Confucianism

By Chad Hansen
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

{kuhn-fue'-shuhn-izm} — Confucianism, the philosophical system founded on the teaching of Confucius (551–479 B.C.), dominated the sociopolitical life of China for most of that country's history and largely influenced the cultures of Korea, Japan, and Indochina. The Confucian school functioned as a recruiting ground for government positions, which were filled by those scoring highest on examinations in the Confucian classics. It also blended with popular and imported religions and became the vehicle for articulating Chinese mores to the peasants. The school's doctrines supported political authority using the theory of the mandate of heaven. It sought to help the rulers maintain domestic order, preserve tradition, and maintain a constant standard of living for the taxpaying peasants. It trained its adherents in benevolence, traditional rituals, filial piety, loyalty, respect for superiors and for the aged, and principled flexibility in advising rulers.

Confucius, the philosopher

Westerners use Confucius as the spelling for Kong Fuzi (K'ung Fu-tzu; Master Kong), China's first and most famous philosopher. Confucius had a traditional personal name (Qiu, or Ch'iu) and a formal name (Zhongni, or Chung-ni). Confucius' father died shortly after Confucius's birth. His family fell into relative poverty, and Confucius joined a growing class of impoverished descendants of aristocrats who made their careers by acquiring knowledge of feudal ritual and taking positions of influence serving the rulers of the fragmented states of ancient China. Confucius devoted himself to learning. At age 30, however, when his short-lived official career floundered, he turned to teaching others. Confucius himself never wrote down his own philosophy, although tradition credits him with editing some of the historical classics that were used as texts in his school. He apparently made an enormous impact on the lives and attitudes of his disciples, however. The book known as the Analects, which records all the "Confucius said, ..." aphorisms, was compiled by his students after his death. Because the Analects was not written as a systematic philosophy, it contains frequent contradictions and many of the philosophical doctrines are ambiguous. The Analects became the basis of the Chinese social lifestyle and the fundamental religious and philosophical point of view of most traditionalist Chinese intellectuals throughout history. The collection reveals Confucius as a person dedicated to the preservation of traditional ritual practices with an almost spiritual delight in performing ritual for its own sake.

Confucian Doctrine

Confucianism combines a political theory and a theory of human nature to yield a dao (tao) — a prescriptive doctrine or way. The political theory starts with a doctrine of political authority based on the mandate of heaven. The legitimate ruler derives authority from heaven's command. The ruler bears responsibility for the well-being of the people and therefore for peace and order in the empire. Confucian philosophy presupposes a view of human nature in which humans are essentially social animals whose mode of social interaction is shaped by li (convention or ritual), which establishes value distinctions and prescribes activities in response to those distinctions. Education in li, or social rituals, is based on the natural behavioral propensity to imitate models. Sages, or superior people — those who have mastered the li — are the models of behavior from which the mass of people learn. Ideally, the ruler should himself be such a model and should appoint only those who are models of de (te, or virtue) to positions of prominence. People are naturally inclined to emulate virtuous models; hence a hierarchy of merit results in widespread natural moral education.

Then, with practice, all people can in principle be like the sages, by acting in accordance with li without conscious effort. At that point they have acquired ren (jen, or humanity), the highest level of moral development; their natural inclinations are all in harmony with dao (way). The world is at peace, order abounds, and the harmony between the natural and the social sphere results in material well-being for everyone. This is Confucius's utopian vision, which he regards as modeled on the practice of the ancient sage kings.

Historical Development

Confucianism emerged as a more coherent philosophy when faced with intellectual competition from other schools that were growing in the fertile social upheavals of pre-imperial China (c.400–c.200 B.C.). Daoism (Taoism), Mohism, and Legalism all attacked Confucianism. A common theme of these attacks was that Confucianism assumed that tradition or convention (li) was correct. Mencius (c.372–c.289 B.C.) developed a more idealistic version of Confucianism stressing ren as an innate inclination to good behavior that does not require education. Xun Zi (Hsün Tzu, c.313–c.238 B.C.), on the contrary, argued that all inclinations are shaped by acquired language and other social forms.

Confucianism rose to the position of an official orthodoxy during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). It absorbed the metaphysical doctrines of Yin (the female principle) and Yang (the male principle) found in the Book of Changes and other speculative metaphysical notions. With the fall of the Han, the dynastic model, Confucianism fell into severe decline. Except for the residual effects of its official status, Confucianism lay philosophically dormant for approximately 600 years.

With the reestablishment of Chinese dynastic power in the Tang (T'ang) dynasty (618–906) and the introduction of the Chan (Ch'an, or Zen Buddhist) premise that "there is nothing much to Buddhist teaching," Confucianism began to revive. The Song (Sung) dynasty (960–1279) produced Neo-Confucianism — an interpretation of classical Confucian doctrine that addressed Buddhist and Daoist issues. Its development resulted mainly from Zhengho (Cheng-hao, 1032–85) and Cheng-i (1033–1107), but for the orthodox statement of Neo-Confucianism one turns to Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, 1130–1200). His commentaries on the four scriptures of Confucianism were required study for the imperial civil service examinations.

Neo-Confucianism focuses on the term li, which here means "lane" or "pattern." Correct behavior is held to follow a natural pattern (li) that is apprehended by xin (hsin, or heart-mind). Mencius's theory of the innate goodness of man is a theory of the innate ability of this heart-mind to apprehend li in situations and to follow it. To become a sage, one must study li and develop the ability to "see" it by a kind of intuition. Later, in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Wang Yangming claimed that the heart projects li on things rather than just noticing external li. To become a sage, one cannot just study situations, one must act before li becomes manifest. Thus the heart-mind, which guides the action, is the source of li (moral patterns).

After the disastrous conflicts with Western military technology at the dawn of the 20th century, Chinese intellectuals blamed Confucianism for the scientific and political backwardness of China. Chinese Marxism, nonetheless, differs from Western Marxism in ways that reveal the persistence of Confucian attitudes toward politics, metaphysics, and theories of human psychology. Anti-Confucianism has been a theme in various political campaigns in modern China — most notably during and just after the Cultural Revolution. Increased toleration for all religions since Mao Zedong's (Mao Tse-tung's) death may lead to a moderate revival of Confucianism, although the interest seems to be mostly in historical issues.

In Taiwan, by contrast, Confucian orthodoxy has survived and serves to underpin an anti-Marxist, traditional authoritarianism. Serious, ongoing Confucian philosophy, however, is found mainly in Hong Kong and among Chinese scholars working in the West.

Bibliography: Chow, Kai-Wing., The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China (1994); Creel, Herlee G., Confucius: The Man and the Myth (1949; repr. 1975); De Bary, Wm. Theodore, Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective (1998) and The Trouble with Confucianism (1991; repr. 1996); De Bary, Wm. Theodore, and Weiming, Tu, eds., Confucianism and Human Rights (1997); Eber, Irene, Confucianism: The Dynamics of Tradition (1986); Ebrey, Patricia B., Confucianism and Family Rituals in Imperial China (1991); Fingarette, H., Confucius (1972); Fung, Yu-Lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 1 (1952; repr. 1973); Jensen, Lionel, Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization (1997); Lee, Don Y., An Outline of Confucianism, rev. ed. (1987); Liu, Shu-Hsien, Understanding Confucian Philosophy (1998); Rozman, Gilbert, ed., The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and Its Modern Adaptation (1991); Streep, Peg, ed., Confucius: The Wisdom, trans. by J. Legge (1995); Taylor, Rodney L., The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism (1990); Wright, Arthur F., ed., Confucianism and Chinese Civilization (1975).

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