Confucius was an incredibly influential Chinese philosopher who lived during the Spring and Autumn Era. His teachings and philosophy eventually had a significant impact upon Chinese culture.
Who was this man, Confucius? And what were his beliefs? The Chinese call him, K’ung-tzu, i.e. Master Kung, which has been Romanized to Confucius in the West.
Confucius was probably born into a family of impoverished nobility in the feudal Chou dynasty in 551 BCE. He worked hard to improve his situation. Although self-taught, he became one of the most learned men of his time. Although he had a legendary reputation as a scholar, he was more concerned with the condition of the masses. He had a deep compassion for the suffering of the populace, as did both Buddha and Jesus.
During the Chou dynasty, China had become feudalized with a weak king. “The aristocrats made war as a pastime, and taxed their subjects, exhausted them with forced labor and oppressed them at will. In bad years starvation was common.” These are classical types of behaviors for the Bronze Age military aristocracies, which rule the world.1
Under these political conditions, Confucius decided that the fault lay not ‘within’, but ‘without’ – in the political leadership of the country. He taught that the responsible citizen, whether leader or family member, should work towards the common social good. The quest for individual enlightenment was secondary. This is a crucial difference between Confucianism and the other 2 Doctrines of China, i.e. Taoism and Buddhism. Confucius emphasized social activism and the reform of society over the pursuit of self-purification and perfection. (Note however that the 3 Doctrines merge at the peak of the mountain.)
He was especially interested in the leaders themselves. “He believed that the solution must be fundamental: a reform of the government that would make its objective not the pleasure of the rulers but the happiness of their subjects.” Needless to say the rulers did not exactly flock to his doorstep.
Confucius himself was not dogmatic, nor did he lecture. Instead he spoke with small groups of students in the Socratic fashion, questioning rather than telling. A classic in this style is his quote:
“If, when I point out one corner of the subject, the student cannot work out the other three for himself, I do not go on.”2
This concept comes to play again in Taoism.
Confucius spent his life, somewhat unsuccessfully, attempting to convince leaders to govern with the good of their subjects at heart. He, himself, hoped to be put in a position of administrative authority, but was never successful. “His doctrines had little practical effect in his own day.”3 He did have a group of disciples, of whom some were able to find influential positions in society. But, as always, the political reality gives the teachings of the masters an interesting twist.
A great mythology has grown up around Confucius due to his prestige. Literary works written many centuries after his death were attributed to him. Confucius, like both Jesus and Buddha, was so admired by the populace that the ruling classes co-opted his teachings for the prestige and power this conferred. This association was made in spite of his ideas, rather than because of his ideas. The propaganda of the powerful has always been able to spin a nefarious web of deceit.
Before exploring the teachings of Confucius in more depth, it’s necessary to clear up some ambiguities concerning the man and his legend. Let us begin by differentiating between the philosophies of Confucius and Confucianism.
The teachings of Confucius and Confucianism are connected, but are not the same. In similar fashion, the teachings of Jesus and Christianity are connected but not the same. Confucianism is the aristocratic religion of the state, while Confucius is an influential philosopher in this line of thinking. However, while Jesus preceded Christianity, Buddha preceded Buddhism, and Mohammed preceded Mohammedism, Confucius did not precede Confucianism. Confucius was a reformer within the aristocratic Confucian tradition.
First let us look at Confucianism.
“The Confucian school, called Ju in Chinese, originally consisted of specialists on the six arts of ceremonies, music, archery, charioteering, history and numbers. … Confucius (551-479 BCE) … was not the founder of the school but only one of the group.”4
Recall the ju from the Western Chou period. The ju were a branch of the military aristocracy, the shih. The ju stressed cultural and political training in addition to military training for the ruler caste. While ju originally meant weaklings, presumably because they were as much concerned with cultural pursuits as they were with military training, they always continued their warrior training.
There were certainly proto-ju in the Shang dynasty. These would be the cultured warriors of the ruling class. We can imagine that the ‘civilized’ Shang warrior differentiated himself from the ‘barbarians’ he was fighting against by his ability to read and perform crucial ceremonies.5
Hence these ju, the cultured warrior rulers, have always been a part of Chinese written history. It was they who threw the oracles and it was they who had inscriptions made on their bronzes. They were not like the illiterate military cultures of European history, i.e. Franks and Normans.
While K’ung-tzu, i.e. Confucius, did not found the Ju School, he was a part of it. K’ung-tzu was a ju. Although ju is translated as Confucianism in English, Confucius did not found the ju class. Indeed, as we’ve pointed out, the ju were around for centuries before Confucius was born.
Because his name is associated with the Ju School in the West, it is assumed that he was the founder of that school. In fact, as we’ve seen, the Ju School was actually more of a social class than a school of philosophy. They specialized in the six arts of the Chinese warrior officials, but were not really a philosophical school as such.6 However because of the prestige of Confucius, the ju class liked to associate his name with their social philosophy. Because of these factors, the interconnection between Confucius, the man, his legend and the Ju School are complex.
As a member of the ju class, Master Kung/Confucius participated in many of their ideas and concepts. However many of the ideas that he enunciated were unique to him or harked back to the I Ching and Duke of Chou. Indeed the differences between the ju class and Confucius are so extreme that to translate ju as Confucianism is misleading.
“The difference between the ideas of Confucius and some aspects of what has later been called Confucianism, is so great that one may be tempted to question the extent of his influence.”7
This identification of the ju class with Confucius and Confucianism has been the cause of a great amount of false attributions.
The six talents of the ju were reserved for the military aristocracy, i.e. the warrior-official, the shih. The training for these talents was not ‘wasted’ on the peasantry. These talents differentiated the ruling class from the peasantry and the ‘barbarian’ outsiders.
In fact, the members of the ju class were specialists in these 6 virtues or accomplishments. Confucius, as a ju, was also a specialist in the six talents. Both Confucius and the ju class felt that only those who specialized in these six talents should rule. The self-absorbed members of the ju class were concerned only with their class, i.e. the aristocrats. However, Confucius felt these political ‘accomplishments’ should be taught to anyone of talent, regardless of social class.
Two of the six talents, charioteering and archery, reveal the militaristic, patriarchal nature of the origins of the ju class. Three of the six talents, music, history and numbers, reflect the cultural background. The last talent of ritual or ceremony was what endeared it to the imperial system. This art in its manifestation had patriarchal roots because the ceremonies tended to institutionalize the hierarchy. As an indication of their importance, Ming dynasty scholars over 2000 years ago later still wrote with reverence of these six talents. The Ju School is definitely patriarchal and was a dominant force in the government of China for over two millennia.
The peasant farmer, which constituted the bulk of the populace, had no time to become experts in archery or charioteering. Furthermore their crops did not benefit from the study of history, music or numbers. Similarly, the sixth talent of ritual was useless information to the bulk of the populace, except as it related to staying out of trouble. However the knowledge was very important for those who wanted to be upwardly mobile. Doing the right thing at the right time to the right people was of paramount importance to those who wanted to participate in the Empire. This was the ju class.
While the ju reserved knowledge of the rituals to their class, Confucius wanted to open this knowledge to the deserving. He felt that getting the best people in positions of power would strengthen Chinese culture as a whole.
As a member of the ju class, Confucius stressed ceremony as a way of regulating society. Through repetition of ceremonies that had been passed down for generations, the continuity of the Chinese social structure was reinforced and even strengthened. While the renewal of ceremony was one part of the Confucian solution, the other essential ingredient was enlightened leadership.
Confucius was a follower of the Duke of Chou with his concept of the Mandate of Heaven. The Duke of Chou was neither a ju = Confucian, nor a Taoist; he was an enlightened leader. The Duke of Chou blamed the downfall of the Shang on bad leadership and attributed the rise of the Chou to virtuous leadership. A responsible ruler puts the welfare of the subjects over the satisfaction of personal desires. Similarly, Confucius blamed the rulers for the rising social chaos of the Spring and Autumn Period. He viewed the Duke of Chou as the ultimate enlightened leader, one of the ‘Sage Kings of Old’.
Confucius believed that the responsibility of the rulers was to rule with the country’s best interests in mind, rather than to further their own self-interests. If they were not succeeding at this task, then they could and should be replaced. Confucius did not advocate the overthrow of the aristocracy. Yet he did advocate that the aristocracy, if unwilling to fulfill the role of leader, had a mandate to find ministers who would. This perspective was at variance with the prevalent view of leadership, which was based upon bloodline, not necessarily ability.
The ju wanted to reserve leadership for the aristocracy. Knowledge of ritual was essential prerequisite of the ruling class. These rituals enabled one to participate in the power structure. Confucius wanted to extend knowledge of the rituals of power to the peasantry. Hence Confucius was willing to open up the door of power to the commoner.
Why would the ju willingly give up power to the peasantry? Can you imagine the aristocracy of any time period willingly giving up power to the peasantry? Confucius was notable in teaching that ideally leadership should be based upon talent rather than bloodline. He felt that everyone should be given the chance to learn the six talents of the ju, in order to give them the chance to rule.
“[Confucius] believed that the state should be a wholly co-operative enterprise. The belief was completely at variance with the theory then in vogue. Aristocrats were believed to be descended from divine ancestors and to rule by virtue of the authority and the powerful assistance of their ancestors. Confucius completely ignored this idea; eventually it disappeared in China, and Confucius was certainly in part responsible for its going.”8
Remember that literacy was an essential talent of leadership. As a self-taught man, Confucius did not want anyone to be denied the possibility of learning to read due to class. Of course, the peasantry by and large were too busy working to afford education. Rarely were the peasants even able to read the exams, much less pass them.
Because literacy was such an important ingredient to participation, Confucius stressed universal education. He believed that only those with virtue and ability had the right to govern. Confucius said, “Virtue is to love men. And wisdom is to understand men.” In order to encourage the development of wisdom, Confucius encouraged study of Chinese culture. He felt that those with natural abilities could rise above their station with education. He also felt that since government was a cooperative effort, that everyone needed to be educated at least a little in order to participate more effectively.9
Practically speaking, however, the agricultural peasantry had neither the time nor money necessary for the education to achieve literacy10. Although Confucius wanted everyone to have the opportunity to learn the six talents, they were fairly impractical talents for the laboring class. Realistically only the ruling class had the time or money to cultivate the 6 accomplishments of the Ju school – the prerequisite for advancement in government service. Those who were excluded by money or time from the imperial service found more answers in the local religions, which as a group were eventually called Taoist.
Let us reiterate: Confucius did not found the Ju school, but was part of it. The ju class, the warrior literati, had been around since the Shang dynasty, at least. However, while part of it, Confucius extended the ideas of this class to include the peasantry. He transcended his class. In this sense, he was similar to Buddha in India. They both belonged to the ruling class. Yet both reached out to the masses, presumably due to empathy.
Confucius had a lot in common with the ju class, of which he was a member. While his ideas transcended his class, the influence of the ju upon his philosophy was enormous. In order to understand the subtle differences and similarities between the ju and Confucius, we will examine their attitudes towards the interconnected areas of leadership, ceremony, education, and social form.
While Confucius was a social reformer, he was not revolutionary. He did not advocate a populist revolt on the line of the French Revolution. Like the ju, he felt that the social form was fine. The ju were not social reformers. They were just aristocrats specializing in their aristocratic talents.
Confucius looked back at the early period of the Chou dynasty as the ideal time. The literate ju were specialists in this time period due to their knowledge of the Chinese Classics. This was the beginning of the imperial feudal system. As a ju, Confucius did not look at the social form of feudalism or imperialism as the problem. To a different social form than feudal China was beyond the mindset of the ju and Confucius.11As such, they did not question China’s social form.
However questions remained. Why did feudalism work in the past? Why isn’t it working now? Confucius believed that the problem and solution of rising social chaos lay within the two connected factors of leadership and ritual. He looked back at the idealized reigns of the early rulers of the Chou Dynasty. According to legend, the imperial house was strong and there was social order. The leaders ruled wisely and enforced the performance of ceremony and ritual as a kind of social glue. According to Confucius, reinstating these rituals would stabilize the society.
“Confucius (551-479 BC) sought to save society by a return to the way of the ancients. This he believed to involve an emphasis upon ethics - especially upon moral education - and upon ceremonies. By the leadership and example of the educated, and by careful regulation of society by the ceremonies which had come down from the past, he would bring in a golden age.”12
Confucius looked to return to the idealized time of the reign of the Sage Kings in the Western Chou. He had the real example of the Duke of Chou in mind. He felt that the rulers only needed to emulate the Duke of Chou’s good example and that the people would follow. He felt that the citizenry were inspired by the behavior of their rulers.
While Confucius focused on good leadership, he also blamed the rising disorder on the decline in the performance of ancient ceremonies. The ju, as specialists in these ceremonies, followed right along with Confucius. The ceremonies hold society together, he reasoned. If only the people would perform the ceremonies properly, it will surely bring society together again.
In our section on the ritualization of the Shang, we pointed out that in expansive times, common rituals instill confidence and participate in a self-fulfilling prophecy, Conversely in declining times, the rituals fall in importance because of their impotence in dealing with real problems. The rituals provide psychological support but do not really provide any solutions. During the rising chaos of the Spring and Autumn Period, certain scholars began to challenge the importance of rituals.
However, Confucius, as a member of the ju class, stressed the importance of these ceremonies and hoped to spread the knowledge of these rituals to the masses through education. Additionally, Confucius stressed a moral education. The later ju, tapping into the prestige of Confucius, claimed that the education that he was advocating had primarily to do with knowing the ways of the past including the knowledge of ceremonies and cultural classics.
“Ah we’ve got it. Confucius was right. Everyone should be educated regarding the proper ceremonies. When these ceremonies are performed properly, we will be able to return to the golden age of the early Chou.”
Unfortunately these ‘ancient’ ceremonies were based in the militaristic patriarchy of the Shang, rather than egalitarian ceremonies of earlier cultures. Hence these ‘ancient’ forms only reinforced this hierarchy, rather leading to new social forms. This backward looking tendency of Confucius and the ju was certainly attacked by the Taoists as too rigid to align with the Will of Heaven, the Tao.
A traditional Chinese and human tendency is to substitute form for content. The content of good leadership is not dependent on the forms of ceremony. However the ju tended to focus upon ceremony instead of good leadership as the cure for social disintegration.
Using a limited version of the ideas of Confucius, the later ju advocated the return to the ancient rituals. This endeared them to the Han dynasty and gave them increased political power as specialists in these ceremonies. While Confucius was a social reformer and an advocate of equal opportunity, the ju were instrumental in maintaining the status quo of the imperial dynasty. By befriending the imperial dynasty, the ju secured political power. This was natural. The ju had always been from the aristocratic class. But they also distorted the universalism of Confucius. They successfully turned the ideas of Confucius’ social reform into a backward looking philosophy.
In summary, Confucius advocated a moral and cultural education for all in order to strengthen Chinese society and have the best leaders. The later ju turned the teachings of Confucius into a rigid backward looking philosophy.
Another feature that Confucius shared with the ju school was that of ancestor reverence.
Confucius took ancestor worship associated with clans and the aristocracy and turned it into family responsibility, specifically the duties of children towards their parents and ultimately ancestors. He extended this filial responsibility to every class. Everyone should love and respect their parents. In his egalitarianism, Confucius brings ancestor worship to the peasantry in the form of filial responsibility. Further he elevates it to one of the highest virtues. He stresses the child’s responsibility to the parent no matter what economic class s(he) belongs. Confucius in his universalism extends this filial responsibility to all of humankind. We are each responsible to and for each other.
The Journey to the West embraces Confucius’ attitude towards the family.
[Monkey asks,] “Princess, do you know what is considered a crime for a human being living in this world?’ … [The Princess quotes ‘an ancient book’,] ‘Set against the Five Punishments are some three thousand crimes, but none is greater than an unfilial act.’ …[Monkey responds,] “Filial piety is the foundation of a hundred virtuous acts, the source of all morality.”13
In this quotation, an unfilial act is identified as the greatest crime, while filial piety is identified as ‘the source of all morality’. The Princess quotes from the Classic on Filial Piety, i.e. Hsiao Ching, traditionally attributed to Tsêng Shên, a disciple of Confucius. This book elaborated on principles first enunciated by Confucius. Because it was so influential in Chinese thought the work eventually became one of the Chinese Classics,. The inclusion as a Classic further solidified its position of influence in Chinese culture. To indicate the severity of the crime of an unfilial act, the dragon that becomes the Horse of Will is sentenced to death for an unfilial act. Ultimately he is saved by Kuan Yin to redeem himself by carrying Tripitaka on his Quest.
If filial piety is ‘the source of all morality', where does that leave Tripitaka and his band of pilgrims? Tripitaka’s mother is dead. While his father is back from the dead, he plays no part in Tripitaka’s journey. Neither the parents of Piggy nor those of Sha Monk, if they have any, are ever mentioned in the narrative. Monkey is born from a stone. In one scene, a monster captures both Tripitaka and a woodsman. The woodsman is especially distraught because he will not be able to fulfill his filial duties to his aging parents. “Who will take care of them?” he asks. Tripitaka responds that he and the woodsman are alike. While the woodsman serves his parents, Tripitaka serves the Emperor. This was the external extension of filial piety by Confucius.
K’ung-tzu extended ancestor worship to include the notion of filial responsibility. Then he extended this responsibility from father to clan to state to Empire, linking government, state, clan, and family. Thus the son was to love and respect his state and emperor, just as he did his family and father. In the ideal sense, this concept sounds great. Practically speaking many times the goals of state and family are mutually exclusive, rather than self-supporting. We will see this conflict become a chasm in the next eras, when clan and empire become opponents.
There is one more extension of the concept of filial piety. While Monkey was born from a stone with no animal parents, he claims that he was born of Heaven and Earth. This reveals a harmonization of Confucius and Taoism. In a more universal sense, Heaven is father, while Earth is mother. Under this mindset, our duty and responsibility centers on fulfilling the Will of Heaven, our father, with the love and support of the Earth, our mother. In this context, the ‘greatest crime’ is not aligning ourselves with Heaven’s Will. The ‘foundation of all morality’ is the alignment with Heaven’s Will.
As we saw, many of the Bronze Age cultures adopted forms of ancestor worship. The warrior-kings of these militaristic cultures placed themselves atop their self-created hierarchy. To maintain their cultural supremacy, they glorified the ancestors that have brought them to their royal status. While there is evidence of ancestor worship during the Longshan culture, this type of royal ancestor worship in China reached a flowering during the imperial Shang dynasty. Shang-ti was both their supreme god and ancestor. This perspective continued into the Chou dynasty. Those belonging to the Establishment found great pride in family history. However as common workers, the peasantry were unable to participate in this glorification of the past.
While Confucius made these egalitarian steps, ancestor worship is essentially patriarchal in nature. Ancestor worship reeks of aristocracy and privileged class. The pride of family can lead to elitism and snobbery. In the ideal egalitarian society, social structures are set up to allow an individual to fulfill personal potentials. Regardless of ancestry, it is possible for an individual to transcend personal circumstances. Overall, transcendence is not a virtue that the entrenched aristocracy likes to encourage. Upward mobility becomes competition to their prerogatives.
Regardless, the hierarchy reigns supreme in Imperial China. Inherent in Chinese values is ancestor worship. Confucius didn’t convert China to ancestor worship. However the ju were certainly an eloquent mouthpiece for it.
Along with this veneration of the past comes an exaggeration of age for prestige, This tendency to exaggerate confutes historians. Typically beginnings are pushed back a few centuries, if not thousands of years, to add status. Because of Confucius’ prestige, many writings are attributed to him that were probably written by other authors.
“It is improbable that he composed any of the books that have come down to us, and it is not even certain that he edited any of them.”14
The Ju School accumulated writings under the name of Confucius. Additionally, he became one of the venerated ancestors that was worshipped. He was never deified, but was the most esteemed of any historical personage. The Ju School contained Confucius and his teachings, but was much more. However the two, the philosophies of the ju class, i.e. Confucianism, and Confucius the man, i.e. K’ung-tzu, are forever mixed because of the Chinese tendency to ancestor worship. Claiming that ‘this is what Confucius said or wrote’ adds inestimable prestige to any work. We will see this same tendency of literary accumulation under the name of the illustrious ancestor in Taoism. To be discussed later.
1 It is reminiscent of the Viking society that was overlaid on top of Christian Europe as its leaders 1500 years later. “War as a pastime, and taxed their subjects, exhausted them with forced labor and oppressed them at will.” These words could almost be used to describe Europe 1000 CE to 1900 CE.
2 EB, Confucius 6-240a. Master Ni teaches in this fashion. He points defects out quietly, infrequently. He is more than willing to help if there is interest expressed by the student, but will let students do the form improperly for years without correcting them in an obvious manner. Perhaps the rationale is that the student will learn when they are ready.
3 EB, Confucius 6-240b
4 EB 5, 521
5 Indeed the ability to read and write about one’s culture is the difference between pre-historic and historic. Hence literacy determines the difference between archaeology and history. There is much evidence that the Japanese of the early centuries of the first millennium had a very advanced culture, but they had no writing. Thus we know little about them compared to the literate cultures.
6 In England and the United States the nobility as a class learned French, took a tour of Europe, and knew all the proper rituals and ceremonies of the upper class but were never considered a school of aristocracy, although they wielded enormous influence.
7 EB, Confucius 6-240d
8 EB, Confucius 6-240c
9 In terms of modern context, the democracies of the west believe in universal education, so that everyone can participate in government through voting. In the west, it is also generally accepted that education is the way of transcending your class. Many Christian groups have pressed for universal education so that everyone can read the Bible first hand. In China, literacy was the key to participation in the imperial administration.
10 This was true up until the Mao’s Communists took over in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Master Ni said that when he was growing up in China in the 1920’s and 30’s that only the wealthy could afford an education. Because of this, according to him, only 1% of the population could read or write.
11 Fixed mindsets regularly limit the frontiers of science. In the archaeological realm, those living in the hierarchy can only imagine hierarchical societies. They can extend their thinking from the patriarchy to a hierarchical matriarchy with the women in charge. But they have a hard time imagining a world that is not hierarchical but egalitarian, with equality extended to all regardless of sex, race or social class. Because of this difficulty of ken, there was and is a constant misinterpretation of data. Then the scientist with limited ken turns his limitations into a theory, which other scientists of equally limited ken churn up and talk about for generations, making their livings on it.
12 EB China 5, 520
13 Journey to the West, Volume 2, page 87
14 EB, Confucius 6-240b