Confucianism beyond Confucius

Over a year ago, a friend sent me a copy of Burton’s Watson’s translation of the Analects of Confucius, and after reading that book, my interest in Confucianism has gradually grown over time. It’s a subject I’ve touched upon many times on the blog, but the more I study it, the more I realize that Confucianism is far more complicated than what I assumed. Confucianism is something not oft studied in the West, and explanations of it usually begin and end with Confucius. But in fact Confucianism is a large and complex school of thought and its influence shouldn’t be understated. In the context of this blog, I have been recently reading about religion and politics in the Edo Period in Japan, 1600-1868, far removed from the stuff I usually study, but the book shows how religion and politics at the time were deeply intertwined. It was at this time that Neo-Confucianism rose to prominence and rivaled Buddhist thought, which had been the de facto state religion of Japan for 1000 years (with Shinto in a subordinate status).

Separately, I’ve also been reading an excellent introduction to Confucian thought by Professor Yao who helps explore the roots of Confucianism and how it developed over the centuries, the various strains of thought, approaches, interactions with other religions and so on.

Confucianism is called rú jiào​ (儒教) in modern Mandarin, or jukyō in Japanese. The first character 儒 refers to the ancient priests of Shang-dynasty China, who gradually became scholars and engineers as their religious functions declined and they had to make themselves useful somehow. So the current meaning is that of a scholar. Thus, Confucianism in Asian culture means the “religion or teachings of the scholar”, but not in a sense of an elite class or aristocracy, as Western history sometimes portrays it. Instead, as Professor Yao describes Confucianism:

Confucianism is a kind of humanism that seeks sacredness in an ordinary and yet disciplined life; or in Paul Rule’s words, it is a ‘secular religion, this-worldly in emphasis yet appealing to transcendent value embodied in the concept of “heaven”‘ (Rule, 1986: 31, as posted in page 45)

But as Professor Yao points out, Confucius himself didn’t invent the teachings, but rather articulated China’s idyllic past, reinterpreting ancient books such as the Book of Changes, the Book of Odes, etc. and with it provided a model for future generations to follow while adding innovations of his own, such as his deep emphasis on “humaneness” and love of learning. As history shows his followers carried the message onward, each in their own way, and through repeated government persecutions, and struggles with other schools, it recovered and thrived time and again sometimes interwoven with the government, other times acting as a watchdog toward it.

However, as Professor Soothill points out in the same book:1

A study of a religion which limits itself to the teachings of the early founders, and which ignores the present condition of its development, will give a very imperfect presentation of the religion as a whole. (Soothill, 1973: 21, printed in page 11)

So, one must look beyond Confucius and his immediate followers to appreciate Confucianism as a whole. So recently, I took an interest in the writings of Mencius, the second great Confucian scholar, which have been translated and posted in part by Professor A.C. Muller, including this excellent quotation:

[6A:16] Mencius said: “There is a nobility that belongs to Heaven and a nobility that belongs to man. Humaneness, Rightness loyalty, truthfulness and a tireless delight in the good—these are the nobility of Heaven. Duke, Premier and Minister—these are the nobility of man.”

The conversations of Mencius often read like Socratic conversations, and are more detailed than those found in the Analects of Confucius, so you can get a genuine flavor of what Confucius taught through this famous disciple of his own grandson. Mencius helps to complete the picture, in my opinion.

Later, as history shows, the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, followed the tenets of the rival school of Legalism instead, and Confucian scholars were often put to death and their books burned. It took centuries before the Confucian community could recover, but it went on to become the de facto state philosophy, and the civil entrance exams were implemented. In Confucius’s time, he taught that any person through education and self-cultivation could become noble, humane and a gentleman (or lady), and the civil entrance exams were revolutionary in allowing anyone in China who studied the Classics to take the exam and earn a position in the government. Compared to kingships, tribes and despots in other parts of the world, this was way ahead of the times. This model provided the inspiration for Korea, Japan and Vietnam as well with its appreciation of the learned scholar over the despot as a viable form of government, and civil entrance exams were implemented in these countries as well.

As Confucianism interacted with a fully matured religious Taoism and Buddhism, the complex tensions and exchanges in ideas led to the rise of Neo-Confucianism. The famous Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi (sounds like “joo shee”) organized Confucian texts in a way that remains today, while advancing new ideas with regard to cosmology and how the world works. His teachings provided tremendous inspiration for the Tokugawa Bakufu in Japan, as the books above show and for Neo-Confucians there.

Even today, Confucianism is recovering from the persecution of the Cultural Revolution, and the stigma as a “reactionary and conservative” movement. But Professor Yao demonstrates Confucian thought has often been simultaneously conservative yet liberal and revolutionary. In the 21st century, Confucian scholars in Chinese communities everywhere, and in the West take inspiration from Confucius’s secular-yet-sacred teachings and try to instill moral conduct and humanness even in today’s technological world. Professor Yao’s book shows how Western missionaries who came to China in recent centuries often came away inspired to translate and bring the teachings back to the West, even while attempting to challenge it, including some well-known translators (e.g. Legge and Matteo Ricci among others).

This is a very brief, cursory look at the evolution of Confucianism, but shows how reverence for education, humane ethics and personal development are still alive in the world today and owe much to the many scholars throughout history who kept the teachings alive in the face of corruption and occasional persecution. Even now people can come to the Temple of Confucius in Qufu, China2 and pay respects to Confucius, his disciples, and all those who came after them.

P.S. Scheduling error on my part so posting today instead of Sunday.

1 Much of this would apply to the Buddha as well, and probably other religions too.

2 Similar temples exist in the rest of East Asia. I’ve seen the one in Hanoi, Vietnam when I was studying abroad there many years ago.

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