Education About Asia: Online Archives

Teaching Confucius: Multiple Perspectives

Confucius, or Kong Fuxi or Master Kong (the best romanization of the term since “Confucius” was a European construction), is almost certainly the most-well-known person who ever lived in East Asia. In the US, visit the East Pediment of the Supreme Court and see Confucius’s statue flanked on the left by Solon and on the right by Moses in a tableau of famous “lawgivers.” Examine content-rich K-12 Social Studies State Standards in the US and you’ll find Confucius. The same is true for the US Advanced Placement Curriculum, and for the International Baccalaureate Curriculum that schools in a number of countries utilize.

This is the picture of the East Pediment of the Supreme Court building. It has a triangle roof with a statue of many historical figures, including Confucius. Below is a line "JUSTICE THE GUARDIAN OF LIBERTY."
The East Pediment of the Supreme Court building. A statue of Confucius appears in the center with Moses and Solon representing lawgivers from three great civilizations. Source: “The East Pediment” from the Supreme Court website at https://tinyurl.com/2cju3878.

I make no pretense of doing anything but providing a sample of teaching essays and resources on this topic. Readers who are looking for commentary on various English translations of the Analects can explore several links for opinions. AAS Board Policy limits EAA’s scope to secondary education (now including middle school) and college instructors and students, so there are no elementary school recommendations. This situation notwithstanding, in my over three decades of teaching Asia, excerpts from the Analects constitute the only classic of world literature I’ve been able to use with second graders, and students and instructors from middle school to graduate school.

Please read the introductory paragraph of the “other teaching resources” portion of this column to learn more about a mistake I’ve made in teaching Confucius and how to avoid it.

Hopefully, what follows will be useful for instructors and students in learning and thinking about Confucius in perhaps new ways.

Jeffrey Richey’s brief essay, “Confucius in East Asia” (volume 18, number 1, spring 2013) is the perfect first resource to recommend. In the essay, Richey describes his then-forthcoming Key Issues in Asian Studies volume “Confucius in East Asia: Confucianism’s History in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.” The success of Richey’s little book speaks for itself since a new updated edition will be published in spring 2022. Digest readers will learn when the new edition is available and particularly interested readers should check even more frequently for updates at the AAS Website.

Readers who are interested in Confucian influences on significant Asian leaders in countries other than China that are highly accessible for students as well as instructors should enjoy John Sagers’s “Shibusawa Eiichi and the Merger of Confucianism and Capitalism in Modern Japan” (volume 19, number 3, winter 2014), the story of how Japan’s most famous late nineteenth and early twentieth century entrepreneur became a leading popularizer of Confucius in the late 1800s, and with his retirement, intensified these efforts for over two decades in the twentieth century until his 1931 death. Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) often referred to as the “George Washington of Singapore” gained worldwide attention in the latter part of the twentieth century as the (often self-proclaimed) avid proponent of a contemporary version of Confucianism. Charles Chao Rong Phua in Top Ten Things to Know about Singapore in the Twenty-First Century” (volume 22, number 2, fall 2017) emphasizes Lee Kuan Yew’s notion of Confucianism, without necessarily using the term, in five entries of his “top ten” list.

Yue Zhang in Bringing Traditional Chinese Culture to Life” (volume 23, number 3, winter 2018) devotes the first portion of his teaching essay to ConfuciusProfessor Yue’s article, with perhaps some adaptions, is particularly recommended for high school, college, and middle school instructors. Sarah Schneewind in “Analects in the Classroom: Book Four as a First Step” (volume 16, number 1, spring 2011) imaginatively translates dialogue from this important book to position contemporary students to better understand basic Confucian concepts. Anita Andrew and Robert Andre LaFleur in “Remonstrance: The Moral Imperative of the Chinese Scholar-Official” (volume 19, number 2, fall 2014) take a Confucian concept and use narrative and primary source excerpts in helping readers learn how remonstrance evolved as time passed.

Two contributors offer two stories of how Western missionaries’ perceptions of Confucianism first impacted China, and then later Korea. Elena Vishnevskaya in “The Early Modern Jesuit Mission to China: A Marriage of Faith and Culture” (volume 25, number 1, spring 2020) tells the story of how an over century long promising Jesuit-led effort to reconcile Confucianism and Christianity failed and resulted in a significant reduction of Catholic missionaries entering China. In “American and European Missionaries in East Asia,” (volume 16, number 2, fall 2011) Professor Donald Clark, a historian of Korea with maternal and paternal grandparents and parents who were missionaries in Korea, and who spent the majority of his childhood and adolescence in the country, explains one of the major reasons Protestant Christian missionaries were so well-accepted in Korea. Despite elite women Confucian adherents, traditional Confucianism generally relegated most women to inferior status. This was especially true in Korea. Professor Clark contends that Protestant missionaries awarded ordinary women, who were at the bottom of the Korean social pyramid, the first leadership positions they had ever attained.

Carol Stepanchuk in  “The Great Courses: Books that Matter: The Analects of Confucius” (volume 24, number 1, spring 2019) provides a stellar review of Robert Andre LaFleur’s Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius. Having also “taken the course, ” I enthusiastically concur.


Other Teaching Resources: Asia for Educators, “Confucius as Teacher and Person,” and excerpts from “The Five Vermin.”

This is the portrait of Confucius. He wears a blue hat and traditional dress-like clothes. He has long beard and thick eyebrow. He crosses his hand in front of his body.
Portrait of Confucius by Qiu Ying (1494–1552), Ming dynasty. Source: Wikipedia at https://tinyurl.com/mrsrnfd5.

The biggest mistake I’ve ever made in teaching Confucianism is to unintentionally strengthen instructor and student perceptions that Confucianism is the most important Chinese belief system, impacting thought, economics, interpersonal relations, and Chinese government and politics. In China, Legalism is at least, if not more, important in political theory and government policymaking than Confucianism. Legalism is unknown to most American teachers and students. One of the many attributes of Asia for Educators is that instructors and students can find brief, but excellent primary source excerpts and DBQs on the AnalectsLegalism, Daoism, and Buddhism.