Apr 14, 2020 in Art

Traditional China is sometimes perceived or interpreted in a somewhat wrongful way and one of such ways is to claim that “Confucianism is...the essence of traditional Chinese culture.... Confucianism greatly influenced the building of the [Chinese] national character.” Indeed, Confucius had a great influence on the politics and social life of the Chinese, but it would be a misuse of history to say that Confucius is “the essence of Chinese culture.” The Chinese civilization had existed long before Confucius was born and his followers could have amplified his teachings. Chinese classical texts had been composed prior to Confucius’ life and they had many interpretations, each interpretation adding its layer of meaning. Therefore, it would be an exaggeration to say that Confucius single-handedly shaped the national character of his country. Given that recent archeological research and scholarly analysis of ancient texts reveal that Confucius and subsequent philosophers ascribed additional meanings and interpreted the texts according to their own beliefs, China was greatly influenced by Confucianism not because it was inherently better than any other philosophical thought but because its followers won over equally strong competitors such as Mozi and others.

Confucius cannot be attributed the essence of traditional Chinese culture because he lived long after the Chinese civilization was established. As the cradle of Eastern Civilization, the territories of China were intensely inhabited as far back the early Neolithic period approximately 9000 BC. This period has long been considered primitive but recent archeological discoveries points out some signs of civilization in the culture of the Longshan period (3000-2000 BC). It is the period of the Five Emperors known in the Chinese culture as the legendary figures that started the Chinese civilization. One should remember the fact that, despite some ancient sources mention some of the Five Emperors or all of them, there is no sufficient evidence to prove their existence. Moreover, Confucius lived 551-479 BC, which means that the Chinese civilization had lived for some time without Confucianism and without the “essence of Chinese character.”

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Another important factor that can counterbalance the overestimation of Confucius’ influence is the fact that there were times when Confucius would lose its appeal for the Chinese and only the efforts of his followers could return its prominence. It shows that Confucius’ ideas were not good and ideal in their own right. Some people accepted them, some did not, but overall he was one of the sages and not the only one. In fact, the ancient China used to be a country of many philosophical schools. Right after Confucius Mozi’s influence was considered very significant and Mohism influenced many people in later Chinese thought. It was the Confucius’ follower, Mencius, who revived the interest to Confucianism during his lifetime 372-289 BC. Otherwise Confucianism could have been buried in historical records.

The modern analysis of the classics of Chinese tradition reveals that conventions were not informed by revelations given from the above. The fact that different commentators singled out or ascribed a major significance to different passages of text reveals “their understanding of these texts as human achievements rather than as the products of divine revelation”. For example, Confucius placed a large importance on the responsibility of a ruler and the Mandate of Heaven, but drawing on the same sources it becomes clear that this interpretation was added later and was not initially implied in the original. Similarly, Confucius saw a need for order in his own life and expanded this concept to the state’s political life almost equaling order with the Heaven.

In Sources of Chinese Tradition, Theodore de Bary says that the concept of “Mandate of Heaven” (tianming) originated in the Zhou period and more likely it was based on the Shang conception of the higher God, Di, but even though these two concepts have similarities, they are different. Shang’s Di is a deity that is difficult to grasp because it can negatively affect people, send them bad weather conditions, enemies, etc. Eventually the Zhou also used the word di but more in a sense of the “supreme ruler.” At the same time they developed a concept of Heaven, tian, used in the sense of the supreme god that ruled supreme as well as established the highest order. From this concept, the Zhou started an idea of the Mandate of Heaven, later further disseminated by Confucius. Having overcome the Shang, the Zhou used the Mandate of Heaven as a justification for the change of power. Instead of a logical explanation that strong powers take over weak powers, scholars and rulers preferred to believe that there was a divine power behind each event.

First Confucius and then other scholar after him came to believe that moral qualities of the ruler were of extreme importance to his reign. In the light of these beliefs, they reinterpreted the ancient texts they worked with. The analysis of the Shang oracle-bone inscriptions reveals that the cult of any deity was not yet formed at that time and that the ruler had a primary function of a predictor. The divinations often were diametrically opposed from what had been said earlier. The following inscriptions were found of a turtle plastron: “18E. Divined: “Da [Jia] will be hosted by Di.” 18F. Divined: “Da Jia will not be hosted by Di.”” It means that the ruler would receive a divination and would interpret it. In the Shang period, the emperor used to fuse the role of the ruler and the diviner. Confucius and other later scholars removed the religious component from the ruler’s activities: “The intensely religious nature of Shang political culture … suggests the considerable humanization that the philosophers of the Eastern Zhou, most notable Confucius, were to undertake in articulating their concerns.”

There are five ancient classic texts called the Five Classics and the general belief used to be that Confucius somehow participated in all of them. The Classic of Changes (Yijing) is composed of short divination inscriptions made in the Zhou period and have “wings,” interpretational texts believed to be added by Confucius. The Classic of Documents (Shujing) is a set of documents made by various rulers and believed to be edited by Confucius but, in fact, there are excerpts added as late as in the fourth century CE. The Classic of Odes (Shijing) is a complication of authentic poems, but scholars doubt that Confucius edited them. For example, the poem “Along the High Road” has four commentaries over the course of centuries and they are very different. The lyrics “If along the highroad / I caught hold of your hand, / Do not be angry with me; / Love takes time to overcome” were interpreted by Mao’s commentary as “The men of the state longed for [noble lords]” who “abandoned them.” Mao argued that Duke Zhuang of Zheng was abandoned by noble lords. Zheng Xuan (127-200 CE) and Kong Yingda (574-648 CE) continue this line of interpretation, whereas Zhu Xi (1130-1200) suggests that the poem refers to “A licentious woman was abandoned by someone.” It shows the great influence commentators had on texts.

However, the classics were wrongly attributed to Confucius. It was done with the aim to create a unifying religion similar to Christianity in the West. Kang Youwei launched the Hundred Days Reforms in the period of 1898 and planned to make Confucius a center of the Chinese religion with churches/shrines and a single ideology. In Lives of Confucius, Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson explain that prior to Kang’s interference the tradition did not ascribe the classics to Confucius but Kang insisted on his sole authorship claiming that “texts, being invested with his “subtle words,” would reveal, after suitable decoding under Kang’s guidance, Kongzi’s master plan for major institutional reforms.” Even though Kang’s reforms did not last long, they initiated the process of cultural wars over the name Confucius eventually reducing him to “’a free-floating signifier’ (i.e., a pseudo-historical figure on which propaganda points were inscribed in the name of the Sage).” Thus the name of Confucius was used to the benefit of the state in order to conflate religion and politics.

In conclusion, Confucius’s ideas dimmed in their significance when other schools of Chinese philosophical thought took the lead. Confucianism was revived by Mencius in the fourth century and competed with a strong rival, Mozi’s teaching. In the twentieth century, Confucius was used for political purposes in order to unify the country. Given the fact how Confucius and other scholars reinterpreted the oracle-bone inscriptions and the Five classical texts composed in different times, it is clear that each propagates his own agenda and mindset. Confucius valued order and personal responsibility and his interpretation of ancient texts emphasized it. Meanwhile, the Shang texts show that ancient rulers combined the roles of the king and the oracle and did not intend to be especially moral. It does not mean that they were not but they did not believe it was especially necessary for the success of the state. Meanwhile later commentators, including Confucius insisted on the ruler’s personal responsibility of the downfall of the dynasty forsaking the natural causes such as strong and weak powers.


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