It is undeniable that Confucianism had a profound influence on Chinese society, and I can understand that that could be the sole reason for the strong interest in Confucianism that we see today. However, this question is regarding the 'quality' of Confucian philosophy itself.

I have read a good part of the Analects and some other Confucian classics, as well as quite a few secondary sources. From there, I see Confucianism as an attempt to create a framework of social dynamics that tries to ensure stability and prosperity in society. However, I find it very effort-intensive, rather than providing a structure that incentivizes people to 'do good stuff'. In other words, it comes up with a set of rules and then people need to put a lot of effort to follow these rules, often against their own interest. This is obviously even less likely to work in times of instability.

Therefore, I am wondering what are the characteristics of Confucian philosophy that make it such a brilliant philosophy, as it is seen by many scholars?

Note: I'm not engaging with philosophy full time, only as a side interest. I acknowledge that my understanding of Confucianism is limited, and I would love to hear something that shows me limitations of my understanding of it


2 Answers 2


I feel Confucianism is primarily aimed at minimising succession crisees, as discussed here:

Are there opposites to the "social contract theory" where humans are regarded as naturally social beings, and yet individualism is a human invention?

We can think of this in terms of game theory: as maintaining an unstable equilibrium with net benefits, over a stable equilibrium with waves of destruction.

Succession has been a really major problem in human history. The Maya could have resisted the Spanish far better but for being in a civil war over succession. The War Of The Roses caused lasting havoc in England. And many many more.

The founding myth of China is the Gun Yu flood, linked to post-Ice Age meltwater being released. And a farming style of rice and millet that required continued irrigation projects, & planting & harvesting together, which Jonathan Haidt links to the need for collaborative ethics (vs pastoralists who build wealth with a herd that can be lost in one raid, focusing on a small group or individual's ability to deter that). Nearly all rebellions and civil wars in China can be linked to climatic conditions, and managing floods and droughts was key to political continuity always.

Geographically China, is a large area isolated by the largest mountain range in the world, but connected internally by several very large navigable rivers. Unlike Europe, with many natural barriers, eg areas of Germania even the Romans struggled to access, an internal sea, & many archipelagos. This and it's connection to the relatively continuous political unity of the Chinese state, is considered to answer the Needham Question, why China saw invention of the cornerstones of the modern age (gunpowder compass canals, as defined by Francis Bacon) but it didn't begin there. You can point really directly to Confucianism as a problem there preventing cultural change, while religious/philosophical (& political) disunity allowed innovations in Europe (charging interest, usury, is clearly banned in the bible, but credit became too crucual to winning wars). For instance, the ending of Chinese exploration with the Treasure Ships Voyages could happen by fiat, vs the mess of colonial jockeying by European powers that saw many strategies tried at once.

So what about the positives? Civil wars in China have been exceptionally bloody. The Three Kingdoms War at the end of the Han Dynasty saw 40 million dead, the bloodiest conflict until World War Two. The war at the transition from the Ming to the Ching saw 25 million dead. Confucius' teachings were already 250+ years old by the time the Yellow Emperor unified China for the first time. His dynasty barely lasted longer than his own lifetime, and he killed many Confucian scholars for disagreeing with his policy on granting fiefs (decentralising a fraction, basically). The Han dynasty, saw the only peasant to become emperor, a truly able administrator, who completely embraced Confucianism, using soft power instead of the Qin mode which relied fundamentally on one military leader & fell apart on succession. That led in the Tang Dynasty to the Imperial Examination system, and a bureaucracy that lasted 1300 years, and in it's time was almost uniquely effective.

So that's the context I see Confucius arising from, and being needed for. A culture of unusual unity for climatic & geographic reasons, where conflict was always exceptionally costly. Making continuity extra valuable.

Whether it is good, is like asking if the I Ching is good - it simply is the basis of Chinese culture, and crucial to understanding it. I think Plato's politics are really troubling, but his work is still foundational in Western thought.

I would relate Confucius to Solomon, as championing and exemplifying wisdom, dilemma-solving, over other values like bravery or martial prowess, representing a cultural shift or evolution in that sense, & symbolising that. It's notable Confucius espoused a version of The Golden Rule: "Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself". And the 'Axial Age' framing links to a wider shift from sacrifice-focused religions & governance, to ethico-philosophical traditions.

Etiquette & aesthetics are largely out of fashion, but they are major shapers of society, that can reach far more people than philosophy, if there is a way for them to permeate a society. Rites, festivals celebrations, even spectacle, have been underecognised backbones of religions, which Durkheim drew attention to. Personally I think we need to rediscover this aspect of philosophy, and the conscious shaping of cultural life. So we should study Confucius.


I feel like there is a misunderstanding about why Confucianism is so well known, it is not necessarily the 'brilliance' of this school of thought but rather that the confucian classics was once a state mandated text to be studied.

Because eastern philosophy, particularly chinese philosophy actually also includes the Hundred Schools of Thought, but out of all these, a few philosophers' teachings form the Confucianism texts that were used as reference material for the chinese imperial civil exams. Confucius, Mencius, Mozi are all rather well known figures because the latter two, have responded to Confucius and each other, representing the extremes of two viewpoints.

So I think the reason Confucianism is well known, is because of it's use as a test material. The fact that the educated officers and literati studied this classic, as a basis for their civil exams (to move up in society, you needed to study this classic) and interacted with it to produce a lot of 'research' on it.

So the question would be 'why was Confucianism selected as the state text?' was it because it has the inherent philosophy of 'obey your superiors' implied?

It could actually just be because that this was a very appropriate test material due to it's length. https://aeon.co/essays/why-chinese-minds-still-bear-the-long-shadow-of-keju explains this rather well:

Confucianism offered an operational advantage. It is textually rich; the verbiage is massive, and the pontifications are incredibly involved, not unlike the verbal portion of the SAT. As noted before, there are approximately 400,000 characters and phrases in the Confucian classics. Using a website, Chinese Text Project, ‘an online open-access digital library that makes pre-modern Chinese texts available to readers and researchers all around the world’, I found that among the classical texts created before the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) Confucianism is paragraphically the richest, with 11,184 paragraphs. No other ideologies come remotely close. Legalism has 1,783 paragraphs; Daoism has 1,161 paragraphs, and Mohism has 915 paragraphs. Confucianism, thus, functioned as an equivalent of the abstruse and arcane vocabulary of the SAT, and it was most suited for screening and selecting the desired human capital from a large pool of candidates.

Is it at all possible that Keju successfully anchored and shaped the nature of the Chinese autocracy because of this accidental feature of Confucianism and on account of an operational technicality? Let’s pause, savour and ponder for a moment the momentous implications of this proposition.

Because Confucianism was an appropriate philosophy for ingraining in the desired virtues, and it had the sufficient density of a reference text to test that students really memorized the readings.

  • 1
    Was this "state mandated text to be studied" a Hobson's choice? Book-burning and library-demolition (destruction of knowledge) seems to have been quite a favorite pastime in the days gone by. Did anything from the 100 schools of thought (China) survive?
    – Hudjefa
    Nov 26, 2023 at 8:42
  • Out of those hundred schools, some texts were definitely lost but some survived to today: ctext.org/school-of-the-military e.g. Sun Zi's Art of War
    – Caffae
    Dec 15, 2023 at 18:29

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