Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Confucian Capitalism

Written by: on March 9, 2018

“Our puritan background has allowed about half the population to want to work hard and the other half to want a hand out.” said a friend of mine this week as we discussed Max Weber’s book Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism.1 Weber asserts that capitalism and the economic growth of the west has been attributed to our protestant faith; this giving us a good work ethic. China, within the vacuum of Christianity, has leaned upon their Confucian culture even as it has embraced the race to be first in the world’s economy. Though there are stark differences in philosophies from eastern and western versions of capitalism, China has seemed to find and redefine capitalism and thus modify Confucius to fit within the ever changing drive to succeed.


Weber makes a an argument for the importance of religion in contributing to the capitalist culture. He claims that Protestants believed that working hard should be valued for its own sake. He also defines the “spirit of capitalism” as a motivation to work hard and save money not in order to survive, but in order to make a profit. The core of Weber’s argument is that the spirit of capitalism is an attitude that regards work as an end in and of itself. 2 Max Weber also wrote on what has been mistranslated as the “Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism”. He writes about the relationship between the “Confucian rationalism” and the “rationalism of Protestantism” and saw parallel virtues and values in Confucianism and Puritanism which today are again being discussed in China.3 China’s history is not forgotten, but has laid a foundation on how it moves forward.


The Communist Party under Mao Zedong had rejected, often violently, both Confucianism and Taoism, even though it benefited from the ethical teachings of both. The emphasis of detachment from worldly things was key to the revolutionary communist movement. Today, China portrays itself as almost the antithesis of Maoism. It is said like the Chinese dragon, the younger generation consumes and devours the goods that spur the Chinese capitalist movement. “Women no longer wear hair cut short or Mao’s cap; they perm their hair, undergo surgery to widen their eyes, use the world’s most sophisticated cosmetics and chief luxury brands. This reflects a society that produces at breakneck intensities, and increasingly consumes what it produces.”4 With the fast changing society and the breakdown of traditional values, the government has instituted a call to reintroduce teaching Confucius ethics-especially harmony and balance-as a way to help people understand problems associated with consumerism.


Many have long thought that Capitalism and Confucianism are diametrically opposed. Even though Confucius was against personal gain and profit, China has been able to incorporate some foundational ideas within the culture to promote the world we live in today. Confucius taught that the idea of the group takes precedence over the individual, or individuals serve the needs of the group first to create a harmonious society. For a society to function well there needs to be a boss, a social hierarchy in place whether that is the state or the head of a business. If a worker understands ones place in society; understanding that they exist in, and have a responsibility to, the group as well as hold a strict set of moral values and ethics, are the core foundations of Confucianism. Confucius said, “When a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are things to be ashamed of. When a country is ill governed, riches and honor are things to be ashamed of.”5

“Weber[…]asked why capitalism arose only in the West, not in other societies. In China, he found, the Confucian ethic served as a religious barrier to the development of capitalism. [According to Weber], ‘the characteristics of Confucianism militated against the development of a spirit of capitalism, and Confucian-based cultures discouraged all the attributes necessary for success in capitalism’”6 China has been experiencing an extraordinary transformation toward capitalism, especially in the last 20 years. It’s industrial revolution is the largest and most accelerated in world’s history. Not too long ago, China was one of the poorest countries in the world; now it is the world’s largest exporter and importer.


Since the 1980s, China has built zones for economic development. Over the last 3 decades, 280 million migrant workers (Chinese peasants) relocated to work in factories in these new economic zones. The money they sent back to the rural villages helped 3 times as many people rise out of poverty. These workers were willing to endure dangerous working environments, low wages, long hours and poor living conditions for the good of the community and the betterment of their own families. 7 These ideas are at the root of Confucian ethics.


Some have asserted that Weber‘s thesis on China, and the Confucian influence, was faulty. Confucianism cannot be both a hindrance to and a promoter of modern capitalism at the same time. So was Weber wrong? How could Weber have known that China would go through a process of removing traditional and cultural landmarks throughout that last 100 years. In his time, Weber understood some of the limitations that the Chinese culture put upon itself. Now a hundred years later, we have seen a new China that struggles with its place in the world and the ethical issues of corruption, abuse, pollution, and morality as it has achieved its success without a foundation of faith. Peter Zhao, a Communist Party member and adviser to the Chinese Central Committee said, “Without a unifying moral system enforced by common values there can be no real trust between people. Without faith among business partners and between management and shareholders, only the threat of the law can keep people honest. There are problems of corruption emerging. . . . There is concern about whether China’s economy will ever become a sound market economy.”8


So as China remakes itself by pushing the bounds of economic growth and political leadership, the party controlled capitalism, this authoritarian capitalism, remains a structure without a spirit. It is a system that is mostly based on faith in their own country, their own leaders, and their own hard work. This model of leadership is seen even within the church. Work hard and build your community and people will see your church as a success. Even though capitalism and Confucianism has been redefined in ways Max Weber would never have thought, I do not think either can last without a foundation in faith.



1Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge Classics. London ; New York: Routledge, 2001.

3Weber, Max. The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism. Free Press Paperback. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1964.

6Deng, Fang (2016). Is Max Weber Wrong? The Confucian Ethic, Migrant Workers, and China’s Rise. Bridgewater Review, 35(2), 28-32. Available at: http://vc.bridgew.edu/br_rev/vol35/iss2/9


About the Author


Greg has a wife and 3 children. He has lived and work in Asia for over 12 years. He is currently the Asia Director of Imanna Laboratories, which tests and inspects marine products seeking US Coast Guard certification. His company Is also involved in teaching and leadership development.

15 responses to “Confucian Capitalism”

  1. Chris Pritchett says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Greg. It was very informative to learn how China has developed into what it is today in relation to capitalism and Confucianism. Given your conviction that a capitalist society cannot function without a foundation of faith, I wonder what you think the trajectory might be for China (where is it headed?) as well as for the U.S. which has some Christian foundations but is now pluralist. Can capitalism survive pluralism, or does society need to be based on one particular faith?

    • Greg says:

      Those are the million dollar questions, Chris. What will be the compass? Is our human nature too strong not to be led down a path of destruction? I hope not. I don’t want to give the sunday school answer that with Jesus all things are possible. While that might be true, we have seen that too many times people choose a different path. All of that to say, China is a place to watch, with Christianity growing and the authoritarian rule, also growing.

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Greg,

    Rock solid ending in my opinion! “Even though capitalism and Confucianism has been redefined in ways Max Weber would never have thought, I do not think either can last without a foundation in faith.”

    I am grateful you chose to end with those words. Meaningless, meaningless? Solomon summed it up properly, unless there is one’s work coupled with the fear of God…

  3. Trisha Welstad says:

    Greg, thanks for the insight on Confucianism. I’ve been hoping to learn a bit more about the values and how they mash up with Christianity. Do Christians in China find it challenging to operate within a Confucian context?

    As you mention, China has grown tremendously through the industrial revolution and in capitalist ways in particular. Your quote, “Without a unifying moral system enforced by common values there can be no real trust between people. Without faith among business partners and between management and shareholders, only the threat of the law can keep people honest. There are problems of corruption emerging. . . . There is concern about whether China’s economy will ever become a sound market economy.” seems somewhat contradictory. Is the economy growing but people do not trust one another? I would love further insight.

    • Greg says:

      Trisha, I should have mentioned that particular quote does come from a Chinese Christian. He sees faith as a foundation especially in light of the corruption and abuse he has seen. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. Had trouble with word count this week.

      To your question about Christians in a Confucian world, I think there are some things they do not notice…it is just part of their culture. There are some other aspects that they feel they are stuck with. China has such a long history that there is a sense that there is not changing some parts of their culture.

  4. Greg,

    Thanks for this piece. It really is helpful to see your perspective in light of China’s incredible rise to world power in the past twenty years.

    You mentioned “structure without a spirit”. I agree completely. On my trip to China several years back, I found the rapid development and massive architecture at the same time both impressive and intimidating. If it’s at all possible for architecture to have a (metaphorical) soul, it was lacking in much of what I saw.

  5. Jason Turbeville says:

    Great insight on China and its emergence as a capitalist power. Do you think, because of both the lack of a moral code outside of law and the speed with which China has moved through its industrial revolution, that China will self implode with corruption, both at the state level and the corporate level?


    • Greg says:

      because this is a public blog I would never imply that this country is on a path to destruction. I will say that there is potential for a lot of good and the opposite.

  6. Shawn Hart says:

    I want to make a comment that may sound completely disrespectful, but based on your post, I’m going to risk it. We have had this long-based line of jokes regarding how much is “Made in China”, and yet, I have always heard that the Chinese are minimalist. Wouldn’t this be the same as a drug pusher that sees his own innocence because he only sells the drugs, he doesn’t use them? In regards to capitalism, does even the fact that they do not necessarily consume their own products, the very fact that they prosper and benefit from them, still make them part of the capitalistic problem. Furthermore, does it really surprise them that eventually their people will see how much is going out and eventually desire to see it stay in?

    I think once something is seen as a valuable…in whatever way…desire begins to form. Desire leads to coveting and coveting leads to buying. It does not matter what country you are raised in, sooner or later, we all tend to want what someone else has.

    • Greg says:

      Not offended Shawn. Over the last 30 years as wealth has come to certain people there is a desire for items that were only made for export before. The biggest problem is with 1.7 billion, even the 300 million migrant workers is seen a a drop in the bucket. Those that are spending like western consumers are different than those that are still working in the factories making these items. Of course, this produces a desire for more and better as one is working in the lowest labor force.

  7. Jean Ollis says:

    I always appreciate your first hand knowledge of Chinese culture. It’s frustrating that our own “ethnocentrism” in America quickly judges other cultures and makes right/wrong, good/bad judgements. The fact of the matter is there are some amazing values in the culture that we could learn from! Do you believe capitalism is serving China well? Is it really the answer to their economy?

    • Greg says:

      Jean it really is a band-aid to lift them out of 3rd world status. They even now recognize then need to begin to move toward healthier environment and cleaning up pollution. I don’t know the future for this country nor its use of it own kind of capitalism.

  8. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks for your work on this post! Very enlightening to read your work, as always. I was impressed with how you sought out and found the connections between the “Protestant” and the “Confucian”. This is one of my questions from the reading. You write that Weber “saw parallel virtues and values in Confucianism and Puritanism which today are again being discussed in China.”

    I would guesstimate that if this book were to be written today, the category of “Protestant” would certainly have to be adapted and modified to reflect the current state of affairs around the world, especially in Asia. Thanks for the window into the situation in current day China, very helpful.

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