Essay, Research Paper: Confucius

Religion

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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. 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 li, that the people would correct their behavior by
their own initiative. In the Analects, Confucius said, Lead the people with
legal measures and regulate them by punishment, and they will avoid wrongdoing
but will have no sense of honor and shame. Lead them with the power of virtuous
example and regulate them by the rules of li, and they will have a sense of
shame and will thus rectify themselves. (Analects 2.3) Confucius sought to
create an environment in which people would naturally be harmonious and thus
virtuous. He believed that harmony was an unavoidable result of li, because li
was a perfect reflection of cosmic order. From a Confucian perspective, any land
that acted according to li was civilized, and any land that did not was not
civilized. This idea was even expanded to claim that a in populace that did not
abide by li, the people were not fully human, in the sense that they had no
means of realizing the full potential of humanity, called ren. Another important
aspect of Confucianism was an ideal known as chun-tzu, which is contemporarily
defined as superior man or true gentleman. Confucius likely envisioned this
concept due to his struggles against the resolute privileges of the feudal
hereditary aristocracy of his day. Confucius saw many of the aristocracy using
their political power to protect their own wealth and status, which he saw as a
gross distortion of the proper order. The superior man of Confucian thought was
a man honored for individual merit and character, which were derived from
meticulous adherence to the Way of the ancients. The chun-tzu was embodied in a
man who was above egotism, a man who thoroughly understood li, and a man of ren,
altruistic and humane. Confucian thought continued to flourish and develop in
China, even long after the death of Confucius himself. Around the tenth century
a great revival of Confucianism spread across China, triggered by two
philosopher brothers, Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi. They ignited the spark that would
lead to Neo-Confucianism with their highly respected commentaries on the
Confucian classics. Neo-Confucianism blended the old Confucian way with
Buddhism, which had a significant following in China. From old Confucianism it
derived an emphasis on moral principals, proper order, rule governed behavior
and harmonious human relationships. But these ideas were filtered through a
Buddhist perspective, creating the notion that all thought, ordinary experience,
and performance of rituals are based on a single, absolute ultimate reality.
This absolute was called Li, though had a completely different meaning than the
original use of this word. In the Neo-Confucian outlook, Li comprises the ideas
of reason, principle and order. This was the fundamental principle that governed
the thought of the Neo-Confucian, it became a metaphysical entity to them; Li
was reality itself. Along with this newfound fixation with the absolute,
Neo-Confucians also developed a clear definition of the most important Confucian
virtues, called the five moral principals. Ju Xi, a prominent Neo-Confucian
philosopher said, Man's original nature is pure and tranquil. Before it is
aroused, the five moral principals of his nature, called humanity,
righteousness, propriety, wisdom and faithfulness, are complete. As his physical
form appears, it comes into contact with external tings and is aroused from
within. As it is aroused from within, the seven feelings, called pleasure,
anger, sorrow, joy, love, hate and desire, ensue. As feelings become strong and
increasingly reckless, his nature becomes damaged. For this reason the
enlightened person controls his feelings so that they will be in accord with the
Mean. He rectifies his mind and nourishes his nature. (Ibid 2.3) According to
this train of thought, emotions are grounded in Li, the absolute, and are
stimulated by the activities of everyday life. By nature the emotions, even
anger and hate, are not considered bad. But when the emotions become over
stimulated, a disparity may appear between one's inner essential nature and ones
outer, conscious life. When this takes place, one's actions will no longer be in
accordance with the Principal and disharmony will persist unbridled. In addition
to Neo-Confucianism's emphasis on emotional control, the old moral and political
stance of Confucius was held to be paramount. Respecting the ancient knowledge
in the true Confucian manner, Neo-Confucianism continued to emphasize the
regulation of public and private lives. Everything was to be kept in its proper
place, and ritualized social patterns prevailed. Enacting a firmly regulated
social life was inner harmony and the direct experience of the ultimate Li.
Confucianism almost exclusively regulated the social and political structure of
China from the eleventh century through the nineteenth. Much can be ascertained
about China by studying this phenomenon. Confucianism was always an elite
tradition, and it generally did not appeal greatly to the masses. For this
reason, in Confucian ruled China, few attempts were made to root out and
dissolve other religious practices and institutions. Although this could have
likely been done without excessive effort, the original Confucian stance of
rule-by-example was strictly adhered to. Thus the Confucian attitude toward
Daoist, Buddhist and folk religious practices was one of bemused toleration. It
only catalyzed into active persecution if one of the groups entered a position
were it was a threat to political stability. Confucianism held its elated
position in China through intense promotion of Confucian institutions acting on
the state, village, occupational guild and family level. At the state level,
Confucian practices and many groups were strictly adherent to rituals. The
educated elite, intellectuals and office holders were often devout supporters of
Confucian structure. Twice a year government officials gathered at Confucian
temples to practice determined rituals. These rituals were quite important,
serving to show the officials' loyalty to the state and their loyalty to the
ideas of chun-tzu, the superior man. In the Imperial court, there was also an
intense devotion to Confucian rituals. The emperor himself played a vital role
in most of these practices, symbolically acting on behalf of the entire Chinese
nation. Throughout the entire record of Chinese history as we know it today, few
things remained constant. Yet because of the extent at which Confucianism was
integrated into Chinese society, politics and daily life, it stayed invariable
for many hundreds of years. Confucian thought played a dominant role in the
gradual development and evolution of a society. Even though dramatic changes
have reshaped China in the recent history, it seems like many Confucian
attitudes and ideas must still influence the way Chinese think and live. Few
factors could have helped to shape the Chinese character more dramatically. It
is for this reason that I see Confucianism as a valuable tool for developing a
lucid and precise understanding of China. To understand Confucianism similar to
understanding the manner in which a river helps to shape a canyon. Confucianism
holds many direct contrasts to the majority of western the philosophies that I
have experienced. Understanding this has helped me bridge the cultural and
philosophical gap between China and the West that has hindered my comprehension
in the past.BibliographyWright, Arthur F. Confucianism and Chinese Civilization. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1975. ∑ Dawson, Raymond. Confucius. New York: Hill and Wang,
1982. ∑ Paley, Alan L. Confucius: Ancient Chinese Philosopher. Charlotteville:
SamHar Press, 1973.
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