To Understand Confucius is to Understand Much of China Today

Confucius is one of China’s most revered sages. Although he lived and taught his disciples somewhere around 551-479 B.C., Confucianism is still the most popular philosophy in China today. The context of Confucius’ rise in popularity is interesting. Times were chaotic and quite violent in China at the time of his professional life. There were great divides between classes and clans and this was disturbing to Confucius because it weakened society and created distrust and poverty. He grew up with minimal personal family connection so this seemed to create a vacuum in his own heart for connectedness and the benefits of a tight-knit family. Understanding his background helps us understand where the deep roots of his philosophy came from.

Confucius picture

Confucius had a big dream to restore China to greatness and unity by first influencing the people of influence and nobility. This was a strategic starting place for him because he believed,

When people are educated, the distinction between classes disappears. -Confucius

So he hypothesized that if he could first educate the nobles and convince them from their own experience that education was highly valuable, then it would not take much to convince them that education for all people could bring peace and prosperity across the land.


For Confucius, education essentially became the meaning of life because of its power to improve society. Unlike some other religious activists or founders who came before and after him, Confucius did not believe people should escape the world by seeking salvation in the heavenly realms, rather his philosophy was to educate the world and save it through wise leadership. From this starting point, Confucius started a small school and for the rest of his life had students who sat at his feet to learn his wisdom on family, society, and leadership.

Confucius actually succeeded in turning upside down the tribal concept of leadership through pedigree. He did not believe leadership was attained by noble birth, but instead he sought to establish a new aristocracy of noble character. He called this a “superior man.” According to Confucius:

A superior man expects much of himself, a small man expects much of others. -Confucius


Eventually Confucius became governor in the province of Lou and made many reforms, especially to care for the poor. Then he strategically focused high levels of energy and teaching into a few of the most elite and noble leaders in his region. He went to ruler after ruler trying to find just a few leaders who would buy into his philosophy of saving China and bringing order and peace through virtue-based leadership rather than through positional leadership. He was largely unsuccessful in changing the minds of powerful leaders who had an established position of leadership based on their noble birth. So he eventually diverted his efforts to train those who would follow him and practice his teaching. His thought was that if he could influence a few in the merits and skills of being a “superior man” through developing noble character, then through multiplication of his students he would save China. He succeeded in convincing many common people that his philosophy was what was best for China.


Today, throughout China there is a shared ethic of hard work, education, and a belief that the people and the nation have a high capacity for success. There is a humanistic belief that people can in a sense create their future through hard work and dedication. And since this is a widely held cultural philosophy, there is evidence that the success and prosperity expanding throughout China has its roots in Confucian ideas.

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On a human level, so much of the wisdom and philosophy of Confucius has provided a climate for the family, individual, and state to cooperate together toward success through education and family/state loyalty. What is challenging from a Christian perspective is that although worldly success is attainable through the common grace of education and cooperation, this does not lay the groundwork for someone to understand the Gospel. In fact it is quite the contrary. Humanistic teaching tends to offers false assurance that one’s hard work and education is the basis of one’s identity. On the contrary, according to the teachings of Jesus, our identity is that we are created in the image of God, and that through Adam and Eve’s sin, and our own subsequent sin following our original mother and father in the Garden of Eden all people are at odds with God. No human effort or work can change this predicament.

Regardless of our ethics, hard work, or cooperative behavior, our deepest human need, which is the reconciliation of our soul to relationship with God cannot be fixed by human work or education. Reconciliation with God is only possible through humble repentance of our sin coupled with belief and loyalty to Jesus Christ who is the one who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. An insightful book, Jesus in Beijing, shows how by God’s grace and sovereign plan, hundreds of thousands of Chinese have come to see their need for Jesus and now the explosive growth of the Chinese church is totally transforming China and altering the global balance of power. God loves the Chinese, and even though Confucianism is the predominant philosophy still today, the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is greater than any human philosophy is laying a new foundation for future generations to experience the sense of identity and peace that Confucius longed for. But this is only attainable through a relationship with God rather than through a philosophy which is impotent to save the soul:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. -2 Corinthians 5:16-19


It is no surprise that much of the successful student ministry in China today revolves around education, family, and how to attain success in life. These are doors of opportunity to engage Chinese young people with the Gospel. It is nearly impossible for high school age Chinese young people to be very involved in a church because of the heavy expectations on their preparation for university and the lack of freedom they have to explore extracurricular activities. But university students have more time to explore other things so there is naturally more opportunity for Chinese university students to learn about Christ.

Also, 31% of all of the international students in the U.S. are from China. This is a whopping 274,439 students! There are many opportunities to join with campus ministries to befriend Chinese students for the sake of the Gospel.