The Modern Junzi and His Future Prospects

China Studies Association of Australia

Kam Louie, Honorary Professor at UNSW and HKU, China Studies Association of Australia

Traditionally, most Chinese men aspired to be a junzi, the gentleman ideal that Confucius advocated. No matter how one interpreted it, the junzi was central to Confucian framework from the earliest times in Chinese history until the May Fourth era, remembered for its slogan “Down with Confucius Shop”. In terms of gender relations, May Fourth portrayals of women as being oppressed by the Confucian system had a dramatic impact on how men viewed were viewed. Although the men did often hold “the system” responsible for women’s oppression, they certainly could not escape the spotlight and emerge unscathed. Using some well-known works such as Lu Xun’s short story “Kong Yizi” (1919) as illustrations, this paper will show how the attacks on Confucianism from that time helped push the Confucian gentleman who was already dying from the collapse of the old imperial examination system further into the grave.

I will do this by reviewing some significant and influential ideas on the junzi in Mainland China in the last hundred years. As well as Lu Xun, I will look at other thinkers whose ideas have shaped scholarly and general thinking about how to be a good man. For example, Communist philosophers such as Zhao Zibin were extremely influential in the first 30 years of the PRC. With Marxist ideology on the decline, philosophers looked inwards and backwards for inspiration. I will examine the gender implications of popular writers such as Yu Qiuyu and Jiang Qing to illustrate the futility of efforts made by these latter-day New Confucians in calling for the return of the traditional Confucian gentleman ideals.

My contention is that despite their advocacy of the revival of old gender roles and the junzi model, these calls are but a flag-waving exercise to show commitment to the nationalist turn in the political sphere, and young people — young women in particular – will find them simply laughable. With the help of popular media such as blogs and online chat forums, the legacy of May Fourth, in its liberationist calls for gender equality and more modern and less bookish Chinese men, still dictates the direction of current debates.


Kam Louie FHKAH FAHA was Dean of the Arts Faculty (2005-13), MB Lee Professor of Humanities and Medicine at Hong Kong University (HKU) and President of The Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities (2011-13). He is currently Honorary Professor at UNSW and HKU.

His research interests cover interdisciplinary studies of gender, history, language, literature, and philosophy in China. He has published 18 books and about 80 articles, on diverse topics such as Inheriting Tradition: Interpretations of the Classical Philosophers in Communist China, 1949-1966 (Oxford University Press, 1986) and Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

He studied at Sydney University, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Peking University, and spent 1992 as Professorial Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, Taipei. He has taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Nanjing, Auckland and Murdoch Universities. He has also served as Professor of Chinese Studies and Head of Department at University of Queensland and Australian National University.

As well as serving on various committees such as the Australia-China Council, Cultural and Educational Advisory Committee of the Queensland-China Council, he was Chief Editor of Asian Studies Review and is an Editorial Board member of various scholarly journals.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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