Featured Posts
Recent Blogs

Recap: In Search of China’s Soul: Why Confucius Matters Today, 9.14.21

Recap: In Search of China’s Soul: Why Confucius Matters Today, 9.14.21

Scholar, philosopher, and political sage, Confucius is synonymous with Chinese morality and culture. But how much do most of us actually know about his thinking? How did Confucianism become the underpinning of the Chinese system of education and bureaucracy, and how do we separate the facts from the myths surrounding his ideas? Most importantly, why are we still talking about him after more than 2,500 years? In short, why does Confucius still matter today? In this blockbuster talk kicking off China Institute’s fall series of public programs, we invited two scholars to introduce this important figure and discuss Confucius’ legacy and his relevance in today’s hyper-modern China.


Zu-yan CHEN (ZC) is a Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He holds the rank of SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor. An expert in Confucianism and Confucian ethics, Chen is the author of seven books and many articles spanning the fields of Chinese literature, history, philosophy, and language pedagogy, including Confucius’s Analects: An Advanced Reader of Chinese Language and Culture.

Professor Chen is also teaching CI’s new Introduction to Confucianism course, starting October 7, this fall. Learn more about this digital class.

Zak Dychtwald’s (ZD) mission is to build a people-first understanding of China for a better world. He is the author of critically acclaimed Young China and founder of market insights firm, Young China Group. Zak’s work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Washington Post, NPR, Bloomberg, and others, and he has been invited to speak to world and industry leaders on six continents. “Young China” means pushing us past old, limiting stereotypes and understanding China’s new identity on the world stage today.

Full Video of In Search of China’s Soul

Selected Quotes from the Program:

Zu-yan Chen Presentation

Confucius lived more than 2,500 years ago. His name, Kong Fuzi (孔夫子),means “Master Kong” in Chinese.

Confucius is 120 years older than the Greek philosopher Plato, Greek, founder of Western political philosophy. So they can be considered contemporaries. He was a great teacher, they believe he taught 3,000 students.

This is his temple in Qufu, where he lived. His most important book is the Analects, with more than 500 of his sayings around moral cultivation, social order, government principles, and more.

He was also an inspiring philosopher. Confucianism is popular in East Asian countries and [across the world].

Confucius’ thoughts influenced Chinese people for over 2,000 years. People ask: is it a religion or philosophy? What are the major differences between [the two?] Religion and philosophy overlap in many ways but there are two major differences. Religious people perform rituals but philosophy students do not. Religion has a god, but a philosophy does not. Confucius is not a god but a sage. He was a nice and wise man. [In China,] it was a mainstream ideology.

Core Value: Learning (Xue, or 学)

“To learn and then to practice at due times- is not this a pleasure?” Every Chinese person knows this passage.

Confucius taught that learning is not something imposed on us. We should take the learning process as a joy. Only when we think that way can we study conscientiously and happily.

You will learn to be a good human. He wanted to raise people with high morals, rich knowledge, and practical skills.

Core Value: Trustworthiness (Xin, or 信)

Trustworthiness forms the bonds of society.

Contemporary Significance of Confucius:

In the modern post WWII era, there has been a powerful growth of many economies in East Asia [that started with Japan and included Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong through the 1990s]. Now, we have mainland China.

What is the central drive in the East Asian economic miracle? What drives the people there to excel? They focus on the single most defining feature of these countries: Confucianism. He is the most penetrating philosopher in East Asia.

Zak Dychtwald Discussion

ZD: Think about Adam Smith. You cannot disentangle him from modern, Western society. His beliefs represent a set of values, a worldview, and a lens through which we look at morality, business and the purpose of life.

In the East, Confucianism…has seeped into every aspect of modern Chinese culture, as something more nebulous than a set of rules; it is a moral structure as well.

Learning and education is one of the fundamentals of a Confucian philosophy and brings countries together. There is a study comparing myopia rates, in America 40% of kids graduating from high school needed glasses…[same with Germany and England]…and in China it is near 90%. In South Korea it jumps to 96%. Asian countries have Confucian education system, and they’re all suffering from nearsightedness. It is a phenomenon developed from time spent in a classroom with books. In China, it wasn’t uncommon for when the library opens at 6:00 AM there was a line of college students waiting to study.

There were stacks of books and they would be there all day until 10:00 PM. The university I am talking about is Suzhou University, not Tsinghua! It reflects the culture of study and focus on books. And that culture of hard work around study is inseparable from Chinese education today. There is a respect for hours that is directly related to the Confucian style of work ethic today.

What is the relevance today?

  • Does hard work translate to creativity? Can China create an innovation economy if you are working all day? We are seeing that, actually, yes. China has more emergent tech unicorns.. But how sustainable is it and does that make a young person happy? You have people my age starting to have kids and you have people who went through the Confucian type of education asking if is this is what I want my child to focus on? There are areas where that tradition is at odds with modernity. Those are two tectonic plates grinding against each other.
  • Now we talk about filial piety, one of the Confucian core values. This is baked into the Chinese system today, as it is the traditional retirement system. In 1950, life expectancy was 40 years. So, it was a ‘return and feed’ model described by the sociologist Fei Xiaotong (fanbu moshi 返哺模式), [where each generation takes care of each other.] Fast forward to 1980, you see the demographic pyramid turn itself on its head. So, you have four grandparents for every two parents for every one child. It is a funnel for resources and attention. It is also a funnel for pressure to get ahead and compete. On the PhD market, on the job market, on the marriage market. On top of that is this pressure on looking after the parents. China doesn’t have religion (though that may be debated), but it has family. This idea of filial piety means being good and that means being a good child. There are a number of issues around this, including hierarchy. That friction between modernity and tradition grinds on this generation. This is being negotiated in real time today. My guess is 10 years from now, a lot of the questions about whether Confucius matters today will have been decided in more definitive terms.
  • Zu-Yan Chen and Zak Dychtwald in Conversation

    ZC: The good news is that Confucius takes a mutual and reciprocal approach for defining interpersonal relationships. There are problems but there are advantages for young people [People take care of their grandparents, but they help them raise their grandchildren].

    Dinda Elliott (CI moderator): Confucius did think a lot about hierarchies and relationships. A modern tech-driven society needs to rely on rule of law over relationships. Is there a fundamental tension between Confucianism and a modern society?

    ZC: It’s important to remember that Confucius lived in the ‘Spring and Autumn period,’ when China was divided into dozens of states. They had their kings and dukes and didn’t listen to the [royal king]. Many ministers and generals tried to usurp the thrones. Many kings were murdered. So, Confucius saw this as a bigger problem for society and emphasized hierarchy to preserve social order.

    More importantly…he used a reciprocal approach to define interpersonal relations. The most important at the time were sovereigns and their ministers. He said “A sovereign should treat his ministers with ritual piety and they should serve with loyalty.”

    DE: Would Confucius have supported democracy?

    ZC: At Confucius’ time there was [an opposing school called] Legalism. Confucianism promoted virtue, and Legalism promoted law. The first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who defeated the other six states and unified China, and immediately burned the Confucian books and killed the Confucius scholars. So, Confucius is on the opposite side of a dictatorship.

    The most important core value is benevolence. The essence is to love people. It means do not impose on others what you do not want on yourself. This is the same as the golden rule in the West. Loving people is the foundation of democracy.

    DE: We are told that people in China are less concerned about privacy issues and more trusting of the government [when it comes to technology, etc.] What is going on in the minds of the Chinese people?

    ZD: Confucianism isn’t opposed to Legalism, though they were competing at the time. There is something that we want to believe, that the path of history is inevitable and a modern nation must be a democracy, but young people in China are not predisposed to believing that is a path to prosperity. I am describing a reality. Confucianism is not at odds with a dictatorship, if the dictatorship is benevolent. People praise Xi Jinping’s efficacy. There is a predisposition to accepting a leader who is capable in China versus other places in the world.

    During the Covid era, when many places around the world are closed down and China has been open since mid-2020, the perception is that the leadership is doing a firm but effective job.

    Explore our Arts & Culture Program Playlist:

    Explore and sign up for future programs at China Institute!

    You are also invited to become a part of the CI family by joining us as a member or standing with China Institute by donating now. Your contribution supports our important work deepening an understanding of China through education, arts, culture and business programming.