Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604
The first thinker in China to address the problem of the wars and uncertainty that characterized the breakdown of the feudal system was Confucius (K’ung Fu Tzu), who lived from 551 b.c.e. to 479 b.c.e. His solution to the problem of societal breakdown was to return to an idealized form of feudalism. Such a system would be based on the family; the king would act as father and role model for his subjects, who in turn would behave like filial children. While emphasizing hereditary rights, Confucius also called upon kings to act in a kingly fashion and upon noblemen to act with noble integrity. If this were done, laws would be unnecessary.
The next major Confucian, Mencius (371-289 b.c.e.), in response to the accelerated decline of feudalism, added to the responsibilities of the king welfare projects and the requirement to hire officials on the basis of merit and education rather than birthright. Mencius stipulated that those who worked with their minds were entitled to be the ruling class, thus creating the idea of a literocracy rather than a hereditary aristocracy. A ruler who did not provide for his people should be replaced by another member of his family.
The next major Confucian, Xun Zi (298-238 b.c.e.) expanded on Confucian themes, but unlike Confucius and Mencius, who either implied or asserted that human nature was good, Xun Zi argued that human beings were born evil. It was human nature to seek to be good in order to protect oneself, thereby engaging in a form of social contract with the state. All three philosophers considered that human beings could be good. To Confucius, the ruler and the nobility had to provide the proper role models. Mencius added the obligation to provide education and welfare to the weak and needy. Xun Zi’s ideal ruler, however, could also mete out rewards and punishments in order to weed out incorrigibles and promote social harmony.
During the Eastern Chou and Ch’in Dynasties (771-210 b.c.e.), the Confucian school was neither large nor powerful. In fact, the prime minister of the Ch’in (221-210 b.c.e.) persecuted Confucians despite the fact that he had been Xun Zi’s student. During the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e. to 9 c.e.), Emperor Han Wu Ti (140-86 b.c.e.) made Confucianism the official school of China. This action was primarily the result of efforts of the emperor’s minister Tung Chung-shu (179-104 b.c.e.), who combined Confucianism with other schools and also suggested that a ruler was a cosmic figure who coalesced the forces of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. No doubt the prospect of having well-behaved citizens who were loyal to the throne also contributed to the emperor’s decision.
By the end of the seventh century c.e., there was a regularized examination system that required prospective officials to know the Confucian canon by memory. In this way, the imperial throne sought to ensure that its officials would all adhere to the high moral standards of Confucianism. Subsequent neo-Confucian thinkers cemented the symbiotic relationship between the absolute throne and the Confucian literocracy by assuming responsibility for many of the failures of any given monarch or dynasty. Confucians accepted the displacement of one dynasty by another, ascribing such changes to the moral deficiencies of dynastic family. They did, however, fight tenaciously against any efforts to alter the system itself.
In 1911, when the last dynasty fell, an already weakened Confucian literocracy fell as well, although the religious and social practices of Confucianism have survived to some degree in many places in Asia.
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