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Chinese Philosophy - Confucius and Confucianism

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Confucius and Confucianism

Literature: Confucian Classics

The Person

Confucius (romanized Chinese Kongzi 孔子 "Master Kong") is said to be born in 551 BC as the scion of an impoverished noble family in the state of Lu 魯 during the Spring and Autumn period. His personal name was Zhongni 仲尼 or Kong Qiu 孔丘, named after a hill in the region (some historians say his shape of is head resembled this hill). He acted as granary overseer and later as minister in his home state of Lu. The decline of moral of his times (rulers enjoying beautiful dancers instead of devoting to government) urged him to leave Lu and to wander around for 13 years state to state, trying to persue the rulers to follow his proposals for morally correct politics. Disappointed by the unsuccessful admonishings, he returned to Lu and is said to have died in 479 BC, being buried in Qufu 曲阜/Shandong where his descendants still live today. His teachings are conserved in the so-called "Analects" Lunyu 論語, and the collections Kongzi Jiayu 孔子家語, Kongcongzi 孔叢子, and Kongzi Jiyu 孔子集語. But he is also said to have revised the so-called Confucian Classics, the Shu 書, Yi 易, Shi 詩, Li 禮, Chunqiu 春秋, and a book about ritual music Yue 樂.

His Teachings

Already as a small official, Confucius was famous for his expertise in matters of culture, ceremonies and rites. This knowledge was the only weapon he could use trying to prevent the social downfall of his class, the lower aristocracy. In a multistate world where the rulers started to make use of state-emploryed officials instead of hereditary nobles, Confucius looked for the ideals of the old times to conserve the everchanging new society. Social chaos, despoty and repression endangered the security of the daily life. In his dreams for a better society, Confucius called for a rectification of names (zhengming 正名), for a newly built social hierarchy by what everybody had his fixed position to his neighbors, relatives, superiors and subordinated, with all his rights and duties. The right "names" had social, spiritual, ritual and normative meaning. According to everybody's rank, man had to use a certain etiquette (li 禮, a term originally meaning "ritual offering") and man had to be righteous (yi 義), this means, to behave with all moral qualities in every concrete situation. All these duties seem to be a suppression of freedom in later orthodox Confucianism, but they were meant as a protection arbitrariness: The most superior person, the ruler, had not only to use ritual etiquette against his ancestors, but he had to exert a human (ren 仁) government, like the father had to show benevolence (ci 慈) to an obedient son. Power and superiority, in Confucius' thinking, is not severed reciprocity, the dividing etiquette is mitigated by humanity. Obedience by the people is answered by imperial generosity, the ruler had to be a morally shining example for everybody top to bottom. Thus, the powerful had always to act with self-restraint and modesty. Education of the self was a central point in a person's life, music was of great importance to create order and harmony in society. Only a few persons could try to become a noble person (junzi 君子), exerting virtue (de 德) against the society, loyalty (zhong 忠) to the sovereign and filial piety (xiao 孝) to his parents. Confucian loyalty is in no way a kind of slavish obedience, but even lays the duty upon man to criticize his own father or ruler if necessary.
Mutual responsiveness in a system of fixed positions was the condition of a tranquil and peaceful society in Confucius' thinking.

a Small Philosopher to a God

Like for many philosophers and religion founders, there is a grotesk contrast of the practical successfulness of Confucius and is posthumous religious veneration. He died, disappointed by the way the rulers of the contending states tried to gain power and might, giving up any human and social thinking. During the Han Dynasty, Confucian thinking (Confucianism; rujiao 儒教 or ruxue 儒學) became state doctrine, but like every great religion, it changed to be orthodox and rigid. The mutual responsiveness gave way to a practice of simple obedience. the Song Dynasty on, when Confucianism run through a renaissance after the great age of Buddhism, it became a bonding agent for intellectual and national unity, an exhibit for the exclusivity of conservative Chinese culture.
Confucius is not only venerated as the Primary Teacher (Xianshi 先師), but also as the Highest Saint (Zhisheng 至聖) among Chinese personalities. Confucius, we can say, is the nominal father of Chinese social culture (although most parts of his philosophy are indeed not his own invention; he saw himself as a transmitter and not a maker). Confucianism influences every part of the daily life, the veneration of the ancestors to the architecture.

Confucianism as State Doctrine

The vast empire of the Han Dynasty made it necessary to rely on a well organized scholarship elite that also was able to supply administrative officials. Only the well-read Confucian scholars (rujia 儒家) were able to fulfill such an immense task. Their deep knowledge of the old writings provided the emperors with the needed Heaven approved authority to lead the government of the empire. The dynastic calendar and yearly ritual offerings to Heaven and Earth all based upon the old Confucian classical writings.
After the end of Han Dynasty, war and short lived dynasties ruled over a divided China. People took refuge to Daoism and Buddhism, both religions that could meet the people's desire for a spiritual world and for religion. Except ancestor veneration, Confucianism does not care about the world after death. Again under the Tang Dynasty, Confucianism could gain back its former place as state doctrine, but it was now only one of three systems of thought, side by side with Daoism and Buddhism.
Buddhism fell into disgrace during the second half of the Tang Dynasty, because emperors, empresses and the nobility spent their wealth to protect monasteries and to have created huge Buddhist sculptures, and because many people joined the monasteries to escape tax paying and military service. Daoism as a religion and philosophy of the individual has never been a thinking system fitting for a state bureaucracy. It was the task of the Confucianists once more to engage as teachers for a ruling elite, educating pupils to join the ranks in the state bureaucracy. But Confucian scholars of the Song and Ming Dynasties also developed philosophical systems that showed a much wider world view than that of the old ritual experts of the Han Dynasty. Cultural contact with Buddhism and Daoism has not been without effect. The result of this redefining Confucianism was Neo-Confucianism (lixue 理學).
But the ritual system and the belief in the old classical texts remained intact until the end of the Chinese empire in 1911. State examinations under the Qing Dynasty were still infertile and unchangeable interpretations of the 2500 years old books. The first Europeans coming to China saw her state system and the philosophical-religious situation of China as that of a rotten mummy.
No wonder that late Qing scholars and the intelligentsia of the young Republic in China saw Confucianism as an instrument of backwardness and wanted to get rid of everything old. The 4th May movement 1919 wanted to crash the "Confucian Stall" (Kongdian 孔店), and even the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution denounced the "traitor" Lin Biao as a reactionary follower of Confucius. Nowadays, many Chinese see Confucianism as something that gives people a background of social stability, and somebody who can not cite at least a few sentences of the Confucian classical writings, is almost seen as illiterate.
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