Looking at the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world we note that the west in general, and protestant countries in particular, are individualistic and secular, and that these are the values most responsible for their socioeconomic success (geography and history obviously also play a big part).

In his brilliant book "The WEIRDest People in the World" Joseph Henrich argues convincingly that Christianity is the reason for this. First the popes banned marriages between kin for several hundred years thereby eliminating clanship (1). Second Martin Luther emphasized a personal relationship to God thereby further individualizing the society. He also insisted that everyone should read the Bible in their own language, thereby boosting literacy in the Protestant countries. This in turn made people able to obtain other knowledge, setting the stage for later secularization in these societies.

However if we look at the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map we notice that there is one group, Confucian, that scores high on secularism and moderate on individualism.

Looking at history it seems that China has been ruled by various dynasties for more than 2000 years. That is quite an achievement uniting such as a large and populous area into one empire. Why did China not break up into hundred tribes fighting each other forever? My motivation for this question was that I thought that this may be the result of a shared belief or set of values facilitating this unification process and overcoming tribalism.

During the Han Dynasty, emperor Wu Di (reigned 141–87 B.C.E.) made Confucianism the official state ideology (2). I would think this was done to unite the people and make rebellion less likely. As such I would think that Confucianism undermined the different clans present in the Han Dynasty?

But on the other hand it seems that Confucius placed a large importance on family and that "Marriage between first cousins was generally allowed during most of China’s dynastic era." (3)

Which aspects of Confucianism reduced the importance of the clan structure and made these societies more secular?

Regarding secular I am not talking about religious freedom. I am talking about atheism and religions loss of influence over peoples personal life.

(1) A New Theory of Western Civilization

(2) Confucianism

(3) When Were Marriages Between Cousins Banned in China?

  • 2
    I am not really sure whether "Confucius lived 500 BCE" implies "Chinese and Korean migrants were very Confucian around 0 CE".
    – Jan
    Dec 5, 2021 at 17:17
  • Thank you. Seems it does not. "In Japan, Confucianism stands, along with Buddhism, as a major religio-philosophical teaching introduced from the larger Asian cultural arena at the dawn of civilization in Japanese history, roughly the mid-sixth century." plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-confucian. Later on: "The 17th-century Tokugawa shogunate adopted Neo-Confucianism as the principle of controlling people and Confucian philosophy took hold." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_neo-Confucianism.
    – Andy
    Dec 5, 2021 at 19:06
  • 1
    This rather well-known excerpt from the Analects/the Lunyu might be relevant when discussing the role of kinship in Confucian societies: wengu.tartarie.com/wg/…
    – Jan
    Dec 5, 2021 at 20:56
  • The more often I look at this question the more interesting it is.... I think there is an element of "I think x, amirite" in the emphasis on marriage model, but the core question, Why is Chinese Confucian society more secular than this model would predict?" is intriguing. Thanks for a cool question
    – MCW
    Dec 6, 2021 at 18:52
  • 3
    I think this question would benefit from a definition of what is meant by "secular". Until the early 20th century, China had a state religion in the sense that the emperor had to fulfill certain rituals, in order to not lose the mandate of heaven. But that does not translate into an expectation that everyone follows a certain defined set of religious doctrines and practices, or that people "have no other god beside me".
    – Jan
    Dec 6, 2021 at 22:06

1 Answer 1


This question contains two very large assumptions which, when checked, unfortunately reduce it to nothing as far as I can tell.

The first is about the clan structure in Confucianism. As one of the comments points out, in Confucianism the clan is more important than anything, as can be seen in the Analects:

The Governor of She said to Confucius, 'In our village we have an example of a straight person. When the father stole a sheep, the son gave evidence against him.' Confucius answered, 'In our village those who are straight are quite different. Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. in such behaviour is straightness to be found as a matter of course.'

This is precisely the opposite of Roman law, where one of the earliest and most influential legal precedents is the case of a judge prosecuting his father according to the letter of the law. Indeed, as you mention intra-clan marriage was common in ancient China, and even today clan associations retain some limited power in China (much reduced after a century of authoritarian nation-state operations).

Your second assumption is about "secularism", which you associate with individual religious liberty. This certainly did not exist in ancient China. Something like this secularism emerged in Japan in the Edo period, around the 17th-19th centuries, but while there was Confucian language involved it didn't derive directly from Confucian teaching. What you're looking for in terms of tolerance of different faiths had nothing to do with inter-clan marriages, but was a cautious and only halfway agreement between feudal lords, which some of them rejected in the 17th century with pro-Confucian, anti-Buddhist campaigns. It seems your association of secularism with individualism is not quite right.

Furthermore, the modernization of Japan, which spurred its economic growth, began completely contrary to the thesis you're thinking of, with a wild anti-liberal movement destroying Buddhist temples. The arrival of secularism in China was of course with the Communist party wreaking destruction on the country's traditions in a similar way.

I recommend the following publications for analyzing the problem of secularism.

  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age -- on the emergence of secularism in the West
  • Jason A. Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan -- on the emergence of scientific ideology in Edo Japan
  • James Ketelaar, Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan -- on the anti-liberal movement that created Meiji Japan
  • Jolyon Thomas, Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan -- on the Meiji secular system and what became of it after 1945

I don't have any recommendations about secularism or clan structure in China -- my apologies

  • I guess I could imagine someone saying "in Japan, Confucianism led to Shinto which led to secularism" or "in China, Confucianism led to Communism" but I don't want to make those claims because they're oversimplifications, to the extent that they lose meaning and predictive power
    – Avery
    Dec 6, 2021 at 19:05
  • Thank you. A father covering up for his son is indeed more nepotic than the fascinating example you gave from Roman law. And as such China is probably a more nepotic country today than most western countries. However my main interest is how a society evolves from a tribal society into a nation state. This does not seem to have been a problem in China compared with say Afghanistan. There is an Arab proverb saying "I against my brother. I and my brother against my cousin. I, my brother, and my cousin against the world." This sort of mentality does not seem to have been prevalent in China.
    – Andy
    Dec 6, 2021 at 22:02
  • But this may not be result of Confucianism as I assumed, but rather the difference between a agricultural society and a beduin society.
    – Andy
    Dec 6, 2021 at 22:04

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