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Why is “Confucian Culture” so wildly successful?

Posted: Fri, January 18, 2013 | By: Hank Pellissier

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Master Kong was wandering homeless with his disciples, proselytizing his ethical viewpoints. He was greeted in every city with disdain, persecution, imprisonment. When “Confucius” (his Westernized name) died in 479 BC, he expressed wistful dismay that his moral reforms never took root…

The Sage from Shandong Province would be shocked if he could return to today’s world, where his personality, maxims, and rules are revered by 1.5 billion people in thriving “Confucian nations” (China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, plus strong support in Vietnam and Malaysia). 

The benign bearded pundit is currently enjoying a enthusiastic revival in China, where the graves of his defendants were desecrated in the Cultural Revolution, and there are now more than 300 Confucius institutes worldwide in 96 countries. Ironically, this largely-ignored man of antiquity could be one the future’s most important philosophers.

Confucian concepts—asserted in the Analects, plus five scriptures and additional tomes—include high esteem for education, filial piety, perseverance, humility, empathy, self-control, respect for one’s elders and ancestors, adherence to rules of behavior and authority, and correctness and reciprocity in all social relationships. His vision was to create virtuous individuals who could harmoniously co-exist within families and increasing larger groups: villages, provinces, kingdoms.

How successful are today’s “Confucian” nations? A+ Astonishing. In IQ, the scholar’s states outsmart the rest of the planet. Shown below are the top seven IQ countries in the world. I’ve added a few other nations as well, in italics, to show how they fare against the Confucians:

Average IQ

108: Hong Kong, Singapore

106: South Korea, North Korea

105: Japan, China, Taiwan

100: United Kingdom

98: United States

82: India

Additional research backs up the valedictorian status of Master Kong’s students. A Hong Kong study of 4,848 six-year-old residents revealed an average IQ of 116; a similar survey of 6,290 Taiwanese children posted a 109.5 digit.  Both numerals easily stomped rival classrooms of Western children, who yielded IQs in the 95-102 range.

Top-of-the-world marks were repeated in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests that pitted students against each other in three categories (again, non-Confucian nations are shown in italics):

Reading Performance

1. Shanghai - China

2. South Korea

3. Finland

4. Hong Kong - China

5. Singapore

6. Canada

7. New Zealand

8. Japan

17. United Kingdom

25. United States


1. Shanghai - China

2. Singapore

3. Hong Kong - China

4. South Korea

6. Taipei - Taiwan

9. Japan

12. Macao - China

28. United Kingdom

31. United States


1. Shanghai - China

2. Finland

3. Hong Kong - China

4. Singapore

5. Japan

6. South Korea

12. Taipei - Taiwan

16. United Kingdom

18. Macao - China

23. United States

Academic success of children from East Asian backgrounds is old news to American parents, who’ve seen Asian-Americans (just 4.8% of the US population) grab 20% of Ivy League enrollment and 45% of admissions in the University of California system.

Grades aren’t everything, of course. What about the real world? Do Confucian cultures succeed in the workplace? Indeed they do. For starters, they’ve got three high-placed nations on the International Monetary Fund’s recent list of fastest-growing economies by GDP growth rate:

#3: Singapore = 14.4%

#4: Taiwan = 10.8%

#6: China = 10.3%

Plus they nab three of the top ten positions on the World Bank’s list of per capita income leaders:

#3: Macao - China = $59,870

#5: Singapore = $56,794

#9: Hong Kong = $46,331

Expat Confucianists also astronomically excel in finance. In Southeast Asia, Chinese are a minority (except in Singapore) oftentimes with only 1.5-2% of the population. Nonetheless, a BBC News article notes that “they are effectively the region’s business class, controlling the bulk of listed companies in the region’s stock markets—more than 80% in Thailand… 62% in Malaysia… 50% in the Philippines… Indonesia… 70%.”

What about “transhumanist” attributes? Does the antique philosophy create civilizations with AI potential, or immortalist aspirations?

Yes, it does. Confucian nations are regularly categorized as Singularity contenders. China and South Korea were ranked as players in Ben Goertzel’s articles, “The Chinese Singularity” and “A Samsung Robot In Every Home by 2020?”, and Miriam Leis cast a vote for the tiny island nation in her article, “Singapore and the Singularity.” Confucian nations also have a grip on long life; four of the planet’s longevity leaders are:

#1: Japan

#2: Hong Kong

#9: Macau

#15: Singapore

This essay has established that Confucianism has an outstanding resume and credentials—it’s obviously a valuable philosophy for modern times. But… why does it succeed? What core credos does it endorse that motivates its citizenry? Why do Confucian cultures outperform their opponents? What can outsiders learn from the “Master Teacher”? I’ve listed six attributes below:

Love of Learning - East Asian pupils study horrendously hard: up to 3.5 hours a day in Japan, claims a 1980s estimate, and undoubtedly more in South Korea, where students are often scoffed at if they sleep more than four hours a day. This ability to slave away at school tasks stems largely from Confucius, who extolled academic study as the sole path to wisdom, virtue, and career achievement. The phenomenal doggedness of East Asians in the classroom vaults them into prestigious colleges and professional positions, subsequently expanding the economic clout of their cultures. Side-note: perhaps Confucian admiration for scholastics explains why they’re near-permanently enrolled—Japanese children attend school 243 days per year, whereas USA kids quit for vacation at 180.

United Family Front - Children (via Confucius) are taught to deeply respect and obey their parents, and to perform admirably for them, to bring esteem to the family. Parents respond reciprocally by making huge personal time and monetary sacrifices to support their children’s education, plus, when they’re house-shopping, the quality of local schools is likely to be the #1 priority, not a view or a swimming pool. In contrast to this, a recent survey of American women by Parenting magazine revealed that 45% of women polled would rather lose 15 pounds than advance their child’s IQ by 15 points—they’re not ‘Tiger Moms’! The divorce rate among Asian-Americans is only 4.2% (less than half the American average), their alcohol addiction and homelessness is microscopic, and they comprise only 1% of the US prison population. It may also be telling that a best-selling book in China was titled, Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge.

Exam Culture - Confucius gets the credit for installing China’s first education program, created largely to provide sensible statesmen—Mandarins—for the Emperor’s court. Intelligent youngsters were encouraged to prepare and participate in the Imperial civil service exam, a relatively meritocratic system. (I qualify this because tutors cost more money than poor parents could afford.) Successful test-takers produced more offspring due to receiving positions that guaranteed higher salaries. Conversely, the poorest 10-15% had no offspring at all, or very few, because of their inability to feed and support them. Genetically, the population increase of brainy Confucianists could account for their higher IQs today. Europeans did exactly the opposite; bright boys with literary talent were shuffled off to the celibate priesthood where they were forbidden to advance their genes.

Stubborn Stamina - Persistence is praised in numerous Confucian maxims as a trait to acquire success. Two examples are: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop,” and “Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in getting up every time we do.” Dr. Richard Nisbett noted in his book, Intelligence and How to Get It, that East Asians, upon competing a survey test, instinctively returned to the sections they performed poorest at in repeated attempts to improve their weaknesses. In contrast, Western subjects hurried gleefully back to the sections they were already adept at because (I assume) they wanted to re-experience the easy ego-gratification of their previous smartness. Nisbett notes that Americans generally believe that intelligence is inherited, while East Asians are more apt to regard success as the result of arduous work. Determination as a virtue was certainly modeled by Master Kong, who never relinquished his moral mission despite the dangers and insults he faced.

Miscellaneous Tidbits - The following explanations for East Asian success cannot be ascribed to Confucius but they do derive from his native land:

1) Literacy in Mandarin requires recognition of at least 4,000 ideogrammatic characters, with scholastic fluency necessitating 10,000. The prodigious memorization demanded exercises the utilized areas of the brain. Many of the characters also look quite similar to others; differentiating them improves the learner’s visual-spatial brain centers.

2) Communicating in Mandarin requires both the left temporal and the right temporal lobes for processing; English can be interpreted with only the left temporal lobe. This is due to Mandarin being “tonal,” requiring participation from the right lobe, which handles music.

3) Chinese numerals are simpler and easier to learn, especially compared to the horrendous English tween and teen numbers from 11-19 that trip up school children, wasting valuable time; in Mandarin, 13 is just “10-3.”

4) Using an abacus encourages students to think spatially and visually about numbers; it develops the right side of the brain.

I know Confucianism has its faults—its definitely not “feminist” or “democratic” yet—but it obviously creates highly-functional communities that are successful in the modern world. 

I predict we’re all going to learn more about Confucius in the near future. I find many of his maxims quite wise, plus, they’re an integral part of the Near Asian mentality that is moving swiftly to the forefront of world consciousness.


I noticed that the rankings in the article stopped at the level of the USA. While Confucian cultures are undoubtedly first in many ways, it would also be interesting to see how all the cultures rank, and which cultures are dead last. I think we all know the answer without seeing the data.

By Andrew P on Jan 19, 2013 at 6:07am

it could be argued korea, taiwan, singapore and japan owe more of their success to american or british influence, than confucianism.

confucianism as a primary philosopher pales in comparison to the worldwide dominating influence of western philosophers.

in comparison Confucianism has little influence outside it’s ethnic and historic borders.

sorry but your wrong, i don’t see Confucianism going anywhere.

By gallan on Jan 19, 2013 at 6:50am

They often don’t succeed. China collapsed utterly in the 19th century. A very selective reading of history.

By Matt Hall on Jan 19, 2013 at 7:50am

You forgot human sacrifice. That was really big in China back then.

By Messy on Jan 19, 2013 at 1:25pm

Confucianism isn’t everything, but it plus Western scientific methodology is the winner.  While the 19th century China did fall, the 19th century Chinese reformers have had the last laugh after all; Western science plus Confucian ethics is proving to be equal to or better than Western culture overall.

BTW, if it’s about Western influences, then non-East Asian cultures should be doing much better, but they’re not.  None of the countries that have had far longer Western domination or influence (e.g. India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Brazil, et al) have come close to matching the performances of Confucianist countries, with partial exception of India.

By Mike on Jan 19, 2013 at 5:10pm

“...Confucianism has its faults—its definitely not “feminist” or “democratic” yet…” Perhaps like with the rest of it’s qualities those are not faults; it’s just that dumb Westerners cannot get the point.

By moderateGuy on Jan 19, 2013 at 5:45pm

And yet, these countries were in the dark ages until western influence spread to them. They are riding on a wave of western technological innovation, and when they have caught up to the level of the west, they have stagnated.
All the educational statistics mean nothing if all that potential is squandered, as it seems to constantly be. The back side of confucianism is and extreme beleif in hierarchy, something that is a major drain on all these societies. Innovation drives nations forward, not test results. And in that area, Asia is severely lacking.

By Magnus Sandvik on Jan 19, 2013 at 6:05pm

Confucian culture is successful because it teaches respect, humility, integrity, tolerance, diligence and perseverance—the very quality which most modern people are either lacking or ignoring.  (vzc1943, btt1943)

By venze on Jan 19, 2013 at 7:14pm

This article makes many assumptions. First, it assumes that these Confucian societies are all successful, but since these cultures have been around for hundreds to thousands of years depending on the country, they have had their ups and downs. Who in 1900 would have thought Korea or Taiwan or Thailand were on the path to prosperity? Back then they had terrible poverty and low literacy rates.

Second, it assumes IQ is actually a meaningful measure. Is it really? Why do scores constantly have to be adjusted to keep the mean at 100? Why should I believe some simple logic tests really are a measure of something as complex as human intelligence?

Third, if Confucian ideas were so great for promoting progress, why was it only in the last few decades that these places have caught up with the West, after falling behind around the same time Confucian ideas were gaining in popularity?

By John on Jan 19, 2013 at 11:36pm

I find it comical how selective so much of the presented data really is.  For example, the author extols current economic growth rates of some Confusian countries, in comparison to Western ones.

The huge thing he’s leaving out here is they’re growing fast only because they managed to screw up their economies so horribly up until now.  China has 1.6 billion people, yet it’s still smaller economically than the U.S., with a measly 300 million.  China is only growing now because (like the U.S.S.R. in the early 20th century) it was aping the more advanced and innovative countries.  Once that ran out, the U.S.S.R. economy ran out out steam and the entire system eventually collapsed.  China is doing the same, moving from communism to capitalism and stealing Western technology, but per capita it is still a very poor nation.

No, it’s Western philosophy (that democracy, openness to change, and tolerance you alluded to dismissively) that has been far more beneficial to them than Confucian culture.  Sure, their test scores are high because of a lot of rote memorization and repetition, but it’s creativity that truly counts in the modern age, and that’s where we see those cultures fail miserably time and again.

It’s interesting to see that the Jews, who are masters of both Western philosophy and a strong emphasis on education, smoke everyone.  I’ve just about decided that history is driven by envy more than any other thing.

By Chris Bordeman on Jan 20, 2013 at 2:04am

“Academic success of children from East Asian backgrounds is old news to American parents, who’ve seen Asian-Americans (just 4.8% of the US population) grab 20% of Ivy League enrollment.”

Yes, but isn’t it quite a coincidence that for some reason they still come to the U.S. for their educations?

I guess the bottom line is that in just over two hundred years the US has managed to reach the level all of these other nations hadn’t been able to reach in over four thousand years.

By John M on Jan 21, 2013 at 8:05am

Have you ever lived in a Confucianist society?  1) There is no love of learning.  Most adults don’t read for anything but pragmatism.  They read to learn something new that will potentially generate more income.  That’s about it.  The way the school system grinds the children into robot who think like computers (learn “the truth” as stated by the teacher by rote, and then regurgitate it as accurately as possible on a test) leaves them as adults with little curiosity. 2) I know adults in Taiwan who live with their parents until marriage, who have to be in the house by 9PM or break up with people in relationships because their parents don’t approve.  Why?  Filial piety.  Why do they live at home so long? Because they want to buy homes cash, and not have a mortgage, so it is easier to do that not renting.  The downside are adults who act very child-like.  3)Something else you did not mention “face”.  People are very superficial, always worried about what other think, as conformity to the group (highest nail gets hammered down, tallest blade of grass gets cut) is very important.  The result of this is often very immoral behavior, but as long as no one is looking, it is okay, because there is no “guilt” only shame.  4)  Going back to “Face” and conformity, look up “creativity problem, and schools, [insert Asian country]”.  All of them struggle with it, which is why these nations are famous for copying and innovating off already existing Western inventions, and not making their own.  They rarely can, because creative people are typically not herd followers.  The school systems in East Asia destroy the creativity in Asia, and they even have programs to “encourage creativity” but the obvious way is “leave the kids alone” but they can’t do that because it goes against societal norms of “educating” [providing military like discipline and conformity to the child].  5) Since group trumps individual, and individuality is synonymous with “selfishness” in many of these societies, corruption is high and “who is you know” is often more important than what you know, in a way that most Westerns (especially not from Med nations) can’t really comprehend. 6) “face” also causes other problems, as people don’t like to take risks or even admit they are wrong, because they are scared to loose face.  This is not exactly conducive to social evolution. I can go on and on, there are many many downsides.  It is true most of these societies, especially the Chinese ones are money obsessed, and will do anything for money.  There are cultural and historic reasons for this. &) Working for relatively low wages 12 hours a day for maniacal bosses who often lord over their employees (due to Confucianism), which leaves no time for families, but then again the kids go to school then spend additional hours in cram schools every night (rarely having time for themselves as children), because the parents are scared they won’t pass the next standardized test.  However, the downside is you have a lot of people who are not really innovative, creative, or even rational in a lot of areas, but herd followers who live under a lot of pressure.  Ever wonder why Japan, Korea, China, etc have some of the highest suicide rates in the world????  People are not happy.  I do not believe Western people need to copy this model.

I’m an American who have lived in Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan.  I know these societies quiet well, and your analysis is very superficial.  Have you ever lived in any of these countries?

By Cspears on Jan 21, 2013 at 9:02am

Japan is actually not a big fan of Confucius, as it is more Buddhist. 
The so-called “exam culture” is not a good thing to be proud of.  Even if it were, such culture, which people often associate with Confucius, has no origin in Confucianism.  It’s a big misunderstanding. 

China and Korea, North Korea as well as South Korea, are big on Confucius, but look at China’s society, complete lack of trust among people not related by “blood” and a social hierarchy that makes the humans on the bottom of it live a life that is less than desirable, or even worse, less than human.  Such unequal social relationships are a recipe for chaos and corruption.

By The Wise on May 25, 2013 at 2:21am

I think the word successful should be in quotation as well.  So many human societies that are not Confucian at all are more appealing and more just and more equitable.  While Confucius preaches morality every single second as if he himself were morally righteous, Confucius also teaches inequality within society and puts humans into different categories that are more like what we have come to know today as stereotyping and discrimination based on age.

Respect and education are actually taught by every normal human being, not just Confucius.  What separates them is the way they teach respect and education.  When you compare Confucius with other great thinkers, he seems to be kind of dumb.

By Confucius Stating the Obvious on May 25, 2013 at 2:28am

Facts We Should Know about Confucius:

1. He was a teacher who worked for money.  Like many teachers of his time, he did not make education accessible to all.
2. He was opposed to the civil exam system, for he believed that everyone was born into a specific place, very much like the caste in earlier Indian society.  Social mobility was not an option in Confucius’ philosophy.
3. As Confucianism gained popularity within the aristocracy and the upper class, his philosophy became the standard in civil exams, giving later Chinese the false impression that Confucius was the one who introduced the civil exam system.
4. Confucius preached morality all day long by giving a “laundry list” of what to do and what not to do.  It sounded good on the surface, but the list is actually double standard, one for the more superior human being and the other for the inferior human being.
5. Confucius did stress the importance of education and learning, but then he did nothing about it to make it accessible to all.  It is one thing to curse the darkness, it is another to light the candle.  It is one thing to judge and give people names, it is another to do something about it to lift people up instead of judging them.
6. Confucius’ ideal human relationships are actually based on inequality, making it less than ideal.  When two human beings come into contact with one another, shouldn’t the ideal relationship be mutual respect based on equality, regardless of how smart or more experienced the other person actually is?

By Think Twice on May 25, 2013 at 1:27pm

It is much easier for someone like Confucius to tell people what to do and what not to do without reasoning with them.  It is much harder for someone like Confucius to put himself in others’ shoes and understand why they do the things they do without judging them as “xiaoren” or morally corrupt.

Confucius did the former but not the latter.

If you need some Asian pride, I suggest you look elsewhere, there is actually plenty besides Confucius.

By WhyIsConfuciusSoDumb on May 25, 2013 at 2:08pm

The title should have read: “Why is ‘Confucian Culture’ so wildly successful at promoting corruption and inhumane human relationships?

By ConfuciusMoralCorruptor on May 25, 2013 at 4:54pm

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