By Moss Roberts, translator of The Analects: Conclusions and Conversations of Confucius

The name Confucius received little attention in the mainstream American public until recently. With rising US-China tensions, there were protests against the Confucius Institutes (CIs) international language and cultural centers sponsored by China. The first CI in the U.S. opened in 2005 to promote the study of Chinese language and culture in partnership with various schools and colleges. After a decade or more, there were over 100 in the US and some 500 world-wide. 

At first there were only a few complaints. Then the AAUP expressed concern over academic freedom and educational autonomy, and finally, Washington weighed in.  At this time, about half of CIs at U.S academic institutions have been closed pursuant to USG actions. In 2021, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would restrict colleges hosting Confucius Institutes from receiving some federal funding, following earlier DOD restrictions. Some Institutes in Europe were also canceled, but most around the world remain open. 

Beyond these political tensions around the institutes, I’m interested in the famous figure they’re named after: Confucius. Confucius was a philosopher of ethics in government and the nature of political authority. What about his thinking and values could possibly prove troubling to American authorities?

Confucius died 479 BCE, when politically and territorially there was no single unified China. Instead, China comprised some ten statelets of unequal size around the Yellow River in northeast China, each governed by a different family.  Sometimes intermarriage created alliances or conflicts. Originally fiefdoms of the Royal Zhou House, the statelets had developed economically, expanded, and gained a degree of independence. They often went to war with each other.  Confucius traveled to a number of the statelets in search of rulers who would implement his plans for improving their governments. 

To that end, Confucius viewed exclusive family governance as too narrow to cope with a rapidly changing world. He advocated that they reform administration by appointing virtuous and knowledgeable officials even if they did not belong to the ruling family.

Confucius had a group of followers and students whom he sometimes recommended as qualified to serve in office, hoping they could “modernize” and strengthen governance. But he never found a ruler willing to put into practice the necessary reforms and ultimately considered his efforts a failure.  He looked back to the early reigns of the Zhou House for examples of enlightened rule, much as Americans sometimes look back to the nation’s founding fathers.  The Analects conveys much of his teachings and recounts the problems he faced and tribulations he endured. 

After the unification of the statelets into a single imperium in the late third and second centuries BCE and over the next two millennia, China’s emperors used Confucius’ teachings to legitimate their dynastic governments, a purpose partly consistent with his views. The Analects served as an authoritative reference to this end.

Fast forward to the 20th century.  After the republican revolution of 1911 and the communist revolution of 1949, the reputation of Confucius declined and his philosophy was rejected in favor of Marxism, the Russian Revolution, and western democratic practice. Sun Yat-sen, leader of the 1911 revolution was a Constitutionalist, and looked to France and America as models of governance. However, western democracy was also called into question by the two world wars and the extension of World War Two in Korea and Indochina as Washington sought to contain, if not overthrow, the new Chinese government.

The US and Japan had fought in WWII for dominance in China. In a sense, Washington lost WWII in Asia – to the people of China – and still has not gotten over it. In the late 1970s, after President Nixon’s 1972 pilgrimage to Beijing formalized a precarious US-China reconciliation, the Chinese government began rehabilitating the old master of the 6th – 5th centuries BCE.

There are a few obvious reasons for Confucius’ elevation in modern times. First, he emphasized academic education as China was transitioning out of the Cultural Revolution, which had denigrated teachers and formal learning. Learning (xue) is the first word Confucius speaks in The Analects and refers to social and moral cultivation as well as managerial or technical expertise. Second, Confucius stands for reclaiming the heritage of traditional Chinese culture, counterbalancing the themes of revolutionary nationalist militancy dominant during the Korean and Indochinese wars. Third, the Chinese government was trying to reach out to Taiwan, self-appointed guardian of Confucianism, and to the wider diasporic Chinese communities, for whom the culture was far more appealing than class struggle.

If there were a pantheon of founders, Mao would be honored in the center, respected by the vast majority of Chinese as the leader of a successful revolution.  Placed to his left would be Sun Yat-sen, leader of the 1910-1911 revolution that ended the long line of imperial dynasties.  Sun’s presence also lengthens the revolutionary time line back into the late 19th century, expanding the context of the communist segment. On Mao’s right, would be Confucius. Pairing Confucius and Sun represents a gesture of solidarity with Taiwan where Sun is still revered as national patriarch, Confucius as national teacher.

Confucius advocated compromise for the sake of harmony as the right way to manage social conflict. He was explicitly “international” in his outlook and saw mankind, however politically divided, as one. Thus jen-humanism was his main term of value. Accordingly, the Communist Party established Confucius Institutes in many foreign countries. 

Confucius was a conservative thinker who looked to the remote past for models of governance. One abiding principle that would not appeal to American conservatives today is that responsibility for social problems rests on those with power: “If the officials misbehave, blame the ruler. If the son misbehaves, blame the father.” This passage also shows the interdependence of social and political values. Most American conservatives abide by the reverse: for them minorities, the poor, the other, etc. are personally responsible for their own troubles – the less government the better. Because Confucius limits his concerns to the social and political spheres he does not reach beyond them toward the unknown. “Keep the gods and spirits distant, but respect them,” he warns. In America religious and political issues are frequently intertwined, with at times unfortunate effects on both.