Confucianism, Corruption and the Public Ethos

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Confucianism, Corruption and the Public Ethos

Kim-chong CHONG


The ethical philosophy of Confucianism has been criticised as having a serious flaw which makes it conducive to some forms of corrupt practice. It would seem that under certain situations of conflict between being partial to family members and being impartial in the name of public good, Confucianism would allow the former to override the latter. This essay examines certain examples from the Confucian literature that have been found to be particularly disturbing in this regard. The aim is not to provide an exposition of Confucianism per se. Instead, it is to show that there are complexities to any system of thought and to warn against narrow-minded interpretations and applications of Confucianism. In line with these aims, the essay rounds up with some topics for classroom discussion and further research to stimulate exploration of the relevance of Confucian ethics.


The Confucian principle of a harmonious society has recently been promulgated by President Hu Jintao as an overarching social norm for the governance of China. This seems to be in response to the growing social unrest sparked by abuses of power and widespread corruption on the part of officials. It has also been prompted by an awareness of increasing social discontent over the wide income disparities between the rich and the poor. We find almost daily reports about these issues. As I write this, for instance, a report informs us that the former Communist party chief of Shanghai has been sacked from the National People's Congress pending prosecution for his role in a scandal involving misappropriation of the city's pension fund. More than a dozen other senior officials and prominent businessmen are also implicated. Corruption has become rampant since market reforms were introduced in the 1980s, and the Chinese government fears that Communist party rule could be threatened if it is uncurbed. Clearly, this and other social problems cannot be resolved overnight, despite the strong will of the central government.

One problem with promoting Confucian principles is that, traditionally, Confucianism has frowned upon the rule of law, preferring instead the creation of a harmonious social order through the maintenance of hierarchical and personal relationships based on ritual principles. Legal institutions in China have traditionally been negatively associated with punishment. Moral training, on the other hand, is deemed preferable because it involves the development of personal and public virtues as part of character. In this sense, it is thought to go deeper and would be more constitutive of a social and moral order. This line of thinking goes back to Confucius, who had said, “Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves” (Analects 2.4, trans. Lau, 1979).

The leaders of China no doubt realise that creating a harmonious capitalist society has to be more than a slogan, and it is no use enunciating age-old principles of proper ritual relationships and respect for authority unless the rule of law in a modern capitalist society is both institutionalised and entrenched. But can Confucianism play a positive role in this regard? Or is Confucianism itself part of the problem? Let us first note that Confucianism is undergoing a popular revival in China. In 2006, it was estimated that there were about eight million students studying Confucianism in mainstream government schools (Teo, 2006). Author Yu Dan's Insights on the Analects sold more than three million copies in four months when it first appeared in November 2006 (Ni, 2007). This came on the heels of her very successful nationwide television programme in which she talked about the teachings of Confucius and Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi.

Revival of Confucianism

Before discussing the above questions, we should examine the reasons for the current popularity of Confucianism. One reason is a sense of national pride in China's increasing prestige in the international arena. I shall comment on this later. Another reason is the need for people to find their moral bearings amidst the confusing dislocation due to rapid social and economic changes. Communist ideology has been replaced almost overnight by capitalist free enterprise. This has given rise to a moral vacuum, which is naturally filled by Confucianism. This revival comes after years of having been denounced as backward thinking and an obstacle to the development of China by intellectuals towards the end of the Qing dynasty, through the May Fourth Movement and culminating in the Cultural Revolution that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the present moment, it seems that the search for material wealth is the only goal of life, and people need a reminder of what is personally and socially meaningful. In this regard, Confucianism's emphasis on cultivating personal virtues such as benevolence, righteousness, ritual propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness seems to be an antidote to the relentless pursuit of profit and wealth. Its stress on filial piety as well as love for family members and its extension to others also serves as a reminder of what is both personally and socially meaningful.

Certainly, Confucianism has a role to play in providing personal meaning and helping to maintain harmony in society. However, as mentioned above, institutionalisation and entrenchment of a proper legal system is needed in order for the talk of a harmonious society to have any cash value. Such a system cannot function effectively with the popular mindset that the law is merely an obstacle that can be negotiated to stay out of trouble. This mindset is captured in the popular saying “shang you zheng ce, xia you dui ce” , meaning that the ordinary folks have their way of dealing with government policies.

What is needed is the inculcation of a strong civic sense of what is right and socially responsible as against a sense of what is personally profitable and convenient. The relevant Chinese words here are gongfor what is “public” and sifor what is “private”. These two domains sometimes conflict. Chinese are often exhorted to have a sense of public virtue (gong de xin,). One context is in public administration, where officials are reminded to serve the people instead of themselves. Another context might be, say, the call to the public to maintain the cleanliness of public facilities. Nationalistic pride can help instil a sense of social responsibility. In this regard, Beijing's hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008 has spurred the citizens (at least in Beijing) to be more conscious of the quality of their social and physical environments. Hopefully, this consciousness will endure beyond the Games and lead to a more civic-minded populace. However, nationalism is not an ideal way of educating the public. It could, in fact, lead to parochial narrow-mindedness.

Thus, sometimes Confucianism is lauded in reaction against westernisation, or “western decadence”. Those who cite this have conveniently forgotten that Confucianism has in the past (and, as we shall see, in the present too) been similarly labelled as decadent. For example, Chinese writers in the first half of the twentieth century often painted Confucians as hypocrites who appeared to be publicly honourable but were actually very corrupt (Sommer, 1995). Under Western influence, Confucianism was criticised as being a feudalistic system that condemned people to unhappy lives by constraining individual choices, for example, in marriage. This is one of the central themes of Ba Jin's acclaimed novel Jia (The Family). On the other hand, contemporary critics of (Western) liberal democracy often refer to its overemphasis on individualism as causing selfishness. However, this is due to confusion of an overly aggressive capitalism with liberal (or other forms of) democracy as a system of governance. China, in its effort to modernise, cannot avoid capitalism and the profit motive. Human motives are very wide-ranging, greed and selfishness being among them. It is worth reminding ourselves that these motives are present in any political system—even during the rigid Communist era before China began its reforms in the 1980s, and even within the social and political system of Confucianism itself before the modern era.

Given the inclination towards narrow-mindedness, nationalism is therefore not a good reason for reviving Confucianism. Any nation wishing to have good government should not indiscriminately denounce external influence. A criticism that legalist philosopher Han Fei Zi (or Han Fei Tzu, 280–233 bce) made of the Confucians of his times was that they constantly looked backwards to a remote Golden Age and failed to think anew. He illustrated their attitude with a parable:

There was a farmer of Sung (Song) who tilled the land, and in his field was a stump. One day a rabbit, racing across the field, bumped into the stump, broke its neck, and died. Thereupon the farmer laid aside his plow and took up watch beside the stump, hoping that he would get another rabbit in the same way. But he got no more rabbits, and instead became the laughing stock of Sung. Those who think they can take the ways of the ancient kings and use them to govern the people of today all belong in the category of stump-watchers! (Watson, 1984, p. 126)

This critical metaphorical story is encapsulated in the pithy saying “shou zhu dai tu” (, keeping watch over a stump to await a rabbit). To be fair, the philosophy of Confucianism itself encourages learning from both the past as well as the present (Tan, 2007). But, as indicated above, if China is to succeed in its institutionalisation of its legal and administrative structures to deal with rampant corruption and to build a harmonious society, its citizens must adopt a frame of mind in which the sense of rightness and of social responsibility are ingrained virtues. Any Confucian who thinks afresh would support this. A new appraisal of Confucianism is necessary and indeed there has been no lack of discussions on this (ibid.). One focus of this discussion is on whether Confucianism can stand up to criticism of its ethical philosophy. It is not just Confucianism that is being singled out. Like all other ethical theories (e.g. Kantianism and Consequentialism, just to name two of the most well known), Confucianism must be open to scrutiny if it is to continue to be of value.

Impartiality and the Public Ethos

Earlier, we mentioned the possible conflict between a public ethos and private interest. Confucianism and other ancient Chinese teachings on political governance often teach people to have a public ethos. For instance, two chapters of the ancient eclectic text Lü Shi Chun Qiu (The Annals of Lü Buwei) are entitled “Gui gong” (, honouring impartiality) and “Qu si” (, dispensing with partiality) (Knoblock & Riegel, 2000). The attitude of impartiality is an integral part of a public ethos. It involves application of rules and principles equally to everyone in a particular situation where certain actions are obligatory. Although it is possible for exceptions to be made, these call for justification. This is an implicit recognition of the need for, and the application of, impartiality. Thus, failure to provide (adequate) justification would open one to moral censure.

Sometimes, the upholding of impartiality can come at a great personal cost, as illustrated by a case concerning a Mohist reported in the text just mentioned. The Mohists, named after their founder Mozi, were a philosophical and social reformist group dedicated to establishing peace during the Warring States period (463–222 bce), a politically tumultuous time in Chinese history. One of their central doctrines was jian ai (), often translated as “universal love” or “love without discrimination”. In other words, the Mohists advocated loving everyone equally. This might seem to be psychologically impossible. The Mohists, however, did not think so and claimed that it was something that had been achieved by earlier sage kings.

The case concerned someone named Fu Tun, who was the leader of a Mohist sect in the state of Qin. Fu's son had murdered someone. There were presumably no extenuating circumstances, and this was a crime that deserved capital punishment. Because Fu had only one son and he was already too old to procreate, the ruler of Qin ordered that the murderer be spared the death penalty. However, Fu was adamant that the law should be enforced impartially so as to discourage people from injuring and killing others. He saw to it that his son was executed. The text comments that “A son is what a man is most partial to (si). Yet, Fu Tun endured the loss of what he was most partial to in order to observe his most important moral principle. The Mohist leader may properly be called impartial (gong)” (Knoblock & Riegel, 2000, p. 75).

We learn from this example that a social or public ethos requires an attitude of impartiality and adherence to the law. It is to Fu Tun's credit that he was prepared to uphold the law even if it meant a tragic personal loss, and here we realise that there is an aspect of “universal love” which advocates adopting the impartial attitude of treating every individual as being morally equal. In this respect, the Mohist ethics is no different from a contemporary ethical theory such as Consequentialism (or Utilitarianism).

Is Confucianism Ethically Corrupt?

By contrast, Confucianism has been criticised, both in the past and in recent times, for allegedly giving priority to family members under certain circumstances, even if it contravenes the law. Thus, the Mohist Yi Zhi accused Confucians of being inconsistent. On the one hand, Confucians advocated tending to the needs of the people without discrimination. On the other hand, they insisted on gradations in love, giving priority to parents (Mencius 3A.5, trans. Lau, 1984). Recently, Liu Qingping, a professor at Beijing Normal University, has argued that the spirit of “consanguineous affection” may “substantially contribute to some specific corrupt practices, of which placing consanguineous affection above universal principles is a common and typical characteristic” (Liu, 2007, p. 7). He cites three examples of this spirit.

1. Confucius learns from the governor of a certain village that someone nicknamed “Straight Body” has given evidence against his own father for stealing sheep. Apparently, the governor expects Confucius to approve of the person's action. Confucius, however, replies, “In our village those who are straight are different. Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. Straightness is to be found in such behaviour” (Analects 13.18).

2. Mencius' disciple Wan Zhang queries his teacher about the sage king Shun's supposedly “banishing” his brother and putting him nominally in charge of a fief instead of punishing him like four others who were also involved, even though the brother was the most wicked among them. Mencius replies, “A benevolent person never harbours anger or nurses a grudge against a brother. All he does is to love him. Because he loves him, he wishes him to enjoy rank; because he loves him, he wishes him to enjoy wealth. To enfeoff him … was to let him enjoy wealth and rank. If as Emperor he were to allow his brother to be a nobody, could that be described as loving him?” (Mencius 5A.3).

For reasons of space, I shall only comment briefly on these two cases. In the first case, there are circumstances where contemporary legal systems do allow for the fact that individual citizens may not be expected or compelled to testify against their own family members. (It would be interesting to discuss the reasons for this provision.) In the second case, given contemporary understanding of what is both morally and legally right (in China or the West), Shun would seem to be guilty indeed of nepotism. At the same time, however, we note that Shun appeared to be aware of the need to minimise the harm that his wicked brother could inflict on others by ensuring that his position was merely nominal. The text goes on to say that Shun appointed officials to take charge of the fief such that the people would not be mistreated. Whether this plan worked is another matter altogether.

3. Another disciple Tao Ying poses the following dilemma: Suppose Shun's father had killed somebody? What does Mencius think that Shun should have done? The following conversation ensues.

Mencius:The only thing to do was to apprehend him.
Tao Ying:In that case, would Shun not try to stop it?
Mencius:How could Shun stop it? [The judge] had authority for what he did.
Tao Ying:Then what would Shun have done?
Mencius:Shun looked upon casting aside the Empire as no more than discarding a worn shoe. He would have secretly carried the old man on his back and fled to the edge of the Sea and lived there happily, never giving a thought to the Empire. (Mencius 7A.35)

Liu Qingping argues that both cases concerning Shun are instances of corruption, even though Shun's actions may constitute virtuous actions given the priority given to consanguineous affection. They indicate that the emperor Shun “merely cared about how to profit his family and forgot about humane government. He abandoned his lofty principle of ‘being a parent of the people’ and transgressed the Confucian principle of ‘honoring the worthy and employing the able’” (Liu, 2007, p. 9). Liu claims that Confucianism allows consanguineous affection to override public duty. Under the influence of Confucianism, this is said to have become a “deep psychological construct of the Chinese tradition” (ibid., p. 7). These and other controversial claims are the focus of an ongoing debate among philosophers in China (Guo, 2007).

I shall conclude with my own reading of the third example. I think it would be wrong to construe Mencius as simply abandoning social concern and the impartiality that goes with it when these conflict with what I would call affectionate attachment (instead of consanguineous affection). He did not hesitate about what should be done if Shun's father had killed someone: the father should be promptly arrested and it would not be for Shun to interfere with the legal process. Although Shun would run away with his father, he would do so only as a private citizen after giving up the throne. Mencius was therefore conscious of the distinction between the private and the public domains and their corresponding duties.

Thus, a closer examination reveals that Mencius was concerned to balance affectionate attachment with the public standards of morality and law instead of thinking that the former necessarily overrides the latter. However, Mencius' attempt to balance the conflict of duties may not work. On the contrary, his suggestion about what Shun would have done is too ideal (and the same goes too, perhaps, for the second example). It is as if he refused to see the possibility of a personal tragedy in this case. Compare this with the Mohist leader who, as we saw, refused the royal pardon. The consequence of his decision to uphold the law was personally tragic, but there was no question for him about what it was right to do. We can conceive a similarly tragic scenario for Shun in the imperative that his father must be arrested and Shun must not interfere. Thus, Mencius' (hypothetical) solution to the conflict may have been too quick. He may be wrong to assume that Shun could simply drop his public persona and put on his private one (Chong, 2007). If there is a fault here, it perhaps lies with Mencius' optimism instead of the spirit of Confucianism itself. A more careful investigation should reveal this. For instance, Cecilia Wee (2007) has shown that the concept of the family plays different roles and has different senses in Confucian ethics: in moral development, in defining social relations and as primary moral obligation. The first two are not mutually entailing, and neither is the third necessary. This is clear from her discussion of another Confucian, Hsun Tzu (Xunzi).

Topics for Classroom Discussion

It has been impossible to give a detailed account of Confucianism or, more specifically, Confucian ethics in a short chapter. The aim, however, has not been an exposition of Confucianism per se. Instead, it has been to show that there are debatable complexities in any system of thought and to warn against narrow-minded interpretations and applications of Confucianism. In line with these aims, I provide below topics for discussion in the classroom.

  1. Discuss the following:
    1. Confucius remarks that “fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers” (Analects 13.18). Is this always appropriate, sometimes appropriate or never appropriate?
    2. Is emperor Shun's “banishment” of his wicked brother (Mencius 5A.3) a case of nepotism?
    3. Mencius suggests that, if Shun's father had committed murder, Shun would have abandoned his throne and with his father “fled to the edge of the Sea and lived there happily, never giving a thought to the Empire” (Mencius 7A.35). Does this mean that Confucianism advocates putting filial piety above the law? How realistic or practical is Mencius' suggested solution?
  2. “Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because ‘friends react on one another’ and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one'spreference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others” (G. Orwell, Reflections on Gandhi, Identify the different perspectives at work here and say how they may or may not conflict. It is always a good idea when discussing issues such as this torelate them to your own life experiences. Note that this example alsoraises a question about the nature of morality: is it identical toimpartiality?
  3. Comment analytically on the following remark: “It is a Confucian precept that ‘the virtuous rule the state’…. But who are the virtuous? What is the standard against which to measure them? The virtuous are those who embrace and practice Confucianism. The standard for them to be measured against is whether they embrace and practice Confucianism. This is because benevolent government is the best politics and Confucian scholars are those who practice benevolent government. In plain words, benevolent government is a dictatorship by the community of Confucian scholars. There is no denying the fact that benevolent government belongs to the scope of authoritarianism. But it is different from ordinary authoritarianism. The difference lies in the fact that it is benevolent authoritarianism” (X. G. Kang, Confucianization: A future in the tradition [two conflicting views of China's political future],
  4. Comment analytically on the following incident: “In December 2006, a few days before Christians celebrated Christmas, an open letter from ten doctoral students in China's top universities posted on the internet … criticised many Chinese for celebrating Christmas without understanding its Christian roots. They urged non-Christian Chinese not to participate in Christmas activities like exchanging gifts and Christmas cards. More significantly, the writers argued that the popularity of Christmas was a symptom of the increasing dominance of Western culture in China. They blamed the Chinese government's policy of economic reform for bringing this about and urged the government to regulate Christmas activities in public venues and forums. Furthermore, they urged the Chinese people to focus on traditional ‘Chinese’ beliefs like Buddhism and Daoism. Even more specifically, they called for the revitalisation of Confucianism” (John Mark Ministries, China: Will fashion for Confucius retard religious freedom?
  5. The saying “shou zhu dai tu” (, keeping watch over a stump to await a rabbit) is only one from a vast store of sayings in the Chinese lexicon. These sayings impart a philosophical or moral lesson and usually have their origin in a certain philosophical and/or historical context. Each student or group of students could be asked to name some of the sayings which they find interesting, relate the original context, deliberate on the sayings' intended lessons, and recount any experiences of these lessons in their own lives (or the lives of those they are acquainted with). Students might offer their own variations of these sayings and lessons; they are not expected to agree with them totally.
  6. Two topics are suggested for further research:
    1. Some central Confucian ethical concepts are ren (), yi () and li (). What do these mean and what is their moral significance? (D. C. Lau's translations of the Analects and Mencius provide good introductions. For a deeper discussion, see Chong, 2007.)
    2. What was the May Fourth Movement and why was Confucianism criticised by the movement? (Chow, 1960, is the classic work on this topic. The Internet should also be useful.)


Chong, K. C. (2007). Early Confucian Ethics. Chicago: Open Court.

Chow, T. T. (1960). The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Movement in Modern China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Guo, Q. Y. (2007). Is Confucian ethics a “consanguinism”? Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 6(1), 21–37.

Knoblock, J., & Riegel, J. (Trans.) (2000). The Annals of Lü Buwei. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lau, D. C. (Trans.) (1979). Confucius: The Analects. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Lau, D. C. (Trans.) (1984). Mencius. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Liu, Q. P. (2007). Confucianism and corruption: An analysis of Shun's two actions described by Mencius. Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy,

6(1), 1–19.

Ni, C. C. (2007, 7 May). China turns to Confucius, with a modern twist. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Sommer, D. (Ed.) (1995). Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tan, S. H. (2007). Confucian democracy as pragmatic experiment: Uniting love of learning and love of antiquity. Asian Philosophy, 17(2), 141–166.

Teo, L. (2006, 13 October). Confucius makes a comeback of sorts in China. Straits Times Interactive. Retrieved from

Watson, B. (Trans.) (1984). The Works of Han Fei Tzu. Taipei: Confucius Publishing.

Wee, C. (2007). Hsun Tzu on family and familial relations. Asian Philosophy, 17(2), 127–139.

Further Reading

Chong, K. C. (2007). Early Confucian Ethics. Chicago: Open Court.

Chong, K. C., Tan, S. H., & Ten, C. L. (Eds.) (2003). The Moral Circle and the Self: Chinese and Western Approaches. Chicago: Open Court.

Chow, T. T. (1960). The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Movement in Modern China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Tan, S. H. (2004). Confucian Democracy: A Deweyan Reconstruction. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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