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 the 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 the future’s most important philosopher.
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 easily outsmart the rest of the planet. Shown below are the top seven “smartest” countries in the world. I’ve added a few other nations as well, in italics, to show how they fare against the Confucians:
108: Hong Kong, Singapore
106: South Korea, North Korea
105: Japan, China, Taiwan
100: United Kingdom
98: United States
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):
1. Shanghai - China
2. South Korea
4. Hong Kong - China
7. New Zealand
17. United Kingdom
25. United States
1. Shanghai - China
3. Hong Kong - China
4. South Korea
6. Taipei - Taiwan
12. Macao - China
28. United Kingdom
31. United States
1. Shanghai - China
3. Hong Kong - China
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 H+ magazine articles, “The Chinese Singularity” and “A Samsung Robot In Every Home by 2020?”, and the IEET’s Miriam Leis cast a vote for the tiny island nation in her recent article, “Singapore and the Singularity.” Confucian nations also have a grip on long life; four of the planet’s longevity leaders are:
#2: Hong Kong
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.
To conclude, let’s get personal. 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 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 live in San Francisco. We presently have a Chinese-American mayor, a Taiwanese-American president of the Board of Supervisors, and there are five highly-qualified Asian-American candidates in a crowded field trying to win the nasty, bickering mayoral election in November.
Who will I vote for? I’m inclined to cast my ballot for the soft-spoken incumbent who conveys Confucianist values when he promises to usher into local politics an “era of civility.”
Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Interim Managing Director and Fundraiser. He was IEET’s Managing Director on January-October in 2012, and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.