Ethics and Community

Community Organization

In traditional China as well as in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, Confucianism prevailed within the courts of the nobility and in every arm of the government. The ruler assigned officials to govern at every level, including the local community, and the judiciary was also run by the central government.

The major concern of most Confucian thought and practice is social morality. How can people get along together in ways that both preserve what Confucians regard as natural hierarchies (for example, between old and young) and allow all of those within such hierarchies to benefit? In Lunyu 12:11, Kongzi offers his prescription:  "Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son." In other words, if human beings act properly according to their place in life and in society, all will go well, and each will be able to do his part for the benefit of the group. The principle that underlies these social interactions is xiao (filiality). Since ancestor worship is the most public and frequent arena for the cultivation and display of xiao, it is no surprise that much early Confucian writing, including many canonical texts, is devoted to prescribing ritual practices involved in venerating one's ancestors.

In traditional China as well as in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, Confucianism prevailed within the courts of the nobility and in every arm of the government. The ruler assigned officials to govern at every level, including the local community, and the judiciary was also run by the central government.

The major concern of most Confucian thought and practice is social morality. How can people get along together in ways that both preserve what Confucians regard as natural hierarchies (for example, between old and young) and allow all of those within such hierarchies to benefit? In Lunyu 12:11, Kongzi offers his prescription:  "Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son." In other words, if human beings act properly according to their place in life and in society, all will go well, and each will be able to do his part for the benefit of the group. The principle that underlies these social interactions is xiao (filiality). Since ancestor worship is the most public and frequent arena for the cultivation and display of xiao, it is no surprise that much early Confucian writing, including many canonical texts, is devoted to prescribing ritual practices involved in venerating one's ancestors.

Traditional Confucian scholar, Korea (19th century): Public DomainXiao often is understood as pertaining only to the duties of the young toward the old, but in the Han dynasty Confucian scripture known as the Xiaojing (Scripture of Filiality), Kongzi explains how xiao applies to everyone in society and is the basis for overall social harmony and welfare:

[Kongzi] said, "The ancient kings had a perfect virtue and all-embracing rule of conduct, through which they were in accord with all under Heaven. By the practice of it, the people were brought to live in peace and harmony, and there was no ill-will between superiors and inferiors. Do you know what it was? . . .  [It was] filiality, which is the root of [all] virtue, and [the stem] out of which grows [all moral] teaching and learning. . . .  Filiality . . . commences with the service of parents; it proceeds to the service of the ruler; it is completed by the establishment of character. It is said in the [Shijing]: Think always of your ancestors, cultivating your virtue."

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.

Lee Kwan Yew, Confucian revivalist and prime minister of Singapore (1959-1990): Public DomainWith the fall of the last Chinese imperial government in 1911 C.E., Confucianism toppled from its state-imposed pedestal -- but not for long. Within a short time of the abdication of the last emperor, monarchists were plotting to restore a Confucian ruler to the throne. Although these plans did not materialize, the Nationalist regime in mainland China and later in Taiwan promoted Kongzi and Confucianism in a variety of ways in order to distinguish itself from the iconoclastic Communists who followed Mao to victory and control over most of China in 1949. Today, the Communist government of China spends a great deal of money on the reconstruction and restoration of old Confucian temples across the country, and has even erected many new statues of Kongzi in areas likely to be frequented by tourists from overseas. The appeal of Confucianism for the present regime may arise from a tacit recognition that contemporary China is in dire need of social harmony, and that China's oldest system of social ethics may hold the key to regaining and sustaining it.

 


Study Questions:
     1.     How do Confucians see the relationship between family life and political life?
     2.     What is expected of a Confucian leader?
     3.     What role has Confucian thought played in East Asian political history?
     4.     Why is Confucianism being revived in contemporary

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