Book chapter

The Confucian Tradition and Politics (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Confucianism is a principal category and term of analysis in most discourses on Chinese culture. However, when it is defined in very stylized terms, it turns out to be of little use for understanding long-term historical changes, as its meaning varied greatly over more than a millennium. The Confucian tradition has fluctuated primarily because rulers and elites made use of inherited Confucianism for their ideological ends. In this light, Confucianism, Chinese elite, and politics are closely interconnected. Confucius, who has often been regarded as the founder of Confucianism, did not entertain a chance to materialize his political vision through a powerful government office, even if he had wished to do so. However, after his death, the early imperial rulers of China actively appropriated the textual tradition of what would later become Confucianism and used it to legitimize their political powers. Throughout the late imperial periods, Neo-Confucianism gained wide currency among those who did not hold governmental office and yet sought to engage in public matters at a local level. At the same time, donning the ideological garb of a Confucian sage-king, late imperial rulers instituted the civil service examinations and adopted Neo-Confucian commentaries on classical texts as the official curriculum. As there was almost no other access to office except through these examinations, Neo-Confucianism had become required knowledge for anyone who aspired to become a member of the elite until the early decades of the 20th century. In the late 19th century, China found itself in a disadvantageous position in the new world order, where aggressive European imperialism advanced across Asia. At that time, Chinese reformers regarded Confucianism as a cause of China's failure to industrialize as adeptly as Western countries had. During the Mao Zedong era, Confucianism continued to be held responsible for the static nature of Chinese society, which robbed it of the possibility of progress. As Communism ceases to be a satisfactory model for China, the country's politicians and intellectuals have sought a new identity and model whereby they can fashion their future. As a consequence, although discarded at the beginning of the last century as the cause of China's demise, Confucianism has been gaining new currency as the model for modern China.