What Confucius Said About Free Speech

istock photo: Kemalbas

For the purpose of this article, “first-generation” specifically refers to Chinese immigrants who came to the United States during, or shortly after, the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1970s-80s; “second-generation” refers to the first-generation’s children who were born in the United States or arrived as children.

“Do not suppress my rights to free speech,” clamor the voices from the echo chambers of my family’s WeChat group. As if still trapped in China, the older or first-generation courageously protested the shackles of censorship that they thought they had left behind.

The outcry on the violation of free speech is often invoked when the younger or second-generation member commits one of the following egregious acts:

  1. Asks a clarifying question
  2. Asks for evidence or supporting data
  3. Disagrees with a claim

With text written in Chinese, I often disregard the colorful brouhaha erupting from my family’s chat group. But every now and then, an inflammatory headline or comment jumps from my phone and grabs me by the throat. In response, I would type ferociously into my google translate for the best quip in Chinese that an ABC can muster.

However, shortly after, dismay and anger would froth through my phone. “This is a free country!” an auntie would proclaim. “We are not under CCP control!” cried my mother. Other elders followed suit in defending their perceived right to say anything provocative and fabricated without being subjected to an open debate. To them, this was free speech.

In the book chapter, An Intergenerational Divide: Political Rhetoric and Discourse in the Chinese American Community, I examined how the authoritarian orientation contributes to fomenting conflict in intergenerational discourse in the Chinese American community.

Endemic in Chinese culture, the authoritarian orientation emphasizes an unequal social relationship between youth and elders and discouraging behavior that challenges authority (Ma & Yang, 2014). Understanding this orientation may offer insights into how the cherished American constitutional right to free speech has been culturally obfuscated by those who never experienced the free exchange of ideas in the first place.

The authoritarian orientation is a theoretical construct to describe and understand Chinese behavioral patterns that emphasize respect for authority and hierarchy to maintain social harmony (Chien, 2016). It is grounded in Confucian philosophy and has shaped Chinese familial interactions by placing a high value on reverence and obedience according to the family birth order.

In fact, familial hierarchy is built into the Chinese language structure itself, with a codified appellation system that forces the speaker to be conscious of where they stand in the family order when entering a conversation or interaction.

(Watch Keith Chen, a behavioral economist at Yale, illustrate this concept in his Ted Talk.)

In my family, discourse is often characterized by the second-generation duly addressing an elder’s title and often rendering sufficient praise and recognizing hardships faced by the first-generation before entering a discussion. This customary manner of addressing the first-generation already positions the speaker as possessing less experience and wisdom.

Based on this tradition the first-generation in my family often state opinions as if they were immutable facts. (Although many Americans also blur the difference between opinion and news in the current media zeitgeist.) The act of listening and actively integrating new ideas are, dare I say, irrelevant skills to hone, when seniority takes precedence. When the second-generation offers ideas and make linkages to historical and social context to situate arguments, the first-generation may praise their education and studies, and then thank them for generously offering new information. At the end, the first-generation will affirm their own correctness on the matter being discussed.

As my father declared when he became agitated after I questioned an overly confident claim he made— You may have an education, but I have the life experience.

So what did Confucius say?

Confucius did not say anything specific about free speech. However, the respect for hierarchy, especially within the family, is embedded in Confucian traditions and influences how discourse is conducted. When family discussions become heated, challenging the first-generation is implicitly discouraged to maintain harmony and respect for the family hierarchy. Such authoritarian-oriented communication patterns constrict the consideration and discussion of more complex issues in my family.

According to Confucius, Chinese people are embedded in a system of interdependent relationships from birth to death — including four vertical relationships between ruler-subordinate, father-son, husband-wife, and older brother-younger brother, and one horizontal relationship from friend-friend (Chien, 2013, as cited in Chien, 2016). Confucius believed that moral behavior stemmed from fulfilling these traditional roles (Berling, n.d.).

As a result, Chinese culture tends to value upholding these relationships and giving reverence according to age and authority. Speaking, for example, is traditionally associated with seniority (Fang, 2014).

Therefore, intergenerational discourse in Chinese American families is often a one-way conversation. In my family, the elder generation often invoke that their free speech has been violated when this one way conversation suddenly becomes two way. When this happens, it is common for first-generation members to shut down discussions by raising their voices and talking over the younger generation. Because even though they highly value education for their children, they view their children’s voices as just that — their children’s.

How Communist ideology deepened the authoritarian orientation in the Chinese population

For over 2000 years, rulers and emperors used Confucianism to instill obedience and justify autocratic rule (Greenway, 2020). It is under this entrenched political tradition that the CCP came into power. Under Mao, the CCP attained social order by deepening the authoritarian orientation that existed in Chinese culture by reapplying the commitment to the family hierarchy to a new hierarchical authority — the Party.

The Party controlled all aspects of spiritual and intellectual life for my parents and their generation. Dr. Harry B. Friedgood (1951), of the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the psychological forces that led Soviet populations to embrace authoritarian elements in society that prevented democratic systems to take hold. He offered psychological theories on the unconscious memory fragments of infantile experiences that lead people to irrationally subscribe to and display authoritarian behaviors.

In my family, the authoritarian orientation is manifested in various ways, and most notably in the realm of discourse and rhetoric, where the first-generation members often reframe ‘free speech’ as a means to limit debate to preserve familial hierarchy, and thereby uphold social order. They turn themselves into victims of censorship when clarifications are asked of their claims. Friedgood explained that when chaos abounds, “the child may instinctively seek to allay their insecurity by continuing his original identification with, and dependence upon, the external source of imposed authority” (Friedgood, 1951, p. 435).

Such psychological impact observed in the former Soviet populations may offer insights into the psyche of my parents and those of their generation who were children in the advent of the Chinese Communist Revolution. Growing up under an all-powerful authority, combined with the cultural imperative to respect the family hierarchy, may have limited their ability to understand what it means to have open debate, which involves challenging oneself and others.

Friedgood (1951) described populations in Soviet society:

Individuals who witnessed at first hand the evolution of the program of deceit in the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics], nevertheless act as its blind agents for their own destruction. It is as though they had lent themselves to Soviet hypnosis, and in a witless trance were obeying automatically the Politburo’s commands to destroy their own most precious possessions — liberty, security, and the pursuit of happiness. (p. 432)

The paradox that Friedgood describes can arguably be applied to many in the first-generation who misconstrue the principles of free speech. When my family members claim that their ‘free speech’ is being ‘violated,’ they are defending some notion that they, perhaps as elders, should be able to say anything they want without being subjected to scrutiny and debate. However, such manners of discourse is akin to behaviors promulgated by the CCP that the first-generation wanted to leave behind when immigrating to the U.S.

Ironically, the cultural archetype of upholding hierarchy to attain harmony has been re-established on American soil, whereby critiques are seen as a provocation and the practice of free speech faces a certain death-by-hierarchy. As a result, many Chinese American households suffer an absence of epistemic humility that limits the capacity for introspection and the recalibration of assumptions and knowledge.

It is no wonder that many Chinese here and abroad support strongman leaders who lack the epistemic humility that is needed to better the human condition through the pursuit of curious learning, intellectual growth, and compassion for one another.

Studies have demonstrated that, even under modernization or globalization, the authoritarian orientation is still ubiquitous in contemporary Chinese societies (Chien, 2013, as cited in Chien, 2016). In other countries grounded in Confucian traditions, such as Korea and Japan, the authoritarian orientations persist even after their political systems have democratized and their social structures have modernized (Ma & Yang, 2014).

Applying the authoritarian orientation to understand what constricts productive intergenerational discourse may offer compassion for those who grew up under such societies. It also sheds light on what causes and strengthens polarizing rhetoric and mindsets that may endanger democracies. However, the authoritarian orientation is also prevalent in American society. The tenor of my family’s dialogue can ostensibly describe the alarming trend of college students shouting down speakers who come to their campus, thereby limiting opportunities for intellectual debate.

However, as contentious as arguments get, especially over politics, my aunties proceed to dote on me to make sure that I am healthy and well fed. They handmake and deliver batches of joong, taking the train from Queens to Brooklyn, just so I can celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival retroactively when I visit home. No matter the spats online, my family comes together for dim sum, exchange lai see during Chinese New Year, and visit the cemetery for Ching Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Day.

I look at my family with genuine affection, deep appreciation and respect for their lived histories and cultural traditions. As an American, I am grateful that I can merge the best of two worlds.

In the U.S., I can shed certain values that collide with the cultivation of the mind and heart to be open to the Enlightenment values that underpin modern Western societies — where respecting hierarchy does not triumph over a commitment to science and objectivity, or where the freedom of speech is not coded in some cultural system that precludes open debate.

And it is here, where I can celebrate my Chinese heritage alongside the heritage of democratic ideals to center me for the next time I face off with my family over ideas and free expression.


Berling, J. A. (n.d.). Confucianism. Asia Society. https://asiasociety.org/education/confucianism

Chien, C.-L. (2016). Beyond authoritarian personality: The culture-inclusive theory of Chinese authoritarian orientation. Front. Psychology, 7, 924. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00924

Chien, C. -L. (2013). Conceptualization and empirical studies on Chinese authoritarian orientation: An indigenous approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan (in Chinese).

Fang, T. (2014). Understanding Chinese culture and communication: The yin yang approach. In B. Gehrke (Ed.), Global Leadership Practices (pp. 171–187). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. http://doi.org/10.13140/2.1.4977.4088

Friedgood, H. (1951). On the psychological aspects of authoritarian and democratic political systems. American Scientist, 39(3), 432–451.

Greenway, H. D. S. (2020, January 23). China’s rehabilitation of Confucius. Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/01/23/opinion/wheresoever-china-goes-it-goes-with-confucius-its-heart/

Ma, D., & Yang, F. (2014). Authoritarian orientations and political trust in East Asian societies. East Asia, 31, 323–341. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12140-014-9217-z



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