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Confucianism (Chinese: 儒 家; pinyin: Rújiā) is an ancient Chinese ethical and philosophical system originally developed from the teachings of the early Chinese philosopher Confucius (Kong Fuzi/K'ung-fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kung"). It focuses on human morality and good deeds. Confucianism is a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious thought that has had tremendous influence on the culture and history of East Asia. Some consider it to be the state religion of East Asian countries because of governmental promotion of Confucian values.
The cultures most strongly influenced by Confucianism include Mainland China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as various territories settled predominantly by Chinese people.
Confucianism was chosen by Han Wudi (141 BCE - 86 BCE) for use as a political system to govern the Chinese state. Despite its loss of influence during the Tang Dynasty, Confucian doctrine remained a mainstream Chinese orthodoxy for two millennia until the 20th century and it was still in most parts of China, when it was attacked by radical Chinese thinkers as a vanguard of a pre-modern system and an obstacle to China's modernization, eventually culminating in its repression during the Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism has been revived in mainland China, and both interest in and debate about Confucianism have surged.
Confucianism as passed down to the 19th and 20th centuries derives primarily from the school of the Neo-Confucians, led by Zhu Xi, who gave Confucianism renewed vigor in the Song and later dynasties. Neo-Confucianism combined Taoist and Buddhist ideas with existing Confucian ideas to create a more complete metaphysics than had ever existed before. At the same time, many forms of Confucianism have historically declared themselves opposed to the Buddhist and Taoist belief systems.
Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE) was a sage and social philosopher of China whose teachings have deeply influenced East Asia, including China, Korea, and Japan for two thousand five hundred years. The relationship between Confucianism and Confucius himself, however, is tenuous. Confucius' ideas were not accepted during his lifetime and he frequently bemoaned the fact that he remained unemployed by any of the feudal lords.
As with many other prominent figures, such as Jesus, Socrates, and Buddha, Confucius did not leave any writings to put forward his ideas. Instead, only texts with recollections by his disciples and their students are available. This factor is further complicated by the " Burning of the Books and Burying of the Scholars", a massive suppression of dissenting thought during the Qin Dynasty, more than two centuries after Confucius' death.
However, we can sketch out Confucius' ideas from the fragments that remain. Confucius was a man of letters who worried about the troubled times in which he lived. He went from place to place trying to spread his political ideas and influence to the many kings contending for supremacy in China.
In the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (772 BCE–221 BCE), the reigning king of the Zhou gradually became a mere figurehead. In this power vacuum, the rulers of small states began to vie with one another for military and political dominance. Deeply persuaded of the need for his mission — "If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no need for me to change its state" Analects XVIII, 6 — Confucius tirelessly promoted the virtues of ancient illustrious sages such as the Duke of Zhou. Confucius tried to amass sufficient political power to found a new dynasty, as when he planned to accept an invitation from a rebel to "make a Zhou dynasty in the East" (Analects XV, 5). As the common saying that Confucius was a "king without a crown" indicates, however, he never gained the opportunity to apply his ideas. He was expelled from states many times and eventually returned to his homeland to spend the last part of his life teaching. The Analects of Confucius, the closest primary source we have for his thoughts, relates his sayings and discussions with rulers and disciples in short passages. There is considerable debate over how to interpret the Analects.
Unlike most European and American philosophers, Confucius did not rely on deductive reasoning to convince his listeners. Instead, he used figures of rhetoric such as analogy and aphorism to explain his ideas. Most of the time these techniques were highly contextualized. For these reasons, European and American readers might find his philosophy muddled or unclear. However, Confucius claimed that he sought "a unity all pervading" (Analects XV, 3) and that there was "one single thread binding my way together." ([op. cit. IV, 15]). The first occurrences of a real Confucian system may have been created by his disciples or by their disciples. During the philosophically fertile period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, great early figures of Confucianism such as Mencius and Xun Zi (not to be confused with Sun Zi) developed Confucianism into an ethical and political doctrine. Both had to fight contemporary ideas and gain the ruler's confidence through argumentation and reasoning. Mencius gave Confucianism a fuller explanation of human nature, of what is needed for good government, of what morality is, and founded his idealist doctrine on the claim that human nature is good. Xun Zi opposed many of Mencius' ideas, and built a structured system upon the idea that human nature is bad and had to be educated and exposed to the rites, before being able to express their goodness for the people. Some of Xun Zi's disciples, such as Han Feizi and Li Si, became Legalists (a kind of law-based early totalitarianism, quite distant from virtue-based Confucianism) and conceived the state system that allowed Qin Shi Huang to unify China under the strong state control of every human activity. The culmination of Confucius' dream of unification and peace in China can therefore be argued to have come from Legalism, a school of thought almost diametrically opposed to his reliance on rites and virtue.
"Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously." (Analects II, 3)
The above explains an essential difference between legalism and ritualism and points to a key difference between European / American and East Asian societies, particularly in the realm of an individual's moral compass, when deserving of punishment for breaking penal law.
Of course, as with all translations of literature from ancient sources, excessive literal analysis of one particular translation may lead to unfounded conclusions. An example would be the following passage, the exact same as the one just provided.
"The Master said, 'Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves.
(Analects II, 3)
Varying translations throughout the 18th, 19th, 20th, and now this century have created a large and diverse collection based on the originals. Therefore, only studying all of these translations would allow accurate analysis of the ancient text. The availability of numerous qualified sources for these translations in the modern age can lead to a true "general consensus" of what message Confucius meant to imply.
Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; where as with ritual, patterns of behaviour are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face. In this sense, "rite" (Chinese: 禮; pinyin: lǐ) is an ideal form of social norm.
The Chinese character for "rites" previously had the religious meaning of "sacrifice". Its Confucian meaning ranges from politeness and propriety to the understanding of each person's correct place in society. Externally, ritual is used to distinguish between people; their usage allows people to know at all times who is the younger and who the elder, who is the guest and who the host and so forth. Internally, they indicate to people their duty amongst others and what to expect from them.
Internalization is the main process in ritual. Formalized behavior becomes progressively internalized, desires are channeled and personal cultivation becomes the mark of social correctness. Though this idea conflicts with the common saying that "the cowl does not make the monk", in Confucianism sincerity is what enables behaviour to be absorbed by individuals. Obeying ritual with sincerity makes ritual the most powerful way to cultivate oneself. Thus,
"Respectfulness, without the Rites, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the Rites, become timidity; boldness, without the Rites, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the Rites, becomes rudeness" (Analects VIII, 2).
Ritual can be seen as a means to find the balance between opposing qualities that might otherwise lead to conflict.
Ritual divides people into categories and builds hierarchical relationships through protocols and ceremonies, assigning everyone a place in society and a form of behaviour. Music that seems to have played a significant role in Confucius' life is given as an exception as it transcends such boundaries, 'unifying the hearts'.
Although the Analects promotes ritual heavily, Confucius himself often behaved otherwise; for example, when he cried at his preferred disciple's death, or when he met a fiendish princess (VI, 28). Later more rigid ritualisms who forgot that ritual is "more than presents of jade and silk" (XVII, 12) strayed from their master's position.
"To govern by virtue, let us compare it to the North Star: it stays in its place, while the myriad stars wait upon it." (Analects II, 1)
Another key Confucian concept is that in order to govern others one must first govern oneself. When developed sufficiently, the king's personal virtue spreads beneficent influence throughout the kingdom. This idea is developed further in the Great Learning and is tightly linked with the Taoist concept of wu wei ( simplified Chinese: 无为; traditional Chinese: 無為; pinyin: wú wèi): the less the king does, the more that is done. By being the "calm centre" around which the kingdom turns, the king allows everything to function smoothly and avoids having to tamper with the individual parts of the whole.
This idea may be traced back to early shamanistic beliefs, such as that the king (Chinese: 王; pinyin: wáng) being the axle between the sky, human beings and the Earth. The character itself shows the three levels of the universe, united by a single line. Another complementary view is that this idea may have been used by ministers and counsellors to deter aristocratic whims that would otherwise be to the detriment of the population.
"In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes."
(Analects XV, 39)
Although Confucius claimed that he never invented anything but was only transmitting ancient knowledge (see Analects VII, 1), he did produce a number of new ideas. Many European and American admirers such as Voltaire and H. G. Creel point to the (then) revolutionary idea of replacing the nobility of blood with one of virtue. Jūnzǐ (君子), which had meant "noble man" before Confucius' work, slowly assumed a new connotation in the course of his writings, rather as " gentleman" did in English. A virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities can be a "gentleman", while a shameless son of the king is only a "small man". That he allowed students of different classes to be his disciples is a clear demonstration that he fought against the feudal structures in Chinese society.
Another new idea, that of meritocracy, led to the introduction of the Imperial examination system in China. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honour to the whole family. The Chinese examination system seems to have been started in 165 BCE, when certain candidates for public office were called to the Chinese capital for examination of their moral excellence by the emperor. Over the following centuries the system grew until finally almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations.
Confucius praised those kings who left their kingdoms to those apparently most qualified rather than to their elder sons. His achievement was the setting up of a school that produced statesmen with a strong sense of state and duty, known as 儒家 (Chinese: 儒 家; pinyin: Rújiā). During the Warring States Period and the early Han dynasty, China grew greatly and the need for a solid and centralized corporation of government officers able to read and write administrative papers arose. As a result, Confucianism was promoted and the men it produced became an effective counter to the remaining landowner aristocrats otherwise threatening the unity of the state.
Since then Confucianism has been used as a kind of " state religion", with authoritarianism, legitimism, paternalism, and submission to authority used as political tools to rule China. Most emperors used a mix of legalism and Confucianism as their ruling doctrine, often with the latter embellishing the former.
Themes in Confucian thought
A simple way to appreciate Confucian thought is to consider it as being based on varying levels of honesty. In practice, the elements of Confucianism accumulated over time and matured into the following forms:
In Confucianism the term " ritual(Chinese 礼, pinyin lǐ)" was soon extended to include secular ceremonial behaviour before being used to refer to the propriety or politeness which colors everyday life. Rituals were codified and treated as a comprehensive system of norms. Confucius himself tried to revive the etiquette of earlier dynasties. After his death, people regarded him as a great authority on ritual behaviors.
It is important to note that "ritual" has a different meaning in the context of Confucianism, especially today, from its context in many religions. In Confucianism, the acts that people tend to carry out in every day life are considered ritual. Rituals are not necessarily regimented or arbitrary practices, but the routines that people often undergo knowingly or unknowingly through out their lives. Shaping the rituals in a way that leads to a content and healthy society, and to content and healthy people, is one purpose of Confucian philosophy.
One theme central to Confucianism is that of relationships, and the differing duties arising from the different status one held in relation to others. Individuals are held to simultaneously stand in different degrees of relationship with different people, namely, as a junior in relation to their parents and elders, and as a senior in relation to their younger siblings, students, and others. While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe strong duties of reverence and service to their seniors, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. This theme consistently manifests itself in many aspects of East Asian cultures even to this day, with extensive filial duties on the part of children toward parents and elders, and great concern of parents toward their children.
Social harmony -- the great goal of Confucianism -- thus results partly from every individual knowing his or her place in the social order and playing his or her part well. When Duke Jing of Qi asked about government, by which he meant proper administration so as to bring social harmony, Confucius replied,
"There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son." (Analects XII, 11, tr. Legge).
"Filial piety" (Chinese: 孝; pinyin: xiào) is considered among the greatest of virtues and must be shown towards both the living and the dead (ancestors). The term "filial", meaning "of a child", denotes the respect that a child, originally a son, should show to his parents. This relationship was extended by analogy to a series of five relationships (Chinese: 五 倫; pinyin: wǔlún):
- Sovereign to subject
- Parent to child
- Husband to wife
- Elder to younger sibling
- Friend to friend (The members of this relationship are equal to one another)
Specific duties were prescribed to each of the participants in these sets of relationships. Such duties were also extended to the dead, where the living stood as sons to their deceased family. This led to the veneration of ancestors.
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 often exercised enormous power over their children. Much the same was true of other unequal relationships.
The main source of our knowledge of the importance of filial piety is The Book of Filial Piety, a work attributed to Confucius and his son but almost certainly written in the third century BCE. Filial piety has continued to play a central role in Confucian thinking to the present day.
Loyalty (Chinese: 忠; pinyin: zhōng) is the equivalent of filial piety on a different plane. It was particularly relevant for the social class to which most of Confucius' students belonged, because the only way for an ambitious young scholar to make his way in the Confucian Chinese world was to enter a ruler's civil service. Like filial piety, however, 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.
In later ages, however, emphasis was placed more on the obligations of the ruled to the ruler, and less on the ruler's obligations to the ruled.
Loyalty was also an extension of one's duties to friends, family, and spouse. Loyalty to one's leader came first, then to one's family, then to one's spouse, and lastly to one's friends. Loyalty was considered one of the greater human virtues.
Confucius was concerned with people's individual development, which he maintained took place within the context of human relationships. Ritual and filial piety are the ways in which one should act towards others from an underlying attitude of humaneness. Confucius' concept of humaneness (Chinese: 仁; pinyin: rén) is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the (Ethic of reciprocity) Golden Rule: "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others;".
Rén also has a political dimension. If the ruler lacks rén, Confucianism holds, it will be difficult if not impossible for his subjects to behave humanely. Rén is the basis of Confucian political theory: it presupposes an autocratic ruler, exhorted to refrain from acting inhumanely towards his subjects. An inhumane ruler runs the risk of losing the "Mandate of Heaven", the right to rule. Such a mandateless ruler need not be obeyed. But a ruler who reigns humanely and takes care of the people is to be obeyed strictly, for the benevolence of his dominion shows that he has been mandated by heaven. Confucius himself had little to say on the will of the people, but his leading follower Mencius did state on one occasion that the people's opinion on certain weighty matters should be polled.
The term "Jūnzǐ" (Chinese: 君 子; literally "nobleman") is crucial to classical Confucianism. The ideal of a "gentleman" or "perfect man" is that for which Confucianism exhorts all people to strive. A succinct description of the "perfect man" is one who "combines the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman" ( CE). In modern times the masculine translation in English is also traditional and is still frequently used. Elitism was bound up with the concept, and gentlemen were expected to act as moral guides to the rest of society.
They were to:
- cultivate themselves morally;
- show filial piety and loyalty where these are due;
- cultivate humanity, or benevolence.
The great exemplar of the perfect gentleman is Confucius himself. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life was that he was never awarded the high official position which he desired, from which he wished to demonstrate the general well-being that would ensue if humane persons ruled and administered the state.
The opposite of the Jūnzǐ was the Xiǎorén (Chinese: 小 人; pinyin: xiǎorén; literally "small person"). The character 小 in this context means petty in mind and heart, narrowly self-interested, greedy, superficial, or materialistic.
Promotion of corruption
Like some other political philosophies, Confucianism is reluctant to employ laws. In a society where relationships are considered more important than the laws themselves, if no other power forces government officers to take the common interest into consideration, corruption and nepotism may arise. As government officers' salary was often far lower than the minimum required to raise a family, Chinese society was frequently affected by those problems. Even if some means to control and reduce corruption and nepotism have been successfully used in China, Confucianism is criticized for not providing such a means itself.
Another new idea, that of meritocracy, led to the introduction of the Imperial examination system in China. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honour to the whole family.
Is Confucianism a "religion?"
Most religions can be defined as having a set God or group of gods, an organized priesthood, a belief in a life after death, and organized traditions, thus it is debatable whether Confucianism should be called a true "religion". While it prescribes a great deal of ritual, little of it could be construed as worship or meditation in a formal sense. However, Tian is sacred to many Confucians. Confucius occasionally made statements about the existence of other-worldly beings that sound distinctly agnostic and humanistic to European and American ears. Thus, Confucianism is often considered a secular ethical tradition and not a "religion." It is best described as a philosophy with special rituals and beliefs.
Its effect on Chinese and other East Asian societies and cultures has been immense and parallels the effects of religious movements, seen in other cultures. Those who follow the teachings of Confucius say that they are comforted by it. It includes a great deal of ritual and, in its Neo-Confucian formulation, gives a comprehensive explanation of the world, of human nature, etc. Moreover, religions in Chinese culture are not mutually exclusive entities — each tradition is free to find its specific niche, its field of specialization. One can practise religions such as Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, the Baha'i Faith, Jainism, Islam, Shinto, Buddhism, or Zoroastrianism and still profess Confucian beliefs.
Although Confucianism may include ancestor worship, sacrifice to ancestral spirits and an abstract celestial deity, and the deification of ancient kings and even Confucius himself, all these features can be traced back to non-Confucian Chinese beliefs established long before Confucius and, in this respect, make it difficult to claim that such rituals make Confucianism a religion.
Generally speaking, Confucianism is not considered a religion by Chinese or other East Asian people. Part of this attitude may be explained by the stigma placed on many "religions" as being superstitious, illogical, or unable to deal with modernity. Many Buddhists state that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy, and this is partially a reaction to negative popular views of religion. Similarly, Confucians maintain that Confucianism is not a religion, but rather a moral code or philosophic world view. Many "religions" practiced in East Asia such as Buddhism and Taoism can be considered as "not religions." There is a much more blurred line between religion and philosophy in non-Western thought. Most of the Western distinction is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon resulting from the Enlightenment period unique to Western Europe. Therefore, much of the confusion is primarily due to the conventional Western definition of religion centered around Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions. Most scholarly, comprehensive definitions of religion account for this cultural difference. Therefore, it could be said that while Confucianism is not a religion by Western standards (even according to Asian adherents), it is a religion in the East Asian sense of the word.
The question of whether Confucianism is a religion, or otherwise, is ultimately a definitional problem. If the definition used is worship of supernatural entities, the answer may be that Confucianism is not a religion. If, on the other hand, a religion is defined as (for example) a belief system that includes moral stances, guides for daily life, systematic views of humanity and its place in the universe, etc., then Confucianism most definitely qualifies. As with many such important concepts, the definition of religion is quite contentious. Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred is a well-known treatment of this issue.
Names for Confucianism
Several names for Confucianism exist in Chinese.
- "School of the scholars" (Chinese: 儒 家; pinyin: Rújiā)
- "Teaching of the scholars" (Chinese: 儒 教; pinyin: Rújiào)
- "Study of the scholars" ( simplified Chinese: 儒 学; traditional Chinese: 儒 學; pinyin: Rúxué)
- "Teaching of Confucius" (Chinese: 孔 教; pinyin: Kǒngjiào)
Three of these four use the Chinese character Rú, meaning "scholar". These names do not use the name "Confucius" at all, but instead centre on the figure/ideal of the Confucian scholar. However, the suffixes of jiā, jiào, and xué carry different implications as to the nature of Confucianism itself.
Rújiā contains the character jiā, which literally means "house" or "family". In this context, it is more readily construed as meaning "school of thought", since it is also used to construct the names of philosophical schools contemporary to Confucianism: for example, the Chinese names for Legalism and Mohism end in jiā.
Rújiào and Kǒngjiào contain the Chinese character jiào, the noun "teach", used in such as terms as "education" or "educator". The term, however, is notably used to construct the names of religions in Chinese: the terms for Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Shintō and other religions in Chinese all end with jiào.
Rúxué contains xué, meaning literally "study". The term is parallel to "-ology" in English, being used to construct the names of academic fields: the Chinese names of fields such as physics, chemistry, biology, political science, economics, and sociology all end in xué.