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Religion Library: Confucianism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Shrine to Confucius, Nagasaki, Japan: Public DomainJapan in the early 20th century C.E. may be the best example of a modern Confucian empire. Beginning with the restoration of direct imperial rule under the emperor Meiji in 1868, Confucian ideology (which was not associated with the failures of feudal society in Japan, unlike the case in China) was used to promote the image of the ruler as the father of the "family state" (kazoku kokka), to whom all his subjects owed filial obedience and respect. In 1890, the Japanese state promulgated the Kyōiku ni Kansuru Chokugo (Imperial Rescript on Education), which became required reading in Japanese schools and even the centerpiece of public rituals in which subjects pledged allegiance to the emperor. The text reads, in part: "Subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all." The Japanese Confucian concept of the emperor as national parent gained strength from Confucianism's combination with Shintō religious traditions, wherein the emperor was understood as a kami (divine being) living among mortals.

The extension of Japanese power into Korea, Manchuria, Taiwan, and other Asian regions brought with it the expansion of Confucian traditions, albeit in forms designed to serve Japanese imperial interests, such as propagating the Imperial Rescript among Japan's colonial subjects. This Confucian rhetoric of empire persisted and intensified after the Meiji emperor's reign well into the 1930s and 1940s, when right-wing nationalist elements in Japanese politics won the upper hand and led Japan into a disastrous war of conquest that aimed to bring all of East Asia into a harmonious Kyōeiken (Co-Prosperity Sphere). The links between Confucianism and imperialism in Japan were severed when Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945 following the atomic bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the aftermath of the war, the United States occupational administration forced Japan's emperor to renounce his religious status, and the Japanese state was forbidden to establish any religious tradition, Confucian or otherwise, as its official ideology.

Pro-Confucian Imperial Rescript on Education promoted by Emperor Meiji of Japan, 1890: Public DomainPartly in response to Japan's imperial ambitions, and partly in response to the threat of Western imperialism, Chinese rulers and intellectuals attempted to revitalize Confucian traditions in order to assert Chinese cultural and political independence. In the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising of 1900 -- during which anti-foreign sentiment inspired violent reprisals against bastions of Western colonialism in China, leading to a military response by Western nations, the capture of Beijing and the imperial palace, and the demand that China pay more than $300 million in reparations to Western powers -- the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) moved publicly to counter the impression that China was too hidebound by Confucianism to meet the challenges of modernity. Among the reforms that she sponsored was the abolition of the millennia-old Confucian civil service examination system in 1905. Ultimately, Cixi's reforms were unable to turn the tide of anti-imperial fervor in China, however, and the last emperor was deposed in 1912, just four years after her death.


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