Confucius Essay Research Paper The history of

Confucius Essay, Research Paper

The history of Chinese civilization spans thousands of years and encompasses

countless ideas, beliefs, and societal and political doctrines. However, from a

modern standpoint one distinct perspective prevails above the rest in the manner

and degree it has influenced the development of China. For the previous 2,000

years the teachings of Confucius, and the systems of thought and behavior that

have evolved from them, have had significant effects on Chinese thought,

government institutions, literature and social customs. Confucianism has served

a primary role as a social and moral philosophy and as practiced by many,

especially in the educated upper classes, Confucianism had definite religious

dimensions. The teachings of Confucius served to unite a developing society,

binding together various aspects of civilization and culture into one coherent

body that functions under common values and attitudes. Confucius sought a type

of all encompassing unity for the world and for his people; his wisdom was

intended to serve as guide. In the Analects, a compendium of Confucian

teachings, Confucius said, ‘Be of unwavering good faith and love learning. Be

steadfast unto death in pursuit of the good Way. Do not enter a state which is

in peril, nor reside in one in which the people have rebelled. When the Way

prevails in the world, then show yourself. When it does not, then hide. When the

Way prevails in your own state, to be poor and obscure is a disgrace; but when

the Way does not prevail in your own state, to be rich and honored is a

disgrace.’ (Analects 4.5) This lesson serves well as a paradigm for Confucian

thought; it shows the direction that Confucius aspired toward, and the proper

methods for the journey. Before endeavoring to understand Confucianism and its

connection with China, it is necessary to develop and understanding of China in

the pre-Confucius era, in which this philosophy evolved. The most ancient

evidence of Chinese religious and social civilization dates back to the Shang

dynasty, circa 1500 B.C.E. In this early agricultural society, there is evidence

of some of the basic fundamentals of most Chinese religious thought; the

pursuit, establishment, maintenance and enjoyment of harmony in the earthly

world. During the Zhou dynasty (1122 – 771 B.C.E.), the path initiated by the

Shang was sustained and expanded upon. The Zhou quest for harmony and order led

to the development of some extremely crucial concepts that would directly effect

the development of Confucianism. It was in this era that the notion of Tian, the

force that can be best understood as heaven, first came to light. This later led

to the conception of the idea of the Mandate of Heaven (Tian-ming) from which

rulers derived all power and sense of legitimacy, due to the accordance of their

behaviors with the norms of morality and ritual correctness. In connection with

this, the relatively stable feudal society of Zhou era was responsible for the

emergence of the tao. This principal made cosmic order and harmony possible; the

tao can be thought of as the road or path from which come perfect unity, harmony

and order. This idea played a critical role in the development of Confucianism

and dramatically affected the course of Chinese development. In the eighth

century B.C.E., the Zhou dynasty began to fall apart as barbarous tribes invaded

from the west. This led to the disintegration of Zhou rule and the creation of a

number of contending smaller states hoping to re-unify China under a new

dynasty. This serious breach in the structure of society and the disharmony that

prevailed led to new movements of thought. The sages of this time felt strong

aspirations to find solutions to the numerous problems that surrounded them. It

probably is for this reason that the six-century B.C.E. was characterized by

distinct progress in Chinese thought, and became known as the age of the hundred

philosophers. Foremost in this era, Confucius was born. Kung Fu-tzu was the

given name of the great moral philosopher and teacher, Confucius is merely a

romanized version of this. He is thought to have been born in the principality

of Lu, in what is now Shantung Province, in Northeast China. This is the only

information about Confucius that is known to be unyielding fact; almost all of

the biographical information on this man is derived from the Life of Confucius

by the historian Szema Ch’ien. Nearly all the data contained in this book is

held to be accurate, being derived from dependable oral traditions. Confucius is

said to have embarked on his quest for knowledge, order and harmony in an effort

to dispel the conflict and dissension that existed in his time. Throughout his

life he would seek to bring about a return to the ancient values, through a

standardization of rituals, the creation of a system of rationalized feudalism

and, most importantly, the establishment of ethical relationships based upon the

principals of reciprocity and benevolence. Confucius most likely started his

career in a very lowly position (although some scholars dispute this) and

through his intense devotion and perseverance was able to rise to a respected

position in the civil service. It was at this time that Confucius is thought to

have traveled widely in China, studying ancient rites and ceremonies. His

devotion to antiquity was genuine and passionate. Confucius said, ‘I transmit

but do not create. I have been faithful to and loved antiquity’ (Analects 7.1)

Confucius then developed a reputation for overtly criticizing government

policies, arguing that the governments of the time were leading the people away

from li, a Confucian inspiration that can best be understood as a amalgamation

of the terms ritual, custom, propriety and manners. Because of this Confucius

began to devote the preponderance of his labors to teaching and edification.

Confucius is accredited to have said, ‘I silently accumulate knowledge; I study

and do not get bored; I teach others and do not grow weary – for these things

come naturally to me.’(Analects 7.2) Confucius quickly began to develop a

reputation as a prominent instructor and sage. Even though he had ceased to

function as a political administrator, his teachings were steeped in politics

and state affairs. In fact, an inordinate number of Confucian pupils achieved

great success as office seekers. In his last years, Confucius wholeheartedly

devoted himself to editing the classical books of Chinese history now known as

the Wu Jing or Five Classics. In these books Confucius sought to permanently

preserve the ancient knowledge that he valued so dearly, and it seems to serve

as a perfect legacy for this distinguished academic. Confucianism can be most

easily understood by breaking its complexities into distinct vocabulary, in fact

Confucius himself was reasonably obsessed with terminology. Li, the principle of

social conduct to be observed by the moral personality that assumes the form of

ritual and social order, was Confucius’ answer to the problems of his era. As he

saw the state of affairs, the adamant ritulization of life would facilitate the

creation of a harmonious society. The first step in the Confucian program to

establish the proper order of things, tao, was to reform the government.

Confucius’ approach to this is quite distinct when looking from a western point

of view that favors a democratic and egalitarian ideal. Confucius believed that

direction must come from the uppermost levels of the state, thus working its way

down to everyone. However Confucius held no value in any type of official

coercion. Instead he believed that if the leaders were accomplished and virtuous

(te), and they lived by li, that the people would correct their behavior by

their own initiative. In the Analects, Confucius said, Lead the people with

legal measures and regulate them by punishment, and they will avoid wrongdoing

but will have no sense of honor and shame. Lead them with the power of virtuous

example and regulate them by the rules of li, and they will have a sense of

shame and will thus rectify themselves. (Analects 2.3) Confucius sought to

create an environment in which people would naturally be harmonious and thus

virtuous. He believed that harmony was an unavoidable result of li, because li

was a perfect reflection of cosmic order. From a Confucian perspective, any land

that acted according to li was civilized, and any land that did not was not

civilized. This idea was even expanded to claim that a in populace that did not

abide by li, the people were not fully human, in the sense that they had no

means of realizing the full potential of humanity, called ren. Another important

aspect of Confucianism was an ideal known as chun-tzu, which is contemporarily

defined as superior man or true gentleman. Confucius likely envisioned this

concept due to his struggles against the resolute privileges of the feudal

hereditary aristocracy of his day. Confucius saw many of the aristocracy using

their political power to protect their own wealth and status, which he saw as a

gross distortion of the proper order. The superior man of Confucian thought was

a man honored for individual merit and character, which were derived from

meticulous adherence to the Way of the ancients. The chun-tzu was embodied in a

man who was above egotism, a man who thoroughly understood li, and a man of ren,

altruistic and humane. Confucian thought continued to flourish and develop in

China, even long after the death of Confucius himself. Around the tenth century

a great revival of Confucianism spread across China, triggered by two

philosopher brothers, Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi. They ignited the spark that would

lead to Neo-Confucianism with their highly respected commentaries on the

Confucian classics. Neo-Confucianism blended the old Confucian way with

Buddhism, which had a significant following in China. From old Confucianism it

derived an emphasis on moral principals, proper order, rule governed behavior

and harmonious human relationships. But these ideas were filtered through a

Buddhist perspective, creating the notion that all thought, ordinary experience,

and performance of rituals are based on a single, absolute ultimate reality.

This absolute was called Li, though had a completely different meaning than the

original use of this word. In the Neo-Confucian outlook, Li comprises the ideas

of reason, principle and order. This was the fundamental principle that governed

the thought of the Neo-Confucian, it became a metaphysical entity to them; Li

was reality itself. Along with this newfound fixation with the absolute,

Neo-Confucians also developed a clear definition of the most important Confucian

virtues, called the five moral principals. Ju Xi, a prominent Neo-Confucian

philosopher said, Man’s original nature is pure and tranquil. Before it is

aroused, the five moral principals of his nature, called humanity,

righteousness, propriety, wisdom and faithfulness, are complete. As his physical

form appears, it comes into contact with external tings and is aroused from

within. As it is aroused from within, the seven feelings, called pleasure,

anger, sorrow, joy, love, hate and desire, ensue. As feelings become strong and

increasingly reckless, his nature becomes damaged. For this reason the

enlightened person controls his feelings so that they will be in accord with the

Mean. He rectifies his mind and nourishes his nature. (Ibid 2.3) According to

this train of thought, emotions are grounded in Li, the absolute, and are

stimulated by the activities of everyday life. By nature the emotions, even

anger and hate, are not considered bad. But when the emotions become over

stimulated, a disparity may appear between one’s inner essential nature and ones

outer, conscious life. When this takes place, one’s actions will no longer be in

accordance with the Principal and disharmony will persist unbridled. In addition

to Neo-Confucianism’s emphasis on emotional control, the old moral and political

stance of Confucius was held to be paramount. Respecting the ancient knowledge

in the true Confucian manner, Neo-Confucianism continued to emphasize the

regulation of public and private lives. Everything was to be kept in its proper

place, and ritualized social patterns prevailed. Enacting a firmly regulated

social life was inner harmony and the direct experience of the ultimate Li.

Confucianism almost exclusively regulated the social and political structure of

China from the eleventh century through the nineteenth. Much can be ascertained

about China by studying this phenomenon. Confucianism was always an elite

tradition, and it generally did not appeal greatly to the masses. For this

reason, in Confucian ruled China, few attempts were made to root out and

dissolve other religious practices and institutions. Although this could have

likely been done without excessive effort, the original Confucian stance of

rule-by-example was strictly adhered to. Thus the Confucian attitude toward

Daoist, Buddhist and folk religious practices was one of bemused toleration. It

only catalyzed into active persecution if one of the groups entered a position

were it was a threat to political stability. Confucianism held its elated

position in China through intense promotion of Confucian institutions acting on

the state, village, occupational guild and family level. At the state level,

Confucian practices and many groups were strictly adherent to rituals. The

educated elite, intellectuals and office holders were often devout supporters of

Confucian structure. Twice a year government officials gathered at Confucian

temples to practice determined rituals. These rituals were quite important,

serving to show the officials’ loyalty to the state and their loyalty to the

ideas of chun-tzu, the superior man. In the Imperial court, there was also an

intense devotion to Confucian rituals. The emperor himself played a vital role

in most of these practices, symbolically acting on behalf of the entire Chinese

nation. Throughout the entire record of Chinese history as we know it today, few

things remained constant. Yet because of the extent at which Confucianism was

integrated into Chinese society, politics and daily life, it stayed invariable

for many hundreds of years. Confucian thought played a dominant role in the

gradual development and evolution of a society. Even though dramatic changes

have reshaped China in the recent history, it seems like many Confucian

attitudes and ideas must still influence the way Chinese think and live. Few

factors could have helped to shape the Chinese character more dramatically. It

is for this reason that I see Confucianism as a valuable tool for developing a

lucid and precise understanding of China. To understand Confucianism similar to

understanding the manner in which a river helps to shape a canyon. Confucianism

holds many direct contrasts to the majority of western the philosophies that I

have experienced. Understanding this has helped me bridge the cultural and

philosophical gap between China and the West that has hindered my comprehension

in the past.


Wright, Arthur F. Confucianism and Chinese Civilization. Stanford: Stanford

University Press, 1975. ? Dawson, Raymond. Confucius. New York: Hill and Wang,

1982. ? Paley, Alan L. Confucius: Ancient Chinese Philosopher. Charlotteville:

SamHar Press, 1973.


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