’s tradition. Confucian education becomes a dynamic and self-correcting process where teachers and students, individually and collectively, make sense of, adapt, and rework the normative tradition in light of the potentialities of present science and technology (Tan, 2012, 2016b).


Confucianism is currently enjoying a revival in China, due in no small part to the Chinese government’s appropriation and recasting of neo-Confucian doctrine as a formal state ideological position. An evidence of the official endorsement of Confucianism was a speech made by Chinese President Xi Jinping at an international symposium to commemorate the 2,565th anniversary of the birth of Confucius in which he supports the transmission of Confucian tenets (Xinhuashe, 2014). In the context of education policy, the Ministry of Education in China has advocated the teaching of Confucianism in schools as part of the transmission of traditional Chinese culture. An official document titled “Notice by the Ministry of Education on the Issuance of the ‘Synopsis of the Education Guide on Perfecting Excellent Traditional Chinese Culture’” calls schools to “deeply excavate and elucidate China’s excellent traditional values by articulating benevolence, valuing the citizens, abiding in integrity, upholding uprightness, treasuring harmony, and seeking common ground” (Ministry of Education, 2014).

So has the resurgence of Confucianism in China resulted in a wide application and dissemination of the educational philosophy and practices of Confucianism as outlined in Analects and Xueji? On the one hand, the renewed interest in Confucianism has led to greater attention and resources being directed to the learning of Confucian teachings through various avenues. A noteworthy nationwide initiative is guoxue (National Chinese Cultural Course), which was popularized by classes started by elite universities such as Beijing University and a primetime program on Analects (Yu, 2008). Schools have also relied on Confucian pedagogies such as the enlightening approach for their curriculum reform and introduced Confucian classics and rites to their students as part of their school-based curriculum (Tan, 2016b, 2016e). However, we should not be overly optimistic about the prospect of a comprehensive and integrated promotion of Confucian principles and procedures in schools and society. A perennial obstacle is the pervasive exam-oriented mindset that propels educators, students, and parents to focus on exam techniques, didactic teaching, test scores, and college-entrance rates. Such a worldview vitiates the successful enactment of Confucian educational ideas such as holistic and broad-based education, learner-centered strategies, and interactive classrooms. In addition, the decision by the Chinese government to endorse elements of Confucianism has received a mixed reception, given the controversies over how Confucianism was historically used by dynastic rulers for political legitimacy and the backlash against Confucianism during the Cultural Revolution. Unsurprisingly, scholars such as Wu (2014) and Ford (2015) have contended that the Chinese Communist Party’s deployment of Confucianism is targeted at securing its cultural leadership, rationalizing continued one-party rule, and discrediting Western ideals of democratic pluralism.

It remains to be seen whether the present reinvention of Confucianism as a state ideology and the public popularization of Confucianism in China will lead to a renaissance of Confucianism that adheres to the desired outcomes, principles, and lifestyles as explicated in Analects and Xueji. This article has explained that a central aim of Confucian education is for learners to apprehend and expand dao through ren-centered li. A Confucian curriculum is essentially holistic, comprehensive, and integrated. A holistic curriculum emphasizes students’ cognitive, affective, and behavioral domains. Learners are called to internalize and apply the contents learned through self-cultivation and social interaction. The curriculum is also broad-based; students learn the six arts of rituals, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics. Furthermore, the curriculum is designed in such a way that the students learn systematically and progressively by constantly building upon, synthesizing, and putting into practice what they have studied. Teaching and learning are learner-focused, and the teacher responds empathetically to the individual needs of students. In the recommended “enlightening approach,” the teacher encourages independent thinking and guides students using the questioning technique and peer learning. Confucian education also fosters critical and creative thinking, as modeled by Confucius himself; he challenged the political leaders and convention of his time as well as strove to transform his society through a return to and continual (re)creation of dao. An open tradition ensures that Confucian education is not essentialized, static, and fossilized. Instead, it is diverse, fluid, and evolving, offering an educational paradigm that is rounded, ethical, universal, and ultimately enduring.

Further Reading

  • Di, X., Liuxin, Y., McEwan, H., & Ames, R. T. (Trans.) (2016). On teaching and learning (Xueji). In X. Di & H. McEwan (Eds.). (2016). Chinese philosophy on teaching and learning: Xueji in the twenty-first century (pp. 9–18). Albany: State University of New York.
  • Tan, C. (2013). Confucius. London: Bloomsbury.


  • Ames, R. T., & Rosemont, H. (Trans.) (1998). The Analects of Confucius: A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Chan, A. K. L. (2000). Confucian ethics and the critique of ideology. Asian Philosophy, 10(3), 245–261.
  • Chinese Text Project. (2016a). The Analects.
  • Chinese Text Project (2016b). Xue Ji.
  • Cua, A. S. (1989). The concept of li in Confucian moral theory. In R. E. Allison (Ed.), Understanding the Chinese mind: The philosophical roots (pp. 209–235). Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
  • Di, X., Liuxin, Y., McEwan, H., & Ames, R. T. (Trans.) (2016). On teaching and learning (Xueji). In X. Di & H. McEwan (Eds.). (2016). Chinese philosophy on teaching and learning: Xueji in the twenty-first century (pp. 9–18). Albany: State University of New York.
  • Ford, C. A. (2015). The Party and the Sage: Communist China’s use of quasi-Confucian rationalizations for one-party dictatorship and imperial ambition. Journal of Contemporary China, 24(96), 1032–1047.
  • Hall, D. L., & Ames, R. T. (1987). Thinking though Confucius. Albany: State University of New York.
  • Hansen, C. (1989). Language in the heart-mind. In R. E. Allison (Ed.), Understanding the Chinese mind: The philosophical roots (pp. 75–124). Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
  • Kim, T. (2009). Confucianism, modernities and knowledge: China, South Korea and Japan. In R. Cowen & A. M. Kazamias (Eds.), International handbook of comparative education (pp. 857–872). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
  • Lau, D. C. (Trans.) (1979). Confucius: The Analects. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
  • Legge, J. (1885). The sacred books of China: The texts of Confucianism. Part IV: The li ki, XI–XLVI. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Li, C. (1999). The Tao encounters the West: Explorations in comparative philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Ministry of Education (2014). Jiaoyubu guanyu yinfa “wanshan zhonghua youxiu chuantong wenhua jiaoyu zhidao gangyao” de tongzhi [Notice by the Ministry of Education on the issuance of the “Synopsis of the education guide on perfecting Chinese excellent traditional culture”].
  • Slingerland, E. (Trans.) (2003). Confucius Analects: With selections from traditional commentaries. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  • Tan, C. (2013). Confucius. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Tan, C. (2015a). Beyond rote-memorisation: Confucius’ concept of thinking. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(5), 428–439.
  • Tan, C. (2015b). Teacher-directed and learner-engaged: Exploring a Confucian conception of education. Ethics and Education, 10(3), 302–312.
  • Tan, C. (2015c). Education policy borrowing and cultural scripts for teaching in China. Comparative Education, 51(2), 196–211.
  • Tan, C. (2016a). Beyond “either-or” thinking: John Dewey and Confucius on the subject matter and the learner. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 24(1), 55–74.
  • Tan, C. (2016b). Educational policy borrowing in China: Looking West or looking East? New York: Routledge.
  • Tan, C. (2016c). Understanding creativity in East Asia: Insights from Confucius’ concept of junzi. International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation, 4(1), 51–61.
  • Tan, C. (2016d). A Confucian conception of critical thinking. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 51(1), 1–12.
  • Tan, C. (2016e). Teacher agency and school-based curriculum in China’s non-elite schools. Journal of Educational Change, 17(3), 287–302.
  • Tan, C., Chua, C. S. K., & Goh, O. (2015). Rethinking the framework for 21st-century education: Toward a communitarian conception. The Educational Forum, 79(3), 307–320.
  • Tan, S.-H. (2012). The pragmatic Confucian approach to tradition in modernising China. History and Theory, 51(4), 23–44.
  • TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Centre (2016). TIMSS 2015 and TIMSS advanced 2015 international results.
  • Tu, W. (1985). Confucian thought: Selfhood as creative transformation. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Wong, W. S. (1976). The Hsüeh Chi, an old Chinese document on education. History of Education Quarterly, 16(2), 187–193.
  • Wu, S. (2014). The revival of Confucianism and the CCP’s struggle for cultural leadership: A content analysis of the Peoples Daily, 2000–2009. Journal of Contemporary China, 23(89), 971–991.
  • Xinhuashe (2014, September 24). Xijinping chuxi jinian Kongzi danchen 2565 zhounian guoji xueshu yantaohui bing fabiao zhongyao jianhua [Xi Jinping attended an international symposium to commemorate the 2565th anniversary of the birth of Confucius and delivered an important speech]. Available online.
  • Yu, T. (2008). The revival of Confucianism in Chinese schools: A historical-political review. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 28(2), 113–129.