Confucianism is a Chinese system of thought that originated with the teachings of Kong Fuzi. Literally “Master Kong” and latinized as “Confucius,” Kong Fuzi is an honorific for Kong Qiu (alias Zhongni, 552-479 BC), who served in minor official posts during his lifetime. Confucianism is philosophical as well as spiritual. Historically, its rise paralleled that of the Western philosophical tradition represented by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Since its ascent to the status of state orthodoxy during the Former Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 8), Confucianism has molded the spirit of Chinese civilization.
What is known as Confucianism actually grew out of contributions from both Confucius and his major followers, such as Mencius (ca. 371-289 BC) and Xunzi (ca. 313-230 BC). The basic Confucian canon consists of two parts. One contains the “Four Books,” including the Analects, the Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. The other part contains the “Five Classics,” including the Book of Changes, the Book of History, the Book of Odes, the Spring and Autumn Annals, and the Book of Rites. There is general consensus that the Analects is probably the only reliable source of teachings delivered verbatim by Confucius himself.
Confucian thought is humanistic and rational. It maintains that everyone has the mental and moral potential to fully realize themselves in the fulfillment of their social roles and that the world can be understood through the use of human reason alone. This is why Confucius sought to promote “education without class” and is remembered as the “greatest teacher of all time” in China. If Confucius implied only that human nature was good, Mencius took it a step further to declare that man was equipped with innate knowledge and ability to do good. In contrast to Mencius’s Idealistic Confucianism, Xunzi adopted a position known as Realistic Confucianism, and he argued that humans were born selfish and asocial. Nevertheless, both believed in the perfectibility of all humans through education.
At the heart of the Confucian intellectual tradition is a social, political philosophy that centers on “government by virtue.” To govern is to correct. Confucius compared two different ways to achieve this end: government by regulations and punishments versus government by moral examples and persuasion. His conclusion was that there would be shameless evasions under the former, but shame and correctness under the latter. Government by virtue was one of benevolence. Three tenets figure large in its building: self-cultivation, rectification of names, and the Doctrine of the Mean.
Benevolence, or ren, was central to Confucian morality, which also included such virtues as righteousness, loyalty, filial piety, fraternal love, devotion, courtesy, and so on. Self-cultivation involved engaging in an unwavering pursuit of virtues, practicing industry and hard work, and exercising control over desires and emotions. Asceticism was a necessary ingredient of self-cultivation, and not everyone could go through the arduous journey to complete moral perfection and become a junzi, or profound person. In Confucian political thought, it was the privileged responsibility of the profound person to assume a position of leadership and render public service to society. Behind the Confucian stress on self-cultivation was a moral idealism that identified the cultivation of virtues with ideal statesmanship. Not only did this moral idealism advocate a political elitism, but it also linked Confucianism to the state through the civil service examinations that were based on Confucian texts.
The moral examples set by the profound person were expected to include the practice of li, literally “rites,” and the adherence to the Dao, literally “Way.” People became truly human as their raw impulse was shaped by li. Used this way, the meaning of li extended beyond “rites” to denote the “rules of propriety” that were generated by the entire body of tradition and convention. The Master believed that the practice of li was instrumental in promoting conformity to proper moral values and social behavior and bringing about a civilized society. In fact, the content of benevolence was often defined in terms of ritual behavior; it was in association with li that Confucius gave the golden rule: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” As for the Dao, it was the path that led from human nature in the raw to human nature fulfilled. The Way was knowable by the human mind. But adhering to it called for a tenacious commitment to lofty goals, and people could use a role model from the profound person.
Rectification of Names
To rectify names was to specify moral obligations and behavioral codes for people in various social roles, that is, “names.” Confucius identified three most basic bonds of society in the ruler-subject, father-son, and husband-wife relationships. Two more social relationships, namely, elder brother-younger brother and friend-friend, were added to the foregoing “Three Bonds” to yield the “Five Cardinal Relations.” Modeling after the traditional Chinese family system, reciprocal obligations and behaviors were specified for each set of relations. However, there was an asymmetry of status, with authority assigned to the first party in each set of relations except that of friend-friend.
The exercise of authority was dependent on the fulfillment of responsibilities, a principle that applied to ruler as well as father, husband, and elder brother. Failure to fulfill their responsibilities nullified the obligation of allegiance by subject, son, wife, and younger brother. The Son of Heaven, for instance, must rule virtuously or risk the loss of his Mandate of Heaven. Confucian thought provided no formal checks against the abuse of power by the government. Rather, the exercise of power by the government rested on the consent of the governed. The rectification of names served to sanction a social hierarchy in moral terms and to institutionalize its behavioral code through state sponsorship. With this, Confucius hoped to see the prevalence of social stability that he had envisioned for an ideal society.
The Doctrine of the Mean
The ultimate justification for self-cultivation and the rectification of names consists in the Doctrine of the Mean, a tenet that relates moral behavior and good government to the Way of Heaven. The Chinese for this tenet is zhong yong, where zhong means “centrality,” and yong denotes “universality” or “commonality.” Instead of conjoining to teach moderation and balance, as in the Analects, they represent a doctrine expounding what is central in the cultivation of virtuous behavior and how it harmonizes with the universe. The Doctrine of the Mean begins as follows:
What Heaven imparts to the humankind is called human nature. To follow human nature is called the Way. Cultivating the Way is called teaching. The Way cannot be separated from us for a moment. What can be separated from us is not the Way. Therefore the profound person is cautious over what one does not see and apprehensive over what one does not hear.
The Human Way, which originated in Heaven, is inherent in the nature of everyone. Since there is a unity of the Heavenly Way and the Human Way, a natural way, as is preached by Daoism in separation from humanity, is not the Confucian Way. Exemplifying the Confucian personality, the profound person is watchful of the process whereby his inner humanity is to be manifested as the Way. It is a process of increasing self-knowledge that gives one an acute awareness of imperfection until the full discovery of one’s inner self. In addition to the centrality of its role in the discovery process, self-knowledge must be realized in a state of mind that transcends emotions and desires in pursuit of self-realization. Ultimately, the centrality of self-knowledge is defined in transcendental terms.
As the self-knowledge of the profound person is employed to guide society, moral behavior becomes a way of life. People are ruled by persuasion, ethical examples are followed, the family system is maintained, and rites and rituals are practiced in honor of the social hierarchy and behavioral codes. In short, the universal values of humanity are translated into common, prevalent behavior. Among them are benevolence and justice, which are built into the government system, and filial piety and ancestor worship, which are accepted as the basis of the fundamental human relatedness. In this idealized fiduciary community, there is affection between father and son, righteousness between ruler and minister, separate functions between husband and wife, proper order between the old and young, and faithfulness between friends. Such is the Human Way, which reflects human nature, harmonizes with the Heavenly Way, and is universally true.
What brings humans and Heaven together is cheng, meaning “sincerity” or strong commitment in the cultivation of self-knowledge and self-realization. But in the Doctrine of the Mean, the notion of cheng goes far beyond a state of mind. A lengthy discussion takes it on a ride of ever-deepening subjectivity to denote a metaphysical force that changes and transforms things in addition to facilitating human perfection. As this metaphysical force works for the realization of both hu mans and all things, moral order and cosmic order are literally two in one. In both cases, cheng marks the beginning and end of the quest for Heavenly truth and is used as the idiom of ultimate reality. With this, cheng becomes a counterpart of the omnipotent principle of Daoism: the Way.
The Doctrine of the Mean has a twin, namely, the Great Learning, which discusses the steps of self-cultivation within an overarching framework of scholarship, moral perfection, and fulfillment of social obligations. Originally two chapters in the Book of Rites, they were selected by Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the leading scholar of neo-Confucianism, as two of the “Four Books” that would become the basic texts for civil service examinations between 1313 and 1905. Neo-Confucianism was a response to the growing popularity of Buddhism and Daoism of the time. It started to gather momentum in the second half of the 11th century, when neo-Confucianism received formative impact from a conscious appeal to mysticism, on one hand, and a rationalistic reinterpretation of Idealistic Confucianism, on the other.
Classic Confucianism has a simple tripartite cosmology of Heaven, Earth, and Humans. In the drive to revitalize classic Confucianism, efforts were made to enable it to address the fundamental problems of human life, for which people had turned to Buddhism or Daoism. Out of these efforts grew the neo-Confucian metaphysics, which gave new life to the explanatory power of the Confucian cosmology. It recognized qi, or “cosmic energy,” as a material force in the universe, which was solely responsible for the existence of reality. Mistakenly called “nonbeing” by the Daoists, qi gave form to all being and was in a constant state of change. Clearly the development of this metaphysics was indebted to Daoism and Buddhism. But its purpose was purely Confucian, that is, to reaffirm the reality of human existence and provide a metaphysical basis for the teaching of Confucian ethics in rejection of Daoism and Buddhism.
Parallel to the concept of qi is the tenet of li, or “principle.” Principle is that which informs qi in the creation of everything. As such, it comprises the eternal laws of creation and manifests itself in the products of qi. Both qi and li have their roots in the Great Ultimate (taiji), the source of all being, which also exists in every individual. This doctrine is named the “Cheng-Zhu School of Principle,” in recognition of the contributions from both Cheng Yi (1033-1107) and Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Following Mencius’s idealistic interpretation of human nature, they agreed that humans were born good. Nevertheless, the material endowment from qi varied from individual to individual, causing differential obstruction to the manifestation of one’s true nature. By cultivating moral attitudes, however, everyone could overcome the limitations of material endowment to attain the enlightenment of a sage.
As a principal method for self-realization, Zhu Xi proposed the “investigation of things.” The observation and discovery of principles inherent in things would lead one to conform to them. Intellectual and rationalistic, this approach reinforced the Confucian emphasis on learning and scholarship. Not only was Zhu Xi the most influential neo-Confucian, but he was also the most brilliant synthesizer of his time. He grouped the “Four Books” and wrote commentaries on each of them. His extensive exegesis on Confucian teachings is highly regarded for its rational approach, which gave Confucianism new meaning, and for its conscientious adherence to orthodox Confucian thought. Zhu Xi has profoundly impacted Chinese thought as well as the thought of Korea and Japan.
There is a strong spiritual component in Confucian thought. This is because what is moral is also spiritual in the Confucian quest of self-realization. The Mencius has a famous saying that describes this grueling journey:
When Heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is impotent.
The description is meant to summarize the making of a profound person or sage. It is important to note that according to Idealistic Confucianism, Heaven is not external to the individual, but abides in everyone’s human nature. So Mencius is virtually describing an internal process. Indeed, contrary to the idea that Confucian moral values are just social, they are really the manifestation of a spiritual quest in the first place. One does what one’s conscience commands one to do, and the value realized is entirely internal to one’s conscience. It follows that this value is primarily spiritual.
To the extent that self-realization is spiritual, it is also transcendental. Confucius compared the experience to meeting Duke Zhou, an ancient sage, and to fathoming the Mandate of Heaven. The soul-searching led him to believe that there had existed an ideal ancient era against which contemporary realities could be judged. It was his mission to restore the ideals of that golden age. In the process, Confucius went over the old to find the new. But he claimed to be a messenger rather than a creator, implying that the ideals had crystallized to him from conformity to the Way of Heaven. Confucian transcendence is anchored in the awe of Heaven. Despite the Master’s reluctance to talk about supernatural beings and forces, he seemed to acknowledge an interaction between humans and a higher order. Thus, he conceded that the ruler was governing on the Mandate of Heaven. To the disappointment of the Master, his sociopolitical ideology failed to win official sponsorship in his lifetime. Sadly, Confucius attributed it to a lack of good timing ordained by Heaven.
After Confucianism came to dominate the system of social values in China, it replaced the ethical function of religion. Confucius was officially elevated to the status of patron saint for the literati. In AD 630, the emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) decreed that all prefectures and districts build Confucian temples in order for the local scholar-officials and scholar-gentry to offer sacrifices to the Master. With the rise of neo-Confucianism during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the spirituality of Confucian thought was further mystified. The metaphysics of qi played an important role in this process and so did the theory of the mind developed by Wang Yangming (1472-1529), a prominent neo-Confucian thinker whose influence was second only to that of Zhu Xi. To Wang, neither principle nor things are external to the mind. To discover principle is to rectify the mind by eliminating from it what is incorrect. As the mind essentially means the will, sincerity of the mind is more crucial than the investigation of things. Under the impact of Wang’s idealism, meditation increasingly became a standard practice in the neo-Confucian quest of self-realization, and spiritual enlightenment was sought after.
When Confucianism is juxtaposed with Buddhism and Daoism as the “Three Teachings,” it reads rujiao, meaning “literati religion.” But scholarly disagreement has persisted over whether Confucianism is a religion. On one hand, Confucianism has functioned as a belief system that assigns meaning to life, provides an ethics-based order for society, has sacred space and time, and inspires a sense of religious awe, albeit to different degrees over time. In view of all this, Confucianism is characteristically an ethico-religious tradition. On the other hand, Confucius is typically worshipped as a sage rather than a deity; his moral concerns have a clear “this-worldly” orientation, and his teachings, stripped of the ideological impositions by the ruling class and elite, are primarily philosophical.
Challenges to the Confucian Tradition
Confucian thought has been constitutive of Chinese mores and ethos for over 2,000 years. The vicissitudes of Confucianism in dynastic China show that its moral idealism was vulnerable to disillusionment in times of protracted warfare, national disunity, or invasion from without. But once social order was restored, Confucianism was put back on the pedestal again. This pattern ground to a stop in modern times, when Confucianism had to face challenges from the Western ideology that called its fundamental rationale into question, as in China after the overthrow of the Qing monarchy (1688-1911), in Japan during the Meiji Reforms (1867-1912), and in Korea at the end of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910).
Modern critics of Confucianism found a loud-and-clear voice in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a patriotic student campaign that, in protesting against an imminent sellout of national interest, deepened its critical spirit to press for an intellectual modernization of China. Briefly, the root cause of China’s backwardness was believed to lie in Confucianism, which dictated blind obedience to authority, promoted servile adherence to the status quo, and provided unconscionable justifications for social inequality and injustice, especially through the Confucian family system. China was badly in need of reinvigorating itself with assistance from “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science,” but the authoritarian and conservative nature of Confucian institutions stifled the quest of freedom, individualism, and originality.
“Down with Confucius and Sons!” became a new battle cry of the May Fourth Movement. What some of its leaders wanted, however, was a total rejection of China’s past in favor of wholesale Westernization.
After the Chinese communists came into power in 1949, a new round of attacks was mounted on Confucian thought. But these assaults were engineered by an ideology that was critical of Western freedom and democracy as much as of Confucian “benevolence” and “self-cultivation.” Confucius was denounced publicly, and Confucian values were declared decadent for fear that they would undermine “socialist ethics.” The anti-Confucian mentality culminated during the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), when a violent, destructive vendetta was unleashed against any “remnants,” real or suspected, of Confucianism. It was not until the mid-1990s that the Chinese Communist Party started to retreat from its radical iconoclasm and attempted to reclaim the right to speak for China’s Confucian heritage.
The rise of industrial East Asia has directed attention to the role of Confucian heritage in modernization. For many researchers, the point of entry is culture as an integral part of economic dynamics. Known as the “Sinic World,” East Asia evidences a pervasive influence of Confucian values. Japan and the Four Mini-Dragons (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) are all situated in this cultural universe. A number of Confucian factors have been proposed in connection with the successful transformation of East Asia: strong government with moral authority, the centrality of the family in capital formation, power politics and moral education, the scholar-official mentality that makes the best minds available for public leadership, duty consciousness, encouragement of learning, good work ethic, and so on.
Explanations have been attempted for the retention of Confucian values in the modernization of East Asia. According to one explanation, Confucianism has a critical spirit and the potential to transform itself, as in its promotion of social reforms by neo-Confucian scholars Wang Anshi (1021-1088) and Kang Youwei (1858-1927). In the East Asian drive toward modernization, Confucian thought has reemerged as a “humanistic rationalism.” Another explanation identifies three components in Confucian thought: philosophical insight, political ideology, and popular values. It argues that the first component may prove useful in bridging the philosophical gap between the East and the West, the second must be discarded, and the third is very much alive in the East Asian experience of modernization. A third explanation stresses that modernization in East Asia entails the mobilization of local resources, including the Confucian tradition. As this tradition impedes, facilitates, and guides the process of modernization, it is also being rejected, revitalized, and fundamentally restructured. But there is tradition in modernization, and it is time to redefine modernization in light of its successes outside of the West.
Ethnography on modern China has contributed significantly to the awareness that there is dynamic interaction between the Confucian tradition and modernization. More specifically, it is instrumental in revealing the contemporary metamorphosis of traditional familism in kinship and descent, marriage and gender roles, household economy, economic reforms, lineage organization, local politics, migration, corporate property, resource management, and so on. Since the Confucian tradition happens to hold out most tenaciously in these areas, ethnographic findings are invaluable for the study of its dynamic articulation with modernization. But such findings are possible only if the field researcher rises above the thinking that the Confucian tradition is just a thing of the past.
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