The philosopher Confucius (or Kongzi, c. 551 to c. 479 BCE) is the recognized founder of Confucianism, also referred to as the Ru-jia doctrine or School of Literati as it is known by Western scholars. Originally, Confucianism was composed of a set of political and moral doctrines with the teachings of Confucius as its basis. Later on, the teachings of Mencius (Meng Zi) and Xunzi (Xun zi) also became part of Confucianism. The word Confucianism seems to be the creation of European Christians who entered China about 1860 CE and was originally used to label their notion of the non-Christian religions they came across in China.
The Approach & Teachings of Confucius
While his neighbours in India were obsessed with metaphysical debates, Confucius was solely focused on everyday concerns. He was indifferent to the big mysteries of existence such as the origin or the universe, god or the afterlife. His famous answers to this type of question were:
We do not yet know how to serve man, how can we know about serving the spirits?
We don't know yet about life, how can we know about death?
Humanism is the central feature of Confucianism, which revolves almost entirely around issues related to the family, morals, and the role of the good ruler. It stresses the need for benevolent and frugal rulers, the importance of inner moral harmony and its direct connection with harmony in the physical world. Rulers and teachers, according to this view, are important models for society: a good government should rule by virtue and moral example rather than by punishment or force. Filial piety and ancestor worship, which are old traditional Chinese values, are also part of the key components of Confucian doctrine.
Confucius believed in the perfectibility of all men and he was against the idea that some men are born superior to others. During his time it was held that nobility was a quality determined by status and that belonging to a specific social circle made a person morally superior. Confucius challenged this idea by saying that being morally superior had nothing to do with the blood, rather, it was a matter of character and personal development, a revolutionary concept at that time.
The Origins of Confucianism
To ignore the mysteries of life is the price Confucius had to pay to focus his energy on this world. It is often claimed that there is a lack of imagination in Confucianism, that it is a philosophy reluctant to imagine the new, to embrace changes and innovations. The Confucian indifference to the big mysteries, whether cause or effect of the lack of imagination, seems to be the only approach consistent with the time when Confucius developed his thought, a time when there was political struggle, moral chaos, and intellectual conflict, in short, when order was almost non-existent. Confucius thought that going back to the traditional ways was the only path for society to get back on track. He lived during a time when the Zhou dynasty was immersed in serious political conflicts.
The attention of Confucius was attracted towards very practical considerations of this world rather than seeking consolation in otherworldly notions. He decided to seek a solution for the challenges of his time, a way to cure a society which, nearly everyone agreed, was sick. He often mentions some of the sage-emperors of the past: Emperor Yao (a legendary ruler of the 3rd century BCE), his successor Emperor Shun and the Duke of Zhou, who were considered responsible of establishing the foundations of Chinese culture. These were considered by Confucius as inspiring models for a society, far more useful than supernatural beings or other metaphysical ideas.
Confucianism & the State
The teachings of Confucius have come down to our days through his Analects, a collection of aphorisms, maxims and different anecdotes, probably but not certainly compiled by Confucius' students. It was during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) when Confucianism became the dominant political ideology and the Analects became known by that name. All early versions of this text have been displaced by a version compiled near the end of the Han dynasty. About 175 CE this version was carved on stone tablets and the surviving fragments of those stones were re-edited innumerable times. Despite the fact that it is not entirely certain whether the Analects truly contain the message of Confucius, it is generally accepted that it is the most reliable source of Confucius’ view.
Confucianism was not always popular during the Han dynasty. In fact, the first Han emperor Liu Bang, who ruled until 195 BCE, did not feel any respect at all for the Confucian school. The famous Chinese historian Sima Qian tells us that whenever Liu Bang identified a Confucian (an easy thing to do because they used to wear a very distinctive pointed hat), "immediately snatches the hat from the visitor’s head and pissed in it”. It was later on during the time of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) that the Confucian school received the support of the Chinese rulers and gradually became the official state philosophy. Thousands of academies spread the Confucian ideology across the Chinese empire and from here it travelled to most of East Asia.
The support that Confucianism received during the late Han period was the opposite of what had happened earlier on during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), when the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Shi Huangti, 259-210 BCE) got tired of the critics his government received from Confucian scholars by comparing it with previous dynasties. Qin Shi Huang decided to do something about it, he wrote, "I suggest that the official histories, with the exception of the Memoirs of Qin, be all burnt, and that those who attempt to hide [other works] be forced to bring them to the authorities to be burnt." (Durant, 697).
Quin Shi Huan banned Confucianism along with all other schools, except for the Legalist school or Fa-jia, which was the official government philosophy. Freedom of speech was suppressed, hundreds of Confucian scholars were buried alive and several classic Chinese texts were burnt.
Around 1190 CE, the Analects became part of a collection of four books that until 1905 CE were the subject of the Chinese civil service examinations. It was the Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) who gave to these texts authoritative status. The other three texts were the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean.
As has happened with the teachings of every great mind of antiquity, some ideas of Confucius have been subject to reinterpretation. We can take, for example, one of his statements that men are alike by nature, and they become apart through practice (Analects, 17:2). This idea on human nature is slightly different from what the later orthodox Confucian school said, that human nature is originally good.
The Analects is not written in systematic way but rather in a poetic way that sometimes can be interpreted in different ways. These are some examples of its passages where Confucius said:
Wealth and honour are what every man desires. But if they have been obtained in violation of moral principles, they must not be kept. Poverty and humble station are what every man dislikes. But if they can be avoided only in violation of moral principles, they must not be avoided. A superior man never abandons humanity even for the lapse of a single meal. In moments of haste, he acts according to it. In times of difficulty or confusion, he acts according to it. (Analects 4:5)
The superior man wants to be slow in word but diligent in action. (Analects 4:24)
I transmit but do not create. I believe in and the love of the ancients. I venture to compare myself to our old Peng. (Analects 7:1)
[Old Peng Wan an official of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) who was known for reciting old stories. This fragment is sometimes cited to point out that Confucius was not creative. However, we read in the Analects 2:11 that Confucius “goes over the old so as to find out what is new".]
When Tzu kung asked about government, Confucius said: "Sufficient food, sufficient armament, and sufficient confidence of the people.” Tzu kung said, “Forced to give up one of these, which would you abandon first?” Confucius said, “I would abandon the armament.” Tzu kung said, “Forced to give up one of the remaining two, which would you abandon first?” Confucius said, “I would abandon food. There have been deaths from time immemorial, but no state can exist without the confidence of the people.” (Analects 12:7)
If a ruler sets himself right, he will be followed without his command. If he does not set himself right, even his command will not be obeyed. (Analects 13:6)
The humanistic turn in Chinese philosophy is due to the enormous influence of Confucianism and it is humanism that is the most outstanding feature of Chinese philosophy as a whole. During most of Chinese history, Confucianism was seen as the preserver of traditional Chinese values, the guardian of Chinese civilization as such. After struggling during the Qin dynasty, it emerged as the final and permanent victor during the later Han period and would dominate Chinese thought ever after.
About the Author
- A.C. Graham, By A.C. Graham - Disputers of the Tao (Open Court Publishing Company, 2000).
- Charles Hucker, China's Imperial Past (Stanford University Press, 1995).
- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers (Vintage, 1985).
- Mike Edwards, "Han Dynasty," National Geographic Vol. 205 - No. 2 - February 2004: 2-29.
- Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (Simon & Schuster, 2013).
- Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 1969).