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Confucius The history of Chinese civilization spans thousands of years and encompasses countless ideas, beliefs, and societal and political doctrines. However, from a modern standpoint one distinct perspective prevails above the rest in the manner and degree it has influenced the development of China. For the previous 2,000 years the teachings of Confucius, and the systems of thought and behavior that have evolved from them, have had significant effects on Chinese thought, government institutions, literature and social customs. Confucianism has served a primary role as a social and moral philosophy and as practiced by many, especially in the educated upper classes, Confucianism had definite religious dimensions. The teachings of Confucius served to unite a developing society, binding together various aspects of civilization and culture into one coherent body that functions under common values and attitudes. Confucius sought a type of all encompassing unity for the world and for his people; his wisdom was intended to serve as guide. In the Analects, a compendium of Confucian teachings, Confucius said, ‘Be of unwavering good faith and love learning.

Be steadfast unto death in pursuit of the good Way. Do not enter a state which is in peril, nor reside in one in which the people have rebelled. When the Way prevails in the world, then show yourself. When it does not, then hide. When the Way prevails in your own state, to be poor and obscure is a disgrace; but when the Way does not prevail in your own state, to be rich and honored is a disgrace.’ (Analects 4.5) This lesson serves well as a paradigm for Confucian thought; it shows the direction that Confucius aspired toward, and the proper methods for the journey.

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Before endeavoring to understand Confucianism and its connection with China, it is necessary to develop and understanding of China in the pre-Confucius era, in which this philosophy evolved. The most ancient evidence of Chinese religious and social civilization dates back to the Shang dynasty, circa 1500 B.C.E. In this early agricultural society, there is evidence of some of the basic fundamentals of most Chinese religious thought; the pursuit, establishment, maintenance and enjoyment of harmony in the earthly world. During the Zhou dynasty (1122 – 771 B.C.E.), the path initiated by the Shang was sustained and expanded upon. The Zhou quest for harmony and order led to the development of some extremely crucial concepts that would directly effect the development of Confucianism. It was in this era that the notion of Tian, the force that can be best understood as heaven, first came to light. This later led to the conception of the idea of the Mandate of Heaven (Tian-ming) from which rulers derived all power and sense of legitimacy, due to the accordance of their behaviors with the norms of morality and ritual correctness.

In connection with this, the relatively stable feudal society of Zhou era was responsible for the emergence of the tao. This principal made cosmic order and harmony possible; the tao can be thought of as the road or path from which come perfect unity, harmony and order. This idea played a critical role in the development of Confucianism and dramatically affected the course of Chinese development. In the eighth century B.C.E., the Zhou dynasty began to fall apart as barbarous tribes invaded from the west. This led to the disintegration of Zhou rule and the creation of a number of contending smaller states hoping to re-unify China under a new dynasty.

This serious breach in the structure of society and the disharmony that prevailed led to new movements of thought. The sages of this time felt strong aspirations to find solutions to the numerous problems that surrounded them. It probably is for this reason that the six-century B.C.E. was characterized by distinct progress in Chinese thought, and became known as the age of the hundred philosophers. Foremost in this era, Confucius was born.

Kung Fu-tzu was the given name of the great moral philosopher and teacher, Confucius is merely a romanized version of this. He is thought to have been born in the principality of Lu, in what is now Shantung Province, in Northeast China. This is the only information about Confucius that is known to be unyielding fact; almost all of the biographical information on this man is derived from the Life of Confucius by the historian Szema Ch’ien. Nearly all the data contained in this book is held to be accurate, being derived from dependable oral traditions. Confucius is said to have embarked on his quest for knowledge, order and harmony in an effort to dispel the conflict and dissension that existed in his time. Throughout his life he would seek to bring about a return to the ancient values, through a standardization of rituals, the creation of a system of rationalized feudalism and, most importantly, the establishment of ethical relationships based upon the principals of reciprocity and benevolence.

Confucius most likely started his career in a very lowly position (although some scholars dispute this) and through his intense devotion and perseverance was able to rise to a respected position in the civil service. It was at this time that Confucius is thought to have traveled widely in China, studying ancient rites and ceremonies. His devotion to antiquity was genuine and passionate. Confucius said, ‘I transmit but do not create. I have been faithful to and loved antiquity’ (Analects 7.1) Confucius then developed a reputation for overtly criticizing government policies, arguing that the governments of the time were leading the people away from li, a Confucian inspiration that can best be understood as a amalgamation of the terms ritual, custom, propriety and manners. Because of this Confucius began to devote the preponderance of his labors to teaching and edification. Confucius is accredited to have said, ‘I silently accumulate knowledge; I study and do not get bored; I teach others and do not grow weary – for these things come naturally to me.'(Analects 7.2) Confucius quickly began to develop a reputation as a prominent instructor and sage.

Even though he had ceased to function as a political administrator, his teachings were steeped in politics and state affairs. In fact, an inordinate number of Confucian pupils achieved great success as office seekers. In his last years, Confucius wholeheartedly devoted himself to editing the classical books of Chinese history now known as the Wu Jing or Five Classics. In these books Confucius sought to permanently preserve the ancient knowledge that he valued so dearly, and it seems to serve as a perfect legacy for this distinguished academic. Confucianism can be most easily understood by breaking its complexities into distinct vocabulary, in fact Confucius himself was reasonably obsessed with terminology. Li, the principle of social conduct to be observed by the moral personality that assumes the form of ritual and social order, was Confucius’ answer to the problems of his era.

As he saw the state of affairs, the adamant ritulization of life would facilitate the creation of a harmonious society. The first step in the Confucian program to establish the proper order of things, tao, was to reform the government. Confucius’ approach to this is quite distinct when looking from a western point of view that favors a democratic and egalitarian ideal. Confucius believed that direction must come from the uppermost levels of the state, thus working its way down to everyone. However Confucius held no value in any type of official coercion. Instead he believed that if the leaders were accomplished and virtuous (te), and they lived by l …


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