Confucius

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Born late in the Chou dynasty, Confucius was reared in poverty by his mother. He studied ancient texts and learned the arts of a courtier. Early in his life he held minor public posts, but is best known for his teachings during his later life. The Chou Dynasty had fallen into a state of disintegration by the time Confucius was born, and the established authority and traditional rituals were violated daily. During this time of social upheaval Confucius emerged as a teacher who valued constancy, trustworthiness, and the reestablishment of the rational feudal order of previous times. Even though he was respected as a great teacher he never held a major government post. Late in his life he became a wandering philosopher-teacher. Like Socrates of Greece, Confucius became known as a teacher primarily through the preservation of his teachings by his disciples. From 206 b.c.e. until the twentieth century the philosophy of Confucius, known as Confucianism, dominated China and many other East Asian countries.

While Confucius and his philosophy enjoyed almost complete acceptance for more than two millennia, he did attract some objections. Confucius held a minor official position in the year 500 b.c.e., based mostly on his reputation as a teacher. Although he supported ritual as a form of moral improvement, he downplayed the spiritual aspects of it. He was forced to resign from his position because his denial of the spiritual was deemed improper. Due to this event and his ideas about ritual he was never again able to obtain a government position. Two hundred and fifty years after Confucius’ death the Chou Dynasty finally came to an end. The Ch’in Dynasty came to power in 211 b.c.e. and put an end to free philosophical thought. Confucianism in turn was outlawed and writings about it were burned. The Ch’in Dynasty was short lived, however. In 206 b.c.e. the new Han Dynasty instituted Confucianism as the state philosophy.

With the communist assumption of power in 1949, Confucianism again officially came to an end as the state philosophy on mainland China. Confucian belief in tradition and hierarchy are directly opposed to the Marxist beliefs that the People’s Republic of China then adopted. Confucianism remained a major philosophy among East Asians outside of mainland China.

Further Reading:

Allito, Guy. The Last Confucian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Based on the life and work of Liang Shuming, who tried to reestablish Confucian ideas in the early twentieth century. Includes his attempt to use Confucius as a basis for reform that would revitalize rural China. His goal was to stop the growing influence of communism. Discusses the different reactions to China’s problems by Liang and the communist leader, Mao Zedong.

Berthrong, John H. Transformations of the Confucian Way. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. A lucid guide through the many changes to the canon of Confucianism.

Confucius. The Analects (Lun-yü). Translated by D. C. Lau. 2d ed. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1992. An excellent translation of the Lunyu, with a good introduction to Confucius’s ideas and his life.

Creel, H. G. Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. A readable, nontechnical summary that puts Confucius in the overall context of Chinese philosophy.

Dawson, Raymond. Confucius. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. A short, general introduction and biography of Confucius written for a series on great individuals. Stresses Confucius’s ethical and moral influence.

Dawson, Raymond. Introduction to The Analects, by Confucius. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A very good introduction, useful for the general reader.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1998. An interpretive essay that attempts to explain Confucius’s attention to ritual (li) and to show how this can be reconciled with his humanism.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. “Reweaving the ‘One Thread’ of the Analects.” Philosophy East and West: A Quarterly of Comparative Philosophy, January, 1990. Deals with the ancient problem of the “unity” of the text.

Liu, Shu-hsien. Understanding Confucian Philosophy: Classical and Sung-Ming. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Liu attempts to uncover the key to Confucian philosophy through its spiritual origin.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985. Contains a long chapter on Confucius that includes extensive comparisons with ancient Western philosophers. Schwartz emphasizes Confucius’s role as a teacher who was both a perpetuator of tradition and an innovator.

Sloate, Walter H., and George A. De Vos, eds. Confucianism and the Family. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. A collection of essays that examine the psychocultural aspects of the Confucian family.

Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Records of the Historian. Translated by Tang Nguok Kiong. Singapore: Asiapac, 1990. Contains a translation of the biography of Confucius written c. 90 b.c.e.

Confucius

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1210

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Confucius lived at a time when the ancient empire of China was being broken up into numerous feudal states, whose struggles for power or survival created an urgent need for able state officials. For the first time in Chinese history, it became possible for a commoner to attain high court position and to effect political changes. A new class of literati was thus formed in Chinese society. As one of the forerunners of that class, Confucius was greatly distressed by the chaotic situation of his time, which was characterized by corruption, conspiracy, and usurpation in courts; harsh measures of oppression carried out against the people; and aggressive wars between states. He believed that this was a result of the moral degeneration of the rulers and that the only way to correct it was to teach and to practice morality.

Unable to persuade the rulers of his time to listen to his morally oriented political advice, Confucius devoted his life to teaching a large number of private students, in order to foster a special group of elite scholars (junzi, or superior people) who would serve the needs of the time and realize his political ideals. His teaching was made authoritative by the Han emperors in the second century b.c.e. and became the official Chinese ideology until the beginning of the twentieth century. The earliest biography of Confucius was written by Sima Qian in his Shi-ji (Records of the Historian) at the beginning of the first century b.c.e.

The Analects is a collection that consists mainly of Confucius’ teachings, comments, and advice, along with some contributions from his main disciples. Also included are short records and descriptions of issues that concerned Confucius. The work was compiled and edited by the students of Confucius’ disciples a century or so after his death. It was beautifully written, and many of the sayings contained in it became proverbs and everyday maxims. It is one of the most reliable texts among the Chinese classics, and it provides the most accurate information about Confucius and his teachings. The primary text of Confucianism, the Analects was the most influential book in China until the early twentieth century.

Junzi and Self-cultivation

Junzi (or chün tzu) originally meant the son of a nobleman. Confucius used the term to mean a person with a noble character. It means an elite, superior man in a moral sense. The way to be a junzi is not by birth but by self-cultivation, which for Confucius is a synonym for learning. A junzi is a true scholar—that is, an elite scholar.

Confucius was famous for not discriminating on the basis of the social origins of his students. Anyone could choose to engage in learning, and thus to cultivate himself and become an elite scholar. It was not Confucius’ aim, however, to turn everybody into junzi. He was characteristically practical and accepted the fact that his society was a hierarchical one. The majority belonged in the category of the inferior man, who was not required to espouse the high morals of the junzi. In fact, to be a junzi means to sacrifice one’s own interests for the benefit of others. It is only natural to allow the majority to concentrate on their own interests instead of asking them to sacrifice themselves for morality’s sake, given the social condition that the majority was governed by the rulers through the hands of elite scholars.

Ren and Li

Ren (humanity or benevolence) is the leading principle for self-cultivation. To be ren is to love others, though one should still differentiate in the degree of love among different social relationships. The love that is advocated is ultimately, however, and in its highest sense, directed toward the majority. In other words, one should never do to others what is undesirable to oneself.

Li is the principle of acting in accordance with custom, of preserving a special code of ceremony, and of performing the rites appropriate to one’s social status. The emphasis on li is not only a way of guiding one’s moral behavior for self-cultivation but also plays an important role in integrating governing with the teaching of morality.

Governing by Morals Rather than by Law. For Confucius, the ideal government is a moral government. It does not govern by rules, regulations, or laws, but by taking care of people’s interests and teaching people to be moral. The rulers themselves must act morally, in order to set a good example for the people to follow. Li dictates the norm of proper social behavior for both rulers and the people. Observing li keeps all people in their social positions and thus makes the society stable. Confucius believed that a stable society would naturally become prosperous.

Further Reading:

Allito, Guy. The Last Confucian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Based on the life and work of Liang Shuming, who tried to reestablish Confucian ideas in the early twentieth century. Includes his attempt to use Confucius as a basis for reform that would revitalize rural China. His goal was to stop the growing influence of communism. Discusses the different reactions to China’s problems by Liang and the communist leader, Mao Zedong.

Berthrong, John H. Transformations of the Confucian Way. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. A lucid guide through the many changes to the canon of Confucianism.

Confucius. The Analects (Lun-yü). Translated by D. C. Lau. 2d ed. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1992. An excellent translation of the Lunyu, with a good introduction to Confucius’s ideas and his life.

Creel, H. G. Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. A readable, nontechnical summary that puts Confucius in the overall context of Chinese philosophy.

Dawson, Raymond. Confucius. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. A short, general introduction and biography of Confucius written for a series on great individuals. Stresses Confucius’s ethical and moral influence.

Dawson, Raymond. Introduction to The Analects, by Confucius. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A very good introduction, useful for the general reader.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1998. An interpretive essay that attempts to explain Confucius’s attention to ritual (li) and to show how this can be reconciled with his humanism.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. “Reweaving the ‘One Thread’ of the Analects.” Philosophy East and West: A Quarterly of Comparative Philosophy, January, 1990. Deals with the ancient problem of the “unity” of the text.

Liu, Shu-hsien. Understanding Confucian Philosophy: Classical and Sung-Ming. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Liu attempts to uncover the key to Confucian philosophy through its spiritual origin.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985. Contains a long chapter on Confucius that includes extensive comparisons with ancient Western philosophers. Schwartz emphasizes Confucius’s role as a teacher who was both a perpetuator of tradition and an innovator.

Sloate, Walter H., and George A. De Vos, eds. Confucianism and the Family. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. A collection of essays that examine the psychocultural aspects of the Confucian family.

Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Records of the Historian. Translated by Tang Nguok Kiong. Singapore: Asiapac, 1990. Contains a translation of the biography of Confucius written c. 90 b.c.e.

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