Confucianism

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Kong Qiu or K'ung Ch'iu or 孔夫子 is the figure whose philosophy defined the cultural boundaries of East Asia. His name is usually given in English as "Confucius," which is derived from a 16th century Latinization of his honorific title, "Master Kong" (Kong fuzi / K'ung fu-tzu), by Jesuit missionaries. The name of his most famous disciple Meng Zi or 孟子 was also Latinized, to "Mencius."

He probably lived from 551 to 479 BCE. This was during the time of the Hundred Schools of Thought, China's philosophical golden age. His official birthday, September 28 in the Western calendar, is still celebrated as Teachers' Day in Taiwan.

Confucius may have been the first person in East Asia to establish his own complete system of thought. Certainly he is the first that history reliably records. Confucius was the founding figure against which all future thinkers in China would measure and define themselves for the next two thousand years.

Confucius' influence has been immense, though like Jesus and Marx he is often praised or blamed for positions that he never took, or even for some that he actively opposed. During the four or five centuries after his death, his followers specialized in teaching literacy, and primary and secondary education became the foundation and fortress of Confucian thinking. This domination of education and the near-universal practice of teaching literacy through the texts of the Confucian school, were what enabled its doctrines to survive long periods of intellectual barrenness, and flourish again after being banished to the sidelines for centuries, most notably during the golden age of Buddhism and Daoism between the second and seventh centuries CE.

For centuries, beginning under the Han (206 BCE - 220 CE), the Confucian "canon" (eventually codified as the Five Canons and Four Books) and the interpretations and independent works of his principal orthodox followers (Mencius, and for the last thousand years of the school, Zhu Xi) was the subject material of the Chinese civil service exams, which were last held as late as 1905. His observations are studied by every Japanese school child in modern Japan and posted on subway advertisements as a public service. Some polities in Southeast Asia heavily influenced by Chinese culture, such as Singapore, have made an ostentatious point of upholding his "principles," while at the same time distorting them almost beyond recognition. In Asian immigrant Christian Churches in the United States, sermons often interpret scripture in a way subconsciously colored by a Confucian view of life.

The life and thought of Confucius are known to us from a variety of sources, with uneven and sometimes undeterminable reliability. Some early works are clearly spoofing his positions, the most famous of these being the brilliantly (and strangely respectfully) crafted but completely fictional "Confucius" of the earlier parts of the Daoist philosophical work Zhuangzi. There are also more clearly malicious fictions, such as the "Robber Zhe" chapter in the so-called "Outer Chapters" of the Zhuangzi. Still others, such as the thinkers of the Mohist school, his earliest ideological opponents, and certain writers of the Legalist school, employ the universal polemical device of identifying all Confucians with the follies of the school's dullest and least distinguished members.

The safest and most usual gateway into the thought of Confucius is through the collection entitled the "Arranged Sayings" in Chinese (Lun yu), usually referred to in English as the Analects, a borrowing by the early translator James Legge of the Greek term for disconnected philosophical fragments (literally, "crumbs that have fallen to the floor"). The Analects was not authored in the modern sense by Confucius, who wrote no book himself. Unfortunately, its early textual history is very obscure. The work is only loosely ordered, but differences in style and treatment suggest it was composed in several stages at different dates: traditional Chinese scholarship separates it into at least three layers. One plausible suggestion is that the core of the text was formed from the notes of Confucius' immediate disciples -- who are represented in the Analects itself as sometimes immediately writing down what the Master had said -- and this initial effort was supplemented and expanded by a wider and wider search for relevant information in the two or three succeeding generations, resulting in the inclusion of material that is at best highly worked over and systematized, and perhaps entirely speculative or consciously fictional. The various translations by D. C. Lau contain appendices that summarize the received wisdom on this subject, and it has inspired a number of recent studies, some of which should be avoided as showing definite signs of PhD-itus.

Confucius viewed himself as the exponent of the political and social philosophies of the early Zhou dynasty kings. The royal family that founded that dynasty created an account of their right to rule that resulted in a polity of exceptional quality and unparalleled longevity. (It has not stopped yet. Scratch a Chinese communist and you'll draw Confucian blood.) They taught that Heaven gave the provisional right to rule to a king (and to his descendants) for as long as they did a competent job, competence being defined as the health and welfare of the people they ruled. If the ruler faltered or turned lax, Heaven would strip him of his "mandate" and appoint a successor (by definition, this successor would be the rebel who succeeded in mounting the throne). The Confucians claimed the right, and the responsibility, to keep the ruler on the right track by remonstrating with him when he placed his mandate to rule in jeopardy by wrong-headed policies. (That's why the students risked death in the Tiananmen incident.) China was ruled first by a king and later by an emperor, but it was governed on a day-to-day basis by a meritocracy. Need for people educated in the Confucian political and social philosophy gave rise to the original civil service and the original civil service organizations.

After Confucius died, little changed for one generation. Then, around 350 B.C., arose a man to act as Plato to his Socrates.

Meng Ke (known, via the Jesuits, as "Mencius" in English) taught a political and social philosophy that is strikingly modern. In the political sphere he could easily be taken for a Roosevelt democrat. In the psychological sphere he sounds very much like the famed American psychiatrist Karl Menninger.

It is true that Confucian political philosophy, as it became coopted by generation upon generation of rulers of men, put a strong focus on hierarchy as right and proper, in contrast to competing schools of thought in East Asia which had focused on totalitarian use of reward and punishment to exact total obedience to the emperor. Even in its degenerate form, Confucianism notes the superior party's duty to be beneficient towards the inferior party, but it stresses the inferior party's duty to respect and be obedient towards the superior party, to maintain one's position in the social hierarchy, etc. The unequal relationships of husband and wife, parent and child, older sibling and younger sibling, master and servant, king and citizen all become biased in their interpretation in favor of the "superior" party. Nevertheless, China resisted becoming a nation state as known in the West. In practice, the individual viewed himself as owing a greater allegiance to his extended family than to the nation. In fact, the concept of allegiance to the nation really did not have much meaning until China met its equals on the world stage. Until that time there was only Zhong Guo (the Central Kingdom) and a gaggle of peripheral and insignificant nations. Foreign conquest dynasties, Mongol and Manchurian, functioned as speed bumps. Contact with the West was a sudden descent into a jagged gully from which China is only now extracting itself. During the century or so when China was emerging as a nation state, a key question was whether a son of the Yellow River owes his duty first to his grandfather and or first to the sovereign.

While Confucianism has profounded influenced most of East Asia, the Asian tradition of Polyreligiousity has caused its influence to be counted in different ways in different places. In China the description Chinese Folk Religion applies to people whose beliefs and practices are a mix of Confucianism and other philosophies and religious beliefs such as Taoism, Buddhism and ancestor worship. In Japan, Confucianism is typically classified as a philosophical view held by people who are classified as adherents of Buddhism and/or Shintoism. Confucianism also influences the thinking of many New Religions.

Primary texts:

The Analects of Confucius

The Mencius

(The best translations are by D. C. Lau and appear in the Penguin series. Besides being of the highest quality in terms of the translator's understanding of and ability to translate the original Chinese, Lau has also provided a significant service to the Western reader by explaining these books in their total context in his introductions.)

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