Confucian in the modern world

Video Series: The Performance of Confucian Rites- 儒家仪式的表现

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Video screen capture

In 2014, the Hong Kong School of Creative Media created an interactive application and a linear three-screen video re-enactment of the “Capping Ceremony of a Minor Official’s Son,” from the ancient “Book of Li”. The Book of Li (Etiquette and Ceremonial) is a classical text about social behaviour and ceremonial ritual during the Zhou dynasty.

The video shows that in Confucian philosophy, li as ‘ritual’ is a system of awareness and practice that was created for followers to reflect on Confucian traditions in light of the rapid modernisation that was occurring during the Zhou era. Li as a concept is concerned with aesthetics, ethics and ideology and it is shown to be a technique of the body and mind that is learned and inscribed.

The approach that the actors have taken to re-enact these rites is one historical accuracy in the scripting, movements, clothing, props and environment. The analytical approach to the documentation provides a detailed examination using advanced digital techniques, such as motion capture and augmented-reality annotation of movement, to maximise viewer experience.

Click on the following link to see the full video:

Remaking the Confucian Rites (2014) from Jeffrey Shaw on Vimeo.

Social Capital in Non-Confucian Asian Contexts: The Case of Laos -社会资本在非儒亚洲语境:老挝为例

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In the last ten years, a significant amount of literature has developed around the concept of ‘social capital’. Put simply, social capital refers to the social relations and shared norms that promote trust and cooperation between individuals and groups. The concept was first developed by the World Bank and the OECD through American political scientist Robert Putnam, who argued that high levels of social capital had a positive impact on well-being, health, educational performance, economic growth and security because the more a society cooperates, the easier it is for services to function and deliver political goods. On the other hand, the lack of social capital was believed to account for problems such as social inequalities, underdevelopment, and the level of delinquency and crime in some countries and neighbourhoods. In this way, the concept showed “some theoretical insights by identifying social capital with the building up of social connections and sociability… (through) goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse” (Castiglione et al., 2008, p. 2).

Although there is much debate over the different types of social capital, the literature tends to divide it into three main categories: first, bonds through links to people based on a common identity, including the nation, local community, and family. Second, through the links that one develops beyond your immediate relationships, for example to colleagues and associates. Finally, through links to people or groups who are prestigious and influential. By developing information channels through these links while following norms and social expectations, the social capital theory posits that people can become more socially and economically secure. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a government survey showed that more people gained jobs through personal contacts than through external job applications and advertisements. In places where the justice system is weak or dysfunctional, gangs and criminal organisations with high social capital are able to fund education for their members, find them work, and even temporarily provide for their family.

For Alejandro Portes (1998), the perceived benefits of social capital make it look like knowing the right people automatically translates into solving all of one’s social problems. His comments highlight that the term can be overused and misleading as there is often confusion over the meaning of social capital, and various presumptions of the social mechanisms that are used to explain it. But considering that humans are social animals that need community and contact to survive in an increasingly globalised world, it follows that establishing and maintaining relationships with people, groups, and organisations is essential. While social capital exists in all communities, Confucian cultures have particularly been found to emphasise the concept much more than in non-Confucian cultures (Carpenter, 2004). This is illustrated by concepts like guanxi in China, inmak in Korea, and joge kankei in Japan, all of which refer to social networks and socialization practices that facilitate business and other dealings. Local businesses in these countries often establish strong network ties in their domestic markets to stay competitive against international firms and to easily transfer technical knowledge and resources within borders. However, when it comes to non-Confucian Asian countries, the importance of social capital is less understood.

For Sorensen and Nielsen’s research, the case of Laos, a country that predominantly adheres to Theravada Buddhism, was an important contribution to expanding the general understanding of social capital in different Asian contexts. For instance, their initial analysis showed that in contrast to Confucian countries, the Lao language had no single word that accurately represented social capital. The most suitable word to refer to the concept was teun tang sangkhom, a direct translation of social capital that lacks any traditional definition or conceptualization rooted in the Lao language. This differs from the situation in China and Korea, where guanxi and inmak are recognised by mainstream society and thus consciously used by people to build and expand their businesses and employment opportunities. Because social capital is less defined and understood in Laos, people are less calculating in their use of social capital practices even though connecting to the right people and expanding one’s social networks is extensively used in Lao society. As one respondent in Sorensen and Nielsen’s study explained, for the people of Lao whose geostrategic location made the country vulnerable to colonialism and civil war, “The family union and secondary social connections have been their life source. Without it they could not”. Another respondent added that in Lao society, a person can be “completely lost without connections. No matter what you look at, if you haven’t got the connections it won’t happen”. The lack of strong legislative frameworks was also found by Gunawardana and Sisombat (2008) to contribute to an environment where social capital was used to accommodate lack of transparency with practices that increased the cost of doing business, such as informal red tape.

Just like in the neighbouring countries of Myanmar and Thailand, family and strong kinship connections were found to be the core of Laos’s bonding communities. As a collectivist society, the emphasis values such as trust and security were the main reasons why strong bonding through family has traditionally been the key support system for Lao society (Evans, 2013). For non-Lao people, it is possible to gain access to these bonding communities when groups choose to encompass looser relationships in business contexts, allowing stakeholders to join and over time become part of the stronger social capital networks. Sorensen and Nielsen confirmed that Lao people generally enjoyed meeting new people, which made it relatively easier for outsiders to gain access to bonding communities compared to places like China which places a greater emphasis on shared culture and identity than social capital development. In that case, consistency in engagement was seen to strengthen bonds and social capital in Laos and so developing a sense of humour, patience, and showing modesty were found to be highly regarded in Lao culture.

In China, the Confucian ruler-subject system and the communist principles of governance provided rules for a social order that was clearly defined by interpersonal relationships and obligations (see the “five human relations” of Confucianism in Dau-Lin, 1970). The absence of such a system explains why social capital, while existent and even essential in some cases, is less clearly defined in Theravada Buddhist Laos. For instance, while gift exchanges were used in China to symbolize respect, appreciation, and goodwill, the use of gifts was significantly less common in Laos as people often preferred getting straight to business, especially when strong bridging and bonding relationships were already in place. Sorensen and Nielsen’s research highlights that the use of social capital can be quite ambiguous yet just as important in non-Confucian contexts such as Laos. Further research should be done to expand these findings.

Announcement: Confucian Merchants Conference 2018- 公告:2018年儒商会议

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From September 28th to the 30th, the Confucian Merchants Conference, hosted by the CPC Shandong Provincial Committee and the People’s Government of Shandong Province, will be held in JinanChina. 

Focusing on the idea of Confucian entrepreneurship and the values of integrity and credibility in business, the conference aims to apply the guidelines provided by President Xi Jinping on “Socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era”,  announced during the 19th National Congress of the CPC. According to President Xi, today’s China must uphold and develop Chinese socialism by using creativity to directly confront the contemporary issues of unbalanced and inadequate development.

Whereas ‘unbalanced development’ refers to imbalances and inequalities between different regions and sectors of society, which have restrained China’s overall development; ‘inadequate development’ is concerned with the problem that in some regions and sectors of society, the rate of development is inadequate and that much work remains to be done.

At the 19th National Congress, it was stated that the principal contradiction in Chinese society, which used to be that of people’s growing material and cultural needs and backward social production, has evolved into that between the ever-growing need for a better life and unbalanced and inadequate development. This is reflective of China’s state of development and the major constraining factors that the country faces today.

While nearly 40 years of economic reform allowed the country to provide basic needs to over a billion people, the growing middle class in China have increased their demands for different types of social goods, including democratic political governance, rule of law, fairness and justice,  and environmental sustainability. The Confucian Merchants Conference discusses how to address these issues by exploring the rich content of Confucian entrepreneurship, and calling on experiences of entrepreneurs from China and abroad to gather in Shandong

By hosting the conference, the CPC Shandong Provincial Committee and the People’s Government of Shandong Province intend to promote Confucian entrepreneurship in the modern era by building cooperation mechanisms and platforms, expanding contacts, and creating an environment that promotes the new business philosophy. Some features of the conference will include the promotion of new-generation information technology, high-end equipment, new energy, new materials, modern marine-time industry, medical care and elderly care, advanced chemical engineering, modern efficient agriculture, cultural innovation, fine tourism, and contemporary financing services as well as suggestions for the provision of these services in Shandong.

For more information on the conference, click here.

Does ‘Xi Needs a Confucian Foreign Policy’- 习近平需要儒家外交政策 ?

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In a recent article written by Michael Schuman, a Beijing-based journalised and author of books on Confucianism, it is argued that China needs to adopt a Confucian oriented foreign policy approach. In the article, Schuman states that:

For centuries, Chinese dynasties held a role in world affairs that looked very much like what Xi appears to want today. They sat at the center of an East Asian diplomatic and economic order that was stable, peaceful and prosperous over long periods.

Here Schuman is referring to China’s East (and South East) Asian tributary system in which China as the “central heart” (zhongxin) of the region maintained stability by keeping threats under control. It did this by legitimising the Emperor’s ‘All Under Heaven’ mantra, strengthening its military capabilities and guaranteeing the exchange of military resources, and offering states a trading channel through which they could peacefully pursue their economic policies. The flexibility of the system allowed China to adjust its foreign relations through several theatres of action, including traditional diplomacy by gift exchanges.

This system was based on Confucianism, which was the main political ideology that informed the rules, customs, and values of the courts and provided guidance as to how rulers and ministers were expected to behave. In Confucianism, to keep order and stability, relations were expected to be hierarchical. However, the superior person/country had a duty to treat their subordinates fairly and with kindness for the most part. For example, Mencius is noted to have said that “When one by force subdues men, they do not submit to him in their hearts…[but] when one subdues men by virtue, in their hearts’ core they are pleased, and sincerely submit”.

For the most part, the tributary system worked. Apart from the ongoing Sino-Japanese rivalry, most surrounding states received trade and diplomatic support from their allegiance to China as well as military security. Occasionally, as Schuman notes, China even made concessions that were not in their interests like allowing Vietnam’s Tây Sơn regime (1789–1802) in the 1800s to reclaim its lost lands and move part of its border into Chinese territory to access copper mines. Apart from taxing the regime, the Chinese authorities allowed for territorial transgressions to keep the tributary system running.

In the present, China has expanded its influence in the Asia-Pacific region by putting forward another “peaceful rising” vision of Asian regionalism and community-building. The link between internal and external stability is crucial for China’s development with the search for energy resources and logistic routes being one of the key factors in Beijing’s domestic and international policies. For Schuman, although the tributary system is unlikely to return in the twenty-first century, to reinvigorate a Confucianist approach and avoid setbacks and tensions in the region, China needs to avoid further militarizing areas of the South China Sea, and instead find a compromise with other claimants to maintain foreign policy support in others areas that will assure China’s development, including the geostrategic Belt and Road project. Further, to resolve the trade war with America, Schuman argues that China could use the Confucian principle of reciprocity and be willing to treat foreign companies in its borders the way its companies are treated overseas.

But it is questionable as to how likely these responses will be since militarisation of South China Sea is China’s reaction to wide-scale American military activity in both the East and South China seas. From China’s perspective, the country has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and defensive deployments are necessary for its national security needs and are not being aimed at any country. In fact, no American property is endangered by Chinese encroachment and as it currently stands, China can deploy capabilities that threaten American and regional forces at a considerably lower cost than the US can deploy counter-measures. The Belt and Road project will further complement the developments in the South China Sea rather than be considered a separate issue that needs resolving before the Belt and Road project becomes a reality.

Finally, Beijing cannot simply accept America’s decision to impose new tariffs on Chinese goods. The plan to impose counter tariffs on agricultural and energy products from the US is one of the more fair responses to America’s protectionist policies. Once implemented, American producers will have to pay higher costs to sell their goods to China, while losing existing revenue as Chinese buyers seek cheaper imports from other countries. To avoid future humiliation, China is already finding alternative sources for trade products like soybeans, which was generating US$14 billion in sales annually for American suppliers.

In the policy world of tit-for-tat, Confucianism continues to play an important role in China’s diplomatic rhetoric. However, as to how much it can inform China’s actions is a whole other issue.

A Modern Confucianism? -现代儒学?

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China’s strategy of setting up institutions in partner countries to teach Chinese language and culture is increasingly being seen with suspicion and contempt. Swinburne University professor John Fitzgerald, who lived and studied in China, argues that with more than 500 Confucian Institutes in 140 countries, it should be widely recognised that the institutes have been directly instructed to promote particular aspects of Chinese governance that would make Chinese rule seem appealing. For example, some aspects of Confucianism that promote obedience and hierarchy are being pushed to make the Chinese Communist Party’s centralised and unified leadership acceptable to foreign publics.

Even at the recent annual conference for Confucian Institute directors, the Beijing-based Office of Chinese Language Council International made it clear that directors were expected to promote the strategic and foreign policy objectives of the government, especially with the recent Belt and Road Initiative announced as a major geo-political project that could transform global trade. The implication is that Confucius Institutes are going to be essential to China’s strategic planning for the government to maintain strong business and people-to-people links. Thus, while the US cuts its budget to African countries and makes inappropriate comments, with President Donald Trump describing African nations as “s***hole countries”, China and its consistent engagement is considered to be a stable alternative.

However, the nature of how Confucius Institutes are being used around the world has made some American and Australian authorities concerned whether Chinese professors and students could exploit access to universities to gather intelligence and sensitive research. Singapore has also been vocal over China’s covert “influence operations”, with former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan stating that as with the presence of any foreign power, Singaporeans should be aware of Beijing’s manipulations. By using a range of tactics, from official diplomacy to covert deployment of agents and influence operations, to sway decision-makers and public opinion leaders, the question remains: where does this leave Confucianism, and can the philosophy be separated from state propaganda?

In China’s long history, Confucian teachers performed priestly roles and justified the existence of the state as a legitimate form of rule, while the state, in turn, promoted Confucianism as the official ideology. The state apparatus functioned to institutionalise Confucian teachings like respect for authority through education courses, and by making Confucian texts the only content of imperial civil service examinations since the Sui dynasty (581–618). However, Confucianism was never a religion with an organized and exclusive membership, and there was no Confucian place of worship. Instead, Confucianism functioned as a belief system and ethical code throughout East Asia, where “to study religion and politics is to study the relationship between Confucianism and political practice” (Fetzer & Soper, 2010, p. 499). Even though few people identified themselves as Confucian followers, Confucian ethics and behavioural norms were part of how ordinary Chinese people saw the world.

Recently, the aim to modernise Confucianism has been a premise of many attempts to make Confucianism a compelling and relevant philosophy. Sometimes, this reconstruction takes the form of translating classical Confucian ideas in terms of extracting modern concepts like ‘justice’ and ‘social welfare’ from early texts (see for example Bai, 2008 and Fan, 2010). It may also involve the identification of timeless ‘core values’ of Confucianism that are recited in contemporary analysis, even as others that support practices that are now considered to be problematic, including gender discrimination or class hierarchy, are simply dismissed without any compelling explanation (Bell, 2006).

Moreover, it is not only about what is being interpreted in Confucianism, but who is doing the interpreting and application. The association of Confucianism with historically non-democratic states has led many to defend a kind of ‘authoritarian Confucianism’, which the government of China has used to its advantage. Confucian values are being used to construct a national identity to replace what is now seen as the ineffective ‘foreign’ ideologies of Marxism–Leninism in an attempt to secure the party-state’s leadership (Bell, 2015).

At the same time, others have approached interpreting a modern Confucianism through a commitment to liberal doctrines like human rights. Yet, it is important to ask whether these reconstructions of a ‘progressive Confucianism’ are only a reflection of the individual author’s philosophical commitments. The assumption is that Confucianism can only be relevant if it is adapted to liberal ideas of modernity, which are typically linked to democracy. But in doing so, a line is drawn between a past in which Confucian thought was relevant to analysing social and political life in China, and a present in which historical Confucianism is abandoned for a version that is conducive to Western standards of living.

Therefore, far from broadening Confucian thought to foreign audiences in a meaningful way, the philosophy ends up becoming interpreted to the extent where it is no longer recognisable as a Chinese political philosophy, or it simply becomes a narrow source of scholarly knowledge. As Jenco (2017) states, the problem is not that recent reconstructions are somehow ‘inauthentic’, but that they fail to consider the historical aspect of Confucianism that explains how Confucian philosophy was constructed in the first place. This approach involves reading the many versions of canonical texts and how they were interpreted by influential commentaries and key thinkers in different East Asian contexts. For example, Nylan argues that while current scholarship sees Confucius as the originator of Confucian philosophy, reading the texts in context will reveal “the marked propensity of the early compilers to borrow ideas and switch personae, which renders modern sectarian talk about ‘schools’ wildly anachronistic” (p. 425). Even by examining how Confucius is portrayed in the Zhuangzi reveals that Daoism and Confucianism are not diametrically opposed schools of Chinese thought, but two strands of single tradition.

Consequently, rather than placing one’s own modern spin to Confucian thought to pursue some political agenda, to understand Confucianism in modern times requires a recognition and appreciation of the philosophy in its original context, and how it interacted with other philosophies that comprised the many intellectual traditions of ancient China.

News Update: ‘Serpentine Pavilion Beijing’ inspired by Confucianism

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The Serpentine Pavilion Beijing in China is the galley’s first feature outside of the UK. Serpentine Galleries partnered with Chinese architecture company WF Central to co-commission the structure that is located 600 metres from the Forbidden City at the WF Central site. Comprising of 38 steel rods that curve like an archer’s bow, the building is held by cables stretched between steel plates.


According to the Serpentine Pavilion Beijing announcement, the building was built to have a focus on “society, community and a respect for local context and vernacular craftsmenship.” Furthermore, it “aims to address contemporary architectural issues with a sense of realism, an approach inspired by folk wisdom.” In that sense, the design “takes inspiration from Confucianism with an architecture that is a physical representation of the traditional pursuit of Junzi,” loosely defined as a moral exemplar. The “pavilion’s integral structure aims – like a Tai Chi master – to conquer the harshness of [the external forces of fierce winds and unpredictable earthquakes] with softness.” The archer figure, in the form of a curved cantilever beam that incorporates the forces of elasticity through cables stretched between steel plates, has long been related to military skill, and good political governance in Chinese philosophy while bow metaphors are used in The Analects to highlight practices of morality.


For chief architect at Jiakun Architects, Liu Jiakun, what the project “ultimately wanted to present is a spatial installation that goes beyond mere function to push the boundaries of contemporary architectural practice.”

The Serpentine Pavilion Beijing is now a featured public space for cultural activities, events and social encounters, with a programme of cultural activities programmed across five Pavilion Weekends over the summer.