As the term Confucianism indicates, this ideology originated with Confucius, an ancient Chinese scholar. The resurgence of Confucianism in China and the rest of Asia is a phenomenon worthy of discussion and reflection. Confucianism was the primary cultural tradition of the Chinese civilization for more than 2,000 years.
Confucius (551-479 BC) was a philosopher, teacher, and politician who predated many of the Greek philosophers that initiated Western philosophy and political thought. The Confucian school of thought, or Confucianism, takes its name from him. Confucius wanted to restore the order of the past by encouraging incumbent kings to follow the example of ancient sage kings. Confucius is not the only prominent philosopher in the Confucian tradition. His ideas were further developed by Mencius (c. 372-289 BC), Xunzi (ca. 310-235 BC), and many other brilliant scholars and politicians throughout subsequent Chinese history. Not only is Confucianism a major system of thought in China, as it is also one of the most influential ideologies in the world and provides profound insights into human nature and human conduct. Confucius valued learning and devoted his life to education and teaching.
Confucius had many ideas about the individual and how society should function for the greater good. Unlike other ideologies, Confucianism is optimistic about the individual and their relationship to society. This optimism can be seen in many of the writings and quotes from his time. Further, simple observations about human nature are central to this ideology. As we will see, most of Confucius’s ideas and teachings were simple to understand and largely practical.
The most ancient source of Confucianism is the golden rule in the Analects, a collection of sayings attributed to Confucius and other disciples. The Analects also contain brief dialogues between Confucius and his students. Character achievement is the dominant concern in the Analects, and Confucius openly remarks on his own deficiencies, his progress, and the qualities he securely possesses. He was an excellent teacher of what values should be taken into greater consideration.
During the rule of Mao Zedong, Confucianism was not a prominent ideology and was banned in China. Mao was attracted to the Communist ideology and eventually created a sub-strand of Communism called Maoism. Throughout much of Chinese history the role of Confucianism, like Buddhism and Taoism, has been marginalized. Religion was unnecessary under the Communist rule of Mao. Mao was fully immersed in Communism, and he undervalued the importance of Confucianism in China. This was a significant mistake on the part of Mao, as the failures of the Great Leap Forward Movement and the Cultural Revolution were largely due to Mao’s emphasis on Communism/Maoism. Millions of Chinese deaths could be blamed on this adherence to Maoism during this time. Maoism failed to industrialize or unite the people of China. Mao’s constant political campaigns and insensitivity to the needs of his people created widespread devastation in China.
Confucianism re-emerged as a dominant ideological force with the dynamic economic and political development of the eventual Four Dragons/Tigers and then with the rule of Deng Xiaoping of China in the late 1970s. Deng was more of a forward thinker than Mao. Mao had imprisoned Deng Xiaoping and wanted him to be indoctrinated with Maoist ideals. Deng, on the other hand, believed that there was a way to industrialize China without a strong dependence on Communism/Maoist ideology. Deng understood that if China did not change economically as soon as possible, it would become a failed country, similar to what eventually happened to the former Soviet Union. Deng studied what could be used to restart the Chinese economic and political engine to bring greater industrialization as soon as possible for China. To do so, he cultivated a period of significant economic growth for China based on a philosophy of Communism combined with Chinese characteristics. Deng visited Southeast Asia when he became the leader of China and concluded that there was significant value in revisiting Confucianism as an ideology for his own country. One of the countries that Deng was attracted to was Singapore. Singapore became independent in 1965 even though it was a backward ex-colonial country with few or no economic resources. Luckily for that tiny country it had a forward-looking leader that used some of the tenets of Confucianism to create an economic miracle. Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, an overseas Chinese, was a strong supporter of Confucianism as an economic and political ideology. Lee managed to embed some of the main principles of Confucianism into Singapore’s economic and political blueprint. Some of Lee’s core ideas and values can still be seen in Singapore at the present time.
Deng was impressed with the Singapore’s economic growth, which had occurred within only a decade from its independence. Therefore, he mirrored some of the social and economic values that had brought such economic and political growth to Singapore. The adoption of these values marked the re-establishment of Confucianism as the main ideology in the People’s Republic of China. Confucianism seemed compatible with the remnants of Communist/Maoist values in China. Deng invited Singapore’s investment companies to invest in special economic zones in China to show the Chinese how to industrialize. Some scholars have argued that this was the spark that has led to the immense economic success that China enjoys today. Strangely, the pre-emergence of Confucianism in China had to take an indirect route by traveling to another country and then returning to its place of origin.
As we will see in the next few sections of this chapter, Confucianism can be seen as a social, political and economic doctrine. It is an encompassing ideology that has moral and ethical implications to the individual and society. Confucius, like many other scholars, studied the relationship between nature and humans. Some of the main ideals of Confucianism have deep roots in the natural elements of society. Let us take a deeper look into different facets of Confucianism from the past and how it relates to the present time.
- Confucius and his students 2 © unknown is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Photograph of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore Making a Toast at a State Dinner Held in His Honor © unknown is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Deng Xiaoping billboard 02 © Brücke-Osteuropa is licensed under a Public Domain license