Why has Confucianism made a huge comeback?
Updated 11:46, 18-Aug-2023
Daniel Bell

Editor's note: Confucianism was the mainstream tradition in ancient China for thousands of years. Some ideas, such as ritual propriety, harmony in diversity have deeply ingrained in and shaped its society. What is the core of Confucianism? Why is it still relevant today? In China Talk, Daniel Bell, chair professor at the University of Hong Kong, will share why Confucianism has made comeback of late. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Welcome to China Talk. My name is Daniel Bell, Chinese name is Bei Danning. I'm from Montreal, Canada, but I've spent about half of my life living and working in China. During that time, I've come to love and appreciate Confucianism, contrary to my initial impressions of the tradition as a kind of boring and conservative and dead philosophy. The more I learn about Confucianism, the more I realize that it's very much a living and evolving philosophy. 

Starting with Confucius himself. Confucius, again, there is a stereotype of him in the West as this boring and conservative teacher, who just says, pronounce cryptic words that his students blindly accept. The master said, and then the students just blindly accept. But actually, it's very different. What he says is tailored individually to each student's needs and particularities. There's an assumption that everyone can improve, and the role of the teacher is to improve each student in his or her own way. That's why now in China, he's known as a teacher of teachers.

Now, the thing about Confucianism is that, it's very much a living philosophy, and especially influences people in Shandong Province, which is a province of 100 million people. And people in Shandong tend to take great pride in their Confucian heritage. And it influences the way that people act in everyday life. If, for example, when there's a seating arrangement at a table, it's done according to seniority. But then eventually everybody is involved in the toasting and the eating, and it generates a strong sense of community and emotional bonding. So the hierarchies in Confucianism, they benefit those at the bottom, end of the hierarchies. That's what makes them desirable in the modern world.

So I had learned a lot about Confucianism, and I was lucky enough to be offered a post as of dean at Shandong University, which is a leading university in Shandong Province. I wrote a book about my experience, which is called "The Dean of Shandong." My aim in writing this book was both to honor my fellow students and teachers and administrators at Shandong University, and also frankly, I worry about the demonization of China in the West, for much of the reporting about China is entirely negative.

In my book, I do discuss the problems, but I try to do so in a balanced way, and try to show that there's a lot of humanity and humor in everyday life, in academia, and even in politics that we should appreciate, rather than just blindly denounce. Now, some of the other values are involved. One of them is (what) we usually mistranslated as "Harmony," in Chinese, "He" in the word "He xie." Because in English, we don't distinguish between harmony, typically, and conformity, especially when you talk about politics. Harmony sounds a little bit sinister, meaning that everybody thinks alike and has followed similar actions. I remember watching the (2008) Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. There was one character, this character "He" was chosen to represent Chinese culture. I remember I was watching an American journalist, who said, look at that! All the soldiers are marching in the same way. That's pretty scary that everybody thinks and acts alike. But in Chinese, everybody knows this saying from the "Analects" of Confucius, "Harmony in diversity," that we specifically distinguish between "Harmony" and "Tong," which we can translate as conformity or uniformity.

So the idea of "He" really involves respecting, in fact, loving diversity, appreciating diversity, but on a kind of foundation of peaceful order. So some of the metaphors, including a soup: it's bland if it has one ingredient. But if it has many ingredients, then it's a delicious soup. Even in politics, if you have different views, it actually helps the country. This is the meaning of "He." So a better translation in English should be "harmony in diversity." And that's really central to the Confucian ethic.

Now, you might ask, why has Confucianism been revived? Because it was more or less dead for much of the 20th century in China, where the main tradition was a tradition of anti-traditionalism. But since 30 years ago, history has made a raging comeback in China. People take great pride in their historical heritage. And politically, the main tradition was Confucianism, and it had great influence.

Now, as mentioned, Confucianism is very diverse, and it has many different interpretations. But there are certain strands that are quite constant. Two, very briefly. The good life for Confucianism involves the pursuit of compassionate social relations. And that's really key. It's not an otherworldly philosophy. There's hardly anything about the afterlife. It' s really about how we should learn to engage and to love and also be responsible in our social relations. There's also an issue about the best life, (which) involves serving the community, so people love to, well, compete to be public officials in order to have that opportunity to serve the community.

Another value which has been revived is the value in Chinese "Li." In English, we can translate as ritual propriety. The idea is that we can use laws to regulate people to stop them from doing bad things. But if we really want to have a kind of harmonious society, that comes to informal mechanisms, like rituals that generate a sense of community. This is one reason why the idea of ritual propriety has been revived in different spheres of social and even political life in China.

Another value that's been revived a lot is filial piety, which we can also translate as reverence for elderly members of the family and ancestors. So one of the festivals that has been revived in China is called the Qingming Festival, the ancestor worship festival. This is sort of thing that evolved from the bottom. Literally, hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese people took the day off on that particular day to worship their ancestors. Eventually, the government said, fine, let's just make it into a national holiday. So, a lot of this revival comes from the bottom up, not just from the top.

That said, some of the reasons for the revival do are political, because the top leaders and also the middle level leaders like, for us, the bureaucracy in Shandong province. Yes, it is a communist country and we do value the communist tradition. But we also think that our form of social life and our form of political organization has much earlier roots. In order to seek, to think about, to make sense of our social and political system, we draw on the earlier Confucian tradition and some of the values that inspire us in the past. And also it continues to inspire us in the future. So that's one reason for the revival of Confucianism. It comes from the top.

But there are also many economic reasons. I mean why has East Asia evolved in a relatively peaceful and harmonious way relative to other countries? It turns out that most of those countries have a Confucian heritage, not just China, but South Korea and Singapore. So what is it? People used to blame that the 20th century, people blamed the backwardness of China for, they said, because of our traditions, but then turns out that actually those traditions help us to modernize in a relatively peaceful way. Values like self-improvement, working for future generations, education of this worldly outlook, all these values underpin China's economic growth and form of modernization, which has taken place in the past 30 or 40 years, without a great deal of violence and social disruption compared to many other countries.

But also, frankly, economic growth tends to make people more individualistic, especially in a capitalist influenced economy. There are certainly people who worry about excessive individualism in society. How do we counter that? Confucianism is beautiful in this way, because it emphasizes our social responsibilities. So as a wave of, let's say, countering excessive individualism in society, Confucianism has also made a comeback for that reason.

There's also academic reason. It turns out that many of the defenders of Confucianism today were forced to read it 30 or 40 years ago in order to denounce it, because it was viewed as a kind of feudal and backward thought system. But when they read it, they say this is actually far more interesting and complex and actually more modern sounding than we thought. And then once was more opening, those same intellectuals could draw on Confucianism and say that this is not only relevant for the modern world, but we can also use it to inspire our social and political reform in the future.

This is why, again, Confucianism far from being a backward, conservative philosophy, it's actually quite modern and desirable for the modern world. Confucianism, as a living tradition, is inspiring, not just for the present, but for the future as well. It's as valuable as other great traditions that humans have produced, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, liberalism. And if you take it seriously, it turns out that it's a tradition, not just that has produced great thinkers in the past, but that, I believe, will continue to inspire us in the future as well. So thank you very much. And I hope we can continue the discussion.

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