Confucius lived during the Spring and Autumn period (777 BC to 476 BC) of the
Eastern or Later Zhou Dynasty (770 BC - 256 BC). It was a time in China's history
when the great Zhou dynasty had broken down and the country was divided among
rival factions. Confucius traveled from State to State to teach what he believed to
be the best approach to government and civilization.
Wherever he went, he sought positions in government as an advisor or
administrator, but only briefly held a few such posts. While he attracted a large
number of students and followers, his views and advice were not popular among
the kings nor were they considered practical. A number of his students were able
to make successful careers in government; perhaps they were more flexible or
The writings of Confucius would seem to appeal to a feudal lord. Confucius taught
that the subordinate owed obedience and honor to his superior. This began in the
home where the father was held to be the absolute ruler. The family was to follow
him in all decisions and look to him for guidance and wisdom. This principle, filial
piety, was then applied to the organization of civilization and government. The
individual household owed allegiance and obedience to the local ruler who in turn
honored and obeyed those above him.
Confucius relished the idea of ceremony and promoted it as a means to serve as a
visual and behavioral reminder of rank. The external signs or rituals of society were
to regulate both day to day exchanges as well as the ceremonies of State. Rank
was dignified by rituals as well as privilege. Each rank would have specific roles in
religious and political ceremonies and would be limited to certain ceremonies they
could conduct. Included in the idea of ceremony were the clothes that you were to
wear, the insignias on the clothing or your carriage, the style of hat worn on special
occasions, where you could and could not walk, and even the colors you were
allowed to use in clothing and decoration. Only the Emperor was to use and wear
certain colors of gold, crimson, and purple.
One would think that rulers would embrace such a militaristic organization of the
population. However, Confucius also taught that rulers must be responsible to their
subordinates. They earned their privilege through promoting the welfare of the
populace. When a father or a ruler betrayed that trust, the children or the subjects
had the right and duty to disobey, to overthrow the ruler. At heart he was a
humanist. When Confucius did manage to secure a position in court in one of the
kingdoms, he didn't last long. The kingdoms were preoccupied with war.
Resources which Confucius thought should be spent on benevolence were
channeled into either defense of territory or the acquisition of new territories.
Confucius seldom stayed in a place for a long time. Either the kings and dukes
didn't have much patience with the idea of tempering their power and he was
quickly dismissed or he would leave in disgust when prescribed rituals were
violated. He despaired when he would witness minor nobles engage in the rituals of
kings. He felt insulted when the proper courtesies due his rank were abridged or
forgotten altogether. He left disciples and students behind who had been exposed
to a radical form of thought.
Perhaps, in part. because he traveled so extensively, Confucian thought spread
widely following his death. His students carried it to all corners of China. It influenced
other forms of Chinese philosophy such as that of Mencius and the Legalists. As a philosophy it was a deliberate consideration of the function and
responsibility of government and society. It contained a moral code that applied to
the minutia of greeting a friend as well as to the proper function and ethics of
By the time that the King of Qin (221 BC) conquered the neighboring States and
declared himself as Shi Huang Di, Emperor of China, Confucianism was a powerful
force. As one of his first acts as emperor, Huang Di ordered that all of the books of
Confucius should be burnt and the Confucian scholars executed. Huang Di then
embarked upon a total reorganization of society and government, one based on
absolute power, forced labor, conscripted military, and central control. In a few
short years he was able to join and lengthen the Great Wall, build roads, dig canals,
and build the great mausoleum at Xi'an for himself. The violence and disrespect
for traditional values led to the overthrow of the Qin dynasty only 21 years after its
inception. The Han dynasty, which replaced it, returned to Confucian principles and
lasted until 220 AD.
The Emperor Wu Ti of the Han dynasty took the advice of his minister, Hung Kung-sun, and made Confucianism a religion by elevating Confucius to a perfection of thought and correctness that was unarguable, something simply to be learned, studied, and in the end worshiped. This had far reaching consequences for the future. Other schools of thought didn't have a chance to be explored or developed. Confucianism itself had little possibility of being significantly altered. During the Song and then the Ming dynasties Confucianism became little more than a management tool rather than a system of ethics.
The system of national examinations underwrote the standardization of thought. To enter the Civil Service and thus advance in rank boys studied the classics and their proper interpretation. Even those who would not take the examinations were taught using the texts. It was only in the late Qing dynasty that alternative methods of education were more readily available. Even after that, parents taught reverence for the classics. If you knew your Confucius, everything would go right in your life.
The ten years of terror called the Cultural Revolution, both rejected, and was based on, the Confucian system. The "little red book" of Chairman Mao was to replace the Confucian texts but be given the same inviolate devotion and obedience. Any person carrying a copy and loudly proclaiming its contents could expect to be able to advance in the ranks. It provided a rather immediate system of civil service exams without the need for prolonged study.
The work of Confucius was published in English when England and Europe were
moving away from feudal thought and government toward representative
government with an emphasis on individual choice and rights. Confucian principles
emphasize the good of the group or community over the rights of the individual.
Confucius was developing a system of morality and politics just a little earlier than
when the writings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundation for our
western approach to civilization. Later philosophers in each culture would be
influenced by the assumptions of the earliest great writers. They developed their
thoughts either in opposition to them or as an extension and elaboration. By the
time Confucian thought reached Europe, philosophers and politicians had moved to
limit the power of government through law and to guarantee the rights of the
individual irrespective of their place in society. In the West, the work of Confucius
was, and is, valued for its beauty and great moral sense, not as an innovative
approach to civilization. In China, it is today a part of the fabric of society, and influences
their philosophers and thinkers as well as day to day living.
He who rules his state on a moral basis would be supported by the people, just as
the Polar star is encircled by all the other stars. p 12.
Regulated by the edits and punishments, the people will know only how to stay out
of trouble but will not have a sense of shame. Guided by virtues and the rites, they
will not only have a sense of shame but also know how to correct their mistakes of
their own accord. p 13.
People will obey you if you promote righteous men and suppress evil men. And
they will disobey you if you do the contrary.
If one learns the truth in the morning, one would never regret dying the same
evening. p 51.
Courtesy without following the rites leads to tiredness, caution without following the
rites leads to cowardice, courage without following the rites leads to rudeness;
frankness without following the rites leads to harshness. Subordinates imitate their
superiors; when a superior man devotes himself to his own kin, the people will
cherish the cultivation of benevolence. When he does not forget his friends, people
will not be indifferent to one another. p. 129.
When learning something new, one should worry about being unable to reach it.
When one has learnt something, one should worry about forgetting it. p. 138.
Fan Chi asked about benevolence. Confucius said, "Be respectful to parents, be conscientious in official affairs. Be loyal
and honest to friends. These three moral principles can never be defied anywhere." p. 241.
A gentleman always keeps even-tempered without being arrogant while a petty
man is arrogant without being even-tempered. p. 246.
Analects of Confucius. (Cai Xiqin editor and translator). Beijing: Sinolingua,
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