View From the Wall

Confucianism in Modern Chinese Society

First, allow me to define some boundaries. I am taking Chinese society to mean that of contemporary, mainland, urban China, particularly areas that are predominantly Han and not counting islands or regions that for the last 100 years have largely operated under a different authority. Throughout the article I will replace the terms for Confucianism and its cognates with the word Rú (儒, like Ruist and Ruism).[1] There is not space here to argue for these parameters, but they need to be stated up front.

In considering this topic, a few questions come to mind that seem directly relevant. First, a person’s pre-understanding of what is meant when we say “Ruism” is particularly significant. When we look for manifestations of Ruism in Chinese society, what exactly are we looking for? Is it a philosophy? Is it a religion? Both of these? Neither? Is it an individual’s or whole society’s way of life?

Secondly, the history of Ruism is complex, particularly the last 100 years, so a person’s knowledge of its background is particularly important. How much of this complex history is understood by a general reader? The multiformity of Ruism throughout its long history has been highlighted in recent scholarship and must be taken into consideration. Is it as uniform and unified as many writers present it? How sufficient and useful are the generalizations so often used today?

While there is not space here to address all of these and many other questions, I hope they will help the reader see our subject in a new light as I sketch its influence in modern Chinese society. So, put on your walking shoes and journey with me through a Chinese megacity, and we will allow the environment to instruct us.

The first thing we pass is an elderly man with a long brush, drawing characters with water on sidewalk tiles. A few people gather to watch and comment on his skill. As school gets out, a grandpa rides by on a bike with his granddaughter riding behind him, wearing a small red scarf indicating her status as a model student. A black Audi sedan with black-and-white license plates blows through a red light. No one seems to notice.

We leave the street and enter a brightly lit bookstore. Young people are scattered about reading the most recently translated Harry Potter novel or searching for the one book that will propel them from high school to Harvard or at least help them through the gāokǎo (national college entrance exam) and enter Beijing University. Middle-aged adults browse books on traveling abroad and popular magazines on the housing market or the best face-mask for air pollution.

Back on the street, we pass by a small musical instrument shop. Melodies from a piano and a violin drift out the windows as young students practice. A gǔqín, a stringed instrument from classical times and frequently associated with Ruist self-cultivation, hangs on the wall.

As we turn down a narrow alley, children from lower-income families run back and forth, dodging puddles. They chant some rhymes learned that day in school, one about a lamb that belonged to Mǎlìyà (Chinese for Mary) and one about a star that twinkles (no, not the one over Bethlehem).

Men and women stream from the subway exit in black “Western” suits, listening to music on their iPhones with knock-off Dr. Dre Beats. A large sign in red characters encourages everyone to “study Lei Feng.”

As we reflect on this hypothetical walk through “Chinatown” looking for Ruism, the question that rises like a phoenix from the dust is, “Where is it?” By all appearances it no longer exists, but if we dig a little deeper and look beneath the surface with a little bit of background knowledge, a new phenomenon emerges. While it may not entirely reflect “the days of old,” Ruism has taken on new forms of existence, and that is what I would like to unpack for you.

Most Notable: Filial Piety

When people think of Ruism, filial piety is probably one of the first things to come to mind, and remnants can still be seen in most Chinese families. Starting at a very early age, there is a strong informal education in which children learn that their highest responsibility and obligation is to care for their parents’ welfare, particularly in old age. However, there is a general lack of true understanding regarding the meaning of filial piety as described in Ruist texts, so that little regard is taken for the children’s concerns or desires.

In Academics

In academic circles there is a movement to reclaim some of the Ruist social and cultural norms that were lost through the May Fourth movement and the Cultural Revolution. One prominent stream of this movement is called guóxué, or National Studies, which has become a complete degree program at some schools with BA, MA and PhD opportunities. Promoters of this movement advocate the importance of the study of Ruist traditional literature (the Four Books and the Five Classics, or sìshūwǔjīng), emphasize moral education as the primary subject that should be studied from kindergarten through high school, and have published educational curriculum for these lower levels of learning. However, it has yet to catch on in most schools for several reasons. Perhaps primarily, the content of this kind of curriculum has not become a part of the university entrance examination and so is considered by most Chinese to be useless because it has no expedient significance. Secondly, there continues to be a general attitude among many Chinese that these ideas are part of China’s past that may have influenced society but have no real significance for modern-day Chinese society. There is certainly a small minority that clings to elements of traditional China, but the great majority of Chinese view traditional Chinese thought, including Ruism, as archaic, too difficult to understand, and not relevant to life.

Another aspect of the academic expression is the role and question of Ruism as a philosophy. The question of whether China has philosophy has been around for a long time, and goes at least as far back as Hegel.[2] While some aspects of Ruism may not seem similar to contemporary philosophizing in Anglo-European philosophy departments, it has much in common with ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, talking about a “way of life” that places ethical and social demands on the individual. It is important for the uninitiated to understand that Ruist thought is as complex and diverse as anything that can be found in Anglo-European thought. While most people who have studied “Western history” or even “world history” taught in Anglo-European schools have heard of Master Kng (Confucius), Master Mng (Mencius), and Loz, this reduction is the equivalent to summarizing European philosophy by talking about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. I’m sure Hegel would protest.

In Social Behavior

Another aspect of Ruism in Chinese society that has changed is the roles of men and women. It is now possible to broaden formerly patriarchal expressions to apply to men and women, for example, to read (子) as sons and daughters who ought to respect their fú mu (父 母), father and mother.[3]

On a more plebian level, the loss of a framework for appropriate social behavior and morality has left people groping for support, and some have rediscovered such a framework in the classical writings of Ruism. While “Christianity Fever” may be better known to readers of this article, an upsurge of “Confucius Fever” has simultaneously occurred. Yú Dān (于丹), a professor at Beijing Normal University, gave a series of TV lectures and later published a book on The Analects, first in Chinese (2006) and later in English (2009), titled Confucius from the Heart. Joseph Adler of Kenyon College describes it as “Wonton Soup for the [Chinese] Soul; that is, a comforting, non-challenging collection of bland moral clichs, carefully avoiding any political implications that might encourage dissent.”[4] If it is any indication of social impact and interest, according to Adler, the book sold three million copies in the first four months.

In Politics

We also ought to ask where we see Ruism in modern Chinese politics. A significant amount of Ruist thought centered upon political governance and often challenged corruption and abuse of authoritarian power. I doubt it would surprise anyone that its influence is hardly seen anywhere today. While it was the dominant political ideology for nearly 2,000 years, the multiple reforms and revolutions of the last 100 years have all but eliminated many of the most obvious expressions of this aspect of Ruism. The strange, brief appearance of a statue of Master Kng in Tiananmen Square in 2011 caught the interest of many China watchers. What does it mean that it was set up, and what do we make of its midnight disappearance four months later? It is widely speculated that such phenomena are the government’s attempt at various propaganda maneuvers. It is worthwhile to put a little extra thought into the motivations behind these activities and to examine the depth of the expression. How much does this reflect Ruist transformative influence in the government, and how much of it is a superficial nod in a politically expedient direction?[5]

The Christian Response

Lastly, how should Christians respond to the increased interest in Ruism as a source for spiritual support? Yao Xinzhong, director of the China Institute and professor of religion at Kings College, London, writes, “Confucianism has survived the impact of Western culture and communist revolution and is being revived as a motive force for modernization so that ‘Confucianism is in no way a religion of the past, but rather a living, contemporary spiritual power that influences people directly or indirectly.'”[6] We need to ask a few questions before taking this statement at face value. In what way has Ruism survived? How is it now manifested in the lives of Chinese people compared to 100 or 1,000 years ago? What is meant by Ruism as a religion, and how exactly does this “spiritual power” manifest itself?

In what seems to be an effort to reverse the impact of “Western” religion (usually an indirect way of saying Christianity, if it is not stated outright), some Ruist scholars, like Yao, are now talking about “transcendent aspects” of Ruism. Insisting that it is not a religion (zōngjiào 宗教), they call it a “religious humanism” and a philosophy with a religious nature (zōngjiàoxìng 宗教性). A spiritual equivalent is required to rebuff the popularity of Christianity and combat what some scholars continue to see as “Western invasions” and “Westernization,” which include a smorgasbord of categories, including clothing, social norms, spiritual resources, political governance and so on. This may reflect the current political atmosphere, but I believe other, more significant, factors are at play. Along with the development of things like National Studies and China’s growing international presence, for the last 100 years there has been a deep re-examination of identity among many Chinese. What does it mean to be Chinese? How much of the past should be held onto, and what defines “us” as a people? Given the strong cultural sense of “group identity,” this form of ethnic angst is heightened.


So, what of Ruism? Is it dead? Far from it. Is it the leading force of the nation, guiding decisions from the top leaders down to the “man on the street”? Hardly. It occupies a fuzzy place in between. What we experience today is “post-” China—post-Ruist, post-Marxist, post-modern—but “post-” anything implies a focus on the past, emphasizing what once was but now is not. What does the future hold for Ruism and for China? I think it is safe to say it will not die out, but neither will it be able to reclaim the status it held for ages.


  1. ^ Robert Eno coined this term in English to distinguish it from traditions in Chinese contexts (particularly in the 19th century) that “worship Master Kng.” According to Eno, a better way of understanding the R tradition is to consider them as “skilled ritualists.” This understanding opens up potential for broader interpretations of the term and allows for new developments and syntheses with other systems of thought, such as Daoism, Buddhism, or even Christianity. Though most scholars continue to use the Latinized form (Confucianism), probably because it is more familiar due to historical factors, a small number of scholars have picked up on Eno’s term. For example, Lauren Pfister at Hong Kong Baptist University and Diane Obenchain at Calvin College regularly use some form of R, such as R scholar or Ruist in English contexts.
  2. ^ As a side note, this has not always been the case. The Jesuits, who initiated the first in-depth intellectual discussions between Ruism and European ideas, found much that was comparable to everything they had studied in Christian, Greek and Roman philosophy.
  3. ^ However, it should also be noted that some scholars argue that women were not entirely excluded from all filial acts in older forms of Ruism. For example, in The Lny (The Analects), Master Kng says, “A person should always be aware of the age of his father and mother. It is both a cause for joy and for anxiety.”
  4. ^ Joseph Adler, “Confucianism in China Today,” Pearson Living Religions Forum talk, New York, April 14, 2011. Transcript online:
  5. ^ New York Times article from February 13, 2014 highlights the most recent instance of this kind of activity. “Mr. Xi said the party leadership was preparing a policy document ‘to promote traditional values, implant new social mores and a cohesive national spirit, and enhance cultural soft power.'” While I have nothing in particular against traditional values and social mores, if they are thought of merely as a means to a different end the point has been missed entirely.
  6. ^ Yao Xinzhong, Confucianism and Christianity: A Comparative Study of Jen and Agape. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 1996, p. 19. Emphasis original.
Image Credit: Joann Pittman
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Peregrine de Vigo

Peregrine de Vigo (pseudonym), PhD, lived in central China for nine years and is a student of philosophy, sinology, and several other “-ologies.”View Full Bio