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Confucianism (儒家) is an East Asian belief system formulated in the 6th - 5th century BC and followed by people in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other Asian countries for more than two thousand years.

This great ethical and philosophical system is named after its founder, K'ung Fu-tzu (Master K'ung), an ethical philosopher of the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C. whose Chinese name was later latinised to Confucius by Jesuit missionaries. This form became the convention in most western languages, and accordingly we shall refer to him by this westernised name. He is reputed to have written (or at least compiled and edited) a number of books, but the best-known of these is the Analects (論語 -- Lun Yu), a collection of his sayings.

It is debatable whether the system he founded 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.

However, its effect on Chinese society and culture was very deep and parallels the effects of religious movements seen in other cultures. Also, one should guard against too narrow a definition of religion. Those who follow the teachings of Confucius are comforted by it; it makes their lives more complete and their sufferings bearable - who are we to deny them the title of religious people? Finally, consider the fact that religions in Chinese culture are not mutually exclusive entities - each tradition was 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.

And Confucianism specialised in ethics, in the orderly arrangement of society and correct relationships between people. Confucius himself lived in an era (The [Eastern Chou]? dynasty) when China was divided into a number of small states each ruled by a warlord or nobleman who paid little more than lip service to the emperor who in theory still ruled the [Middle Kingdom]? (China) from the capital, Loyang?. The frequent wars between these states disrupted the structure of society. As a result, there was a deeply felt need for a theory of society that would act as a cohesive factor and that could reunite the Chinese nation. A number of philosophies (e.g. Mohism? and Legalism?) arose to fulfil this need - that of Confucius was eventually the most successful.

Some key concepts in Confucian thought

Later developments in Confucianism

Between the gentlemen and the "small people" (hsiao jen) was an intermediate class called the shih (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 shih were transformed into a class of scholars and bureaucrats who owed their positions to the official civil service examinations. Since these 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 a aspirant gentleman; he refused to be addressed as a sage. Confucianism also had a remarkable influence on neighbouring countries such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Historical development of Confucianism

Was there a Confucianism?

One of the problems in discussing the history of Confucianism is the question of what is Confucianism. In fact in the book, Manufacturing Confucianism, David Jensen claims that our modern image of Confucius and Confucianism, which is that of a wise symbol of learning and a state-sponsor 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 and used the notion of Confucianism for their own purposes.

To simplify this discussion we shall simply define Confucianism as any system of thinking that has at its basis the works which are regarded as the "Confucian classics," but even this definition runs into problems as it is not clear what are the "Confucian classics."

The Script Controversy

The origin of this problem lies with the attempt of Qin Shi-Huang 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 was what set of texts is the more authentic, and the answer has generally been that the "Old Script" texts were.

Confucianism in the Han Dynasty

Eclipse by Buddhism


Another development was neo-Confucianism, which developed in the eleventh century AD as an attempt by Confucian scholars to answer questions raised by Buddhist metaphysics. The most important of those scholars was Chu Hsi.

Confucianism in the Ming Dynasty

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 Evidential School

The Evidentiary school was a movement in the early Qing dynasty whose goal was to reform society by finding the authentic texts which Confucius wrote. The belief of this movement was that in the distant past that there was 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 contiminated by Buddhist concepts and ideas. The Evidentary school believed that by scientifically analyzing the Confucian texts, then could remove what they regarded as Buddhist distortion and find the authentic texts which would lead them to the golden age.

The New/Old? Script Controversy

The Fall of the Imperial China

As Imperial China began to fall and China has 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

Confucianism in the 20th Century

In the 20th century, Confucianism was regarded as symbolic of the fedualist China. As such it was mercilessily attacked by the Communists during the 1950's and 1960's as part of the Chinese past that they attempted to get rid of. Ironically, some observers have noted that the Chinese version of Marxism itself displayed distinctive traces of Confucian influence, but this remains a controversial point.

The New Confucian Movement

In the 1960's, 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 has undergone somewhat of an unexpected resurgance. The various forms of Confucianism which attempt to reconcile it with modernity are known as "New Confucianism" which is not to be confused with "Neo-Confucianism" which is the movement 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.


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Last edited November 19, 2001 11:02 am by Chenyu (diff)