Tuesday, June 25, 2019


The influential Chinese thinker Confucius (Chinese: Kongzi) came into the world in the Warring States Period which lasted from 475 to 211 C.E.  The era confirmed the political fragmentation of the once pervasive Zhou realm, whose original coherence attracted many later scholars as a Golden Age.  In some respects China’s later system of competing states recalls the contemporary Greek system of the poleis, or city states. Arguably, the turbulence of the times in which he lived prompted Confucius to posit a regenerative model of social harmony based on accord with the mandate of Tian (“Heaven”).  In this approach he perceived the well-regulated family as the template for larger social entities.

Kongzi (traditionally 551-479 C.E.) was born in the small state of Lu.  His father, a military official named Kong He, died when the boy was only three years old.  He was raised in poverty by his mother, but nonetheless managed to secure an education.  Much of his adult career was consumed by a frustrating quest for preferment by the rulers of Lu and other states. At the same time his ideas attracted a circle of disciples who were to honor his memory by propagating his teaching, as seen primarily in the book known as The Analects (Lunyu).

Other followers arose after his death, above all Mencius (Mengzi) and Xunzi.  Their outlook differed, with Mencius favoring human goodness, while Xunzi denied it.

Confucius’ reputed editing of the Book of Songs and the Book of Rites, though surely a legend, suggests his reverence for China’s cultural  heritage, an emphasis that has long played a key role in the country’s ethos.

In his thinking, Confucius was mainly concerned with ethical issues centering on social harmony and maintaining accord with cosmic forces. These overarching forces were sometimes designated by the common term Dao (meaning “the Way”) but more frequently expressed as Tian (or “Heaven”), embodying the idea of hierarchy.  In this way, a cascade of orderliness spreads from the primordial source to pervade the many institutions cherished by humanity.  This process is true, but only if we observe it astutely.

The concept of Tian had evolved from the earlier notion of Shangdi, or “God on High.”  For Confucius, this supernal power had three major capacities: 
  1. it stipulates and sustains our concept of moral goodness, 
  2. it requires human agents to actualize its will, and 
  3. perspicacity is needed to assess its at times inscrutable commands regarding human affairs.

Apart from his concern with this supreme entity, Confucius is sometimes asserted to have had no use for the supernatural. What is sacred is the here and now.  In actual fact, though, his emphasis on the Rites reveals a respect for mysterious entities towards whom observances were traditionally directed. 

Confucius held that, properly regarded, the basic principles of moral behavior are clear and discernible, so that some regard him as a precursor of today’s virtue ethics. In this regard, humaneness (called “ren”) is a central value.  Yet it cannot be taken for granted, for this happy state must be attained by diligent self-cultivation in accord with the mandate decreed by the higher powers.

Realism requires the recognition that not all humans stand on the same level of consciousness. Hence the concept of the Superior Man.  This prized state is not hereditary, but follows from making good choices in accord with due diligence.

Confucius practiced a respectful, but creative allegiance to past exemplars, an approach perhaps best termed dynamic traditionalism.  Arguably, this method, combining the new and the old, was best captured by latter-day admirer Ezra Pound in his adjuration to “Make it New.”  To be sure, Confucius denied that he offered any innovations, but this claim must be taken with a grain of salt.

His close attention to texts engendered a general theory of language, the Rectification of Names (Zhengming), a practice designed to bring terms into accord with reality. In fact, social disorder often stems from failure to call things by their proper names.  This terminological diligence is a necessary step in achieving the status of the Superior Man.

Above all, Confucianism is practical.  A good life can be measured by modest accomplishments, such a strolling in the evening, making music, and arranging convivial gatherings.

The broad range of themes characterizing the work of Confucius forbids any single explanation of the essence of his thought.  Yet all in all, the symbiosis between his mind and the overall sensibility of the Chinese people is extraordinary. 

In fact, the influence of Confucius long persisted in China. A notable aspect of this concern was Neo-Confucianism, the revival that began in the middle of the ninth century, reaching its peak two centuries later. In due course the movement came to embrace a broad spectrum of adherents: speculative thinkers, annotators, poets, artists, physicians, historians, and government civil servants. By the fourteenth century, the official version of the system, known as daoxue (“the teaching of the way”), or lixue (“the teaching of principle”), had become firmly ensconced in the curriculum for the imperial civil-service examination system.  In addition, the Neo-Confucian movement spread to Korea and Japan, where significant independent contributions were made.  

Another enhancement to the renown of the Chinese thinker came from abroad.  Beginning in the seventeenth century Western Jesuit missionaries, inspired by the Chinese elites among whom they mingled, cultivated an ideal picture of the Chinese savant.  It is to them that the Latinized version of the name, “Confucius,” is due. The admiration expressed in their writings was then taken up by Enlightenment figures, such as Leibniz and Voltaire.

Modernization pressures in twentieth-century China diminished the reputation of Confucius, a disparagement culminating during the Communist Cultural Revolution.  Yet in recent years the People’s Republic has reversed course, financing a chain of Confucius Institutes.  There are now internationally some 500 of these, including 90 in the US.  Generally attached to universities, the Institutes are dedicated to the promotion of Chinese language and culture.

See Also:
Ancient Chinese Oracle Bones; Creation of Taoism.
Further Reading:
Annping Chin, Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
David Jones, ed., Confucius: Contemporary Encounters with the Analects, Chicago: Open Court, 2008.
Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson, Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages, New York: Crown, 2010.

Bryan W. Van Norden, ed., Confucius and the Analects: New Essays, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 


Post a Comment

<< Home