The Decline of Confucianism and the Republic of China

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  • 0:01 Revolution
  • 2:02 Jen
  • 3:23 Filial Piety
  • 3:58 Three Principles
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the decline of Confucianism within the Republic of China. In doing so, it will highlight the concepts of Jen and filial piety. It will also explore the role of and the influence of the Three Principles of the People.


In today's lesson we're going to take a look at the decline of Confucianism in China. As we do this, it's really important to point out that this lesson is going to be a very, very quick overview. In order to really cover this topic, we'd need days if not weeks. With this being said, there is one main point you should glean from today's lesson. Here it is.

With the imperial government of China falling and the republic of China rising, Confucianism lost its place as the state-sponsored religion of China.

With this main point set in our minds, let's get to the details of the lesson.

By the early 1900s, the country of China was on the verge of revolution. For years it had been a pawn in the hands of the foreign governments of Western Europe, with countries like Britain and Russia controlling its commerce and its trade. However, as the West began to creep further and further into the lands of China, the more educated people of the nation began to clamor for someone to stand up and say no to the encroaching West.

In 1911, the people of China found their guy. His name was Sun Yixian, the leader of China's first Nationalist Party. Disillusioned with the archaic ways of the Chinese empire and wanting to see his country modernized, Sun Yixian and his followers were successful in overthrowing the empire and creating the Republic of China.

With this, China began its journey of becoming a modernized nation - an international force to be reckoned with. However, in order to gain such power, many of the traditions and beliefs of old imperial China had to be rearranged if not completely thrown by the wayside.

Perhaps the most important of these traditions to be altered was China's reliance and adherence to the ancient faith of Confucianism as its state religion.

In order to understand the reason why Confucianism didn't quite fit with the new revolutionary spirit of China, we'll need to understand some of the basic tenants of Confucianism.


Ancient Confucianism had at its heart the idea of living in harmony and avoiding conflict. This alone helps explain why revolution and Confucianism didn't really mix.

At the very core of Confucianism is the principle of Jen. Sometimes spelled Ren, Jen can be translated as goodness or humaneness. In other words, it is the idea that humans should seek the good of others over the good of themselves. So important is the concept of Jen, that Confucianism teaches all other virtues spring from it.

In ancient Confucianism, Jen was the preeminent funnel for all human behavior and actions. In fact, ancient Confucianism taught that one should be willing to give his own life in order to protect Jen. One should strive, even sacrifice, to treat everyone with goodness. One should seek the good of others over the good of self.

Although this concept of Jen sounds admirable, historians tell us the more educated of China were becoming very, very disillusioned with the way it was playing out in their culture. Yes, in a perfect world where everyone else was playing by the rules of Jen, it sounds quite lovely. However, when countries like Turkey and Russia are knocking on your door with guns and tanks, the whole Jen idea begins to seem a bit, shall we say, naive.

Filial Piety

Adding to the conflict between Confucianism and the new Republic, the ancient faith taught great loyalty to the family and the home. Known as filial piety, Confucianism held that deep respect of one's ancestors and elders was one's supreme responsibility in life. Family came before everything else.

If forced to choose between allegiance to country and allegiance to the family, family wins every day of the week, every week of the month, and every month of the year. Not surprisingly, the leaders of the new republic weren't too keen on this set up.

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