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In Context

Eastern and Western scholars analyzing China's meteoric economic rise in the past thirty years -- and its previous economic sluggishness -- have often focused on the relationship between capitalism and traditional Confucian values.

Confucianism is a philosophy attributed to the philosopher Confucius and has long been a chief cultural influence in China. Confucianism places weight on familial relationships and respect for elders and parents, a virtue known as "filial piety" (or "devotion to family"). In addition to creating harmony in the family, this virtue is considered essential in preparing children for respectful conduct in everyday life.

During the 1950s and 1960s, while Western nations were establishing themselves as world superpowers, some scholars attributed China's comparative failure to develop its economy to Confucianism. German political economist Max Weber believed that capitalism was influenced by religious ideas and that the values integral to Confucianism were incompatible with real economic performance or growth. Chinese scholar Chi Kong Lai writes extensively on the government officials in China who viewed the selfless ideals of Confucianism as incompatible with the selfishness that it took to succeed in business. Confucius is quoted saying, "If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I'd rather follow my inclinations."

Following China's economic liberalization in 1978, many scholars and analysts in both the East and West began to emphasize Confucianism's values of xin (trustfulness), cheng (sincerity), ren (humaneness), and zhong (loyalty) -- qualities attractive in a business person - as well as pragmatism, harmony, reverence for family, acceptance of hierarchical social structures, concern with shame and saving face. Suddenly Confucianism was seen by some as not a barrier to success, but as a force behind it.

More pressing today, however, are the challenges faced by working families divided by migration. In a country where blood ties are paramount, the impediments that long-distance relationships can impose on families are seen as particularly insidious. Statistics show that although 56 percent of Chinese migrant workers are married, most of those couples are split between home and work so that one person can take care of family, and consequently see each other only once a year. In 2009, some 2.3 million couples divorced in China, an increase of 8.8 percent over the previous year, for a seventh consecutive year of increase. Among divorcing rural couples, 50 to 80 percent are estimated to include one migrant worker. Of younger migrant workers -- those born after the 1980s -- 80 percent are unmarried, and more than 70 percent list loneliness as their principal burden.

Filmmaker Lixin Fan says, It's true that the Confucian virtue of filial piety has long played a big role in Chinese lives. Being away from one's family was never encouraged by traditional values. Now the changing society has shifted toward a more pragmatic judgment and the bettering of one's material life. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the Chinese are losing their traditional values completely. For example, in the film, the parents worked away from home but they sent all their savings to their parents and kids. I think that although the way of life has transformed along with economic changes, deeper values still remain."

Photo caption: Qin helps grandmom with farm work.
Credit: Liming Fan

» Bao, Angela. "Endless road in China: from country to city and back." World Policy Journal. June 10, 2011.
» Fan, Lixin. "A Statement and Q&A with Lixin Fan." Spirituality & Practice, October 2009.
» PBS. Hidden Korea: Religion. Accessed Sep 22, 2011.
» Sang-in, Jun. "No (Logical) Place for Asian Values in East Asia's Economic Development. Development and Society." Development and Society, Volume 28 Number 2, December 1999, pp. 191-204.
» Yao, Souchou. Confucian Capitalism: Discourse, practice and the myth of Chinese enterprise. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002
» Zarrow, Peter, ed. Creating Chinese Modernity: Knowledge and Everyday Life, 1900-1940. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006.
» Zurndorfer, Harriet. "Confusing Confucianism With Capitalism: Culture as Impediment and/or Stimulus to Chinese Economic Development," paper presented at the Third Global Economic History Network Meeting, Konstanz, Germany (3-5 June 2004).