Could Confucius Change Your Life?

In an panicked moment, maybe what we need most is a new set of eyes—or a very old one.

Whatever you may find to be the problem—capitalist excess or teens “keeping it real,” digital isolation, widespread anxiety, Trumpian narcissism, bad governance, or all of the above—Confucius has something to say to you.Confucius-students

That may be why Confucius and his followers—who taught and wrote almost 2,500 years ago—are resonating anew in the hearts of Chinese citizens. One of our guests, the great podcaster Kaiser Kuo, sees Confucian thinking as “baked-in” to the so-called Chinese character, as permanent as Plato.

Not to mention at Harvard, where, in the hands of beloved professor Michael Puett, Confucius provides counterintuitive wisdom to a bunch of self-aware, overwhelmed overachievers.

Confucius raises self-cultivation to the pursuit of a lifetime. Every encounter is a learning experience; every mundane action is a ritual to be perfected. All of it is in the service of the good life—reworking your desires, constraints, and impulses to promote ren—“goodness” or “humaneness”—in all you do.

Imagine the “superior person” as like an archer:

He rectifies himself, and seeks for nothing from others, so that he has no dissatisfactions. He does not murmur against Heaven, nor grumble against men…

The Master said, “In archery we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself.”

Maybe it’s this part that makes sense to the perfection-prone Harvard student. Imagine if all that striving were less about world takeover and more about nonstop inward renovation of the mind and heart.

Confucian thinking can put one in mind of superhuman social talents: Stefan Zweig‘s lost generation of hyper-refined Viennese (or Ralph Fiennes‘s M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel)—officials, artists, peerless hosts and hostesses with not a thread out of place, kind, warm, and accommodating down to their souls.

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Stefan Zweig in his domicile in Salzburg. Photography. 1931. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) [Stefan Zweig in seinem Salzburger Domizil am Kapuzienerberg [?]. "Der Schriftsteller Stefan Zweig feiert am 28. Nov. 1931 seinen 50. Geburtstag" (No. 2698a). Stefan Zweig (1881 Wien - 1942 Petropolis, Brasilien, Selbstmord) begann als Lyriker des Wiener Impressionismus, entwickelte sich durch seine Freundschaft mit Emile Verhaeren und Romain Rolland zum pazifistisch-humanistischen Schriftsteller. aehnlich wie Hugo von Hofmannsthal fuehlte er sich als einer der letzten der buergerlich-europaeischen Kultur, die er in zahlreichen Novellen, Romanen und seiner Autobiographie ?Die Welt von gestern? (1942) beschrieb. In der Sammlung "Kaleidoskop" (1924) und dem kurzen Roman "Der begrabene Leuchter" (1937) beschaeftigte er sich eingehender mit dem Judentum, nachdem er vor dem aufkommenden Nationalismus aus Salzburg geflohen war (1934).]

Michael Puett argues that Confucius still points a path to that kind of orderly, rewarding mutual life. And he’s making his pitch in an exciting new book called The Path, cowritten with Christine Gross-Loh.

We’ll talk about the comeback of the great sage—long in arriving—and what it could mean for your life.

You can hear a longer version of our conversations with our favorite people living Confucianism today, at least at a deep cultural level—Tu Weiming, Gish Jen, and Kaiser Kuo—below:


Illustration by Victo Ngai for The New Yorker.

Guest List
Michael Puett
professor of East Asian studies at Harvard University and co-author, with Christine Gross-Loh, of The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life.
Anna Sun
professor of sociology at Kenyon College and author of Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities.
Tu Weiming
a leading scholar of neo-Confucian religion at Harvard and Beijing Normal University and author of many books about Confucius.
Gish Jen
novelist of Typical American and author of most recently of Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self  
Kaiser Kuo
Chinese-American tech evangelist, former heavy-metal guitarist of Tang Dynasty, and host of the Sinica podcast.

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  • Mitch Bernard

    This is a tremendously important subject and it is enormously helpful for the idea of the relational self to be explored not just be those brought up in the liberal western European tradition, but even people who live in the societies of East Asia where, as is pointed out, people have to navigate between various grand narratives, including that of the disembodied maximizing rational actor of micro economics which sits alongside the multiplicity of traditional narratives.

    I agree that Confucianism can be a means for re-focusing and re-emphasizing how it is through process. So too could Daoism and certain of the Buddhist traditions. But China is the likely the wrong country to focus on. The spirit of self-actualization through the quotidian, and the fixation on process of how we do even the most mundane of tasks is much more prevalent in Japan than in China, despite the latter being the country of its origin. China embodies the relational aspects of what you are discussing but it is a country where people cut corners and are decidedly non-process oriented at every turn for a host of complex reasons. China may revert to the state you are discussing as it becomes wealthier. Meanwhile the narrow China-US comparative paradigm that you and your guests are operating in obscures looking at one of the last artisanal countries on earth, Japan, and how these Confucian ideas have been absorbed in a context different from that of China and are embedded much more comprehensively in all aspects of social life.

  • Mitth Murat

    I was struck at how poor the argument against western thinking in this podcast was…Finding youself to me doesn’t mean accepting everything you do as right; it’s more about identifying what is best for you as a human being living with other human beings and improving towards it. It’s about living a healthy life. It is about good habits…. To be honest, I see little value in the ideas of Confucius, and I live in probably the most Confucius society in the world. In my experience, it is all about the powerful controlling the behavior of the masses in a way such that the powerful stay powerful.

  • Potter

    Especially at this moment. Confucianism’s higher aspects, which I did not know, are so beautifully expressed by your guest Tu Weiming. .

    Buddhism and Taoism have given many in the West great solace and inner peace. It seems that Confucianism can add to that gift from China. But if one does not give oneself to it sincerely and is not able to transcend or ascend, blind obedience can be choking ( soul death?) as with any other religion or way. But a person can get lost so easily in this world without some scaffolding. And some really need it.

    The “something deeper” that comes with feeling respect and acceptance of others is the grease that makes civilization work. Wouldn’t you know, in our present scary time there is an enthrall with trashing “political correctness”. This is supposedly “to make America great again”. PC seems very Confucian. What we have now instead is “confusion-ism”

    I have more confidence that the Chinese people have a grounding underneath it all and are capable of transmitting it to the world. But Chris had a couple of good questions about that, whether there is the will on a political societal level.

    It’s not surprising that students here are looking beyond our Western religious and philosophical offerings. It’s not a new thing. We are such restless and determined individuals but we also need an evolution.

    I don’t feel the conflict between Emerson and Confucius— it’s more yin and yang: one needs to find and strive to be true to oneself to really be able to feel deeply outside of oneself, to get beyond the self.

    About beauty: this show makes me want to read Chinese poetry newly and notice the Confucianism in it. As well I see Confucius in the exquisite perfection of ancient Chinese ceramics: practice to perfection.

    Thank you.

    • Potter

      It was Anna Sun’s description of Confucianism that I felt so beautifully expressed. All good guests-