The one philosophy with the greatest influence on cultures in East Asia

How often have you traveled to a foreign country and found yourself baffled by all the new, and seemingly alien, customs and traditions? Well, this article aims to uncover some of those mysteries and shed light on Asian culture. Different ideologies, philosophies and religions have shaped the cultures in Asian countries for thousands of years. In China, Japan and Korea, one of the most notable influences is Confucianism. It is an ethical and philosophical system founded by a Chinese philosopher in the 6th-5th century BCE.

A philosophy of virtues

A statue of an old man with a long beard and a blue sky China.
Confucius was a great teacher, philosopher and politician. Photo by ErikaWittlieb / CC BY

Whether Confucianism actually is a religion or not is debatable, since it does not have any priests or churches. Nevertheless, it has continued to affect the lives of Asian people to this day. The system gives advice on how societies should be run, how people should live their lives and how relationships should be maintained. It stresses hierarchy, social harmony, group orientation and respect for elders – all aspects of Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture that are still very much alive.

The teachings of Confucianism consist of several principles or virtues, and some of the most notable ones are ren, li, zhong, and xiao. Ren deals with humaneness and kindness to others, li, rites, focuses on politeness and understanding everybody’s correct place in the social hierarchy, zhong deals with loyalty to one’s superiors and xiao, filial piety, promotes respect towards your elders, both the living and the dead. Together these virtues govern people’s everyday lives.

Keep the harmony and don’t rock the boat

A group of female students wearing school uniforms is looking into a pond with a fish swimming in it in Japan.
The influence of Confucianism is even reflected in the contemporary way of teaching. Photo by Jacob Plumb / CC BY

In Asian cultures, people tend to respect hierarchy and status much more than Western people, who are generally more individualistic and not so strict about social order. In Confucianism, you are supposed to behave according to your rank and keep the society harmonious, and not according to how you feel and how you would personally want to do.

The good of the whole society comes before an individual person. Embarrassing yourself or others is also avoided because it would break the harmony. It explains why Asian people have sometimes difficulties saying “no” directly to your face. You are supposed to read between the lines if the other person is unwilling to agree with you and save them from the embarrassment of saying no.

Chinese children are studying on laptops in a classroom in China.
In China, school days even in the elementary school can be up to 9 hours long. Photo by Salinger / CC BY

The way Confucianism is influencing the cultures of China, Japan and Korea can be seen in education too. The philosophy places great emphasis on schooling, and during the old times good education was the only way to move up in the society. The exams were notoriously difficult and consisted mostly of memorizing Confucian writings and classic works of literature. As a result, great value is put on education even today and the education system is highly competitive. So don’t be shocked if before the exam week, you encounter Asian students living and sleeping in the library around the clock.

Age is not just a number

Statue of an old man with a beard holding one hand on top of the other in China.
Respect towards elders is very important in Confucianism. Photo by 3dman_eu / CC BY

Knowing who your elders are and how to treat them is very important to Asian people, since you should act respectfully towards people who are older or above you in the hierarchy. In Confucianism, respect towards elders was originally between father and son, but it has been extended to describe other relationships too, such as the relationship between a ruler and a subject, a husband and a wife, elder and younger brother, and between friends.

You might also be interested in: How to Deal with Cultural Differences in Asia

Your new Asian friends might be keen to know your age which determines whether you are an older or younger “sister” or “brother” to them. Among younger people, though, these hierarchies might not be too obvious, but older people still follow them more rigidly.

Next time when the actions of a Chinese, Japanese or Korean person leaves you scratching your head, remember the teachings of Confucius, and the behavior might not seem so strange anymore.

Find out more about studying abroad in Asia

Asia Exchange is a Finnish company providing study abroad opportunities in Asia Pacific for students from all around the world. Want to get travel tips and new blog posts straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter! If you have any questions about studying abroad, feel free to contact us! We’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

This article was written by Nella.

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