Written by: Jeffrey Richey
In traditional China as well as in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, Confucianism prevailed within the courts of the nobility and in every arm of the government. The ruler assigned officials to govern at every level, including the local community, and the judiciary was also run by the central government.
The major concern of most Confucian thought and practice is social morality. How can people get along together in ways that both preserve what Confucians regard as natural hierarchies (for example, between old and young) and allow all of those within such hierarchies to benefit? In Lunyu 12:11, Kongzi offers his prescription: "Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son." In other words, if human beings act properly according to their place in life and in society, all will go well, and each will be able to do his part for the benefit of the group. The principle that underlies these social interactions is xiao (filiality). Since ancestor worship is the most public and frequent arena for the cultivation and display of xiao, it is no surprise that much early Confucian writing, including many canonical texts, is devoted to prescribing ritual practices involved in venerating one's ancestors.
Xiao often is understood as pertaining only to the duties of the young toward the old, but in the Han dynasty Confucian scripture known as the Xiaojing (Scripture of Filiality), Kongzi explains how xiao applies to everyone in society and is the basis for overall social harmony and welfare:
[Kongzi] said, "The ancient kings had a perfect virtue and all-embracing rule of conduct, through which they were in accord with all under Heaven. By the practice of it, the people were brought to live in peace and harmony, and there was no ill-will between superiors and inferiors. Do you know what it was? . . . [It was] filiality, which is the root of [all] virtue, and [the stem] out of which grows [all moral] teaching and learning. . . . Filiality . . . commences with the service of parents; it proceeds to the service of the ruler; it is completed by the establishment of character. It is said in the [Shijing]: Think always of your ancestors, cultivating your virtue."
This notion of expanding circles of filiality -- which radiate from the family (where one serves one's parents) to the state (where one serves one's ruler) and back to oneself (where one serves one's own moral and spiritual potential) -- helps to explain how later Confucian regimes, such as Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912 C.E.), conceptualized the nation as a "family state" (kazoku kokka), with the emperor as benevolent father to his filial child-subjects. Despite the criticisms that such a political model has attracted from non-Confucians, it should be pointed out that the Confucian notion of a "family state" entails high expectations of the father-ruler:
One who rules by moral charisma may be compared to the North Star -- it occupies its place and all the stars pay homage to it (Lunyu 2:1).
Direct the people with moral charisma and regulate them with ritual, and they will possess shame, and moreover, they will be righteous (Lunyu 2:3).