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Confucianism (儒家 ru2jia1; literal meaning: "The School (of Thought) of the Scholars") is an East Asian belief system formulated in the 6th - 5th century BC and followed by people in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other Asian countries for more than two thousand years.

This great ethical and philosophical system is named after its founder, K'ung Fu-tzu (Master K'ung, 孔夫子), an ethical philosopher of the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C. whose Chinese name was later latinised to Confucius by Jesuit missionaries. This form became the convention in most western languages, and accordingly we shall refer to him by this westernised name. He is credited with a number of books, the best-known of which is the Analects (論語 lun4yu3), a collection of his sayings that was compiled and edited to its modern form during the Han dynasty.

It is debatable whether the system he founded should be called a religion. While it prescribes a great deal of ritual, little of it could be construed as worship or meditation in a formal sense. Confucius occasionally made statements about the existence of other-worldly beings that sound distinctly agnostic and humanistic to western ears.

However, its effect on Chinese society and culture was very deep and parallels the effects of religious movements seen in other cultures. Also, one should guard against too narrow a definition of religion. Those who follow the teachings of Confucius are comforted by it; it makes their lives more complete and their sufferings bearable - who are we to deny them the title of religious people? Finally, consider the fact that religions in Chinese culture are not mutually exclusive entities - each tradition was free to find its specific niche, its field of specialisation. One can be a Taoist, Christian, Muslim, Shintoist or Buddhist and still profess Confucianist beliefs.

And Confucianism specialised in ethics, in the orderly arrangement of society and correct relationships between people. Confucius himself lived in an era (The Eastern Zhou dynasty) when China was divided into a number of small states each ruled by a warlord or nobleman who paid little more than lip service to the emperor who in theory still ruled the Middle Kingdom (China) from the capital, Luoyang. The frequent wars between these states disrupted the structure of society. As a result, there was a deeply felt need for a theory of society that would act as a cohesive factor and that could reunite the Chinese nation. A number of philosophies (e.g. Mohism and Legalism) arose to fulfil this need. That of Confucius was eventually the most successful, due largely to the supremacy it achieved during the Han Dynasty.

Some key concepts in Confucian thought

  • Li3 (禮) - ritual. This originally meant "to sacrifice". From this initial religious ceremonial meaning, the term was soon extended to include secular ceremonial behaviour, and then took on an even more diffuse meaning, that of propriety or politeness which coloured everyday life. Rites were codified and treated as an all-embracing system of norms. Confucius himself tried to revive the etiquette of earlier dynasties, but in later Confucian tradition, he himself was regarded as the great authority on ritual behaviour.
  • Xiao4 or Hsiao (孝) - filial piety. This was considered among the greatest of virtues, and had to be shown towards both the living and the dead. The term "filial" means "of a son" and therefore denotes the respect and obedience that a son should show to his parents (traditionally, especially to his father). But this relationship was extended by analogy to a series of five relationships: those between father and son, ruler and subject, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and that between friends. Specific duties were prescribed between each of the participants in these sets of relationships. Such duties were also extended to the dead, and this led to the veneration of ancestors, to which the living stood as sons to their fathers. At this point we can see hsiao almost imperceptibly fading into li, for example the precise regulations on the length and manner of mourning on the death of a family member. In time, filial piety was also built into the Chinese legal system: a criminal would be punished more harshly if the culprit had committed the crime against a parent, while fathers exercised enormous power over their children. Much the same was true of the other unequal relationships. Our main source of our knowledge of the importance of filial piety is The Book of Filial Piety, a work which is attributed to Confucius, but was almost certainly written only in the third century B.C. Nevertheless, filial piety has played a central role in Confucian thinking ever since, and continues to do so.
  • Zhong1 or Chung (忠) - loyalty. This was the equivalent of filial piety on a different plane, that of the relationship between ruler and minister. It was particularly relevant for the social class to which most of Confucius's students belonged, because the only way for an ambitious young scholar to make his way in the world was to enter the civil service of a ruler. Like filial piety, loyalty was often subverted by the autocratic regimes of China. Confucius had advocated a sensitivity to the realpolitik of the class relations that existed in his time - he did not propose that "might makes right", but that a superior who had received "the mandate of heaven" (see below) should be obeyed because of his moral rectitude. But this was soon reinterpreted and became a doctrine which demanded blind, unquestioning obedience to the ruler from the ruled. Confucius would not have supported this - he was far too subtle a thinker for that.
  • Ren2 or Jen (仁) - humaneness. Confucius was concerned with people's individual development, but he maintained that this is realized within the context of human relationships. Ritual and filial piety are the ways in which one should act towards these others, but the underlying attitude is one of humaneness. Unlike ritual, it is not the kind of thing that can be easily defined or identified in a particular person. Perhaps it is best expressed in the Confucian version of the Golden Rule, which is always phrased in the negative: "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you." Jen also has a political dimension; if the ruler lacks it, it will hardly be possible for the subjects to behave humanely. This, in fact, is the basis of the entire Confucian political theory: it presupposes an autocratic ruler, who is then exhorted to refrain from acting inhumanely towards the subjects. An inhumane ruler runs the risk of losing the "mandate of heaven", that is, the right to rule. Such a mandate-less ruler need not be obeyed. But a ruler who reigns humanely and takes care of the people is to be obeyed strictly, for the very fact of this benevolent dominion shows that the ruler has been mandated by heaven. Heaven (Shang Ti or T'ien) itself a vague concept of an impersonal superior reality, much as westerners might say, "Heaven help us" (although some scholars interpret the concept theistically). Confucius himself had little to say on the will of the people, but his leading follower Mencius (孟子 -- Meng Tzu) did state on one occasion that the people's opinion on certain weighty matters should be polled.
  • Jun1 Zi3 or Chun-tzu (君子) - the gentleman. The gentleman is the ideal towards which all Confucians strive. (In modern times, the masculine bias in Confucianism has weakened, but the same term is still used.) The term literally means "son of a ruler", and there was a hereditary elitism inherent in the gentleman concept, but besides this, gentlemen were also expected to act as moral guides to the rest of society. Gentlemen are those who cultivate themselves morally, who participate in the correct performance of the rites, who show filial piety and loyalty where these are due and who have cultivated humaneness. The great exemplar of the gentleman is Confucius himself. It is indeed one of the great tragedies of his life that he was never awarded the high official position which he desired, and from which he wished to demonstrate the general well-being that would ensue if humane persons ruled and administered the state. The opposite of of the JunZi was the Xiao3 Ren2, literally 'small person'.

Later developments in Confucianism

Between the gentlemen and the "small people" (xiaoren) was an intermediate class called the shih (仕), commonly translated as "knights", who filled minor administrative posts and served as junior officers in the army. To these, too, Confucius and his disciples recommended the same virtues prescribed for the gentlemen. In time, the shih were transformed into a class of scholars and bureaucrats who owed their positions to the official civil service examinations. Because these examinations were entirely based on verbatim knowledge of Confucius's books, these people became the staunchest supporters of Confucian orthodoxy.

Confucius considered himself to be little more than a aspirant gentleman; he refused to be addressed as a sage. Confucianism also had a remarkable influence on neighbouring countries such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Table of contents

Historical development of Confucianism

Was there a Confucianism?

One of the problems in discussing the history of Confucianism is the question of what Confucianism is. In fact in the book, Manufacturing Confucianism, David Jensen claims that our modern image of Confucius and Confucianism, which is that of a wise symbol of learning and a state-sponsored quasi-religion, did not exist in China from time immemorial, but was manufactured by European Jesuits in order to portray Chinese society to Europeans. The notion of Confucianism was then borrowed back by Chinese who then used the notion of Confucianism for their own purposes.

To simplify this discussion, we shall simply define Confucianism as any system of thinking that has at its basis the works that are regarded as the "Confucian classics," but even this definition runs into problems as it is not clear what are the "Confucian classics."

The Script Controversy

The origin of this problem lies with the attempt of Qin Shi Huang Di to burn all of the books. After the Qin dynasty was overthrown by the Han, there was the monumental task of recreating all of the knowledge that was destroyed. The method that was undertaken was to find all of the remaining scholars and have them reconstruct from memory the texts that were lost. This produced the "New Script" texts. Afterwards, people began finding fragments of books that had escaped the burning. Piecing those together produced the "Old Script" texts. One problem that has plagued Confucianism through the ages the question of which set of texts is the more authentic, and the answer has generally been that the "Old Script" texts are.

Confucianism in the Han Dynasty

Eclipse by Buddhism


Another development was neo-Confucianism, which developed in the eleventh century AD as an attempt by Confucian scholars to answer questions raised by Buddhist metaphysics. The most important of those scholars was Chu Hsi.

Confucianism in the Ming Dynasty

Confucianism in the Qing Dynasty

With the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Confucianism become an important part of the attempt by the Qing dynasty to portray themselves as legitimate rulers of China rather than alien invaders. By invoking the ideal of the Confucian sage, the Manchus were able to gain the support of the Chinese gentry and thereby maintain themselves in power for almost 300 years.

The Evidential School

The Evidentiary school was a movement in the early Qing dynasty whose goal was to reform society by finding the authentic texts that Confucius wrote. The belief of this movement was that in the distant past, there had been a golden age, of which there were only fragmentary records existent in the writings of Confucius. This fragmentary record was complicated by the fact that the writings were contaminated by Buddhist concepts and ideas. The Evidentiary school believed that by scientifically analyzing the Confucian texts, they could remove what they regarded as Buddhist distortion and find the authentic texts which would lead them to the golden age.

The New/Old Script Controversy

The Fall of the Imperial China

As Imperial China began to fall and China was put under pressure by the Europeans, there came into being several trends in Confucianism. The first was the increasing identification of Confucianism with the Imperial state, in part to counter the argument by Chinese nationalists that the Qing was an alien state. The second was the attempt to recreate Confucianism as a native substitute for Christianity. These pressures increased to the point where he was eventually acknowledged to be a god, and was accordingly worshipped in the state cult.

Kang You Wei

The New Confucian Movement

In the 1960s, it was commonly perceived by Western scholars such as Joseph Levinson that Confucianism was a dead movement forever consigned to the dustbin of history. However, over the next decades, Confucianism underwent a somewhat unexpected resurgence. The various forms of Confucianism that attempt to reconcile it with modernity are known as "New Confucianism" which is not to be confused with "Neo-Confucianism" which is the movement of the Song dynasty.

One of the advocates of "New Confucianism" is Tu Wei-Ming, who is a member of the Boston Confucians. This group attempts to develop the humanistic elements of Confucianism as a philosophy that is allied with religious morality, but yet maintains a secular focus.

See also: Eastern philosophy, list of Confucianists, Buddhism in China

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