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The Preeminence of Love in Chinese Families

The Dispute between Confucianism and Mohism: Two Views of Love

Two thousand years ago, China was involved in a debate about love that later became known as “The Dispute between Confucianism and Mohism.” Mohism[1] advocates “universal love”: everyone should love others equally. This is similar to the Christian concept of “love your neighbor” or “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, Mencius was strongly against Mohist’s idea and considered it outrageous. He labeled it as having “no respect for monarch or father; worse than beasts.”

Confucianists opposed “universal love” because they felt it was contrary to human nature. In their opinion, human love is based on blood kinship, and therefore there can be different kinds of love. The closer the kinship, the deeper the love relationship; the more distant the kinship, the more shallow the relationship. Humans should love their parents and brothers more than others. If a person’s love for his parents and brothers is the same as his love for others that goes against the understanding that a different kind of love is necessary for blood relations and ignores the parents. Therefore, this individual would be branded as having “no respect for his father.”

In addition, Confucius advocated that a country should have a structure similar to that of a family. The monarch is equivalent to the parent; the people are equivalent to the family members. Thus, the people should love their monarch as they love their father. Agreeing with the Mohist idea of “universal love” means the monarch is being ignored, and these individuals would be branded as having “no respect for their monarch.”

In this dispute, Mohism was not only defeated by Confucianism, but gradually disappeared. However, revisiting this debate today—which is easily done—the premise and logic of Confucianism are problematic. First, the Confucian point of view considers family kinship, which is a non-absolute relationship, as absolute. It makes this an inviolable, absolute relationship and considers it the primary relationship of all human relationships, even to the exclusion of the relationship between God and man. However, in doing this, Confucius ignored the origin of humanity. If an individual is created by God, then, the most important relationship should be between that person and God, rather than between any humans. In other words, human relationships can be transcended.

Second, from a logical point of view, the Confucian criticism of Mohism is also problematic. Loving others as one loves one’s parents does not mean ignoring the parents; it also cannot conclude that it means “no respect for the monarch or father, worse than beasts.” Loving others, just as you love your parents, means you have a more noble love, a love that goes beyond blood relationships. On the contrary, because Confucian love is based on a blood connection, it is not completely free from the animal (blood) level. It is a self-righteous and self-limiting love. On the other hand, Christian and Mohist love is more wide spreading, a more noble love.

Mohists advocate “universal love” because they claim that beyond their parents there are still spirits, so they are advocating minggui (theism). That is, because there is a higher spirit, Mohists achieve a more comprehensive love that goes beyond that of Confucian family relationships. At this point, it is similar to Christianity, although Mohist spirits cannot be compared with the Christian revelation of God since these spirits are basically superstition, witchcraft, or idolatry. Perhaps, because the Mohist belief is a confusing blur, their premise—which was superior—was defeated by the inferior premise of Confucianism. Not only because the Confucian premise was more successful than the Mohist, but also because later the Han Dynasty declared, “Dismiss the other schools of thought, revere only Confucianism,” it became the Chinese people’s ideology and achieved a long reign. Today, relationships within Chinese families are still of the Confucian “different love” variety. Universal love is not accepted; rather, it is ostracized.

Love, Hierarchy, and Upbringing under Confucian Ethics

Since Confucian ethics are based on blood kinship, they depend on family relationships and hierarchy. If the order of relationships is broken, ethics are violated. For example, loving others like you love your father is seen as an affront to your father. In a traditional Confucian family, the father is the maximum authority and most highly respected. All family members must obey him. Of course, he should care for his family members which is known as fucizixiao (benevolent father, filial son). Fathers are to follow Confucian ethics and order in bringing up their children so that they will know how to perform “rituals.” “Rituals” are the regulations and guidelines for handling family and social relationships. “Different love” is the basis for dealing with relationships between one’s relatives and outsiders.

It is not difficult to see the difference between Christianity and Confucianism. Christian authority and order are established in love, while Confucian love and order are based on authority. In Confucianism, because the father is regarded as the source of reproduction and is seen as the authority in life, he should be the most beloved and respected. This constitutes the source of family hierarchy. The father, fu, is first, then the mother, mu. Fraternal relationships are of a higher order than maternal ones. The father’s brothers and sisters are called bo/shu/gutang xiong di/tang jiemei (primary brothers/sisters). The mother’s brothers and sisters are called jiu/yibiaoxiong di/biaojiemei (outside brothers/sisters). These titles show the differences in relational closeness. Relatives should be treated differently in behavior and etiquette depending on the relationship in order to satisfy the desirable “ritual.” In China, traditionally everyone has needed to know these distinctions. If you understand them, you will be seen as an educated person; if not, you will be considered uneducated and be despised. Thus, in traditional Chinese family education, ethics education is the first priority, the so-called “teaching of human relations.” Only people who know these “human relations” are seen as real people. If they do not understand these basic human relations, they might not only be seen as uneducated, but could even be branded as “worse than animals.”

Since Confucianism does not build authority from love but rather establishes a loving relationship based on authority, in Confucian ethics, authority and hierarchy are more important than love. Love is limited by authority and hierarchy and is different from Christianity’s unlimited love. Love that goes outside the strict limits will not be praised and respected, but will actually be prohibited and blamed. In this sense, manners are more important than love. Therefore, the love of Chinese people is always very moderate, very introverted. They do not verbally express love because they are afraid it may go outside the rituals, and they will be ostracized by others. This is true of interactions between parents, children, and even couples.

Challenges and Hope: Moving from Limited to Transcendent Love

In modern China, due to the decline of traditional Confucian values and its hierarchal relationships, traditional ethical order and family upbringing have been abandoned and destroyed. The new era in China is seen as lacking love, ethics, and upbringing. While the original hierarchy and relationships have collapsed, a new order affecting relationships has not been established. However, as more and more Chinese have accepted Christianity, many so-called Chinese Christians are starting to think and practice the principles of Christianity. In this way, love-based authority is beginning to replace authority-based love and is starting to rebuild and revive relationships within the family.

According to the principles of Christian faith, the relationship between man and God has priority over relationships between people. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” are the two most important commandments for Christians to obey. For Christians, the primary factor in relationships is love. This is different from the limited love of Confucianism. Christian love is universal, transcendent, and unconditional; it breaks all restrictions and barriers. People are free to love freely.

Of course, this does not mean there is no order within this transcendent love. It does not mean there is “no respect to father and monarch,” the criticism Confucianism would imply since there is an absolute Monarch and Father who is the source of love. From his absolute love, we see a Christian worldview that espouses an orderly world, one that is favorable to the traditional Confucian order. Nevertheless, it is kinder and has more warmth since it is based not just on authority, but on love. This love penetrates relationships, so that they do not seem stiff. Relationships do not become a barrier to love, but rather make love and order part of personal and social upbringing.

Establishing authority and order, while teaching children in accordance with Christian love, is the current family-building mission of Chinese Christians. Judging from the current status of their families, this challenge is great, as traditional ideology must be replaced. Although the old value system has disintegrated, the inherent influence of the traditional system is still great. Its ideas and behavior reside deeply within the Chinese people’s identity and are an unconscious guiding force. Unless there is thorough confession and repentance followed by living according to the faith, people cannot renew themselves and overcome the influence of traditional attitudes and behavior

In addition, pressure from the external environment is immense. People who have not accepted Christianity still live according to traditional values and try to coerce Christians to worship ancestors and the dead. They ask them for special care and accuse them of being ignorant regarding differing relationships and so on. They want Christians to return to living by the traditional ideology and say that Christianity is a foreign culture, a foreign religion. They use Confucian ideology to distort Christianity, accusing Chinese Christians of sabotaging tradition and of xenophobia.

Finally, according to Jin Guantao and Liu Qingfeng in The Cycle of Growth and Decline on the Ultrastable Structure of Chinese Society (興盛与危机——傳統中国社会的超穩定結構研究) and The Transformation of Chinese Society (开放的變迁) and other authors, politics, economics, culture, and ideology constitute a super-stable, traditional, Chinese society structure. In modern times, this structure has not failed or come apart; rather, it has been strengthened through a totalitarian Marxist ideology. These are the challenges Christians face in transforming the structure of Chinese society from an authority-based love to a love-based authority.

Chinese Christians have not given up due to cultural and political factors. Instead, they have found an even stronger sense of calling, because they see that God wants to use them. They have become blessings within the family and Chinese society and are increasingly aware of the progress of Chinese Christianity. They see that only true faith can change life, culture, society, and totalitarianism and lead them out of captivity—even as the Israelites were led out of Egyptian bondage by Moses.


  1. ^ Mohism was an influential philosophical, social, and religious movement that flourished during the Warring States era (479–221 BCE) in ancient China. Mohism originates in the teachings of Mo Di, or “Mozi” (“Master Mo,” fl. ca. 430 BCE), from whom it takes its name. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyplato.stanford.edu/entries/mohism/.

Translated by Claire Huang.

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WANG Jun is currently associate Professor of Philosophy at Southeast University in Nanjing and writes and speaks about traditional Chinese ethics and Christianity. He has authored several books, the most recent being Ethics of Reading.View Full Bio