Confucianism, major system of thought in China, developed from the teachings of Confucius and his disciples, and concerned with the principles of good conduct, practical wisdom, and proper social relationships.
Confucius, in Chinese KONGFUZI or K'UNG FU-TZU (551?-479? BC), Chinese philosopher, one of the most influential figures in Chinese history. According to tradition, Confucius was born in the state of Lu (present-day Shandong [Shantung] Province) of the noble Kong clan. His original name was Kong Qiu (K'ong Ch'iu). His father, commander of a district in Lu, died three years after Confucius was born, leaving the family in poverty; but Confucius nevertheless received a fine education. He was married at the age of 19 and had one son and two daughters. During the four years immediately after his marriage, poverty compelled him to perform menial labors for the chief of the district in which he lived. His mother died in 527 BC, and after a period of mourning he began his career as a teacher, usually traveling about and instructing the small body of disciples that had gathered around him. His fame as a man of learning and character and his reverence for Chinese ideals and customs soon spread through the principality of Lu.
Living as he did in the second half of the Zhou dynasty (Chou dynasty; 1027?-256 BC), when feudalism degenerated in China and intrigue and vice were rampant, Confucius deplored the contemporary disorder and lack of moral standards. He came to believe that the only remedy was to convert people once more to the principles and precepts of the sages of antiquity. He therefore lectured to his pupils on the ancient classics. He taught the great value of the power of example. Rulers, he said, can be great only if they themselves lead exemplary lives, and were they willing to be guided by moral principles, their states would inevitably become prosperous and happy.
Confucius had, however, no opportunity to put his theories to a public test until, at the age of 50, he was appointed magistrate of Zhongdu (Chung-tu), and the next year minister of crime of the state of Lu. His administration was successful; reforms were introduced, justice was fairly dispensed, and crime was almost eliminated. So powerful did Lu become that the ruler of a neighboring state maneuvered to secure the minister's dismissal. Confucius left his office in 496 BC, traveling about and teaching, vainly hoping that some other prince would allow him to undertake measures of reform. In 484 BC, after a fruitless search for an ideal ruler, he returned for the last time to Lu. He spent the remaining years of his life in retirement, writing commentaries on the classics. He died in Lu and was buried in a tomb at Qufu (Ch'ü-fu), Shandong.
Confucius did not put into writing the principles of his philosophy; these were handed down only through his disciples. The Lunyu (Analects), a work compiled by some of his disciples, is considered the most reliable source of information about his life and teachings. One of the historical works that he is said to have compiled and edited, the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), is an account of Chinese history in the state of Lu from 722 to 481 BC. In learning he wished to be known as a transmitter rather than as a creator, and he therefore revived the study of the ancient books. His own teachings, together with those of his main disciples, are found in the SiShu (Ssu Shu; Four Books) of Confucian literature, which became the textbooks of later Chinese generations. Confucius was greatly venerated during his lifetime and in succeeding ages. Although he himself had little belief in the supernatural, he has been revered almost as a spiritual being by millions.
The entire teaching of Confucius was practical and ethical, rather than religious. He claimed to be a restorer of ancient morality and held that proper outward acts based on the five virtues of kindness, uprightness, decorum, wisdom, and faithfulness constitute the whole of human duty. Reverence for parents, living and dead, was one of his key concepts. His view of government was paternalistic, and he enjoined all individuals to observe carefully their duties toward the state. In subsequent centuries his teachings exerted a powerful influence on the Chinese nation.
Confucianism has influenced the Chinese attitude toward life, set the patterns of living and standards of social value, and provided the background for Chinese political theories and institutions. It has spread from China to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam and has aroused interest among Western scholars.
Although Confucianism became the official ideology of the Chinese state, it has never existed as an established religion with a church and priesthood. Chinese scholars honored Confucius as a great teacher and sage but did not worship him as a personal god. Nor did Confucius himself ever claim divinity. Unlike Christian churches, the temples built to Confucius were not places in which organized community groups gathered to worship, but public edifices designed for annual ceremonies, especially on the philosopher's birthday. Several attempts to deify Confucius and to proselyte Confucianism failed because of the essentially secular nature of the philosophy.
The principles of Confucianism are contained in the nine ancient Chinese works handed down by Confucius and his followers, who lived in an age of great philosophic activity. These writings can be divided into two groups: the Five Classics and the Four Books.
The Wujing (Wu Ching; Five Classics), which originated before the time of Confucius, consist of the I Ching (Book of Changes), Shujing (Shu Ching; Book of History), Shijing (Shih Ching; Book of Poetry), Liji (Li Chi; Book of Rites), and Chunqiu (Ch'un-ch'iu; Spring and Autumn Annals). The I Ching is a manual of divination probably compiled before the 11th century BC; its supplementary philosophical portion, contained in a series of appendixes, may have been written later by Confucius and his disciples. The Shujing is a collection of ancient historical documents, and the Shijing, an anthology of ancient poems. The Liji deals with the principles of conduct, including those for public and private ceremonies; it was destroyed in the 3rd century BC, but presumably much of its material was preserved in a later compilation, the Record of Rites. The Chunqiu, the only work reputedly compiled by Confucius himself, is a chronicle of major historical events in feudal China from the 8th century BC to Confucius's death early in the 5th century BC.
The Sishu (Ssu Shu; Four Books) are compilations of the sayings of Confucius and Mancius, one of Confucius's greatest followers, and of commentaries on their teachings. This series comprises Lunyuu (Lun Yü; The Analects), a collection of maxims by Confucius that form the basis of his moral and political philosophy; Daxue (Ta Hsüeh; The Great Learning) and Zhongyong (Chung Yung; The Doctrine of the Mean), containing some of Confucius's philosophical utterances arranged systematically with comments and expositions by his disciples; and the Mencius (Book of Mencius), containing the teachings of Mencius.
The keynote of Confucian ethics is ren, variously translated as "love," "goodness," "humanity," and "human-heartedness." Ren is a supreme virtue representing human qualities at their best. In human relations, construed as those between one person and another, ren is manifested in zhong, or faithfulness to oneself and others, and shu, or altruism, best expressed in the Confucian golden rule, "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." Other important Confucian virtues include righteousness, propriety, integrity, and filial piety. One who possesses all these virtues becomes a qunzi (perfect gentleman). Politically, Confucius advocated a paternalistic government in which the sovereign is benevolent and honorable and the subjects are respectful and obedient. The ruler should cultivate moral perfection in order to set a good example to the people. In education Confucius upheld the theory, remarkable for the feudal period in which he lived, that "in education, there is no class distinction."
Confucian Schools of Thought
After the death of Confucius two major schools of Confucian thought emerged: one was represented by Mencius, the other by Xunzi (Hsün-tzu, also known as Xunkuang, or Hsün K'uang).bc Mencius continued the ethical teachings of Confucius by stressing the innate goodness of human nature. He believed, however, that original human goodness can become depraved through one's own destructive effort or through contact with an evil environment. The problem of moral cultivation is therefore to preserve or at least to restore the goodness that is one's birthright. In political thought, Mencius is sometimes considered one of the early advocates of democracy, for he advanced the idea of the people's supremacy in the state.
In opposition to Mencius, Xunzi contended that a person is born with an evil nature but that it can be regenerated through moral education. He believed that desires should be guided and restrained by the rules of propriety and that character should be molded by an orderly observance of rites and by the practice of music. This code serves as a powerful influence on character by properly directing emotions and by providing inner harmony. Xunzi was the main exponent of ritualism in Confucianism.
After a brief period of eclipse in the 3rd century BC, Confucianism was revived during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD220). The Confucian works, copies of which had been destroyed in the preceding period, were restored to favor, canonized, and taught by learned scholars in national academies. The works also formed the basis of later civil service examinations; candidates for responsible government positions received their appointments on the strength of their knowledge of classic literature. As a result, Confucianism secured a firm hold on Chinese intellectual and political life.
The success of Han Confucianism was attributable to Dong Zhongshu (Tung Chung-shu), who first recommended a system of education built upon the teachings of Confucius. Dong Zhongshu believed in a close correspondence between human beings and nature; thus a person's deeds, especially those of the sovereign, are often responsible for unusual phenomena in nature. Because of the sovereign's authority, he or she is to blame for such phenomena as fire, flood, earthquake, and eclipse. Because these ill omens can descend on earth as a warning to humanity that all is not well in this world, the fear of heavenly punishment proves useful as a curb to the monarch's absolute power.
In the political chaos that followed the fall of the Han dynasty, Confucianism was overshadowed by the rival philosophies of Daoism (Taoism) and Buddhism, and the philosophy suffered a temporary setback. Nevertheless, the Confucian Classics continued to be the chief source of learning for scholars, and with the restoration of peace and prosperity in the Tahg dynasty (618-907), the spread of Confucianism was encouraged. The monopoly of learning by Confucian scholars once again ensured them the highest bureaucratic positions. Confucianism returned as an orthodox state teaching.
The intellectual activities of the Song dynasty (Sung dynasty; 960-1279) gave rise to a new system of Confucian thought based on a mixture of Buddhist and Daoist elements; the new school of Confucianism was known as Neo-Confucianism. The scholars who evolved this intellectual system were themselves well versed in the other two philosophies. Although primarily teachers of ethics, they were also interested in the theories of the universe and the origin of human nature.
Neo-Confucianism branched out into two schools of philosophy. The foremost exponent of one school was Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi), an eminent thinker second only to Confucius and Mencius in prestige, who established a new philosophical foundation for the teachings of Confucianism by organizing scholarly opinion into a cohesive system. According to the Neo-Confucianist system Zhu Xi represented, all objects in nature are composed of two inherent forces: li, an immaterial universal principle or law; and qi (ch'i), the substance of which all material things are made. Whereas qi may change and dissolve, li, the underlying law of the myriad things, remains constant and indestructible. Zhu Xi further identifies the li in humankind with human nature, which is essentially the same for all people. The phenomenon of particular differences can be attributed to the varying proportions and densities of the qi found among individuals. Thus, those who receive a qi that is turbid will find their original nature obscured and should cleanse their nature to restore its purity. Purity can be achieved by extending one's knowledge of the li in each individual object. When, after much sustained effort, one has investigated and comprehended the universal li or natural law inherent in all animate and inanimate objects, one becomes a sage.
Opposed to the li (law) school is the xin (mind) school of Neo-Confucianism. The chief exponent of the xin school was Wang Yangming, who taught the unity of knowledge and practice. His major proposition was that "apart from the mind, neither law nor object" exists. In the mind, he asserted, are embodied all the laws of nature, and nothing exists without the mind. One's supreme effort should be to develop "the intuitive knowledge" of the mind, not through the study or investigation of natural law, but through intense thought and calm meditation.
During the Qing dynasty (Ch'ing dynasty, 1644-1911) there was a strong reaction to both the li and xin schools of Neo-Confucian thought. Qing scholars advocated a return to the earlier and supposedly more authentic Confucianism of the Han period, when it was still unadulterated by Buddhist and Daoist ideas. They developed textual criticism of the Confucian Classics based on scientific methodology, using philology, history, and archaeology to reinforce their scholarship. In addition, scholars such as Dai Chen introduced an empiricist point of view into Confucian philosophy.
Toward the end of the 19th century the reaction against Neo-Confucian metaphysics took a different turn. Instead of confining themselves to textual studies, Confucian scholars took an active interest in politics and formulated reform programs based on Confucian doctrine. Kang Yuwei (K'ang Yu-wei), a leader of the Confucian reform movement, made an attempt to exalt the philosophy as a national religion. Because of foreign threats to China and the urgent demand for drastic political measures, the reform movements failed; in the intellectual confusion that followed the Chinese revolution of 1911, Confucianism was branded as decadent and reactionary (see Republican Revolution). With the collapse of the monarchy and the traditional family structure, from which much of its strength and support was derived, Confucianism lost its hold on the nation. In the past, it often had managed to weather adversities and to emerge with renewed vigor, but during this period of unprecedented social upheavals it lost its previous ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
In the view of some scholars, Confucius will be revered in the future as China's greatest teacher; Confucian classics will be studied, and Confucian virtues, embodied for countless generations in the familiar sayings and common-sense wisdom of the Chinese people, will remain the cornerstone of ethics. It is doubtful, however, that Confucianism ever again will play the dominant role in Chinese political life and institutions that it did in past centuries.
The Chinese Communist victory of 1949 underlined the uncertain future of Confucianism. Many Confucian-based traditions were put aside. The family system, for example, much revered in the past as a central Confucian institution, was deemphasized. Few Confucian classics were published, and official campaigns against Confucianism were organized in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Wu-Chi Liu, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Chinese Language and Literature, Indiana University. Author of Introduction to Chinese Literature. Coeditor, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry.