When Confucianism Meets Ubuntu: Rediscovering Justice, Morality and Practicality for Education and Development in East Asian Humanities

Dr. Jun Li

Chairman, The Hong Kong Educational Research Association (HKERA)

Past President, The Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong (CESHK)

Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, The Chinese University of Hong Kong


During my field trips on China-Africa university partnerships, I was greatly amazed and deeply touched by the hospitality, sincerity and friendship of the local people encountered in East, North and West Africa. I was enlightened in multiple ways by their respect and openness towards outsiders like me from far away Hong Kong, their values of diligence, education and community life, and their spirit in the ethical treatment of people and nature, which can all be seen as Ubuntu, a philosophical concept I have learned about through my personal experiences in Africa.

The idea of putting forward Ubuntu as the theme for a global humanist education by the 59th CIES Annual Conference is timely and creative. It ushers in a humanistic re-orientation for education and development in a critical time, when neo-liberal ideology is bearing fruit in educational standardization, managerialism, commercialization, competitiveness, and more pervasively, modernization and globalization, all dominated by the hegemony of a global capitalist system. Since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, capitalism has aggressively extended its visible and invisible tentacles to almost all aspects of human life around the globe and globalization has amplified its reach under post-colonial conditions. It is a critical time, a time when we must interrogate our educational realities, which have too long been ideologically distorted, systematically de-humanized and instrumentalized in ways that serve the global dominance of advantaged groups or societies. This is evident worldwide in the increasing polarization between the masses and a few elites, South and North, in recent decades. What was originally a multi-faceted mission of education for human beings has been reduced, institutionally, to a largely technical exercise, oftentimes in the questionable form of economic returns, skills training, credentialism, performance-oriented policies, or/and global ranking of quantifiable achievements, such as the ongoing movement paved with the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Unfortunately, humanistic education has a doubtful future, and excellence without a soul has been widely observed in our realities of education across institutions in various contexts (Lewis, 2007).

Ubuntu: Education is highly valued in Africa.  The motto of this poor primary school is a strong one - "Hard Work Pays."

Photo by Jun Li Nakuru, Kenya, June 28, 2014

The idea of Ubuntu in South African countries refers to a humanistic orientation towards fellow beings with an emphasis on personhood, humanity, humaneness and morality (Mokgoro, 1998). Although Ubuntu has many variants, such as Umunthu (Zambia), Umundu (Malawi), Bunhu (Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Swaziland), and Botho (Botswana and South Africa), core to its varied forms are “humanity”, “morality” and “collective welfare” (Mokgoro, 1998, p. 15), in which the African way of life is rooted. In fact, it has wider resonance in other parts of the world, such that a dialogue among civilizations is both possible and imperative.

Echoing Ubuntu, Confucianism foregrounds the moral relationships of individuals or groups in a societal context, offering an East Asian way of life, which is commonly shared in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macao, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and beyond. Although Confucianism has evolved into variant forms over 2,500 years, its central framework has remained centered on ethics and its tenets can be summed up in the Five Constant Virtues of a gentleperson, i.e., Ren (Benevolence), Yi (Righteousness), Li (Propriety), Zhi (Wisdom) and Xin (Sincerity), clustered around the core Confucian ideal of Zhong-Yong (the Golden Mean), the highest value of Confucian philosophy (Li, 2009).

Education for Love and Peace

For Confucianists, it is impossible to become a gentleperson without the virtue of Ren (benevolence) (Tu, 1979). Literally Ren () means compassion, benevolence or simply love – “to love your fellow people (  "Ren zhe Ai Ren )” (The Analects of Confucius, 12.22). The connotations of “Ren zhe Ai Ren” can be more accurately understood from their respective etymologies. The Chinese character for the first Ren is  , composed of   (human) in the left and   (two) in the right, pictographically carries the meaning of intimate relationships between two people (Xu, n.d., 8.1). Meanwhile, its pronunciation echoes exactly that of the second Ren ( ), which is the most commonly used Chinese character referring to human beings. The word root for Ai ( ) means heartfelt and ongoing longing, sympathy and caring for others (Xu, n.d., 5.2), and it is the exactly equivalent term for love in English language.

Ren () was envisioned by Confucianists as a foundational value, a call to love other people with a sincere heart, through which harmony and peace can be achieved among human beings and among humans, nature and universes. Human beings are to be freed and cultivated first through morality before excellence can be achieved. In essence, the ultimate mission of Confucian education is for love and peace in China’s ancient ideal of the Great Harmony (The Records of Rites, 9), and such a liberal idea from classical and neo-Confucianism should be promoted in education around the world today (de Bary, 2007).

Education as Social Justice

With love and peace as the core values for a humanistic education, Confucius extended his mission to include social justice as well. He did not promote Ren () alone, but instead always advocated Yi (Righteousness) alongside it. The twin values have been so interconnected with each other that a person demonstrating both love and righteousness becomes noble (de Bary, 2004). Additionally, Confucius expected that both Ren and Yi be accompanied by Li (Propriety), a form of social agreement for proper conduct and behavior in a moral sense.

With these humanistic concepts, Confucius believed that through education and self-cultivation every ordinary individual was equally capable of becoming a sage-king and contributing to society. Based on this idea, Confucius proposed You Jiao Wu Lei (The Analects of Confucius, 15.39), literally education without discrimination, the first ideal concept of Education for All (EFA) in human history. He further elaborated that the supreme virtue of benevolence involves unreservedly loving everybody and assisting them (The Analects of Confucius, 6.30). More importantly, he was not only a philosopher but was committed to making education available in reality to everybody with a thirst for knowledge. As a pioneer who opened the first private academy two thousand five hundred years ago, he taught more than 3,000 disciples over his life-time.

With a somewhat different connotation, Ubuntu in South Africa equates social justice with “the proper relationships between a human person and the universe, between the person and nature, between the person and other persons ... it regulates the relationship of the universe” (Bhengu, 2006, p. 30). Ubuntu as social justice is also different from what has been developed in the European context, yet has some parallels. The Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1968) articulated the viewpoint that the legitimacy of a society relies on the social contract, an equitable one common to all. Two hundred years later, John Rawls argued that social justice as fairness should be defended for the priority of what is right (Sandel, 1998). Letseka (2014) observes that there actually exists an interconnectedness between Europe and Africa in the notion of Ubuntu as fairness.

Education for social justice or EFA is indeed a universal, rich value which promotes learning, teaching and schooling for all in various societal contexts, and it has been advocated differently in diverse civilizations. Regretfully, such a value is still far more an ideal than a reality, as is globally evident in the increasing gap between the poor and the rich, the disadvantaged and the advantaged.

Education and Moral Cultivation 

Like Ubuntu, Confucianism views morality as the philosophical foundation for education. The Five Constant Virtues of a gentleperson, i.e., Ren (Benevolence), Yi (Righteousness), Li (Propriety), Zhi (Wisdom) and Xin (Sincerity), are all key moral elements that should be cultivated through a humanistic education. In the Confucian tradition, the ultimate aim of higher education is to “let one's innate virtue shine forth, to renew the people, and to rest in the highest good” (The Great Learning, 1.1). The ideal Confucian value has been carried forward to modern times by neo-Confucian scholars such as Ch’ien Mu, who anticipated a new Chinese model of the university. In his widely cited article on The Ideal of the University, Ch’ien (1943) criticized the popularity of commercial and Western orientations of university education in China driven by capitalism and colonialism, and advocated humanistic emancipation through forms of higher education that stimulated indigenous culture and ethics. His pursuit of moral cultivation has been carried on by his disciples (Yu, 1971). Such a new interpretation of Confucianism has recently been revived in the ideal of the Chinese University 3.0 (Li & Hayhoe, 2013; Li, 2015), a new stage of Chinese higher education that is rooted in indigenous morality, democracy and diversity with a renewed mission in the context of globalization.

To achieve the moral goal of education, Confucianism has attached great importance to the interwoven Eight Steps of moral cultivation, beginning with the investigation of things and extension of knowledge, going through self-cultivation of personhood and the care of family, and ending up with the governance of the state and the making of a peaceful world for all people, all centered on the cultivation of individual morality for social development (Li & Hayhoe, 2011). These Eight Steps are not exclusive to investigation into the natural world. They actually base the interactive and progressive process of learning and education first on the exploration of nature and the self, which are then expanded into moral perfection in terms of the growth of personhood, deontological capacity and ethical wisdom for a benevolent, free and equitable world. It is interesting that a human soul can be nurtured in different ways by Ubuntu’s humanity and collectivism, the Confucian Eight Steps, or Plato’s enlightening Allegory of the Cave (The Republic, 7).

Education towards Diversity 

The Ubuntu approach to humanities recognizes diversity in terms of language, history and values (Louw, 2008). In a similar vein, both classical Confucianism and neo-Confucianism have given a high value to diversity and tolerance in order to nurture individuality and pluralism in education, rather than a one-size-fits-all conformity. Confucius always focused on heuristic education, enlightening his disciples in accordance with their diverse dispositions and background characteristics, as demonstrated below in the depiction of his actual teaching:

Zi Lu asked: “Should I immediately put into action what I have heard?”

The Master said: “As your father and elder brothers are still alive (to be consulted), how can you just go ahead to do it?”

Ran You asked: “Should I immediately put into action what I have heard?”

The Master said: “Yes.”

Gongxi Hua said: “When You (Zi Lu) asked whether he should immediately put into action what he had heard, you said as his father and elder brothers were still alive. Yet when Qiu (Ran You) asked whether he should immediately put into action what he had heard, you answered yes. I am puzzled. May I be enlightened?”

The Master said: “Qiu always holds back, so I urged him forward; You has more than his own share of energy, I kept him back.”

(The Analects of Confucius, 11.22)

The Confucian concept of diversity is not only limited to teaching and education, but is extendable to an axiological foundation for ethical judgements and life orientation. Confucius called for harmony with diversity and tolerance (He er Bu Tong) (The Analects of Confucius, 13.23), and his idea was further developed by his disciples as “all things being nourished together without hurting one another” and “all courses being pursued without being conflictual or mutually exclusive” (The Doctrine of the Mean, 30.3). It is in this sense that the mission of education should not be narrowed to a simplistic set of technical tools for serving a capitalist world. Rather, a humanist education with diversity should be able to respect, include, encourage and actualize a vast variety of pedagogical and spiritual beliefs and traditions, institutional forms and endeavours, as well as student backgrounds being favourable to the promotion of inter-cultural and cross-national understanding in a global age.

Education in Practicality for Individual and Societal Development

Confucianism is not merely a philosophy of idealism, but also a pragmatic orientation for educational action and social transformation, as demonstrated by Confucius himself throughout his whole life as a master educator. Such an orientation can be illuminated by Zhong-Yong, a Confucian wisdom of the Golden Mean (Lin, 1939). Literally, Zhong means central, proper, right or just; and Yong carries the meaning of ordinary, mediocre, pragmatic or universal (Ku, 1906, p. 7). To secure Zhong (the Mean) and Yong (the Normality) is not barely to pursue a middle course, but involves a spirit in which humanity and rationality reach a perfect harmony. In fact, Zhong-Yong can serve as “a guide for human emotions and actions” (Chai & Chai, 1965, p. 305). Fundamental to the two principles are Confucian values based on pragmatism which is balanced in a collective rationality and ethical commitments for individual and social development, through which harmony and peace are reached and attuned in ways that overcome the tensions between ideals and realities.

Practically, education and development must be viewed as a dynamic, interactive and contextualized process which demands educational policies and reform to be situated, judged and implemented upon constantly changing individuals, society and environment in an uncertain world. An example of the Confucian Zhong-Yong can be found in the relationships among schooling, prosperity and population. In Confucian pragmatism, a humanistic education can only be viable through economic abundance coming after the growth of population (The Analects of Confucius, 13.9).

The Confucian practicality of Zhong-Yong has multiple implications for individual and societal development through education. For example, education must be fashioned to transform an unequal society into one of restorative freedom, which is both benevolent and just, by promoting the social mobility of individuals. In this sense, Confucianism has always accommodated a realist choice for educational excellence. Furthermore, Confucianism has never been satisfied with a utilitarian education, but always extended its ideals to the moral development and transcendence of individuals and society as a whole. The Confucian practicality of Zhong-Yong can balance the extreme swings of the pendulum in educational reform and development, between short-sighted instrumentalism, on one hand, and a purely idealized utopia, on the other.

Concluding Remarks: Educational Development, Humanities and Global Dialogue among Civilizations

Our age has been perplexed in face of the dilemma between ideal and reality in education and development over a long time. It has never been more urgent than at the current time to critically re-examine the relationship between education and humanity through dialogue among civilizations (UNESCO, 2005). The philosophy of Ubuntu and Confucianism can enlighten us on how education, policy and development should be envisaged in terms of humanity, humaneness, morality and ethical choices for excellence with a soul. Their wisdom resonates in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism or the philosophy of ancient Greece – all can empower us in alternative ways to more critically examine educational realities around the globe. The Confucian framework of Zhong-Yong and the Ubuntu way of humanity and morality both shed new light on how education and development can be re-envisioned in more humane ways in future.

Cultural learning from others: African students at a Confucius Institute classroom. The British Council, Goethe Institute and Institute Francais co-exist also in the same town. 

Photo by Jun Li, Yaounde`, Cameroon, August 12, 2014

In the unique city of Hong Kong where the essence of East and West is integrated, it is natural to ask if Confucian values and wisdom can help answer such questions as “Can Hong Kong’s educational reforms enable all of its people, its human resources, to become humane talent?” or “Can Hong Kong nurture the kind of Confucian or Christian humanity that includes a high level of moral and spiritual capacity, alongside of the scientific and social knowledge necessary to contribute effectively to all around development in an increasingly globalized world?” (Hayhoe, 2012, p. 279) The fact is that Confucianism had been well-received around the world by over 3.4 million learners in more than 1,300 Confucius Institutes and Classrooms established as educational partnerships within just one decade by 2014 (Liu, 2014, December 7). Like Ubuntu, Confucianism is believed to have the unique potential to re-humanize education, and to open up the possibility of a freer and more humane future within the Confucian ideal of the Great Harmony, which in turn finds resonance in Ubuntu!


This short article reflects on my life-long interest in Confucian and East Asian studies, my research projects on “China-Africa University Partnerships in Education and Training: Students, Trainees, Teachers and Researchers” sponsored by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council General Research Fund (RGC/GRF Ref.: CUHK842912) and “World-class Universities, Publication and Research Assessment: Rethinking the Mission of Higher Education in the Global Age” sponsored by the Research Development Fund of Worldwide Universities Networks (RDF/WUN Ref.: 4930217), and my co-investigated OECD Programme for International Student Assessment in Hong Kong 2015 (PISA2015 Hong Kong). Further reflections are available from my monographs Jiaoyuxue Zhi (A History of Chinese Thought on Education) by Shanghai People's Press (1998) and The Chinese Model of Policy Implementation: Multiple Perspectives on Teacher Education Reform (Springer, 2015, forthcoming).


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