Zhou Youguang: don’t Blame Confucianism – make it Work

Zhou Youguang (周有光) is the man who “invented” the hanyu pinyin – those pronounciation helpers not only used by foreigners who learn Chinese, but also by Chinese elementary school students, before they learn the simplified characters. The following was posted on his blog some five months ago – thoughts about how to make Confucianism work in our times.

Every country’s culture includes modern and traditional culture. Modern culture is  mainly about internationally shared natural and social sciences; traditional culture is mainly a nationality’s culture, history, philosophy, and religion. Our universities’ curricula are mostly modern culture, with a small share of traditional culture, which reflects the degree to which our country has entered globalization, and retained particular national features. Every culture, knowingly or not, carries out modernization.


Confucianism maintained imperial rule, and built a stable and prosperous feudal society. During the second millenium, it produced great and correct accomplishments. Confucianism wasn’t there to serve post-feudal times. To blame Confucianism for not being able to serve democracy or science is no adequate historic viewpoint. The Fourth-May era attacked Confucianism, which made as much sense as to criticize Confucius for not understanding English. At that time, there was no English language. To make Confucianism work for the post-feudal times isn’t Confucius’ responsibility; how to make Confucianism modern is the responsibility of current generations.


Modernizing Confucianism should include

  1. Removing feudalism, building up modernity
  2. removing conservatism, building up creativity – for example, “I narrate, but I don’t innovate” must change into “I narrate and innovate”1)
  3. removing dissimulation, building up practicality; sayings such as “man and nature are one, sage inside, king outside” will find it difficult to reach modern young people – both its shape and content needs reform. Our forefathers didn’t know what nature is, and easily put the two together. Today’s people have at least elementary scientific understanding, and man and nature don’t fit together. There’s a five-year old poet in India, his anthology is titled “Let me touch the Sky”, and he may welcome people and nature sitting together. Old  bottles may be filled with new wine, but if the artwork on the bottle disgusts people, there will be no people who want to try its good taste. Imperial thoughts have turned into swearwords – who would still want to be called a king? You call yourself a sage, and other people will want to scoff [at you], too! What’s hard to understand for modern youth will hardly play a role in modern society.

Confucianist content needs to be explored one by one, and should be seen in three different categories:

  1. What has guiding meaning for modernity, such as “to know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge” is to be kept
  2. what’s correct in principle, but not in specific cases, needs to be changed, such as “Parents can’t do wrong” should be put “天下有不是之父母”.2) Parents have their faults, may be an reassuring figure of speech. [Update, Oct 27: for the source of the original quote and a discussion, see commenting thread.]
  3. What’s not in correspondence with modern requirements should be abandoned, such as “Women and ordinary people are hard to handle”.3)


There are people who say that illiterate people were in need of being converted to religious Confucianism, studied people needed Confucian were in need of Confucian dissimulation, and young people were in need of Confucian practical wisdom – but these three [rationales] exclude each other, and might as well go their own ways respectively. Isn’t that an essential phenomenon of transition?


Ever since the Han dynasty, Confucians have made thorough studies of chapters, sections, sentences and phrases in ancient writings, and added explanatory notes, added footnotes to the Five Classics, to Confucius and to Mencius. Genuine development and innovation was very rare, but many wise sayings were left behind, having universal and perpetual meaning. Future development should bring Confucius spirit “as the most timeous sage [or saint]4”  into play, and turn the ancient, feudalism-serving Confucianism into a modern, “post-feudal” Confucianism.


Zhou Youguang isn’t the only blogging academic who explores Confucianism and modernity – Wang Zhicheng would be one of many others -, but Zhou is arguably the oldest blogging academic  who is pursuing this interest in particular, and reform more in general. He turned 105 in January this year.

Underneath the “notes” section, I’ve listed some posts which may or not be “related” to this topic.



1) 子曰:“述而不作,信而好古,窃比于我老彭。” Confucius said, “I transmit but do not innovate; I am truthful in what I say and devoted to antiquity. I venture to compare myself to your Old P’eng.” (Analects, 7:1 / 论语述而篇第七章1) Also: “I transmit but do not create. In believing in and loving the ancients, I dare to compare myself with our old Peng.”
2) I’m exceeding my time limit, seeking for a proper translation of “天下有不是之父母” – maybe a reader can help out here.
3) In full: “子曰:唯女子与小人为难养也,近之则不孙,远之则怨” – Confucius said: “Only women and non-gentleman are difficult to handle. Be close to them and they lack humility, stay away from them and they complain.” (Analects, chapter 17, 25.)
4) In full (according to a blogger’s translation):
Mencius said, ‘Bo Yi among the sages was the pure one; Yi Yin was the one most inclined to take office; Hui of Liu Xia was the accommodating one; and Confucius was the timeous one. In Confucius we have what is called a complete concert. A complete concert is when the large bell proclaims the commencement of the music, and the ringing stone proclaims its close. The metal sound commences the blended harmony of all the instruments, and the winding up with the stone terminates that blended harmony. The commencing that harmony is the work of wisdom. The terminating it is the work of sageness. As a comparison for wisdom, we may liken it to skill, and as a comparison for sageness, we may liken it to strength – as in the case of shooting at a mark a hundred paces distant. That you reach it is owing to your strength, but that you hit the mark is not owing to your strength.’



» At 105, now a Government Critic, NPR, October 19, 2011
» Lee Teng-hui’s New Central Plains, Oct 18, 2011
» Confucius relegated, April 27, 2011
» Neither Law, nor Order, April 21, 2011
» Does Confucius matter outside Asia, Dec 12, 2010
» Not Father, but Son, The Guardian, Febr 21, 2008


2 Comments to “Zhou Youguang: don’t Blame Confucianism – make it Work”

  1. The relevant section in the “Analects” regarding the right and wrong of ones parents is in Liren 里仁 18:
    There are two fundamentally different possibilities of translation. Version 1 would go something like: “In serving your parents, you may criticize them gently. If you find them stubborn, THEN DO NOT GO ON, be respectful and DO NO OBJECT TO THEM, and EVEN IF THEY TROUBLE (punish) YOU, do not be angry”. Version 2 would be different in the words in capitals: “… AND UNRELENTING … DO NOT ABANDONE THEM … KEEP TRYING HARD …”.
    Very obviously, version 2 is the the very opposite of version 1 in some crucial respects. The German sinologist Heiner Roetz (The Ethics of the Chinese Axial Age) believes, that the latter reading should be the correct one, which was on Confucius’ mind when making the statement. In Roetz’ view (which I strongly support) Confucianism is an highly complex ethical system, fully capable of adapting to und sustaining a modern society.


  2. Input twice this week! It’s sometimes worth to keep a question wide-open and to listen into the great beyond (the internet), it seems.
    Thanks for the source. But where is the defining difference between what Zhou Youguang quotes as the original, and his own suggested replacement for it, if the interpretation by Heiner Roetz is right? (To be frank, even the sentence structure of 天下有不是之父母 is beyond me.)


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