Childhood Studies Confucian Views of Children and Childhood
Joseph Chadwin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0277


Despite the prominence of teachings pertaining to children in Confucianism, the specific study of Confucian views of childhood is a somewhat recent field. Despite this being a recent scholarly trend, one cannot deny the central role that views of childhood have historically had within Confucianism. Indeed, one could argue that the very core of Confucian doctrine is social harmony that begins at the level of the family. Within the family, parents and their children both play specific albeit interconnected roles. Grounded in the fundamental Confucian law of reciprocity, it is the parents’ responsibility to look after their children and ensure that they receive a moral education (a moral education that very much begins at the level of the household). Conversely, children, indebted to their parents, have a responsibility to learn and cultivate filiality. Thus, one finds that at the very core of Confucian views of childhood are the interconnected concepts of filiality and education.

General Overviews

Lee 2014, coupled with Cline 2015 and Cline 2017 as well as Zhou 2009, offers the best introduction to Confucian views of childhood to date. Cline 2015 and Cline 2017 superficially note that the parent-child relationship lies at the very heart of Confucianism. Although a broad volume, Slote and De Vos 1998 offers a good general introduction to the wider field across all of East Asia. Yim, et al. 2011 offers a valuable exploration of Confucian views of childhood from the perspective of children themselves. Wang 2014 focuses specifically on the family context. Bai 2005 introduces the notion of the perfect Confucian child, noting how Confucian education has the aim of cultivating the necessary Confucian virtues needed to create this perfect child. Similarly, Luo, et al. 2013 further explores this notion of the perfect Confucian child by ascribing seven specific virtues. Finally, Wang 2020 offers an overview of the core differences Mèngzǐ (孟子) and Xúnzi (荀子) had toward their views of childhood. Herein one also gets a good introduction to the wider (albeit still very much concerning childhood) Confucian debate regarding human nature, with Mèngzǐ holding that humans are born with innate ethical dispositions and Xúnzi arguing, in contrast, that human nature is inherently bad.

  • Bai, Limin. “Children at Play: A Childhood beyond the Confucian Shadow.” Childhood 12.1 (2005): 9–32.

    DOI: 10.1177/0907568205049890

    This article explores the Confucian conceptualization of the ideal child and asserts that traditional Chinese education for children essentially aimed to shape children in accordance with this ideal.

  • Cline, Erin M. Families of Virtue: Confucian and Western Views on Childhood Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.7312/clin17154

    Good overview of the importance of the parent-child relationship in Confucianism. Cline asserts that it is this relationship that forms the very basis for essentially every virtue. The volume interestingly reads as something of a Confucian apology, with Cline demonstrating how Western psychology can reaffirm this theoretical Confucian view.

  • Cline, Erin M. “Confucianism, Moral Education, and Childhood Development.” In Oxford Handbook Topics in Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935420.013.67

    With a particular focus on the moral cultivation in the classical and Hàn periods, Cline offers a good introduction to the place of parents, the family, ritual, and filiality in the moral development of children. She crucially notes that Confucian thinkers have historically regarded the earliest stages of children’s lives as of particular importance in the development of their character.

  • Lee, Pauline C. “Two Confucian Theories on Children and Childhood: Commentaries on the Analects and the Mengzi.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 13.4 (2014): 525–540.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11712-014-9401-2

    Although brief, this article concisely elucidates the classic debate between Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism over whether childhood is essentially an amalgamation of role-specific duties or a stage in one’s life that should be honored. Lee does this by drawing upon commentaries on the Analects (論語) and the Mèngzĭ from 200 to 1700 CE.

  • Luo, Rufan, Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, and Lulu Song. “Chinese Parents’ Goals and Practices in Early Childhood.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 28.4 (2013): 843–857.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.08.001

    This article argues that Confucianism views on the perfect child can be encapsulated in seven developmental goals: knowledge, social norms, modesty, shame, self-restraint, filiality, and harmonious relationships. This article then explores Confucian goals and beliefs within the context of the socialization of children by their parents.

  • Slote, Walter H., and George A. De Vos, eds. Confucianism and the Family. New York: State University of New York Press, 1998.

    Employing a highly multidisciplinary approach—anthropology, sociology, religion, philosophy, history, psychiatry, psychology, and psychoanalysis—this edited volume offers a very broad view of the Confucian family across East Asia.

  • Wang, Yudan Chen. “In Search of the Confucian Family: Interviews with Parents and Their Middle School Children in Guangzhou, China.” Journal of Adolescent Research 29.6 (2014): 765–782.

    DOI: 10.1177/0743558414538318

    This article offers a good introduction to the concept of the Confucian family and then argues that the findings from interviews with middle school students and their parents reveal that these Confucian principles were not as salient as one might assume.

  • Wang, Xueying. “Mengzi, Xunzi, Augustine, and John Chrysostom on Childhood Moral Cultivation.” In Confucianism and Catholicism: Reinvigorating the Dialogue. Edited by Michael R. Slater, Erin M. Cline, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, 109–134. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv19m643m.9

    This chapter offers a good overview of Mèngzǐ’s and Xúnzi’s views about childhood moral cultivation. There is a particular emphasis on Mèngzǐ’s view that people are born with innate moral tendencies as opposed to Xúnzi’s theory that prior to acquiring a proper Confucian education, human beings are guided primarily by animal desires.

  • Yim, Hoi Yin Bonnie, Lai Wan Maria Lee, and Marjory Ebbeck. “Confucianism and Early Childhood Education: A Study of Young Children’s Responses to Traditional Chinese Festival Stories.” Early Child Development and Care 181.3 (2011): 287–303.

    DOI: 10.1080/03004430903357837

    This article serves as the best exploration of Confucian values from the perspective of children, in particular young children (in this article aged 4–5), along with that of their teachers. Over four selected festivals—namely the Spring Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Double Ninth Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival—the children discuss the Confucian virtues of benevolence, righteousness, courteousness, filiality, and wisdom.

  • Zhou, Yiqun. “Confucianism.” In Children and Childhood in World Religions: Primary Sources and Texts. Edited by Marcia J. Bunge and Don S. Browning, 337–392. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

    This chapter in an edited volume constitutes a good overview of Confucian views of childhood. Fulfillment of religious responsibility, the impossible debt children have to their parents, the implications of the pre-imperial debate between Mèngzǐ (孟子) and Xúnzi (荀 子) over human nature (whether or not humans are born inherently good or bad), and the central role of filiality are the most prominent themes discussed.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.