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Confucius at Work




Mandarinclick is dedicated to promote Chinese culture throughout the world. Therefore, we post blogs on a regular basis to inform and entertain our followers with cultural knowledge and insights. This week, consultant Bert Husson, who has given many seminars on behalf of Mandariclick and educational institutes on Chinese (business) culture will offer his summarized view on the influence of Confucius on Chinese work ethics.

Confucius at Work

Being one of the most influential Chinese philosophers/educators, Confucius has had profound influence on Chinese society. Many scholars attribute the economic boom to so-called Confucian dynamism: a long term vision based on Confusion principles. Confucian principles are indigenous to Chinese culture; these principles advocate respect for work, discipline, harmony, thrift, protecting face, order of relationships, and duty to family.  This blog will attempt to explain in what ways Confucianism has helped shaping Chinese business culture.


Confucius lived in a time when many states were fighting wars in China. Confucius detested this chaos and wanted to bring order back to society. Therefore, Confucius based his ideal society on 5 essential relationships, which can be translated as follows: Ruler-ruled, father-son, husband-wife, elder-child, and friend-friend. When analyzing these relationships, one will see that four of the five are hierarchical. According to Confucius, the stability of society is based on ordered relationships between people, and the family is the prototype of all social organizations. This principle of hierarchy is still visible on the Chinese work floor (as in many other aspects of Chinese life). The power distance between company leaders and workers is quite large, and this is seen as self-evident. Company structures in China are generally much more hierarchical than in for example the U.S. and Western Europe.



One single word that characterizes both Confucius and the Chinese work floor is ‘reciprocity.’ It basically means: “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” This principle can be related to the most important concept in Chinese business culture: Guanxi (simplified translation: relationships).  It contains implicit mutual obligation, assurance, and governs Chinese attitudes toward long-term social and business relationships. As business expert Wang Luo (2013) puts it: “If A has guanxi with B and B is a friend of C, then B can introduce or recommend A to C or vice versa. Otherwise contact between A and C is impossible.” Guanxi is also reciprocal in that if one does not follow the rule for exchanging favors, the individual will lose face (mianzi) and be labeled untrustworthy. A difference with the West is that business relationships in the West are generally based upon contracts and legal security; in China, they are based upon trust. Note, whether the concept of guanxi is a consequence of Confucianism is still debated among scholars inside and outside of China.

Indirect communication/Harmony

In Confucian philosophy, loyalty to one's superiors is regarded as an absolute obligation. Moreover, people should not disturb harmony: collective opinions/interests are more important than individual ones. In other words, in Chinese business, politics, family, etc, one should not rock the boat. This is an important difference with for example the U.S., where people are generally expected to give their personal opinions on issues, even if thereby disturbing harmony. In China, this can be perceived as egocentric, and even rude. And, as Confucius states: “There are truly many paths leading up to every mountain, and many mountains lead to heaven.” Therefore, one is not expected to refute others’ opinions when it is not absolutely necessary.


Confucius believed that virtuous behavior includes self-improvement through education, diligence, perseverance, and moderation. The continual purpose of Confucius’ teaching was practical and designed to help each person improve one’s character and conduct. Although Confucius encouraged his students to learn about many things, he suggested that they be very selective and careful about knowledge: “If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.” You can and should learn from everyone, be it a crook or a saint, a competitor or a partner!

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