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RELIGION and PHILOSOPHY in ANCIENT CHINA (2 of 12)

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The Scholar Confucius

Confucius

Confucius in scholarly dress, as imagined
by an artist 11 centuries after he lived.
His sayings may also be imagined.

The earliest biography on Confucius was written four hundred years after his death, and those writing about him most likely portrayed him without any details that the passing of time had made disagreeable. The earliest copy of the writings of Confucius that are available to modern scholars date back to the fourth century CE, seven centuries after Confucius lived – during which followers might have edited his work to suit changing times and attitudes. These writings purported to have been by Confucius are called The Analects, which describe requisites for being a good person, a good ruler and a good follower.

According to legend, Confucius was born in 551 BCE, in a principality called Lu – where Shang culture remained strong. Confucius is said to have lost his father when he was three and to have studied in his early youth. Some have claimed that he may have been the illegitimate son of a nobleman and a concubine, for, rather than work in the fields and remain illiterate as common boys did, he went to work for the local ruler, managing stables and keeping books for granaries. After marrying at nineteen, he completed studies that earned him the title of scholar. As a scholar he was a master of ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and arithmetic and he had some familiarity with poetry and history.

Confucius lived after people around him had begun using iron tools. The use of iron had brought a higher productivity in agriculture, a rise in population, more urban growth, improvements in transportation and trade, coinage and new wealth. This loosened social stratification and may have led Confucius and others to see society as having become chaotic and in moral decline. Some scholars saw the world as hopelessly askew and became recluses. But, according to legend, rather than become a recluse, Confucius decided to change society through education. He is described as having opened a school for those he thought were potential leaders and as having taught any male willing to learn. Confucius is described as a teacher who conversed rather than lectured. He is described as the first among the Chinese to support himself by teaching – by charging tuition. According to legend, Confucius also became active in politics, advocating government for the happiness of the common people rather than the pleasure of their rulers, and he advocated a reduction of taxes, the mitigation of severe punishments and the avoidance of wars.

Confucius is described by his biographers as advocating the restoration and renovation of the institutions of the first of the Zhou emperors. He is described as blaming the ills of his day on leaders neglecting old Zhou rituals or performing these rituals incorrectly. Controversy exists over whether Confucius actually revered the early rule of the Zhou emperors or merely pretended such reverence in order to make his views more palatable to contemporaries – a subterfuge that would have contradicted sayings attributed to Confucius about honesty, sincerity and straight-forwardness.

By the time of Confucius, the founder of the Zhou dynasty, Houji, was described as having been born by a virgin. Confucius may not have believed this, but he is described as believing the claim of Zhou emperors that their rule was a mandate from heaven. Confucius is described as seeing events as a morality play directed from heaven, as believing that Shang emperors had lost the mandate of heaven through a decline in their virtue and especially through the wickedness of their last ruler, Zhouxin. To the Confucianists the Zhou leaders who overthrew Zhousin were great heroes. According to the followers of Confucius, he believed that early Zhou rule was a golden age, a time of order, reason and virtue, and that Zhou emperors lost their power by having failed to exercise virtue.

Confucius is described as believing that a return to the golden age of the early Zhou emperors could be accomplished by the return of rule that was similarly ethical and wise. Apparently, Confucius believed that a king had to earn this mandate from heaven. According to his followers, Confucius saw the Lord of Heaven not as a tyrant but as the embodiment of a system of laws. He believed that kings should conduct themselves in accordance with these laws, including observing established ceremonies and offering all sacrifices in accordance with the proper rites. He believed that the king should set a moral example for commoners and that commoners should conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of heaven and remain obedient to the rule of the king. Confucius is described as believing that people should respect and obey their parents as well as the king who ruled over them. The state, he believed, was an extension of the family, a collection of families. He believed that a family should be ruled by the eldest adult male, and that families should be led by the superior family of the emperor. In this regard, Confucius was a man of his time: he placed his hope for humanity in the sincerity of the ruler rather than in checks and balances in government and the watchful eye of the public.

The right course, believed Confucius, was for a king to behave like a king and a son to behave like a son. He created what he called categories and held that a king who did not behave as a king was not a king, and a son who did not behave as a son was not a son. According to Confucius, obedience was the prime ingredient of the authentic individual. To maintain harmony, believed Confucius, people should not wander from what is authentic.

Confucius is described as believing in class distinctions – what he called social categories. He not only supported the religious values of the elite, he supported their good manners, and he dissociated himself from the religion that had become identified with the common people: shamanism, witchcraft and sorcery. Although he favored the elevation of males according to their learning and superior moral qualities, he appears to have failed to see that equal opportunity was not possible in an autocratic society dominated by aristocrats.

When Confucius was around fifty, he served as a minister of public works and as a minister of justice, but his support for Zhou kingship could not have set well with the ruler of Lu – who owed his power to independence from Zhou rule. And the moral posturing of Confucius might have alienated him from those around the local ruler – advisors and servants of various sorts who often wished to entice the ruler with sensual pleasures.

Confucius was disappointed that his views were not taken seriously and put into practice. He left politics in disgust and went on a decade of dangerous travels through various states. When he was sixty-seven, he responded to an invitation from some of his disciples to return to Lu, and there he taught five more years. Then he died viewing the world as askew, his optimism from earlier years having gone unrewarded.

   

Sources

Confucius and Confucianism, Enclyclopedia Britiannica (Realistic and scholarly rather than mythical and devotional)

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