Statue of Confucius at the Confucian Temple Museum, Beijing.
For many years, economists in the West have attributed the success of East Asian economies to the hard-work ethos of Confucianism and believed that the spectacular economic growth since the second half of the 20th century is partly powered by the Confucian work ethic.
Many countries, from Singapore to China, have been described as conservative “Confucian societies”. However, that is far from the truth. In fact, no other civilization or ideology has seen as spectacular and decisive a fall as Confucianism, and it has long lost its grip on East Asian societies.
That, in turn, is contributing to the shrinking and eventual demise of the ex-Confucian nations, and an argument for the revival of traditional Confucian values through a traditionalist, even modern-world-denying Confucian sect/community movement is in this writer’s view, long overdue. Here’s why.
From long before the late Qing dynasty up until the Republic of China era, China and much of East Asia was very much a traditional Confucian society which oversaw stability for many centuries.
Confucian scholars dominated the upper echelons of society and made up the vast majority of mandarins in the imperial courts everywhere from Joseon Korea to the Qing Empire to the Nguyen Dynasty in Vietnam.
Ancestral worship was universal in these societies, and the Analects of Confucius was like the Bible for any literate person in the Sinosphere. Traditional family values were the order of the day, and everyday village life was decided by a council of elders, mostly educated landowners, and ancestral shrines/clan associations formed most of the administrative role in rural China.
Clan/family lineages and linkages were far more important than national identity, and emphasis was made on passing on the family lineage through procreation. Buddhism and Taoism combined with Confucian ideas, and formed a trinity of syncretic beliefs which guided East Asian societies for centuries.
Indeed due to this monopoly of ideas, East Asian ignorance towards Western progress and notions of Western science as well as Christianity was near universal. Confucianists had a monopoly on education, with nearly every literate person in the lands going to Confucian run sishu(私塾) or shuyuan（书院）academies hoping to pass the Imperial Examinations and join the mandarin force themselves.
This has parallels with Catholic dominated societies, which makes for very interesting comparisons. Like Confucian societies, the Catholic Church had a monopoly on social services and education and the government only managed to take away those functions from the Church in the secularization era following the end of World War II.
For example, up until the 1960s and 1970s, almost all of Quebec and Ireland’s schools, orphanages and even hospitals were run by the Church. In Confucian China of the past, the scholars had a monopoly on the schools, and the clans ran their own charity service as well as taking care of the young and elderly. Government, at least from a national level, had no influence on these matters, and these societies functioned like this for centuries.
Following Vatican II, Quebec and Ireland and many other European Catholic nations underwent their own “Quiet Revolutions”. Church attendance plummeted, birth rates collapsed, divorce rates skyrocketed and societies liberalized greatly. The government took over every social function the Church had.
We are seeing the effects to this day, as Ireland legalizes abortion and Quebec moves to ban religious symbols from public spaces. However, the Church has remnants of fecundity and activity keeping it alive and vibrant even in fiercely secular places like France and Quebec.
Unlike Catholicism, Confucianism has seen a far worse decline to the point of complete extinction. Following the rise of the West as well as repeated defeats in wars fought by the Qing empire, the Sinosphere as an entity crumbled rapidly. China fell from being the world’s strongest empire to the weakest.
Chinese intellectuals began to see Confucianism as the ultimate hinderance and problem. Many in the early Republic of China (ROC) era ruthlessly and viciously attacked all traditional Chinese culture, viewing it as spiritual poison, and called for complete Westernisation.
Believe it or not, abolishing Chinese characters and adopting the Latin alphabet was a very popular proposal in the early ROC era, with supporters ranging from the famous writer Lu Xun to some of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party.
Confucius, once revered by the masses, became reviled and attacked. This was taken to new heights during the “New Culture Movement” in the 1910s and 1920s, which laid the foundation for the importation of Marxism/Leninism into China as well as the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
Rural China at this time remained largely traditional. However, Westernisation had taken over urban China, with diverse ideas from Christianity to radical feminism being imported. One of the greatest tragedies of modern China is that during that time of great ideological and social upheaval, what replaced Confucianism was not benevolent ideas such as Christianity and Judeo-Christian values, but instead the violent ideology of Marxism won and became the order of the day.
And that was when the entire Confucian shell of Chinese society began to really crumble. The land reforms of the early 1950s completely destroyed and physically eliminated the land-owning gentry class of rural China and fundamentally changed Chinese rural society, which had a stable social structure for millennia.
Confucian temples and ancestral shrines were destroyed en masse, with books from the Analects to genealogical records (clan books) all labelled as part of the “Old Fours” in the Cultural Revolution and earmarked for destruction.
Clan associations ceased to exist; Confucian education, already dying in the Nationalist era prior to 1949, disappeared soon after the founding of the Communist People’s Republic.
The Soviet-style education system was fully implemented down to the smallest village. Land became collectivized and Chinese society became extremely fractured, with the large families and clans of the past crushed and atomised.
Confucius’ own ancestral temple and family residence was turned upside-down in the Cultural Revolution – the ultimate symbol of cultural desecration.
However, it must be pointed out that Confucianism itself had its own fatal weaknesses. First of all, it is not a religion, or was never a religion for the masses. It was a state ideology that enjoyed imperial patronage, and when the Empire crumbled, so did the privilege Confucianism enjoyed.
Thus, when Western ideas came pouring in during China’s weakest era, it comes as no surprise that Confucianism would suffer a spectacular fall in belief and adherence.
But following Confucianism’s demise, what replaced it was horrific. China, North Korea and Vietnam are now all Communist states. Birth rates have tumbled in all of East Asia, which is heading for population collapse. Family values have fast diminished especially in China, with traditional notions of filial piety, ancestral worship and procreation long abandoned by the majority. Today, East Asia is a shell of its former cultural self.
That is not to say that other civilisations and religions haven’t taken a beating in modern society. The West has seen spectacular secularization and Western societies are unrecognizable to many who grew up a mere 50 years ago.
But these other ideologies all have something that Confucianism lacks: a dedicated core of believers or “fundamentalists” that has continued to hold steady or grow despite the ultra-modernism of the world.
Judaism has its Haredis/ultra-Orthodox sect keeping up its traditions of Torah studying and enjoys a fertility rate of 6-7, triple that of secular Jews.
Salafism/Wahhabism has taken Islam by storm and is sprouting everything from Saudi funded madrassas (Islamic schools) to jihadism.
Catholics have fervent post Vatican II lay movements. Protestants have evangelicals, fundamentalists, and even unique sects such as the Amish, the Laestadians and the Orthodox Calvinists of the Dutch Bible Belt.
Even Buddhists in Southeast Asia have their own form of nationalist defenders, and Hinduism has seen a resurgence through the rise of Hindutva and the ascendancy of the Hindu nationalist BJP.
But Confucianism? Where are its supporters and traditionalists keeping it alive? How many devoted adherents does it have? The answer is zero, zilch, nada. Confucian academies have long become extinct from China to Korea, which sees its children universally go to Western style primary and secondary schools where Confucian traditions are largely ignored or only very selectively taught.
No Confucianist organization is active enough in East Asia to have any influence on anything, from governance to social discourse. The only place in the world where it is now organized as an official religion, is in Indonesia, where the national ideology of Pancasila mandates that all citizens must believe in a religion. Thus the Chinese Indonesians had to come up with an organized religious form of Confucianism and now “Konghucu” is one of Indonesia’s officially recognized religions with its own governing body and holy texts. Other than that, no other Asian country has any community or society still functioning around Confucian values.
Confucianism is a dead ideology that can only be found in museums and tourist sites, and the future for East Asia looks just as bleak.
East Asia faces a slow demise unless an indigenous revival in traditional values and Confucianist-oriented communities can defend and revitalize its guiding ideology, provide an impetus to renewal of family life and procreation, and offer a way out of the deep spiritual confusion afflicting the entire region.
William Huang is an avid researcher into China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis. He also aims to raise his voice for the sanctity of life wherever and whenever he can.