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IV. Confucianism
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
 

The First Teacher

If there is one name with which Chinese culture has been associated it is Confucius’— Kung Fu-tzu or Kung the Master. Chinese reverently speak of him as the First Teacher— not that there were no teachers before him, but because he stands first in rank. For though Confucius did not author Chinese culture, he was its supreme editor.

Confucius was born around 551 B.C. in the principality of Lu in what is now Shantung province. We know nothing for certain about his ancestors, but it is clear that his early home life was modest.

His father died before Confucius was three, leaving his upbringing to a loving but impoverished mother. Financially, therefore, he was forced to make his own way, at first through menial tasks. The hardship and poverty of these early years gave him a tie with the common people, which was to be reflected in the democratic tenor of his entire philosophy.
In his early twenties, having held several insignificant government posts and contracted a not too successful marriage, he established himself as a tutor. This was obviously his vocation. The reputation of his personal qualities and practical wisdom spread rapidly, attracting a circle of ardent disciples.

Prompted as if by call—“ At fifty I perceived the divine mission”— he gave his next thirteen years, with many a backward look and resisting footstep, to “the long trek,” in which he wandered from state to state proffering unsolicited advice to rulers on how to improve their governing and seeking a real opportunity to put his ideas into practice.

In time , with a change of administration in his own state, he was invited to return. There, recognizing that he was now too old for office anyway, he spent his last five years quietly teaching and editing the classics of China’s past. In 479 B.C., at the age of seventy-two, he died.
A failure as a politician, Confucius was undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest teachers . Prepared to instruct in history, poetry, government, propriety, mathematics, music, divination, and sports, he was, in the manner of Socrates, a one-man university. His method of teaching was likewise Socratic.

There was nothing other-worldly about him. He loved to be with people, to dine out, to join in the chorus of a good song, and to drink, though not in excess. His disciples reported that “When at leisure the Master’s manner was informal and cheerful. He was affable, yet firm; dignified yet pleasant .”

Power and wealth could have been his for the asking if he had been willing to compromise with those in authority. He preferred, instead, his integrity. He never regretted the choice.

Until this century, every Chinese school child for two thousand years raised his clasped hands each morning toward a table in the schoolroom that bore a plaque bearing Confucius’ name . Virtually every Chinese student has pored over his sayings for hours, with the result that they have become a part of the Chinese mind and trickled down to the illiterate in spoken proverbs .

The Problem Confucius Faced
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For the clue to Confucius’ power and influence, we must see both his life and his teaching against the background of the problem he faced. This was the problem of social anarchy. By Confucius’ time the interminable warfare had degenerated from chivalry toward the unrestrained horror of the Period of the Warring States. The horror reached its height in the century following Confucius’ death.

As the clue to the power of Confucianism lies in its answer to this problem of social cohesion, we need to see that problem in historical perspective. Confucius lived at a time when social cohesion had deteriorated to a critical point. The glue was no longer holding.

Rival Answers

When tradition is no longer adequate to hold society together, human life faces the gravest crisis it has encountered. One of these was put forward by the Realists.  What do you do when people don’t behave? Hit them. It is a classic answer to a classic question. What people understand best is force.  Actually, a social philosophy as different from the Realists’ as fire from ice did exist alongside it in Confucius’ China. Known as Mohism after its principal spokesman, Mo Tzu or Mo Ti, it proposed as the solution to China’s social problem not force but love— universal love (chien ai). Mo Tzu simply disagreed with charges that his emphasis on love was sentimental and impractical.

Confucius’ Answer

Neither of these rival answers to the problem of social cohesion impressed Confucius. He rejected the Realists’ answer of force because it was clumsy and external. As for the Mohists’ reliance on love, Confucius agreed with the Realists in dismissing it as utopian. Confucius’ foremost disciple, Mencius, used this same logic to reject Mo Tzu’s call “to love all equally.”

The West’s current approach to the social problem— through the cultivation of reason— probably did not occur to Confucius. If it had he would have dismissed it as not thought through.

Confucius was all but obsessed with
tradition, for he saw it as the chief shaper of inclinations and attitudes. When tradition is no longer spontaneous and unquestioned, it must be shored up and reinforced through conscious attention.

With the perspicacity of a politician taking his stand on the Constitution, he appealed to the Classics as establishing the guidelines for his platform. Yet all the while he was interpreting, modifying, reformulating. Unknown to his people, we can feel confident, he was effecting a momentous reorientation by shifting tradition from an unconscious to a conscious foundation.

The shift from spontaneous to deliberate tradition requires that the powers of critical intelligence be turned both to keeping the force of tradition intact, and to determining which ends tradition shall henceforth serve.

For nearly two thousand years the first sentence a Chinese child, living in the direct light of Confucius, was taught to read was not, “Look, look; look and see,” but rather “Human beings are by nature good.”

Similarly, the interminable anecdotes and maxims of Confucius’ Analects were designed to create the prototype of what the Chinese hoped the Chinese character would become.

The Content of Deliberate Tradition

Deliberate tradition differs from spontaneous tradition in requiring attention. It requires attention first to maintain its force in the face of the increased individualism that threatens to erode it. This Confucius regarded as the main responsibility of education in its broadest sense. But, second, it requires that attention be given to the content of that education.

The main outlines of Confucius’ answer can be gathered under five key terms.  
1.
Jen.   Jen, etymologically a combination of the character for “human being” and for “two,” names the ideal relationship that should pertain between people. Jen involves simultaneously a feeling of humanity toward others and respect for oneself, an indivisible sense of the dignity of human life wherever it appears.
2.
Chun tzu.   The second concept is chun tzu. If jen is the ideal relationship between human beings, chun tzu refers to the ideal term in such relations. It has been translated the Superior Person and Humanity-at-its-Best. Perhaps the Mature Person is as faithful a rendering of the term as any. The chun tzu is the opposite of a petty person, a mean person, a small-spirited person. It is only the person who is entirely real, Confucius thought, who can establish the great foundations of civilized society. Only as those who make up society are transformed into chun tzus can the world move toward peace.
3.
Li.   The third concept, li, has two meanings. Its first meaning is propriety, the way things should be done. Propriety covers a wide range, but we can get the gist of what Confucius was concerned with if we look at his teachings on the Rectification of Names, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Five Constant Relationships, the Family, and Age. The Five Constant Relationships that constitute the warp and woof of social life are, in the Confucian scheme, those between parent and child, husband and wife, elder sibling and junior sibling, elder friend and junior friend, and ruler and subject. The other meaning of the word is ritual, which changes right— in the sense of what it is right to do— into rite.
4.
Te.   The fourth pivotal concept Confucius sought to devise for his countrymen was te. Literally this word meant power, specifically the power by which men are ruled. Real te, therefore, is the power of moral example. In the final analysis, goodness becomes embodied in society neither through might nor through law, but through the impress of persons we admire. Confucius would also have seconded Thomas Jefferson, who thought that “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.”
5.
Wen.   The final concept in the Confucian gestalt is wen. This refers to “the arts of peace” as contrasted to “the arts of war”; to music, art, poetry, the sum of culture in its aesthetic and spiritual mode. Confucius valued the arts tremendously. A simple refrain once cast such a spell over him that for three months he became indifferent to what he ate. He considered people who are indifferent to art only half human.

The Confucian Project

Let us assume that the deliberate tradition Confucius sought to fashion was in place. How would life appear to a Chinese, set within it? It would beckon as a never-ending project of self-cultivation toward the end of becoming more fully human. The good man or woman in the Confucian scheme is the one who is always trying to become better.

Ethics or Religion?

Is Confucianism a religion, or is it an ethic? The answer depends on how one defines religion. With its close attention to personal conduct and the moral order, Confucianism approaches life from a different angle than do other religions, but that does not necessarily disqualify it religiously. If religion is taken in its widest sense, as a way of life woven around a people’s ultimate concerns, Confucianism clearly qualifies. Even if religion is taken in a narrower sense, as a concern to align humanity with the transcendental ground of its existence, Confucianism is still a religion, albeit a muted one.

To see the transcendent dimension of Confucianism in perspective, we need to set it against the religious background of the ancient China in which Confucius lived. Until the first millennium B.C., the unquestioned outlook was a compound of three related ingredients: First, Heaven and Earth were considered a continuum.
 

In each of these great features of early Chinese religion— its sense of continuity with the ancestors, its sacrifice, and its augury— there was a common emphasis. The emphasis was on Heaven instead of Earth. To understand the total dimension of Confucianism as a religion it is important to see Confucius shifting his people’s attention from Heaven to Earth without dropping Heaven from the picture entirely.

“Recognize that you know what you know, and that you are ignorant of what you do not know,” he said. 24 “Hear much, leave to one side that which is doubtful, and speak with due caution concerning the remainder. See much, leave to one side that of which the meaning is not clear, and act carefully with regard to the rest.”

One specific illustration of the way in which Confucius shifted the focus from Heaven to Earth is seen in his change of emphasis from ancestor worship to filial piety. In ancient China the dead were actually worshiped. True to the conservative component in his nature, Confucius did nothing to interrupt the ancestral rites themselves. He did not deny that the spirits of the dead exist; on the contrary he advised treating them “as if they were present.” At the same time his own emphasis was directed toward the living family.

The extent to which Confucius shifted emphasis from Heaven to Earth should not lead us to think that he sundered Earth from Heaven entirely. He did not repudiate the main outlines of the world-view of his time, composed of Heaven and Earth, the divine creative pair, half physical and half more-than-physical, ruled over by the supreme Shang Ti. Reserved as he was about the supernatural, he was not without it; somewhere in the universe there was a power that was on the side of right.

Impact on China

In his book The Next Million Years, Charles Galton Darwin notes that anyone who wishes to make a sizable impact on human history has the choice of three levels at which to work. The agent may choose direct political action, or create a creed, or attempt to change the genetic composition of the human species.

“That is why,” Darwin concludes, “a creed gives the best practical hope that man can have for really controlling his future fate.” 30 History affords no clearer support for this contention than the work of Confucius.

The Chinese Empire lasted under a succession of dynasties for over two thousand years, a stretch of time that makes the empires of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon look ephemeral. If we multiply the number of years that empire lasted by the number of people it embraced in an average year, it emerges quantitatively as the most impressive social institution human beings have devised.

What we shall do is take note of some features of the Chinese character that Confucius and his disciples reinforced where they did not originate them. The features we shall mention pretty much blanket East Asia as a whole, for Japan, Korea, and much of Southeast Asia deliberately imported the Confucian ethic. We can begin with East Asia’s emphatic social emphasis, which Confucius helped to fix in place.

Directly related to the subject of this book is the way, unique among the world’s civilizations, that China syncretized her religions. In India and the West religions are exclusive, if not competitive— it makes no sense to think of someone as being simultaneously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew, or even a Buddhist and a Hindu simultaneously. China arranged things differently. Traditionally, every Chinese was Confucian in ethics and public life, Taoist in private life and hygiene, and Buddhist at the time of death, with a healthy dash of shamanistic folk religion thrown in along the way. As someone has put the point: Every Chinese wears a Confucian hat, Taoist robes, and Buddhist sandals. In Japan Shinto was added to the mix.