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2.1.7 Confucianism

Confucianism is the way of life propagated by Confucius in the 6th-5th century BC and followed by the Chinese people for more than two millennia. It has traditionally been the way of learning, the source of values, and the social code of the Chinese. Its influence has also extended to other countries, particularly Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Confucianism, a Western term that has no counterpart in Chinese, is a worldview, a social ethic, a political ideology, a scholarly tradition, and a way of life. Sometimes viewed as a philosophy and sometimes as a religion, Confucianism may be understood as an all-encompassing humanism that neither denies nor slights Heaven. Although often grouped with the major historical religions, Confucianism differs from them by not being an organized religion.

The thought of Confucius

The story of Confucianism does not begin with Confucius. Nor was Confucius the founder of Confucianism in the sense that Buddha was the founder of Buddhism and Christ the founder of Christianity. Rather, Confucius considered himself a transmitter who tried to reanimate the old in order to attain the new. Confucius’ love of antiquity was motivated by his strong desire to understand why certain rituals, such as the ancestral cult, reverence for Heaven, and mourning ceremonies, had survived for centuries. His journey into the past was a search for roots.

Philosophy of Confucian, Taoist, and Japanese concepts

Prior to the introduction of Buddhism into China in the 1st century AD, Confucianism and Taoism represented the two main branches of religious thought in that country. Confucianism proposes a reverential concept that is expressed and developed in social relationships and fulfilled in Heaven. Taoism claims that the wise man will constantly seek harmony and rapport with Tao (the Way). The mystical experience of Taoism and the inspired behaviour of Confucianism can easily blend with Buddhism.

Formation of the classical Confucian tradition

According to Han-fei-tzu (d. 233 BC), shortly after Confucius’ death his followers split into eight distinct schools, all claiming to be the legitimate heir to the Confucian legacy. Each school was associated with, or inspired by one or more of Confucius’ disciples. Yet the Confucians did not exert much influence in the 5th century BC. The historical situation a century after Confucius’ death clearly shows that the Confucian attempt to moralize politics was not working. The Confucians refused to be identified with the interests of the ruling minority because their social consciousness obliged them to serve as the conscience of the people. Although they wanted to be actively involved in politics, they could not accept the status quo as the legitimate ground in which to exercise authority and power. In short, they were in the world but not of it; they could not leave the world, nor could they effectively change it.

The historical context

The tradition proposed by Confucius can be traced to the sage-kings of antiquity. Confucius may have initiated a cultural process known in the West as Confucianism, but he and those who followed him considered themselves part of a tradition that had its origins two millennia previously. Confucius’ hero was Chou Kung, or the Duke of Chou (d. 1094 BC), who was said to have helped consolidate and refine the “feudal” ritual system. This system was based on blood ties, marriage alliances, and old covenants. Inspired by the statesmanship of Chou Kung, Confucius had a lifelong dream to be in a position to emulate the duke by putting into practice the political ideas that he had learned from the ancient sages. Confucius never realized his political dream but his conception of politics as moral persuasion became more and more influential. Partly because of the vitality of the feudal ritual system and partly because of the strength of the royal household, the Chou kings were able to control their kingdom for several centuries. Later on real power passed into the hands of feudal lords. Since the surviving line of the Chou kings continued to be recognized in name, they still managed to exercise some measure of symbolic control. By Confucius’ time, however, the feudal ritual system had been fundamentally undermined. Confucius attempted to redefine and revitalize the institutions that for centuries had been vital to political stability and social order: the family, the school, the local community, the state, and the kingdom. Confucius did not accept that wealth and power spoke the loudest. He felt that virtue, both as a personal quality and as a requirement for leadership, was essential for individual dignity, communal solidarity, and political order.

The Confucianisation of politics

In the early years of the Western Han (206 BC-AD 25) the absolute power of the emperor was replaced by the Taoist practice of reconciliation and non-interference. Although a few Confucian thinkers, such as Lu Chia and Chia I, made important policy recommendations, Confucianism before the emergence of Tung Chung-shu (c. 179-c. 104 BC) was not influential. Nonetheless, the gradual Confucianisation of Han politics began soon after the founding of the dynasty. By the reign of Wu Ti, Confucianism was deeply entrenched in the central bureaucracy. It was manifest in such practices as the clear separation of the court and the government, the process of recruiting officials through the dual mechanism of recommendation and selection, the family-centred social structure, the agriculture-based economy, and the educational network. Confucian ideas were also firmly established in the legal system. Yet it was not until the prime minister Kung-sun Hung (d. 121 BC) that Confucianism became an officially recognized Imperial ideology and state cult. Confucian Classics became the core curriculum for education and, those with a Confucian education began to fill the bureaucracy. In the year 58 all government schools were required to make sacrifices to Confucius.

Confucian ethics in the Taoist and Buddhist context

Incompetent rulership, faction-ridden bureaucracy, a mismanaged tax structure, and domination by eunuchs toward the end of the Eastern Han prompted widespread protests. The peasant rebellion led by Confucian scholars as well as Taoist religious leaders of faith-healing sects, combined with open insurrections of the military, brought down the Han dynasty while barbarians invaded from the north. This period of disunity, from the early 3rd to the late 6th century, marked the decline of Confucianism, the upsurge of Neo-Taoism, and the spread of Buddhism but the Confucian tradition had not disappeared. In fact, Confucian ethics was by then virtually inseparable from the moral fabric of Chinese society. The Confucian Classics remained the foundation of all literate culture. Confucian values continued to dominate in the central bureaucracy, the recruitment of officials, and local government. The political forms of life also were distinctively Confucian. The reunification of China by the Sui (581-618) and the restoration of lasting peace and prosperity by the T’ang (618-907) assured the revival of Confucian learning. The mastery of Confucian Classics became a prerequisite for political success. The most influential precursor of a Confucian revival was Han Yü (768-824). He attacked Buddhism from the perspectives of social ethics and cultural identity and provoked interest in the Confucian Way. The re-emergence of Confucianism involved both a creative response to the Buddhist and Taoist challenge and an imaginative re-appropriation of classical Confucian insights.

Modern transformation

At the time of the first Opium War (1839-42) East Asian societies had been Confucianised for centuries. The continuous growth of Mahayana Buddhism throughout Asia and the presence of Taoism in China, shamanism in Korea, and Shintoism in Japan did not undermine the power of Confucianism in government, education, family rituals, and social ethics. The impact of the West undermined the Confucian roots in East Asia and it is not clear if Confucianism can remain a viable tradition in modern times. Beginning in the 19th century, Chinese intellectuals’ faith in the ability of Confucian culture to withstand the impact of the West weakened. The triumph of Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 relegated Confucian rhetoric to the background. The modern Chinese intelligentsia, however, maintained continuities with the Confucian tradition at every level of life–behaviour, attitude, belief, and commitment. Confucianism remains an integral part of the psycho-cultural construct of contemporary China.