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Philosophy/Confucianism in the Modern World


Hello, my name is Jung-Eun (you can call me Greg as well, if you’d like). I currently reside in the US. Confucianism has always interested me as it has received much criticism and praise alike in the modern world. While I am South Korean and Confucianism is seldom directly talked about, it’s clear that many of its beliefs have become cornerstones of Korean, Chinese, and to an extent East Asian culture.

That said, the questions I ask are for a philosophy course I am taking. I hope you might be able to enlighten me on the role of Confucianism in the modern world. I noticed you said you don’t write essays for homework assignments, and I realize these questions are quite a handful. But if you could give a brief answer, even a sentence or two if you’d like, to each, I’d really appreciate it. Thank you!

1.) I am curious as to how Confucianism managed to combine with Buddhism and Taoism to become the “Three Great Truths” in a Chinese and even a broader East Asian culture. How do the Taoist ideals of “wuwei” and highly individualized action coexist with Confucian ideals that emphasize rituals, filial piety, generosity, patience, etc. etc?

2.) Relationships are one of the most important aspects of Confucianism. Most of us are familiar with filial piety and the five bonds. I want to focus on the bond between friends. Are there any striking differences between friendship in the Confucian ideal and other (e.g. Western, Buddhist, etc.) ideals? Friends are friends regardless of philosophy, but I was just curious as to if there were any differences.

3.) Finally, how has Confucianism fared in the modern world? Safe to say, many values of Confucianism has survived within China and other East Asian countries. How have they fared with the arrival of Western values? I am specifically curious as to if Li has a place in modern society.

Dear Jung-Eun (중은, am I right?),

(I will not use your Amercian name as I really don't understand why all East-Asians should adopt an English name; yours is nice enough).

I am very happy about your question, it's been a long time since anybody asked me a question about Confucianism.  

Unfortunately this week I am very bust so I will try to answer your questions quite briefly only. You can look for more details in the links I give (or seach for them with Google).

1) The ide of "three systems are really one" was not a Confucian one, it was in fact a Taoist one (and if you look at the pictures presenting this idea, e.g., you'll see that it's always the Taoists who seem to have the last word (to take the cream of the whole idea). Of course without a tacit consent from the part of Confucians it wouldn't be so popular - Confucianism was the official ideology and Taoism was the private one practiced at home (and Buddhism was always the loser - it was considered a superstition worthy to be practiced in the time of distress and "in any case" at the time of death).
This coexistence possible only because the Sung dynasty's Neo-Confucians have reinterpreted the original Confucian ideas and texts using some notions derived from Buddhism and Taoism.  The most important was the reinterpretation of the Ta-Hsueh (Daxue) 大學, or the Great Learning of Confucius, as showing the individual path of becoming a sage, through a phase of being a sage-follower or "wisdom-lover" (Greek: philosopher). See e.g. Prof. Michael Kalton's book "To Become a Sage", based upon T'oegye Yi Hwang's "Ten Diagrams on Sage learning", fully awailable on the Internet. In fact this started with the Neo-Taoist genius Wang Bi (Wang Pi), who commented both on the Confucian and Taoist classics. He considered Confucius to be a greater sage than both Laozi (Lao-tzu) and Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi).
oh, I am mixing the transcriptions, I wil stick to one, pinyin, from now on.
Wang Bi used to say that Confucianism (social sphere) is like the bamboo frame to a picture, and that Taoism (individual sphere) is like the silk fabric, on which the picture (one's own life, the whole of reality) is painted. The picture cannot be fully appreciated without one or the other.

2) I have never reflected much on friendship before. There are probably plenty of literature on the subject, by the classical authors and by the modern interpretors, yet little of that is known to me. Friendship seems to be the most equitable relationship, reciprocity is the point. For the Confucian ideal of friendship see the Analects 論語 esp. chapter 1, but also 16. Remmeber that when Analects 1.8 says that you should not have friends inferior, it also means you possibly cannot have friends superior to you, as then you would be enferior to your friend.
Sincerety is the main isue among friends.
See also Mencius, chapter 5B.
These are by James Legge, end of 19th century, but other (newer) translations can also be found on the web.

For the Buddhist notion of friendship see e.g. Dhammapada 328 and the other verses from book 23, and other verses:

or Nagarjuna's "Letter to a friend" ('Suhrillekha')

For the Western notion the most famous is the "De Amicitia" by Cicero,

but also reflect upon Jesus Christ's words in the Gospel of John 15.13: "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends." e.g.
But of course here (like in the other texts as well) read the whole section, not only one sentence.

3) Confucianism (as the state ideology) was treated by many Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese thinkers of the end of the 19th century as the main obstacle against modernization, it was vehemently criticized, e.g. by Sun Yat-sen, fought against and finally banned from the  institutions (and even altogether from the life, like in the Communist China under Mao Tsetung (Mao Zedong) or North Korea). Yet it has survied in certain places and it has proven that it can adapt itself to the modern world, where the family and society values tend to disappear, it can provide the point of reference. The places where it has survived were Hong Kong, Singapur, Taiwan and your South Korea. And it's revival is also thanks to many Western scholars interested in it, who together with their Chinese colleagues started implementing the Confucian interpretation of Western values and vice versa, The so-called Boston Confucians,, first of all Tu Wei-ming (very prolific, you can find some of his lectures on YouTube, many of his articles and books are on the net and in the libraries or bookstores); next especially intersting for you might be Huang Chun-chieh with his research on East-Asian humanism in the context of East Asian Confucianisms (plural intended!). And others from all the countries mentioned.

It simply appeared that they are not any local values, but they have global importance and impact, they can be treated as valid everywhere, only we need a bit to loosen the cultural "skin". Confucianism is not a reactionary (conservative) political theory of organizing some special nation(s) within one special (feudal) context, like the critics of Confucianism claimed, but is a human ethics, with good metaphysical foundation, and can be applied in other contexts on the condition of valuing the traditional (family, social, communal, patriotic) values with humanistic perrspective. As Confucius says - to be humane (jen, 仁) one must be human and love human (愛人), be humane.

If you want to put order in this world, you cannot do it in the unreliable Taoist way, you have to do it within the borders of the society, this is the mature way (Taoism is a philosophy for big boys who do not want to take the responsibility for the world we live in, which is a society, and want to continue to stay in tgheir playground. And if you just want to cultivate yourself in separation from the world and the society - like the Buddhism is eniting you to - no good for you nor for the society. Even the Buddhists have understood it and in the 20th century Buddhism has developped many social initiatives. For Confucianism this was natural, always. And even in the 17th century the Catholic priests in China - Mateo Ricci and others - have found this great value of Confucianism.  If you read the Great Learning again you will see that first you have develop yourself personally, cultivate your knowledge, mind, heart, will, emitions, only then you can try to repair your family, neighbourhood, contry and the world. And you cannot make roder and peace in the wordl if you do not cultivate your personality, and you cannot stop on cultivating your personality, because then your virtue requires that you start showing it out and thus renewing people.

This was the point of view of the American poet Ezra Pound, who asked about his religion answered "I belive in Ta Hio i.e. The Great Digest [this was his rendering of the title of the Great Learning] and in the Chung Yung i.e. The Unwobbling Pivot [this was his rendering of the title of the Doctrine of the Mean].".

The Western civilisation ha recently come to a point of the utmost individualism, (that's why Taoims and Buddhism are so popular in the West), yet the salvation for the society lies in adopting a more conservative approach and working for the family and society at least as much as for oneself.

Look also for the books "Confucianism and the modern world" by Daniel Bell.

These are just instant associations, you will have to work them out by yourself.

Wish you all the best in your research



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Maciej St. Zięba


I can answer questions concerning Eastern (Oriental) philosophies and philosophers (Indian, Tibetan, Indonesian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese: Hinduist, Buddhist, Confucianist, Taoist and other; alas not Islamic or Jewish) - both in terms of notions and facts (history of their development). I can write in English, French, Esperanto, Polish and Russian, German, Dutch and Norwegian. I can also understand questions in Spanish and Italian.


I have been teaching Indian and Chinese philosophies since 1987, during 1999-2009 I co-ordinated a project on Oriental philosophies within the scope of the Universal Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Powszechna Encyklopedia Filozofii) published in Polish by SITA-PL in Lublin (10 volumes, containing ca. 500 entries in Eastern philosophies, written by a team of a dozen of Polish scholars).

Polish Oriental Society; International Association of Buddhist Studies; Klingon Language Institute; Learned Society of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin; Polish Philosophical Association; Universala Esperanto-Asocio.

Books: "Origin of the World According to Rigveda" (Montreal 1996); "Our Bug. Creating Conditions for Development of the Border Areas of Poland, Ukraine and Belarus through Enhancement and Preservation of Natural and Cultural Heritage" (Lublin 2008); "Migration - a Challenge to the 21st century" (Lublin 2008); "Migracja zarobkowa do Woch" (Job migration to Italy) (Lublin 2008); more than 100 articles in "Powszechna Encyklopedia Filozofii" (Universal Encyclopedia od Philosophy) vol. 1-10 (Lublin 2000-2009); Contributions to the history of the Buddhist classifications of dharmas: Pancavastuka of Vasumitra (Bulletin, Polish Institute and Library, Montreal 1997); many more in Polish; some of them available online, see: here and here (a list up to 2012

philosophy (KUL, Lublin, 1976-81); M.A. in history of Indian philosophy (KUL, 1981); Ph.D. in history of Indian philosophy (KUL, 1989); other studies: Indian and Chinese philosophies (Institut Catholique, Paris, 1985-6); Tibetan language (INALCO, Paris, 1985-6); Chinese language (McGill University, Montreal, 1995-7).

Awards and Honors
2012 Golden Medal of Civil Service of Poland; 2012-13 Taiwan Fellowship - Tunghai University (Taichung)

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