In a special talk with Confucian expert Daniel A. Bell, three scholars consider the evolving role of Confucianism in China
During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao and his Red Guards discredited Confucianism and denounced it as an encouragement of “bad elements, rightists, monsters, and freaks.” The Chinese Communist Party, in more recent times, has revisited the teachings of this fifth-century philosopher, who advocated for a synthesis of compassion and societal harmony—even as General Secretary Xi Jinping’s commitment to upholding political stability has led to an emphasis on rigid communist doctrines and principles. Can China eventually negotiate the gap between its two competing social philosophies? The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies hosted a talk with Daniel A. Bell, Chair of Political Theory and Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong; Peter K. Bol, Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University; and Wen Yu, Visiting Assistant Professor at Boston College, which looked to the sometimes-contentious relationship between communism and Confucianism as a lens through which to imagine the trajectory of the Chinese state.
Integrating Confucianism and Communism in the Post-Mao era
Political meritocracy within the administration of the Chinese Communist Party epitomizes a synthesis of seemingly divergent societal philosophies, a phenomenon that Bell analyzed in depth during his talk. According to Bell, this exemplifies how China is intertwining two seemingly disparate philosophies: one focusing on societal relationships, and the other, an ideal political vision. Interestingly, this amalgamation has given rise to what can be termed Confucian Communism in modern China—where Confucianism ideals seemingly aligns well with some communist ideals, and other contemporary ideals, like feminism.
In his book, The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University (2023, Princeton University Press), Bell delineates the traits of a successful public official within this framework. An official should exhibit above-average political and analytical acumen, possess superior virtue, and, most crucially, demonstrate an unwavering commitment to hard work and public service. The prevailing ethos within the Chinese government, under communist collective leadership, remains a dedication to serving the public, a sentiment that itself reflects a core Confucian value, though Bell notes there is a huge gap between the ideal and the practice, as we can see from the prevalence of corruption. Bell also noted the possibility of using Confucian teachings to combat corruption in the administration, rather than relying on the approach of legalism (Fa Jia 法家), which focuses more on rules and punishment.
In the 1980s, intellectual discourse was dominated by explorations of liberal democracy and capitalism, as thought leaders strived to find new paths for China. However, Confucianism experienced a revival in the 1990s, a phenomenon Bell attributes to four main factors. First, there was a political motive: the Party sought to portray itself as a successor to classic Chinese tradition, thus enhancing its political legitimacy within the Chinese context, going beyond the teachings of pure Marxism. Second, there’s a psychological aspect: Confucianism became a tool to promote an understanding of ethics and social responsibility among the populace. Third, the integration of Confucianism serves an economic purpose: it aids in China’s peaceful modernization process. And lastly, there’s an academic and cultural upside, since embracing Confucianism allows for greater diversity in social value systems and practices.
Confucian Complexity: Balancing Tradition, Governance, and Morality
Bol noted that many perceived Confucianism as a social system, just as communism was as a social-political system, not just an ideology. However, he harbored reservations about viewing Confucianism through the lens of a social-political system. It was, after all, something as embraced by a minute fraction of the Chinese populace, specifically, the educated elite, whence was drawn much of the political hierarchy. Bol posited that Confucianism is better understood as a learning paradigm concentrating on self-cultivation and personal practice, and constantly morphing and expanding over time. He noted that, likewise, interpretations and definitions of Confucian tradition have undergone significant transformations over time.
Expanding on Bell’s assertion that Confucianism teaches the virtue of public service as an aspect of the good life, Bol explored a contrasting dynamic where one might choose non-service—a rejection of acknowledging the ruler as the sage, and a deviation from societal norms. To illustrate this, Bol cited the Yongle Emperor, a ruler who defined himself as a sage, after usurping the throne in 1402. Fang Xiaoru (方孝孺, 1357 – 1402) was a Confucian who refused to recognize the Yongle Emperor, denying him legitimacy and branding him a usurper, steadfastly refusing to endorse his usurpation of the throne. Fang’s unyielding stance, despite severe threats, led to his execution along with his associates and family. Bol chose this story to highlight the inherent tension between state governance and Confucianism—which itself comes to echo the intricate balance between Confucian and Communist administration in contemporary China.
Varied Interpretations: The Multifaceted Approach to Confucianism in Modern China
Joining this conversation about the role and status of Confucianism in contemporary China, Wen Yu introduced three diverse groups of thinkers in China today whose different interpretations of Confucian learning have deeper roots in China’s debates on nation-building since the late 19th century. They are the Cultural Liberals, Confucian Socialists, and Institutional Confucians.
The Cultural Liberals perceive Confucian learning as a kind of “Chinese humanism.” They emphasize its role in nurturing citizens in modern democracies by fostering civic duty and personal autonomy. This group would agree with Bol’s view of Confucianism as an elite tradition of moral cultivation, and this position largely aligned with China’s move towards market economy and political reforms in most of the ’90s. The camp of Confucian Socialism surfaced later, amid the New Left movement, exhibiting a strong inclination toward a populist interpretation of Confucianism. This group champions a distinct Chinese modernity characterized by social equality and a robust collective identity, endorsing a centralized, meritocratic government as the solution to equality while rejecting Western parliamentary democracy and global capitalism. This group attributes China’s current successes to the nation’s historical state institutions and communist legacy. Lastly, there are the Institutional Confucians. Yu portrayed this group’s solution as somewhat utopian, advocating for the transformation of China into a constitutional monarchy, with Confucius serving as a symbolic, meritocratic ruler representing universal values. This group is also critical of liberal democracy, but from the aspect of political meritocracy. Both camps contain elements of authoritarianism.
From Yu’s perspective, Bell’s suggestion to integrate Confucianism into Communist rule aligns with the principles of Confucian Socialism and incorporates elements of Institutional Confucianism. This approach, blending populism with meritocracy, indeed has the potential to enhance the Communist Party’s soft power and remind the Party to focus on the performance of the officials, just as Bell imagined. However, Yu has reservations about whether this position adequately addresses the increasing domestic and international concerns about China’s growing authoritarian state. She emphasized that there exist alternative approaches to bringing Confucian learning into China’s agenda of nation-building, and the Cultural Liberal group is a good example.
All three speakers would seem to agree that the interweaving of Confucianism and communism in China represents an effort to negotiate the gap between tradition and contemporary value systems. This is the case whether we apply it to Bell’s symbiosis of Confucian values and political meritocracy, Bol’s complexities and tensions between Confucianism and state governance, or Yu’s diverse modern interpretations and implementations, from cultural liberalism to a form of monarchy. These multifaceted discussions all served to illuminate China’s dynamic adaptations of ancient philosophies and to help us imagine how the state endeavors to forge a new path in the global landscape.