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Religion Library: Confucianism


Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Kongzi claimed to be inspired by the Duke of Zhou, a heroic figure from his home state of Lu who was regarded as the founder of that state. He also was inspired by the rituals and institutions of the Western Zhou dynasty (1045-771 B.C.E.), founded nearly five hundred years before his birth, the classic literature of that dynasty, and by the religious practices of the earliest Chinese civilizations.

The Duke of Zhou: Public DomainDuring Kongzi's lifetime, what now is north China enjoyed no political unity and suffered from constant warfare between feudal states that were the remnants of the once-great Western Zhou dynasty that collapsed after "barbarian" invasions in 771 B.C.E. The kings of the various "Warring States" hoped to reunify the former Western Zhou territory by patterning their court rituals and other institutions after those of the fallen dynasty. Foremost among the religious institutions of the Western Zhou were the belief in Tian ("Heaven") as a moral force guiding the universe, the importance of virtuous rulership, and the practice of ancestor worship, all of which in turn deeply influenced Confucian traditions.

While traditional Chinese histories use the term "dynasty" to refer to early regimes, they probably are better understood as tribal kingships associated with the development of bronze metalworking technology and the military superiority and social stratification that came with that technology. They performed elaborate rites of divination and sacrifice related to their ancestors, spent enormous amounts on costly grave goods and monuments, combined political and religious authority in the person of the king, used a logographic (expressing meaning through signs) language, and relied upon a bureaucratic organization to sustain court life and society's needs. Each of these elements of early Chinese civilization exerted a profound influence on the development of Confucian thought, not to mention Chinese culture in general.

The Western Zhou began as a small, weak ally of the more powerful Shang dynasty (ca. 1570-1045 B.C.E.). Once the Western Zhou had successfully overthrown the Shang and established themselves as the new rulers of the north central Chinese plain, they developed a religious ideology to explain their rise to power. According to Western Zhou thought, the Shang god Shang Di ("The Lord on High") once affirmed the Shang kings' high moral stature by allowing them to rule. By proving themselves unworthy of the god's mandate (ming), however, the Shang lost their heavenly legitimacy and were forced to surrender to the virtuous founders of the Western Zhou. Moreover, the Western Zhou equated Shang Di with their own god, Tian, and thus claimed that the same god worshipped by both the Shang and the Western Zhou had revoked its support from the former and granted it to the latter.


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