Back to the Future: Confucianism

Life of Confucius

Confucius (Kung Fu Tzu) lived around 560-480 B.C.   This was a time of trouble and disorder for China. It’s convenient to view Chinese history as cyclical.  The beginning of each new dynasty tends to be a period of strength, but as time goes on, confusion and decentralization become the rule and the central government becomes harsh in its attempts to reassert control.

Confucius himself lived during the Chou dynasty (1111-249 BC), but tradition suggests that he may have descended from the rulers of the earlier Shang dynasty (1751-1122).  In any case, he lived in a time of growing disorder as the Chou dynasty was losing control and a kind of feudalism replaced it.

Confucius took a minor government position in Lu, went to Ch’i where he had a more important position, then back to Lu at age 51 where he was minister of justice and advisor to the Duke.  When the duke received a present of 80 dancing girls from the duke of Ch’s, Confucius resigned in disgust.  At age 53, he started travelling from place to place, promising a return of order and stability if governments would adopt the principles he taught.  He had relatively little success during his own life, but his disciples preserved his teachings and spread them.  For eight centuries or so, Confucian philosophy was an important part of Chinese education.  By around 300 AD or so, Confucianism had been eclipsed by Buddhism and Taoism.  But, starting around 1000 AD, there was a major Confucian revival, and Confucian philosophy was the dominant force in Chinese education until Mao and his Communists took over and deliberately tried to eradicate it.

Now notice that Confucianism is much more concerned with life in this world than is Buddhism—and it does in fact offer a recipe for fixing things other than just our own personal attitude—though, it has plenty to say about that as well!

Confucius stressed the following three main principles:                             ~

1.  A return to way of ancestors.  Confucius said he was not born with knowledge, but loved antiquity and was earnest in of seeking it there.  He edited and pointed his followers to five great classical Chinese works (The Book of Poetry, The Book of Changes, the Books of History, the Books of Rites, The Spring and Autumn Annals).  As we’ll see in a bit, there’s much attractive here.

2. Reverence for parents.  In Chinese society, the children sacrifice for their parents. It is not unusual for a man to sell himself into slavery to provide suitable funeral for his father!  After his father’s death, there is a three years of mourning during which a good son carries on the household exactly as did his father!

3.  The cultivation of five cardinal virtues (kindness, uprightness, decorum, wisdom, and truth. 

Confucianism is a religion created by a bureaucrat—and one might think it would be a bureaucrat’s religion: lots of rules and regulations.  But Confucianism rejects the idea so dominant in the West that we can gain good government by getting the rules right (passing just the right laws, getting just the right constitution, etc.). The Confucians emphasize instead the character of those in office.  To try to get a just society through rule-making the Confucians dismiss as legalism.

Confucius’s teachings were preserved and amplified by his students, and, eventually, Confucian “scripture” came to include the five classics mentioned above and the “Four Books.”  Confucius’ own teachings are reflected most clearly in “The Analects,” a collection of teachings remembered by those who had been taught be Confucius directly. Here are some selections:

To learn and at due time to repeat what one has learnt: is that not after all pleasure? That friends should come to one from afar: is that not after all delightful?  To remain unsoured even when one’s merits are not recognized by  others: is that not after all what is expected of a gentleman?

Is virtue a thing remote?  I wish to be virtuous, and Lo! Virtue is not hard.

Good government obtains when those who are near are made happy, and when those who are far off are attracted.

The scholar who cherishes the love of comfort in not fit to be deemed a scholar.

The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

There are three things the superior man guards against.  In youth, lust.  When he is strong, quarrelsomeness.  When he is old, covetousness.

Without recognizing the ordinances of heaven, it is impossible to become a superior man.

If a gentleman is frivolous, he will lose the respect of his inferiors and lack firm ground upon which to build up his education.  First and foremost he must learn to be faithful to his superiors, to keep promises...and if he finds he has made a mistake, then he must not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending his ways.

A gentleman can see a question from all sides without bias.  The small man is biased and can see a question only from one side.

I do not see what use a man can be put to, whose word cannot be trusted.  How can a wagon be made to go if it has no yoke-bar or a carriage, if it has no collar-bar?

If you raise up the straight and set them on top of the crooked, the commoners will support you.  But if you raise the crooked and set them on top of the straight, the commoners will not support you.

In vain I have looked for a single man capable of seeing his own faults and binging the charge home against himself.

If the ruler himself is upright, all will go well even though he does not give orders. But if he himself is not upright, he will not be obeyed.

<>One of the great strengths of Confucius was his ability to inspire his followers—not just those heard him directly, but those of studied his works at a later time.  Of these later students, the most important is Meng-Tzu (Mencius).  Mencius, like Confucius, was a civic official.  He worked for King Hsuan of Chi (342-324 BC) for some time, but, frustrated by his inability to influence government in a positive way, he stepped down from practical affairs to become a <>teacher [selection below<> <>taken from the online selections at the link here].<>

After an incident between Zou and Lu, Duke Mu asked, "Thirty-three of my officials died but no common people died. I could punish them, but I could not punish them all. I could refrain from punishing them but they did angrily watch their superiors die without saving them. What would be the best course for me to follow?" Mencius answered, "When the harvest failed, even though your granaries were full, nearly a thousand of your subjects were lost -- the old and weak among them dying in the gutters, the able -- bodied scatter ing in all directions. Your officials never reported the situation, a case of superiors callously inflicting suffering on their subordinates. Zengzi said, 'Watch out, watch out! What you do will be done to you.' This was the first chance the people had to pay them back. You should not resent them. If Your Highness practices benevolent government, the common people will love their superiors and die for those in charge of them."

King Xuan of Qi asked, "Is it true that Tang banished Jie and King Wu took up arms against Zhou?" Mencius replied, "That is what the records say." "Then is it permissible for a subject to assassinate his lord?" Mencius said, ''Someone who does violence to the good we call a villain; someone who does violence to the right we call a criminal. A person who is both a villain and a criminal we call a scoundrel I have heard that the scoundrel Zhou was killed, but have not heard that a lord was killed

King Xuan of Qi asked about ministers Mencius said, ''What sort of ministers does Your Majesty mean?'' The king said ' Are there different kinds of ministers?" "There are. There are noble ministers related to the ruler and ministers of other surnames." The king said, "I'd like to hear about noble ministers." Mencius replied, "When the ruler makes a major error, they point it out. If he does not listen to their repeated remonstrations, then they put someone else on the throne." The king blanched. Mencius continued, "Your Majesty should not be surprised at this. Since you asked me, I had to tell you truthfully." After the king regained his composure, he asked about unrelated ministers. Mencius said, "When the king makes an error, they point it out. If he does not heed their repeated rernonstrations, they quit their posts."

Bo Gui said, "I'd like a tax of one part in twenty What do you think?" Mencius said, "Your way is that of the northern tribes. Is one potter enough for a state with ten thousand households?" "No, there would not be enough wares." The northern tribes do not grow all the five grains, only millet They have no cities or houses, no ritual sacrifices. They do not provide gifts or banquets for feudal lords, and do not have a full array of officials. Therefore, for them, one part in twenty is enough But we live in the central states How could we abolish social roles and do without gentlemen? If a state cannot do without potters, how much less can it do without gentlemen Those who want to make government lighter than it was under Yao and Shun are to some degree barbarians Those who wish to make government heavier than it was under Yao and Shun are to some degree [tyrants like] Jie."

Obviously, there much food for thought here—lots of idea that transcend a specific political and cultural environment.  But Confucianism doesn’t lend itself toward syncretism as well as Buddhism or Hinduism, and there was eventually a real conflict between Confucians and Buddhists in China itself [See the complete story at the link here]. 

Your servant submits that Buddhism is but one of the practices of barbarians which has filtered into China since the Later Han. In ancient times there was no such thing.... In those times the empire was at peace, and the people, contented and happy, lived out their full complement of years.... The Buddhist doctrine had still not reached China, so this could not have been the result of serving the Buddha.

The Buddhist doctrine first appeared in the time of the Emperor Ming of the Han dynasty, and the Emperor Ming was a scant eighteen years on the throne. Afterwards followed a succession of disorders and revolutions, when dynasties did not long endure. From the time of the dynasties Song, Qi, Liang, Chen, and Wei, as they grew more zealous in the service of the Buddha, the reigns of kings became shorter. There was only the Emperor Wu of the Liang who was on the throne for forty-eight years. First and last, he thrice abandoned the world and dedicated himself to the service of the Buddha. He refused to use animals in the sacrifices in his own ancestral temple. His single meal a day was limited to fruits and vegetables. In the end he was driven out and died of hunger. His dynasty likewise came to an untimely end. In serving the Buddha he was seeking good fortune, but the disaster that overtook him was only the greater. Viewed in the light of this, it is obvious that the Buddha is not worth serving.

Now I hear that by Your Majesty’s command a troupe of monks went to Fengxiang to get the Buddha-bone, and that you viewed it from a tower as it was carried into the Imperial Palace; also that you have ordered that it be received and honored in all the temples in turn. Although your servant is stupid, he cannot help knowing that Your Majesty is not misled by this Buddha, and that you do not perform these devotions to pray for good luck. But just because the harvest has been good and the people are happy, you are complying with the general desire by putting on For the citizens of the capital this extraordinary spectacle which is nothing more than a sort of theatrical amusement. How could a sublime intelligence like yours consent to believe in this sort of thing?

But the people are stupid and ignorant; they are easily deceived and with difficulty enlightened. If they see Your Majesty behaving in this fashion, they are going to think you serve the Buddha in all sincerity. All will say, "The Emperor is wisest of all, and yet he is a sincere believer. What are we common people that we still should grudge our lives?" Burning heads and searing fingers by the tens and hundreds, throwing away their clothes and scattering their money, from morning to night emulating one another and fearing only to be last, old and young rush about, abandoning their work and place; and if restrictions are not immediately imposed, they will increasingly make the rounds of temples and some will inevitably cut off their arms and slice their flesh in the way of offerings. Thus to violate decency and draw the ridicule of the whole world is no light matter.

Now the Buddha was of barbarian origin. His language differed from Chinese speech; his clothes were of a different cut; his mouth did not pronounce the prescribed words of the Former Kings, his body was not clad in the garments prescribed by the Former Kings. He did not recognize the relationship between prince and subject, nor the sentiments of father and son. Let us suppose him to be living today, and that he come to court at the capital as an emissary of his country. Your Majesty would receive him courteously. But only one interview in the audience chamber, one banquet in his honor, one gift of clothing, and he would be escorted under guard to the border that he might not mislead the masses.

How much the less, now that he has long been dead, is it fitting that his decayed and rotten bone, his ill-omened and filthy remains, should be allowed to enter in the forbidden precincts of the Palace? Confucius said, `Respect ghosts and spirits, bur keep away from them.’ The feudal lords of ancient times, when they went to pay a visit of condolence in their states, made it their practice to have exorcists go before with rush-brooms and peachwood branches to dispel unlucky influences. Only after such precautions did they make their visit of condolence. Now without reason you have taken up an unclean thing and examined it in person when no exorcist had gone before, when neither rush-broom nor peachwood branch had been employed. But your ministers did not speak of the wrong nor did the censors call attention to the impropriety; I am in truth ashamed of them. I pray that Your Majesty will turn this bone over to the officials that it may be cast into water or fire, cutting off for all time the root and so dispelling the suspicions of the empire and preventing the befuddlement of later generations. Thereby men may know in what manner a great sage aces who a million times surpasses ordinary men. Could this be anything but ground for prosperity? Could it be anything but a cause for rejoicing.

If the Buddha has supernatural power and can wreak harm and evil, may any blame or retribution fittingly fall on my person. Heaven be my witness: I will not regret it. Unbearably disturbed and with the utmost sincerity I respectfully present my petition that these things may be known.

Your servant is truly alarmed, truly afraid.

Now notice that Han Yu raises some important issues here that relate to some of the great themes of our class. Note that there is an insistence that religions are not necessarily compatible—a Prothero type view, perhaps—and that religion is very much a matter with practical political consequences. Note also that Han Yu is unhappy with Taoism: curious in view of the tradition that Confucius himself was influenced by the Taoist founder Lao-Tzu—a man we will talk about next time.

[Note: In-class discussion will include selections from the Novak book and from some fo the Confucian poetry here.]