Change and Chinese Culture

By Alon Küster

Last summer, I travelled to Shanghai to take part in a summer school on Chinese culture. The relationship between Confucianism and modern Chinese society stuck with me throughout my time there. Confucianism emphasizes personal integrity and the importance of community. Modern Chinese society has undergone many changes since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. For a long time, the PRC saw Confucianism as a remnant of the Chinese empires – a rigid ideology that blocked progress. Over time the PRC has started giving more personal freedom to the Chinese population, which has led to a return of Confucianism as a popular school of thought. In this article I wanted to explore  and summarise how China has changed over time, and what the role of Confucianism in modern Chinese society is.

Personal Experiences

From the beginning of my summer school program, it was clear that the aim was to give a favourable view of China and its society. Although I find Chinese culture fascinating, some of the lectures did not fit the reality I experienced while I was there. A lot of attention was given to Confucianism – which seemed to me like a concept belonging mostly to the past.

I started to wonder whether Confucianism still holds relevance in Chinese society. To explore this question, one needs to look at the attitudes and policies enacted by the Chinese government. While I want to acknowledge that China is a highly diverse country, I need to make some generalizations when exploring this question. I will try to focus on the general populous in China and try to make logical inferences about the situation there. I want to learn how adaptable the Chinese people are to their rapidly changing environment. I am an outsider when it comes to this topic. I am not Chinese  – nor do I speak Chinese. That being said, I believe that there is value in studying cultural phenomena with an outsider’s perspective.

China’s swift rise to the top of the international political stage makes it incredibly exciting topic of study. China has become increasingly relevant on the global stage, and is attempting to present itself as a ‘responsible major power’.   Politically it is interesting to try to understand China as it is attempting to expand its political power. The Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious infrastructure project focused on developing relationships with a great number of countries, primarily in East and Central Asia. Just three decades ago, the country was undergoing widespread changes similar to Europe’s Industrial Revolution. It has leaped across several developmental steps in its rapid urbanisation, and is now considered by many to be a rising superpower. 

What is Confucianism?

For most of modern history, Confucianism was the most prominent school of thought in China. Conceived by Kong Qiu, a philosopher who lived around the year 500BC, it prescribes an attitude of individual integrity and community. Confucianism believes that people should be humble and logical. These characteristics can be attained through interaction with ones community. In this community each individual should be content with their social standing. Individuals need to maintain ‘face’, which can be described as the perception that the community has of them. By following these social rules, one creates harmony – a central tenet of Confucianism. Individuals should be controlled through teachings by individuals with good morality and not by rigid rules.

Confucianism today

Many Chinese people have been moving from rural areas to cities. In 2011 China reached the 50% mark of people living in urban environments. Today around 800 million people live in cities. The increased prominence of domestic migration gives individuals the opportunity to change their social circle: individuals no longer need to feel confined by their communities because they have the freedom to leave them. This means that people are no longer constrained to the same social status for their entire lives. A key reason for this is the increased importance which the economy plays for Chinese citizens. 

The deterioration of Confucian values can also be seen through China’s increasing focus on material desires. China has opened up its economy, presenting the change as an adapted form of socialism with Chinese characteristics. In practice, this means that a ‘limited capitalism’ exists in the country. This system requires individuals to have desires such as buying luxury products. Obtaining such a product may allow the individual to perceive an increase in social status,. But consumption moves beyond physical items. After being forbidden by the Chinese Communist Party for a long time, foreign films are now allowed and immensely popular. Many American blockbusters make more money in China than they do in the US. The general Chinese populous has become a key part of selling Hollywood movies. It is an example of both the political elite and the general populous being open to change: the political elite allow foreign movies to enter the country, and the populous watches them.
Despite these changes, which seem to represent a clear departure from Confucian values, there are many attempts at retaining a sense of community in a quickly evolving society. During my time in China I noticed a large number of older people coming together in parks for  Tai Chi, dancing and traditional Chinese opera. Interestingly, I did not see many young people partaking in such activities. Though this may be the result of a tiring work schedule. 

However, China is seeing an increasing number of ‘Confucius schools’ open, where traditional Confucian values are taught. Despite many changes, it is fair to say that Confucianism has definitely not disappeared from Chinese culture.

The State’s Confucianism

Harmony, being a central tenet of Confucianism, has long been an omnipresent force in Chinese society. However, the Chinese Communist Party’s top down policies have forced the population to adapt. For example, in the lifetime of an individual born in the early 1960s there have been policies meant to encourage a high birth rate; then policies that restricted birth rates; and then a softening of these policies. Preferences for male children led to a trend of aborting and neglecting female children, creating a demographic imbalance where there are significantly more men than women in China. These constant shifts in society, resulting from impositions by the government, have disrupted the presence of harmony in public and private life.

But once more we see that the Chinese elite live in a different reality. During the one-child policy, families that had a second child faced fines of up to 200,000 yuan. For the poor working class this often meant bankruptcy. For the rich, paying was not a problem. Compared to the general populous, I argue that there is a class in China that are not nearly as affected by top-down policies.

Confucianism believes that individuals should be guided not by rigid laws, but by those around them that have a strong moral compass. Recently, the Chinese government has introduced a ‘social credit system’. This system encourages good behaviour from citizens like not littering and helping others in need, with the purpose of fostering a strong community. Many individuals are held accountable through the opinions of friends. Surveillance techniques are also used to enforce these rules. The social credit system is used by the Communist Party’s rule to instil an expectation of passive citizenship into the people: any civil disobedience is expected to be nipped in the bud. One can’t help but notice an ironic contradiction: on the one hand, being a good member of your community aligns with Confucian ideas. On the other hand, the rigid enforcement of this behaviour directly contradicts Confucianism’s disdain for static laws. 

Confucianism was created 2500 years ago. Since the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to power, the country has undergone immense change. A kind of selective Confucianism seems to have formed: the political elite emphasise and denounce Confucian ideals as it suits them, while the general population is forced to live by strict laws enforced by the Communist Party. In my opinion, trying to use traditional Confucianism is not a useful framework for understanding modern day China. Confucianism should be adapted to in order to properly understand Chinese culture. The Chinese government speaks of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. To use their language: perhaps it makes more sense to talk about a Confucianism with Chinese characteristics.


  1. An example of Global Times, a state run media outlet, describing China itself as a major power

2. From a more governmental source attempting to portray the country as a responsible major country

3. Announced in Kazakhstan in 2013. For a brief overview check:

4. For an overview on the project check out:

5. For a good explanation on the role of community in Confucianism

6.  from pp.96-108. The primary path for social mobility in pre-modern China was through civil examination

7. Face Dynamism in Confucian Society for a more detailed explanation on face within Chinese Society

8. On further explanation on teaching through example pp.81-82

9. Urban Population Statistics From World Bank

10. For a list with more films look at:

11. for an example of Hollywood adapting films to fit into the Chinese population 

12.  For an example check

13. for an explanation on the importance of harmony

14. Data showing the birth rates

15. shows a useful history of reproduction policies in the second half of the twenty century (Calling Myths about China’s One-Child Policy)

16. China announcing that it is ending the one child policy in 2015

17. Provides an overview of the possible reasons of the gender ratio imbalance

18. Note that a difference of 0.1% is already a 1million difference


Edited by Zuzanna Mietlinska

Artwork by Chira Tudoran