Confucian Nationalism: A Chinese love affair

Ever since its exciting entrance in the global economy, China has undergone the scrutiny of many. Specifically, that of the Western world, trying to comprehend and justify its unpredictably successful communist authoritarian regime. In fact, since the economic boom initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1990s, China has been growing at stunningly fast rates that the West can, as of today, only dream of.

By Sofia Galanek

Ever since its exciting entrance in the global economy, China has undergone the scrutiny of many. Specifically, that of the Western world, trying to comprehend and justify its unpredictably successful communist authoritarian regime. In fact, since the economic boom initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1990s, China has been growing at stunningly fast rates that the West can, as of today, only dream of. However, after 20 years of outstanding developmental achievements, China faces growing economic imbalances, a decrease in GDP growth, an ever-growing population, and an over-all dimming of the cohesive fire of the nation that was once found in the political ideology of Marxism-Leninism, with conveniently ‘added’ Chinese characteristics. Such issues are being tackled by the current president, Xi Jinping, with specific domestic and foreign policies branded under the words of ‘Rejuvenation’ (of the Great Chinese people) and ‘Harmony’ (within and outside China).

Whereas in Europe we see a growing ethno-nationalistic wave, and in the U.S. a cold blooded ‘America-First’ approach, in China we see a party-first line, meaning that Xi’s priority, as in any authoritarian regime, is to keep himself and the party’s power intact. In an era of globalized capitalism, this means that the ideology of communism is no longer a strong enough link for the Chinese Communist Party’s support. This is especially poignant given prospects of unsustainable high rates of economic growth in the long-term. In brief, the economic miracle has an expiry date, and Xi is aware of it. That is why we are now witnessing a peculiar shift in Chinese nationalism, from a unity created upon the successes of a political ideology, to one based on culture, more specifically, the philosophical ethics of Confucianism. It is in the present moment, possible to observe how a leader can transform national identity through rebranding. Thus, we assist to Xi’s skillful play with words of 2000-year-old Confucian philosophers to consolidate a new Chinese nationalism that goes beyond communism. We see philosophy meeting nationalism through a total re-branding of national identity, a unique nationalist venture, a true Chinese love affair between Confucianism and nationalism.

S2After Mao’s destruction of anything that had to do with old and ‘antiquated’ Chinese traditions through the campaign aimed at destroying The Four Olds (customs, culture, habits and ideas) and the Cultural Revolution, it took nearly 30 years for Confucianism to “come out of hiding”. Xi Jinping is now continuing what his predecessor Hu Jintao had started, a re-discovery of Chinese traditions, values, morals and culture, profoundly engraved in the Confucian philosophy. We are therefore witnessing in modern China a period of Chinese renaissance branded as “national rejuvenation”. This involves a glorification of the past, a recollection of what had defined Chinese culture for thousands of years, in order to redefine unity for the Chinese people everywhere in the world. The disunity that Xi foresees, which we could now observe as perhaps simple detachment, is also a consequence of economic modernization that led to atomism and psychological anxiety as the competition for social status and material resources becomes progressively fiercer , creating a generation of youths that does not know what it means to be Chinese. Thus, comes in place one of Xi’s newest policies: “national learning”. Although still roughly defined, national learning, involves the teaching to the up-coming generations of Chinese identity through the study of the classics, the greatest Confucian philosophers’ thoughts.

S3Hence, Confucian nationalism starts with the instauration of Chinese identity as one based on Confucian values. After the first founding philosopher, Confucius, many other philosophers, one emperor after the other, contributed to the shaping of Confucius ethics gathered in the book Analects. Today, Confucianism is mostly based on modesty (live a life away from excess), the arts of peace (do not wrong others in ways you would not accept yourself), and, most importantly to Xi, the vision of oneself as a set of relationships. One does not exist without his relationship to others, as we are social beings we live off our interactions. Confucianism is particularly focused on a type of universalism which sees the self as non-existent and yet connected to everyone, from his family and friends to his community, from his community to his nation, from his nation to the rest of the world (tianxia). This is described in ‘The Great Learning’ by Zhu Xi (1130-1200):

S4“The extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things. When things are investigated, knowledge is extended; when knowledge is extended, the will is sincere; when the will is sincere, the mind is rectified; when the mind is rectified, the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated; when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; and when the state is in order, there is peace throughout the world”.[2]

Confucianism sees each and every set of relationships as fundamental links although loosing intensity with distance (i.e. the strongest link will be with family and the weakest with a stranger from another country). This means that the set of obligations that one has are strongest to the closest links, but nonetheless existent throughout each connection. The goal it sets before its followers is that of pursuing balance and harmony with everyone across the set of social orders created (“exemplary persons pursue harmony, not conformity” – Zuozhuan [2]), so as to achieve and maintain peaceful relations (i.e. realization of heaven on earth).

These are the set of ideas that Xi wants to redefine Chinese culture with, and although Communist ideology is still very much present, there is a shift occurring. We can see it through Xi’s speeches where he often quotes famous Confucius teachings instead of Mao’s, through the higher appreciation of Confucian intellectuals, through the setting of Confucius academies within China to give free lessons about this philosophy, but most of all, through the impressive relevance that Confucius teachings have in Xi’s policies. Xi’s ‘China Dream’ consists of reconstituting the greatness of the Chinese people through domestic prosperity and rejuvenation, as well as innovation and development towards and harmonious and ordered society. Moreover, with interest in environmental policies and consistent participation in international affairs across domains, China shows acknowledgment of a greater people beyond that which lives within its borders. Where liberal nationalism sees only a commitment to the community within its borders, and a set of democratic rights to not be granted beyond such lines, Confucian nationalism sees the idea of tianxia to expand concern beyond the nation and puts the Chinese in the middle as to almost resemble imperial Zhōngguó understanding of the world.

A philosophy based on peace and harmony amongst all people seems almost ‘too nice’ for a concept considered as ruthless as nationalism: and here lies the key to its success. Confucian nationalism follows a renaissance narrative in an innovative way, looking at the past and the future contemporarily, without trying to be too conservative, but just enough to persuasively tickle the innate human desire to belong. Although Xi is ‘re-confucinising’ China, he will do so on his own terms. It has already been reported that some Confucius sayings have been edited to fit the nationalist agenda. For example, the Confucian phrase “the flourishing or destruction of all-under-heaven is the responsibility of common people” [2] is taught to high school students in China interchanging “all-under-heaven” (which stands for the concept of tianxia) with “state”, prompting the idea that the citizen carries responsibility towards the well-being of the state. This somewhat resembles the role of religion in politics in the West, it could be a very slippery slope to an ideological disaster. Moreover, the existence of what we have here defined as Confucian Nationalism does not automatically exempt its coexistence with forms of ethno-nationalism which are also contemporarily rising within China. Therefore, although a very peculiar form of nationalism is forming in China, and is re-imagining Chinese national identity based on Confucian values, let us not forget that it remains nonetheless nationalism. A new way of uniting people by creating, or in this case renovating, a national identity through a half-truth narrative, to maintain a solid grip on power and the right to govern.


Further Reading

[1] Peter K. Bol, BYU Kennedy lecture, 2015,

[2] Daniel Bell, Reconciling Confucianism and Nationalism, Journal of Chinese Philosophy 41:1-2, 2015.

[3] The Economist, Confucius says Xi does, 2015,

[4] Salvatore Babons, China’s new found love for Confucius, Al Jazeera, 2017,

[5] Nathan Gardels, Xi launches cultural counter-revolution to restore Confucianism as China’s ideology, Huffington Post,

[6] Jin Kai, The Chinese Communist Party Confucian Revival, The Diplomat, 2014,

[7] Brian William Van Norden, The Confucian Roots of Xi Jinping’s policies, The Straits Times, 2017,

[8] Salvatore Babones, What Xi Jinping Thought Stands For, Forbes, 2017,

[9] Michael Schuman, The Chinese President’s Love Affair with Confucius Could Backfire on Him, Time, 2014,




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Sofia Galanek is a final year student of IR at King’s College London. She is interested in the study of development and emerging economies.




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