Eastern Religions, ed. by Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Jennifer Oldstone-Moore: Confucianism
Summary and Comments by Ziniewicz
Written for Eastern Religions Course

[This summary is very rough and definitely no substitute for the excellent work/outlining you yourself are doing.]

Introduction (p. 316):

Confucianism and Taoism are complementary systems of thought in China. These have both had great influence on Chinese society.

Buddhism was imported from India.

Confucianism emphasizes universal order and harmony within the individual, family, society, and the universe. [Order requires that each part function as it should within the whole. Compare to Plato.]

Confucianism has been woven into the fabric of Chinese culture. Its influence has waned to some extent due to the efforts of the communist regime in China. Confucianism was an important part of civil service examinations, social and family ethics, and reverence for ancestors.

Confucianism spread from China to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. It is still publicly practiced in these countries.

When the author says that the “Confucian tradition actually began well before Confucius” (p. 36), she really means to say that what predated Confucius himself was a tradition of humanism in China, which occurred with the transition from the Shang (very religious) to the Chou (Xhou) dynasty.

Confucius exemplified the role of the ju (ru) or scholar or teacher. He was devoted to li (ritual, social “etiquette,” propriety), virtue (te), and public service.

Cosmic harmony can be achieved with the achievement of individual, family, and social harmony. The fulfillment of nature requires human fulfillment.

[For Taoism, nature is primary (Taoism is a naturalism). Nature is not a “person.” For Confucianism, human beings and human things are primary. Confucianism is a humanism.]

According to the author, the focus of Confucianism is “creating harmony in human society.” (P. 318)

The author attributes qi (ch’i) or “energy” to Confucius, but there is really no mention of it in the Analects. It is a neo-Confucian notion.

Confucianism (like much of Chinese thought) emphasizes two complementary principles of change – the yin (earth, dark, female, receptive principle) and yang (heaven, light, male, active principle). Working with the five phases or material principles, yin and yang account for the structure and function of all things.

Very important for Confucianism are the five basic human relationships, upon which are based all other human relationships in society:

1. Relation between father and son (or parent and child) called filial piety.
2. Relation between husband and wife.
3. Relation between elder brother and younger brother.
4. Relation between friend and friend.
5. Relation between ruler ans subject.

[Each of this relations has its own “rules” of propriety.]

The author writes: “The teachings of Confucianism are the means by which those human relationships are fulfilled, bringing them into line with cosmic patterns, which will, in a ripple effect, bring harmony to all of society and, ultimately, to the cosmos.” (P. 319)

Origins and Historical Development:

Be careful: The author traces “Confucianism” to the Shang dynasty, whereas the “humanism” which led to Confucianism was really chaaracteristic of the Chou (Zhou) dynasty, which replaced the Shang.

The Shang dynasty was much more overtly “religious” in the sense of making appeals to a divine being, practicing sacrifice, etc. In the Chou dynasty, the supreme being and anthropomorphic notion of heaven was replaced by the concept of heaven (T’ien or Tian) as a realm of moral order.

See quote (p. 323): Heaven was a non-anthropomorphic force that was able to control and influence events....”

Receiving the “mandate of heaven” meant that a ruler possessed virtue.

Confucius was born into a time of disorder following the decline of the Chou dynasty. He spent thirteen years trying to get rulers to follow his teachings about virtue in government.

Confucius stressed both cultivation of one’s own character and reform of society.

Mencius was a follower of Confucius: His writings became one of the four Confucian Classics, which included The Analects, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Great Learning, and The Mencius.

Mencius was important for two doctrines: (1) the view that human nature is originally good and (2) the view that the mandate of heaven is identical with the will of the people (basis of democratic tradition in China).

Hsun-tzu (Xunzi) was a naturalistic Confucian, who maintained that human nature is originally evil and has to be constrained and redirected by training and education.

Confucianism was officially adopted in the Han dynasty (206 - 220 BC). This dynasty incorporated the ideas of Confucianism and the ideas of Legalism. Great care was taken to recover and archive important texts.

With the fall of the Han dynasty came the decline of Confucianism and the rise of Buddhism, as well as new developments in Taoism.

In the Song dynasty, Confucianism was revived in the form of neo-Confucianism:

(1) Chu Hsi (Zhu Xi), 1130 -1200 AD: All things have an ordering principle (li) that governs their existence. All things are made up of li (principle) and ch’i (material force). In order to achieve humanity, one must investigate the principles of things. [Recall it was Chu Hsi who critiqued the Buddhists for their “detachment.”]

(2) Wang Yang-Ming: Idealistic Confucianism integrated Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist notions. [See his words about The Great Learning in our handouts.]

Vietnam and Korea formed their own Confucian states. Japan adopted many Confucian ideas and political principles. In the Tokugawa period of Japan’s history (roughly 1600 to 1868 AD), Confucianism was regarded as a way to restore order after centuries of civil war.

Communist China has made many attempts to dismiss Confucianism and to inhibit public display of its expressions, but Confucianism remains deeply embedded in the family and social structure of Chinese society.

Ethical Principles:

[These are stressed everywhere else in the course, but a brief summary might help.]

Importance of self-cultivation. [By the way, note the importance of farming terms when it comes to character development. “Cultivation” means helping to grow. Note also the Latin word cultus for farming.]

Developing one’s human capacities so as to become a completely virtuous person (superior person) or chun-tzu, a person of fully developed humanity or jen.

Importance of self-knowledge. Importance of practice [to make perfect], to perfect ways of judging and acting. Importance of judgment or chih.

Importance of learning, study of past examples of virtue. Importance of history.

Cultivation of order within oneself, order within one’s family, order within society, order within the “realm.”

Importance of propriety, appropriate behavior. Like li or ritual, each action or word has its proper place. Life is a kind of ceremony or ritual. Li can mean appropriate action.

Importance of studying the fine arts (culture, wen) – literature, music, poetry, rites – to enhance and cultivate one’s practice of moral virtue and development of harmony.

Actions of a superior person are characterized by jen (or ren): humanity, benevolence, human-heartedness. The Chinese character for jen combines two chacaters for (1) man and (2) two (or plural).

Self-cultivation (chung) implies cultivation of others (shu) or reciprocity (as indicated in the golden rule).

The purpose of human life or what it means to be a human being comes down to jen (combining chung and shu) as expressed in being a good father, a good mother, a good son, a good daughter, a good husband, a good wife, a good brother, a good sister, a good friend, a good ruler, a good subject.

Each role has its own special rules or moral “etiquette.” See summary of these responsibilities as described on Page 366 of the text.

Also important for Confucianism: Rectification of Names. A thing should function in accordance with the proper definition of its name. Words and deeds should be in accordance with one another (integrity). Social roles should be properly fulfilled. A father should behave in accordance with the definition of meaning of a father (what it means to be a father).

In government, the ruler is a “father-figure.” He should take care of his people and rule them by good example. He should be a superior person or chun-tzu. Like Taoism, Confucianism maintains that a good ruler rules by example rather than by force of arms.

Summary of the Great Learning (see translation in text and in the handout):

1. Investigate things so as to extend your knowledge.
2. Extend your knowledge in order to make your thoughts sincere.
3. Make your thoughts sincere so as to rectify your heart and mind.
4. Rectify your heart and mind so as to develop character.
5. Cultivate your character so as to set your family in order.
6. Set your family in order so as to govern your state well.
7. Govern your state well so as to manifest clear character to all.