The Upright Principles of Confucian Businessmen

Statue of Confucius.

Cases abound through Chinese history of Confucian businessmen, who built vast commercial empires. (Image: Sean Pavone via Dreamstime)

Traditional Confucian values — “benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and trust” — sound like rather staid notions, more suitable for a refined scholar of literature than a go-go entrepreneur. But cases abound through Chinese history of Confucian businessmen who built vast commercial empires relying on those ideas.

Take the case of Hu Xueyan, a banker who went out of his way to be fair and make good on a commitment, contrary to the conventions of the time.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Receive selected content straight into your inbox.

For Confucian businessmen, right makes might

“Credibility is the second life of a man,” Hu once said and demonstrated it as owner and operator of the Fookang Bank. This was the motto of many renowned Confucian businessmen. During the Qing Dynasty, Luo Shangde, who was often called to battle, needed a place to store the 12,000 taels of silver he had accumulated from a lifetime of military service.

He was preparing for a new campaign in Jiangsu and couldn’t take the coins with him, nor could he find a reliable person to leave them with during wartime. So he eventually happened to come across Fookang Bank.

Hu, the bank owner, promised Luo that he would not keep the money if Luo died in battle and insisted on paying Luo 3,000 taels of interest over three years.

Confucian businessmen followed the principles of 'benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and trust.'
During the Qing Dynasty, Luo Shangde, who was often called to battle, needed a place to store the 12,000 taels of silver he had accumulated from a lifetime of military service. (Image: via Public Domain)

Luo’s worst fear came true during the battle — he was fatally wounded. But, in his will, he had asked friends from his hometown to go to the Fookang bank and retrieve the money for his family.

They arrived at the bank without a receipt and were quickly refused. But Hu heard about the matter and began making inquiries. After confirming that the men were who they said they were, he released the 15,000 taels without hesitation.

The news spread like wildfire, and the Fookang Bank became the most sought-after bank in the country because many other financiers would have kept the money after the customer died. As a result, Fookang Bank branches sprang up across China.

Hand over the reigns

Banker Qiao Zhiyong built a commercial empire of tens of millions of taels of silver, controlling ports, banks, and docks around China. As a result, the Qiao Family Mansion has been preserved — a classic example of northern Chinese architecture.

One day, Qiao met Yan Weifan, a bank branch manager misunderstood and dismissed by a former employer. Qiao saw Yan’s hidden talent and dispatched eight men to carry an invitation and a sedan chair to his front door and wait. When Yan didn’t come out, Qiao’s son respectfully approached the house and explained how his father looked near and far for talented men. Yan was moved and agreed to an interview, but he refused to sit in the sedan chair out of modesty. So instead, they put his clothes and hat in the chair while the two men rode horses.

Yan was accorded the best hospitality in Qiao’s home, and Qiao saw that Yan was a well-mannered, sharp, and grounded young man. The fact that he was only 36 years old further heightened Qiao’s appreciation of his talent. Yan was brought on as the manager of Dadeheng Bank and went on to run it for 26 years. Business boomed, and it became one of the most competitive banks in China.

Vanquishing adversity

In 1883, Shanghai was rocked by turmoil: torrential rains, a plague, chaos in the markets, and a crisis due to a collapse in the price of silk. Even great Confucian businessmen like Hu Xueyan were hit hard, and he closed the Shanghai branch of his bank.

Rickshaws in Old Shanghai.
In 1883, Shanghai was rocked by turmoil: torrential rains, a plague, chaos in the markets, and a crisis due to a collapse in the price of silk. (Image: via Public Domain)

But Ye Chengzhong was coming into his element.

Ye was a pioneer in transportation and shipping. At the height of his success, his assets were valued at between 6 and 8 million taels of silver, equal to a tenth of the Qing government’s annual income.

When disaster struck, Ye avoided the worst by withdrawing all his bank deposits in early 1883 and waiting for an opportunity. He saw an opportunity in the kerosene business, locking down exclusive distribution rights in China for Standard Oil’s kerosene.

That year, Standard Oil shipped a large amount of kerosene to Shanghai, hoping to increase sales to compensate for its loss in London. Ye took care of those shipments, and shifted his attention from the eventful Shanghai to the overlooked Yangtze River and coastal areas, establishing 18 distribution branches in Ningbo, Wenzhou, Zhenjiang, Tianjin, Guangdong, and other towns and trading ports.

Next, he built a transportation infrastructure by buying up idle cotton boats, available because of the collapse of that industry. He accumulated over 100 ships and used them to haul kerosene, coal, iron, and other materials up and down the Yangtze River.

Thus, in 1883, what was supposed to be a hopeless year, Ye’s profit was 100,000 taels of silver — an extraordinary sum.

Keeping one’s word, always dealing fairly and squarely, putting complete trust in trustworthy people, and being flexible in the face of adversity are the most treasured tenets of Confucian businessmen.

Follow us on TwitterFacebook, or Pinterest

Recommended Stories

Taiwan's east coast.

The Mysterious Hidden Beauty of Taiwan’s East Coast

When you experience Taiwan’s east coast, you come to realize that there are few words ...

The Tao's yin-yang.

A Simple Health Primer Based on Yin and Yang Principles

The concept of yin and yang pertains to the existence of two dual forces in ...

How to Make a DIY Coronavirus Safety Mask

The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has triggered a huge spike in demand for face ...

A kitchen mixer.

A Kitchen Library in Melbourne That Wants to Change How You Cook

Last November, the city of Carlton, one of Melbourne’s suburbs, saw the inauguration of the ...

Solar activity that produces solar wind.

Solar Wind Samples Suggest New Physics of Massive Solar Ejections

A new study led by the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa has helped refine our understanding ...


Stealing American Data: 4 Chinese Military Personnel Charged

The U.S. Justice Department recently announced that it has charged four Chinese citizens, suspected of working ...

A plague doctor.

The Black Death: Punishment From God

The Black Death, also known as the Great Plague or the Bubonic Plague, was a ...

Xia Baolong.

China Appoints Anti-Christian Official as Hong Kong Director

The Chinese government has appointed a long-time ally of President Xi Jinping, Xia Baolong, as ...

Kenneth Roth.

While Hong Kong Authorities Refuse Entry to Human Rights Watch, China Drafts New ‘Rights’

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a U.S.-based rights organization, was denied ...

Send this to a friend