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date: 05 December 2020

The Confucian Tradition and Politicsfree

  • Youngmin Kim, Youngmin KimDepartment of Politics and International Relations, Seoul National University
  • Ha-Kyoung LeeHa-Kyoung LeeDepartment of Politics and International Relations, Seoul National University
  •  and Seongun ParkSeongun ParkDepartment of Politics and International Relations, Seoul National University


Confucianism is a principal category and term of analysis in most discourses on Chinese culture. However, when it is defined in very stylized terms, it turns out to be of little use for understanding long-term historical changes, as its meaning varied greatly over more than a millennium. The Confucian tradition has fluctuated primarily because rulers and elites made use of inherited Confucianism for their ideological ends. In this light, Confucianism, Chinese elite, and politics are closely interconnected. Confucius, who has often been regarded as the founder of Confucianism, did not entertain a chance to materialize his political vision through a powerful government office, even if he had wished to do so. However, after his death, the early imperial rulers of China actively appropriated the textual tradition of what would later become Confucianism and used it to legitimize their political powers. Throughout the late imperial periods, Neo-Confucianism gained wide currency among those who did not hold governmental office and yet sought to engage in public matters at a local level. At the same time, donning the ideological garb of a Confucian sage-king, late imperial rulers instituted the civil service examinations and adopted Neo-Confucian commentaries on classical texts as the official curriculum. As there was almost no other access to office except through these examinations, Neo-Confucianism had become required knowledge for anyone who aspired to become a member of the elite until the early decades of the 20th century. In the late 19th century, China found itself in a disadvantageous position in the new world order, where aggressive European imperialism advanced across Asia. At that time, Chinese reformers regarded Confucianism as a cause of China’s failure to industrialize as adeptly as Western countries had. During the Mao Zedong era, Confucianism continued to be held responsible for the static nature of Chinese society, which robbed it of the possibility of progress. As Communism ceases to be a satisfactory model for China, the country’s politicians and intellectuals have sought a new identity and model whereby they can fashion their future. As a consequence, although discarded at the beginning of the last century as the cause of China’s demise, Confucianism has been gaining new currency as the model for modern China.


This article aims to offer a broad overview of the relationship between Confucianism, the Chinese elite, and politics broadly construed. In particular, it invites the reader to consider the historical contexts that informed this relationship. Identifying different configurations of the relationship in shifting historical contexts may help us to see Confucianism in its greater complexity. This very complexity gives rise to a broader perspective, which allows us to see beyond a highly stylized social scientific account of Confucianism.

The study of Confucianism should begin with the question of what Confucianism is, as scholars have increasingly problematized the use of the term and the tradition itself. Indeed, Confucianism has referred to a wide range of entities, from a narrowly conceived orthodoxy maintained by the cultural elite; to a political ideology sustained through civil service examinations by autocratic rulers; to a philosophical discourse based on the interpretation of a set of classical texts; to a value system supporting patriarchy. With these varying conceptualizations, Confucianism becomes such a capacious and encompassing category that it could be expanded to include many political and cultural phenomena in China that seem to differ from those of Euro-America. This loosely defined catchall term seems to do “more to obscure than to enlighten” (Nylan, 2001, pp. 3–5, 363–367).

It should be noted at the outset that there is no grapheme for Confucianism in classical Chinese. Perhaps the closest Chinese equivalent is a variety of compounds of ru. However, “ru” referred variously to the classicist who engaged himself with textual studies; committed followers of Confucius; anyone who performed civil service, regardless of whether he or she was committed to Confucius’s teaching; or any conventional person (Nylan, 2001). In contemporary China, the term “Confucianism” serves as a frequent translation for rujiao or ruxue in Chinese, although the semantic field of the term “rujiao” or “ruxue” has been constantly changed. The upshot is that there is insufficient conceptual coherence in a wide variety of usages of Confucianism.

Nevertheless, scholars continue to use the term in their discourses because they find themselves in need of a shorthand for political outlooks in traditional East Asia. When it has to be such a tradition-encompassing concept, Confucianism tends to be defined in very stylized terms. Social scientists often assert that there are certain meaningful features that apply to the entire tradition of Confucianism. However, such features have been discredited in many quarters, particularly by those who are cognizant of the historical transformation of Confucianism. If the need for a tradition-encompassing concept cannot be avoided, scholars should at least be alert to essentialist perspectives that dominate the stylized understandings of Confucianism. Indeed, there are many characteristics that cannot be packaged under the rubric of the essence of Confucianism. A more historical approach would better appreciate the plasticity and complexity of the Confucian tradition.

This is not to say that nothing persists long in the Confucian tradition. Distinct processes of socialization under a set of identity markers, such as ru, operated over several generations over the course of Chinese history. What unites “Confucians” is not the content of their ideas, but the collective identity they themselves construct. In other words, although terms like “Confucian” do not have much precision in terms of their content, such identity markers as “ru” or “Confucian” proved to be very useful in terms of the formation of collective identity. The identity markers were resilient because they appeared to propose solutions to problems that are in the interests of society as a whole or self-styled Confucians. It is in this context that politics features in the Confucian tradition. To realize their political interests, competing groups and individuals often made the claim that they, not others, were the rightful successors to the Confucian tradition. And their agendas determined which features of the tradition were to be preserved as significant and which were to be discarded as inconsequential. This does not necessarily mean that they were able to simply fabricate Confucianism out of a vacuum so as to advance their political interests. Rather, to be effective, they had to conform to inherited symbolic authorities as well as to the dictates of personal interest. In this connection, greater attention needs to be paid to state orthodoxy and the key texts that have been called the Confucian classics. When viewed diachronically, Confucianism has changed greatly with the redefinitions of its relation to the key texts and to the state. Furthermore, even when the key texts and the state orthodoxy remain unchanged for a sustained period, there is no guarantee that their significance remains static to the members of a society, for various social actors appropriate authoritative original sources in an explicitly creative way. Thus, unless the historical context of Confucianism is clarified, one can hardly grasp what it meant at a particular historical juncture.

Seen in this light, the Confucian tradition represents something that is constructed by individual agents and groups of agents. Apart from the outcome of constant human effort to invent and reinvent Confucianism through various means of ideological production, there is no absolute, eternal foundation that has sustained it. Existing forms of Confucianism have been reinterpreted, renegotiated, and readjusted in subsequent processes of reinventing the tradition. Rigid notions of Confucianism have rarely survived for long periods, for they have been unable to cope with changing circumstances. Thus, the present article attempts to deal with Confucianism as a cumulative tradition susceptible to the multiple interpretations and political maneuvering of those involved in reinventing it.1 Its ability to (overly) accommodate a wide range of interpretations and constant reinvention is perhaps the most important quality determining the longevity of Confucianism as an evolving and still living tradition.

Confucianism, the State, and the Chinese Elite

Although some people have regarded Confucianism as an apolitical philosophy, many social scientists and political theorists hold that it represents the political ideology that underpinned a strong state in China. Early on, theorists of Oriental despotism identified the Chinese emperor as a paradigmatic Oriental despot and stressed the ruler’s omnipotence as an essential feature of Chinese political culture. Oriental despotism was also one of the dominant paradigms put forth by Western social scientists that influenced studies of Chinese politics for most of the 20th century (Von Glahn, 2016). A prevailing consensus among many Chinese scholars had also been the view that, since the 2nd century bce, China has been a despotic state (zhuanzhi guojia). Many Anglophone historians now disagree with this simplistic characterization of Chinese politics and Confucianism, but it is still a convenient shorthand for many social scientists and political theorists.

In fact, Max Weber (1864–1920), one of the earliest social scientists writing on Confucianism, addressed the issue of its political nature in a rather complex way. He did not simply posit a relationship between Confucianism and the state, but asked whose Confucianism it was (Weber, 1964). According to Weber, Confucianism exerted the dominant influence on Chinese history through a particular group that embodied its doctrines: the Chinese elite, or Confucian literati, in his terms. The Confucian literati were educated social elites versed in canonical texts and were the officials of the state, or candidates for those offices. The literati saw it in their interest that they associate with the ruler. The outcome of this alliance was a highly rationalized bureaucracy that nevertheless was “irrational,” for the power of the officialdom rested on patrimonial power relations. This alliance between the ruler and the literati molded the interests of the literati to form a uniform identity among themselves and the doctrines of Confucianism. First, its politically innovative character was discarded in favor of traditionalism because tradition alone legitimized patrimonialism. The contents of Confucianism supported the patrimonialism and traditionalism as well as the position of the literati which rested on them. Second, unlike Catholic priests, the literati lacked an organization independent from the state. Therefore, they had no autonomous basis of power that privileged hereditary aristocrats and religious priests of other societies. The literati became a state-dependent stratum.

This is not to say that Weber simply subscribes to Oriental despotism. To appreciate his view on Confucianism, the capacity of the state to penetrate society from the ruler’s style of governance vis-à-vis his ministers needs to be distinguished (Mann, 1984). First, Weber appears to be aware of the hard fact that even the most powerful ruler cannot control officials fully, and he or she should expect self-interested officials to engage in power struggles and court intrigues. In addition, without the modern monetary system that kept the bureaucrat dependent on the stipend provided by the ruler, there always lurked the danger of the officials appropriating the sources of taxation and pursuing their own interests. Furthermore, the Chinese state bureaucracy was consistently understaffed. To the extent that the Chinese ruler controls the Chinese elite and society through inefficient patrimonial bureaucracy, the ruler and the elite possess limited power to transform the society.

Ever since Weber’s study, there have been central research questions with regard to political aspects of Confucianism: To what extent did the elite identify themselves with the state or possess a centralist outlook? And what role did Confucianism play in forging such a relation (Von Glahn, 2003)? In early contributions to this field, such scholars as Chung-li Chang (1955) and Ping-ti Ho (1962) placed a premium on the high degree of social mobility within the elite’s stratum. They explain the chances of social mobility in terms of the competitive civil service examinations, which denied hereditary degree status. To the extent that they regard the civil service examination as the core of the relationship between Chinese elite and the state, their views resonate with theorists who viewed China primarily as a bureaucratic society. For example, Balazs (1964) maintained that the scholar-officials of China were merely the embodiment of the totalitarian state with complete control over all of society. Consequently, he explained the role of Confucianism as a political ideology that was exactly suited to the hierarchical state on the grounds of its virtues, including obedience, patriotism, and subordination to higher authorities.

Taken as whole, earlier studies bring Confucianism, the state, and the elite into harmony with each other. Through the civil service examinations, emperors would succeed in making elites subordinate to them; the elite would be financially compensated for their public services by the state; and to pass the exams, they would have to study the Confucian classics. Presumably the state believed that the contents of the Confucian classics propagated a forced patriotic duty and taught disciplines for carrying out governmental tasks. Different as they are, all these earlier views are similar in at least one respect: they characterized Confucianism as a political ideology underpinning an authoritarian and bureaucratic state.

What would Confucianism look like if it were examined from the perspective of historians who do not believe in its enduring features and instead view it as a shared frame of reference in an ever-changing configuration of the relationship between the state and the elite? This article attempts to trace out a few ways in which the Confucian tradition, the elite, and the state interacted with one another (Kim, 2018).

Confucius (551–479 bce)

It seems legitimate to start with Confucius in narrating a history of Confucianism. Confucius lived most of his life in the first half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. The Eastern Zhou period is conventionally divided into two halves: the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 bce) and the Warring States period (453–221 bce). As Confucius has often been regarded as the founder of Confucianism, people tend to suppose that it has had some robust existence ever since the Spring and Autumn period. However, in Confucius’s own time, there were no identifiable schools of thought and organized political, social, or intellectual movements that might be labeled Confucianism. The fact is that Confucius, a member of the shi stratum (the group of literati eligible for office), did not have the chance to materialize his vision, although he traveled across borders to seek appointments, and instead established himself as a teacher of ethics and political philosophy.

Like many other ancient Chinese political thinkers, Confucius envisioned a monarchy rather than a republic (Pines, 2002). At the same time, he would hardly prefer an intrusive state. Although Confucius did not articulate its structure in concrete terms, his ideal state is certainly a small, weak, or minimal state in the sense that nonstate realms take over many social functions, and that enlightened conventions (li) play a bigger role than penal law. Much administration of what would elsewhere be state functions is carried out by such nonstate agencies as the family. It is diametrically opposed to the statist vision of the first emperor of the Qin (221–206 bce) and is much closer to the early Zhou model of decentralized governance. Understandably, a smaller community may be conducive to the cultivation of ren (humanity), the most crucial moral virtue in Confucianism, which may well be nourished through face-to-face interactions.

Just as medieval Europe was bequeathed Roman notions of a law-governed political community, Confucius’s ideal of a ritual-governed, relatively small political community found some resonance among rulers and elite in the imperial periods. To their eyes, enlightened conventions should be no longer be confined to the upper stratum in the capital but spread to large sectors of the population, because the far-reaching territory of the Chinese empire does not allow the state apparatus to entertain a deep range or a high degree of penetration through law alone.

Confucius’s Teaching and the Qin Dynasty (221–206 bce)

The transition from the tumult of the Warring States period to the establishment of the Qin imperial state in 221 bce marks a watershed in the development of Chinese state. Unlike looser forms of the preceding state, such as those of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, whose unity was sustained by kinship ties, the Qin was a territorial, bureaucratically managed monarchical state with the assistance of institutionalized public officials appointed directly by the emperor. Against Confucius’s ideal, the Qin state suppressed kin ties in favor of the state’s direct control of individual households. The Qin emperor was the holder of complete imperium; all other members of the empire were assigned an undifferentiated legal status as his subjects, regardless of their kinship background. In particular, during the reign of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, the state infrastructural power appeared relatively strong. The emperor had reportedly constructed a large highway network, standardized the written language, and established a system of weights and measures, and the Qin state silenced potentially competing teachings, including those of Confucius, aiming to strengthen the ideological bond to unify the empire. A well-known event was the cataclysmic burning of texts that might be used for political purposes. In the vision of the first emperor of the Qin, value had to emanate from the single unified authority of the emperor, not from intellectuals like Confucius. However, despite or because of such a statist policy, the Qin turned out to be short-lived.

Confucianism and the Han Dynasty (206 bce–220 ce)

After the fall of the Qin dynasty, powerful landed families emerged in its successor, the Han. Especially, from the Eastern Han (25–220 ce) onward, hereditary groups united by kinship ties continued to serve as powerful political and social actors until the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907 ce). This represents a far-reaching change in the composition of the ruling class. While keeping significant portions of the Qin legal system intact, they understandably wished to step away from the Qin’s explicit statist policies that suppressed kinship ties. That is, the Han ruler and elite much preferred an ideological approach in fashioning a homogeneous polity while warning against governance by draconian penal laws. It is in this context that they paid attention to Confucius’s teachings.

In studying Han Confucianism, modern scholars have focused on Emperor Wu (157–187 bce, r. 141–87) and Dong Zongshu (179–104 bce) for having provided the ideological basis of the presumed Han Confucian synthesis. Emperor Wu is famously credited with canonizing “Confucian” learning as the state orthodoxy and elevating the Five Classics (the Odes, Documents, Rites, Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals) to canonical status in 136 bce (33FC). The emperor is also known for establishing the Imperial Academy in 124 bce, making learning an important avenue for bureaucratic appointments (35FC). In addition, conventional wisdom has it that Dong Zongshu (179–104 bce) provided the basic ideological platform for Han and subsequent Chinese dynasties by combining five-phase cosmology with Confucian ethics and classical scholarship. The Han dynasty was seen as the golden age and the dawn of Confucianism as the state ideology.

However, historians such as Michael Nylan (2001, 2008) and Michael Loewe (2011) repudiated the idea that there was Confucianism or a Confucian synthesis in the early Han. The primacy of the Five Classics within state-sponsored learning (guanxue) cannot be equated with Confucian canonization. State-sponsored learning during the Han dynasty was more eclectic, incorporating ideas from various thinkers—“Confucian” texts being only one of many—to cope with the problems of ruling the vast empire (2FC; 771CWC). Furthermore, establishing an authoritative “Confucian” interpretation for each of the texts consistently failed (6FC; 38–39FC), in spite of concerted efforts by devoted scholars to link the Five Classics with Confucius’s teaching (6FC; 773CWC). One reason for this was because of the vast differences of date, style, and contents that made uniform recension and interpretation problematic (8FC; 38FC). More importantly, relevant actors appropriated the texts in accordance with their own interests: the political utility of the texts, not its moral teaching, was cardinal (726CWC). The emperors avoided supporting a single interpretation, for the same interpretation legitimizing their rule could also be used to limit their power (39–40FC), allowing them to choose that which best suited their interests (37FC). Meanwhile, the scholars, to attain prestigious positions by boosting their intellectual authority, propagated ever more interpretations of the Five Classics (46–47FC).

Furthermore, according to Michael Loewe, there is no evidence that Dong Zhongshu was in a position to decisively influence the policies of the Han court. He was never a high-ranking official, and his “Confucian” visions of moral and humanitarian values had never gained wide currency among his contemporaries. Crucially, there is a reasonable doubt as to whether Dong was the sole author and editor of his purported magnum opus and the great Han Confucian synthesis, the Chunqiu Fanlu. Most likely, later scholars’ overstated the extent of Dong’s Confucian synthesis and its subsequent influence over the Han court.

Although an authoritative corpus, let alone interpretation, of the Five Classics was never established, its elevation to the status as the core texts of learning was secured during the course of the Han Dynasty(6FC; 38–39FC). However, Han dynasty state sponsorship of the classics could hardly be called the “victory of Confucianism” (37FC). Confucianism had become neither full-fledged state ideology nor the exclusive learning for state officials during the Han dynasty, contrary to long-held “Confucian” historical narrative.

Confucianism and the Tang Dynasty (618–907)

The systematic ideas that may be later regarded as integral elements of Confucianism, as opposed to other systems, were beginning to form during the Eastern Han and were shaped into a more or less coherent body of knowledge during the Tang dynasty (Loewe, 2011). One of the most telling indications is the imperially sponsored Correct Meanings of the Five Classics (Wujing zhengyi) project in 653. Kong Yingda (574–648) and his coeditors selected what they deemed the most reliable commentary of the texts, which in turn contributed to the standardization and systematization of what would become Confucianism. Correct Meanings of the Five Classics achieved almost canonical importance, as it is the yardstick by which other interpretations of Confucian texts are measured.

It was primarily aristocrats who read Correct Meanings of the Five Classics. In the Tang, the relatively small aristocratic population enjoyed a disproportionately large share of society’s resources and official preferment. To institutionalize this disproportion, the Tang governmental authorities composed empire-wide comprehensive genealogies of aristocracy, and in turn the genealogies became the backbone of the social and political order. Aristocratic families’ claims to privilege rested on ideas about their cultural superiority over other segments of Tang society rather than a common store of knowledge among the larger population. Because there was no empire-wide public school system to provide cultural education, only aristocratic families participated in high culture such as learning of Correct Meanings of the Five Classics through family tradition. Indeed, these were such difficult texts that few people could understand them without an aristocratic upbringing.

Confucianism and the Song Dynasty (960–1279)

Many intellectual historians concur that as of the Song the most authoritative texts for the Chinese elite were beginning to shift from the Five Classics to the Four Books—the Analects, the Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. Since then, the status of the Four Books as the most important classics has remained virtually unchallenged for 800 years, although the Five Classics still had a crucial status until the late Qing (1636–1912). Although each of the Four Books had attracted attention over the centuries preceding the Song dynasty, it was Neo-Confucianism that made them into an integrated whole. In particular, Zhu Xi (1130–1200), a leading theoretician of Neo-Confucianism, wrote influential commentaries on the Four Books.

To appreciate the Neo-Confucian philosophy contained in Zhu Xi’s commentaries, one needs to examine the complex relationship between the state, the elite, and the Confucian tradition in the Song dynasty (Bol, 1992). It is widely recognized that as of the establishment of the Northern Song (960–1127), the medieval Chinese aristocracy that dominated China for centuries disappeared, and a new type of elite established themselves through the civil service examination (Tackett, 2014). As the rapidly growing state bureaucracy was able to absorb a larger number of the elite, the elite were beginning to believe that their descendants would be able to pursue careers in officialdom. The expansion of the Northern Song bureaucracy was based on the statist and centralist vision represented by the New Policies of Wang Anshi (1021–1086). According to the New Policies, the state should actively enhance court revenue through penetration into local economies in order to finance increased state actions and military activism. As he wanted to develop the capacity to penetrate local communities with centrally appointed officials, Wang increased the size of the state bureaucracy. Furthermore, to intellectually train the officials who were to carry out his vision, Wang wrote new commentaries on the Confucian classics.

When the Northern Song collapsed in 1127, many intellectuals attributed it to the disastrous effects of the New Policies. The rise of the Neo-Confucian movement in the Southern Song (1127–1279) is comprehensible in the context of the apparent failure of the New Policies to bring about significant improvements in governance. As compared to the practitioners of the New Policies, Neo-Confucians focused their attention on the governance of local society and stressed personal morality rather than large-scale institutional action of the central government. This new trend took place together with new philosophical underpinnings and in tandem with a far-reaching change in the composition of the elite.

Robert Hartwell (1982) and others have demonstrated that, unlike Northern Song elite, the Southern Song elite acted locally in terms of their residence and marriage alliance (Schirokauer & Hymes, 1993). An important factor behind this localist turn is the imbalance between the numbers of the elite and the availability of bureaucratic posts. Rapid population growth thwarted the efforts of the elite to perpetuate their descendants in office. Because the bureaucracy did not possess enough offices and titles to incorporate large numbers of candidates, the majority of the elite failed to obtain a governmental post. To find an alternative way to realize their political ambition, they shifted their attention from state-centered political and institutional reformism to local voluntary activism in such areas as relief efforts, land reclamation, school construction, participation in state-sponsored rituals, and leadership in self-defense militias. When deemed appropriate, they often worked in cooperation with local officials (Bol, 2008).

Neo-Confucian local activism does not necessarily mean that the local elite considered local activities as a meager substitute for a successful political career in the state bureaucracy. The Neo-Confucian local elite no longer thought of themselves as mere local inhabitants who had rather limited horizons, living essentially by supplying local needs. To appreciate this point, the philosophical vision that animated their local activities needs to be examined. Neo-Confucians believed that a single principle integrates the individual, society, and the universe, and that everyone can perceive and realize this principle through personal self-cultivation, whatever their status. In this way, one can gain access to the unity that connects the individual, local society, and the universe at a certain metaphysical level. With this egalitarian and yet heroic vision, Neo-Confucianism offers an alternative to the visions of both Tang aristocratic society and Wang’s New Polices.

As Neo-Confucians saw it, state bureaucracy and hierarchical social relations could not exhaust their aspiration to become a meaningful part of a larger society. Practitioners of Neo-Confucianism began to organize people into symbolic and horizontal networks that extended beyond their immediate territorial and status affiliations, which could temporarily decouple them from their existing ties. Their metaphysics, which allowed them to act locally and think globally, enabled the horizontal affiliations to operate autonomously from the imperial court. At the same time, it remains true that they often organized themselves on politically neutral ground in such a way that they rarely challenged the authority of the emperor. To take one leading example, consider Confucian academies where Neo-Confucian intellectuals engaged in discussion about matters of public concern. The very existence of their activities alone repudiates the cliché of Oriental despotism that the Chinese state was all-encompassing and terrorized its subjects. At the same time, the infrastructural power of the Confucian academy is not comparable with the immense institutional network that one can find in Christianity. And the activities of the academies were rarely subversive enough to challenge the status quo. For example, the members of Donglin Academy in the Ming period (1368–1644) were highly critical of the central government but rarely challenged the authority of the emperor as such. This practice stands in sharp contrast with that of the western Europe, where the Western Church often stood as a formidable rival to organized public authority.

To take another example, Neo-Confucians attempted to redefine the role of kinship organizations in such a way that kinship organization was extended to include many more descendants from a common ancestor and played bigger roles than before. Such larger kinship groups kept careful records of their members and provided mutual assistance among them. When successful, they possessed or managed agricultural land; stocked granaries; established schools for lineage youth, graveyards, and ancestral shrines; and owned corporate property, which served as an instrument for mobilizing large capital investments (Ruskola, 2013). All of these involvements helped to solidify the lineages as corporate groups that played quasi-public roles where state power failed to reach.

It was Zhu Xi’s Family Ritual that put kinship ties on a new intellectual foundation (Ebrey, 2014). It redefined the family as a public unit that played a quasi-political function and partially displaced the state itself as a source of authority over many matters. Unlike families in earlier dynasties, in the Neo-Confucians’ vision, the cohesion of multiple families did not lead to the pursuit of their narrow private interests. Instead, they thought that kinship groups could work in concert for a common good that went beyond bounded kinship group interests. The very kinship links can allegedly form a social glue that keeps otherwise fragmented people united when the state recedes. The implication is that one can hardly conceptualize late imperial Chinese polities in essentially bipolar terms that view state and society as in conflict with each other.

Confucianism and the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368)

In the early 1200s, the Mongols established the Yuan dynasty and conquered the Southern Song in 1279. The Yuan dynasty represents the transition of the Mongols from a pastoral tribal formation to a sedentary bureaucratic state. To establish a regulatory framework for a sedentary life in China, in 1313–1315 the Mongol rulers installed the civil service examinations and adopted Zhu Xi’s commentaries as their basis. The Mongols’ adoption of the institutions does not have to be interpreted from a Han-centric perspective because Yelu Chucai (1189–1243), a Khitan ethnically, played a pivotal role in persuading the Mongols to adopt civil administration. Given that Neo-Confucianism increasingly gained ground among the elite as of the Southern Song, one can view the Mongol’s embrace of Neo-Confucianism as a way to co-opt Chinese literati who might not cooperate with foreign rulers. However, the effect of the civil service examination was limited because, under Mongol rule, the majority of the Han Chinese elite did not hold high office and withdrew into private realms (Tu, 1982).

Confucianism and the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)

Neo-Confucianism was not always supportive of a strong state or despotic political power. For Neo-Confucians, the truly meaningful hierarchy is not that between emperor and subjects, but that between sage and non-sage. The emperor is not a law-like principle giver, but the one whose power is constrained by the law-like principle embedded in the universe. A sage is superior to an emperor in the sense that a sage can better understand the principle and put it into practice. It is the sage’s responsibility to provide rulers and common people with proper guidance.

In practice, those who were usually held to be responsible for pursuing sagehood were the elite. The masses were viewed as lacking the intellectual, cultural, and material resources for engaging in that pursuit. Therefore, the elite thought of themselves as the guardians of the sociopolitical order and urged people to be moral. Even emperors were no exception. The institutionalized form of such a relationship between the emperor and his moral advisors was the so-called “classics mat” (jingyan), in which Neo-Confucian scholars and ministers instructed the emperor on how the moral principle relates to any particular contingent state of affairs.

In the political reality of the Ming dynasty, however, the relationship between the ruler and ministers did not unfold as Neo-Confucian theory dictated. Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming founder who was originally the son of a poor peasant family, incorporated many elite members as core members of the new dynasty (Dardess, 1983). However, Neo-Confucians were not very successful in taming the power of the early Ming rulers. More often than not, they played a role in legitimizing the new dynasty. To don the ideological garb of a Confucian sage-king, Zhu Yuanzhang reinstituted the civil service examinations in 1384 and adopted Zhu Xi’s commentaries on the Four Books as the curriculum. As there was almost no other access to office except through these examinations, Zhu’s commentaries became public knowledge among those who aspired to become a member of the elite, until the early decades of the 20th century. In addition, Zhu Yuanzhang instituted nationwide community schools, the aim of which was to centralize and standardize values and education throughout the realm.

Although it is true that the early Ming rulers were enthusiastic about embracing Neo-Confucianism as the state orthodoxy, it is equally true that practitioners of Neo-Confucianism were avowedly devoted to “learning for the sake of oneself,” the goal of which is to become a sage through long and arduous moral self-cultivation, and distinguished their enterprise from career-building of the common run of scholars, who (so they said) studied only for the sake of a civil service exam degree. A case in point is Confucianism of Wang Yangming’s (1472–1528), which came to enjoy a certain vogue among ordinary people as well as significant portions of the intellectual circles in the late Ming. Unlike Zhu Xi, who regarded book learning as a necessary component of learning to be a sage, Wang and his followers de-emphasized this aspect, so Neo-Confucianism spread to larger segments of the general population. In Wang’s vision, “All the people filling the street are sages” (Wang, 1963, p. 240). That is, everyone can transform him- or herself into an ethical person by intention because everyone is endowed with moral intuition. Classical education is no longer an essential condition of the pursuit of sagehood. In Wang’s Confucianism, even the Four Books are no longer necessary, which are arguably more accessible to the larger population than the Five Classics. With its characteristically simpler learning, Wang’s Confucianism offered a more egalitarian alternative to Zhu Xi’s version.

To a certain degree, the flourishing of Wang’s Confucianism reflects the limitation of Ming state power. In the mid-to late Ming, the central government decided not to raise significantly the number of official civil service positions, even when the population rapidly increased. Accordingly, the infrastructural power of the state bureaucracy declined relative to that in the early Ming. Relatedly, Zhu Yuanzhang’s order to establish community schools turned out to be compromised. In the early Ming, initiatives relating to community schools lay with the central government. However, by the mid- to late Ming, local ordinary people and literati undertook the task of instituting and maintaining community schools and adapted them to meet local customs and demands (Schneewind, 2006). In other words, it is hard to say that from the 16th century the Ming state centrally or unilaterally mandated its policy with the help of its scholar-officials. Concomitantly, there were a series of uprisings in South China from the mid- to late Ming. When Wang Yangming attempted to rebuild civil order in those unstable regions, he relied on the community compact (xiangyue) rather than state bureaucracy. The community compact reflected his characteristic view of universal sagehood and self-sufficient community life. His program of the community compact recognized the limits of the reach of the mid-Ming state in lawless regions at the sub-county level. Considered in this way, Wang’s Confucianism was hardly a supporter of an overtly authoritarian or despotic political system.

Confucianism and the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912)

The ascendancy of the Qing of the Manchus resulted in the fall of the Ming and the Manchu conquest of China in 1644. Although the Qing had an unprecedented ability to expand its territory and impose its will on various peoples, the Qing state would have a weaker capacity to penetrate society. One indication that centrally appointed officials could not be directly engaged in detailed local administration was the ratio of local officials vis-à-vis the local population. According to one estimate, as of the late Qing dynasty, there was only one magistrate per population of 200,000–300,000, who was assisted by quasi-permanent local staffs who had not passed through the civil service examination (Aoki, 2013). In summary, late imperial China did not rely only on the official body of administrative personnel. The late imperial Chinese state needed the cooperation of local elites who would perform a wide range of quasi-governmental tasks. However, the Qing was radically different from the previous Ming dynasty in that the foreign rule gave rise to the sharp cleavage between the Manchu ruling elite and the Han elite. To avoid a damaging clash between the Han elite and Manchus, the Qing court adopted Neo-Confucianism as the basis for the civil service examinations in order to make alliances with the Han elite and to penetrate local society.

Concomitantly, an alternative mode of intellectual inquiry emerged among the Han elite in the Yangtze Delta: evidential learning (kaozhengxue), which focuses on a wide range of empirical researches, including textual criticism and encyclopedic research. Believing that meaning may be known primarily through empirical evidence, the proponents of evidential learning built encyclopedic knowledge item by item, paying attention to details of literal explanation and textual exegesis. The Qing government incorporated into the civil service examination system the evidential learning that came to enjoy a certain vogue in the intellectual circles of arguably the culturally most advanced region (Elman, 1994). For example, exam questions were changed such that examinees were required to study evidential learning, while significant portions of the exam remained tied to Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucianism. By so doing, the Manchu rulers sought to find common grounds with larger portions of the Han literati elite.

Confucianism and Western Modernity

The late 19th century witnessed major changes in the configuration of foreign relations as aggressive European imperialism advanced across Asia. During this tumultuous era, China found itself in a disadvantageous position in the new world order. To strengthen the country and defend national independence against European and Japanese imperialism, the Chinese elite actively opened itself to Western learning. In 1905, civil service examinations based on Confucianism were finally abolished. To make sense of where they went wrong or how they survived, Chinese intellectuals started to conceptualize the essence of Chinese tradition as opposed to Western civilization. In this connection, Confucianism was again reinvented. Confucianism in the discourse of this time often represented the indigenous culture as a whole that distinguished China from the progressive West. Such an encompassing conception of Confucianism had a lasting impact on the ways in which subsequent intellectuals used the term. For example, both pro-Confucian and anti-Confucian movements around the establishment of the Chinese republic attempted to appropriate Confucianism for narrow political ends. On the one hand, the regime of Yuan Shikai (1859–1916) appropriated Confucianism to prop up its declining power during the heyday of iconoclasm in the 1910s. The New Life movement of the 1930s apparently advocated Confucianism in order to bolster the power of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime (1887–1975). On the other hand, the May Fourth movement and the Chinese Communists’ antifeudal movement vilified Confucianism as the cause of China’s backwardness and demise. During the era of Mao Zedong, Confucianism continued to be held responsible for the static nature of Chinese society, which robbed it of the possibility of progress.

Alongside the political attack on Confucianism, there were those who attempted to intellectually rescue the tradition from becoming the scapegoat for China’s decline. The first generation of the New Confucians (xinrujia), such as Liang Shuming (1893–1988), Zhang Junmai (1887–1969), and Xiong Shili (1885–1968), endeavored to keep the Confucian tradition alive. And members of the subsequent generations, such as Mou Zongsan (1909–1995), Tang Junyi (1909–1978), Xu Fuguan (1903–1982), and Tu Weiming, who worked mostly from outside of mainland China, picked up the mission of modernizing Confucianism. They strove to reinterpret Confucianism so that it could be relevant to modern society. They no longer believed that modernity was the product of European cultures imposed on passive non-Western cultures. Some went so far as to say that Confucianism, suitably reimagined and updated, holds out a promising ideal of modern political order. Today, comparative political theorists—particularly those who question the dominance of European models—are attempting to address Confucianism’s place anew in the worldwide history of political ideas, hoping to better cope with the ever-globalizing political challenges of our own time.

Confucianism in the Present-Day People’s Republic of China

In 2013, Xi Jinping became the first chairman in the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to visit a Confucian temple, which he did at Qufu, and make a speech about the superiority of Confucianism. In January 2017, to give Xi’s ideas concrete expression, the General Office under the CPC Central Committee and the State Council jointly issued “Suggestions on the implementation of projects to promote and develop traditional Chinese cultural excellence,” which announced governmental initiatives to promote Chinese culture and Confucianism (Guo, 2017). The appeal of Confucianism to contemporary Chinese government is especially noteworthy, given the often antagonistic attitude of Chinese Communists toward Confucianism throughout most of the 20th century. As Communism ceases to be a satisfactory model for China, Chinese politicians and intellectuals have sought a new identity and model whereby they can fashion their future. As a consequence, although discarded at the beginning of the last century as the cause of China’s demise, Confucianism has gained new currency as the model for modern China.

However, Confucianism is not the only model that vies for authority to shape the future of China. There are, among others, two more prominent models, with their own diagnosis and prognosis, for modern China: liberalism and the New Left (Wang, 2003). Liberals argue that democracy and capitalism are the ideal models for China. They believe that the problems of modern China are caused by the unnecessary interference of the government. The New Left, on the other hand, provides a contrasting diagnosis. Its members argue that China has now been fully integrated into the world market system and is suffering from problems every other capitalist society faces, most notably the exorbitant gap between the rich and poor. As the “New” Left, they do not yearn for a return to Mao or the Marxist-Leninist past. Nevertheless, they argue that governments must play a greater role in dealing with these social problems. Although these two models are worlds apart in how they perceive the problems of modern China, they share the intellectual tradition developed in the West. By contrast, Confucianism searches for a viable model from China’s own past (Angle, 2012).

The stakes are high. They are nothing less than the future of China. From representing the shackles of the past, Confucianism has become one of the most conspicuous models for China. As a tradition, different scholars have highlighted different aspects of it to be more relevant to modern China. In this process, thinkers have wondered about the relations between Confucianism and other great intellectual traditions of the world. The terrain is much more diverse and complicated than this short article can do justice to, and most likely this complexity will continue to grow as Confucianism finds a greater audience.

Concluding Remarks

So far, the various ways Confucianism has been constructed and put to political use throughout Chinese history have been examined. As it turns out, as an accommodating tradition, Confucianism proffered a wide variety of ideas and practices; people tend to read the Confucian tradition in terms of present-day political issues and interests. So, what is important in thinking about Confucianism is to ask who speaks for or on behalf of the Confucian tradition, and why. Sometimes, the imperial court wished to suppress Confucianism. At other times, lacking political power, it wished to enhance its moral authority by showing respect for the Confucian tradition. Sometimes, the Confucian literati invoked the Confucian tradition to challenge what they thought to be the corrupt practice of court politics. At other times, inspired by Neo-Confucianism, local literati were eager to cooperate with local administrations. At yet another time, Neo-Confucians with a higher moral justification attempted to limit central interference and envisioned a more decentralized society while also not separating the locality from central control.

For most of the 20th century, Confucianism was relegated to a relic of the past. However, as Chinese intellectuals ceased to equate modernization with copying modern Western civilization, they began to reconsider the relationship between modernity and Chinese tradition. For a new generation of modern Confucians, Confucianism is no longer irreconcilable with modernity. In recent years, Confucianism has had an increasingly visible presence in public discourses. Indeed, in this globalized world, the call to take seriously perspectives outside the Western one has a substantial resonance. Specifically, as China rises rapidly as a global power, Confucianism is appearing as an important resource with which to reflect on political matters.

As a final note, it must be pointed out that Confucianism was not exclusively Chinese in its historical and current formulations. The unfolding of Confucianism was very different in Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and other countries, but this is too broad a topic to cover adequately within the length of one encyclopedia article and so must be left for another project.

Further Reading

  • Angle, S. (2012). Contemporary Confucian political philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Bol, P. K. (1992). This culture of ours: Intellectual transitions in T’ang and Sung China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Bol, P. K. (2008). Neo-Confucianism in history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.
  • Ebrey, P. B. (2014). Chu Hsi’s “Family Rituals”: A twelfth-century Chinese manual for the performance of cappings, weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Kim, Y. (2018). A history of Chinese political thought. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Loewe, M. (2011) Dong Zhongshu, a “Confucian” heritage and the Chunqiu fanlu. Brill China Studies Vol. 20. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic.
  • Nylan, M. (2001). The five Confucian classics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Pines, Y. (2002). Foundations of Confucian thought: Intellectual life in the Chunqiu period, 722–453 B.C.E. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
  • Schirokauer, C., & Hymes, R. P. (Eds.). (1993). Ordering the world. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Smith, P. J., & Von Glahn, R. (Eds.). (2003). The Song–Yuan–Ming transition in Chinese history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.
  • Von Glahn, R. (2016). The economic history of China: From antiquity to the nineteenth century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wakeman, F. J., & Grant, C. (Eds.). (1976). Conflict and control in late imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Wang, C. (Ed.). (2003). One China, many paths. London, UK: Verso.
  • Wang, Y. (1963). Instructions for practical living and other neo-Confucian writings (W. Chan, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Weber, M. (1964). The religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (H. Gerth, Trans.). London, UK: Collier Macmillan.
  • Yu, Y. (2004). Zhu Xi de lishi shijie: Songdai shidafu zhengzhi wenhua de yanjiu [The historical world of Zhu Xi: Contextual analysis of Zhu Xi’s political thought in the historical context of Southern Song China]. Shanghai, China: Sanlian Shudian.


  • Angle, S. (2012). Contemporary Confucian political philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Aoki, M. (2013). Historical sources of institutional trajectories in economic development: China, Japan and Korea compared. Socio-Economic Review, 11(2), 233–263.
  • Balazs, E. (1964). China as a permanently bureaucratic society (H. M. Wright, Trans.). In A. F. Wright (Ed.), Chinese civilization and bureaucracy: variations on a theme (pp. 13–27). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Bol, P. K. (1992). This culture of ours: Intellectual transitions in T’ang and Sung China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Bol, P. K. (2008). Neo-Confucianism in history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.
  • Chang, C. (1955). The Chinese gentry: Studies on their role in nineteenth-century society. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Dardess, J. W. (1983). Confucianism and autocracy: Professional elites in the founding of the Ming dynasty. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Ebrey, P. B. (2014). Chu Hsi’s “Family Rituals”: A twelfth-century Chinese manual for the performance of cappings, weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Elman, B. A. (1994). Changes in Confucian civil service examinations from the Ming to the Ch’ing dynasty. In B. A. Elman & A. Woodside (Eds.), Education and society in late imperial China, 1600–1900 (pp. 111–149). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Guo, J. (2017). Zhonggongzhongyangbangongting guowuyuanbangongting yinfa: Guanyushishi zhonghuayouxiu chuantongwenhua chuanchengfazhan gongcheng de yijian. [The General Office under the CPC Central Committee and the State Council issue: Suggestions on the implementation of projects to promote and develop traditional Chinese cultural excellence]. Xinhuashe, January 25.
  • Hartwell, R. M. (1982). Demographic, political, and social transformations of China, 750–1550. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 42(2), 365–442.
  • Ho, P. (1962). The ladder of success in imperial China: Aspects of social mobility, 1368–1911. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Kim, Y. (2018). A history of Chinese political thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.
  • Loewe, M. (2011) Dong Zhongshu, a “Confucian” heritage and the Chunqiu fanlu. Brill China Studies Vol. 20. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic.
  • Mann, M. (1984). The autonomous power of the state: Its origins, mechanisms, and results. European Sociology Archives, 25(2), 185–213.
  • Nylan, M. (2001). The five Confucian classics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Nylan, M. (2008). Classics without canonization: Learning and authority in Qin and Han. In J. Lagerwey & M. Kalinowski (Eds.), Early Chinese religion, Part One: Shang through Han (1250 bc–220 ad) (pp. 721–776). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic.
  • Pines, Y. (2002). Foundations of Confucian thought: Intellectual life in the Chunqiu period, 722–453 bce. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
  • Ruskola, T. (2013). Legal orientalism: China, the United States, and modern law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Schirokauer, C., & Hymes, R. P. (1993). Introduction. In R. P. Hymes & C. Shirokauer (Eds.), Ordering the world (pp. 1–58). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Schneewind, S. (2006). Community schools and the state in Ming China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Tackett, N. (2014). The destruction of the medieval Chinese aristocracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.
  • Tu, W. (1982). Towards an understanding of Liu Yin’s Confucian eremitism. In H. Chan & W. T. De Bary (Eds.), Yuan thought: Chinese thought and religion under the Mongols (pp. 233–277). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Von Glahn, R. (2003). Imagining pre-modern China. In P. J. Smith & R. Von Glahn (Eds.), The Song–Yuan–Ming transition in Chinese history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.
  • Von Glahn, R. (2016). The economic history of China: From antiquity to the nineteenth century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wang, C. (Ed.). (2003). One China, many paths. London, UK: Verso.
  • Wang, Y. (1963). Instructions for practical living and other neo-Confucian writings (W. Chan, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Weber, M. (1964). The religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (H. Gerth, Trans.). London, UK: Collier Macmillan.


  • 1. In light of the methodological stance we adopt for this article, we should put quotation marks around the term Confucianism every time we use it, but this would be stylistically awkward. Thus, let us use the term Confucianism without quotation marks, with a loud warning that it does not posit an essential, unchanging “Confucianism” through time.