The role played by Confucius in China’s history is comparable to the one played by Jesus Christ in the history of the West. The comparison holds despite the fact that Confucius was an avowed secularist, neither claiming nor offering any special insights on matters spiritual or cosmological.
Like the ascent of Christianity, Confucianism’s rise was not instant; Confucius himself died a poor and obscure man, and his beliefs had to endure some centuries in the wilderness before they found their way into the halls of worldly power. Once there, however, Confucianism’s impact was as all-pervasive as it was long-lasting. For more than 2000 years, the ideal China was considered by the men who governed the land to be a reflection of the ideals of Confucius. Education in the abstract became synonymous with an exhaustive understanding of the Four Books and the Five Classics — the former being the core explications of Confucianism, the latter being older but equally instructive works on Chinese culture and history supposedly selected and edited by Confucius himself. (We met three of the Five Classics in the last chapter: the Book of Documents, the I Ching, and the Classic of Poetry.) Entry into the government of China was predicated on mastery of these texts, which made perfect sense, given that the government itself was structured in their image. But Confucius’s teachings weren’t reserved for government officials alone: he truly was a moral and ethical philosopher to rival Jesus, and his prescriptions for a life lived in goodness, dignity, and honor became a moral compass to guide the Chinese at every layer of society. Of course, like any great set of ideas that outlive their creator, those of Confucius were deepened, embellished, expanded, and modified to suit subsequent ages. Yet through it all the original master remained unrivaled in his wisdom and glory. Secularist or no, Confucius came to be literally worshiped in China with all the fervor that Christians bestow upon their Son of God: the places where he had been born, lived, and died became sites of pilgrimage, and altars to him became the centerpieces of millions of ordinary homes.
It wasn’t until imperial China was nearing its sad, ragged end that a significant number of Chinese began to openly question the role Confucianism had played in their country for so long. After the fall of the last Chinese dynasty at the turn of the twentieth century, these “reformers” lumped Confucius in with the hidebound Chinese writing system to which he had become so indelibly linked. Both, they said, had had a stultifying effect on China, had been among the principal reasons it had proved so manifestly unable to adapt itself to the challenges of modernity. When the Communists swept into power at mid-century, they launched a concerted assault on Confucianism, with as much fervor as their ideological comrades in the West were deploying against Christianity. During the Cultural Revolution, shrines and monuments to Confucius were torn up by the roots and burned, the master himself made persona non grata in public and private discourse, with brutal consequences for violators of the taboo.
But Confucianism, again like Christianity in the West, proved stubbornly resilient in the face of an atheistic totalitarian state. After the death of Chairman Mao, the new leaders of China joined their brethren in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in making a measure of peace with those things that their people were determined to believe in anyway. Indeed, in recent decades Confucianism has enjoyed a full-blown rehabilitation, in China and all across East Asia. Once blamed for an entire region’s backwardness, it is now praised as the wellspring of the East Asian economic miracle. In this telling, its values of hard work, thriftiness, and loyalty to family, company, and country have fueled China’s rise from one of the poorest nations in the world to a superpower with only one real rival on the world stage.
It all amounts to an awful lot of credit and blame for any one man’s philosophy to navigate, but there you have it. Writing in 1935, when Confucianism was near its lowest ebb, Will Durant attempted to encompass the yang and the yin of it.
The history of China might be written in terms of [Confucianism’s] influence. For generation after generation the writings of the Master were the texts of the official school, and nearly every lad who came through those schools had learned those texts by heart. The stoic conservatism of the ancient sage sank almost into the blood of the people, and gave to the nation, and to its individuals, a dignity and profundity unequaled elsewhere in the world or in history. With the help of this philosophy China developed a harmonious community life, a zealous admiration for learning and wisdom, and a quiet and stable culture which made Chinese civilization strong enough to survive every invasion, and to remould every invader in its own image. Only in Christianity and in Buddhism can we find again so heroic an effort to transmute into decency the natural brutality of men. And today, as then, no better medicine could be prescribed for any people suffering from the disorder generated by an intellectualist education, a decadent moral code, and a weakened fibre of individual and national character, than the absorption of the Confucian philosophy by the nation’s youth.
But that philosophy could not be a complete nourishment in itself. It was well fitted to a nation struggling out of chaos and weakness into order and strength, but it would prove a shackle upon a country compelled by international competition to change and grow. The rules of propriety, destined to form character and social order, became a strait-jacket forcing almost every vital action into a prescribed and unaltered mould. There was something prim and Puritan about Confucianism which checked too thoroughly the natural and vigorous impulses of mankind; its virtue was so complete as to bring sterility. No room was left in it for pleasure and adventure, and little for friendship and love. It helped to keep women in supine debasement, and its cold perfection froze the nation in a conservatism as hostile to progress as it was favorable to peace.
As with Christianity, any exploration of Confucianism as a philosophy must begin with the life of the founder who gave it its name. And like the details of Jesus’s life, the indubitable facts of Confucius’s life are thin enough on the ground to allow for a wide range of interpretations. In the classic telling, Confucius was a principled would-be reformer of government who refused to compromise his ideals for the sake of his career, and ultimately chose a life of exiled obscurity over one of riches and prestige that were grounded in the personal and political corruption he abhorred. But even when reading the most laudatory versions of this telling, it’s hard to avoid the impression that he was also a rigid, pedantic man who must have been rather infuriating to deal with.
Confucius was born on or about September 28, 551 BC, in the feudal state of Lu, which was nominally a part of the Zhou empire but was in reality an independent political actor. His birth name was Kong Qiu: Kong being his family name, Qiu, which means “mountain,” his given name. In later years, his disciples would refer to him as Kong Fuzi — Fuzi meaning “Master.” He would receive his Western name from Jesuit missionaries of the sixteenth century AD, who transliterated the Chinese they were hearing as best they were able. Although the result is not correct according to either the Wade-Giles or the Pinyin standard, “Confucius” has become too ingrained in our collective Western consciousness to suffer changing now; even the most scholarly of Western books on the man and his philosophy still employ it.
Confucian dogma insists that Confucius was a direct descendant of the Shang dynasty emperors, but this is almost certainly a later invention meant to embellish his credentials. The tale is ironic not least in that Confucius himself argued stridently that merit should be prioritized over bloodlines and birthright in Chinese society, with the exception only of the emperor himself; this is in fact one of the aspects of his philosophy that strikes us as most modern today.
But whether deposed royalty or not, his was now a middle-class family of modest means. His father, who was already 70 years old when he was born, died when he was still a toddler, and as a young boy Confucius had to take odd jobs to help support his mother and himself. Nevertheless, he proved a superb student, adept in all of the Six Arts that distinguished an educated man: rites, music, archery, chariotry, calligraphy, and mathematics. He married at age 19, but divorced shortly thereafter, and avoided romantic and familial entanglements for the rest of his life in favor of promoting his philosophy.
Industrious and capable, Confucius became a teacher in his early twenties, then an estate manager for one of the noble families of Lu. By the time he reached age 30, he had begun the ceaseless wandering across the length and breadth of Northern Inner China that would characterize the rest of his life. He visited at least six separate feudal states in all, looking tirelessly for a government in one of them that was ready and willing to implement his philosophy of the ideal state. Confucius was no radical. In fact, he was a conservative to the core, who believed one could Make China Great Again only by reintroducing the golden-age values of the early Zhou dynasty at every level of society. “I transmit but do not innovate,” he said. He was a fine speaker who was not without some clever practical suggestions for more efficient administration, and many a leader found him interesting to begin with, but all of his negotiations with the rich and powerful eventually ran aground on the rocks of his fussy absolutism, his unwillingness to compromise his system of ethics in even the smallest degree in order to get things done in the real world. “When the dukes and kings of China sought out Confucius’s advice,” writes Michael Schuman in his recent book about the sage, “they wanted to talk about military tactics and geopolitical strategy. Instead they got lessons on ethics, history, and poetry.”
Although he was never given the permanent government post he craved, Confucius did collect disciples who would be instrumental in documenting his ideas and keeping them alive after their master’s death. “The talents and virtues of other men are hillocks and mounds which may be stepped over,” said one of them. “[But Confucius] is the sun or moon, which it is not possible to step over.”
In 479 BC, Confucius died at the age of 73, feeling his life to have been a failure. “The world has long strayed from the true way,” he said on his deathbed, “and no one can follow me.” But he underestimated the passion and thoughtfulness of his most dedicated followers. It was in fact the followers rather than their master who preserved his teachings in the form of books, and embellished his ideas wherever necessary to turn Confucianism into a life-encompassing creed. None of the Four Books or the Five Classics which would become the bedrock of Confucianism was written by Confucius himself. Nevertheless, in time these nine texts would mold China in his image. The closest among them to a Chinese New Testament is the Analects, which is a record of his oral dialogs with his followers.
And what precisely is this secular religion of Confucianism, one of the most important systems of belief to arise in the history of the world, all about? The logical next place for us to turn in our attempt to understand it are the real or apocryphal words of Confucius himself, as preserved in the Analects.
The central aspirational figure of Confucianism can be imperfectly translated as the Gentleman, a man who owes that title neither to birth nor to wealth but rather to his personal qualities and personal conduct. His lodestar is what Westerners call the Golden Mean, his bearing marked by self-assurance but never by vanity, his decisions the product of sober reasoning rather than emotional inconstancy. Secure within the understanding of the world which he has acquired from the Four Books and the Five Classics, he is comfortable being an island of integrity unto himself if need be.
When he eats, the Gentleman does not seek to stuff himself. In his home, he does not seek luxury. He is diligent in his work and cautious in his speech.
For the Gentleman, integrity is the essence; the rules of decorum are the ways he puts it into effect; humility is the way he brings it forth; sincerity is the way he develops it.
The Gentleman has nine concerns. In seeing, he is concerned with clarity. In hearing, he is concerned with acuity. In his expression, he wishes to be warm. In his bearing, he wishes to be respectful. In his words, he is concerned with sincerity. In his service, he is concerned with reverence. When he is in doubt, he wants to ask questions. When he is angry, he is wary of the pitfalls. When he sees the chance for profit, he keeps in mind the need for integrity.
The Gentleman is easy to serve but difficult to please. On the other hand, he does not expect more from people than their capacities warrant.
The Gentleman is in harmony with those around him but not on their level. The small man is on the level of those around him but not in harmony with them.
The Gentleman aspires to things lofty. The petty person aspires to things base.
The Gentleman looks to himself. The petty person looks to other people.
The Gentleman is exalted and yet not proud. The petty person is proud and yet not exalted.
The Gentleman feels bad when his capabilities fall short of some task. He does not feel bad if people fail to recognize him.
The Gentleman does not promote people merely on the basis of their words, nor does he reject words merely because of the person who uttered them.
Aphorisms like these are not out of keeping with much of the Western tradition of ethical philosophy. Yet their seeming familiarity can obscure an important difference in the case of Confucianism. Whereas the development of the individual was often taken as an end unto itself in the West, especially after the rise of Christianity — such an attitude was very much in keeping with a religion that promoted salvation as a personal choice — the individual is merely a means to a greater end in Confucianism: the social unit is its overriding obsession. A well-ordered society is one inhabited by Gentlemen at every rung of the social hierarchy who know and accept their current roles and ranks, knowing as well that those Gentlemen above them in the hierarchy will see to it that they are promoted — or demoted — in due course to exactly that level where they can be most useful to the group. For the harmonious well-being of the group is the supreme value.
And of all the groups that make up a society, none is more important than the family. Confucianism’s central doctrine here is — again imperfectly translated — that of Filial Piety. Filial Piety means that the younger members of the family respect, honor, support, and obey their elders without question. There is no trace here of our Western ethic of youth leaving the bosom of their family to test their mettle in the world. On the contrary: “When your father and mother are alive,” said Confucius, “do not go rambling far away. ” If your elders ever do something that strikes you as wrong, you may — in fact, you are obligated to — “remonstrate with them tactfully.” But if your remonstrations fall on deaf ears, “continue to be reverent toward them without offending or disobeying them; work hard and do not murmur against them.” Even if your father is a thief, Filial Piety demands that you shelter him rather than turn him in to the authorities, whilst quietly setting an example of integrity that might in the course of time convince him to change his ways.
“To love others without first loving one’s parents is to reject virtue,” said Confucius. “To reverence other men without first reverencing one’s parents is to reject the rules of virtue.” On the other hand, “those who love their parents do not dare to hate others,” said the master. “Those who respect their parents do not dare to show contempt toward others.” The family is the foundation on which society is built, but the values of Filial Piety apply equally to all levels of Confucius’s hierarchical vision of the ideal society, dictating the relationship of a peasant to his lord, a citizen to his government — or, to put a modern spin on things, an employee to his company.
Social faith and harmony are maintained through social rituals, which are described in careful detail in the Book of Rites, another of the Five Classics. Let us say that Niu and Yizi are Gentlemen of equal rank, and Niu has invited Yizi to his home for the first time. When he arrives, Yizi confesses that he has desired such a visit for years, but knew he was unworthy of the honor. Niu says that he must beg to differ. He now realizes that Yizi is demeaning himself by coming to such a humble home as his; he should leave immediately. Yizi acknowledges that he deserves no more than to be sent away, but begs to be granted a few minutes of his better’s precious time. No, out of the question, says Niu; it would be thoroughly improper for him to admit such an august Gentleman as Yizi. Please, do me the undeserved kindness of allowing me inside, begs Yizi. Niu grudgingly agrees at last, but refuses the pheasant Yizi has brought with him; it is much too rich a present for one such as him. Yizi confesses that he knows how inadequate the gift is, but he dared not enter Niu’s presence without bringing some sign of his respect; please, can Niu not see fit to humble himself by accepting it? Niu states again that he is unworthy of so fine a gift, and simply must decline it. Yizi says that, if Niu cannot accept his paltry gift, he must leave in the most abject shame, and that would be a weight on his heart for the rest of his life. So, Niu reluctantly accepts, even though the honor being done him is far too great, and leads Yizi inside. And so the ritual continues from there.
Other, equally elaborate ceremonies guide every other conceivable form of social occasion, from weddings to funerals and everything in between. The Book of Rites dictates exactly how deeply each social rank should bow to each other rank, how long the mourning period should be for each type of deceased relation, what color lapels should be worn to which sorts of parties, which types of music should be played there, and how many dancing girls should be hired. We Westerners tend to find these extended performances baffling, amusing, and/or irritating. They strike us as thoroughly disingenuous from first to last. While we are hardly without pro-forma rituals of our own — “Have a nice day!” says the store clerk who cares not a whit about us or the quality of our day — ours at least have the virtue of being briefer and more to the point. Confucius too was fully aware of the pro-forma nature of the social rituals he espoused — how could they be otherwise, being written up in a book? — but nevertheless thought them essential for preserving the respect that individuals owed to one another, which in turn served to preserve the all-important quality of harmony throughout society. “The instructive and transforming power of rituals is subtle,” he said. “They stop depravity before it has taken form, causing men daily to move toward what is good and to distance themselves from vice, without being themselves conscious of it.” It would perhaps not be too much of a stretch to compare the purpose and practice of Confucian social rituals to the similarly pre-defined, arbitrary, but deeply meaningful religious rituals that take place inside a Christian church.
For Confucius too believed that the harmony engendered by ritual rippled outward through society: from the individual Gentleman to his family unit, through successively larger social units, until it marked the empire or nation as a whole.
The son is happy when his father is reverenced. The younger brother is happy when his elder brother is reverenced. The ministers are made happy when their ruler is reverenced. Everyone is happy when the One Man, the Son of Heaven, is reverenced. Only a few are revered, but multitudes are made happy.
As for women, they rate hardly a mention. “Confucianism barely acknowledges the existence of women as social beings,” notes historian Julia Lovell.
The task of governing a land full of Gentlemen practicing Filial Piety should be an easy one. The government’s central duty, said Confucius, is that of inculcating and preserving Filial Piety, which is best accomplished not through laws and punishments but by demonstrating good values for all to see: “If you want what is good, the people will be good.” If forced to drop one of a strong military, an adequate food supply, and education in the proper values, the military should be the first to go. If forced to drop one of the remaining two, make it the food: “Since ancient times, death has always occurred, but people without faith cannot stand.”
Their deep-seated misogyny aside, the biggest failing of the original teachings of Confucius may be their lack of any practical instructions for instilling his vision of the ideal society in the first place, not to mention their lack of practical remedies should the ideal begin to fall away again into grubby realpolitik for any reason. How can one hope to reform a society using a philosophy that emphasizes deference to hierarchy and authority above everything else? How, to put it another way, does the capable Gentleman rise if those above him are not sufficiently observant and fair-minded to acknowledge his worth, if they are instead guided by baser priorities like vanity and jealousy? Certainly not through that ultimate remedy of fomenting a righteous revolution. No sin “is greater than the lack of Filial Piety,” said Confucius. “To use force against the ruler is to deny authority. [This is] the road to chaos.”
These are conundrums which would come to dog Confucian China on a regular basis. Too often down through history, China has been a sclerotic shell of performative Confucian ritual concealing a miserable decay within. Such tends to the curse of any social philosophy that emphasizes the ideal at the expense of the practical. (See, for example, the sad, shabby reality of Marxism in practice during the twentieth century.)
Indeed, one can see the contradictions of his philosophy in Confucius’s personal story. His life spent wandering from state to state, lobbying constantly for a position of power well above his current level, wasn’t really in keeping with his stated ideal of the serenely self-contained Gentleman content in his station. Likewise, if he hadn’t chosen to end his own marriage and extricate himself from familial commitments, it is doubtful whether we would be discussing his ideas about Filial Piety today.
Confucius’s own disciples struggled with these issues. A man named Mencius was the most influential among them; a book entitled simply Mencius, a record of his dialogs with his own followers in the mold of the Analects, became another of Confucianism’s canonical Four Books. Mencius placed more emphasis than Confucius himself on the reciprocal duties which the father owes to his sons and the ruler to his subjects. In one telling passage, he is asked how the toppling of the Shang dynasty, the necessary precursor to the golden age of the early Zhou dynasty which Confucianism so revered, could possibly have been justified under the rules of the master’s philosophy. “Someone who does violence to the good we call a villain,” Mencius answers. “Someone who does violence to the right we call a criminal. A person who is both a villain and a criminal we call a scoundrel. I have heard that a scoundrel was killed [to end the Shang dynasty], but I have not heard that a lord was killed.” In this roundabout way, then, Mencius acknowledges that a bad ruler can forfeit his right to the Filial Piety of his citizens along with the Mandate of Heaven. Elsewhere he makes it still more explicit, when he is asked about the behavior of good civil servants: “When the ruler makes a major error, they point it out. If he does not listen to their repeated remonstrations, they put someone else on the throne.”
So, Mencius gives us a more concrete vision than his master of what a Confucian government might look like in practical terms: a class of scholar officials, deeply versed in the classical Confucian texts and worldview, serving as the power behind the imperial throne, and if necessary as the earthly adjudicators of the Mandate of Heaven. And such would in fact be the face of Chinese government in the future — although, I should state again, not during the lifetimes of Mencius himself or any of Confucius’s other immediate followers.
Sadly, such a form of government comes complete with some potential problems in the real world, rife as it is with opportunities for self-dealing on the part of the scholar officials. In this light, it’s worth mentioning one more aspect of early Confucianism, one of its few areas of real doctrinal debate: the question of the very nature of human beings.
Mencius insisted that human nature was fundamentally good.
Goodness is to human nature like flowing downward is to water. There are no people who are not good and no water that does not flow down. Still, water, if splashed, can go higher than your head; if forced, it can be brought up a hill. This isn’t the nature of water; it is the specific circumstances. Although people can be made to be bad, their nature has not changed.
A slightly later but almost equally influential Confucian philosopher named Xunzi (“Master Xun”), writing during the third century BC, took decided exception to this position.
Human nature is bad. Good is a human product. Human nature is such that people are born with a love of profit. If they follow these inclinations, they will struggle and snatch from each other, and inclinations to defer or yield will die. They are born with fears and hatreds. If they follow them, they will become violent and tendencies toward good faith will die. They are born with sensory desires for pleasing sounds and sights. If they indulge them, the disorder of sexual license will result and ritual and moral principles will be lost. In other words, if people accord with human nature and follow their desires, they inevitably end up struggling, snatching, violating norms, and acting with violent abandon. Consequently, only after men are transformed by teachers and by ritual and moral principles do they defer, conform to culture, and abide in good order. Viewed this way, it is obvious that human nature is bad and good is a human product.
With Xunzi, then, the slow drift of Confucianism from the abstracted idealism of its original master toward a practical blueprint for government reached a fruition of sorts. I trust that my readers are aware enough of human nature in all its complexities that I don’t need to belabor how the quotation above could become a blueprint for tyranny at the hands of the self-appointed imposers of good as a “human product.”
We will return to the many contradictions which Confucianism has presented for China in future chapters. But we must also continue to guard against the temptation to see China — or Chinese thought — as all one thing. For the same age of intellectual ferment that gave rise to China’s greatest philosopher of ethics and government saw the rise as well of another, more introverted school of belief which has placed its own, equally enduring stamp upon the land and its people.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)