Unlike religious traditions like Buddhism, Confucianism did not weather the transition to modernity very well. By the 14th and 15th centuries, classical Confucian texts had taken center stage in examination systems selecting officials to staff bureaucracies in China, Korea and Vietnam. Neo-Confucian academies educated samurai for bureaucratic jobs in early 19th-century feudal Japan, though recent research has shown that their examinations were less meritocratic, and less focused on Confucian texts.
Generations of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese youth rote-learned the Confucian classics and endured a grueling regimen of provincial, regional and national examinations to qualify for bureaucratic office. Confucian values were also central to imperial court rituals. These Confucianized political, ritual and educational cultures were swept away by education reforms, political revolutions and colonization in the early 20th century.
However, Confucianism has survived in other forms. Today it’s making a popular comeback in China, and the Communist government has acquired a taste for Confucian slogans. But Confucian revivalism dates back to the late 19th century, when Japanese scholars such as Inoue Tetsujiro used their European philosophical training to revamp Confucianism as an academic philosophy, and as a constituent part of a national morality distinct from “Western individualism.”
Political leaders in late 19th-century Japan and in postwar Taiwan and South Korea were also keen on developing mass education systems to make their citizens literate, obedient and disciplined enough to fulfill national industrialization goals. These leaders — aided by scholars like Inoue — superficially preached Confucian values such as harmony, loyalty and filial piety to instill nationalist sentiment in schoolchildren and army conscripts.
At least some of the behavioral traits claimed for East Asian students, including strong deference to teachers and lack of critical thinking, likely have a shallow 20th-century heritage in the modernized mass education systems of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Still, it’s worth pointing out what’s wrong with suggesting that Confucianism provides the cultural programming behind such behavioral traits.
But, the writer then suggests that Confucianism is not, historically really rooted in conformity as much as people think:
Early Confucian texts record lively dialogues between students and their masters, and students were not afraid to speak up if they disagreed with their masters. Confucians disagreed with each other and they also came in for philosophically sophisticated criticism from rival thinkers such as the Mohists, Legalists and Daoists. Another early Confucian, Xunzi, recommended the study of persuasive speaking for princes eager to combat these “heretics.”
Even in later eras when Confucianism was reinvented as a state doctrine and rote-learned by students, there was room for dissent. So the 16th-century scholar Wang Yangming famously accused this scholastic Confucianism of being an obstacle to moral self-knowledge. As political philosopher and Confucian scholar Sungmoon Kim told me, “The entire history of Confucianism was propelled by critically minded thinkers.”