AURELIA DOCHNAL traces the evolution of Confucius’ significance as a cultural icon from imperial China to the present day.

Well-known, well-studied Master Kong is an emblem of the millennia-old Chinese intellectual tradition. With over 1,000 Confucius Institutes internationally and Confucian classics dominating state and Party curricula in China, 2,500-year-old Confucius is alive and well both in China and abroad. His axioms are popular throughout East Asia, marketed to the public by media figures, intellectuals, and politicians alike. From Yu Dan, China’s self-help queen, to President Xi Jinping’s book of Confucius quotations’ analyses, Kongzi (‘Master Kong’ in Chinese) is a cultural figurehead with a shifting reputation in recent Chinese history. Vilified as the root of China’s problems at the beginning of the 20th century and during the Cultural Revolution, current Chinese political leadership officially embraces Kongzi and classical Chinese education in an effort to reinforce national identity, legitimize Party rule, and showcase the achievements of the Chinese civilization. This major ideological shift harks back to Deng Xiaoping’s pivot from Cultural Revolution-era “Criticize Confucius” campaigns to a moderate embrace of Confucianism as a Chinese soft power agent. Proximity to the repudiated Confucius figure was, to Deng, a method of increasing Chinese intellectual prestige with a universally admired, internationally exported indigenous ideology. The subsequent advent of culturally nationalist New Confucianism, geared toward corporations, academia, and politics, is enormously influential in the current Chinese intellectual landscape. President Xi Jinping’s efforts to align himself with Kongzi’s moral authority have a clear political scope, but how does the Chinese government reconcile Confucian ideals with a Marxist-Leninist political framework?

For a thousand years, the Confucian classics and adherence to Ruist rites were the cornerstone of the Chinese empire, preserving imperial ideological unity and valorizing familial hierarchy, which translated into the larger state hierarchy. Starting in the 7th century, the notoriously difficult imperial civil service examinations tested candidates on their writing, knowledge of the classics, and literary style. The curriculum consisted of the Five Classics, traditionally believed to be compiled by Confucius himself, and later the Four Books, including Kongzi-attributed Analects. This Confucian canon dominated imperial Chinese intellectual life for well over a millennium until the civil service examination system was officially abolished in 1905 with the decline of the Qing dynasty. The early revolutionary rhetorical decoupling of Confucianism from a vision of a modernized China did not, however, succeed in fundamentally changing school curricula, and Confucian classicism remained embedded in Chinese society. With the May Fourth Movement (1919-26), members took a more radical stance against Confucian learning and traditional education. Members of the May Fourth generation were united in opposing any elements of Confucianism, which they felt undermined Chinese efforts to resist foreign exploitation and imperialism, and the movement leaders went on to found the Chinese Communist Party. As a response to this socio-political mobilization of the twenties, and especially the growth of Communism, Jiang Jieshi, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, launched the New Life Movement, designed to reinforce Confucian social morality and “sanitize” Chinese daily life through ritualized activity. Ultimately, the movement failed to enact real change, and many modern scholars see it as irrelevant, regressive, and a “distorted echo of Confucianism.” 

When the Chinese Communist Party came to power and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Mao Zedong remained suspicious of pro-Confucius sentiment. When the Party decided to break with tradition, Confucius, too, was no longer inheritable. It was not until the Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976) when the Party gave the 1973 order to “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” which rerouted attacks on the general Four Olds, embodiments of Confucian thought and praxis, to attacks on Confucius’ own figure. Mao’s attack on Confucius was largely a strategy to destroy political opponents, particularly critics of his Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) policies. Lin Biao, Minister of Defense and famed Communist military leader, became a target of the Cultural Revolution purges under the pretext that Lin and his wife had hung two calligraphy scrolls with Analects maxims in their bedroom. He was killed in a mysterious airplane crash in 1971. By September 1973, Confucius had become synonymous with the “worst excesses of the reactionary slave-holding class” and Red Guards destroyed any reminder of Confucian influence, from temples and relics to sacred texts. Contemporary articles wrote extensively about Confucius as antiquity’s greatest villain, upholder of the slaveholding order, and author of ruling class hegemony. To encourage attacks on Confucius, his image was reinvented with selective emphasis on his various virtues and vices, which was possible because of the processual nature of the Confucius image in the public’s collective memory. Confucius’ legend is stable, yet his legacy shifts according to the exigencies of the era.

In 1976 Mao died, the Cultural Revolution ended, and Deng Xiaoping swiftly took power. China was on a new path of political development, which brought a new attitude towards Confucius. Deng and modern scholars denounced Cultural Revolution-era attitudes to Master Kong and set about rebuilding Confucian shrines. Scholars reinvented Confucius’ image of an evil oppressor, maintaining that he sought order without oppression and reaffirming his proximity to an agrarian society. Deng re-introduced state-sponsored Confucianism as part of his notion of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, welcoming Confucius’ image as a source of Chinese cultural nationalism in the global arena. In the early stages of the PRC’s Confucian revival, two consecutive Five Year Plans (1986-90, 1991-95) subsidized major Confucian research projects — these years saw the publication of thousands of scholarly books and articles about Master Kong. In 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officially recognized and began observing Confucius’ birthday. Nevertheless, intellectual interests were stronger than real social impact policies, as Confucian praxis, which emphasizes strict hierarchy and esoteric rites, remained at odds with much socialist ideology. In line with Deng’s vision of exporting Chinese culture to gain stature abroad, the Confucius Institute program was founded in 2004 as a cultural promotion organization, exporting CCP ideology, Chinese language study, and elements of traditional Chinese culture to 149 countries. In recent years, Confucius has taken on the role of a Chinese mascot, a crucial element of China’s image in the West, and a great agent of Chinese soft power worldwide. Yu Dan, a Chinese professor of Media Studies, has skyrocketed to fame in the last decade by bringing Confucian wisdom to the masses, hosting TV shows and publishing several best-selling books that water down Confucius’ teachings to easily digestible, bite-size self-help maxims. She manages to reduce Confucius to a figurehead devoid of any actual content, a go-getting pragmatist with helpful insights on how to advance your career. It’s a confusing reduction of Confucian socio-political messages.

Graphic: Aurelia Dochnal

Some Confucius scholars argue that modern studies of the Confucius revival in contemporary China are rooted in the early 20th century Japanese imperialist and Republican Chinese traditions, without in-depth reflection about the underlying nationalism of these traditions, turning Confucianism into a “purely intellectualized ‘empty box’, ripe to be filled with cultural nationalist content.” As long as the name “Confucius” does not connote a specific ideological praxis, invoking him does not pose a threat to the existing political order. Certainly, contemporary Chinese politicians have been eager to promote Confucius as a symbol of Chinese intellectual and cultural greatness, exporting his image and philosophy beyond the Middle Kingdom’s borders. In recent years, President Xi Jinping has been one of the most prominent upholders of Confucius-associated traditions: in a 2014 address to the International Confucian Association, Xi praised Confucianism as “the cultural soil that nourishes the Chinese people.” President Xi seems to operate in parallel worlds: one in which he upholds the CCP’s materialist political philosophy and Maoist values, and the second in which classically-educated Party cadres uphold Confucianism as the basis of Chinese civilization. In the same speech, Xi added that Confucianism is the key to “understanding the national characteristics of the Chinese as well as the historical roots of the spiritual world of the present-day Chinese.” 

President Xi has been known to invoke traditional Confucian ideas on multiple occasions, particularly ideals of harmony, unity, and strict morality, for example in a speech to CCP members in which he quoted the Analects to discourage members from corruption, saying “The rule of Virtue may be compared to the Pole Star, which stays in its place while the myriad stars pay it homage.” President Xi has even published his own book of commentaries on Confucius and other classical thinkers. This significant turn away from Maoist-era repudiations of tradition marks the closest a PRC government has dared to draw to Confucian classicism. Nevertheless, President Xi is a staunch Maoist, and his proximity to Confucius does not preclude his rhetorical proximity to early Party ideology. Lectures on Confucius and classical Chinese thinkers have joined the official Party curriculum in the past five years, but learning Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is equally mandatory, with a new app featuring quizzes on Xi’s political thought required for Party cadres. 

President Xi, who has extensively studied the fall of the Soviet Union and casts it as a warning to current leadership, calls on Confucius as a symbol of united Chinese cultural heritage and encourages the study of Chinese classical texts to reinforce the sense of a shared civilization. Confucius, an icon of great, long-lasting “Chineseness,” inspires patriotic pride, a unifying force for the Chinese people that the Soviet Union lacked. Even more important than projecting the majesty of Chinese history abroad, it must be reinforced at home, to legitimize and historically ground Xi Jinping’s rule. Much like early Han emperors, President Xi sees the importance of figurative proximity to the giant of Chinese culture and seeks to transcend the European import of Marxism-Leninism by making his Communist Party explicitly Chinese.

So, all in all, how does the Chinese government manage to conciliate the hierarchical, class-upholding Confucian doctrine of the last millennium with egalitarian Marxist-Leninist thought? This radical reconciliation remains possible as long as Kongzi remains an ornate vessel fillable with the era’s necessary political significance. With Confucius synonymous with Chinese tradition, President Xi works to mend the Maoist cleft, establishing a legitimizing continuity of the PRC from ancient China. This total reversal of Mao’s attitude towards Confucius demonstrates a fundamental ideological difference between Mao and Xi: Mao sought to cut off the roots of Chinese tradition to alter society forever, Xi instead draws close to Chinese Classicism to strengthen and unify the Chinese people. Master Kong has been transformed yet again to meet the expectations of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era, as the days of the May Fourth Movement and Cultural Revolution pass into history, and President Xi shapes a new age for the Chinese civilization.

Aurelia Dochnal can be contacted at