Confucianism, an intellectual, political, and religious tradition, or school of thought, that developed a distinct identity in the 5th century bc from the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius. In Chinese the name for this tradition is Rujia (also spelled Ju-chia), meaning “School of the Scholars.” Confucianism advocates reforming government, so that it works for the benefit of the people, and cultivating virtue, especially in government officials. It encourages respect for elders and legitimate authority figures, for traditional beliefs, for ritual practices, for education, and for close family bonds. Confucianism began in China, but it spread from there to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
II TEACHINGS OF CONFUCIUS
Little is known for certain about the life of Confucius. Many traditional stories about him are now regarded as myths. Our most reliable source of information about him and his beliefs is the Lunyu (Lun-yü, or Analects), a collection of sayings by and about Confucius and his disciples. The Analects is divided into 20 books that are the length of chapters. Most scholars think that books 1 to 15 contain a large amount of authentic material.
Confucius saw himself as a “transmitter and not a creator.” He believed that he was merely teaching the dao (tao, or Way) of China’s ancient sages. However, he was more original than he realized. The Analects is the earliest Chinese text that stresses the concept of ren (jen). Ren has been translated as “benevolence,” “humaneness,” or simply “goodness.” For Confucius, ren is the summation of human virtues. Ren is a quality that every human should strive to achieve, but it is so exalted that Confucius is wary of attributing ren to anyone. Thus for Confucius, the good life is an endless aspiration for ethical perfection.
In one traditional Confucian view, ren has two aspects: loyalty and reciprocity. Loyalty is considered a commitment to the Way, while reciprocity means “not inflicting on others that which you do not want yourself.” An alternative view is that ren is the perfect combination of a much longer list of virtues, including loyalty, reciprocity, wisdom, courage, righteousness, filial piety, and faithfulness. Wisdom has several aspects, including being a good judge of the character of others. Courage is lack of fear in doing what is right. Righteousness is doing what is appropriate for one’s role, as father, son, teacher, or student, for example. Filial piety is acting out of love and respect for one’s parents. Faithfulness includes honesty in word, but also involves not being glib.
Confucius also stressed the rites or rituals. These include everything from funeral ceremonies, to offerings of food and wine to ancestral spirits, to public performances of music and dance, to how to greet a guest, eat, or dress. Practicing rituals with reverence leads to being virtuous and results from virtuous behavior, because it teaches us to focus on something more important than ourselves.
III FOLLOWERS OF CONFUCIUS
After the death of Confucius in 479 bc, some philosophers began to argue that the Confucian Way, or ren, was contrary to human nature. Although Confucius had said almost nothing about human nature, his later followers had much to say on this topic.
Mencius, a Confucian who lived in the 4th century bc, claimed that human nature was good. By this he meant that humans have inborn tendencies toward virtue. Without being taught, people have at least momentary feelings of compassion for the sufferings of others. Similarly, there are some things that people are too ashamed to do. According to Mencius, if we cultivate this feeling of compassion, it will develop into the virtue of benevolence. By the same token, if we cultivate our sense of shame, it will develop into the virtue of righteousness.
Mencius believed that it is the duty of humankind to cultivate the goodness inherent in our nature and to serve humanity. Because he thought that all humans already are disposed toward goodness, Mencius emphasized the importance of internal concentration or reflection in cultivating an ethical sense. He compared ethical cultivation to growing an adult plant from “sprouts.”
The next major Confucian thinker was Xunzi (Hsun-tzu), who lived in the 3rd century bc. Xunzi criticized Mencius and argued, in opposition to Mencius, that human nature was bad. By this, Xunzi meant that humans do not have any inborn dispositions that are genuinely virtuous. If left to their own devices, people will pursue such impulses as greed, envy, hatred, and desire.
Because of his view on human nature, Xunzi emphasized the importance of education and the need for teachers to guide students in their study. According to him, people must be taught to exercise moderation and restraint. He claimed instead that producing virtues in people is like steaming and bending a piece of wood into a new shape.
C Dong Zhongshu and the Han Dynasty
In the 2nd century bc Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (Tung Chung-shu) combined Confucianism with ideas drawn from other intellectual movements. For example, he introduced the idea of yin and yang, two complementary and opposing aspects found in varying proportions in all things in the universe. These aspects include dark (yin)/light (yang), wet (yin)/dry (yang), and female (yin)/male (yang). He also promoted the idea that all matter moves through five phases: metal, wood, fire, earth, and water. These theories about the structure of the universe had lasting influences.
Dong Zhongshu lived during the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad 220), and he convinced the Han emperor of China to adopt Confucianism. Also during the Han dynasty texts known as the Five Classics were established as the basis for Confucian education. These texts are the Shi jing (Book of Songs), the Shu jing (Book of History), the Yijing (I Ching, Book of Changes), the Chun qiu (Ch’un-ch’iu, Spring and Autumn Annals), and the Li ji (Li-chi, Book of Rituals). The Five Classics contain the essential principles of Confucian belief.
Another event during the Han dynasty, perhaps even more important for the future of Confucianism, was the introduction of Buddhism into China. Buddhism, which began in India, became the most popular religious and philosophical movement in China, and it remained so for several centuries. Several Buddhist philosophical concepts became central to Confucianism as well. These concepts included the importance of achieving enlightenment to overcome selfishness, and the interrelatedness of all things.
After centuries of intellectual and cultural dominance by Buddhism, China began to experience a revival of Confucian thought during the Tang dynasty (ad 618-907). It was led by poet and essayist Han Yu (Han Yü). Han Yu attacked Buddhism and Daoism, which he believed had kept government officials from seeing how they could help the people. To further public welfare, he urged them to study the way of the ancient sages through the Five Classics. Han Yu almost lost his life for daring to criticize the emperor’s acceptance of Buddhism.
This anti-Buddhist and anti-Daoist revival of Confucianism came to be known as Daoxue (Tao-hsueh, “The Study of the Way”). It is commonly called neo-Confucianism in the West. Neo-Confucians believed that they were merely defending and clarifying what was implicit in the Confucian classics. However, their interpretations were often deeply colored by Buddhism. For example, where Mencius spoke of “sprouts” of virtue that had to be carefully cultivated to grow to maturity, Neo-Confucians believed that all humans share a fully formed virtuous nature whose existence is obscured by selfish desires. This belief is very similar to the Buddhist view that we must uncover our shared Buddha-nature.
A Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao
Two brothers, Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao, developed a systematic basis for neo-Confucianism in the 11th century. They argued that everything in existence has two aspects, qi or “stuff,” and li, which can be thought of as pattern or structure, although the standard translation is “principle.” All of the li, or structure, is fully present in each thing that exists, they claimed. But things are differentiated by the clarity of their qi. Humans have clearer qi than dogs, and a dog has clearer qi than a sunflower. Things of the same general kind are also distinguished by the level of clarity of their qi. So, although we are both humans, a sage like Confucius has much clearer qi than do I. Nonetheless, both Confucius and I have more clear qi than an ant.
B Zhu Xi
The most famous and influential neo-Confucian was Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi), a 12th-century philosopher noted for his long-lasting synthesis and exposition of earlier philosophies. Zhu Xi adopted the system of the Cheng brothers, and his brand of neo-Confucianism is referred to as the Cheng-Zhu School or the Study of Principle school. Zhu Xi also made the revolutionary suggestion of switching the educational curriculum away from the Five Classics to what came to be known as the Four Books: the Lunyu (Analects), the Daxue (Great Learning), the Mengzi (Book of Mencius), and the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean). The Four Books are collections of the sayings of Confucius and Mencius and the commentaries of their followers.
Zhu Xi believed that the qi of most people is so turbid (unclear) initially that they cannot rely upon their inclinations to guide them to do what is right. However, studying the classic texts, along with meditation and ritual practice, will help people clarify their qi, so that they can eventually rely on their own intuitions. Zhu Xi also thought that students were unlikely to understand the classics without help, so he wrote clear, concise, insightful commentaries on these books.
In 1313, the Four Books, as interpreted by Zhu Xi’s commentary, became the basis of the Chinese civil service examinations. These exams were the gateway to a powerful and lucrative position in China’s government bureaucracy. Although the examinations were abolished in 1905, Zhu Xi’s views are still considered to represent orthodox Confucianism by many traditional scholars.
Zhu Xi’s views have had many critics. Zhu Xi debated another 12th century philosopher, Lu Xiangshan, who shared many of Zhu Xi’s views on qi and li. But Lu Xiangshan argued that because human nature is already fully good, behavior and emotions that are spontaneous and unforced will be virtuous. “The classics are [merely] my footnotes,” Lu quipped.
C Wang Yangming
Lu’s criticisms were championed in the early 16th century by Wang Yangming, a general and statesman. Wang Yangming’s most famous slogan was “the unity of knowledge and action.” By this he meant that anyone who genuinely knows what is virtuous will act virtuously, and anyone who fails to act virtuously does not really know what is virtuous.
Wang accused Zhu Xi of advising students first to obtain knowledge of virtue through studying the Four Books, and only to act virtuously later. Wang charged that this approach produced pedants who would only study and theorize about virtue, rather than actually be virtuous. Wang argued that our mind is pure principle (li), so we can trust our own judgment, as long as we are careful to identify and extinguish selfish thoughts that interfere with our mind’s functioning. Wang’s brand of neo-Confucianism is referred to as the Lu-Wang School, or the Study of the Mind school.
All neo-Confucians believe that Mencius correctly explained the teachings of Confucius. However, the disagreement between the Cheng-Zhu and the Lu-Wang versions of neo-Confucianism parallels, in some ways, the disagreement between Xunzi’s and Mencius’s philosophies over human nature, Xunzi claiming that it was bad and Mencius that it was good. Xunzi and Cheng-Zhu both emphasize the study of classic texts as a method of ethical cultivation, while Mencius and Lu-Wang emphasize following one’s own ethical sense.
D Dai Zhen
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), many Confucians came to believe that the Cheng-Zhu and Lu-Wang philosophers misread the Confucian classics through a failure to pay careful attention to the original texts and their historical contexts. One of these critics was Dai Zhen (Tai Chen), who lived in the 18th century. Dai Zhen provided clear evidence that neo-Confucians had given Buddhist or Daoist meanings to terms in the Five Classics. He rejected, for example, the neo-Confucian view of li (“principle”) as an aspect of being. He said it meant only good order or pattern in an ethical sense. He urged new study of the Classics.
V CONTEMPORARY CONFUCIANISM
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Chinese thinkers rejected Confucianism in favor of Western movements such as Marxism (see Karl Marx) or the pragmatism of American philosopher and educator John Dewey. This rejection arose from the military and economic weakness of China in the face of aggression and exploitation on the part of Japan and Western nations. Lu Xun and other writers who took part in the May Fourth Movement in 1919, in particular, identified Confucianism as one of the cultural sources of China’s problems and its failure to modernize.
However, others believed Confucianism could be reformed and again become a viable contemporary worldview. Most of these thinkers sought to synthesize neo-Confucianism with some Western philosophy. Feng Youlan (Fung Yu-lan) studied philosophy in the United States, before returning to China in the 1920s. He developed a synthesis of Cheng-Zhu neo-Confucianism and the philosophy of Plato. Chinese Marxist Liu Shaoqi (Liu Shao-ch’i) synthesized Confucian self-cultivation philosophy with Marxist political philosophy. During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Chinese government encouraged citizens to reject Confucianism completely. Feng was forced to repudiate his philosophy. Liu was purged (removed) from the Communist Party and died in prison.
Outside mainland China, a so-called New Confucian Manifesto was published in 1958. New Confucianism accepts an essentially neo-Confucian interpretation of Confucianism, influenced especially by Wang Yangming. It argues that both China and the West would be enriched if the scientific, technological, and democratic achievements of the West were combined with the spirituality of the Confucian tradition.
As the Chinese government has become less rigidly Marxist, there has been renewed interest in Confucianism. The government has even given some support to Confucianism as a worthwhile social philosophy. Before his death in 1990, Feng Youlan was allowed to teach his philosophy. Liu Shaoqi was again regarded as a great figure. The New Confucianism is probably the most influential version of Confucianism in the world today. Many scholars, however, are resurrecting the critical vision of the 18th-century Confucian Dai Zhen and studying how Confucianism has meant different things in different periods.
Another major development of the late 20th century is a tendency to interpret Confucianism in the light of Western ethical systems that stress virtue, such as those of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle or 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas. Chinese thinkers who use a “virtue ethics” approach examine similarities and differences between Confucianism and Western philosophies on such topics as what qualities are virtues, how virtues are cultivated, what human nature must be like so that humans can become virtuous, and what ways of life exhibit the virtues.