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Religion Library: Confucianism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

The process that produced the Lunyu was mirrored in the development of texts associated with his later followers Mengzi (372-289 B.C.E.) and Xunzi (312-230 B.C.E.), as well as two other texts, the Zhongyong (The Doctrine of the Mean) and the Daxue (The Great Learning).  The Zhongyong traditionally is attributed to Kongzi's grandson Zisi, who supposedly taught Mengzi, and is concerned with the proper relations between people in a hierarchical society modeled after early Confucians' idealized view of the Western Zhou dynasty. The Daxue traditionally is attributed to Kongzi's disciple Zengzi and is characterized by somewhat more mystical concerns than the Zhongyong, such as harmonizing oneself with the Tao by understanding its patterns both within and without oneself. 

Paragon of filial piety: Public DomainBy the Han dynasty, the Lunyu, Mengzi, Zhongyong, and Daxue were well-known in their current forms but still were not valued as highly as the allegedly-older Wujing texts.  It was not until these four texts were canonized as the Sishu (Four Books) by the Confucian reformer Zhu Xi (1130-1200 C.E.) that the Wujing texts were superseded as the primary Confucian scriptures. Just as important, if not more popular, than the Sishu texts were the narratives of moral heroes contained in Guo Jujing's Ershisi Xiao (Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars), produced during the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368 C.E.). These tales described how ordinary people demonstrated extraordinary Confucian virtue in honoring, nurturing, or protecting their parents, and lent themselves to easy memorization because of the concluding short poems that summarized each tale, such as the one that ends the story of the 11th filial exemplar, Wu Meng (who stayed awake and allowed mosquitoes to bite him nightly in order to spare his parents pain while they slept): "On summer nights without a mosquito net, / When mosquitoes are many he dares not wave them off; / They gorge themselves on his flesh and blood, / And thus he avoids their bothering his parents."


Study Questions:
     1.     Why did early Confucians value Zhou dynasty literature?
     2.     What kinds of texts became the earliest Confucian scriptures?
     3.     What kinds of texts became Confucian scriptures later on?
     4.     What role did popular tales play in later Confucian thought?


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