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The Chinese Communists Are Not Confucianists

By Yu Ying-shih, published: July 1, 2015

The following is an unauthorized translation of an excerpt from an interview with Prof. Yu Ying-shih [via Skype] during a symposium in November 2014 marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of Hong Kongs New Asia College (新亞書院).  Statements in parenthesis have been added, and endnotes provided, by the translator for clarity. The Editor


Professor Yu Ying-shih

Professor Yu Ying-shih

Question: Senior Chinese Communist leaders have visited the Confucian Temple in Qufu [In November 2013]. Also, recently-held national meetings in China have praised the Confucian values of traditional culture, urged a return to these values, and stressed the significance of developing these values in the future. In our recent conversation, I have admired your continuation of the “New Asia spirit” of Prof. Qian Mu (錢穆,1895-1990)[1], and your attitude of reclaiming Chinese culture for the world. Looking at Hong Kong’s development, the influence of China on Hong Kong is after all quite strong, so how do you see China’s senior leaders presently promoting a return to China’s traditional culture affecting what you have referred to as “cultural ecology?” What do you think we can expect from this generation of China’s leaders for the ten or so years that they will be in power? How will Chinese leadership developments affect Hong Kong and in what way? I’d like to hear your opinions on these matters.

Yu Ying-shih: Let me first discuss the issue of Confucianism. I’ve already talked about this on previous occasions but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to discuss the matter in Hong Kong in front of a large audience and I’d like to talk a bit about this issue.

Confucianism can be taken advantage of [by people with ulterior motives]. The traditional Confucianists, namely those whom the emperors honored, the Confucianists of the three rules and the five virtues[2], the Confucianists who forbade any form of criticism of one’s superiors — this is the Confucianism much beloved by feudal kings and dynasties. Those of us who have done scholarly research on Confucianism in the West often refer to this kind of Confucianism as “institutional Confucianism” (制度性的儒家). This kind of institutional Confucianism, however, is completely different from the highly critical Confucianism I spoke about earlier.

Historically speaking, China has all along had two schools of Confucianism: the Confucianists who were oppressed, and the Confucianists who oppressed others. So from my perspective, for a certain organization (the Chinese Communist Party) on the China mainland to honor Confucianism has similarities to those Confucianists who oppressed others. Previously, this organization (the CCP) harshly criticized Confucianism, and referred to Confucius as “Old Kong Number Two” (孔老二).[3]  This organization stated that Confucius never really made anything of himself. The criticism grew so sharp that some CCP members asked, (not realizing that the criticism was of the historical Confucius): “Who let this fellow Kong into the communist party anyway?” Indeed, the name of Confucius was at that time subjected to all sorts of indignities.

But then in the blink of an eye, Confucius suddenly became popular again and now there are several hundred Confucius Institutes throughout the world. The communist mainland is advocating Confucianism and many mainland scholars are claiming to be “New Confucianists.” As I said just a short while ago, Prof. Tang Junyi (唐君毅,1909-1978), and his friends such as Mou Zongsan (牟宗三, 1909-1995), Xu Fuguan (徐复觀, 1904-1982), Zhang Junmai (張君劢, 1887-1969), and others really did establish a new Confucianism. The Confucianism that they advocated was a Confucianism of truly learned individuals, a highly critical Confucianism, but absolutely not a Confucianism that forbids criticism of one’s social superiors.

For this reason I have often said that the communist mainland’s support for Confucianism at a minimum causes me as an individual a great deal of difficulty. Nowadays I find myself avoiding the term Confucianism for fear that as soon as I say Confucianism, others will think that my attitude toward Confucianism is that same as that of the communist officials on mainland China. And that is why I say that, for a certain organization [the CCP] on the mainland to support Confucianism amounts to the kiss of death for Confucianism.

We need to be very clear about those who are real Confucianists and those who borrow the term Confucianist in order to obtain political benefits from so-called Confucian thought. If we are clear about these distinctions, then we need not hesitate to discuss Confucianism, and we can continue to advocate the Confucianist view of culture and the Confucianist critiques of society. We can also continue to discuss how Confucianism combines with Western concepts of human rights, democracy, and freedom.

There is one thing I want to raise here in passing. How were Western concepts such as freedom, democracy, human rights, equality that make up the West’s universal values transmitted to China? If you are doing historical research and tracing back to the period just after the mid-19th century, you would find that these Western concepts were brought to China by Confucianists.

Actually, at the outset the most fervent admirers of the West’s rule of law and democracy were in fact Confucianists. Take for example Xue Fucheng[4] (薛福成, 1838-1894). Xue considered Great Britain and the United States to be the best societies since China’s “Three Dynasties’ Period.”[5] Likewise, Kang Youwei (康有為,1858-1927,the Qing Confucianist and reformer) also believed that during the Three Dynasties’ Period China had a democratic system. Kang added the term ‘democratic’ to the reigns of legendary emperors Yao (尧, circa 2333-2234 BC) and Shun (舜, circa 2233-2184 BC) before the Three Dynasties’ Period. During that period, succession to the throne was not hereditary but rather based on merit: whoever performed his duties the best was selected by the Chinese to be their leader. So we want to be clear about this: the real Confucianists from the outset expressed a great deal of admiration for the modern West’s universal values. For example, [the Qing Confucianist] Wang Tao[6] (王韜, 1828-1897) held that the fact that British courts were forbidden to use torture to extort a confession or obtain testimony was a political ideal not seen in the world since the Three Dynasties’ Period.

Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀)

Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀)

In other words, those of us who have a Confucian background, warmly welcome the West’s universal values. Take for example Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀, 1879-1942). Chen was the founder of communism in China, but when he was in prison in Nanjing, he often said that he admired Confucius’ principle that there should be no class distinctions in education (有教无类).  At the same time, Chen also admired Mencius’ remark[7] that he Mencius “knew of Wu’s execution of the tyrant Zhou, but did not consider that action equivalent to a subordinate assassinating his sovereign.”  In other words, executing a tyrant is not the same as assassinating a sovereign; it is rather the execution of an extremely cruel tyrant, and not an assassination. In these remarks of Chen’s, he is telling us that in the works of Confucius and Mencius there is much worthy of our respect.  Chen said this in prison and there is a record of his remarks.

There is still another person who strenuously promoted democracy — Hu Shi (胡适, 1891-1962).  Actually, Hu Shi himself was a Confucianist and Hu greatly admired Confucius. These days everybody puts the blame for the slogan “down with Confucius and sons” [popularized during the May Fourth Movement of 1919] on Hu Shi, but in fact Hu did not formulate that slogan. That slogan was the creation of Wu Yu (吴虞, 1872-1949), and Hu merely echoed it. Hu was of course extremely critical of some traditional statements, but if you look carefully at the actions of Hu Shi the person, you will see he was a classic Confucianist. So in that regard we can acknowledge that Confucian values are completely consistent with the universal values observed in the modern West, and Confucian values are most definitely not completely opposed to these western values.

Another aspect we need to look at is that originally Christian and Catholic opposition to democracy had strong roots, but this opposition was gradually overcome and, after it was overcome, Christianity actually assisted in the development of democracy and did not adversely affect it.

For this reason, I feel that the issues Confucianism faces on the Chinese mainland are in fact simple, crude issues. Just because Confucianism has a good reputation, people want to exploit it. Once they exploit Confucianism, it seems that Confucianism belongs only to them. In fact, we need to look at the actions of these self-proclaimed Confucianists. This is exactly what Confucius said: look at the person, look at their behavior, and then you will see whether or not they are Confucianists.

Confucianists are considerate of others, and the Confucian Way consists of these two words: honesty (忠) and consideration (恕). Honesty is simply doing one’s best, while consideration means treating others with a considerate attitude; as Confucius said, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you.” This is the basic teaching of Confucianism. If a political party or a government sends to jail anyone who dares to utter even a minor criticism of their policies, can they be Confucianists? That’s why I think it is very simple to identify real Confucianists. We definitely do not want to be deceived by terminology, and become the slaves to linguistic labels.


[1] Qian Mu, 1895-1990, a scholar and founder of the New Asia College.

[2] The three rules and the five virtues: rulers rule subjects, fathers rule sons, husbands rule wives; benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and loyalty.

[3] Confucius, whose surname was Kong, had an older brother, and the term “old number two” (老二) is a folksy way of referring to a younger brother. Traditionally, however, Confucius’ name has been revered and Confucius referred to, not directly by name, but indirectly by titles such as “Great Sage,” “First Teacher,” and so on.

[4] Xue Fucheng, (also spelled as Hsueh Fu-cheng, 1838-1894) was a Chinese diplomat who served as the Qing government’s ambassador to Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy.

[5] The Three Dynasties are the Xia (circa 2070-160 BCE), Shang (circa 1600-1046 BCE), and Zhou (circa circa 1046-256 BCE) dynasties.

[6] Wang Tao, who died in [sic] 1897, was the famous Chinese thinker who translated China’s ancient Thirteen Classics into English together with the Scottish sinologist James Legge. In an annotation to the written version of the interview, several quotes are given that support Wang Tao’s observations that British courts could not obtain confessions or testimony by duress or torture. These quotes are taken from volume 4, “A Record of the British Government,” from Wang Tao’s The Outer Chapters of the Tao Garden Literary Records (《弢園文錄外編》), Hong Kong, 1882.

[7]  In reply to King Xuan of Qi’s question about the propriety of Emperor Zhou’s subordinate, King Wu, assassinating Zhou, his sovereign.


Ying-shih Yu (余英時), Princeton’s Gordon Wu ’58 Professor Emeritus of Chinese Studies,  joined the Princeton faculty in 1987 and retired in 2001. In 2006, Yu was  co-winner of the third John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity.  Yu was recognized for playing a pioneering role in bringing previously neglected, major aspects of Chinese history into the mainstream of the scholarship and public consciousness. One of the world’s authorities on the Tang Dynasty, he has researched and written extensively on every period of Chinese history, from ancient to modern. He is the author of some 30 books that span more than 2,000 years of history. (from the Emeritus Faculty page of Eastern Asian Studies of Princeton University)



Thoughts on Yu Ying-shih’s brief reflection on “Confucianism’s Kiss of Death”, Sam Crane, professor of contemporary Chinese politics and ancient Chinese philosophy at Williams College, June 21, 2015.

China Prepares ‘Traditional Culture’ Textbooks for Its Officials, Caixin, June 18, 2015.

Q and A.: Michael Schuman on the Return of Confucianism in China, the New York Times, April 2, 2015.


(Translated by Ai Ru)

Chinese transcription of Prof. Yu’s remark



  1. Polly says:

    The photo of Chen Duxiu, posted above, is actually 章士釗. Check the wiki above.

  2. Bob says:

    This is an excerpt from the Q&A session following Yu Ying-shih’s lecture on “New Asia College and Chinese Humanities Studies” at a symposium for the 65th anniversary of New Asia College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong on September 27, 2014. Please see .

  3. […] “The Chinese Communists Are Not Confucianists”. 2. “Thoughts on Yu Ying-shih’s brief reflection on “Confucianism’s Kiss of […]

  4. […] of the tradition. This discussion was ignited by Yu Yingshi, a liberal history professor who attacked what he saw as a reinvigoration of the Confucian tradition on the mainland owing solely to the […]

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