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Religion Library: Confucianism

Beginnings

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Confucianism is the term used to describe the family of traditions that are based on the teachings of Confucius (c. 551-479 B.C.E.), a Chinese thinker whose given name was Kong Qiu and whose disciples called him Kongzi ("Master Kong"). Kongzi's ideas became well known only after his death in the 5th century B.C.E. His 4th-century interpreter Mengzi (better known in the West as Mencius), Mengzi's 3rd-century critic Xunzi, and many others joined the debate about Confucian thought, adding their own ideas about human nature and morality, and considering practical applications, particularly to political rule and government.

Confucius: Public DomainKongzi's teachings are recorded in the text known as the Lunyu ("Analects"). According to Lunyu 7:1, Kongzi "transmitted, but did not innovate." What Kongzi claimed to transmit was the Tao ("Way"), a concept shared by all early Chinese thinkers, although perhaps most closely associated with Taoist traditions. For Kongzi, the Tao was that of the Western Zhou dynasty (1100-771 B.C.E.), which he idealized as an alternative to his own "Spring and Autumn Period" (770-481 B.C.E.), a time of increasing social disorder. Kongzi saw himself as a guardian of Western Zhou traditions that could still have value in his own time. He challenged his disciples, most of whom hoped to gain official positions with various feudal states, to emulate the sages of the past and restore the moral integrity of society. Most of his ideas, as described in the Lunyu, have to do with Tian ("Heaven," which the ancient Chinese regarded as a deity rather than as a destination in the afterlife), morality, and politics. These ideas, in turn, form the basis of what became Confucian thought. However, neither Kongzi nor his ideas were well known during his lifetime. His disciples and their followers, known as Ru (a term originally used to describe ritual specialists at early Chinese courts), preserved, expanded, and transmitted his teachings for several hundred years after his death despite being ignored or persecuted by various regimes, including the short-lived Qin dynasty (221-202 B.C.E.). 

Confucius and his disciples: Public DomainThe two most significant successors to Kongzi prior to the Han dynasty were Mengzi (c. 372-289 B.C.E.) and Xunzi (c. 310-220 B.C.E.). Although these thinkers disagreed about many key issues, especially human nature, they agreed on the primary issue of concern to most Confucians: how to restore and maintain social harmony. Both Mengzi and Kongzi pinned their hopes for society's renewal on the appearance of a sage-ruler who would combine political power with moral wisdom, unify the fractured empire, and usher in a new age of harmony and prosperity. According to Kongzi, "One who rules by morality may be compared to the North Star -- it occupies its place and all the stars pay homage to it" (Lunyu 2:1). For Mengzi, only a ruler who enjoyed the ming (moral mandate) of Tian could bring order to a state; if a ruler failed to do so, his subjects were entitled to rebel against him and replace him. Xunzi saw the ruler-subject relationship in familial terms, with the ruler as the all-powerful father entrusted with the care of his dependent subjects, who in turn benefited from his wise choices in matters of education policy and other cultural affairs.

 

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