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Confucianism - History

ConfuciusThe historical movements of Confucianism may be summed up under six heads: (1) the school of the doctrine of Great Similarity, emphasizing liberty, handed down from Tzu-yu, Tzu-ssu to Mencius; (2) the school of the doctrine of Small Tranquillity, emphasizing government, handed down from Chung-kung to Hsun Tzu. Li Ssii applied it to the government of the Ch'in dynasty (331, or 221 BC) and it lasted to the 19th century; (3) the theological school, drawn from the whole Bible, and especially from the "Great Model" of the Canon of History, the Canon of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn. Tung Chung-shu and Liu Hsiang were conspicuous representatives, but this school was practically ended after the Han dynasty; (4) the ethical school, the chief element of Confucianism, and highly developed in the Sung and the Ming dynasties; (5) the historical school, based on the Canon of History and the Spring and Autumn. Ssu-ma Chien and other great historians were the representatives; (6) the school of literary research and scientific study, set forth by Confucius, and popularly, but narrowly, applied in Manchu dynasty.

In the periods of Spring and Autumn (171 BK-71 AK or 722-481 BC) and of Warring States (149-331 AK or 403-221 BC), great philosophers with creative genius were numerous, and each fought for his own doctrines. According to the History of Han, there were nine sects: (1) Confucianism, (2) Taoism, (3) Spiritualism (the old religion), (4) The School of Law, (5) The School of Logic, (6) Moism, (7) The School of Diplomacy, (8) The School of Generalization, (9) The School of Agriculture. The most powerful of these were Confucianism, Taoism and Moism.

Yang Chu was a great disciple of Lao Tzu, and he made Taoism a religion of extreme egoism, while Mo Tzu established his own school, which was one of extreme altruism. Yang was like Epicurus, and Mo was like Jesus. During the time of Mencius, the doctrines of Yang and Mo ruled the whole empire, and endangered the existence of Confucianism. A little later, however, as society would not accept the doctrine of Taoism, now made extremely egoistic by Yang Chu, the only rivals were Confucianism and Moism. At the end of the Chou dynasty and the beginning of the Han dynasty, the names of Confucius and Mo Ti had equal prominence, and a life and death struggle between the two coming religions was now going on.

Confucius (551-479 BC), also called Kong Zi [pinyin], K'ung-fu-tzu [Wade–Giles], literally Master Kong, looked to the early days of Zhou rule for an ideal social and political order. He believed that the only way such a system could be made to work properly was for each person to act according to prescribed relationships. "Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject a subject," he said, but he added that to rule properly a king must be virtuous. To Confucius, the functions of government and social stratification were facts of life to be sustained by ethical values. His ideal was the junzi (ruler's son), which came to mean gentleman in the sense of a cultivated or superior man.

Mencius (372-289 BC), or Meng Zi, was a Confucian disciple who made major contributions to the humanism of Confucian thought. Mencius declared that man was by nature good. He expostulated the idea that a ruler could not govern without the people's tacit consent and that the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule was the loss of the "mandate of heaven." The effect of the combined work of Confucius, the codifier and interpreter of a system of relationships based on ethical behavior, and Mencius, the synthesizer and developer of applied Confucian thought, was to provide traditional Chinese society with a comprehensive framework on which to order virtually every aspect of life.

After the death of Confucius, his pupils scattered over the whole empire. Some became teachers and ministers in the governments of different states, some private teachers. In 145 AK (407 BC), the Marquis Wen of Wei accepted the Confucian books from Tzu-hsia. This was the first time that Confucianism was recognized as a state religion. About 231 AK (321 BC), the Marquis Wen of Teng put Confucianism into practice on the advice of Mencius. During this same period, five states — Lu, Ch'i, Wei, Sung, and Ch'in — had established the Board of Great Scholars, (Po Shih), the government professorship of Confucianism. Confucianism attained this dominance largely because of the achievements of its disciples. According to Han Fei Tzu, Confucianism was at that time divided up into eight branches. But the greatest Confucians fighting against all other schools were Mencius and Hsun Tzu.

When the First Emperor of the Ch'in dynasty consolidated the whole empire, and Li Ssu, pupil of Hsun Tzu, became the prime minister, Confucianism was made in 339 AK (213 BC) a universal religion throughout the Chinese world, although this tyrannical emperor did not give religious freedom to the people, but confined authority of interpretation to the government. The life of the Ch'in dynasty, however, was short, and the influence of the different schools was still felt during the beginning of the Han dynasty. It was not until 412 AK (140 BC) that Han Wu Ti accepted the proposal of Tung Chung-shu, the greatest Confucian of the Han dynasty, to abolish all other religions and to establish Confucianism as the only one. Then all the other schools, including Moism, died out, and the supremacy of Confucianism was complete.

During the Han dynasty (346-771 AK, or 206 BC-220 AD), the influence of Confucianism was so great that its books served not only as religious books, but also as a legal code. The whole Confucian school in this dynasty may be styled the canonistic school. During the Latter Han dynasty (576-771, or 25-220 AD) especially, the moral influence produced by Confucianism was the best in Chinese history. Personal honor and personal liberty were the first considerations; and, during the decay of this dynasty, the students fighting against the bad government sacrificed even their lives. The moral standard of society as a whole was very high. In fact, the Han dynasty, although not following the best principles of Confucius, proved the applicability of Confucianism to practical as well as theoretical problems.

After the Han dynasty, Confucianism fell into a period of decline. Tsao Tsao, the founder of the Wei dynasty, in 761 (210 AD) openly decreed official employment of bad men, and destroyed the moral influence that Confucianism had exerted. During the Wei and the Tsin dynasties (771-867, or 220-316 AD), Taoism was powerful; and during the Southern and the Northern dynasties, and the Sui and the Tang dynasties (868-1458, or 317-907 AD), Buddhism prevailed. Confucianism, although remaining nominally the state religion, had lost its supremacy. Nevertheless, the governments, especially those of the Northern Wei, the Northern Chou and the Tang dynasties, did apply some Confucian principles to political and economic problems, so that the people still enjoyed some of its benefits. There was only one scholar, Han Yii (1319-1375, or 768-824 AD), who fought for Confucianism, and against Taoism and Buddhism. Han Yu, not a deep philosopher, but the greatest writer since the Han dynasty, gave a death-blow to Taoism and Buddhism by attacking them from the economic standpoint. But the popular study of this period was literature in the narrow sense, and the Confucian philosophy was the study of but few. Then came the age of the Five Dynasties (1458-1511, or 907-960 AD) which, for Confucianism, was worst of all.

But such a decline finally came to an end, and during the Sung dynasty there were many great Confucians. The greatest of these was Chu Hsi (1681-1751, or 1130-1200 AD), who was the Martin Luther of Confucianism. He, however, was a one-sided reformer who emphasized the ethical teachings of Confucius, and omitted his religious views; laid stress on individual character and neglected social welfare. In this dynasty, there was a great statesman named Wang An-shih (1572-1637, or 1021-1086 AD), who tried to change the whole of society by economic reforms. There was also a school called Yungchia (about 1714-1775, or 1163-1224 AD), that advocated material welfare as well as moral cultivation. But both failed to overcome the general influence of public opinion, and the scholars usually paid much attention to philosophical controversies and forgot practical problems. Passing through the Yuan and the Ming dynasties, the learning was not different from that of the Sung dynasty, although in the Ming dynasty there was Wang Shou-jen (2023-2079, or 1472-1528 AD) who was rival to Chu Hsi. For this period (1511-2194, or 960-1643 AD) the whole Confucian school may be styled the philosophical school.

In the Manchu dynasty, beginning in 2195 (1644 AD), Confucianism was in a period of renaissance. There were three great Confucians at the beginning of this dynasty: Ku Yen-wu (2163-2232, or 1612-1681 AD), Huang Tsung-hsi (2160-2246, or 1609-1695 AD), and Wang Fu-chih (2178-2230, or 1627-1679 AD). They did not belong to any particular school, but were great in many lines. Then came the school of the canonists. First (about 2287-2371, or 1736-1820 AD), they turned from the learning of all the mediaeval and modern dynasties to the school of Ancient Literature of the Latter Han dynasty. Second (about 2372-2425, or 1821-1874 AD), they went back to the school of Modern Literature of the Former Han dynasty, and new thoughts sprang up. Kung Tsi-chin (born in 2343, or 1792 AD) and Wei Yuan (died in 2407, or 1856 AD) were the representatives of this movement, and the greatest exponent of Confucius was Kang Yu-wei, the personal advisor of Te Tsung in the political reforms of 2449 (1898 AD).

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:05 ZULU