Confucianism in Pre-Modern China
Confucianism comes from the Chinese philosopher Confucius, after whom the philosophy takes its name. Confucius lived from the middle of the 6th century BC to the first part of the 5th century BC and was a teacher of the values of those who lived in the days of Chinese antiquity. For Confucius, the greatest years of the Zhou dynasty had come in the three centuries prior to his birth. The dynasty itself lasted for centuries following Confucius’ life, though in a much different form from what came before. Confucius viewed the lessons of the early Zhou dynasty as containing valuable nuggets of wisdom. Confucius’ teachings carried on well after his day as did many other schools of thought in China, where philosophy and wisdom were highly prized and sought after by many Chinese leaders from Confucius’ own time till the end of the 3rd century BC. The reason that philosophy was so highly regarded for so many years was because China itself was plagued by disputes and wars and leaders wanted to know how to best govern their realms and how to best lead their people. For this reason, the Hundred Schools of Thought emerged in the years between Confucius’ day to the around the end of the Zhou dynasty in the 3rd century BC. This paper will discuss how Confucianism impacted China in the pre-modern age from its first days during the Zhou dynasty on up through the centuries.
Confucius wore many hats during his lifetime: he taught, wrote, edited, and even acted politically. He authored a history book about China — but his greatest contribution was the philosophy he enunciated that became his legacy.
The essence of the philosophy taught by Confucius was that morality should be the basis of conduct between persons, whether on a social level or on a governmental level. The principles that Confucius asserted were not novel: that is, he did not create them himself. Rather they stemmed from the traditional teachings that had for many years served as the bedrock of Chinese culture. Confucius supported these traditional concepts — such as devotion to family, respect for ancestors and older persons, and what has been called the Golden Rule — i.e., one should treat others that way that one wants to be treated.
Confucius himself was neither a commoner nor an aristocrat. His family’s class was between the two — so he was afforded the opportunity of seeing how both lived by looking from the outside in. He developed an objective manner that enabled him to see things clearly and for what they were. He was educated in the Six Arts, which formed the basis of all education during the Zhou dynasty. These arts included music, archery, calligraphy, mathematics, rites, and horseback riding. Confucius taught these arts to his own disciples, according to the works of Chinese historians like Kong Zonghan and the artists who depicted Confucius with his 72 disciples who learned the Six Arts (Lagerwey, Marsone 815). Thus, from the beginning, Confucianism was about passing on the traditional elements of learning that Confucius himself received as a young man growing up. These Six Arts were like the corner stones or foundation of the well-rounded person in China — and that is what Confucius promoted.
Confucius became a governor around 500 BC — but this was just one of the many things he did (Schuman 191). Confucius was also an advisor to leaders who sought his opinion. When it came time for him to retire, he set off for home: he was nearly 70 years of age — but still teaching. According to the Analects — a body of work that contains sayings and thoughts that are said to be those of Confucius — the philosopher gave to his 72 disciples the books that later became known as the Five Classics. These books include the Classics of Poetry, the Book of Documents, the Book of Rites, the Book of Changes and the Spring And Autumn Annals (Nylan 4).
Essentially, Confucius simply worked to codify a system of beliefs already present in Chinese culture. He imbibed these beliefs and then taught them to his own students and exemplified them in his own life. The logical basis upon which these beliefs rested served as the entry point for later generations who sought to utilize a teaching tool that could guide, using moral and ethical principles. Over time the philosophy attributed to Confucius even grew as more ideas were added to the body of work that became known as Confucianism. This body of work was the result of logical extrapolation of ideas from the foundation laid out both by traditional Chinese culture during the Zhou dynasty and Confucius himself who simply emphasized and promoted the traditional education and philosophy that he himself received. The ideal that Confucius promoted for people to strive toward was the junzi — the exemplary figure (Ames 39).
Confucianism is not a formalized creed, as one might find in a religion: its tenets are essentially philosophical and broadly based on the traditional mores of ancient Chinese customs. Some in China view it as a religion because Confucius did touch upon spiritual matters such as the wisdom of following astrological signs, which come from Heaven to guide men. Others view it as a basic philosophy that can be used as a foundation for forming one’s character. As Hu Shih point outs, “the Chinese people are the least religious among the civilized races…Chinese philosophy has been most free from the domination of religious influences” (Chou 81). This statement reflects the status of Confucianism in China most accurately. Religions such as those that developed in the West stemmed from belief in divine revelation. In the East, such revelations were uncommon, and the vast majority of Chinese recognized in Confucianism a way of thought or a mode of thought that could facilitate them in their ordinary lives and move them toward a better place in life.
The Chinese people were, however, also capable of becoming intensely religious, as their history shows. Hi Shuh again comments that “in certain periods of history, China became so fanatically religious that many monks and nuns would willingly burn themselves to death as the supreme form of sacrifice to some Buddhist deity” (Chou 81). In fact, as Shuh observes, the influence of religion throughout the centuries of Chinese history has left its mark on the development of Chinese philosophy — including Confucianism. Shuh would lump Confucianism in with the traditional religions of China, identifying it as the “state religion” of China (Chou 82) and categorizing it with Moism and Taoism together under an umbrella he calls Siniticism. For Shuh, writing from the perspective of the Enlightened irreligious modern thinker, religion was a roadblock for real intellectual progress, and thus Confucianism was a backwards philosophy-religion that served as an obstacle to actual advancement. It was so ingrained in Chinese life that it was to China “what Hinduism has been to India” (Chou 82).
As Shuh notes, the Sinitic Age — i.e., the age of traditional Chinese philosophy-religion (Confucianism) lasted roughly until the 4th century AD, when Buddhism became prominent in Chinese thought, displacing the more traditional Confucianism. The Buddhist Age last until around 1100 AD in China, when it was displaced by the rise of Neo-Confucianism — the dawn of Chinese Renaissance in which the value of the old ways of thinking were rediscovered and once again promoted (Chou 82).
The old ways of thinking were deemed important because they reflected a practical and social aspect of Chinese culture deemed valuable on many levels: they taught familial respect, patriarchy, veneration for ancestors, duty, honor, and the virtues necessary for holding families together and paying homage to one’s leaders and rulers. The hierarchy of authority was important in these pre-democratic, modern times and thus the values that Confucius taught reflected what Chinese families, fathers, leaders and educators all sought to embody in their culture. This is why it became the “state religion” as Shuh notes — although it was never really a religion at all but rather a philosophical outlook.
Confucianism also taught the value of human life over that of material things: this represented the principle of the sacredness of life, which could also be seen in the rule that Confucius taught (similar to the Golden Rule): Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself (Hongladaroom 173). The main idea here was that fairness and even-handedness was a virtue that should guide all one’s dealings. The Chinese were very responsive to this because for them it was a strong philosophical tenet that made logical sense. Without having the kind of divine revelation that those in West were having and using as the bedrock of religious belief and devotion, the Chinese — like the ancient Greeks — used reason and logic to formulate ideas and customs that would provide for them the best possible outcomes. Confucius simply passed on what had been given him — acknowledging himself as a conduit of the past rather than as a novel creator of something new.
The Han Dynasty
Confucianism began under the Zhou dynasty but it continued on under the Han dynasty which followed, from the end of the 3rd century BC to roughly the middle of the 3rd century AD. The Han dynasty became the Golden Age in China and most Chinese people still identify even today as descendents of the Han — such is the amount of respect they hold for this era of Chinese history. It was the Han dynasty that built an empire which stood for 2000 years and that was essentially based on Confucian ideas: the “vision of an omnipotent but disciplined sovereign, who sought to align the population with the norms of Heaven and Earth” (De Bary 157). Confucianism helped to promote this type of thought because it supported the hierarchy traditional acknowledged as needful for a working society. With this kind of honor and respect shown to the ruler of China, the people would not forget the importance and value of the Golden Rule that Confucius taught.
During the Han dynasty, the emperor ruled with the nobility (the aristocratic class in China) who served as ministers throughout the realm. These were highly educated persons (education could be afforded by them and was highly prized as a result). The empire was not as centralized as modern China has become and was more spread out with nobles playing the part of authorities in their regions. However, the emperor ruled from the top of the hierarchy and commanded the military — and when rebellion occurred, which was not looked kindly upon in China during this era (especially considering the importance that Confucianism placed on fidelity and devotion to one’s father/leader), the response was swift and the reaction violent. For instance the Rebellion of the Seven States in the second century BC led to the reduction of the power of the nobles throughout the land. Emperor Wu who followed this rebellion helped to ensure that such would not happen again by promoting Confucianism in schools and in politics. It thus became the official policy of China during this dynasty: Confucianism was the guiding principle that all Chinese would be expected to follow. This policy would last for many centuries — right into the modern era in fact, where it would finally be displaced by the new thinking of the new leaders of the 20th century and the Cultural Revolution that followed (Adshead 278).
The Han dynasty was a triumphant time for China: the people were prosperous and security was strong. Thanks to the guidance of Confucianism, the people were also united in belief and a solid strategy by the Han rulers saw that all were informed on the same way of life. From the top down to the bottom and back up again, Confucianism was used to bring all Chinese to the same level of thinking; in this manner, the top advisor or nobleman in China did not think any differently in philosophical terms than the commoner at the market buying fish. They both had the same philosophical outlook, which was Confucian — and that came about primarily because of Emperor Wu’s support for the philosophy and the Han dynasty’s insistence that it be taught and practiced in all circles of life throughout China. It was the outlook that helped to unite the land — much as Christianity helped to unite the various peoples of Europe following the fall of Rome in the Dark Ages. And just as the monarchies of Europe in the Middle Ages used that religion to serve as a guiding principle for all walks of life, the monarchies of China during the same period embraced Confucianism — that is, until Buddhism began to spread through China and become more and more popular.
One of the reasons that the Han dynasty found Confucianism so appealing was its insistence on natural morality — on the concept of rites, which Confucius himself had learned and taught in the Six Arts. This concept taught that men had a natural compulsion to be honest and true, and that they should follow this compulsion and build it up into a strength rather than reverting to lesser means, such as bribery or lies and deception to get what they want. Virtue, in other words, was the thing that should lead men’s actions — not laws or fear of punishment: one could know the law and recognize the letter of the law but still think up ways to get around it. Virtue, however, would be a concept that would be higher than any manmade law and there would be no way to “get around” virtue — so it should be the ideal that should guide men. Moreover, this ideal was already present or planted in men’s minds and all they had to do was yield to it and strive to uphold it. Thus, Confucianism taught virtue leadership and this is one of the main reasons the Han dynasty embraced it as they did.
Confucianism and the Rise of Buddhism in China
The foreign Buddhist ideas that spread through China during that latter half of the Han dynasty mingled with the ideas of Confucianism that Wu and other rulers sought to promote. Over the years, these ideas mixed and flowed into and out of one another, which is one explanation for how the school of thought that was Confucianism evolved over the centuries.
Even the adherents of Confucianism and the disciples themselves sometimes clashed over what Confucius taught or what was the appropriate way to think about a specific topic. As the Confucian code (the Analects) was basically put together by his students (just as Plato put down the thought of Socrates in the Dialogues), what Confucianism should actually be was a matter that led to debate in certain instances. Mencius and Xun Zi were two examples of followers of Confucianism who differed on the views that people should have about the nature of man. Mencius, for example, lived in the 4th century BC and taught that man was basically good or that he at least had the propensity for goodness in him. Xun Zi, who lived in the 3rd century, however, taught that morality and goodness were learned from society, which was why it was so important that social institutions embrace Confucianism to ensure that the moral code be passed on from generation to generation and young persons learn the values of the system of ethics. Both teachers of Confucianism embraced the same ideas but they differed on the logical basis for how the approach to Confucianism should be taken. The two viewpoints of Mencius and Xun Zi were over time incorporated into the school of thought that became Confucianism, which illustrates the point that this philosophy developed organically over a period of years in BC China and that its main tenets were formulated through a series of rational debates and discussions — much like ancient or classical Grecian thought and philosophy was formed from Socrates on down to Aristotle over many years.
As Buddhism emerged in China, the way that the Chinese people began to think about social customs and how to deal with the issues and problems of life took on a new dimension. Confucianism offered a philosophical approach to dealing with life that was rooted in a system of virtue ethics, whereas Buddhism was based on the concept of renunciation. Confucianism had materialistic elements to it, which Xun Zi emphasized; Buddhism was essentially non-materialistic. Thus both appealed to Chinese people following the Zhou dynasty as the times and culture developed over the centuries — especially from the Han dynasty onward.
In fact, by the 12 century AD, Buddhist thought was being incorporated into Confucianism in China by Zhu Xi, who interpreted Confucian thinking from a Buddhist point-of-view. His ideas illuminated Confucianism in a new way and placed a new interpretation or way of looking at the philosophy into perspective. This became known as new Confucianism or Neo-Confucianism. It was another very popular form of Confucianism that was highly embraced from the 12th century AD on up to the modern era in China.
Entry of the West
Eventually, the West began to intrude upon the East (and vice versa — the assault of Genghis Khan on Europe during the Mongol invasions of the 12th and 13th centuries showed the clash of two cultures coming together) (Chaliand 8). This meant that new ideas would spread and be exchanged. The Jesuit missionaries from the West were among the first Christian teachers during the Middle Ages to engage purposefully with Chinese inhabitants. They too were among the first Westerners to come into contact with the school of Confucian thought. It was they who wrote down the Confucian philosophy and transported it back to the West for study. The exchange of learning among these people was a way forward in the new, coming centuries. The missionaries in the East were very impressed by the Asian peoples and their love of logic and reason — and so this time period in China was like two cultures — one based on faith and reason and the other based on reason — coming into contact with one another to consider the mysteries of the universe and how life should be viewed and lived (Parker 132).
Confucianism in China helped lay a good receptive foundation for Christianity, once the Jesuits began to arrive. Led first by Francis Xavier, who only reached the islands of China, then by Matteo Ricci and others, these missionaries found the Chinese to be highly educated, enlightened, rational and full of intellectual curiosity about the nature of man, life and the world. They asked questions of the missionaries, who, because of their belief in the divinely revealed religion of Christianity, supplied answers that filled in the missing gaps. For example, the doctrine of Original Sin from the Christian view helped to reconcile the opposing viewpoints of Mencius and Xun Zi. Mencius believed in the innate goodness of man and Xun Zi believed goodness had to be learned (Parker 154).
The doctrine of Original Sin according to the missionaries explained how both could be correct: on the one hand, man was created in the image and likeness of God and thus was full of innate goodness — but on the other hand, man chose to disobey God and thus his nature become fallen, became imbued with Original Sin — the perversion of the good nature that God gave to man. Because of sin, man had to relearn the concepts that were already in him to begin with but that his lesser, sinful nature kept clouded over. Thus, the missionaries explained to the Chinese who were rooted in the Confucian philosophy ideas that were important to the Western Christians. The missionaries won many converts mainly because the ideas of Confucius and Christianity were compatible in many ways: both promoted a system of virtue ethics; and, moreover, the Christian belief provided a religious viewpoint that Confucianism lacked in China. After all, it was this distinct lack of a religious character that made Confucians seek to interpret their philosophy through the lens of Buddhism following China’s Golden Age because at least Buddhism had some distinct spiritual (if not overtly religious) characteristics. The Christian religion delivered to these Chinese converts the missing religious characteristic that the Confucian culture had not developed over the years (Parker 200).
Of course, not everyone in China embraced this Western belief system and some of the practices of the Chinese in making ritualistic offerings to the emperor struck some in the Christian Church as being a form of idolatry. In China, Confucianism taught that one of its core tenets was the importance of rites — as Confucius himself learned and taught (it was one of the Six Arts). This was a very old custom and deeply ingrained practice among the Chinese and was part of their culture of showing respect to authority figures in the hierarchy of power. Some in the Church, however, did not view it favorably and the Rites Controversy began. The Jesuits in China attempted to argue that the rites practiced by the Chinese according to Confucian custom were actually part of a long-standing social tradition and had no real basis in idolatry. The Dominican scholars of the time argued differently, however; they asserted that the basis was in idolatry because according to the Analects, Confucius viewed the emperor as a deity. These interpretations were difficult to resolve and there was a lot of confusion among the Chinese converts and the Church teachers as all attempted to sort out exactly why the rites were being conducted and what the practitioners of these rites actually believed. If the practitioners of the rites of offerings to the emperor wanted to be Christian they could not recognize the emperor as a god-man because only Christ was the true god-man. If they wanted to be Confucian, however, then there was no objection to their “worship” of the emperor, if that is what they believed they were doing.
Even the emperor of China became involved and he viewed the original position of the Jesuit Ricci as the accurate and appropriate interpretation — that the rites were social custom and that the practitioners of these rites were not actually worshipping the emperor as a god-man but rather were showing respect in the natural order of things. Moreover, the emperor did not understand why two groups of missionaries from the Church should be fighting with each other of the meaning of this custom because it appeared that the Christians were not on the same page about the Chinese people and who and what they were all about. It should dissension among these missionaries and the churchmen in Rome had little guidance for any of them since at this time they had no understanding of Chinese culture, as no one had been there prior to Francis Xavier, the first Jesuit to enter China.
One of the questions that the Chinese had for the missionaries was whether or not their religion was a new one or an old one. While it was in fact an old one (centuries old) the Chinese believed it to be a new one at least to them. However, the Jesuits soon were able to show that very early Christian missionaries from many centuries back had come to China to teach the Christian religion and thus even for the Chinese it could be considered an old religion (Parker 287). This appeased the Chinese and they were made more comfortable by the news.
For the most part, China accepted the Jesuit missionaries because they did not judge or view unfavorably the customs that the Confucian Chinese practiced. Instead, they accepted them as natural and rational for the people, their culture and their history. What they did was offer a Christian interpretation on history that the Chinese could fold into their way of life without having to reject their Confucian principles outright. As the two systems embraced a virtue ethics system, they were able to mesh well together — even though not everyone in the Christian Church felt that way.
Other orders like the Dominicans and the Franciscans tried to undermine what the Jesuits were doing in China and viewed the accommodations that the Jesuit missionaries were making for the Confucians to be a dangerous path that could lead to apostasy or to an altering of the Christian faith. They felt there should be more conformity on the part of the Chinese with practices that were common in Europe. These orders failed to understand that the East was not the West and the West was not the East. The Jesuits understood this perfectly and accepted that fact and showed that Christianity could be embraced by the Chinese in union with the Confucian principles that had given the culture its foundation — just as the Grecian principles of antiquity had given the West its philosophical foundation. The Franciscans and the Dominicans did not accept this explanation though.
The Jesuits were highly admired in China during this time of the 17th and 18th centuries: they served in advisory roles to noblemen and to the emperor. There was great respect on both sides between the Chinese with their Confucian background and the Jesuit missionaries with their great love for learning and preaching the Christian religion. They understood that the ideal human should put respect and love and consideration at the fore and follow the Golden Rule — as both Confucius and Christ taught in their own lives.
Thus, Confucianism and Christianity as taught by the Jesuits established a harmonious relationship that continued for many years until the Jesuits were finally told to leave the country by the Church in Rome, which had finally given in to pressure from the Franciscans. Nonetheless, the two belief systems remained a part of China’s culture for many years — right up to the modern era, wherein Confucianism was suppressed by the leaders of the Cultural Revolution and Christianity was rooted out because it was viewed as a foreign religion. The oppression against Confucianism would be particularly brutal under Mao Tse Tung, who viewed himself as the new cultural leader as he led China onwards to a devastating “cultural” rebirth.
Confucius laid the foundation for what became known as the state philosophy-religion of China (Confucianism was not so much a religion as it was a philosophy). Under the Zhou dynasty, he absorbed the Six Arts as they were taught to him and educated his followers on the traditional customs that were part of Chinese culture. These customs and teachings served the basis for what became known as Confucianism in China in later years. The philosophy was based on the works of Confucius as well as the interpretations of later followers like Mencius and Xun Zi, who argued over the nature of man (whether he was innately good or innately bad). The philosophy of Confucianism was promoted during the Han dynasty to the level of official policy and was taught to one and all, whether young students or old men in political positions of power. It served as the philosophical basis for the Chinese for many years because it put forward a system of ethics that was based on being virtuous and it presented the Chinese with a vision of the ideal man. When the Jesuits entered into China years later, they brought their teaching of Christ, who for them was the real ideal man — so the Confucian Chinese were very receptive to this idea, as it conformed with the virtue ethics system that they had cultivated for many centuries.
Adshead, Samuel. China in World History. NY: Macmillan, 2001. Print.
Ames, Roger, Ed. The Analects of Confucius. NY: Random House, 2000. Print.
Chaliand, Gerard. A Global History of War: From Assyria to the Twenty-First Century.
CA: University of California Press, 2010.
Chou, Chih-P’ing, Ed. “Religion and Philosophy in Chinese History.” In English
Writings of Hu Shih. Berlin: Springer, 2013. Print.
De Bary, William T. Sources of East Asian Tradition: Premodern Asia, Volume 1.
NY: Columbia University Press, 2008.
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Parker, John. Windows into China. Boston: Brill, 2001. Print.
Schuman, Michael. Confucius: And the World He Created. NY: Basic Books, 2015.
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