Thoughts on Confucianism

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2018


Confucius, the brand

It is interesting to me how many contemporary and follow-up philosophers have linked their work to Confucius. Instead of being simply the source of many wise ideas he has become the inspiration for many thinkers, who then say their work is Confucian. By contemporary standards he has become a brand, and his followers have become brand managers. This leads me to wonder: why has this system worked so well in China?

Who gets credit?

Philosopher rulers are a tradition in China that begins well before Confucius' time. He cites several in his work. The tradition continues to this day. In the second half of the 1900's the philosopher ruler was Mao Zedong. In contemporary China the current leader, Xi Jinping, is also getting published as a philosopher. (See this 19 Jan 18 Xinhuanet article, Xi thought proposed to be included in Constitution) Mixing leadership and philosophical publishing has a long tradition in China.

This leads me to wonder: if Confucius had not come of age in a time of troubles, if his career had occurred during a peaceful era, would his works have been attributed to the philosopher ruler he worked for?

The inspiration of Times of Troubles

Confucius grew up in a time of troubles in China. It was an age of warlords. A recent version of these times came to China starting in the mid-1800's with the first Opium War. The high-profile philosopher ruler who emerged during this recent era was Mao Zedong.

It is not just in China where times of troubles inspire. Niccolò Machiavelli was inspired to write The Prince during a time of troubles in Italy in the 1500's.

What makes works written during times of troubles more memorable than those written during more peaceful times? I don't know. This is a pattern of history that I will be thinking about. Part the answer may be that there is no high-profile philosopher ruler to claim credit for what an insightful underling comes up with.


Confucius has been a deep and enduring inspiration for Chinese thinking in the moral and political realms. But he is far from solely responsible for what is considered Confucian thinking these days. His works have been steadily contributed to and interpreted by dozens of Chinese thinkers during his day and since then. He has become a brand, and each generation of Chinese thinkers offers their interpretation of what his insights mean relative to current events of their day.



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