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Religion Library: Confucianism

Community Organization

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

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).

De (moral charisma) a quality of the successful ruler, because he rules at the pleasure of Tian (Heaven), which for Confucians is resolutely allied with morality, and to which they attribute every human being's inner de. De is the virtue of the successful ruler, without which he could not rule at all.

After the initial persecution of Confucians during the short-lived Qin dynasty (221-202 B.C.E.), the succeeding Han emperors and their ministers seized upon Confucianism as a vehicle for the legitimation of their rule and the social control of their subjects. The Wujing (Five Classics) -- five ancient texts associated with Kongzi -- were established as the basis for the imperial civil service examinations in 136 B.C.E., making memorization of these texts and their orthodox Confucian interpretations mandatory for all who wished to obtain official positions in the Han government. The state's love affair with Confucianism carried on through the end of the Han in 220 C.E., after which Confucianism fell out of official favor as a series of warring factions struggled for control of China during the "Period of Disunity" (220-589 C.E.) and foreign and indigenous religious traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism rivaled Confucianism for the attentions of the elite.

After the restoration of unified imperial government with the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.), however, the future of Confucianism as a symbol of the Chinese cultural and political establishment became increasingly secure. State-sponsored sacrifices to Kongzi and other Confucian saints formed part of the official religious complex of temple rituals, from the national to the local level, and orthodox hagiography and history cemented his reputation as cultural hero among the masses. The Song dynasty Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200 C.E) institutionalized the study of the Lunyu as one of "Four Books" required for the redesigned imperial civil service examinations, and aspiring officials continued to memorize the text and orthodox commentaries on it until the early 20th century.


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