Privacy in Early Confucianism

Co-Paper by: Ishai PRHLMM Wodon & Sven Bouman

A paper written for Academic Skills I

There is a heated debate on the situation regarding privacy in China at the moment. In light of this, we will be discussing if and how the notion of ‘privacy’ is applicable to early Confucian thinkers in this essay. We will be discussing Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi. First, we will define what privacy is and give three criteria which a society must fulfil in order to have privacy in said society. Then, we will hold the Confucian texts against these criteria and show that while at first sight privacy could be compatible with Confucian thought, it is evident that it does not match the given criteria in interesting ways.

The Oxford dictionary’s definition of privacy is “a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people”with a additional 1.1 clause which clarifies that it a “state of being free from public attention” (Oxford Dictionary). The more interesting addition, the inclusion of the synonym “seclusion” (Oxford Dictionary). This seems cliche, but the importance is very relevant to understand the basic outline the term offers. Furthermore, this allows us to analyse what the implications of the term are, which in turn allows for a more significant and precise comparison of the term to the corresponding or non-corresponding notions in Confucianism.

Firstly,  there is a presupposition surrounding the division between what will be referred to as the public and private sphere. The private sphere is a sphere in society where one would not be disturbed, and thus one has ‘privacy’ there. However, it is clearly not the case that ‘if one has privacy then one is in a private sphere’. Privacy and the private sphere are not completely the same and sufficient conditions for each other, though they might be necessary conditions. Furthermore, the Oxford quote refers to the specific separation between the observed agent and the observing agent. The synonym of “seclusion” further demonstrates the inclination towards this separation, because we see clearly how there is a will by the observed agent to have the freedom to seclude itself. The first criterion will drawn here, where the term supposes:

  1. There needs to be a clear distinction between the public sphere (or observer) and the private sphere (or observed)

Secondly, there exists a social expectation for the limitation of information that crosses over from the private to the public sphere. This, while not explicit in the definition given, is more an expression of social paradigms which are propagated social norms. The second criterion then  is:

  1. The information flow from the private sphere to the public sphere needs to be  limited

Third and lastly, the term includes within its meaning the need for the public sphere agent to have control over the information and amount information that is been shared between the two, in that the observer is choosing what is observed. This is represented in the Oxford definition as being “free from public attention”. The quote shows that choice is in the nature of the relationship between the observed and the information in that the agent has control over it and is not limited in the absolute sense. Examples to demonstrate this within the western context are the Fifth Amendment of US constitution, the newly passed EU laws on internet privacy, the universal social media setting option regard to whom the information published is provided to and lastly the scandal following the fact the populous learned they had less control than they thought they did. Therefore, the third and final criterion will drawn here, akin to the way Alan Westin formulated it in 1967, with some slight modification in wording:

  1. The private sphere agent (or observed) has control of the information transferred to the public sphere

We have established the following criterion on what specifies privacy and must now see if any of these can be done away with and still the term’s meant connotation be communicated.

Criterion 1, clearly cannot be done with out. If we would do away with (1), everything would either be the private sphere (which, seeing how all human societies are based around interaction between people seems rather unlikely) or the whole of society would be the public sphere, where you’d never be alone – or in any case, the deeds that you’d do while alone would always be public. It seems unlikely the first option would ever be realized in any society, but the latter option is certainly imaginable, even for people who haven’t read any dystopian Orwellian novels. Now, in such a situation, it is clear that we wouldn’t talk of privacy.

Criterion 2 can also not be done without. This is the condition that allows there to be the divide between the public and the private sphere. Maybe there can be other things that divide the public and the private sphere, but by doing it with the limited flow of information, we make sure the private sphere is in a way ‘hidden’ from the public sphere. If this condition were to not be there, even if there would be a separation of the spheres, it wouldn’t be privacy as the public sphere would still be able to know everything about the private sphere.

Criterion 3, cannot be done without, because in the definitive sense the “freedom” is essential stipulation of the message being given. If it were not the case that this condition was present, the information flow would be determined by the public sphere – which could very easily lead to governments knowing everything of their citizens if they so desire, and this is the very antithesis of privacy. This criteria is paramount at differentiating between power hierarchies within the culture, like it does in the west, giving power to the private sphere over the public. This is further exemplified when looking at the state and citizen relationship, where in the west, there exists an expectation of transparency from the state to the citizen but not vice-versa.

Does Confucian theory correspond to the first criterion of the 3 criteria set for it to be in accordance with the term privacy? As mentioned in the Analects, there is a similar distinction between the public and private spheres which have been translated into those same terms. All three Confucian philosophers we are concerned with share the view that there is a distinction between the private and the public sphere. In theAnalects, Confucius clearly states that “at home, they teach you about how to serve your father, and in public life they teach you about how to serve your lord” (Analects, 17.9) and that when acting in a certain virtuous way “you will encounter no resentment in your public or private life” (Analects, 12.2). These quotes show the separation but also develop the specific characteristics of each sphere. Therefore, there it seems to suitably correspond to criterion (1).

However, there is something interesting about the private sphere in the early Confucian texts. As we can already see in the Analects, the private life is talked about in relation to one’s family, as seen in the quote mentioned earlier where Confucius talks about the private life and ‘the father’. We can see this idea being further developed in both the Mencius and the Xunzi.

Mencius talks about the ‘well-system’ of agriculture, a system of a square field divided into ten sub-fields, each one owned by a family but the central field being cared for by everyone and it belonging to the state:

Mencius said, “The well-field system takes a one lisquare piece of land, amounting to 900 mu.At its centre is the public field. Eight families each keep privately 100 mu, and jointly cultivate the public field. Only after the public work is completed do they dare do their private work. This is the distinctive role of the rural people.” (Mengzi, 3A3)

Here we clearly see the division between the private and the public. Another example of how the Confucian tradition sees this differently is given to us by Xunzi:

“Shall we suppose that people on the streets originally do not have the material to know benevolence, righteousness, […], and correctness? If so, then within the family, the people on the streets could not know the standards of righteousness for father and son and outside the family, they could not know the proper relations of ruler and minister.” (Xunzi, Chapter 23)

In all passages it becomes clear that when Confucians talk about the private sphere, instead of talking about the individual, they are discussing the family. The private owned fields are not owned by individuals, but by families. Also, Xunzi refers to the people from the public sphere as being outside the family. That this is the case is also proven by the abundance of the use of the father-son or other interfamilial relations when talking about explicitly business unrelated to the state. The family is the private sphere, and everything outside of the family (though in the texts it is commonly portrayed as the State) is the public sphere. This has implications for the notion of privacy if it were to exist in Confucianism: it wouldn’t be concerned with the information flow from the individual to the public, but from the family to the public. A very important passage from the Analectsin showing that the private life is indeed concerned with the family, is the following:

The Master said, “Little Ones, why do none of you learn the Odes? The Odes can be a source of inspiration and a basis for evaluation; they can help you to come together with others, as well as to properly express complaints. In the home, they teach you about how to serve your father, and in public lifethey teach you about how to serve your lord. They also broadly acquaint you with the names of various birds, beasts, plants, and trees” (Analects, 17.9) (Emphasis added by us)

While the difference exists it does not make the basic ideal of a separation of spheres non-equivalent to criterion (1). Therefore, this part of the term definition can be in broad terms compatible.

Does Confucian theory correspond to second criterion of the 3 criterions set for it to be in accordance with the term privacy? In regards to the criterion (2), the Confucian tradition seems to hold a different predicament for information sharing, one that is quite opposite to the western one. As mentioned, criterion (2) is based in social connotations and expectations, and so is the Confucian one. The term ren“was meant to describe the Confucian ethical code and establish the spiritual order of interpersonal relationships” and one of its definitions as stated in Gong’s article is “lack of privacy” (Gong 1989, 365). There is, as in total contradiction to the western expectations, an positive and moral view on the “lack of privacy” (Gong 1989, 365). Whereas the west condones both extremities of the information sharing, there is for the Confucians a social expectation for transparency. Therefore, criterion (2) does not seem to be compatible with the Confucian ideals.

Does Confucian theory correspond to third criterion of the 3 criterions set for it to be in accordance with the term privacy. If we were to take the private sphere agent as an individual there would not seem be to this freedom. Marriage for example is “still quite often considered not to be a private matter, and is likely to be determined by factors other than love” (Gong 1989, 368). That choice on the part of the individual is limited to the needs to the family unit, and even  “that Confucius did not have the concepts of choice and responsibility as these are understood in the West” (Kim 2013, 17). This does seem to differ if the concept of private sphere agents becomes the family. It would appear that there is a freedom there to not disclose. This is best demonstrated by this example:

The Duke of She said to Kongzi, “Among my people there is one we call ‘Upright Gong.’ When his father stole a sheep, he reported him to the authorities.” Kongzi replied, “Among my people, those who we consider ‘upright’ are different from this: fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. ‘Uprightness’ is to be found in this.” (Analects, 13:18)

This demonstrates that there is an expectation of withheld information, that information sharing is based around the families wishes. Criterion (3) seems demonstrated if the private sphere is taken under Confucian context. This example also draws into question our previous conclusion that Confucian thought does not comply with criterion (2), as there seems to be a limited flow of information present here. Therefore, these parts of the term definition can be, in broad terms, compatible.

While there has been an elaboration on how each of the 3 criterion correspond to social ideals which transpire in Confucian theory, there is an objection to be made regarding the true nature of the public and private sphere separation in Confucianism.

When reading either three of the Confucian philosophers we are discussing, it becomes very clear that the division between the private and the public sphere isn’t at all comparable to the way Westerners conceptualize it. There is no rigid line dividing the two spheres – they flow over into each other, almost seamlessly, being structurally alike and interdependent on one another.

The description of the private sphere being essentially build around the primary father-son relationship is abundant in the views of all three philosophers. In keeping with the ancient Chinese traditions love for natural metaphors, this relationship is characterized as being the ben(本), the root, basis or foundation, of the society, as already indicated by the Xunzi passage cited above. Governments are structured after this relation, where the ruler is above the subject. If everyone was to practice xiao(孝), ‘filial piety’, the country could flourish, because the family flourished. In this way, we already see that the structure of the public and the private sphere are alike, and that the public sphere is dependent on the private sphere flourishing.

The situation is more complex than this. As previously stated, the spheres are interdependent on each other. Not only is there a “bottom-up” dependence, from the private to the public, but also a “top-down” dependence. Let us take a look at the following passage:

The Master said, “How great was Yao as a ruler! So majestic! It is Heaven that is great, and it was Yao who modelled himself upon it. So vast! Among the common people there were none who were able to find words to describe him. How majestic in his accomplishments, and glorious in cultural splendor!” (Analects, 8.19)

The meaning of the wordlessness of the people becomes clearer when we see this passage in the light of the following (Ivanhoe, p. 25):

The Master sighed, “Would that I did not have to speak!” Zigong said, “If the Master did not speak, then how would we little ones receive guidance from you?” The Master replied, “What does Heaven ever say? Yet the four seasons are put in motion by it, and the myriad creatures receive their life from it. What does Heaven ever say?” (Analects, 17.19)

The people can’t find words to describe Yao, because he rules as Heaven does: without speaking. His ruling is so virtuous, that it slowly trickles down to, or infiltrates, the people, the families, under his rule. Thus in the same way that the public sphere is dependent on the virtue of the private sphere as the root, the private sphere is dependent on the virtue of the ruler to set them straight and give them virtue. Xunzi also gets this thought across in a very concise manner:

“This is the way the sage-king operates: He observes Heaven above, and applies this knowledge on earth below. He arranges completely everything between Heaven and earth and spreads beneficence over the ten thousand things.” (Xunzi, Chapter 9)

The sage-king permeates the private sphereentirely.This interdependence of the spheres poses a problem for privacy. How can there be privacy if the public sphere infiltrates the public sphere with its virtue, and the other way around? How can there be privacy if the spheres are this heavily intertwined with one another? The prominence of the public sphere is also apparent when Mencius talks about the well-field farming (cited above) and says that the public farm always comes before the private farm.

The spheres aren’t merely intertwined, their basic structure is the same. Not only in that the public sphere is based upon the cardinal father-son relationship of familial life, but in a more fundamental level. Let us examine the following passage:

Zhonggong asked about Goodness. The Master said, “ ‘When in public, comport yourself as if you were receiving an important guest, and in your management of the common people, behave as if you were overseeing a great sacrifice.’ Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire. In this way, you will encounter no resentment in you public or private life.” (Analects, 12.2)

In this passage of the Analects it is stated that when performing the same action in public and private life, one will flourish in both. This suggests that these two spheres have the same structure: if one acts the same in both, one gets the same outcome in both. Note also that this passage doesn’t say anything about the father-son or ruler-minister relation, which is significant – the phrase is so common that it’s deafening absence suggests that this shared structure is deeper than the father-son structure.

Our considerations on the nature of the private and the public sphere have shown that their nature is radically different than the private and the public sphere in the West. They are in fundamental structures exactly the same, they are incredibly intertwined and interdependent. This all seems to weaken the Condition (1) for privacy, that there needs to be a clear distinction between the private sphere and the public sphere. It is thus very difficult to say that the concept ‘privacy’ is applicable to the Early Confucian tradition.

Word Count: 3025 (including citations)



Gong, Wenxiang, Peking University. “The legacy of Confucian Culture in Maoist China”, 1989. The Social Science Journal, Volume 26, Number 4, pages 363-374.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2001.

Kim, Myeong-seok. “Choice, Freedom, and Responsibility in Ancient Chinese Confucianism”. Philosophy East and West, Volume 63, Number 1, January 2013, pp. 17-38,  Published by University of Hawai’i Press.

Oxford Dictionary. “Definition of privacy in English”. Accessed 12 June 2018.

Westin, Alan. “Privacy and Freedom Atheneum”, New York 1967.



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