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"The Meaning of Life," according to Tu Wei-ming with Analysis

Updated on March 2, 2016

Today's Leading New Confucian

“Copernicus decentered the earth, Darwin relativized the god-like image of man, Marx exploded the ideology of social harmony, and Freud complicated our conscious life. They have redefined humanity for the modern age. Yet they have also empowered us, with a communal, critical self-awareness, to renew our faith in the ancient Confucian wisdom that the globe is the center of our universe and the only home for us, and that we are the guardians of the good earth, the trustees of the mandate of Heaven that enjoins us to make our bodies healthy, our hearts sensitive, our minds alert, our souls refined and our spirits brilliant.

We are here because embedded in our human nature is the secret code for heaven’s self-realization. Heaven is certainly omnipresent, may even be omniscient, but is most likely not omnipotent. It needs our active participation to realize its own truth. We are heaven’s partners, indeed co creators. We serve heaven with common sense, the lack of which nowadays has brought us to the brink of self-destruction. Since we help heaven to realize itself through our self-discovery and self-understanding in day-to-day living, the ultimate meaning of life is found in our ordinary human existence.”

From “The Big Picture: The Meaning of Life” pg. 93 in Life, Dec. 1988,

Vol. 11, No. 14, 76-101.

My Analysis of Tu Wei-ming’s “The Meaning of Life”

“The Meaning of Life,” by Tu Wei-ming was one of many articles on that subject, and it appeared in the December 1988 issue of Life Magazine. Let’s quote the actual introduction from Life on the topic.

“With the holiday season upon us, LIFE asked some wise men and women to ponder why we are here. Scientists and theologians, authors and artists, celebrities and everyday sages on the street responded. The following "answers," along with the work of seven photographers who captured the meaning of life on a single frame of film, provide a medley of philosophies--personal and at times profound.”

Tu’s essay is probably the most accessible sample of New Confucian thought for the general public, so the inclusion of this essay in its entirety and an analysis of it are imperative. Furthermore, Dr. Tu is the most famous New Confucian scholar today. He has recently begun teaching at the Peking University after a long tenure at Harvard University.

First, Dr. Tu shows how four modern thinkers--Copernicus, Darwin, Marx, and Freud.--have “redefined” the way humanity views itself: Copernicus showed that the earth is not the center of the solar system. Darwin found a scientific explanation for the origin of life—evolution. Marx exposed the struggle of the working class and the business owner. Finally, Freud alerted us to the unconscious mind as the source of behavior that often puzzles us. Surely these thinkers made life more complicated, but we gained a “critical, communal self-awareness.”

The inclusion of Marx in this list surprised me because Confucianism and Marxism/Communism were still rivals when this article was written by Dr. Tu in 1988. Yet as we have noted before, Confucianism embraced the business/merchant class through the notion of righteous profit and did not feel a need for state control.

Earth is still the center of humanity's universe, even though it’s not the literal center of the universe, and we must take care of it. Dr. Tu made sure that a concern for ecology was part of this New Confucian document. Tu also tells us that heaven wants us to take care of and improve our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls. The New Confucian movement should be considered as one of the great monotheistic traditions, along with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We can’t neglect our physical health and expect our minds to reach the full potential.

Tu connects New Confucianism with process theology; he asserts that we are here to actualize Heaven’s potential and we are co-creators with God. The Confucian God is everywhere and probably all knowing but not all-powerful because if people don’t do ethical and good things, God does not zap positive stuff into existence. Tu says we serve Heaven through common sense and warns us that a lack of common sense can lead to self-destruction as a species. Our “self-discovery and self-understanding” helps Heaven realize itself and ordinary life is the place to find the ultimate meaning of life.

For further reading on New Confucianism, read my talk at It includes observations by Dr. John Berthrong of Boston University as well as Dr. Tu. The address begins with The Western Inscription by Chang Tsai. Recently, my speech transcript made it to Wikipedia!

To summarize, the key thinkers of the modern age are Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, and Marx, according to Tu Wei-ming. They may have complicated our world view but empowered us through a better description of reality and the thought they inspired. We must take of our mind, bodies, hearts, and souls as individuals. Furthermore, we must take care of the earth for it's our only home even though it's not the literal center of the solar system, let alone universe. Finally, our good works actualize God or Heaven through the power of creativity. And the soft power of the Confucius Institutes is both a part and symptom of improving relations between China and the rest of the world.

For more information on Neo-Confucianism and its compatibility with modern thought in counseling, check out my Master's thesis at Texas A&M. It was liked by the South Asia Psychology Conference of Sri Lanka several months ago on Twitter.


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    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 4 years ago from South Africa

      Very interesting hub. Chinese philosophies are quite impressive and the Confucius Institution movement might enlighten many minds.

      I agree wholeheartedly with this statement of yours: “.... the ultimate meaning of life is found in our ordinary human existence.” Building a future worthy to live, should be our purpose.

    • bohemiotx profile image

      Joffre Meyer 6 years ago from Tyler, TX

      I revised this hub on Friday, September 16th by accounting for the Confucius Institute movement and the change of the Chinese govt's opinion of Confucius since 1988 when Dr. Tu's article was written. Then I added a summary.