March 4, 2015
Why a Confucian revival and the Internet could have unexpected consequences for China

by Michael Schuman

For much of China's imperial age, Confucius served – unwillingly – as a tool of autocratic emperors. Today, China's new emperors – the leaders of the Communist Party – are again turning to Confucius to build support for their dictatorial rule. However, the Communists can't ensure their political future by relying on the country's philosophical past.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Confucius's enduring influence on East Asian civilization is that he has become so intimately associated with authoritarianism. Confucius the historical philosopher spent his life preaching that good government should be based on benevolence and authority must be earned by virtuous acts, not imposed through coercion.

Unfortunately, those lofty ideals were sidelined when Confucius's teachings became the imperial state's orthodox ideology. An army of scholar-officials reinterpreted Confucius to suit their royal masters, by stressing virtues like filial piety and conceptualizing society as a strict hierarchy with the emperor at its apex. Confucius became a symbol to convince the masses that the emperors possessed the “Mandate of Heaven” – or the moral right to rule.

It is this imperial Confucius who the Communists think could win them that same Mandate. For much of its existence, the Communist Party had vilified the great sage as a feudal leftover, and during the Mao Zedong years, they tried to purge him from society. But the Communists had a change of heart in the 1980s after the introduction of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – or what the rest of us call capitalism. The Marxist bombast of Mao sounded out of touch with the affluent times, so the regime required a new ideology to justify its rule.

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