Debated during the Warring States Period and forbidden during the short-lived Qin dynasty, Confucianism was chosen by Han emperor Han Wu Di and used as a political system and a kind of state religion. Despite loss of influence during the Tang dynasty, Confucianist doctrine remained mainstream Chinese orthodoxy for two millennia, until the beginning of 20th century.
Taoism and Buddhism are two other systems of thought with a major influence on China but, during the Song Dynasty, Zhu Xi and other thinkers built a renewed Confucianism integrating their mystical aspirations into a syncretic system referred in the West as to Neo-Confucianism.
Development of early Confucianism
Confucius was a man of letters worried about the troubled times he lived in. He went from place to place trying to spread his political ideas and influence the many kings contending for supremacy of China. The loss of might (or, said in a Chinese way, the loss of Dao) of the previous Zhou emperors drove China to permanent civil war and many wished to reunify the country (although the contention that China was unified previously is debatable). Deeply persuaded he had a mission on Earth ("If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no use for me to change its state." Analects XVIII. 6.), Confucius tirelessly promoted the ancient virtues of illustrious kings, as the Duke of Zhou, trying to get sufficient political power and found a new dynasty, as when he planned to accept an invitation from a rebel and "make a Zhou dynasty in the East" (Analects XV. 5). In this respect, his thinking may be said to be political. However, as the common saying Confucius is a "King without a crown" shows, he never did gain the opportunity to apply his ideas, was expelled much of the time and eventually went back to his homeland to spend the last part of his life teaching.
The Analects of Confucius, considered the closest we have to a primary source for his thoughts, relates discussions with his disciples in short sayings. As this book is a compilation of snatches of conversation, questions and answers, or slices of Confucius' life, there is no description of a coherent system of thought. Instead of using deductive reasoning and the law of non-contradiction, like many Western philosophers, he used tautology and analogy to explain his ideas. Because of this, Western readers may think he had no clear ideas on what he wanted, but he also said "I seek a unity all pervading" (Analects XV. 3., trad. Legge) and "There is one single thread binding my way together." (IV.15. trad. Lau).
The first drafts of a real system may be due to disciples or disciples of disciples, but firstly to Zi Si, Confucius' grandson. During the philosophically fertile period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, great early figures of Confucianism like Mencius and Xun Zi (not to be confused with Sun Zi) developed Confucianism into an ethical and political doctrine. Both had to fight contemporary ideas and gain the ruler's confidence through argumentation and reasoning.
Some of Xun Zi's disciples, like Han Feizi, became Legalists (a kind of law-based totalitarism very far from virtue-based Confucianism) and helped Qin Shihuangdi to unify China under a very strong state control of every human activity. This was the first Chinese dynasty. It lasted 16 years, during which money, written Chinese characters, laws and the width of an axle were unified, and a great auto da fe declared against all existing books except medical and technical ones. So, historically, Confucius' dream of unification and peace in China came from a school of thought, Legalism, that was almost diametrically opposed to his consistent reliance on rites and virtue.
The spread of Confucianism
Although mostly rejected in Confucius's lifetime, as evidenced by his failure to reach a truly powerful government position, Confucianism spread during the succeeding centuries until Confucian scholars were a regular fixture in most courts. But when the state of Qin unified the nation in 221 BCE, the emperor crushed all non-Legalist thought, as stated above. Because Confucians tried to advise the emperor frequently, and because they usually disagreed with his strict policies (as per their philosophy), they were punished and restricted most severely.
Fortunately for Confucianism, the Qin Dynasty did not last long, and soon afterward a trove of Confucian classics was uncovered hidden in the walls of a scholar's house. The new Han Dynasty approved of the doctrine and sponsored Confucian scholars in the court. Eventually, Emperor Han Wu Di made Confucianism the official state philosophy.
This had a huge effect on Confucianism's popularity. Civil service examinations were instituted to ensure scholarly politicians places of power (as opposed to scheming warlords). Being the state philosophy, Confucianism was the primary subject of these tests, and Confucian classics the primary reading material. Confucian principles were also taught in schools. With Confucianism firmly ensconsed in the minds of the Chinese people and their politicians, the philosophy became the country's foremost, and no serious attempt to replace it came until the advent of Communism in the 20th century.
Rites and Government
"Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, will order themselves harmoniously." Analects II. 3. tr. J. Legge
This pivotal sentence concisely explains an essential difference between legalism and ritualism, and could be seen to point out a key difference between Western and Eastern societies. Confucius explains that with the Law, that punishes after the action and from the outside, people behave well without really understanding (comprising, making it one's) the reason why they should. With the Rite, that works before and from the inside by giving shapes to behaviors and giving self-control on desires, people behave properly because they fear shame and seek honor, as they want not to lose face. A related saying is: "Even if I could try a civil suit as well as anyone, it would be better to bring it about that there were no civil suits." (Analects XII. 13. Tr. A. Waley).
Rite (禮, Lǐ) stands here for a complex set of ideas hard to render in Western languages. Its Chinese character previously had the religious meaning of "sacrifice": 禮 is 示 'altar' on the left of 曲 on 豆 representing a vase full of flowers, offered as a sacrifice to the gods. Its Confucian meaning goes from politeness and propriety to the understanding of everybody's correct place in society. In its external form, Rites are used to distinguish between people, their usage making everyone know at all times who is the younger and who is the elder, who is the guest and who is the host and so forth. In its internal effect, it makes everyone know their duty among others and what one can expect from them.
Internalization is the main process in Rites: behavior formalization becomes progressively internalized into the channelling of desires, and personal cultivation is the inner side of social correctness. This idea goes against the common saying that "The cowl does not make the monk," but in Confucius' mind "sincerity" is used to allow the behaviour to dye the self. Obeying the rites with sincerity makes them the most powerful way to cultivate oneself. Thus, "Respectfulness, without the Rites, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the Rites, becomes timidity; boldness, without the Rites, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the Rites, becomes rudeness." (VIII. 2. Trad. Legge mod.) The Rites can be seen as a means to stay between two opposing qualities, that, unbalanced, or "unharmonized," can become a fault.
Linked to protocol and ceremonies, assigning to everyone a defined place in the society and the behaviors related to this place, Rites divide people into categories, building a hierarchical structure of relationships within the group. But this is almost always balanced in Confucius sayings with reference to Music, which has the role of unifying the hearts. (Music seem to have played a great role in Confucius' life.) Even though the Analects heavily promote (ancient) rites, Confucius himself broke them often, for example when he cried too much at his preferred disciple's death, or when he met a fiendish princess (VI. 28.). Those latter rigid ritualists who forgot that the Rites are "more than presents of jade and silk" (XVII. 12.) were going far from their Master.
How to promote laws is relatively simple in a unified state: a few decrees will do the job. Promoting rites and virtue is done in a different manner. Another key Confucianist concept is that to govern people, one must first govern oneself. The King's personal virtue, when developed enough, is changed into a spreading beneficient influence on the kingdom. This idea is developed further in the Great Learning and is a tight link with Taoist Wu wei: the less the King actually does, the more is done because of him. "He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it." (II. 1. Trad. Legge) This idea that the sole cultivation of Virtue is enough for the King to rule his Kingdom is, on one side, probably related to early shamanistic beliefs, like that of the King (Wang, 王) being the axe between the Sky, the Men and the Earth. Sitting at the right place on the throne, facing south, and once a year at the right time promulgating the new calendar, was, in short, the way to shine forth its might all over the world. Another (complementary) view is that this idea may have been used by ministers and counsellors to prevent aristocratic whims having bad effects on the population.
In teaching there should be no distinction of classes. Analects XV. 39. tr. Legge
Many western admirers of Confucius, like Voltaire or H. G. Creel, have pointed out a very new and quite revolutionary idea of Confucius : He replaced the noblesse of blood by that one of virtue. Jūnzǐ(君子), which meant "noble man" before him, slowly moved in his sayings to a new sense, a little bit like "gentleman" did in English. A virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities can be a "gentleman", whilst a shameless son of King is only a "small man". That he allowed any kind of students to be his disciples (although his teachings were intended to train future rulers), is a clear demonstration that he did fight against previous feudal structures of Chinese society.
Although Confucius claimed he never invented anything and was only transmitting ancient knowledge (Analects VII. 1.), he did produce a number of new ideas. The particular idea of "meritocracy" led to the introduction of the Imperial examination system in China, a system which allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honour to the whole family. It is noticeable that the Western university system, which is now copied in China, has been partly built with an eye on China's one.
Confucius wanted to solve the problems of his times and, in his "flat" way to see things, he decided that choosing a minister regarding its own qualities instead of its filiation was the best way. He praised those ancient Kings leaving their kingdom to the most qualified ones, instead of their elder son. Thus, his direct achievement has been to set up a school producing statemen with a strong sense of state and duty. This is known as Rujia, the School of Literati. As a result, a number of "intellectuals" during the Warring States Period and the early Han dynasty did promote confucianism. After the short and violent dynasty of Qin, Liu Bang founded the Han dynasty and, soon after, the Emperor Han Wu Di decided that China was a confucianist state and launched the examination system. During this period, China did grow a lot and the need for a solid and centralized corporation of government officers able to read and write administrative papers may explain this choice. This corporation of men chosen regarding their knowlegde of ancient scriptures and ability to write political essays (and poetry) was an efficient counter-power against the remaining landowner aristocracy which was threatening the unity of the state.
Since then, Confucianism has been used as a kind of "state religion", with autoritarianism, legitimism, paternalism and submission to authority as political tools to rule China. Actually, most Emperors used a mix of Legalism and Confucianism as ruling doctrine, often using the latter as an embellishing mask for the first. They often used varieties of Taoism or Buddhism as their personal philosophy or religion. As many other canonised men, Confucius himself would certainly have disapproved a lot of what has been done in his name, and Confucianism, in its official rigidly ritualist or zealously devout form, was very far from his humanistic teaching.
Is Confucianism a Religion ?
The Master said, "I have been the whole day without eating, and the whole night without sleeping:-- occupied with thinking. It was of no use. The better plan is to learn." Analects XV. 30. tr. Legge
Zilu asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits. The Master said, "Till you have learnt to serve men, how can you serve ghosts?" Zilu then ventured upon a question about the dead. The Master said, "Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?" Analect XI. 11. tr. Waley (Zilu is an impetuous disciple of Confucius)
It is debatable whether Confucianism should be called a religion. While it prescribes a great deal of ritual, little of it could be construed as worship or meditation in a formal sense. Confucius occasionally made statements about the existence of other-worldly beings that sound distinctly agnostic and humanistic to western ears. Thus it is usually considered an ethical tradition without being considered a religion.
However, its effect on Chinese society and culture has been very deep and parallels the effects of religious movements seen in other cultures. Those who follow the teachings of Confucius are comforted by it; it makes their lives more complete and their sufferings bearable. Moreover, religions in Chinese culture are not mutually exclusive entities — each tradition is free to find its specific niche, its field of specialisation. One can be a Taoist, Christian, Muslim, Shintoist or Buddhist and still profess Confucianist beliefs.
Religious aspects of Confucianism may include worship of ancestors, sacrifice to chthonian spirits and celestial deity or even deification of the Emperor as a Son of Heaven. All these could be traced back to previous Chinese beliefs and, in this respect, are more Chinese than specifically Confucianist.
Some key concepts in Confucian thought
A simple way to appreciate Confucian thought is to consider it as based on varying levels of honesty. The biography of Confucius deals with the origins of this view. In practice, rituals of Confucianism accrued over time and matured into the following form:
Later developments in Confucianism
During the time of Confucius and a couple centuries later, between the noblemen and the "small people" was an intermediate class called the shi (仕), commonly translated as "knights," who filled minor administrative posts and served as junior officers in the army. To these, too, Confucius and his disciples recommended the same virtues prescribed for the gentlemen. In time, the shi were transformed into a class of scholars and bureaucrats who owed their positions to the official civil service examinations. Because these examinations were entirely based on verbatim knowledge of Confucius's books, these people became the staunchest supporters of Confucian orthodoxy.
Confucius considered himself to be little more than an aspirant gentleman; he refused to be addressed as a sage.
Main article : Neo-Confucianism
An important development was Neo-Confucianism, which developed in the 11th century AD as an attempt by Confucian scholars to address questions raised by Taoist and Buddhist metaphysics. The most important of those scholars was Zhu Xi.
Confucianism in the Qing Dynasty
With the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Confucianism become an important part of the attempt by the Qing dynasty to portray themselves as legitimate rulers of China rather than alien invaders. By invoking the ideal of the Confucian sage, the Manchus were able to gain the support of the Chinese gentry and thereby maintain themselves in power for almost 300 years.
The Evidentiary School
The Evidentiary school was a movement in the early Qing dynasty whose goal was to reform society by finding the authentic texts that Confucius wrote. The belief of this movement was that in the distant past, there had been a golden age, of which there were only fragmentary records existent in the writings of Confucius. This fragmentary record was complicated by the fact that the writings were contaminated by Buddhist concepts and ideas. The Evidentiary school believed that by scientifically analyzing the Confucian texts, they could remove what they regarded as Buddhist distortion and find the authentic texts which would lead them to the golden age.
The Fall of the Imperial China
As Imperial China began to fall and China was put under pressure by the Europeans, there came into being several trends in Confucianism. The first was the increasing identification of Confucianism with the Imperial state, in part to counter the argument by Chinese nationalists that the Qing was an alien state. The second was the attempt to recreate Confucianism as a native substitute for Christianity. These pressures increased to the point where he was eventually acknowledged to be a god, and was accordingly worshipped in the state cult.
Kang You Wei
The New Confucian Movement
In the 1960s, it was commonly perceived by Western scholars such as Joseph Levinson that Confucianism was a dead movement forever consigned to the dustbin of history. However, over the next decades, Confucianism underwent a somewhat unexpected resurgence. The various forms of Confucianism that attempt to reconcile it with modernity are known as New Confucianism (not to be confused with the Neo-Confucianism of the Song dynasty).
One of the advocates of New Confucianism is Tu Wei-ming, who is a member of the Boston Confucians. This group attempts to develop the humanistic elements of Confucianism as a philosophy that is allied with religious morality, but yet maintains a secular focus.
The novel The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, features a judge with a form of New Confucian training who comes slowly to return to his roots. It is interesting due to its future setting, and contrast with those of another group, the New Victorians, representing Western philosophy. The novel sparked some interest in Confucian ideas in some circles.
Was there a Confucianism?
One of the problems in discussing the history of Confucianism is the question of what Confucianism is. In this article, Confucianism can be understood roughly as largely as "the stream of individuals claiming Master Kong was the Greatest Master" while it means also "the social group following moral, political and philosophical doctrine of what was considered at a given time as the orthodox understanding of Confucius". In this meaning, this "group" can be identified, during periods of discussions with others doctrines, like Han and Tang dynasty, with a kind of political party. During periods of confucean hegemony like Song, Ming and Qing dynasties, it can be identified roughly with the social class of government officials.
But the reality of such a group is debated. In his book Manufacturing Confucianism, Lionel Jensen claims that our modern image of Confucius and Confucianism, which is that of a wise symbol of learning and a state-sponsored quasi-religion, did not exist in China from time immemorial, but was manufactured by European Jesuits in order to portray Chinese society to Europeans. The notion of Confucianism was then borrowed back by Chinese who used it for their own purposes.
Therefore, we could define Confucianism as any system of thinking that has at its basis the works that are regarded as the "Confucian classics," which was the corpus used in the Imperial examination system. Even this definition runs into problems because this corpus was subject to changes and additions. Neo-Confucianism, for instance, valorized the Great Learning and the Zhong Yong in this corpus, because their themes are close to those of Taoism and Buddhism.
The Script Controversy
The origin of this problem lies with the attempt of Qin Shi Huang Di to burn all of the books. After the Qin dynasty was overthrown by the Han, there was the monumental task of recreating all of the knowledge that was destroyed. The method that was undertaken was to find all of the remaining scholars and have them reconstruct from memory the texts that were lost. This produced the "New Script" texts. Afterwards, people began finding fragments of books that had escaped the burning. Piecing those together produced the "Old Script" texts. One problem that has plagued Confucianism through the ages the question of which set of texts is the more authentic; the "Old Script" texts tend to have greater acceptance.