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China's Return of Confucius

“Avatar” was bumped off screens in China by a state-sponsored biopic on Confucius. We look at his teachings — and the rise of Confucianism in China today.

Promotional poster for the new Chinese film "Confucius."

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The 3-D blockbuster “Avatar” got the boot from 2,000 movie theaters in China this weekend. And “Avatar” was huge in China. But the Chinese government puts limits on foreign film runs — and it has other priorities.

Now running on all those big screens: a big-budget biopic on the ancient philosopher — China’s “Great Sage” — Confucius. [The New York Times has this update on the movie duel.]

The Chinese Communist Party has increasingly embraced Confucianism as a path to “harmony” and “order.” Admirers say it’s a natural return of the sage. Critics say it’s Chinese autocrats looking for cover.

This hour, On Point: The return of Confucius — and his new place in contemporary China.


Joining us in our studio is Tu Weiming, professor of Chinese history and philosophy and of Confucian studies at Harvard University. He spent the last six months in China, where he is starting the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. He written extensively on Confucius.

From New York we’re joined by Xudong Zhang, professor of East Asian studies and comparative literature at New York University. He is author of “Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: The Last Decade of China’s Twentieth Century.”

And from Berkeley, Calif., we’re joined by Minxin Pei, senior associate in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, where he is also professor of government. He is author of “China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy.”

More links:

Update, 1/29: “China’s Zeal for ‘Avatar’ Crowds Out ‘Confucius’” — The New York Times reports that Chinese moviegoers preferred “Avatar” to “Confucius” in such numbers that “Chinese authorities appeared to have backpedaled this week on a decision to pull ‘Avatar’ from the nation’s 2-D movie screens in favor of ‘Confucius.’”

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  • Jeremy Baker

    What role does poetry, and what if any preferred forms of structure, play in Confucius philosophy?

  • Pat Churchman

    Good morning, Tom:
    My comment is that I think we knew Tu Wei Ming when he was a student at Tunghai University on Taiwan. I would be very interested in knowing whether he is the same person. That Tu Wei Ming was a VERY promising student

  • J Baker

    I have a friend whose diary is only pictures… so dualism is just between the ink and paper unless script takes such form to structure thought in picture that has opposition between two forms… if words do not convey this, which struggles with concepts of oneness.

  • Gary McKeehan

    1. Avatar was only removed from theatres that were booked for Confucius last year. Avatar is still being shown in many theatres in 3 D and Cinemax as well as regular versions. This is basic fact checking stuff.

    2. I have taught in china for a number of years, and am much more concerned with crushing of the human and legal rights movement, ie sentence of Mr. Liu to 10 years in prison for his position on individual rights. Since the end of the Olympics, the CParty has systematically pushed the democratic movement into the background.

    Many teachers i know are not returning to China because of these events.

  • Karen Kirchoff

    How has Confucianism influenced the development, if at all, of Oriental Medicine? I am struck by the parallels between the structure/hierachy of its ideas and the language of Traditional Chinese Medicine. For example, herbal formulas are structured with a Chief, Deputy, Assistant and Envoy. With many of us here in the US trained in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, any insight here is helpful.

    Thank you,
    Karen Kirchoff

  • EIO Boston

    We should be more aware of the fact that the Chinese government is willing to change, even for its own good, is a mark of a people willing to learn. That could be s formidable challenge to those who think they have all the answers.

  • http://w Caleb King

    Tu Weiming was one of the few guests to strike me as genuinely nuanced and intelligent enough to balance Tom Ashbrook’s sledgehammer pop-poster simplicity. Tu Wei Ming’s description of the polysemous nature of intellectual history in the West – the Enlightenment coexisting as a heritage with those ideological traditions to which it reacted (Christianity, Scholasticism), and those forces which reacted against it (Romanticism and later, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Ecological Humanitarianism, Feminism, Cultural Pluralism) – and then his symmetrical analogy of this polysemousness with Chinese intellectual history (Confucianism existing alongside Daoism, Mohism, Legalism; and remaining as an influence alongside the sometimes contrary influences of Buddhism, and of course Modernism after May 4, 1919)was both elegantly stated and insightfuly wagered. Finally, an intellect on the air!

  • J Baker

    I am aware of three rewards of $1500 being offered to any one who would like to compete by creating a method to teach about the science of evolution that is respectful to religion, c/o MOnkey Bible project.

    Thinking about how words always seem to fall into dualistic rules… I wonder if someone familiar with origami might create a book on how a child/adult can fold various forms with paper to construct examples of organisms and animals to teach a student about evolution, to help with modern “enlightenment” issues, in that as public policy becomes more science based, and that the common person often lacks complex familiarity with science, the common person is getting excluded from understanding how to participate with democratic conversation in regards to drafting and passing policy.

  • William Rogers

    Hello Tom.

    While my knowledge of Confucianism is limited, my sense is that its views are for the long-term good of the people and the government. Our background as an individualistic society in the U.S. has always been focused on short-term results, often to our collective detriment.

    My studies of the Confucian State of Singapore have revealed a government focused more closely on the good of the people than our most recent Supreme Court decision has in this country.

    Please ask your guest how collectivistic and individualistic ideals will impact the development of China and the West.

    Thanks much


  • http://ww.sagavirtualpublishers.org David R. Schiller

    If listeners are interested in a more detailed discussion of Confucian political philosophy, I have recently completed a new translation of his Analects entitled, Confucius: Discussions/Conversations, or the Analects [Lun-yu], available through the web site http://www.sagavirtualpublishers.org. It discusses the questions of family values, self-cultivation, the way of realizing dynamic harmony in the world, how we can think about social hierarchies, and why behaving responsibly may be more important in disputes than relying on the law.

  • Tam Beeler

    A basic question discussed on air
    is relationship between
    ‘intellectuals’ (philosophers, sages)
    & centralized (state) power.

    Robert Neville’s insight
    resonates with many of us in all our cultures now:
    “classic ancient thinkers within traditions
    we now identify as Confucianism & Daoism
    thought & wrote in serious, conscious
    dialectical tension with their culture.
    They took their ideals of virtue
    . . . to be countercultural.” p. 150
    Ritual & Deference:
    Extending Chinese Philosophy
    in a Comparative Context 2008.

    & on relationship of Daoists & Ru (Confucians):
    “Daoists & Confucians dance together!” p. 58

  • ageofaquarius

    I am so glad this is not another forum to bash about China & her value, at least so far it is very intelligent, wise, curious conversation.

  • Jian

    Virtually everyone including the guest speakers looks at Confucianism and Chinese culture from the western perspective or by the standard of the western value system. You will probably never understand and appreciate Confucianism that way. What is justice? I think Socrates’ colleague Thrasymachus gave the best definition to this day: Justice is what is good for the stronger.

  • ageofaquarius

    ****Virtually everyone including the guest speakers looks at Confucianism and Chinese culture from the western perspective or by the standard of the western value system.****

    I wasn’t able to listen to the show until tonight. At least in our discussion forum is more open minded.

  • ageofaquarius

    I notice an interesting phenomenon. Today, most listeners are busy at discussing and fighting for their own liberty in the forum of first hour show “Candidates, Cash, and the Court”, and we are living in such country constantly imposing on other cultures or countries in the name of “democracy”. Humm….. interesting contrast.

  • Michael

    I loved the music, could you have a show on Chinese and Japanese classical music? I enjoyed the show and enjoy learning about Chinese culture, thinking and beliefs outside the scope of a westerner

  • Grady Lee Howard

    It is unrealistic to assume that work derived from philosophers living thousands of years ago is, in itself, a useful tool of modern government. Expectations and standards of human rights have changed drastically, as has communication and other technology. It was only recently that nation states became enabled for instantaneous genocidal mass murder. (Manual slaughter used to be hard time-consuming work requiring persistence and loyalty, but no longer.) Surveillance and tracking of state opponents are enhanced almost weekly and individuals can now be remotely assassinated.
    With techniques of censorship by exclusion and glut, the control of information outlets in so few hands, media indoctrination of the young, I expect a correct presentation of Confucius (who, like Kant, saw the golden rule as a first principle) to be impossible. The Chinese version will be garbled and manipulated, even incapable to replace the jargon of state socialism. Witness how far current Christianity deviates from the original in service to greedy materialism and war by empire here in the USA.

  • Liz

    Tom Ashbrook never disappoints! Thank you for the show on Confucius! Fascinating!

  • Billy

    Though I respect the philosophy of Confucius and its role of creating a cosmopolitan society in China in ancient times I see that the communist party in China is using their own propagandist interpretation to force harmony and suppress any opposition to their power.

  • rick tesolowski

    I am totally appalled; how can the chinese not convert to the american way and worship George Washington and God instead? Who is this confucius, is it not dead for 2000 years? Why the chinese not want to be just like us?

  • ageofaquarius

    ****I am totally appalled; how can the chinese not convert to the american way and worship George Washington and God instead? Who is this confucius, is it not dead for 2000 years? Why the chinese not want to be just like us?****

    I hope this is a joke, because I am laughing my a** off! LOL!!

  • miaozhe

    Anybody who is familiar with chinese modern history will remember the fate of attempts made by the warlords in 20s or 30s to revive the Confusciuism. I don’t think the fate of the current attempts will be better that that. It’s less than a joke, it’s nonsense. At least none of the persons I know pay any attention to it. They would like to spend their spare time rather on drinking, gambling, or even hunting for prostitutes, than on talking the so-called revival of Confusciuism.
    So don’t waste your time

  • ageofaquarius


    I’m not sure the people you talked about represent the majority of Chinese. I also know lots of Chinese people do not share that kind of life style.

    As a matter of fact, since Chairman Mao did a real “good job” at denouncing Confucius, a vacuum of morality has alarmed plenty of Chinese parents & grand parents for their kids & future generations. They observe the speedy growth of economy came along with western materialism and too much individualism (egotistic), they welcome government to restore traditional Chinese values by implementing education at schools. This is the type of talks of day to day Chinese household, no propaganda & conspiracy, pure concerns of parenting a “lost generation”.

  • Ishmael

    Confucianism is what holds China and the rest of E Asia together.

    When the Chinese leadership mentions “harmony” one can only shudder and safely assume it is interested in quashing dissent and innovation, two things that are anathema to “harmony”. Confucianism is responsible for shoddy building practices and a well-known reticence to question authority. Chinese-style communism would not have been possible without Confucianism. Nor would N Korea.

    It is little wonder that they are trotting out this philosophy now, when the Chinese population might be closer then ever to close communication and idea-sharing with the west (eg, the web). This terrifies the Chinese leadership.

  • Wei Liu

    Hi Tom,

    Great talk. As a Chinese student studying at U.S. I believe the resurge of Confucianism happened most from grass root people. Even the government is not powerful enough to guide such wide-spread trend in many aspect of society. People now even make songs by using thousand-year old poem as the lyric (like the song in this movie). While people think differently about the movie per se, it is a indicator of return of traditional culture from ordinary people. And at same time, people are aware of the good and not-that-good stuff in Confucianism. I agree with Du WeiMing.

  • ageofaquarius


    Do you realize how Chinese feel whenever people like you color everything with political conspiracy? We feel very insulted by your overly concern, why? You simply “assume” and act like a mind reader that Chinese are all like a bunch of “little lambs” or some kind of victims without independent thinking or judgement, and we all have to worship your model of democracy, which you think you are so entitled to criticize a long lived civilization in the name of your new religion – democracy.

  • ageofaquarius

    Whenever we, the real day to day Chinese speak up, we are denied by people like Ishmael, either telling us we are brain washed, or we are just too naive to seek truth and make judgement, and we have to have people like Ishmael to stand up for us. Now, who is brain washed by Cold war propaganda?

    This is a changing world, the ***ism ideology doesn’t really work anymore unless you adapt to the hybrid system which suits each differently.

  • http://revivalofconfucianisminchina.blogspot.com/ Joy Lam

    I do not have the equipment to listen to the show yet, but I am glad that people are talking about Confucianism seriously. Since I’m working on a dissertation project related to the revival of Confucianism in contemporary China, I think it is time to look beyond the convenient answer of the state control over everything but also acknowledge the possibility that there is a grass-root movement in reviving the tradition (in many different ways). Example such as the banned Confucian school in Shanghai (a form of schooling that emphasize on reading and recitation of Confucian classics) informs us that the state is not the only player in defining Confucianism these days.

  • http://www.khamaid.org Pam Logan

    When will Americans realize that the Chinese government does not control everything in China? Chinese people love their own culture, of which Confucious is an important part.

    Tom seemed to think that nothing ever happens in China unless the Chinese government wills it to be so. In reality, anything and everything can happen in China unless the government forbids it…and then sometimes it happens anyway!

  • http://academics.holycross.edu/philosophy/faculty/sim May Sim

    The virtue of Confucianism as a tradition is that it has the resources to address modern human rights concerns. Confucianism is not restricted to serving an authoritarian regime because this tradition/philosophy professes both conservative and liberal values. Because of the focus on moral virtues and self-cultivation, Confucianism is interested in education and enabling each individual to realize his/her highest virtue of humaneness (ren, the virtue of extending familiar love, in a graduated manner, to the community and ultimately, to the universe). This is a virtue that presupposes one’s ability to choose what is right, rather than blind obedience to authority. What is right is neither measured by individual hedonism, nor by an authoritarian regime’s interest. I believe that authentic Confucian values are in fact compatible with universal human rights. In this respect, I think that Confucianism has much to offer not only to China, but the rest of us who are living in a world that constantly challenges our ability to realize our humanity.

  • ageofaquarius

    What’s interesting is most American people don’t know what “filial piety” means, which is one of the most important virtue of Confucianism.

  • ageofaquarius

    Often times in China, corruption or some human right issue are taken place at local or provincial governments. Chinese citizens have the right to complain and submit petitions to higher government or even central government. Western countries really did a good job on cherry picking what to report what not to. At the end of day, the number of problems in their own country are just as more than handful as China.

  • roddy o’sullivan

    Just a footnote/query. I once heard that books like 1984 and Animal Farm are not published in China (although students did manage to put on a staging of Animal Farm in Shanghai in 2002)….. is it still the case?

    It would be truly amazing to find that whether the chinese “enlightenment” will lead to or is any way correlated with increased access to these books and the renewed prominence of books like those of Orwells??

    Any takers??

    thanks…. great show!

  • Ishmael

    ageofaquarius, I am only presenting my own view based on considerable living and working experience in E Asia, some of it in China. I do not worship democracy as a divine entity by any means. Others might, but I don’t.

    Each Chinese person I have personally known has been super, and I say that without hesitation. It is the so-called “leadership” in China that I often find appalling.

    A Chinese individual, a rather intellectually inclined young man, once informed me, in China, that if one wants to understand the Chinese as a society, Confucius is the most important key. I don’t think he had any reason to be anything other than honest in giving his opinion. From what I have seen, it is quite a valid opinion.

    I am totally dismayed when I hear about someone being sent to jail or otherwise muzzled for practicing Falun Gong, for example, or for speaking on behalf of the Tibetan people, or for speaking highty of the Dalai Lama, and when I hear about Chinese people being totally misinformed about the Tiannanmen massacre. It is deeply troubling. Maybe not to everyone, but it is to me.

    We hear about tainted food and other shoddy products coming out of China, and some of us have firsthand experience of these things.

    Only my opinion, and I value yours.

  • Tom Cantlon

    4 points
    I’m just an interested layman who has read a couple biographies and the analects a few times so I could have something wrong but…
    1. Isn’t his proper name Master Kung? Isn’t “Confucious” an English mangling of his name that is slightly derogatory (a play on “confusion”)?
    2. Buddhism, especially by the Tibetans, is a far cry from what the Buddha taught. To a lesser degree but similarly what a Chinese thinks when he hears discussion of Master Kung is what the culture has made out of it over time. It can be seen as promoting authority but it was equally about harmony from the bottom of society up, as well as top down. It was even more so about personal responsibility, of everyone from top to bottom. If the top used this as their cover but then was irresponsible a well instructed student of Master Kung would know they were not beholden to that authority.
    3. I love the description of a sophisticated Chinese as blending Lao Tsu (Tao) and Master Kung. Can you imagine a similar description in the West? Something like a blending of Judeo/Christian and Enlightenment? There are such people, but to many people currently that would seem wishy-washy, not fundamentally pure. Too bad.
    4. The Chinese leaders may be signaling their position on Master Kung only as good politicians. For one, if the people are going that way anyway, better to look like you’re leading them. And they may no longer want to disparage Master Kung but can’t come straight out and say Mao was wrong or we changed our mind, so this is an indirect way to signal there is no official problem with him.

  • ageofaquarius


    I know you meant well in every way. Your western view always starts out with praise of “Chinese people” (victims as you see us), but always falls back on the same old western views again, back to square one, concern for Tibet issue, concerns for Falun Gong, concerns for Tiananmen Square, etc…. keeping your nose on China’s domestic issues, which really is our Chinese business. Then western news medias/governments use those same very issues to magnify and exaggerate them into some kind of horrors to create fear/imaginary threat for most of the world to shape how they view China — The BIG BAD WOLF! And the rest of Chinese are vulnerable little lambs in captive by our BIG BAD WOLF. No matter the Chinese reside in China or overseas Chinese, we see this pattern being played out repeatedly. Western medias/governments really love to make every China’s domestic controversy into “conspiracy”.

    Now I don’t need to start counting how many domestic issue and “social injustice” we have here in U.S., just by listening to OnPoint, you’ll get an idea. But who in the world is putting their noses on U.S. problematic domestic issues, and make U.S. looks like an international threat on its domestic problems??? And yet, ironically, U.S.’s domestic policy does impact tremendously on international countries, like its decision of exploiting oil (long before China), deregulated free market, you name it…

    All I’m trying to say is U.S. extreme capitalism and imperialism did more damage to the world than China, and its devotion of demonizing China is so hypocritical.

    FYI, Dalai Lama is a political tool used for western propaganda. In the 1800 hundreds, China was a big pie, everyone in the world wanted some share of that big pie, so does now, more of it, it’s a potential and imaginary threat of U.S.. China was to partially blame herself at the turn of 20th century for their own civil wars that created social instability giving opportunities for invasion by foreign countries. China has learned a very very harsh lessons since that time. That tells you right here why “social stability” is so important.

    Do you really think that the U.S. troops in Afghanistan are only for one cause? Afghanistan is a perfect geo-political spot surrounded by Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, & China, you name it. All these countries are under U.S. watch.

  • ageofaquarius

    If democracy speaks and listens for what majority of people want in a country, China is probably doing better then U.S.

  • ageofaquarius

    Yeah, in U.S., we got democracy, but look at how corrupted our government is. Yeah, we can vote all day long, our politicians are not making decision basing on our interest, at the end of day, I prefer a government looking after my livelihood instead of campaign rhetoric of honey & milk.

  • Ishmael

    ageofaquarius, Like I said, my views are only my own opinions (and they don’t by any means represent “western views”). I don’t know why we have to bring Afghanistan into the discussion; of course there is a number of reasons why US troops are there, everyone knows that (well maybe not everyone).

    I don’t recall ever saying that the US is blameless in any way; US domestic (and international) policy is tremendously fertile ground for discussion. But I thought this discussion thread was about Confucianism in China.

    The Dalai Lama is a Tibetan spirutual leader. At least to me, but that’s my personal view.

    We both should acknowledge that every country writes its own history books ….

  • ageofaquarius


    Mentioning Afghanistan in this forum is not that far-fetched in order to draw a clear and bigger picture of conflict of interests, government propaganda and genuine culture virtues. We as day to day citizens read news sources (unfortunately, most people get one sided sources), at times we are subconsciously manipulated by what we read and watch. All I know is, after years of living in America, Chinese always find themselves defending themselves most of the time. And I commit myself to read news sources from both sides, in Chinese and English language. The purpose of my discussion here is not finding who’s right, who’s wrong. But I have a problem with double standards and hypocrisy. Just because a devil wearing an angle white robe doesn’t make a devil less evil or more divine.

    ****We both should acknowledge that every country writes its own history books ….****

    That’s why it’s important to read history books from both sides. ;-)

  • ageofaquarius

    ****The Dalai Lama is a Tibetan spirutual leader. At least to me, but that’s my personal view.****

    Dalai Lama knows what kind of game he’s playing, western countries are his Ace, and vice versa.

    Take any government, no one is going to take Dalai Lama back who has ties and takes money from CIA. And he did sign the agreement of “Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”.

  • Mao Zedong

    confucius: dead for 2000-3000 years.

    U center of the world.
    U center of the cosmos.

    you gotta be kidding: dead for 2000 years and this is all chinese can up with as thinker.

    what about 20th. century. 21. century.

    china: sick man of asia

    century of shame


    Japan has larger economy than china.

    10X people land Natural resources

    china missed

    science / industry/ elections/ alphabet

    dig a big big big/ bury confucius

    dig a big big big hole / bury the past.

    join the free world
    join the internet world


    Bury Confucius

    Bury Mao Zedong

    Bury Ugly Hanzi

    Live the future

    Invent the future.

    Forward to the future.

    Confucius: dead for 2000 years.

    Deng Xiaoping was cremated. floating in river. Now.

    Be free… live the future.


    cofucius: dead for 2000-3000 years. now

    do you use computer from 2000 years ago?

    do you have internet from 2000 years ago?

    do you live in cave/mudhuts/stone-age without water/electric/digital access.

    bury confucius: dead for 2000-years NOW

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