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Confucianism, Idealism and Power in East Asia's Past and Present


Admission requirements

Admission to the MA Asian Studies.


Confucianism is a key topic of discussion in contemporary International Relations theory and practice in East Asia today. Yet it also sat at the heart of the traditional East Asian political thought which regulated interstate relations before modernity. Confucianism’s current bridging of the traditional and modern in East Asia, and of nationalist versus universalist outlooks on human existence, makes it a particularly intriguing object of academic study. Confucianism is both traditional and modern, a form of political thought, religion, philosophy, ethics and scientific practice which bound East Asia together in pre-modern history, and divided it in the modern. This course compares different political, sociological, anthropological, historical, philosophical and religious studies approaches to the position of Confucianism in East Asia to better understand its political, social, religious and intellectual relevance both in the past and today.

Confucianism today is being revived across East Asia. Major scholars in China and America refer to the current Confucian revival in China as a “cultural nationalist movement”. Yet East Asia is made up of many different nations and China itself claims to be multicultural. So why is the Chinese Communist Party now trying to claim Confucianism as a form of nationalism for China? And why was it earlier rejected by Chinese communists and Japanese modernizers alike? How has Confucianism mediated issues related to nationality, ethnicity, conflict, gender and class in modern history and the more distant past? This course considers these questions through studying aspects in the past and present of Confucianism’s role in the many different cultures, societies and polities that make up East Asia. It looks to set the current “Rise of Asia” discourses in a broader historical paradigm. Studying the past and present of Confucian culture furnishes us with a lens through which to look comparatively at different periods and places in the recent and not so recent past of Asia: from the twenty first century “Rise of China” to twentieth century “Japanese fascism”; from the book burnings of the Qin Dynasty and Cultural Revolution to the library acquisition policies of the PRC’s “Confucius Institute”; from the “West-oriented” Silk Road empire of Tang China to the claimed multiculturalism of Japan’s Manchukuo puppet regime, and the “multi-ethnic” ideologies of modern China.

The course has three phases.

  • Phase One considers the general question: WHAT is Confucianism?

  • Phase Two asks: HOW has Confucianism functioned through different periods of history and in different Asian cultures.

  • Phase Three thinks about WHY Confucianism is still considered relevant to modern society and WHO promotes, embraces and critiques Confucianism in East Asia today. In each phase International Relations literature is used to frame readings from other disciplines, advancing concrete questions of universal relevance to the study of international political thought.

Course objectives

By asking Masters students to research the position of Confucianism in East Asia’s past and present this seminar aims to give students the experience of critically analyzing a major religious and political tradition’s role in modern international politics. This experience looks to equip students with intellectual, academic, analytical and critical thinking skills through which they can also consider other examples of long durée movements, traditions, political parties, religions and intellectual streams active in the area of Asia they study. This course may therefore be of interest not only to students of China, Japan and/or Korea, but also to students studying aspects of Indian or Indonesian society and history where alternate traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam play similar roles in modern history.

The pedagogical aims of the seminar include developing student’s ability to:

  • carry out semi-independent research,

  • present area-specific research in a cross-area and cross disciplinary environment,

  • analyze the relationship between historical and contemporary social science academic literature in a given field,

  • originate and orally present a plan for an original, small piece of research,

  • present a small research project outcome in a professional written format.


See timetable of Asian Studies

Mode of instruction


Course Load

280 hours made up of 32 hours seminar time (26 regular course hours and 6 ResMA tutorial hours) and the remainder reading, researching, preparation and paper writing time.

Assessment method

  • Project Paper (4000 words) = 50%

  • Project Presentation (30 minutes) = 20%

  • Seminar Leading and Preparation for Seminar Leading = 15%

  • Seminar Participation and Preparation = 15%

The paper is written in two stages: a first version, which will be commented on, and a final version. Students who do not meet the deadline for the first version will lose the right to get comments and will only be graded based on their final version. Students who do not meet the deadline for the final version, will get a failing grade. In relation to the academic regulations of the Faculty, the first submission counts as the initial examination, and the second submission as the herkansing.

In order to pass the course, students must obtain an overall mark of 5.50 (=6) or higher.

The course is an integrated whole. All categories must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.

Exam Review

Students may request an oral elucidation of the assessment within 30 days after publication of the grade.


Yes. Blackboard is essential.

Note: there is no separate Blackboard page available for this ResMa course. Please subscribe to the Blackboard page of the regular MA course.

Reading list

Before the first session please buy the books below and read the first three chapters of Anna Sun’s book, the first two chapters of Xinzhong Yao’s book, and the first chapter of Shin’s book. In addition to these four books, article and source readings (making up about 70% of the load) will be provided online after the first week of the course.

  • Shin, Doh Chull. 2012. Confucianism and Democratization in East Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Sun, Anna. 2013. Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  • Wang, Yuan-Kang. 2011. Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Yao, Xinzhong. 2000. An Introduction to Confucianism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Additional reading for the ResMA students will be determined by the convener at a later stage taking into account the students’ field(s) of interest. This extra literature will be discussed during the (extra) tutorial sessions.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. Kiri Paramore


Attendance and participation are mandatory.

Students with disabilities

The university is committed to supporting and accommodating students with disabilities as stated in the university protocol (especially pages 3-5). Students should contact Fenestra Disability Centre at least four weeks before the start of their courses to ensure that all necessary academic accommodations can be made in time conform the abovementioned protocol.

Academic Integrity

Students are expected to be familiar with Leiden University policies on plagiarism and academic integrity. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. If you submit any work with your name affixed to it, it is assumed to be your own work with all sources used properly indicated and documented in the text (with quotations and/or citations).