To many people, Confucius is no more than the setup to a one-line joke. Few have heard or read any of his teachings. Yet the truth and importance of his words resonate today when they are heard, because Confucius' teachings developed in reaction to the times in which he lived -- and our times are very much like his.

According to writings of the era, the days in which Confucius lived were, compared to the past, a time of moral chaos, in which common values were widely rejected or simply disregarded. Crime was on the rise, with robbery and theft increasing in the countryside and murder a serious problem in the cities and at court; there was a general lack of interest in trying to reintegrate criminals into society. The gulf between rich and poor was broad and growing, with the rich living extravagantly in enormous mansions while an abundance of food somehow failed to reach the hungry who needed it. Government was routinely corrupt and distrusted by the people, who didn't fail to observe the lack of productivity among the rich and powerful: as the chronicler Shu Xiang noted, "The ministers never go out to work in the field."

The economy was changing as well. The productive class -- mostly farmers -- was shrinking, while the mercantile sector was growing. The marketplaces were flooded with goods described as being costly and of "no real utility." Part of the growing middle class was a sector of scholars, who had great difficulty finding employment.

While reformers such as Confucius existed, they were a minority: society was dominated by pessimists and conservatives. Pessismists -- perhaps predecessors to today's millennial survivalists, militiamen and "patriots" -- withdrew from society in disillusionment, convinced that the social order was irreparably corrupt and resistant to reform and that the best thing one could do was to look after one's own. Conservatives were either ordinary people wrapped up in their own lives and indifferent to social and political problems or men of society with good reputations and a vested interest in maintaining things as they were, determined to block social reform and new ideas wherever they popped up; although the latters' own private conduct was generally unimpeachable, in the public sphere they were fierce defenders of an unpleasant status quo.

Sound familiar? It certainly should. It's worth noting, however, that even in such apparently barren philosophical ground, Confucianism not only took root, it flourished, eventually transforming Chinese society with its values and dominating it for centuries.

That's why Confucianism is still significant.