Decline of Confucianism

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Confucianism is a religious philosophy that originated in China and has served as the country's governing philosophy for more than two thousand years. Confucian philosophy is a humane ideal centered on the interaction between humans and the divine. In order to bring all students, regardless of social standing, to this perfection, it advocated for individualized education for all. It described people as inherently good, teachable, and perfectible. Unlike its antagonist Legalism, which promoted the rule of law, the ideology placed more emphasis on the rule of virtue. The Chinese empire's creed was based on this theory. However, with time, the ideology was questioned for its merits with many attributing China’s political weakness in comparison to her western counterparts to this thought.

According to Kohira (116, the end of two thousand years of dynastic rule in the nation signified the beginning of the end for this thought system. With the rise of new methods of governance such as democracy and the emergence of superior western countries and technologies, the Confucian thought became replaced with more modern ideologies that were perceived to be more relevant to the chronological context of China in early twentieth century. This led to the collapse of Confucianism as the creed of state for China. Despite its decline, however, Confucian thought still has extensive influence on Chinese culture and way of life. Most individuals still adhere to the attributes of Confucianism. The concept of Confucianism has been credited for the Chinese business and work ethic that is historically responsible for the successes of the Chinese nation.

Collapse of dynastic rule

For two thousand years, the Chinese empire that preceded the formation of the People's Republic of China was ruled by dynasties Kohira (128). From the early 1600s, the empire was ruled by the Qing dynasty which, towards the end of their regime, began to experience numerous challenges both from within and from outside the realm. Increased European influence on global politics began to affect the dynasty's grasp of the empire. European nations and Japan had control of most trade along the Chinese coastline, and this weakened the power of the emperor. Europeans ventured to settle in China, and even part of the Chinese territory was given to foreigners in a move that eroded the trust of the people on the Chinese imperial government. These challenges subsequently led to the decline of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese empire as a whole. After the fall of the dynasty, the People’s Republic of China was formed that subscribed to different notions of governance than those advocated for by Confucian thought. Principles such as democracy were introduced, and even systems such as education were drastically transformed away from Confucian dictates. This led to the collapse of Confucian thought and its influence on the sociopolitical landscape of China.

Selective adoption

During the rule of the Qing dynasty, the rulers of China noted with increasing concern the growth and superiority of the Western nations. It was becoming clearer by the day that their traditional Confucian doctrine and way of life would be useless to deal with the challenges of the modern world. This drove them to adopt western technologies in their commercial and military landscape. It, however, became increasingly apparent that adoption of one western innovation would inadvertently lead to the adoption of another to supplement the needs of the first. Thus they adopted western financial and commercial systems to supplement adopted military technologies and soon enough the rulers of China realized that their entire system of governance needed a paradigm shift if they were to retain their international political and economic position. They thus embarked on changing the entire ideological system that had held the country together for over two millennia (Kohira 137). This led to the decline of Confucian thought as it had proven incapable of providing solutions that plagued the empire in the wake of new political powers and systems of governance such as democracy.

Intellectual inadequacy

As an intellectual tenet, Confucianism descended into decline with the May Fourth movement of 1919. The movement was as a result of the treaty of Versailles that allowed Japan control over Chinese territories in the Shandong region. The people of China viewed this move as treacherous by their diplomatic envoys to Versailles as they failed to represent the interests of the Chinese people there. This sparked protests across Beijing against the inadequacies of their government at the time. The movement also marked a move in political paradigms from intellectual prioritization as prescribed by the Confucian rhetoric to populist mobilization. The protests were against traditional Chinese values, and leaders of the movement called for the adoption of select western principles such as science and democracy. They believed that these traditional ways that stemmed from Confucian thought as the reasons for China’s weaknesses and deficiencies in the international sociopolitical and diplomatic landscapes and demanded reform away from these value systems. They described the diplomatic failures of the team sent to Versailles as evidence that Confucian thought was responsible for the weakness of the nation in the global political landscape. This was a serious blow that the ideology took and contributed heavily to its decline.

Subjective principles

One of the foundational values of traditional Chinese thought that are stemmed from Confucianism is loyalty to rulers Wang (291). Subjects were bound by Confucian creed to be loyal to their rulers and had to support their decisions without necessarily agreeing with them. This principle had forced many Chinese citizens to accept decisions and policies that may not have been in their interest. The principle made them subject to the will and desires of their rulers and with time, they had grown exasperated by the fact. This became evident during the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and caused many Chinese citizens to protest against the old ways. Paying attention to the development of the Confucian concept triggered the effectiveness of the country and their way of conducting their operations. These unrests drew attention to the many defects and deficits of Confucian thought and its ineptitude in providing insight into governance and politics in the modern world. This further caused the decline of the ideology and its use in management influencing the well-being of the people and the country as a whole.

Increased western interference

During the early 20th century, many western nations had attained much political influence due to advancements in military and diplomatic technologies (Wang 91). The influence made the states useful in defining and giving orders to other countries. This and the victory of Britain over China during the Opium wars further emboldened the western powers to seek to influence the politics of China. This western influence culminated in the First World War whose end saw the rapid decline of traditional values among Chinese citizens. This is because western interference rendered the Qing dynasty powerless over the political systems of the nation and subsequently caused the fall of this regime (Rubin 83). The traditional Confucian values that supported the dynastic rule also crumbled with the dynasty as it was evident that these principles were in discordance with modern forms of governance and the failure of such was becoming more evident with every passing day. Chinese leaders were also unable to represent and defend the interests of the Chinese people accordingly during the signing of the Versailles Treaty and instead of accepting terms imposed by western powers as more intellectually logical. The Chinese people saw this as a weak move and blamed it on traditional Confucian values and principles that advocate for intellectual merit as the basis for nobility. The decline of Confucianism was further hastened by protests by peasants against intrusion into their country by foreigners. It was clear that traditional Confucian thought was insufficient for the Chinese government to deal with the problems they faced and this prompted its decline.

Reduced trust on traditional values

ZengGuofang, a Confucian scholar, and Chinese statesman pragmatically describes the superiority of western ideologies and technologies and ascribes their success to this superiority. This expresses the level of mistrust that the Chinese people had developed to their traditional values. China was headed for the plunge into political irrelevance, and many people understood that the reason this was happening was that of their traditional Confucian ideologies and principles that were becoming inapplicable and effective in the modern political landscape (Rubin 78). The erosion of this trust culminated into the abolition of the imperial examination system that made the Chinese empire a meritocratic one. This examination system was an implementation of Confucian thought concerning education and governance and was becoming increasingly ineffective as proven by Chinese government officials in running the government and diplomatic officers in their failure during the signing of the treaty at Versailles. This lack of trust in the traditional values caused many people to call for reforms, and thus Confucian thought plunged into irrelevance instead.

Progressing neighbors

Many nations of the Far East also subscribed to notions similar to those described by Confucianism before the late nineteenth century. Jun-Cai (73) argues that the Confucian concept has interfered with the operations of different countries and regions by changing their ways of doing things. However, during the beginning of the twentieth century, it was becoming more apparent that China’s neighbors, especially Japan, posed a threat to the political and economic welfare of the country. The countries posed a great challenge to the performance of the political and economic systems of the country. This semblance of superiority that Japan had attained was attributed to their selective adoption of western technology and ideas. By observation, the people of China were able to tell that their traditional value system and way of life was about to drive their country to ruin and adoption of western ideologies and technology seemed the only remedial move they could make to restore their state back to its former political standing. They began by adopting military technology, and this prompted the need for supplementary industries that caused them to adopt more technology and techniques. They would soon realize that mere grafting of foreign ideologies onto traditional Chinese values would not benefit their cause at all, and it was thus imperative that they reevaluate the entire realm of the Confucian rhetoric. This subsequently prompted the steady decline of Confucianism as the creed of the nation of China.

Emergence of new religions

The introduction of new religious beliefs by settling foreigners in China opened the people of China up to new systems of thought. The religion changed the thinking of people and was of doing this. It changed the culture of the country and beliefs of individuals (Zhang 57). These new thought patterns did not replace traditional Confucian thought but instead complemented it with further information and guidance. Since Confucian ideologies arise from Buddhism, the introduction of religions such as Christianity provide complementary insight to the deficiencies of the former. Other faiths helped in the introduction of more thoughts and values among individuals and spreading the same to the neighboring nations. Thus, when the crises of the early twentieth century struck and the deficiencies of the traditional value system became exposed, the people of China sourced intelligence from other value systems such as Christianity to help them solve the problems that Confucianism was unable to tackle Jun-cai (89). With time, these new ideologies from introduced religion helped form a substitute value system that ushered China into the next phase of development. As most of these new ideologies rose from western countries that the Chinese saw as superior, they were able to quickly incorporate them into their sociopolitical systems thus contributing to the decline and fall of the Confucian rhetoric.


Confucianism as a doctrinal ideology has spanned many centuries and has undergone various transformations from its inception right through its decline. The concept has encouraged development and further transformation of culture and values. These transformations have had various effects on the people of China and the Empire at large. The decline of the Chinese empire is indicative of the numerous deficiencies that this traditional value system bore and its ineffectiveness in solving the problems that the Chinese empire faced. Ineffectiveness in solving problems led the country in facing diverse challenges as compared to other regions across the globe. External factors such as interference by European countries and unfair treaties also contributed to the decline of the ideology as the creed of the Chinese people. Different European countries contributed to the failure of the ideology. However, the ineptitude of this ideology in dealing with modern international political problems is the main reason for its decline as displayed by the dismay the Chinese people had on the doctrinal philosophy of Confucianism. Despite its decline from use within official government policies and dispositions, Confucianism remains an integral part of Chinese history and culture, and its effects are still experienced all across China in their culture. Furthermore, the Confucian thought has influenced many other modern disciplines such as psychology, cognitive science and even business ethics due to the nature of Asian economic markets presently.


Jun-cai, B. A. I. "Hubei Wenjin Academy and the Spread of Confucianism in Huangzhou Region." Journal of Jianghan University (Social Science Edition) 2 (2014): 013.

Kohira, Saki. "Reseach Proposal-The influences of Confucianism in modern Chinese society." (2014).

Rubin, Vitali. “The End of Confucianism?” T'oungPao, vol. 59, no. 1/5, 1973, pp. 68–78. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Wang, Zhengxu. "DohChull Shin: Confucianism and Democratization in East Asia." (2015): 219.

Zhang, Lihong. "Confucianism, Communism and Democracy: A ‘Triangular’Struggle in China-Reflections on Italy’s Historical Experience with Cultural Reform." Understanding China Today: An Exploration of Politics, Economics, Society, and International Relations (2017): 313.

July 07, 2023


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