Chinese Confucianism

The teacher opens the door. You enter by yourself.-------- Chinese Proverb

To gain knowledge quietly, to learn without losing interest, to instruct others relentlessly, indeed, what difficulty for me?----- Confucius

 Confucianism is a belief system deeply rooted in the Chinese soil. It is in separable with the great teacher, Confucius. What is about his life? What does Confucianism tell us? And how well is Confucianism received in Chinese history? A glimpse of these few aspects will help us understand Confucianism much better.

The life of Confucius

Confucius (551 BC¡ª479 BC), whose Chinese name was Kong Qiu, also called Kong Fuzi, or Kong Zi (Master Kong), was born of an aristocratic family that lost its wealth and position in the State of Lu (now Qufu City, Shangdong Province) in a period of feuding kingdoms and social disharmony. His 60-year-old father died shortly before the birth of the child, and his 20-year-old widowed mother was determined to provide his son with an education in spite of the hard struggles for survival. Confucius was interested in the subjects such as poetry, Chinese history, music, hunting, fishing, and archery. He was also one of the famous Rus at his time, and Ru was a scholar who helped in divination, history recording, goods arrangement and rules guiding in the ceremonies of serving Heaven with their profound knowledge. Ruijia was name after it, which is known in the West as Confucius School .

Even as a youth, he seemed to have been extremely interested in the interworkings of society, particularly in what constitutes good government. This was to be his main theme for the rest of his life. In his late teens, he accepted a minor position in government, where he closely observed the ruling process. He married and fathered one son, but the marriage ended in divorce. Some Confucian scholars joked that it was one of the reasons why Confucius devalued women in his remarks. His mother died when he was sixteen. Being a devoted son, Confucius mourned for his mother for three years at his mother's tomb.

Sometime during his thirties, Confucius began his true career, the career of a teacher. He was the first person in Chinese history who opened up a private school to common people. His reputation as a man of learning attracted many young followers, and they lived in his home and followed him in his journeys. In his teaching, he applied the method of discussion, debating with his students, and his philosophical ideas were formulated and gradually improved. He preached adherence to ritual and propriety as the supreme answer to the inherent disorder of the society. During his lifetime, he wandered from court to court attempting to teach their rulers the correct way to rule.

At the age of thirty-five, he followed the Duke of Lu to visit the neighboring State of Qi (now Zibo City , Shandong Province). The Duke of Qi asked him how to govern a state, and was convinced by his idea, ¡°Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject a subject¡±, and intended to keep Confucius as a consultant. But the enemies of Confucius became jealous of his success and he had to leave the powerful State of Qi .

At the age of fifty he was more famous and was invited by the Duke of Lu to become its prime minister. It is said that he was very successful in applying his own way to reform the society and during his leadership, the state was so well governed that the crime rate dramatically dropped to almost zero. People no longer locked their doors, and a wallet that was dropped on the street was left untouched for days. Again his success brought with it enemies, and he had to retire from government at the age of fifty-five.

During the next fourteen years, Confucius had no position and was largely ignored. He left the State of Lu with sadness and wandered from place to place with a few of his faithful disciples. Sometimes he was accepted by the populace and treated well. At other ties he and his friends ere jeered and even jailed. But he devoted himself to two things: editing the classical literature left by the Dynasties of Xia, Shang and Zhou and teaching students. Through the editing of the old books, Confucius established his position with the following Confucius classics: Classic of Poetry; Classic of History; Classic of Changes; Record of Rites; Spring and Autumn Annals; Classic of Music.

Throughout his life, he taught about 3,000 students and 72 of them were well-known and played important roles in the government of state at their times. Confucius died in the year 479 BC, aged about 72 and was widely mourned by his disciples. According to tradition, many of his disciples moved to his grave and stayed to mourn Confucius for three years. His most faithful disciple named Zi Gong built a hut beside his grave and stayed to mourn for six years.

The glorification of Confucius, or the establishment of Confucianism, as reflected in the Analects, a collection of writings on his life and sayings complied by his disciples, began after his death. Later his ideas permeated every level of Chinese society, and became the most influential and fundamental of the Chinese philosophies. Especially since the Han Dynasty, almost all the emperors took Confucius as a Saint and built temples for him in the capital and his hometown (Qufu). To show respect, many emperors visited Qufu to hold ceremony in memory of this great figure. After his death, Confucius received many high titles, much more than he could imagine in his lifetime, and his disciples received successive rewards form the emperors.


Confucianism might be a Western label for what the Chinese referred to as Rujia , ¡° Confucian School ¡±. It should not be called a religion, but rather a set of moral and social values designed to bring the ways of man and government in harmony with each other and with the Universe, on the basis of the humanistic teaching of Confucius, enriched with a scholarly tradition. Confucius preached that through proper training in the scholarly classics and rigid adherence to the rules of propriety, the superior man could attain a level of moral righteousness, which would, in turn, assure a stable and righteous social order. As a political theory Confucianism called for the wisest sage, the one whose moral sense was most refined, to be a ruler. With a good ruler, if one practiced the virtuous ways of the ancestors and was exemplary in terms of the five Confucian virtues, benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness, the world and society would naturally be in order. Force would be unnecessary. More of a philosophy than a religion, Confucianism has nevertheless become intertwined with the Chinese religious beliefs. Confucianism has influenced the Chinese attitude toward life, set the patterns of living and standards of social value, and provided the background for Chinese political theories and institutions. It has spread from China to Korea , Japan , and Vietnam and has aroused interest among Western scholars.

Confucianism taught that social order was based on virtue that came from ritual performance, beginning with household ancestor worship and moving up the hierarchy to the emperor. Analects is considered the main book of Confucius teaching. Confucius sought to promote practical ideals of good government, citizenship, and domestic life that would preserve a stable social system. The main themes of Confucius teaching are Li, Ren, zhongyong and junzi.

Li has two meanings. The first meaning of Li is ¡°propriety,¡± a set of manners or knowledge of how to behave in a given situation. It presumes that the various roles and relationships of life have been clearly defined. The second meaning of Li is ¡°ritual¡±---when life is detailed to Confucian lengths it becomes completely ordered. According to Confucius, there were five basic relationships in life. The five hierarchical relationships define the basis of a well-ordered society and when given proper performance of the duties of mutual responsibility and obedience, the power of the state becomes redundant. If Li were present in these relationships throughout society, the social order would be ideal. The five Confucian relationships outline a strict structure of duty and obedience to authority as follows:

Father to son- ---There should be kindness in the father and filial piety.

Elder brother to younger brother ---There should be gentility in the elder brother and humility in the younger.

Husband to wife ---There should be righteous behavior in the husband and obedience in the wife.

Elder to junior ---There should be consideration among the elders and deference among the juniors.

Ruler to subject ---There should be benevolence among the rulers and loyalty among the subjects.

In Confucian ideals, the principle of Li was the outward expression of the superior individual toward others in his society. The inward expression of Confucian ideals was called Ren.

Ren is frequently translated as love, goodness, or human-heartedness. According to Confucius, only the great sages of antiquity truly possessed Ren, but it was a quality that all should seek to develop. Thus, Confucius taught that people should love each other and practice respect and courtesy toward each other in their daily life. If the principles of li and ren were present and operative in a person, the end product would be the Confucian goal, the superior human being.

But how to make li and ren present and operative in a person is a problem. The way is zhongyong---the doctrine of the mean. ¡°Going to extremes¡± is the enemy of the great method in dealing with problems. ¡°Too much¡± or ¡°too little¡± has the same harm in our life. In using this method, a person has to balance well between or among several solutions to a problem, and try to make all parties involved happy. This method is not a make-every-body-happy compromise method as many people thought and criticized, but, as a matter of fact, it has the strict principles of li and ren as guide. It seems very difficult for a common person to find a method of matching both li and ren and at the same time to make all people concerned happy. So Confucius invented a good model for the people, which he called junzi---a man of great moral quality or a gentleman, in the sense of a cultivated or a superior man. To be a junzi, one must first of all follow the principles of li and ren and then develop the following personalities; loyal to his ruler, loving his family, wise and brave, modest and humble, honest and sincere, kind and generous, having a heart of gratitude and a feeling of shame in doing something wrong. If all people were junzi and followed the principles of li and ren, society would be an ideal one.

Therefore , Confucianism ha exerted a strong influence on many aspects of the Chinese culture, and undoubtedly, it will make great contributions to the world's civilizations.


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