The Value of Education: A Comparison of Confucianist and Anarchist Objectives

A common element of Anarchism and Confucianism is the value both philosophies place upon education, and the role education held, whether theoretically or in practice, in propagating their objectives. In their chapter ‘Propagating Female Virtues in Choson Korea’, Deuchler explores the role of literature for ‘indoctrination’ in promoting Neo-Confucian ideals and virtues among elite women which proved to ensure the stability of the domestic realm, and subsequently the stability of the state and society functioning under Confucian hierarchy. Through exposure to works such as Elementary Learning (1189), Illustrated Guide to the Three Bonds (1432), and Instructions for Women (1475), virtues and morality were to be transplanted into the household, and women were to act as ‘the guardians of Confucian norms in the inner realm’ in Korea.[1] Too, Tocco in their ‘Norms and Texts for Women’s Education in Tokugawa Japan’ discusses the extent of women’s education within Tokugawa Japan, and provides example of a woman’s education as accessed through moral guides and texts whose foundations lay in Neo-Confucian ethical precepts which stressed the importance of filial piety and kinship. Both Deuchler and Tocco illustrate well how the education of women in preparation of their managerial and ethical domestic responsibilities came to play a role in the upholding of a Confucian hierarchical society and ideals of filial piety.

A direct comparison between Confucianism and Anarchism can perhaps be made in their conflicting objectives; the Confucian upholding of hierarchy versus the anarchist aims to dismantle hierarchy and those social institutions which serve it, namely state institutions, and familial structures. The value of education therefore is found and placed in competing goals.

Dirlik in Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (1991) emphasises the perceived importance of education among early twentieth century anarchists in achieving revolutionary change. Education is presented as an ‘instrument of revolution’, a tool to create a self-awareness/revolutionary consciousness which would in turn allow for a successful, conscious uprising to dismantle those institutions.[2] Education within anarchist philosophy is also presented as the equivalent of revolution, for there is no distinction made between process and goals of revolution: revolution is a necessary condition for the possibility of anarchist education, but revolution cannot be achieved without education. An anarchist education therefore taught truth and public-mindedness – freedom, equality, and the ability for self-governance – as the means and ends of anarchist revolution.

Kanno Sugako (1881-1911), a central figure in the early Japanese anarchist movement, clearly voiced the need for women to develop self-awareness, and is reflective of wider anarchist ideas on the importance of education in achieving this social consciousness:

‘For us women, the most urgent task is to develop our own self-awareness […] women with some education and some degree of social knowledge must surely be discontented and angry about their status.’[3]

Here she also suggests how education may allow for women to think critically of their status within society. Kanno implies the importance of education in achieving self-awareness, and suggests that this self-awareness of women’s status in society is not recognised to a great extent. Yet, she also suggests that some degree of education must be enough to make one critical of their status – perhaps even one of a Confucian grounding. This seems to conflict slightly with one argument presented by Deuchler, that Japanese women, through their ‘indoctrinating’ education, were complicit in and ‘contributed to the perpetuation of the Confucian system’ which in turn served to promote hierarchy and uphold patriarchy.[4] While this may be true on a macro-scale, their use of the term ‘indoctrination’ suggests those educated women themselves were uncritical, and it is this implication I find dubious. With little evidence written by women themselves proving as a limitation in their work, no outright rejection of a system which suppressed the visibility of women at this time does not necessarily mean there was no critique or ‘self-awareness’. Rather, it serves as a reflection on the success of the patriarchal system in limiting women’s purpose to the domestic realm.

Despite the value of education being found competing goals, both philosophies emphasised the importance of moral teaching. The moral aims of Confucian education however were confined within the family, and were to ensure good Confucian household and the teaching of children Confucian moral values, whereas moral education among anarchists aimed to achieve a public revolution of morality as to achieve its humanitarian goals. This apparent divergence from private teaching of filial piety towards a public revolution promoting equal respect across humanity is interesting, and raises the question of whether the popularity of anarchist ideals within China and Japan was viewed as, or came as a rejection of traditional values of Confucianism.


[1] Martina Deuchler, ‘Propagating Female Virtues in Chosón Korea’ in Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush and Joan R Piggot (ed.) Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea and Japan (Berkeley, 2003), p. 152.

[2] Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (Berkeley, 1991), p. 90.

[3] Mikiso Hane, Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Pre-war Japan (Berkeley, 1993), p. 53.

[4] Deuchler, ‘Propagating Female Virtues in Chosón Korea’ in Women and Confucian Cultures, p. 165.

Human Nature: How Perception of Human Tendencies Alters the Definition of Confucianism

The influence of Confucianism in Chinese culture and throughout the world is undeniable, but Confucianism itself is difficult to define, both because it is rooted in deeply philosophical, existential questions, but also because it has been interpreted and redefined by so many generations of thinkers.  One critical aspect which differentiates different schools of Confucianism is how one answers the question of whether human nature is inherently good or inherently evil.  Even just a hundred years after the death of Confucius, his disciple Mencius redefined his teachings by basing Confucian philosophy on the principle that human nature is inherently good.  This so changed the foundation of Confucian belief that the new school came to be known as Neo-Confucianism.  On the opposite side of the spectrum are thinkers like Xunzi and Ogyu Sorai, who base their philosophical interpretations on the idea that humans are naturally inclined towards evil.  Although they all claim to be following and expanding on the teachings of Confucius, their approaches to Confucian teachings lead them in entirely different directions.

Daniel Gardner in his book, Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, argues that the Neo-Confucian views of Mencius had a greater impact on Chinese education from 1300 to 1900 than almost any other figure, apart from Confucius himself.[1]  Mencius famously argues that “all men have a mind-and-heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others: Today, no matter the person, if he suddenly comes upon a young child about to fall into a well, his mind-and-heart fills with alarm and is moved to compassion.”[2]  This belief in an innate sense of compassion influences his entire philosophy and it is the foundation of his belief that it is our duty to cultivate this compassion through self-reflection.  Gardner argues that it was required of anyone wishing to enter government service to internalise this philosophy of self-cultivation.  As a result, Confucianism, and its practice by those in official government positions, was a highly individualistic philosophy which recommended that the best way to serve others was by turning inward and through the perfection of oneself one could become an example for others.

Ogyu Sorai argued for the opposite approach.  He agrees with Xunzi that  humans are predisposed towards evil, claiming that “men are not sages, and that evil inevitably abounds while good is scarcely to be seen.”[3]  This pessimistic view of human nature leads him to the conclusion that humans cannot attain moral perfection on their own.  Arthur Tiedemann’s analysis of Sorai’s writings in Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600-2000 argues that Sorai was convinced that traditional schools of Confucianism like Zhu Xi and Ito Jinsai, “had failed to fufill the basic aim of scholarship: to provide for the needs of the people and the general social welfare. The NeoConfucians were too preoccupied with metaphysics, philosophical idealism, and personal cultivation.”[4]  Other schools relied on the inner good nature of the individual to eventually lead them towards goodness and virtue, but Sorai thought this perspective was unrealistic because it placed too much pressure on the individual.  He argues that without established social and political structures to guide and support people, their material welfare would be neglected and as a result, the evil tendencies of human nature would be manifested.

The real opposition in these views lies in the contrasting ideas the true nature of human beings.  If, as Mencius claims, humans must look within themselves to find good, then Confucianism is a philosophy which focuses predominantly on the individual and encourages an almost religious approach to personal perfection through self-reflection and self-cultivation.  In this form of Confucianism, laws and government authority have little effect because one is expected to govern oneself and set an example for others.  But, if one takes Sorai’s view that humans possess a natural evil which they must overcome, it is necessary to look outside oneself, to social and political institutions to correct this inherent flaw.  In this sense, Confucianism is a philosophy which stresses the importance of community and advocates for the structure and support which rituals and laws provide to keep individuals in check.  These contradictory views both claim to be “fulfilling the Confucian teaching, not breaking with it,” but their social and political implications are vastly different.[5]  The way in which Confucianism is interpreted in this case determines whether it is defined as a religion or as a political ideology.

[1] Gardner, Daniel K., Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, (Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), ProQuest Ebook Central,, p. xv.

[2] Ibid., p. 65.

[3] Tiedemann, Arthur, Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600 to 2000, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, et al., (Columbia University Press, 2005), ProQuest Ebook Central,, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 218.

[5] Ibid., p. 219.

The Unique Nature of Chinese Cosmopolitanism: Examining Similarities and Differences Between East and West

Yan Xishan’s pamphlet, “How to Prevent Warfare and Establish the Foundations of World Unity” is a fascinating document that discusses the ideology of Cosmopolitanism combined with Chinese concepts of Da-Tong (大同), and Socialist thought. An ideological system that can be succinctly described as Chinese Socialist Cosmopolitanism. [1]

In terms of time, the general intellectual trend was leaning towards Cosmopolitanism during this period. With the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, ideas of global governance and unity were being discussed. However, the place that this pamphlet arose from is surprising.

Despite, Western political and ideological concepts such as Republicanism, Democracy and Welfare introduced through Sun Yat-Sen’s (孫中山) declaration of the Three Peoples Principles in 1905, being well known and popular throughout China. These concepts were mostly constrained in a national context. To embrace, and indeed expound the concept of Cosmopolitanism as Datong was incredibly far-sighted on Yan Shixan’s part.

Several intellectual strains come to mind when considering Yan’s ideas. The first is that of Kantian Cosmopolitanism, especially his work ‘Towards Perpetual Peace’. This is in specific regard to the “Recognition of the equality of man without discrimination of race, colour, belief, country” as highlighted in the pamphlet. Yan invokes, whether with or without intent, Kant’s concept of ‘Cosmopolitan Law’ which suggests a universal law that incorporates states and individuals globally. [2] The concept of Datong has a similar concept to that of Kant’s Cosmopolitanism but instead utilizing a “right” based legalistic approach to Cosmopolitanism, emphasizes an ethical and moral social grounding for it. This points to the motivations for actions promoting global harmony and cooperation being grounded not in the rational thought of individuals forming society, but rather moral cultivation and development.

The second intellectual strain that Yan considers when elucidating his concept of Cosmopolitanism, is that of the Doctrine of the Golden Mean (also known as Aristotelian Virtue Ethics). This idea is derived from Western Philosophical traditions from Ancient Greek Philosophy. [3] Despite this, to view Yan’s understanding of the Golden Mean as one that was simply borrowed from Greek Philosophy would be to assume that similar concepts in Chinese philosophy do not exist. The concept of Zhongyong (中庸) taken from Neo-Confucian Scholars such as Zi Si (子思) is also commonly referred to as the Doctrine of the Mean. Indeed, Aristotle never really expanded his concept of the Golden mean to encapsulate ‘trespasses’ taken by one person against another. [4] His concept was more concerned with individual ethical behaviour with the fundamental basis of his theory being Ethical Egoism. Yan, on the other hand, seems to interpret ‘Unity of Contradiction’ as a Golden Mean between individuals, something that is more evocative of Zi Si’s understanding of the Golden Mean.

Considering the origin of intellectual ideas is incredibly important especially when discussing ideas originating from East Asian sources. Due to the vast majority of our educational upbringing, it is often assumed that the intellectual origins of ideas are taken from notable Western thinkers. Yan Xishan’s ideas on Cosmopolitanism highlights the similarities in intellectual ideas between Western and Eastern thought while allowing us to examine the differences at their core.

[1] Yan, Xishan. How to Prevent Warfare and Establish Foundation of World Unity, pamphlet, pp1-41

[2]Brown, Wallace Brown, Grounding Cosmopolitanism: From Kant to the Idea of Cosmopolitan Constitution, Book, 2009, pp31-54

[3]Hursthouse, Rosalind, Virtue Ethics,, 2016

[4] Boi, Peter K., Neo-Confucianism in History, Harvard University Asia Center, 2008