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Confucius and Confucianism

Confucius – the most dominant thinker in Chinese history

Confucius (Kŏngzi – 孔子 551-479BC) lived during the Warring States Period when more than a dozen feudal states vied for power. Confucian philosophy therefore focuses on alleviating the suffering and chaos of that age.

Confucianism (Rújiā Sīxiăng – 儒家思想) can claim to be a philosophy not a religion because it makes reference to no higher power or revealed teachings. According to Confucius society is capable of harmonious existence without any help from the supernatural, all it needs is for everyone to be properly educated and to know their own place in society. Confucius was once asked about the afterlife by a student, and responded by asking how a man could possibly contemplate things like God and Heaven when he did not yet fully understand the mortal world.

However, in spite of Confucius’s determination not to be drawn into spiritual discussions, Confucianism merged with Chinese religious beliefs so much as to be almost indistinguishable from them. In the end, Confucius himself was deified.

Theory of Confucianism

As far as Confucius was concerned the key concept of Confucianism was benevolence, and to be benevolent, Confucius said, was to love other people. This love and benevolence, is not necessarily something that goes on between equals, but between individuals properly aware of their correct place in society.

According to Confucius if everyone was educated in the correct (Confucian) manner to bring out their true nature and inner goodness, and to be aware of their place in society, their duties to their superiors and responsibilities towards inferiors then everybody would behave properly and society would be harmonious. Strong government and government by force would become obsolete.

The correct arrangement of society can be summarised through the five relationships. With the exception of the last one, which concerns equals, they are all superior – inferior relationships.

Ruler – ruled
Husband – wife
Father – son
Older brother – younger brother
Friend – Friend

This is the distillation of Confucian thought, and it comes down to one thing – filial piety. Filial piety, or respect for one’s parents, is still prominent in Chinese thought today. In a Confucian society everyone is expected to behave according to these relationships. The greatest transgression is to disobey one’s father, husband or ruler, because this is the clearest repudiation of the Confucian system, the most at odds with the concept of filial piety. Thus according to Confucian tradition beating one’s disobeying one’s parents is a greater crime than beating ones wife, something later enshrined in the legal codes.

The other classification is social classes. The members of the lower classes would be expected the same respect and obedience to the upper classes as would a son to a father or a wife to a husband.

Emperor – Scholar/Official – Peasant – Merchant – Craftsmen – Slave – Whores, Beggars, Actors, Entertainers and some ethnic minorities.

The ideal Confucian ruler is a wise sage who embodies the values of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness, and has a strong sense of right and wrong. Such a ruler could not fail to inspire virtuous behaviour in his followers: ‘The virtue of the ruler is like the wind, the virtue of the commoners is like the grass. Grass touched by wind cannot fail to bend’.

Application of Confucianism

Confucius was born in 551BC during an extremely chaotic period of Chinese history, the Warring States Period. He was born to a poor aristocratic family and rose to the position of a minor government official through study. He became a private teacher and attracted thousands of students. At the age of fifty he abandoned his native state of Lu and spent almost twenty years wandering the country in search of a ruler who put his theories into practise. He never found the opportunity and finally returned to Lu, spending his final years passing on his knowledge to his students.

After his death Confucius’s disciples collected together his sayings into what became known as ‘the Analects’ (Lùnyǔ – 论语) which is the source of most of our knowledge of Confucius’s teachings.

Confucianism spread quickly through society and ancient rulers recognised the use of a philosophy which emphasises stability and obedience to the ruler. By the time of the Han dynasty (202BC – 220AD) Confucianism had become institutionalised and its position as the dominant philosophy of China has never really been challenged since.

Confucian ethics were enshrined in the legal codes so that punishment varied according to the relative social status of victim and transgressor. The Imperial Examination System further entrenched Confucianism’s position by making a thorough knowledge of Confucianism a condition of entry to and progress in the bureaucracy.

Although Confucius himself steered clear of the supernatural, Confucianism became heavily entwined with Chinese religion. Confucian emphasis on filial piety reinforced, and thus was seen as part of, earlier traditions of ancestor worship. Confucius’s exhortations to observe the correct ‘lĭ – 礼’ (rites), possibly originally to do with the five relationships and filial piety, became linked with the more overtly religious rituals linked with the Chinese conception of the cosmos. (Rituals concerned with maintaining the harmony of earth, man and heave, a field Confucius never deigned to tread). In the end Confucius himself was deified so that even the Emperors were required to worship him.

Confucianism Today

Today Confucianism is seldom referred to directly, but Confucian principles are clearly behind many of the things we see as ‘Chinese thought patterns’. Today’s Chinese are almost as keen on filial piety as they have ever been, reluctant to rock the boat and interested in stability before equality. Even face is irrevocably linked to the concept of status.

In politics East Asian regimes (most notably Singapore) often refer to the Confucian nature of their society. The desire for stability and social cohesion, respect for elders and rulers, and the ideal of a benevolent, righteous and scholarly ruler, are the reasons that their societies are unsuited to the confrontational (we might say democratic) systems of governments preferred in the West.

Anyone interested in the long-term future of the Chinese Communist Party might like to make a note of this argument. If the CCP ever abandons the now clearly obsolete Socialist rhetoric, something along the Singaporean lines would probably be the most logical, most sustainable next step. Watch this space.

Recommended Chinese culture articles:

Traditional Chinese Architecture: Evolution and History, Chinese Siheyuan Courtyards

Chinese Religion: How To Tell Chinese Temples Apart, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism

Beijing Arts: Chinese Opera, Acrobatics, Tai Chi, Chinese Gardens

Beijing Society: Er Nai, Lucky Numbers, Chinese Etiquette, Drugs in China

Chinese History: Chairman Mao Zedong, Eunuchs, Chinese Emperors, Ancient History Timeline, Concubines, 20th Century Timeline


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