Confucianism a vital string in China's bow
By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - The more China's economic and military muscles expand, the more talk
there is of "the rise of China". Economic and military muscle, though, fall
under the so-called "hard power" heading. Comparatively, China's "soft power",
which it needs to become a real world-class power, is lagging.
All the same, some scholars in China argue that Beijing’s soft power is rising,
pointing to a revival in Confucianism. The thought of Confucius, the Chinese
thinker and educator who lived about 2,500 years ago, is becoming increasingly
popular in China.
The government is also using Confucius to spread Chinese culture worldwide to
increase the influence of China's soft power. For example, since 2004, when the
first Chinese Confucius Institute
was set up in Seoul in South Korea, more than 250 Confucius Institutes have
been set up across the world. 
At the same time, the ancient sage is becoming more respected at home. Ever
year on the anniversary his birthday (he was born on September 29, 551 BC),
memorial ceremonies are held in temples of Confucius (Wen Miao).
Usually, these ceremonies are organized and hosted by local governments. For
example, in Qufu city in Shandong province, Confucius' hometown, the local
government hosted a grand ceremony that strictly followed ancient Confucian
Such ceremonies were unimaginable some 30 years ago. The more than 2,000-year
influence of Confucianism began to decline in the early 20th century as it was
blamed as a major cause for China's backwardness. During the anti-imperialist
May 4 student movement in 1919, the slogan "Down with Confucianism" was
Under Mao Zedong, Confucius was criticized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
as the chief representation of feudalism and an accomplice to the exploitation
of classes. His teachings were considered rubbish that should be thrown into
the "historical dustbin".
Nowadays, the CCP acquiesces to or even encourages the revival of Confucianism
in the hope it will fill the ideological vacuum left by the virtual abandonment
of orthodox Marxism and Leninism. This, it is believed, will pave the way for
economic reform and opening up.
Officially, as long as the CCP rules, it cannot abandon Marxism (however one
might interpret it) and adopt Confucianism as its ideology. The CCP insists
that its leaders "develop" Marxism in accordance with Chinese circumstances:
Mao Zedong thought, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's theory of socialism with
Chinese characteristics, former president Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents" and
present President Hu Jintao's views of a "harmonious society" and "scientific
development" are all part of Chinese Marxism.
Thus, while Chinese Marxism as the dominant ideology may be vastly different
from classic Marxism, as well as different from Leninism and today's Western
Marxism as a foreign political philosophy, it is clearly also different from
But some ideas in Confucianism are helpful in maintaining social order and
harmony, such as respect for elders and teachers and not harming others. The
CCP certainly wants a revival of such values to help it maintain social
stability. Many parents, too, would like their children to learn from
However, local governments' respect for Confucius is centered on economic
interests. By holding memorial ceremonies, tourists are attracted to a region
and local products are promoted. For local officials, there is less culture on
their minds than local gross domestic product growth - a sure ticket to
promotion. Some intellectuals also make fortunes by "popularizing" Confucian
ideas with paid lectures and by publishing books.
All this is embodied in a popular propaganda slogan, "Culture provides the
stage for the economy to perform". That is, culture is just a means of fueling
In short, in the early 21st century, Confucianism is an assistant to the
Chinese god of wealth (and a representative of Chinese diplomacy) but not a
tutor for Chinese souls.
Thus, if Confucianism cannot be officially endorsed as a core of Chinese
traditional culture but only pragmatically regarded as a pawn to help the
economy, it can hardly be promoted worldwide as a pillar of Chinese soft power.
Culture is one of the basic resources of soft power, according to Joseph Nye,
who was the first to introduce this concept in 1990 to analyze international
affairs. According to this United States politician-scholar, soft power is the
ability to obtain what one wants through co-option and attraction, as opposed
to hard power, which is the use of coercion and payment. By this definition,
culture is not soft power itself, but a very important potential resource of
Besides the government's reluctance, there are internal problems that make it
hard to modernize Confucianism. Confucianism emerged 2,500 years ago and was
enriched throughout the country's dynastic history to become an ideology in
justifying and safeguarding the hierarchical structure of political and social
As such, many of its ideas are outdated, such as being loyal to authority,
non-violation of the hierarchical order of families and society and
anti-individualism. These values are in conflict with modernity and cannot be
converted into acceptable concepts to people today.
Related to this, it is also difficult to make Confucianism universal. With the
rise of their hard power, Western countries have successfully established some
of their values, such as free markets, democracy, rule of law and equality of
human beings. As a result, many countries have striven to build their
political, economic and social systems based on these values originating from
From this perspective, a measurement of the rise of China's soft power would be
that some countries now accept some Chinese values. In this regard, there is
still a long way to go for the rise of Chinese soft power, be it with
Confucianism at its core or as a part of it.
The global financial crisis potentially provides a golden opportunity for the
rise of Chinese soft power and economics. As China sustains its fast economic
growth amid the crisis, there is talk inside and outside the country of a
"Chinese mode" of development, or even a "Beijing Consensus", in contrast to
the Washington Consensus, which endorses market fundamentalism.
The argument is that behind a country's "mode" of development, social values
and norms must support it. China's leaders like to say they have adhered to
"socialism with Chinese characteristics", which is a mix of Chinese and Western
China accepts some Western ideas, such as a market economy and the rule of law.
Some are revised and adapted to Chinese needs, such as Marxism, individualism,
democracy and human rights. Such a mix is possible because traditional Chinese
culture is strong enough to easily absorb foreign ideas.
Confucianism as a dominant school of thought in Chinese tradition plays an
important role in this mix. This is evident in the fact that Confucianism is
gaining new popularity in China. While some of its ideas may remain outdated
and should be abandoned, many others can be modernized and adapted to meet
In this sense, Confucianism needs to be re-studied and re-evaluated. Important
as it is, however, Confucianism is but one school of thought - it is not the
sole source of Chinese soft power. Valuable other schools of thought include
Daoism (Taoism), Mozi, Sunzi (Sun Tzu) or even Chinese Buddhism.
At heart, tradition is the rich source of a country's soft power, and China is
no exception. As a country with a written history of over 5,000 years, it can
project greater soft power based on its traditional ideas, provided that such
ideas are modernized and universalized. How to identify, modernize and promote
such ideas will be an arduous yet significant job for Chinese scholars, as well
as for the government.
However, China must avoid imposing Chinese values on other countries, which
could be viewed as cultural imperialism. Particularly, any deliberate spread of
Chinese culture worldwide may be considered by Western countries as a threat to
Christian cultures and a potential cause of a clash of civilizations - the
so-called "China threat".
China ought to convince countries and peoples that the spread of Chinese
cultural influence is not in conflict with other cultures and is an attempt not
to debase modernity but to share fundamental values and principles of cultural
As long as China can provide the world with not only manufactured products for
daily life and business opportunities, but also with fundamental values and
models that are helpful to maintain world peace, stability and prosperity, it
can be respected by the world and stand rock-firm as a real great power, as it
has done in the past.
1. According to Confucius
Institute Online the institutes are "non-profit education organizations
devoted to satisfying the demands of people from different countries and
regions in the world who learn the Chinese language, to enhance their
understanding of the Chinese language and culture, to strengthen educational
and cultural exchanges and cooperation between China and other countries, to
deepen friendly relationships with other nations, to promote the development of
multi-culturalism, and to the build a harmonious world".
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.