On today's episode, we seek to understand modern China by examining its philosophy: in particular, the Confucian emphasis on social harmony. This concept is fundamental to understanding how the cultural identity of China has persisted over the past several thousand years and into the modern age.

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  • 0:00 - Story from my time in China
  • 14:25 - On Confucian Harmony
  • 20:25 - Eastern vs Western Philosophy
  • 26:11 - The origins of Confucianism and Chinese philosophy
  • 38:54 - Confucian Harmony, continued
  • 48:01 - The Mongol conquest of China
  • 58:46 - Understanding a culture through its philosophy


  • We kick off this episode with another storytime from my time spent teaching English in China. I talk about an experience I had with some local hospitality, and compare the various aspects of it to the Confucian concepts of Li and Ren.
  • Li is the following of traditions, rituals, and ceremonies. It also has a greater meaning that has to do with loyalty and respect towards other people, based on one's own position in society.
  • Ren is essentially humaneness and goodwill towards others. In order to practice Ren, one focuses on doing good by others for the sake of doing so, and without any preconceived ideas about how doing so might benefit you in the future.
  • Li and Ren form the basis of the Confucian ideal of Harmony. One expresses their Ren, their goodwill towards others, through the backdrop of Li, the following of proper rituals and traditions.
  • We then compare the unique conditions that brought about a distinction between Eastern Philosophy and Western Philosophy as we know them today. While Eastern Philosophy may have been more advanced in ethics and politics early on, Western Philosophy became reinvigorated during the Renaissance (China never had its own Renaissance) and began innovating into the modern philosophy we know today.
  • We continue on discussing the context around Confucian harmony and how it plays a fundamental role in Chinese society stretching back millennia, and the role of harmony in Chinese society today.
  • In discussing how Confucian values have endured for so long, we discuss the Mongol conquest of China in the 13th century and the rise of the Yuan dynasty.
  • We cut off our discussion by emphasizing how we can gain a better understanding of a particular culture through reading and interacting with its philosophy.

Works Cited:

  1. Julian Baggini, How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy. Granta Books 2019.
  2. Kenan Malik, The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics. Melville House 2015.
  3. Edward Slingerland (translator), Confucius' Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Hackett Publishing 2010.