Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Confucius (551-479 BCE)

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To be able under all circumstances to practice five things constitutes perfect virtue; these five things are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness and kindness.


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Confucius (traditionally 551 BCE - 479 BCE) was a famous sage and social philosopher of China. His philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, and gained popularity mostly due to its firm grounding in traditional Chinese attitudes. Confucius' influence on Chinese civilization should not be underestimated; it has also spread widely over Japan, Korea and Vietnam, especially through Confucianism, the doctrine developed by his disciples and commentators. The Analects is a short collection relating his discussions with disciples as compiled posthumously and which contains the main gist of his teachings.

According to traditional belief, Confucius was born in 551 BC (during the Spring and Autumn Period, at the beginning of the Hundred Schools of Thought philosophical movement) in the city of Qufu in the Chinese State of Lu (now part of present-day Shandong Province and culturally and geographically close to the royal mansion of Zhou). He was the son of a once noble family who had recently fled from the State of Song. His father died when he was three and he was brought up in poverty by his mother. His social ascendancy links him to the growing class of Shi, between old nobility and common people, which later became the prominent class of literati because of the cultural and intellectual skills they shared.

As a child, he is said to have enjoyed putting ritual vases on the sacrifice table. As a young man he was a minor administrative manager in the State of Lu and rose to the position of Justice Minister. It is said that, after several years, disapproving of the politics of his Prince, he resigned. At about age fifty, seeing no way to improve the government, he gave up his political career in Lu, and began a twelve year journey around China, seeking the "Way" and trying unsuccessfully to convince many different rulers of his political beliefs and to push them into reality. When he was about sixty, he returned home and spent the last years of his life teaching an increasing number of disciples, trying to share his experiences with them and transmit the old wisdom via a set of books called the Five Classics.


In the Analects, where one can find the most intimate descriptions of him, Confucius presents himself as a transmitter who invented nothing and his greatest emphasis may be the one on study, the Chinese character which opens the book. In this respect, he is mostly seen by Chinese people as a Great Teacher or Master. Far from trying to build a systematic theory of life and society, he wanted his disciples to think deeply for themselves and relentlessly study the outside world, mostly through the old scriptures relating past political events (like the Annals) or past feelings of common people (like the Book of Odes). In these times of division, chaos, and endless wars between feudal states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven that could unify the "world" (i.e. China) and bestow peace and prosperity on the people. In this respect, Confucius is considered a great proponent of conservatism, but a closer look at what he proposes often shows that he used (and maybe twisted) past institutions and rites to push a new political agenda of his own: he wanted rulers to be chosen on their merits, not their parentage. He wanted rulers who were devoted to their people. And he wanted the ruler to reach perfection himself, thus spreading his own virtues to the people instead of imposing proper behavior with laws and rules.

One of the deepest teachings of Confucius, and one of the hardest to understand from a Western point of view, may have been the superiority of exemplification over explicit rules of behavior. His ethics may be considered one of the greatest virtue ethics. This kind of "indirect" way to achieve a goal is used widely in his teachings, where allusions, innuendo, and even tautology are common ways of expressing himself. That is why his teachings need to be examined and put into context for access by Westerners. A good example is found in this famous anecdote : When the stables were burnt down, on returning from Court, Confucius said, "Was anyone hurt?" He did not ask about the horses.

What seems a matter of tiny importance has been long commented on and shows another of the Confucian specificities that have to be underlined. When one knows that in his time horses were perhaps ten times more expensive than stablemen, one can understand that, by "not asking about the horses", Confucius demonstrated his greatest priority: human beings. Thus, when one sees a little bit of the greater picture, according to many ancient or recent Eastern and Western commentators, Confucius' teaching can be considered a noteworthy Chinese variant of Humanism.

However, Confucius also heavily emphasized what he calls "rites and music", referring to these social conventions as two poles to balance order and harmony. While rites, in short, show off social hierarchies, music unifies hearts in shared enjoyment. He obviously added that rites aren't only the way to arrange sacrificial tools, and music isn't only the sound of stick on bell. Both are mutual communication between someone's humanity and his social context, both feed social relationships, like the five prototypes: between father and son, husband and wife, prince and subject, elder and youngster, and between friends. Duties are always balanced and if a subject has to obey his ruler, he also has to tell him when he's wrong.

Confucius' teachings have been turned later into a corps de doctrine by his numerous disciples and followers. In the centuries after his death, Mencius and Xun Zi both wrote prominent books on these, and with time a philosophy has been elaborated, which is known in the West as Confucianism.


The Confucian theory of ethics is based on three important concepts:

While Confucius grew up, li referred to three aspects of life, that of sacrificing to the gods, social and political institutions, and daily behavior. It was believed that li originated from the heavens. Confucius redefined li arguing it flowed not from heaven but from humanity. He redefined li to refer to all actions committed by a person to build the ideal society. Li to Confucius became every action by a person aiming at meeting the person's surface desires. These can be either good or bad. Generally attempts to obtain short term pleasure are bad while those that in the long term try to make your life better are generally good.

To Confucius, yi was the origin of li. Yi can best be translated as righteousness. While doing things because of li, your own self interest, was not necessarily bad, you would be a better, more righteous person if you base your life upon following yi. This means that rather than pursuing your own selfish interests you should do what is right and what is moral. Yi is based upon reciprocity. An example of living by yi is how you must mourn your father and mother for three years after their death. Since they took care of you for the first three years of your life you must reciprocate by living in mourning for three years.

Just as li flows out of yi, so yi flows out of ren. Ren can best be translated as human heartedness. His moral system was based upon empathy and understanding others, rather than divinely ordained rules. To live by ren was even better than living by the rules of yi. To live by ren one used another Confucian version of the Golden Rule: he argued that you must always treat your inferiors just as you would want your superiors to treat you. Virtue under Confucius is based upon harmony with others, very different from the Aristotelian view of virtue being personal excellence.

Political Theory

Confucius' political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through "rites" and people's natural morality, rather than using bribery and force. He explained this in one of the most important analects: 1. "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good." (Translated by James Legge) This "sense of shame" is somewhat an internalization of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.

While he supported the idea of the all-powerful Emperor, probably because of the chaotic state of China at his time, his philosophies contained a number of elements to limit the power of the rulers. He argued for according language with truth -- thus honesty was of the most paramount importance. Even in facial expression, one sought always to achieve this. In discussing the relationship between a son and his father (or a subject and his King), he underlined the need to give due respect to superiors; this demanded that the inferior must give advice to his superior if the superior was considered to be taking the wrong course of action in a given situation.

This was built upon by his disciple Mencius to argue that if the King was not acting like a King, he would lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. Therefore, tyrannicide is justified because a tyrant is more a thief than a King (but attempted tyrannicide is not).

China's political history is remarkable for its continuity and stability, in a large part due to Confucianism.

Successors and descendants

Confucius' philosophical school was first continued by his direct disciples and by his grandson Zisi. Mencius and Xun Zi are his two great followers, one on each "side" of his philosophy, perhaps simply described as optimism and pessimism. They built upon and expanded his ethico-political system.

His descendants were identified and honored by the imperial government. They were honored the rank of a marquis 35 times since Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, and they were promoted to the rank of duke 42 times from the Tang Dynasty to 1935. One of the most common titles is Duke Yansheng (Yansheng gong), which means "overflowing with sainthood." The latest descendant is K'ung Te-ch'eng (Kong Decheng) (born 1920), who is of the 77th generation and a professor at National Taiwan University; he married Sun Qifang, the great-granddaughter of the Qing dynasty scholar-official and first president of Beijing University Sun Jianai, whose Shouxian, Anhui, family created one of the first business combines in modern-day China that included the largest flour mill in Asia, the Fou Foong Flour Company. The Kongs are related by marriage to a number of prominent Confucian families, among them that of the Song dynasty prime minister and martyr Wen Tianxiang. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Confucius.]

Alternate Biography - Catholic Encyclopedia

By Confucianism is meant the complex system of moral, social, political, and religious teaching built up by Confucius on the ancient Chinese traditions, and perpetuated as the State religion down to the present day. Confucianism aims at making not simply the man of virtue, but the man of learning and of good manners. The perfect man must combine the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman. Confucianism is a religion without positive revelation, with a minimum of dogmatic teaching, whose popular worship is centered in offerings to the dead, in which the notion of duty is extended beyond the sphere of morals proper so as to embrace almost every detail of daily life.


The chief exponent of this remarkable religion was K'ung-tze, or K'ung-fu-tze, latinized by the early Jesuit missionaries into Confucius. Confucius was born in 551 B.C., in what was then the feudal state of Lu, now included in the modern province of Shan-tung. His parents, while not wealthy, belonged to the superior class. His father was a warrior, distinguished no less for his deeds of valour than for his noble ancestry. Confucius was a mere boy when his father died. From childhood he showed a great aptitude for study, and though, in order to support himself and his mother, he had to labour in his early years as a hired servant in a noble family, he managed to find time to pursue his favourite studies. He made such progress that at the age of twenty-two years he opened a school to which many were attracted by the fame of his learning. His ability and faithful service merited for him promotion to the office of minister of justice. Under his wise administration the State attained to a degree of prosperity and moral order that it had never seen before. But through the intrigues of rival states the Marquis of Lu was led to prefer ignoble pleasures to the preservation of good government. Confucius tried by sound advice to bring his liege lord back to the path of duty, but in vain. He thereupon resigned his high position at the cost of personal ease and comfort, and left the state. For thirteen years, accompanied by faithful disciples, he went about from one state to another, seeking a ruler who would give heed to his counsels. Many were the privations he suffered. More than once he ran imminent risk of being waylaid and killed by his enemies, but his courage and confidence in the providential character of his mission never deserted him. At last he returned to Lu, where he spent the last five years of his long life encouraging others to the study and practice of virtue, and edifying all by his noble example. He died in the year 478 B.C., in the seventy-fourth year of his age. His lifetime almost exactly coincided with that of Buddha, who died two years earlier at the age of eighty.

That Confucius possessed a noble, commanding personality, there can be little doubt. It is shown by his recorded traits of character, by his lofty moral teachings, by the high-minded men that he trained to continue his life-work. In their enthusiastic love and admiration, they declared him the greatest of men, the sage without flaw, the perfect man. That he himself did not make any pretension to possess virtue and wisdom in their fullness is shown by his own recorded sayings. He was conscious of his shortcomings, and this consciousness he made no attempt to keep concealed. But of his love of virtue and wisdom there can be no question. He is described in "Analects", VII, 18, as one "who in the eager pursuit of knowledge, forgot his food, and in the joy of attaining to it forgot his sorrow". Whatever in the traditional records of the past, whether history, lyric poems, or rites and ceremonies, was edifying and conducive to virtue, he sought out with untiring zeal and made known to his disciples. He was a man of affectionate nature, sympathetic, and most considerate towards others. He loved his worthy disciples dearly, and won in turn their undying devotion. He was modest and unaffected in his bearing, inclined to gravity, yet possessing a natural cheerfulness that rarely deserted him. Schooled to adversity from childhood, he learned to find contentment and serenity of mind even where ordinary comforts were lacking. He was very fond of vocal and instrumental music, and often sang, accompanying his voice with the lute. His sense of humour is revealed in a criticism he once made of some boisterous singing "Why use an ox-knife", he said, "to kill a fowl?"

Confucius is often held up as the type of the virtuous man without religion. His teachings, it is alleged, were chiefly ethical, in which one looks in vain for retribution in the next life as a sanction of right conduct. Now an acquaintance with the ancient religion of China and with Confucian texts reveals the emptiness of the assertion that Confucius was devoid of religious thought and feeling. He was religious after the manner of religious men of his age and land. In not appealing to rewards and punishments in the life to come, he was simply following the example of his illustrious Chinese predecessors, whose religious belief did not include this element of future retribution. The Chinese classics that were ancient even in the time of Confucius have nothing to say of hell, but have much to say of the rewards and punishments meted out in the present life by the all-seeing Heaven. There are numbers of texts that show plainly that he did not depart from the traditional belief in the supreme Heaven-god and subordinate spirits, in Divine providence and retribution, and in the conscious existence of souls after death. These religious convictions on his part found expression in many recorded acts of piety and worship.


As Confucianism in its broad sense embraces not only the immediate teaching of Confucius, but also the traditional records customs, and rites to which he gave the sanction of his approval, and which today rest largely upon his authority, there are reckoned among the Confucian texts several that even in his day were venerated as sacred heirlooms of the past. The texts are divided into two categories, known as the "King" (Classics), and the "Shuh" (Books). The texts of the "King", which stand first in importance, are commonly reckoned as five, but sometimes as six.

The first of these is the "Shao-king" (Book of History), a religious and moral work, tracing the hand of Providence in a series of great events of past history, and inculcating the lesson that the Heaven-god gives prosperity and length of days only to the virtuous ruler who has the true welfare of the people at heart. Its unity of composition may well bring its time of publication down to the sixth century B.C., though the sources on which the earlier chapters are based may be almost contemporaneous with the events related.

The second "King" is the so-called "She-king" (Book of Songs), often spoken of as the "Odes". Of its 305 short lyric poems some belong to the time of the Shang dynasty (1766-1123 B.C.), the remaining, and perhaps larger, part to the first five centuries of the dynasty of Chow, that is, down to about 600 B.C.

The third "King" is the so-called "Y-king" (Book of Changes), an enigmatic treatise on the art of divining with the stalks of a native plant, which after being thrown give different indications according as they conform to one or another of the sixty-four hexagrams made up of three broken and three unbroken lines. The short explanations which accompany them, in large measure arbitrary and fantastic, are assigned to the time of Wan and his illustrious son Wu, founders of the Chow dynasty (1122 B.C.). Since the time of Confucius, the work has been more than doubled by a series of appendixes, ten in number, of which eight are attributed to Confucius. Only a small portion of these, however, are probably authentic.

The fourth "King" is the "Li-ki" (Book of Rites). In its present form it dates from the second century of our era, being a compilation from a vast number of documents, most of which date from the earlier part of the Chow dynasty. It gives rules of conduct down to the minute details for religious acts of worship, court functions, social and family relations, dress--in short, for every sphere of human action. It remains today the authoritative guide of correct conduct for every cultivated Chinese. In the "Li-ki" are many of Confucius's reputed sayings and two long treatises composed by disciples, which may be said to reflect with substantial accuracy the sayings and teachings of the master. One of these is the treatise known as the "Chung-yung" (Doctrine of the Mean). It forms Book XXVIII of the "Li-ki", and is one of its most valuable treatises. It consists of a collection of sayings of Confucius characterizing the man of perfect virtue. The other treatise, forming Book XXXIX of the "Li-ki", is the so-called "Ta-hio" (Great Learning). It purports to be descriptions of the virtuous ruler by the disciple Tsang-tze, based on the teachings of the master. The fifth "King" is the short historical treatise known as the "Ch'un-ts'ew" (Spring and Autumn), said to have been written by the hand of Confucius himself. It consists of a connected series of bare annals of the state of Lu for the years 722-484 B.C. To these five "Kings" belongs a sixth, the so-called "Hiao-king" (Book of Filial Piety). The Chinese attribute its composition to Confucius, but in the opinion of critical scholars, it is the product of the school of his disciple, Tsang-tze.

Mention has just been made of the two treatises, the "Doctrine of the Mean" and the "Great Learning", embodied in the "Li-ki". In the eleventh century of our era, these two works were united with other Confucian texts, constituting what is known as the "Sze-shuh" (Four Books). First of these is the "Lun-yu" (Analects). It is a work in twenty short chapters, showing what manner of man Confucius was in his daily life, and recording many of his striking sayings on moral and historical topics. It seems to embody the authentic testimony of his disciples written by one of the next generation.

The second place in the "Shuh" is given to the "Book of Mencius". Mencius (Meng-tze), was not an immediate disciple of the master. He lived a century later. He acquired great fame as an exponent of Confucian teaching. His sayings, chiefly on moral topics, were treasured up by disciples, and published in his name. Third and fourth in order of the "Shuh" come the "Great Learning" and the "Doctrine of the Mean".

For our earliest knowledge of the contents of these Confucian texts, we are indebted to the painstaking researches of the Jesuit missionaries in China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who, with an heroic zeal for the spread of Christ's kingdom united a diligence and proficiency in the study of Chinese customs, literature, and history that have laid succeeding scholars under lasting obligation. Among these we may mention Fathers Premare, Regis, Lacharme, Gaubil, Noel, Ignacio da Costa, by whom most of the Confucian texts were translated and elucidated with great erudition. It was but natural that their pioneer studies in so difficult a field should be destined to give place to the more accurate and complete monuments of modern scholarship. But even here they have worthy representatives in such scholars as Father Zottoli and Henri Cordier, whose Chinese studies give evidence of vast erudition. The Confucian texts have been made available to English readers by Professor Legge. Besides his monumental work in seven volumes, entitled "The Chinese Classics" and his version of the "Ch'un ts'ew", he has given the revised translations of the "Shuh", "She", "Ta-hio", "Y", and "Li-Ki" in Volumes III, XVI, XXVII, and XXVIII of "The Sacred Books of the East".


A. Religious Groundwork

The religion of ancient China, to which Confucius gave his reverent adhesion was a form of nature-worship very closely approaching to monotheism. While numerous spirits associated with natural phenomena were recognized--spirits of mountains and rivers, of land and grain, of the four quarters of the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars--they were all subordinated to the supreme Heaven-god, T'ien (Heaven) also called Ti (Lord), or Shang-ti (Supreme Lord). All other spirits were but his ministers, acting in obedience to his will. T'ien was the upholder of the moral law, exercising a benign providence over men. Nothing done in secret could escape his all-seeing eye. His punishment for evil deeds took the form either of calamities and early death, or of misfortune laid up for the children of the evil-doer. In numerous passages of the "Shao-" and "She-king", we find this belief asserting itself as a motive to right conduct. That it was not ignored by Confucius himself is shown by his recorded saying, that "he who offends against Heaven has no one to whom he can pray". Another quasi-religious motive to the practice of virtue was the belief that the souls of the departed relatives were largely dependent for their happiness on the conduct of their living descendants. It was taught that children owed it as a duty to their dead parents to contribute to their glory and happiness by lives of virtue. To judge from the sayings of Confucius that have been preserved, he did not disregard these motives to right conduct, but he laid chief stress on the love of virtue for its own sake. The principles of morality and their concrete application to the varied relations of life were embodied in the sacred texts, which in turn represented the teachings of the great sages of the past raised up by Heaven to instruct mankind. These teachings were not inspired, nor were they revealed, yet they were infallible. The sages were born with wisdom meant by Heaven to enlighten the children of men. It was thus a wisdom that was providential, rather than supernatural. The notion of Divine positive revelation is absent from the Chinese texts. To follow the path of duty as laid down in the authoritative rules of conduct was within the reach of all men, provided that their nature, good at birth, was not hopelessly spoiled by vicious influences. Confucius held the traditional view that all men are born good. Of anything like original sin there is not a trace in his teaching. He seems to have failed to recognize even the existence of vicious hereditary tendencies. In his view, what spoiled men was bad environment, evil example, an inexcusable yielding to evil appetites that everyone by right use of his natural powers could and ought to control. Moral downfall caused by suggestions of evil spirits had no place in his system. Nor is there any notion of Divine grace to strengthen the will and enlighten the mind in the struggle with evil. There are one or two allusions to prayer, but nothing to show that daily prayer was recommended to the aspirant after perfection.

B. Helps to Virtue

In Confucianism the helps to the cultivation of virtue are natural and providential, nothing more. But in this development of moral perfection Confucius sought to enkindle in others the enthusiastic love of virtue that he felt himself. To make oneself as good as possible, this was with him the main business of life. Everything that was conducive to the practice of goodness was to be eagerly sought and made use of. To this end right knowledge was to be held indispensable. Like Socrates, Confucius taught that vice sprang from ignorance and that knowledge led unfailingly to virtue. The knowledge on which he insisted was not purely scientific learning, but an edifying acquaintance with the sacred texts and the rules of virtue and propriety. Another factor on which he laid great stress was the influence of good example. He loved to hold up to the admiration of his disciples the heroes and sages of the past, an acquaintance with whose noble deeds and sayings he sought to promote by insisting on the study of the ancient classics. Many of his recorded sayings are eulogies of these valiant men of virtue. Nor did he fail to recognize the value of good, high-minded companions. His motto was, to associate with the truly great and to make friends of the most virtuous. Besides association with the good, Confucius urged on his disciples the importance of always welcoming the fraternal correction of one's faults. Then, too, the daily examination of conscience was inculcated. As a further aid to the formation of a virtuous character, he valued highly a certain amount of self-discipline. He recognized the danger, especially in the young, of falling into habits of softness and love of ease. Hence he insisted on a virile indifference to effeminate comforts. In the art of music he also recognized a powerful aid to enkindle enthusiasm for the practice of virtue. He taught his pupils the "Odes" and other edifying songs, which they sang together to the accompaniment of lutes and harps. This together with the magnetism of his personal influence lent a strong emotional quality to his teaching.

C. Fundamental Virtues

As a foundation for the life of perfect goodness, Confucius insisted chiefly on the four virtues of sincerity, benevolence, filial piety, and propriety. Sincerity was with him a cardinal virtue. As used by him it meant more than a mere social relation. To be truthful and straightforward in speech, faithful to one's promises, conscientious in the discharge of one's duties to others--this was included in sincerity and something more. The sincere man in Confucius's eyes was the man whose conduct was always based on the love of virtue, and who in consequence sought to observe the rules of right conduct in his heart as well as in outward actions, when alone as well as in the presence of others. Benevolence, showing itself in a kindly regard for the welfare of others and in a readiness to help them in times of need, was also a fundamental element in Confucius's teaching. It was viewed as the characteristic trait of the good man. Mencius, the illustrious exponent of Confucianism, has the remarkable statement: "Benevolence is man" (VII, 16). In the sayings of Confucius we find the Golden Rule in its negative form enunciated several times. In "Analects", XV, 13, we read that when a disciple asked him for a guiding principle for all conduct, the master answered: "Is not mutual goodwill such a principle? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others". This is strikingly like the form of the Golden Rule found in the first chapter of the "Teaching of the Apostles"--"All things soever that you would not have done to yourself, do not do to another"; also in Tobias, iv, 16, where it appears for the first time in Sacred Scripture. He did not approve the principle held by Lao-tze that injury should be repaid with kindness. His motto was "Requite injury with justice, and kindness with kindness" (Analects, XIV, 36). He seems to have viewed the question from the practical and legal standpoint of social order. "To repay kindness with kindness", he says elsewhere, "acts as an encouragement to the people. To requite injury with injury acts as a warning" (Li-ki, XXIX, 11). The third fundamental virtue in the Confucian system is filial piety. In the "Hiao-king", Confucius is recorded as saying: "Filial piety is the root of all virtue."--"Of all the actions of man there are none greater than those of filial piety." To the Chinese then as now, filial piety prompted the son to love and respect his parents, contribute to their comfort, bring happiness and honour to their name, by honourable success in life. But at the same time it carried that devotion to a degree that was excessive and faulty. In consequence of the patriarchal system there prevailing, filial piety included the obligation of sons to live after marriage under the same roof with the father and to give him a childlike obedience as long as he lived. The will of the parents was declared to be supreme even to the extent that if the son's wife failed to please them he was obliged to divorce her, though it cut him to the heart. If a dutiful son found himself compelled to admonish a wayward father he was taught to give the correction with the utmost meekness; though the parent might beat him till the blood flowed he was not to show any resentment. The father did not forfeit his right to filial respect, no matter how great his wickedness. Another virtue of primary importance in the Confucian system is "propriety". It embraces the whole sphere of human conduct, prompting the superior man always to do the right thing in the right place. It finds expression in the so-called rules of ceremony, which are not confined to religious rites and rules of moral conduct, but extend to the bewildering mass of conventional customs and usages by which Chinese etiquette is regulated. They were distinguished even in Confucius's day by the three hundred greater, and the three thousand lesser, rules of ceremony, all of which had to be carefully learned as a guide to right conduct. The conventional usages as well as the rules of moral conduct brought with them the sense of obligation resting primarily on the authority of the sage-kings and in the last analysis on the will of Heaven. To neglect or deviate from them was equivalent to an act of impiety.

D. Rites

In the "Li-ki", the chief ceremonial observances are declared to be six: capping, marriage mourning rites, sacrifices, feasts, and interviews. It will be enough to treat briefly of the first four. They have persisted with little change down to the present day. Capping was a joyous ceremony, wherein the son was honoured on reaching his twentieth year. In the presence of relatives and invited guests, the father conferred on his son a special name and a square cornered cap as distinguishing marks of his mature manhood. It was accompanied with a feast. The marriage ceremony was of great importance. To marry with the view of having male children was a grave duty on the part of every son. This was necessary to keep up the patriarchal system and to provide for ancestral worship in after years. The rule as laid down in the "Li-ki" was, that a young man should marry at the age of thirty and a young woman at twenty. The proposal and acceptance pertained not to the young parties directly interested, but to their parents. The preliminary arrangements were made by a go between after it was ascertained by divination that the signs of the proposed union were auspicious. The parties could not be of the same surname, nor related within the fifth degree of kindred. On the day of the wedding the young groom in his best attire came to the house of the bride and led her out to his carriage, in which she rode to his father's home. There he received her, surrounded by the joyous guests. Cups improvised by cutting a melon in halves were filled with sweet spirits and handed to the bride and groom. By taking a sip from each, they signified that they were united in wedlock. The bride thus became a member of the family of her parents-in-law, subject, like her husband, to their authority. Monogamy was encouraged as the ideal condition, but the maintenance of secondary wives known as concubines was not forbidden. It was recommended when the true wife failed to bear male children and was too much loved to be divorced. There were seven causes justifying the repudiation of a wife besides infidelity, and one of these was the absence of male offspring. The mourning rites were likewise of supreme importance. Their exposition takes up the greater part of the "Li-ki". They were most elaborate, varying greatly in details and length of observance, according to the rank and relationship of the deceased. The mourning rites for the father were the most impressive of all. For the first three days, the son, clad in sackcloth of coarse white hemp, fasted, and leaped, and wailed. After the burial, for which there were minute prescriptions, the son had to wear the mourning sackcloth for twenty-seven months, emaciating his body with scanty food, and living in a rude hut erected for the purpose near the grave. In the Analects, Confucius is said to have condemned with indignation the suggestion of a disciple that the period of the mourning rites might well be shortened to one year. Another class of rites of supreme importance were the sacrifices. They are repeatedly mentioned in the Confucian texts, where instructions are given for their proper celebration. From the Chinese notion of sacrifice the idea of propitiation through blood is entirely absent. It is nothing more than a food-offering expressing the reverent homage of the worshippers, a solemn feast to do honour to the spirit guests, who are invited and are thought to enjoy the entertainment. Meat and drink of great variety are provided. There is also vocal and instrumental music, and pantomimic dancing. The officiating ministers are not priests, but heads of families, the feudal lords, and above all, the king. There is no priesthood in Confucianism.

The worship of the people at large is practically confined to the so-called ancestor-worship. Some think it is hardly proper to call it worship, consisting as it does of feasts in honour of dead relatives. In the days of Confucius, as at present, there was in every family home, from the palace of the king himself down to the humble cabin of the peasant, a chamber or closet called the ancestral shrine, where wooden tablets were reverently kept, inscribed with the names of deceased parents, grandparents, and more remote ancestors. At stated intervals offerings of fruit, wine, and cooked meats were set before these tablets, which the ancestral spirits were fancied to make their temporary resting-place. There was, besides, a public honouring by each local clan of the common ancestors twice a year, in spring and autumn. This was an elaborate banquet with music and solemn dances, to which the dead ancestors were summoned, and in which they were believed to participate along with the living members of the clan. More elaborate and magnificent still were the great triennial and quinquennial feasts given by the king to his ghostly ancestors. This feasting of the dead by families and clans was restricted to such as were united with the living by ties of relationship. There were, however, a few public benefactors whose memory was revered by all the people and to whom offerings of food were made. Confucius himself came be to honoured after death, being regarded as the greatest of public benefactors. Even today in China this religious veneration of the master is faithfully maintained. In the Imperial College in Peking there is a shrine where the tablets of Confucius and his principal disciples are preserved. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, the emperor goes there in state and solemnly presents food-offerings with a prayerful address expressing his gratitude and devotion.

In the fourth book of the "Li-ki" reference is made to the sacrifices which the people were accustomed to offer to the "spirits of the ground", that is to the spirits presiding over the local fields. In the worship of spirits of higher rank, however, the people seem to have taken no active part. This was the concern of their highest representatives, the feudal lords and the king. Each feudal lord offered sacrifice for himself and his subjects to the subordinate spirits supposed to have especial care of his territory. It was the prerogative of the king alone to sacrifice to the spirits, both great and small, of the whole realm, particularly to Heaven and Earth. Several sacrifices of this kind were offered every year. The most important were those at the winter and summer solstice in which Heaven and Earth were respectively worshipped. To account for this anomaly we must bear in mind that sacrifice, as viewed by the Chinese, is a feast to the spirit guests, and that according to their notion of propriety the highest deities should be feted only by the highest representatives of the living. They saw a fitness in the custom that only the king, the Son of Heaven, should, in his own behalf and in behalf of his people, make solemn offering to Heaven. And so it is today. The sacrificial worship of Heaven and Earth is celebrated only by the emperor, with the assistance, indeed, of a small army of attendants, and with a magnificence of ceremonial that is astonishing to behold. To pray privately to Heaven and burn incense to him was a legitimate way for the individual to show his piety to the highest deity, and this is still practised, generally at the full moon.

E. Politics

Confucius knew but one form of government, the traditional monarchy of his native land. It was the extension of the patriarchal system to the entire nation. The king exercised an absolute authority over his subjects, as the father over his children. He ruled by right Divine. He was providentially set up by Heaven to enlighten the people by wise laws and to lead them to goodness by his example and authority. Hence his title, the "Son of Heaven". To merit this title he should reflect the virtue of Heaven. It was only the high-minded king that won Heaven's favour and was rewarded with prosperity. The unworthy king lost Divine assistance and came to naught. The Confucian texts abound in lessons and warnings on this subject of right government. The value of good example in the ruler is emphasized most strongly. The principle is asserted again and again, that the people cannot fail to practise virtue and to prosper when the ruler sets the high example of right conduct. On the other hand the implication is conveyed in more than one place that when crime and misery abound, the cause is to be sought in the unworthy king and his unprincipled ministers.


It is doubtless this uncompromising attitude of Confucianism towards vicious self-seeking rulers of the people that all but caused its extinction towards the end of the third century B.C. In the year 213 B.C., the subverter of the Chow dynasty, Shi Hwang-ti, promulgated the decree that all Confucian books, excepting the "Y-king", should be destroyed. The penalty of death was threatened against all scholars who should be found possessing the proscribed books or teaching them to others. Hundreds of Confucian scholars would not comply with the edict, and were buried alive. When the repeal came under the Han dynasty, in 191 B.C., the work of extermination was wellnigh complete. Gradually, however, copies more or less damaged were brought to light, and the Confucian texts were restored to their place of honour. Generations of scholars have devoted their best years to the elucidation of the "King" and "Shuh", with the result that an enormous literature has clustered around them. As the State religion of China, Confucianism has exercised a profound influence on the life of the nation. This influence has been little affected by the lower classes of Taoism and Buddhism, both of which, as popular cults, began to flourish in China towards the end of the first century of our era. In the gross idolatry of these cults the ignorant found a satisfaction for their religious cravings that was not afforded by the religion of the State. But in thus embracing Taoism and Buddhism they did not cease to be Confucianists. These cults were and are nothing more than accretions on the Confucian beliefs and customs of the lower classes, forms of popular devotion clinging like parasites to the ancestral religion. The educated Chinese despises both Buddhist and Taoist superstitions. But while nominally professing Confucianism pure and simple, not a few hold rationalistic views regarding the spirit world. In number the Confucianists amount to about three hundred millions.


In Confucianism there is much to admire. It has taught a noble conception of the supreme Heaven-god. It has inculcated a remarkably high standard of morality. It has prompted, as far as it knew how, the refining influence of literary education and of polite conduct. But it stands today encumbered with the serious defects that characterize the imperfect civilization of its early development. The association of T'ien with innumerable nature-spirits, spirits of sun, moon, and stars, of hills and fields and rivers, the superstitious use of divination by means of stalks and tortoise shells, and the crude notion that the higher spirits, together with the souls of the dead, are regaled by splendid banquets and food-offerings, cannot stand the test of intelligent modern criticism. Nor can a religion answer fully to the religious needs of the heart which withdraws from the active participation of the people the solemn worship of the deity, which has little use of prayer, which recognizes no such thing as grace, which has no definite teaching in regard to the future life. As a social system it has lifted the Chinese to an intermediate grade of culture, but has blocked for ages all further progress. In its rigid insistence on rites and customs that tend to perpetuate the patriarchal system with its attendant evils of polygamy and divorce, of excessive seclusion and repression of women, of an undue hampering of individual freedom, Confucianism stands in painful contrast with progressive Christian civilization. [Adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)]

Books from Alibris: Confucius

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