Historically, the Confucian regions of the world, such as China, Singapore, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, were vibrant and growing, but now have the lowest fertility rates. For example, the average fertility rate in 2010-2016 was 3.41 in the Arab world, 2.40 in India, 2.12 in Latin America, 1.87 in the United States, and 1.54 in the European Union, but only 1.18 in China, 1.12 in Taiwan, 1.20 in Hong Kong, 1.22 in Singapore and South Korea, and 1.42 in Japan.1 The decline of family values is one of the main reasons for this fertility decline.
Confucian Family Values Favor Population Growth
Confucianism is a philosophy founded by Confucius (551-479 BC), which emphasizes the importance of family, personal ethics and morality, and social harmony. Marriage is the foundation of the entire Confucian ethical system. During the Warring States period of China (475-221 BC), Yangism and Mohism were dominant ideologies, while Confucianism was not.2 Yangists took a hands-off approach to world affairs, refusing to sacrifice at all to save the world and believed that everyone should mind their own business and the world would govern itself.3 Mohism advocated universal love and pacifism.4 In contrast, Confucianism is a "middle way" between Yangism and Mohism, although closer to the former.
Mencius, the “Second Sage” of Confucianism, criticized Yangism and Mohism:
Yang's doctrine is: each one for himself; then there will be no ruler. Mo's doctrine is: love all equally; then there will be no father. To have neither ruler nor father is to be non-human civilization.
Mencius believed that Mohism was more subversive and dangerous than Yangism, and that Mohist collectivism would lead to a fatherless crisis and was therefore unsustainable. His concerns are born out today in Europe and the United States. For example, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births in the U.S. rose from 5% in 1960 to 40% in 2016. The proportions in 2016 were as high as 70% in some European countries.
Since Yangism was incapable of establishing a political order and Mohism was incapable of establishing a family order, both were eliminated in China over time.
Buddhism also became a dominant ideology in China for a while. In Buddhism, love is even more universal than in Mohism. Buddhists treat the lives of human and non-human animals with equal respect. Buddhism works well for personal cultivation, but if used to govern the state, it leads to a decline in population and civilization. For example, in the 7th century, Tibet had a population of about 10 million, while the Han-ruled Tang dynasty of China had a population of 30-40 million. But in 1953, the population of Tibetans who believed in Buddhism fell to 2.75 million, while the Han Chinese population increased to 540 million. The Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589) and the Liao dynasty (907-1125) of China were also partially destroyed by Buddhism.5
As Confucianism was able to nourish the population and civilization, during the Han Dynasty, emperor Wu Di (reigned 141–87 BC) made Confucianism the official state ideology. Confucianism advocates love with distinctions—one always loves one’s family first and then moves outward. Mencius said, “support your own parents and raise your own children first (so others will fellow), then others,” and “in poverty, take care of yourself; when prosperous, contribute to the well-being of all.”
Cherishing the family and marriage is the core value of Confucian society. One of the principles of Confucianism is that "a man should alienate the king for his parents' sake, but never alienate parents for the king." Confucianism also advocates "big families, small government."
In contrast, Legalism, which Mohism advanced, teaches "strong government, and weak families." Legalists believed that the people had to be controlled by an all-powerful ruler, strict laws, and harsh punishments, and individual interests must be subordinated to the national interests.6 Mohists were well organized, had a spirit of obedience, sacrifice, and collectivism. The Mohists naively thought they could achieve their selfless ideals with the help of the kings of Qin, one of the seven great powers in China during the Warring States period. But, in fact, they aided and abetted the enemy (the kings of Qin were tyrants).
With a strong political order, the Legalists were able to successfully respond to emergencies and enabled the country to rise rapidly. But this rise was unsustainable because it undermined family values and unduly restricted individual freedom, which can led to a decline in social and economic vitality. Once an error in decision-making occurred, it was difficult to correct. For example, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang used Legalism to unify China and establish the Qin dynasty in 221 BC. However, the Qin dynasty lasted only 15 years.
It may be because Confucianism tried to limit imperial power, or because the Confucian political order was not strong enough, that China's rulers began to add Legalism to strengthen their rule in the 2nd century BC,7 which distorted the Chinese civilization. Thus, Chinese civilization was run by a dual operating system: Confucianism and Legalism. When the political palette was more Confucian, China was more vibrant and harmonious.
Why Confucian Regions Now Have the Lowest Fertility Rates in the World
The fertility rate hits the bottom in regions where Confucianism prevails (mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and Japan) for five reasons.
1. First, the modern pattern for social and economic development is based on Western Civilization and brings great shock to Confucian family values. In particular, the replacement of “Family Security” (where people raise their own children and support their own parents, and family members help each other) by Social Security (where the government does most of this work) has shaken the economic foundations of Confucian family values.
2. Second, Confucian parents believe that children are the continuation of their own lives, so they have a strong kinship altruism towards their children. Under high parenting costs, they pursue quality rather than quantity of childbearing. For example, there is a famous story about Mencius’s mom moving three times to ensure a good educational environment for her child.8 High education costs discourage parents from having more children, and the extension of time spent on education squeezes the childbearing years of young couples. The average age of women at first birth is 31 in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, while it is only 27 in the United States.
3. Third, urban population density is too high, and people are reluctant to have babies due to life pressure and limited living space. The population density of urban built-up areas in China, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan is 10,000-30,000 people per square kilometer9 compared to 1,000-4,000 in the United States.
4. Fourth, in the Christian world, people traditionally have two fathers (a biological father and God) and now have one more (social welfare/the government), so this might explain why the out-of-wedlock fertility rate is very high. On the contrary, people affected by Confucianism believe that they only have a biological father and there is little social welfare; therefore, out-of-wedlock births only account for 2% of births in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.
5. Fifth, Confucianism only deals with the “present life” not the “after life.” Therefore, people value their lives more and live longer. For example, the life expectancy at birth in 2017 was 84.1 in Japan, 84.8 in Singapore, and 84.7 in Hong Kong,10 but only 78.5 in the U.S. and 81.0 years in the European Union. Confucian countries face more severe aging problems, and its young people are less capable of raising children.
In addition to these five reasons, China’s adoption of its one-child policy for four decades also played a significant role by changing people’s views of childbearing. And social and economic patterns cater to the one-child policy, so the inertial effects linger on.
Sima Guang (1019－1086), the Prime Minister of the Song Dynasty of China, held that reform should be carried out within the frame of tradition, following the naturally evolved "spontaneous order." East Asia needs to return to the Confucian ways to boost fertility rates. Family security is like a forest—it may not be very beautiful, but it has weathered thousands of years of storms; Social Security is like a potted landscape—beautiful but never large enough. In the future, it is necessary to establish a "garden style" system advocated by Confucianism that draws on the virtues of both Family Security and Social Security to make East Asia grow into a towering tree.
Yi Fuxian is a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the leading advocate for abolishing a one-child policy, and author of Big Country with an Empty Nest.
*Photo credit: Shutterstock
1. China Population and Employment Statistics Yearbook, 2011-2017.
4. See also: http://www.acmuller.net/con-dao/mencius.html#div-7 and https://www.ancient.eu/Mo_Ti/
5. Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan, the fifth khagan of the Mongol Empire) concluded that the Liao Dynasty was destroyed by Buddhism: http://www.dili360.com/cng/article/p5e4bfca47f24a24.htm
6. See: https://www.ancient.eu/Legalism/ and see: https://www.crf-usa.org/images/t2t/pdf/ConfucianismorLegalism.pdf and https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/ancient-medieval/zhou-qin-han-china/a/the-philosophers-of-the-warring-states
7. See: http://www.aisixiang.com/data/119067.html
8. See: http://www.chinaqw.com/hwjy/hykt/200702/02/60464.shtml
9. See: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2019/07/11/the-50-most-densely-populated-cities-in-the-world/39664259/ See also: Hong Kong: https://www.censtatd.gov.hk/hkstat/sub/sp150.jsp?productCode=D5320189 ; Even small cities in China are planned with 10,000 people per square kilometer urbanized area, and large cities are similar to Hong Kong: https://m.21jingji.com/article/20190920/herald/47eb844e9a022e2bcaa1d19334f5a751.html; See also: Seoul: http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/393438.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_districts_of_Seoul See also: Greater Tokyo Area: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_Tokyo_Area ;
10. Note: The official life expectancy of Japan, the United States, and the European Union is the same as the World Bank data https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN, but the official data of Hong Kong and Singapore are different from the World Bank data. See: https://www.zaobao.com.sg/znews/singapore/story20190610-963207; See also: https://ilcuk.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Healthy-ageing-in-Hong-Kong.pdf