Celebrating the Confucian Work Ethic

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Who would have imagined Confucius the scholar to have once worked in a granary? Yet it is said that was his first job before becoming a teacher (1).  He was not afraid of hard work or lowly occupations, but celebrated the importance of working to contribute to society. Today marks a national holiday in China and many countries worldwide: Labour Day, also known as “May Day” or “5/1.” This holiday celebrates workers, but more specifically, it celebrates the economic and social achievements of workers. In fact, Confucius celebrated workers through his ranking of “occupations.” He ranked the four principle “occupations” in descending order: The scholar had the highest ranking, followed by the farmer, then the worker and lastly the merchant. The worker was later advanced after the adoption of Marxist thinking (2). Confucius believed that part of contributing back to society when one grows up is their ability to work (3).  A prescribed trait of an ideal Confucian worker is that of hard work, which is considered to be a key value of Confucianism (45). In addition to the value of hard work, the Confucian Work Ethic also consists of other values including loyalty to the organization, thrift, dedication, social harmony, a love of education and wisdom, and a concern for social propriety. These elements all have positive aspects for economic and societal development (4). Parallel to Protestantism in the West, Confucianism has provided a foundation that promotes economic development in Asia (6).

Economic Success produced through Collective Welfare

When one compares the Protestant work ethic with the principles espoused by Confucius, Rarick points out in his article titled, “Confucius on Management: Understanding Chinese Cultural Values and Managerial Practices” that there are more similarities than differences. For example, both work ethics place an emphasis on hard work, employees are expected to achieve a form of self-fulfillment and rather than concentrating on spiritual salvation, people are required to focus on achievement in [this] life. The key difference between the Confucian and Protestant work ethics is that the Protestant work ethic focuses on individual achievement, whereas the Confucian work ethic places a higher value on group achievement and social harmony (4). Confucianism considers economic failure as having widespread societal consequences. This social interconnectedness is a trait of the Confucian work ethic that is not as common in the West. Unlike Protestant ethics which focus predominantly on individualism, Confucian ethics promote the idea that each individual belongs to a greater society and therefore economic prosperity must benefit society as a whole rather than a sole individual. Confucius placed high importance on social and public order, which he believed could be better fostered when the community had a healthy economic base (2). The Confucian work ethic has been a driving force for the economic success stories of Japan, South Korea, People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.  This Labour Day, thousands of working people will gather together with family to celebrate this collective achievement. To view photos from Labour Day celebrations, click here.


1. http://www.notablebiographies.com/Co-Da/Confucius.html#ixzz3YqyEUUXH
2. http://3dethics.e-contentmanagement.com/inside/chapter8.html

4. http://www.jimsjournal.org/3%20Charles.pdf  
5.  http://www.wbiconpro.com/436-Brenda.pdf

One thought on “Celebrating the Confucian Work Ethic

    […] even food on the table tomorrow. Confucianism has long been a fundamental part of Chinese society dating back to the Han dynasty and filial piety is one of the philosophy’s values. Today Confucianism is still highly esteemed […]


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