Confucianism is a system of belief based on the ideologies of the 6th-century BCE Chinese scholar Confucius (Kong Fuzi). Living in a time of great social turmoil, Confucius devoted his life to the goal of restoring social harmony, which, he argued, was to be achieved by following the social order established by the sage kings and cultural heroes of antiquity. By creating citizens and rulers who were as virtuous as the sage kings, a perfect society would result.
Fully understanding Confucian doctrine requires that time be examined along several dimensions. First, the time period during which Confucius lived, known as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771-256 BCE), provides the context for his goal of social restoration. Second, the means for obtaining this goal are derived from elements of ancient Chinese culture extending to a legendary golden age of the past. Third, setting Confucianism along a historical timeline demonstrates its profound influence on Asian culture in the centuries following Confucius’s death, an influence that continues now more than 2 millennia since its inception.
The English name Confucius is derived from the Latinized name Kong Fuzi, meaning Master Kong. His birth name was Qiu of the family Kong. While he is credited as the founder of Confucianism, it really was not until several centuries after his death, through the work of scholars such as Mencius (c. 371-289 BCE) and Xunzi (c. 298-238 BCE), that Confucian principles were developed into a unified, established system. Confucius was born in 551 BCE in the state of Lu in northeastern China in what is today Shantung province. His father was a distinguished soldier who died when Confucius was a young child. His mother had little money, but worked hard to raise Confucius as an educated gentleman. Growing up he worked at menial tasks and lived a life of poverty, but also enjoyed opportunities such as hunting, archery, art, and a good education.
As an adult, Confucius desired a government post that would allow him the opportunity to persuade rulers to adopt his strategies for restoring order to society. However, he was unable to pass the qualifying examinations required for such a post. For a while he served as a clerk in the Memorial Temple of the Duke Zhou performing sacred, ancient ceremonies. He then turned his focus to teaching. Unlike other teachers of his time, Confucius accepted students based solely upon their intelligence and willingness to learn rather than on their social class. In his early 50s, Confucius finally passed the civil service examinations and obtained a government position as a magistrate, but soon resigned in frustration over his failure to influence the corrupt rulers. For the next 15 years he journeyed to various states in an unsuccessful quest to locate rulers who would implement his social policies. At the age of 68 he returned home to Lu where he spent his final years teaching and editing the ancient writings known today as the Five Classics.
Confucius died at the age of 72 in 479 BCE, thinking that his ideas would never be taken seriously by those in power. However, scholars of later centuries transformed Confucius’s ideologies into a well-defined philosophical system that would shape and be shaped by Chinese culture and society, and eventually other Asian cultures as well, for more than 2 millennia.
Goals of Confucianism
Confucius lived during the second half of the Zhou Dynasty, known as the Eastern Zhou period (771-256 BCE). China was not yet a unified empire but rather consisted of numerous small, semi-independent kingdoms ruled by relatives of the hereditary king. These, in turn, were divided into districts ruled by governors. In the 8th century BCE, an invasion by non-Chinese tribes from the west forced the Zhou king to move his capital to the east. The weakened power of the Zhou rulers resulted in a historical time period characterized by civil war and social turmoil.
Numerous schools of thought arose in response to these changes, with each proposing a distinct solution to the crisis. Many blamed traditional values and sought contemporary solutions. Confucius looked instead to the traditions of an ancient past. His main goal was to restore the social harmony that existed during the golden age of the virtuous sage kings of antiquity who ruled by the Mandate of Heaven. This was a two-part goal. First, ordinary people would be transformed into junzi, which is often translated as “noble person” or “superior person.” For Confucius, however, this term did not refer to nobility ascribed at birth. Rather, anyone could become junzi by cultivating the moral virtues of the sage kings. The junzi is a person who puts the needs of others before his or her own. Such a person sincerely refrains from self-interest in order to act in the best interest of society. Second, Confucius desired to create a perfect society. These two goals reinforce one another as superior people will naturally create a perfect, harmonious society and a perfect society will produce virtuous people.
The Golden Age of the Sage Kings
The foundation of Confucian doctrine is based on the virtues of the mythical culture heroes and sage kings of an ancient time. This is a time that predates the first historical dynasty. Confucian culture heroes are credited with the perfection of human social order. Therefore, many, such as Fu Xi and Shen Nong, later became canonized as deities. Fu Xi, the serpent-bodied emperor, is attributed, among other things, with teaching humans how to domesticate animals. Shen Nong is credited with the invention of agricultural tools and discovering the medicinal properties of plants. All of the culture heroes offered equally momentous gifts to humanity.
After the period of the culture heroes followed the golden age of antiquity of the sage kings who ruled during the legendary Xia Dynasty (ca. 2200-1750 BCE). Bestowed with the Mandate of Heaven, they ruled by virtuous example rather than by force. Exhibiting great altruism, their only concern was the welfare of their subjects. For this reason, they were junzi. The result of such ethical ruling was a perfect social order and harmony between heaven and humanity. However, the last Xia emperor lost the Mandate of Heaven due to his corruption and so was overthrown by the ruler of the first historical dynasty: the Shang Dynasty (c. 1750-1100 BCE).
Ancient Chinese Culture
The roots of many of the principal tenets of Confucianism can be located in ancient Chinese culture and religion. A few of the more central concepts that have shaped Confucianism include heaven, filial loyalty, and the emphasis on social relations.
During the Shang Dynasty (c. 1750-1100 BCE) there was a belief in the high god Shang Di (the Lord on High) who was conceived as a personal god. By the time of the Zhou Dynasty (1100-256 BCE) the Shang belief had been replaced with the notion of Tian (heaven). Tian was viewed as an impersonal sacred force that regulates human affairs and establishes moral order. Rulers were considered to be the Sons of Heaven, bestowed with the Mandate of Heaven. However, if a ruler became corrupt, Tian would remove the mandate and punish the ruler by sending disasters such as floods and wars. Confucius claimed that heaven had given him the mandate to reform the world.
Filial loyalty and respect for elders in Chinese culture is evident in numerous ways. The family has long been the basic unit of Chinese society and, according to Chinese legend, is what separates humans from animals. In fact, the family name (surname) precedes the individual name in China. Elders, far from being considered unproductive or outdated, are venerated for their wisdom. Children are to honor their parents as instructed in the Five Great Relations. Ancestor worship, dating back to at least the Shang Dynasty (c. 1750-1100 BCE), demonstrates that people not only are to be obedient and respectful to the living elders, but also to those who have died. Ancestor worship is particularly important insofar as deceased ancestors continue to exist in the realm of heaven and can even be elevated to the status of deity in the celestial hierarchy. If deceased ancestors are not appropriately honored, the living family may suffer negative consequences.
Finally, Chinese culture historically has emphasized group interdependence over rugged individualism. Rather than being viewed as autonomous, independent agents, the Chinese notion of personhood stresses the interconnectedness of individuals forming social networks. As our actions will influence others who share a single web of social relationships, we must think and behave unselfishly.
Obtaining the Goal:
The Five Great Relationships
There are numerous virtues people must acquire in order to achieve social harmony. According to Confucius, humans are inherently good, but require training in virtue. The primary way in which to provide this training is through education that fosters the values of the golden age of the sage kings.
The Confucian emphasis on proper social relationships as a basis of a harmonious society is evident in the Five Great Relationships. Asian cultures have traditionally stressed the role of a person’s social ties to others. The only way a perfect society may be achieved is if all people behave appropriately in their interactions with others. The ancients enjoyed social harmony because people knew their social roles and behaved appropriately. To know what is expected of any given individual in a particular social interaction, that person need only consider his or her social role and title. This has been referred to as the Rectification of Names. The required behaviors for each social role are outlined in the Five Great Relationships.
The first relationship, which forms the very foundation of society, is the Father-Son relationship (sometimes referred to as the Parent-Child relationship). The father is responsible for the education and moral values of his children and they, in return, are to be respectful, loyal, and obedient. The father is to have unquestioned authority in making decisions for his children. Eventually the children will take care of the father in his old age. This relationship does not cease upon the father’s death. Rather, sons are expected to have their own children who will continue to worship their ancestors long after the death of those ancestors.
The second great relationship is that between Elder Brother-Younger Brother (or, Older Sibling- Younger Sibling). Many Asian languages have distinct words for siblings based on their age-position relative to other siblings. Older siblings are meant to help guide and protect younger siblings, and younger siblings are expected to comply obediently.
The Husband-Wife relationship, like the previous two relationships, is based on one person, here the husband, having authority and responsibility over the other person, in this case the wife. The husband is expected to be the breadwinner and to meet his wife’s material needs in addition to serving as her protector. The wife, in turn, is to serve as a devoted housewife, acting in a motherly way, attentive to her husband’s needs.
The fourth relationship is that of Senior FriendJunior Friend. The friend with senior status helps shape the moral character of the junior friend. This may entail the senior friend acting as a mentor or offering advice to the junior friend. The junior friend is expected to be respectful and amenable to the advice of the senior friend. Examples of this relationship may be found between teachers and students, bosses and their employees, or even between coworkers of the same age but who differ in rank.
The final relationship is the Ruler-Subject relationship. Subjects should loyally and obediently follow their rulers, but rulers must place the interests of their subjects above their own. While it may seem that the Ruler-Subject relationship should be the first of the Five Great Relationships, scholars often place it last insofar as Confucius viewed the Father- Son relationship as a model for rulers’ behavior. Confucius claimed that social order must originate at home.
Obtaining the Goal: The Five Virtues
When social interactions are guided by the precepts outlined in the Five Great Relationships, harmonious relations result. Similarly, on an individual level, for a person to work toward the goal of becoming junzi, it is necessary to adopt the Five Virtues. The Five Great Relationships and the Five Virtues are clearly interrelated.
Ren is the most fundamental of the Five Virtues. The Chinese character for this word blends the characters for person and for the number 2, stressing the importance of considering others. This word can be translated as “benevolence,” “consideration,” or “sympathy.” It is respecting the interest of others in all that we do. When we truly care about the well-being of others, then social strife and petty competition are eliminated. Confucius explained how rulers, especially, must place the welfare of their subjects above that of themselves. The second virtue, li, which is often translated as “propriety,” requires that we speak and behave properly in social life. As dictated in the Five Great Relationships, what is considered appropriate will vary according to a person’s specific age, gender, social status, and the given social situation. A third virtue is shu. Some have translated this as “reciprocity” in that it instructs us to think of the impact of our actions on others. This has often been termed the Silver Rule, which states that we should not force upon other people that which we do not want done to ourselves. Xiao refers to family devotion. Not only does this entail that children respect their parents and that parents care for their young, but that everyone also honor the dead ancestors through appropriate sacrificial rituals. Finally, Confucius stressed the value of wen, or of cultural arts. Confucius maintained that education was required to instill proper virtues and so must include an appreciation for, and even some ability to participate in, such fine arts as poetry, literature, painting, music, and calligraphy.
Obtaining the Goal: The Confucian Classics
The most fundamental of the Confucian literature extant today consists of The Five Classics, which predate or were contemporaneous with Confucius, and the Four Books, which postdate him but are based largely on his teachings. Confucius did not write the majority of this literature, but is credited with editing and transmitting earlier works and adding his insight in the form of commentary.
For Confucius these texts were an important means of conveying the ancient traditions necessary for the restoration of social harmony that had existed during the time of the ancient sage kings. In fact, the earliest of the texts are thought to be the teachings of the sage kings themselves. The Confucian texts discuss the virtues of the ancient sages, providing examples in the forms of maxims and anecdotes of how we are to achieve virtuous government and citizens. For example, the Doctrine of the Mean contends that people must avoid excess and seek moderation. Whenever people exhibit too much pride or indulgence, for example, social strife and competition result.
The influence of Confucian literature on the worldview of the Chinese cannot be overstated as it served as the core curriculum of the state educational system for more than 600 years and formed the basis for the civil service exams required of all government workers.
Historical Influence of
Confucianism on Asian Culture
In addition to considering the time period of the ancient sage kings and the role of social upheaval of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, it is also necessary to outline the historical time periods following Confucius’ death in order to demonstrate the profound effect of Confucianism on Chinese cul- ture—an influence that has persisted for more than 2,000 years.
Even though the rulers of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771-256 BCE) failed to recognize the value of Confucius’s ideas during his lifetime, the established doctrine of Confucianism was developed later in this dynasty by scholars such as Mencius (c. 371-289 BCE) and Xunzi (c. 298-238 BCE) who desired social reform based on a Confucian model. Rulers of the following dynasty (Qin Dynasty, 221-206 BCE) forcibly suppressed Confucianism, but this dynasty was short lived. The longer period of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE- 220 CE) was favorable for the advancement of Confucian ideals. It was during this dynasty that Confucianism was made official state policy, and elaborate temples were erected in Confucius’s honor. Confucian influence was particularly strong by 126 BCE when the state adopted the writings of Confucius and Confucian scholars as the foundation for the state system of education.
The Han Dynasty fell in 220 CE, ushering in a period of political instability known as the Six Dynasties Period (220-589 CE). During this time Buddhism was introduced to China from India and Daoism was growing in importance. Confucianism was now relegated to a more peripheral role in Chinese culture than had been the case during the Han Dynasty. By the time of the Tang Dynasty (619-907 CE), Confucianism regained some of its former importance with a state mandate that every province in China erect a Confucian temple and conduct regular ceremonies and sacrifices.
By the beginning of the Song Dynasty (9601279 CE), rulers were desperate to restore the social order lost in the turmoil of the preceding five dynasties. This coincided with the rise of neoConfucianism developed by scholars such as Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE), who aimed to bring about social order using Confucian models.
By 1313, in the Yuan Dynasty, Confucian literature formed the core curriculum of the civil service examinations that were required of anyone who wanted to enter a government post. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) neo-Confu- cianism continued to gain strength with the work of scholars such as Wang Yangming (1472-1529 CE). Even in 1644, when the foreign Manchus overtook the capital and ruled during the final imperial dynasty (Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911 CE), Confucianism continued to thrive.
Confucianism in the 20th and 21st Centuries
In 1911, as a result of Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, China witnessed the collapse of the last imperial dynasty and the subsequent establishment of the Republic of China. Since that time, Confucianism has not held the state support or central role in education imparted by former dynasties. By 1916 the New Culture Movement had destroyed vestiges of the past deemed traditional and, therefore, as impediments to progress.
The Communist takeover in 1949 and the formation of the People’s Republic of China only increased the aversion to Confucianism. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao Zedong (1893-1976) ordered his Red Guards to destroy all of those things considered traditional and backward, such as temples, sacred images, and sacred texts. All outward forms of religious expression, including Confucianism, were forbidden.
After the death of Mao, many ancient traditions began to resurface, and since the 1980s China has eased many of the restrictions against religion. It has been many years since Confucianism has enjoyed the vast state support of the dynastic periods. It nonetheless continues to form a central core of Chinese culture while increasingly spreading in influence to the island of Taiwan, as well as to other Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.
Catherine M. Mitchell Fuentes
See also Asian Calendars; Morality; Religions and Time; Values and Time
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