Confucianism and its relevance to Filipino thoughts

Confucius Day was recently commemorated by people and institutions extolling the teachings of the Chinese sage, and Prof. Lino Baron of the University of Sto. Tomas wrote a timely article in the Manila Times about Confucianism, an ethical-socio-political philosophy and ideology that has strongly influenced Chinese, Korean, and Japanese governments and societies.

Though its impact is mostly felt in Northeast Asian countries, Confucianism has also influenced other countries. In Southeast Asia, Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew is a well-known advocate of Confucianism and I remember his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on an interview with Bloomberg’s Charlie Rose, saying that “Singapore is governed according to the precepts of Confucianism”. In the Philippines, Confucianism as applied in the body politic has attracted many followers as well. Among the many advocates of Confucianism that I know is the founder of the Asian Institute of Management, Mr. Washington SyCip and Philippine Star columnist and real estate businessman Wilson Lee Flores.

Prof. Baron’s article “Confucianism and its relevance to Filipino thoughts” was first posted in the Manila Times and I have asked his permission to repost it here on PH.CN for my subscribers reading pleasure. Below is the complete text of his article.

Many philosophers of ancient China, who taught the proper way of life, wielded the strong influence of Chinese culture in the field of the people’s spiritual life and their relation with nature and fellowmen. During those times, the teachings and doctrine of these philosophers were considered the basis of life of the people with the family and the society and molded the leaders and the spiritual lives of many. With their wisdom and untiring search for knowledge, ideologies were produced and the religious beliefs and political tenets saw light.

One of the philosophers was Confucius. His teachings still greatly influence the human relations of Asia and are the foundation of family life. In many other parts of the world the wisdom of Confucius has gained ready acceptance. An emphasis upon moral principles as the basis of harmony in the home, in society, and among nations is contrary to Buddhist thought but is both Confucianism and Christianity.

The life and teachings of Confucius has been the subject of an enormous writing, much of it highly fanciful. Arthur Waley, the great translator of Confucian texts, concludes that “one could construct half a dozen other Confuciuses by tapping the legend at different stages of its evolution. What is known of the original man is drawn from the Analects (Lun Yu) and from a brief eulogistic biography written by China’s most famous historian, Ssu-ma Chien, who lived three hundred years after Confucius.”

Confucius, born 551 years before Jesus Christ in Tsou, a small town in the old state of Lu (which today is known as Shandong province), worked for the restoration of the glory of the Chou dynasty as his life-long crusade. For historians, this is quite a paradox, for as men reached the apex of his development during the Chou dynasty, so did man’s inhumanity reached its zenith.

These puzzling questions remind us of the Philippine situation today. A quick glance at the headlines of the newspapers will underscore the alarming reality of our time: blatant corruption in high places, grinding poverty among the greater majority, heinous crimes with the hapless children, women and old people as victims and an escalating apathy among the youth who see no hope in their country’s future.

In our anger, shame and desperation, we are driven to shake our fist at the universe and ask why, despite the advancement in technology and science, our society is still mired in the quagmire of violence and crass opportunism. We cannot wait for a child as pure as crystal who will save the country from doom. What we can do is examine our frames of mind, the wellspring of our thoughts, our national psyche in order to get the root of this discomfort.

In the Lun Yun or Book of Analects, comprised of wise saying that embody Confucius’ ethical principle, it is stated:

“Each day I examine myself on three counts: whether or not I am loyal to those in whose behalf I act; whether or not I am trustworthy in my dealing with friends; whether or not I practice what is imparted.”

From this passage alone, we glean what are preeminent in Confucian thoughts as a foundation of the life of perfect goodness: sincerity, benevolence, filial piety and propriety. These are the very values which should govern Filipino thoughts towards the attainment of harmony and peace in our beleaguered society.

In the ancient days before Spain’s colonization of the Philippines, these were values esteemed highly by the Filipinos who traded freely with the Chinese. It is chronicled in the Sung Annals of 982 AD that Chinese merchants value their commerce with our ancestors because they always honored their end of the bargain. They would leave their wares by the shore of the islands, which the natives would pick up and barter inland. After three to six months, they would return with recompense of abundant goods that was well worth the long wait by the traders. There were no written contracts and recorded ledgers, but the Filipinos’ word was worth its weight in gold.

However, with the passage of time, as our people exchanged one colonial master for another with the failed revolution of 1898, our values turned to a steady decline. We had a succession of inept governments, helmed by confused leaders and hemmed by the vicissitudes of economic misfortunes. We had a second martyrdom after Bagumbayan, the tarmac assassination of Ninoy Aquino who tried to roll the great rock of the dictatorship, but which tore asunder the moral fiber of the nation. We had several chapters of people power with EDSA 1,2 and 3, with their promise of moral regeneration that ended with a whimper and a sigh. At present, we are petrified with fear and trepidation for the next scandal that will rock our government’s all too shaky foundation and further erode the value of our all too puny peso.

Filipinos should think long and hard about the iniquities which have been crippling the country for centuries: the mentality of palusot, palakasan, padrino, bahala na, and other self-aggrandizing behavior which tramples our inherent sense of decency and fairness.

Leaders in government, in particular, must hearken to his rebuke:

“In leading a state of a thousand chariots, respect the office and be trustworthy; economize in the use of resources and love the people, and employ the people when it is timely.”

It is said the doctrines of Confucius have been through a thousand autumns and will continue without change for ten thousand generations to come. With his precepts, let us continue to think for the good of humanity, and as his disciple Hsia resounded:

“To revere virtue instead of beauty, to devote all strength to serving our parents, to be willing to die in serving the Lord, to speak with trustworthiness in dealing with friends.”

Image credit:

J. Sun E.

Sun, a Filipino based in China, writes PH.CN on ProPinoy, a weekly column on Philippines-China relations, politics, history, and current events. He studied Political Science, History, and Foreign Languages in Philippines and China. Follow him on Twitter @phdotcn

  • Francis Fukuyama in his book the Origins of Political Order devotes a significant amount of attention to the impact of Confucianism on Chinese civilization and its development of the state.

    He says, “Confucianism did not envisage any institutional checks on the power of the emperor; rather, it sought to educate the prince, to moderate his passions and make him feel accountable to the people.”This he says was the same principle behind Socrates’ idea of the just city in Plato’s Republic. Whose job was it to educate the prince? The bureaucrats of course! A professional civil service arose schooled in what it meant to rule justly in order to advice the emperor of the day. If emperors did not abide by this moral code, they would lose their “mandate from Heaven” or right to rule.

    This sounds very much like the situation in the Philippines which has had a few “bad emperors” that had to be removed from office and where the only restraint that can be imposed on its leaders are not institutional but based on some kind of a moral code or self-restraint.

  • Manuelbuencamino

    How many of you have read the Confucian texts?

    • Joe America

      Things that are done, it is needless to speak about…things that are past, it is needless to blame.

      • Manuelbuencamino

        How many besides Joe have read all the Confucian texts?

        • I’ve read most but not all. I got bored. I think those are just things what a good man must do. What’s the point ManuelB?

          • Manuelbuencamino

            Just curious. Joe is the only one who quoted confucius so it’s difficult to say whether confucius is relevent to the philippines or not

          • Ligaya Barlow

            Joe’s quote could be merely a gloss on the Stoics

        • Ligaya Barlow

          What makes you think Joe America is in favor of reading, unless it’s the art of the scam?

  • GabbyD

    your information on lee kuan yew is INCORRECT.

    NewsweekJanuary 28, 2001Davos, Switzerland By Michael Hirsh NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE Forget what I said about “Asian Values”, declares the sage of Singapore

    Today Lee takes a somewhat different view. At a session on Asia on Jan 27, the white-haired sage repudiated a good deal of what he said back then. “Confucian” values – the term he now prefers – have become all but obsolete under the demands of the global economy, Lee asserted with exactly the same soft-spoken serenity he displayed in 1994. Indeed, Singapore and Hong Kong performed best in weathering the financial crisis not because of Asian values but because of British colonial ones, especially transparency and the rule of law, Lee said. In much of East Asia, Confucian values “led to excesses,” especially family cronyism – in other words, investing on the basis of whom one knows rather what they can do with the money. And in most of those countries, investment flows are only back to between 40 and 60 percent of pre-crisis levels, whereas Singapore has fully recovered “because we aggressively went out to meet global standards.” 

    • Joe America

      That only means Lee Kuan Yew can adapt, not that the author is wrong.

      • GabbyD

        huh? the author writes: ” In Southeast Asia, Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew is a well-known advocate of Confucianism”

        he isnt. the opposite of “is” is “isnt”.

        • Joe America

          I read it that Lee Kwan Yew got a lot from Confucianism. But you are grammatically spot on.

          • GabbyD

            joe, “got alot from” is NOT the same as “advocate for”. 

            please. lets get FACTS STRAIGHT. 

            for the author, i hope he corrects his blog piece on this. this is a facts issue. 

          • Joe America

            Facts aren’t important if they are irrelevant. If somebody sneezes, that is a fact. I don’t care. The writer’s article is very good and I hope he does not grovel to every complaint that comes along.

          • GabbyD


            the problem is that the author attributed confucianism to lee kuan yew when clearly THE OPPOSITE is true.

            that is INCREDIBLY RELEVANT in an article about people who BELIEVE IN CONFUCIANISM.

            in what sense is it irrelevant? i’m so curious, pls share.

            OMG. why is this so hard for people to understand?

          • Ligaya Barlow

            “….the problem is that the author attributed confucianism to lee kuan yew when clearly THE OPPOSITE is true.”
            ? The opposite of attributing confucianism to yew is attributing yew to confucianism.

          • GabbyD

            if by irrelevant, you mean that OTHER PEOPLE believe in confucianism, you are right.

            i dont know if other people belive in confucianism. what i KNOW is that lee kuan yew doesnt.

            and if you know that as a fact, you shouldnt say the OPPOSITE, just to add one more name to the list of people who believe in confucianism.

        • Ligaya Barlow

          Yet the is can be opposed by an alternate is, just as an isn’t can find its opposite in another isn’t as much as an is. Opposition isn’t intrinsically a matter of sheer negation.

  • Confucius was irrelevant in China since the time of Sun Yat-sen up to the time of the Kuomintang then to Mao’s Communism up to the present government in China.  

    So, what’s the big deal about Confucianism? 

    • Joe America

      The big deal is he makes you think, in an introspective way. It is not a skill common to most Filipinos, I would observe.

      • huh? Confucius makes me think? Aw, come on, Joe, I’ve been doing that all my life without any help from Confucius. How about you, Joe?

        • Joe America

          There is quantity and quality, and you seem to lack the latter on the point I was making. Introspection is important. Filipinos are weak at it. I fear your denial of the importance is an example of the barriers here to deeper thinking, and the enduring satisfaction that is evident with “the way I am”. 

          • Ah, Joe, you’re indeed a man of vast and deep knowledge. I am humbled, Sir.

          • Joe America

            Ha, yeah, I’m sure.

            The amount of knowledge I don’t have is enormous. If someone gains from Confucius or Charles Darwin or the Bible, I respect that they took up the reading. Better than watching ABS-CBN soaps I think.

        • Joe America

          “How about you, Joe?”

          I read anybody any time and usually learn from it. My bookshelf is lined two deep and fifteen shelves high. How’s yours? The other 90 percent is in storage in the US.

        • Ligaya Barlow

          There is thinking then there is Thinking

      • I mean, Joe, if he’s irrelevant to his people, why is he relevant to the Filipino, or to the Americans for that matter? Right?

        • Joe America

          He is relevant because he inspires people to think.

      • Ligaya Barlow

        Introspection there means reflecting on proximity of degree to a standard. In Filipino culture the criteria are already instinctive, prior to thought

  • Joe America

    “. . . self-aggrandizing behavior which tramples our inherent
    sense of decency and fairness . . .”

    When you are put
    under the thumb of warlords, Spanish, Americans, Japanese, Marcos and anyone
    with a bigger club, your sense of self gets rather small and the only way to
    make it seem big again is to bring others down into the pit with you, or to
    take advantage of them and laugh at your superior trickery.

    Thus we have the
    modern Filipino style of community where it almost does not pay to succeed,
    because others perceive that you are lording it over them, and they
    relentlessly chip away at your personal reputation or flat out steal your
    wealth. They laugh if they can bring you down, if they can insult you in front
    of their friends, if they can undermine your success.

    So what we have is
    the opposite of American-style admiration for people who work hard and succeed,
    like Steve Jobs. Here everyone rips like hyenas at those who do well . . .
    begging, borrowing, stealing, tearing down.

    How do you engender
    a culture of success when everyone hates it so?

    You don’t.

    Only when you prize
    success, earned honestly, do you get it.

    President Aquino’s
    anti-corruption drive is only one aspect, a small, wee beginning.

    You need anti-trust and fair
    dealing laws that break the strangle-hold on competition that the wealthy
    oligarchs hold.

    You need fair employment laws
    that demand employers hire and promote based on capability rather than
    favoritism. So that people see the value of career rather than angle for
    under the table payments.

    You need a court system that
    is open, free, efficient and honorable so people can attack those who
    would do them wrong, rather than wait around for some non-existent magical
    do-gooder hero president.

    You need an education system
    that teaches ambition, fairness, esteem, innovation and organization . . .
    Not obedience and rote spitback of dates and Rizal quotes.

    More than anything,
    you have to teach people that success comes as a community, with one person
    supporting another. Not as a set of individuals, each attacking the other.

    • J_ag

      Sounds like a road map for building state institutions not around families but around a common purpose. 

      The colonists took what they considered good from their English king and threw out the rest with their King and established a representative system of governance based on property ownership. 

      That idea of property rights was expanded later to include property rights of workers. (Labors share of value added)

      Then they decided that they should also redistribute the wealth to prevent the return of the Lords and Masters. 
      But how do you convert Lords, Dons, Bossing, Chiefs to leaders on a sustainable basis for the common good and not families?Open up the country to all who wish to trade bring their capital and work. 

      Is it a wonder why Chinese and Indians wish to immigrate to the Philippines but are restricted from doing so while Pinoy want to leave. 

      • Joe America

        J_ag, superb point. I like it when people take a comment and build from it. Rather than undermine it. Consistent with my main point . . . You are clearly not old school.

      • Anonymous

        Hear!! Hear!!!
        Ja__G: But how do you … … … on a sustainable basis for the common good …? Open up the country to all who wish to trade bring their capital and work.

        Open up Pilipinas for more immigration, an extra 1,000 to start, then 4,000 a year or even more.  Immigrants to wish to be in Pilipinas bringing their capital and work-ethics.  Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, South Koreans. There are progressive middle-class Pakistanis and Malaysians being hounded out of their home-country because they are Christians or Hindus or secular,  like-minded citizens of Syria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Greece. Open up Pilipinas for more immigration — investors and professionals — an extra 1,000 to start, then 5,000 a year or even more.

  •  Leviathan   by Thomas Hobbes   

    I strongly suggest Mr. Sun read the above citation which served as the basis of political order in Europe and the social contract. 

    Confucius was thrown into the dustbin of political order by the Chinese people when they dismantled the Empire.

    They replace the Chinese Empire with a singular political party with a fixed term for their leaders  and are ruled by a Central Committee. They guarantee economic rights with limited civil rights. Their social contract with the people. 

    The country known then (now Philippines) to the Chinese was a sparsely populated group of islands ruled by disparate chiefs under a tribal communal system. 

    Like the native Americans of old who traded their valuable furs to the Europeans for pots and pans and the fire stick . 

    China had over 2,000 years of practice under an organized united dynastic system. It is embedded in their DNA this system of patriarchal relations. 

    How many MARCOSE’S has China gone through? Kindly do the math….

    China is no longer a feudal society.  We still are. We pretend to be a state under a Liberal democracy. 

    Evolution takes time.