Friday 21 October 2022

Confucianism and the Three Timeless Truths Part I

From The Philosopher, Volume CX No. 2 Autumn 2022
Confucius, Buddha and Laozi
A Ming period scroll depicting Confucius handing over an infant Gautama Buddha to an elderly Laozi

Confucianism and the Three Timeless Truths

A Study of the Chinese Concept of Order 

By Abhilash Nath and Abhilash Babu


It is increasingly clear that, since the 1980s at least, China has been searching for a new sense of its own identity rooted in a long-lost past. The resurgence of Confucian values has been part of an effort to find the essence of the ‘present’ in the spirit of the ‘past’. As a result, the present is defined by a complex relationship of historical and natural forces – and is an exclusively ‘Chinese experience’. For the current disposition of power in China, this confers legitimacy. It announces a recognition of China’s unique history and cultural values. 

It is a sign of the newly gained significance – a sign of pride for the Chinese, announcing that: ‘We’ have finally arrived on the world stage. It is for this reason that an understanding of Chinese history is crucial to understanding the nation’s behaviour.

By contrast, the modern Western concept of time or the Judaeo–Christian concept of time has its roots in Israel, with a rich prophetic tradition. In Western thought, the whole of history is structured around a centre, a temporal midpoint, the historicity of the life of Christ. In the Western concept of time, the recurring present is always unique and unrepeatable. Because of this, it has an open future before it. In this concept of time, the composition of every single fleeting present is determined by the actions of individuals. From a Western perspective, time is linear, real and irreversible. It is the medium of real change. Time is nevertheless structured; the days of an individual are organised and scheduled according to a firm sense of customs, habits, and duties. Consequently, from the Western standpoint, diplomatic dialogues between countries are largely transactional.

Within China, the authorities often use history to determine China’s external behaviour, such as determining its territorial claims. Traditions even shape Chinese security strategies. For instance, the Go game, or Chinese chess, informs the Chinese attitude toward international politics. The Go game has more than 2500 years of history. Unlike modern chess, the pieces are undifferentiated, simple counters divided into two colours; hence, the game excludes notions of dethroning a King. Instead, the game is won through a steady expansion of space on the chessboard.

In an effort to explain the nature of war, in a book entitled Nomadology, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his co-writer, a psychoanalyst named Félix Guattari, compare the board games of chess and Go. The chess pieces are coded, which means they are marked and identified and can only take internalised, logical moves. They are like citizens produced by modern power. On the other hand, the Go pieces are anonymous pellets. They always form extrinsic relations. Often act in constellations, like a pack of wild wolves hunting together; their movements are essentially intuitive and designed to gain an advantage over the immediate strategic situation. Deleuze and Guattari write:
“Let us take Chess and Go from the standpoint of the game pieces, the relations between the pieces and the space involved. Chess is a game of State, or of the court: the emperor of China played it. Chess pieces are coded; they have an internal nature and intrinsic properties from which their movements, situations, and confrontations derive. They have qualities; a knight remains a knight, a pawn a pawn, a bishop a bishop. Each is like a subject of the statement endowed with a relative power, and these relative powers combine in a subject of enunciation, that is, the chess player or the game’s form of interiority. Go pieces, in contrast, are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function. ‘It’ makes a move. ‘It’ could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant. Go pieces are elements of a nonsubjectified machine assemblage with no intrinsic properties, only situational ones. Thus, the relations are very different in the two cases.”
A similar strategic difference distinguishes Chinese from Western geopolitics. Unlike the Western strategy for Iraq during the Gulf Wars, and many previous conflicts, which focussed on replacing the leadership, the Chinese geopolitical strategies are not intended to overthrow the ruling power and replace it with a preferred Chinese model. Instead, the Chinese geopolitical plans are concerned with cultural and economic influence.

The Confucian worldview, in many ways, stands squarely against the ethos of the US-led post-Second World War liberal order. At a time when the advent of the internet, communication technologies, the development of the surveillance state and the centralisation of power have weakened liberal notions of liberty, equality and individual freedom, the Confucian vision of order demands particular attention because of its orientation towards collective interests – privileging the clan over the individual.

Confucian ideology has become a source of soft power to project China as a responsible power on the world stage. China’s evolving global role has demanded a confident self-image from a systematic understanding of its history. This strategy became inevitable as countries around China’s periphery began to perceive its sudden rise as a threat. The conservative cadence of Confucian teachings has further supplemented the interests of the communist party in domestic politics. In a heavily interconnected order, when ideology (along with demography and technology) plays a crucial role in shaping the world, the Chinese party-state, through consistent state funding, has elevated Confucianism as an official state ideology.

Part of this is that the Chinese government has spent significant money in the past years to sponsor “Confucius Institutes” worldwide, including in India, where we are based. Along the lines of Germany’s ‘Goethe Institutes’ and France’s ‘Alliance Française,’ the Confucius Institutes are educational centres for studying the Chinese language and culture. Their establishment is part of a “soft diplomacy” intended to improve China’s image on the world stage.

Confucianism emphasises harmonious development through communication between the self and the community. It stresses harmony between the human species and nature and mutuality between humanity and heaven. Its focus on the community over the individual marks it from the liberal tradition, built around human dignity, freedom, liberty, the rule of law, equality before the law, and multilateral institutions. This is why we stress the relativistic worldview of Confucianism.

The term ‘worldview’, derived from the German weltanschauung, was first used in this way by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the central Enlightenment thinkers, in The Critique of Judgment. According to him, since the human mind is structured similarly in each individual, the ‘worldview’ is schematically organised. Kant considered it to be independent of experience, operating at a transcendental level, as a synthetic-a priori, as a condition of possibility of knowledge in general. Fellow German philosopher and cultural critic Nietzsche shifted the focus from the accuracy and universality of the Kantian conception of worldview to study its function in life: according to him, a worldview is a finite set of beliefs. Later, Marxist thinkers like György Lukács, have in turn ‘worldview’ as a phenomenon mediating the facts of the society and the production of knowledge and, therefore, an historical and sociological category. The worldview is at once the condition of possibility of cultural receptivity and all forms of creative expression.

In this essay, ‘worldview’ is used to denote the historically formed and conceptually unstructured totality of assumptions, beliefs, values, emotions, feelings, and ethics, or gestalt patterns, which is the condition of possibility of an individual or a society. A worldview, modulated by the historical and material conditions of a society, orients the manner in which an individual relates to the social and physical environments; it is the symbolic framework in which one defines one’s sense of selfhood. Worldview may either be consciously articulated or unconsciously expressed; it may even be created out of false notions. What matters instead is their function in facilitating the well-being of those who behold them. Worldviews vary depending on living and working conditions; there is, therefore, always more than one worldview – for instance, there is the elite worldview, the worldview associated with popular culture and subculture, and so on. It follows, therefore, there are as many worldviews as there are individuals alive. However, when considering the historical development of the Chinese civilisation, it is still possible to identify certain shared features, concepts and categories of understanding, such as time, temporality, history, and life.

And so, in the following sections, we will look more closely at the so-called ‘three timeless truths’ of Confucianism – its concept of time, its relativistic worldview, and the stress on the clan over the individual.

Abstraction and philosophical orientation are necessary to understand these aspects of the Chinese worldview systematically; otherwise, most of the ideas and themes that we go on to discuss here are everyday beliefs, ideas and expressions of ordinary Chinese people. The historical approach is used to systematise otherwise distant ideas and concepts. Our approach is intended to open a large canvas within which diverse ideas, beliefs, expressions and ways of life can surface and form dynamic relationships.

Perhaps the key characteristic of the Chinese worldview is the notion of Intrinsic Order. This Chinese preoccupation with ‘order’ is longstanding. The oldest of its classics, the Book of Changes, initially a divination manual in the Western Zhou period (1000–750 BC), maintained that those who know the natural unity of heaven, earth, and humanity would have the foundation to bring order to all under the heaven. During the Sung Dynasty (960–1279), the Changes was one of the key texts for the imperial civil service examinations. The book was also used as a guide for men to overcome narrow self-interest in creating an integrated human society dedicated to the benefit of all. When the Sung dynasty reunified China in the 960s, a unified, well-organised, and centralised civil bureaucracy replaced the rule of local strongmen.

Being a closed system, consisting of sixty-four hexagrams and sixty four associated Chinese texts, the Changes is considered as an expression of coherence, not just as a book but as “change;” the book reproduced in specific ways the coherence of heaven and earth. The Changes, in a way, outlines the metaphysical concerns of Chinese civilisation. It developed the concept of change as a vital force that links the supernatural (Heaven), nature (earth), and the realm of man. In such a system of dynamic interconnections, the vitality associated with the metaphysical concept of heaven or the supernatural introduces spontaneity and dynamism.

The concept of ‘change’ became the primary ‘ontological category’ very early on. As China authors like Kidder Smith Jr. and Peter Bol suggest, it developed as part of “a holistic view of reality as a system of complex and dynamically interacting processes, a continuously changing universe”. The Changes belong to this very tradition. It advances insight into the nature, meaning, and significance of ‘change’ and the underlying common features of the experience and knowledge of ‘change’ in their entirety, both human life and the universe. In its attempt to understand the concept, the ancient text conceives the differentiation of the metaphysical (Heaven), the physical (Earth), and the social (the Realm of Man) as immanent, meaning intrinsic to the undifferentiated (the constantly changing) element of time itself, called the Ch’i. This classical view of ‘intrinsic order’ shaped the progress in Chinese metaphysics, politics, literature, and painting from their inception, and it is still a living aspect of the Chinese worldview today. In this conception of change, the order is not imposed from the outside.

Instead, according to the Changes, the universe is an expression of a divine, cosmic dance of two opposing yet complementary forces – yin and yang. The book thus comprises three main principles: Bian Yi, Jian Yi, and Bu Yi. The first, Bian Yi, signifies everything in the world – inorganic matter, organic matter, human beings, human thoughts, and the universe – is a process of constant change. Though it is the case, the principle of Jian Yi indicates that “change” only occurs according to some underlying principles. Hence the Changes, as a book dedicated to understanding change, does not approve of complete chaos and decay; all changes, whether natural or artificial, are always rhythmic and, therefore, productive. So, this ancient theory of evolution looks for patterns within processes that can be realised with necessary wisdom. The third principle, Bu Yi, indicates that everything is ‘change’, but still, the origin of everything is eternal.

However, the Changes does not offer a permanent solution to man’s existential crisis. Since it attempts to find the inherent principles of “change” in general, it is said, the  contains within itself the shared patterns of human life and the universe. Chinese antiquity frequently draws parallels between the moral qualities of one’s behaviour and cosmic processes. In this context, the Changes was considered a guide for human life. It was used to govern the likely consequences of an action by probing into its moral qualities. Once, it enabled men to observe their nature and the nature of attitudes and interests associated with an act. Thus, the Changes was consulted to resolve matters of great personal and political importance.

Ten Wings, a collection of commentaries on the Changes traditionally ascribed to Confucius, deviated from the 7th and 6th-century BCE standards of interpretation. The Changes is here approached as a coherent whole, as a system of heaven and earth. Rather than a tool to know the future, it is used for structuring thoughts about the ‘present’. However, in Chinese rituals, the “present” is not unique and unrepeatable, a mere pulsation in a temporal sequence or a distinctly audible beat in a rhythm. It is always already connected to the “past” in unconscious ways. This why, the Christian existentialist philosopher, Paul Tillich, says in his book, The Protestant Era:
“As far as history is dealt with, the past is glorified. The ancient emperors and the classical writers are the patterns for all the future in politics and culture. The ancestors determine life more than those who are living. The past is predominant over the future. The present is a consequence of the past, but not at all an anticipation of the future. In Chinese literature, there are fine records of the past but no expectations of the future.”
A second key to understanding Confucianism is the importance for the Chinese of History and Time. The establishment of the imperial institutions during the two centuries before the Common Era and the consolidation of Confucianism, with deep commitments to social and political history, as the official doctrine of the imperial bureaucracy, cultivated a rich culture of writing historical and personal documents. The French sinologist, Marcel Granet, states that the Chinese possessed an advanced historical sense among ancient civilisations. As a meticulously detailed record of the past, of people, societies, and the lives of kings and saints (and the virtues they embodied), history, in Chinese tradition, became an exclusive tool to appropriate the values of the past through learning. In ancient China, particularly with the ascendence of the Confucians, history began to teach what is properly Chinese.

Joseph Needham, the British biochemist, historian of science and sinologist known for his scientific research and writing on the history of Chinese science and technology, wrote in an essay called ‘Time and History in China and the West’, that “The great historical tradition of China envisaged love (jen) and righteousness (i) incarnated in human history, and it sought to preserve the records of their manifestation in human affairs.” Even rulers were expected to master the complex patterns of events and motives, both human and natural, to coordinate effectively with the continuously changing times’ complexities. David Pankenier, Professor of Chinese at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, quotes Jia Yi, a philosopher from the early 2nd century BCE thus:
“A popular maxim has it: ‘prior events, not forgotten, teach about events to come’. For this reason, in ordering the state, the accomplished ruler observes the events of antiquity, tests them against the present, matches them with human affairs, examines into the principles of flourishing and decline, and looks for what is appropriate according to expediency and tendencies. In this way, discarding and adopting measures have their proper sequence, adapting and transforming their due seasons. Thus, his reign is untroubled and enduring, and his altars to the soil and grain are safeguarded.”
Jia Yi’s words further reflect Chinese civilisation’s spiritual basis, a preoccupation with ethics, an exclusive feature of Confucianism. However, this preoccupation with ethics is primarily rooted in a uniquely Chinese idea of history that matured over several patterns of historical development, organised mainly around deep reverence for ancestors and a quest to learn from their values. Thus, history became a rich source of self-transformation. This intense preoccupation with history to primarily transform lives and societies has attuned the ancient Chinese mind to temporal series more than most contemporaries.

In contrast, for the ancient Hindus, the apparent self and the phenomenal world are outcomes of ignorance one should always strive to overcome. The purpose of life, for them, is to attain an acute sense and expression of oneness. Consequently, liberation is not linked to the phenomenal world but is overcoming it and realising the divine unity within all things. What the ancient Indians sought was the eternal within the temporal, the poetic within the real. Therefore, to overcome the duality of the phenomenal world, it is requisite that one lives absolutely in the present. In this way, the ancient Indians had a poetic relationship with the past.

In the Analects (IX.17), the great Master contrasted the passing river with the flow of time. We are told that “Standing by the river, Confucius declaimed, “How it flows on like this, never ceasing day and night”. According to Needham, the long Chinese tradition of historiography has offered a unique experience of time, a sense of the linear progression of time in which the ‘past’ always repeats itself in the fleeting ‘present’ instants. For this reason, the passing ‘present’ is a gift of the ‘past’. 

For the ancient Chinese, the practical concerns with the immediate demands of life forced them to reject both the metaphysical speculations of the Hindus and the occident’s logical explorations, a point made by the American sinologist and historian, Derk Bodde,

The third central concept is that of Metaphysical Unity. In classical Chinese, the ‘relative’ and the ‘absolute’ appear in a continuum – in the undifferentiated element of time, the ch’i. The principle of immanence – first appeared in the Book of Changes – connects the material (the objective) and the spiritual (the subjective) dimensions of life itself.

The principle of immanence is ancient. It is there in the principle of Bu from the Book of Changes and in the Taoist concept of the way or the Dao. The principle of Bu is timeless within time. Ch’i, the vital energy, is the undifferentiated substance of time. The Dao or the Way is the totality of time to be identified and participated in. It is pure immanence. It always manifests itself in the form of two all-inclusive principles: yin, the principle of quiescence and yang, the principle of activity.

Nevertheless, the yin–yang dualism is based not upon mutual opposition or antagonism but on an underlying harmony. The combinations of these principles create five elements, and their various combinations form all things in the universe, including heaven. The Dao expresses the essence of the universe and every person. It is, according to the Slovenian sinologist Jana Rošker, at once, the ultimate cosmic principle and “the tiniest atom of being which, through their infinite combinations, continuously generate all the infinitely variegated worlds of existence”. It is the vital, abstract driving force of the universe and the concrete, individual ‘way’ of each human being. As a metaphysical concept, the concept of Dao is eternal. It is at once the eternal law of all motions and itself beyond motion, and for that reason, it is beyond history itself.

The supernatural, natural, and social are united in an immanent continuum. Hence, Taoism and Confucianism wanted solutions for related problems. If Taoists posed for themselves how men can adjust themselves to the outer universe, then Confucianism set itself to answer how to get alone equably with one’s fellow men. Since moral order is already embedded in the universal order, following Dao, or learning the way, is an expression of a virtuous life. And one learns the way by integrating the values of the ancient sages.

The principle of immanence in Chinese thought signals something beyond cyclicality and reoccurring patterns. Time is not created; it is an organic unity that spontaneously self-generates itself. Unlike the Judaeo–Christian concept of time and temporality, the classical Chinese do not, in fact, stress irreversibility. In the writings of Chang Tsai, a philosopher and politician who lived from 1020 to 1077, the undifferentiated substance of time, the ch’i, the true source of all beings, is suffused even in the “great void.” The ch’i’s infinite presence connects everything into an all-encompassing continuum, modulating and unfolding everything together in a dynamic process. Since there is no conception of a beginning or end, time in classical Chinese is an open system. Against the linear (the Judaeo–Christian view) and circular (the Hellenic–Hindu view) movements of the time, in the Chinese view, time is dynamic and impulsively self-generating. For that reason, the Chinese worldview is neither truly linear nor cyclic. It is transformational, involving endless combinations and permutations with a web-like structure connecting the past and the future to the present.

The Chinese worldview expresses unity as a shared pattern in the order of nature and morality – there are natural parallels between patterns of nature and human values. For classical Chinese, the similarities do not come from a syllogism involving premises and conclusions; instead, they are developed around a system of analogies and recognition of structural patterns and modes of informal thought. For this reason, the classical Chinese did not follow the Aristotelian laws of identity and non-contradiction, which would have led to the dichotomies of Western logic. The dual oppositions in the Chinese tradition, such as action and reaction, fire and water, darkness and light, or feminine and masculine principles, are viewed as mutually defining and interdependent, guided by the underlying principle of complementarity or correlativity. The Chinese understand dualities as relational and complimentary; their conception of dualities did not sprout from a subject-object structure. In such a conception of duality, all things, including mind and body or soul and body, are mere expressions of the same material that the Chinese calls: Ch’i, the vital energy. It is Ch’i that provides the connection between nature and the world.


In part two of this exploration of Confucianism and the Chinese Concept of Order, we will shift the focus away from philosophical ideas towards more sociological ones concerning society and social structures.

About the authors

Abhilash Nath completed a PhD in philosophy at the JNU, New Delhi, and is at present teaching at the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. His area of interest includes Indian Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, and Continental Philosophy, particularly the metaphysics of the nature of time and causation. His current research interest is, if things go well, to undertake a systematic study on the materialistic understanding of time.

Abhilash Babu has completed his PhD from The Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He has more than 12 years of teaching and research experience and presently teaches at the School of Social Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University Kerala. His areas of interest include Water Governance, Decentralisation, Risk communication and Political Ecology. Currently, he is working on the political ecology of floods in Kerala.

Address for correspondence

Dr Abhilash G Nath,
Assistant Professor,
School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies,
Mahatma Gandhi University,
Kottayam 686560

Dr Abhilash Babu
Associate Professor & Director
School of Social Sciences,
Mahatma Gandhi University,
Kottayam  686560

Notes on Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading 

The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance of the following texts in preparing this article, which following the longstanding conventions of The Philosopher, does not include direct sourcing of references and quotations. 

Baynes, C. F. (1967), The I Ching or Book of Changes, Princeton: Princeton University Press 
Bodde, Derk (Dec. 1942) “Dominant Ideas in the Formation of Chinese Culture” Journal of American Oriental Society Vol. 62, No. 4  
Bol, Peter K. (2008), Neo-Confucianism in History, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center 
Chan, Wing-Tsit (1969), A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press  
Cheng, Chung-Ying (1974), “Greek and Chinese Views on Time and the Timeless,” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 24, No. 2 
Confucius (2014), The Analects, New York: Penguin Classic 
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari (2010), Félix Nomadology: The War Machine, Seattle, WA: Wormwood Distribution 
Feger, Hans (2019), “Universalism vs “All Under Heaven” (Tianxia / 天下) – Kant in China,” Yearbook for Eastern and Western Philosophy, 4 
Hassard, John (1990), The Sociology of Time, New York: Palgrave Macmillan  
Hillier, Jean and Cao, Kong (2013) “Deleuzian Dragons: Thinking Chinese Strategic Spatial Planning with Gilles Deleuze,” Deleuze Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3.  
Lau, D. C, trans., (1979), The Analects: Sayings of Confucius, London: Penguin Books 
Nath, Abhilash G (2018), “The Delirium of Appearance,” Indian Journal of Politics and International Relations, Vol. 11 No. 1 & 2  
Needham, Joseph (1977), “Time and History in China and the West,” Leonardo, Pergamon Press, Vol. 10 
Nordan, Bryan W. Van (1992) “Mencius and Xunzi: Two Views of Human Agency,” International Philosophical Quarterly 32 (2):161-184.  
Pankenier, David W (2004), “Temporality and the Fabric of Space-Time in Early Chinese Thought,” in Ralph M. Rosen (ed.) Time and Temporality in the Ancient World, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology  
Rošker, Jana S. (2012), Traditional Chinese Philosophy and the Paradigm of Structure, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing  
Smith, Kidder, Bol, Peter K., Adler, Joseph A., and Wyatt, Don J. (1990), Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching, New Jersey: Princeton University Press  
Tillich, Paul (1957), The Protestant Era, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press  
Tongqi, Lin, Rosemont Jr, Henry and Ames, Roger (1995), “Chinese Philosophy: A Philosophical Essay on the “State-of-the-Art,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 54, No. 3 
Wang, Ban (2017), Chinese Visions of World Order: Tianxia, Culture, and World Politics, Durham: Duke University Press  


  1. A remarkable discussion of the central subject matter, with lots of moments that make the reader stop to absorb and ponder what the two authors are getting at. An impressive mix of high-quality scholarship, original thought, and accessible writing that keeps the level of interest at its peak throughout.


Our authors very much value feedback from readers. Unfortunately, there is so much spam on the internet now that we now have to moderate posts on the older articles. Please accept our apologies for any extra time this may require of you.