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Religion Library: Confucianism


Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Shang Dynasty oracle bone: Public DomainApart from manifesting its approval or disapproval of earthly regimes through signs and portents, however, Tian was thought to be somewhat remote from human affairs and to depend upon worthy human agents to carry out its will. Nearer to human beings than Tian were the recently deceased relatives of the living, so Western Zhou kings and their Shang forerunners regularly consulted their ancestors for guidance. Using "oracle bones" (jiagu) -- cattle scapulas and turtle plastrons heated over a fire -- they posed questions to the royal dead, to whom they also erected temples and offered sacrifices. Ancient Chinese veneration of Tian, ancestor worship, and divination practices shared a common purpose: to maintain harmonious relations between this world and the next for the benefit of the human community. Lunyu 1:11 records several sayings of Kongzi on the importance of reverence (jing) for one's ancestors: "Observe what a person has in mind to do when his father is alive, and then observe what he does when his father is dead. If, for three years, he makes no changes to his father's ways, he can be said to be a good son." Similarly, Kongzi credited Tian as the source of his moral merit (Lunyu 7:23). Kongzi studied and taught Western Zhou texts such as the Shijing (Classic of Poetry) and the Yijing (Classic of Changes) because he believed that they reinforced these basic views and values.

Zhou Dynasty ritual bell: Public DomainOther Western Zhou texts, such as the Shujing (Classic of Documents), tell the story of the dynasty's rise and fall. The early years of the dynasty were plagued by civil war. At the heart of this conflict was the matter of royal succession. The brother and chief minister of the dynastic founder, the Duke of Zhou, argued that Tian had bestowed its mandate on all of the Western Zhou people, especially the king's ministers, rather than on the royal lineage alone. Other factions at court, however, countered that the king alone was the recipient of divine authority. Unsurprisingly, this argument prevailed with Zhou kings. Yet the Duke of Zhou's view that Tian's mandate (Tianming) is gained and maintained by merit rather than blood eventually became very influential on Kongzi and his followers much later.

Confucians would come to see the Western Zhou's collapse in 771 B.C.E. as an act of Tian that signaled the loss of the heavenly mandate to rule. The story of the Western Zhou's beginnings, however, convinced Confucians that just as virtuous rulers once came to power and brought prosperity and harmony, so too could sage kings walk the earth again in their own time and order society with tradition, ritual, and virtue.

Study Questions:
     1.     What role did Shang dynasty religion play in the development of Confucian thought?
     2.     What role did Zhou dynasty religion play in the development of Confucian thought?
     3.     What is the focus of religious concern in early Confucianism?


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