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1.2 Contemporary Confucian Values

To understand China and the Chinese people, you must understand Confucius. Western society is built on a Judeo-Christian framework; Chinese society is built on a Confucian framework. No matter how China has changed and is changing, its society is built around the fundamental system of values laid down by this philosopher and his followers.

For 2,500 years, Confucian values have been the glue keeping Chinese society together. Emperors based their rule on Confucian values. Parents ran their households on Confucian values. For a short time, the Communist Party sought to abandon Confucius as an outdated philosophy. But the attempt failed, so ingrained is the philosopher’s thinking in Chinese society. Today, Confucianism still provides the guiding principles for Chinese society, whether in government, at work, school, or home.

One of the main precepts of Confucianism is the idea that strength comes from accepting the natural order of things; that being satisfied with what you have is better than an unseemly striving for unbounded wants and needs.

Confucian values promote a range of moral guidelines for behavior and relationships, from individuals to groups and from families to the broadest organizations. They come into play in all relationships, whether between parents and children, bosses and workers, or between the government and the people.

They also set expectations for behavior and define the positive and negative characteristics of people.

Loyalty is a highly valued trait in Confucianism. In ancient times, that meant loyalty to the emperor above all. Today, loyalty is a trait most often identified with friendship. From the time they first go to school, Chinese are taught to put the interests of the team or the group ahead of their own individual interests. Self-interest and independence are not seen as positive values.

Confucian values stress filial piety, leading to expectations of behavior that are now unfamiliar in the West. For example, it is largely accepted in Chinese society that a son is obliged to pay his father’s debts if his father is unable to do so. No formal law requires this but a son who shirked his duty would be seen as having shamed his family.

Some extremes of filial piety have faded over the years. It is no longer expected that a son will resign his job and return home to mourn for three years after the death of his father, for example. But it is expected that a son and his wife will provide a home for his parents. Government policies help keep such values alive. The Shanghai municipal government provides a cash bonus to families who have four generations living under the same roof, for one instance.

Corruption is a huge issue in China today, despite the fact that Confucian values stress the need for officials to be free from any taint. The media in China is rife with stories of petty and systemic corruption, with anti-corruption campaigns at times seemingly orchestrated by the central government and at times seemingly directed against it.

And yet Confucian values promote incorruptibility. In the 1700s and 1800s, while in the West government positions were handed out as patronage or purchased by the rich, in China government jobs were awarded on merit to those who could pass imperial exams. The stories and parables used by Confucius and his followers to illustrate his philosophy are riddled with examples of officials who could not be corrupted.

Why then does corruption seem so pervasive in modern-day China? One reason may be that the pace and nature of modern life has set some Confucian values against each other. When an act can be seen to be corrupt but helps a friend or family, which value wins out? No doubt the visibility of the issue has much to do with the inherent distaste for corruption in society as a whole, however much that corruption has become part of daily life.

While it is important to understand Confucian values as the framework of Chinese society, knowing them also provides insight into the stresses that Chinese society is now undergoing. The sort of changes that took place over 100 years or so in the West with the advent of industrialization and urbanization are happening much faster in China, making the stresses imposed by those changes on traditions of family and society that much sharper.

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