Apr 14, 2020 in Exploratory

Confucianism is an integral part of Chinese history and culture. Confucian teachings influenced the formation of the Chinese national character, and even today, they are used as the canons of a harmonious life. However, each Chinese dynasty interpreted the ideas of Confucianism differently, either adding or changing something. Thus, from Qui to Song, the ideas of Confucianism were adjusted to the needs of each dynasty and the times when they existed. Although some people may argue that Confucianism greatly impacted the building of the national character of China, in reality, each Chinese dynasty interpreted Confucian ideas differently, using only those parts of the doctrine, which were useful for their own prosperity and well-being.

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Qin and Han Dynasties

The Qin dynasty is known by the teachings of Xunzi, the follower of Confucianism, whose views differed from those of the sage and Mencius. Thus, Xunzi believed that all people were bad from birth, and their goodness was only the result of their efforts. Xunzi was inclined to such Confucian thoughts as “the commitment to order and hierarchy and the highly formalistic mode of personal cultivation and community organization associated with ritual”. His main follower was Li Si, who later convinced the First Emperor of the Qin to impose strict rules in the empire in order to achieve total control and military power. Obviously, the main parts of Confucian teachings about the cultivation of virtues and nobility were ignored. As a result, Li Si’s Legalism theory of government “had achieved incontrovertible success”. However, eventually, people revolted because they could not bear such attitude towards them, and the Han dynasty appeared.

Liu Bang did not support the Qin’s Legalism, neither he was interested in Confucianism. Thus, Liu Bang was of a humble origin, and his virtues allowed him to become a real Confucian “gentleman.” According to the sage, “being a gentleman is not about social class but about being a good person”. Liu Bang became the Emperor in 202 BCE, and the development of Confucianism began later during the Han dynasty. Thus, Emperor Wu of Han began to recover Confucian traditions and employ Confucians: “culture and writing, rites and music flourished”. The Han dynasty used Confucian ideas, interpreted by Zheng Xuan, a classical scholar of their society. According to Zheng Xuan, the Constant Mean of Confucius was targeted at a prince or hereditary lord of the Zhou dynasty only, and it revealed the practice of “inner equilibrium and harmony”. Therefore, only through virtuous government, the society could achieve success. Such virtues as benevolence, righteousness, and filiality were considered the main virtues needed for human perfectibility. Those rulers who cultivated these virtues and followed the Mean would for sure attain harmonious order in their society.

Tang and Song Dynasties

During the Tang dynasty, Buddhism became very popular, which influenced further development of Confucianism. The Tang Emperor Taizong constantly promoted Buddhism in his Empire. Due to this religion development, the main principles of Confucianism were ignored, and the sage’s ideas were used only in the court system “as the basis of its imperial edition”. The court created the civil cult to appoint only the most educated men to bureaucracy. Besides, only people of higher origin were admitted to imperial schools. Thus, one can notice that the Tang dynasty failed to fully comprehend the Dao since it used these concepts only for a limited number of people. The other regulations were conducted under the religion of Buddhism. Only towards the end of the Tang dynasty, Confucianism was renewed, and the interpretation of Mencius became the main Chinese political philosophy. However, the Tang Empire fell eventually, and the Neo-Confucian era began.

The Song Dynasty Era is known for its new view of the Confucian Constant Mean. One of the most well-known scholars of those times was Zhu Xi, and his interpretation of Confucian texts differ from those of the other above-mentioned dynasties. Thus, Zhu Xi believed that Confucian texts revealed the way of the junzi, appealing “to the members of the Confucian elite like himself, who commanded moral authority in or out bureaucratic positions”. However, the literal meaning of Confucian junzi was “the son of a ruler,” opposing it to a “small person,” who originated from a lower social class. At the same time, Confucius admitted that even a small person could become a noble one if he developed benevolence, wisdom, and reverence. Thus, the title of the Constant Mean was interpreted as the way of the gentleman, which meant that all educated men could cultivate their virtues, not only a prince, as Zheng Xuan claimed earlier. Zhu Xi did not divide people into social classes, thus, taking into account their education only. The hope was given to such men who wanted to practice the Dao in order to change the world for the better. Zhu Xi used his strategic thinking and selection of the most important parts from the Four Books. At the same time, the influence of Buddhism on the interpretation of Confucian texts was also significant. For example, according to Buddhism, there was one universal truth or principle, Dharma, which underlined all phenomena in the world. Zhu Xi affirmed that Confucian li was this Principle, and the nature of people was understood as “human nature is Principle”. It meant that all human beings possessed wisdom, and to recover their innate wisdom, they should focus on the development of some particular Principles. However, Confucian li meant following the traditions, and it was divided into two types: ceremonial rituals and minute rituals. Therefore, Zhu Xi was concerned on the mind transmission, while in real writings, the word ‘mind’ did not appear. In such a way, the influence of Buddhism and society on the development of Confucianism during the Song dynasty was huge.


Confucianism is the essence of Chinese culture; however, many concepts have been shaped and changed from the times of its origin. Thus, each dynasty applied only those doctrines and ideas they believed were the best for their society. The Qin dynasty used the rules about strict authority while ignored the cultivation of virtues and proper order. The Han dynasty applied the teachings of Confucianism to princes and lords only. The Tang dynasty used the doctrine in the court only, while Buddhism substituted the other concepts. The Song dynasty recovered the main Confucian traditions and renewed Confucianism in Chinese society, though Buddhism still influenced it. One may conclude that not the ideas of Confucianism shaped all those dynasties but their diverse interpretations of these ideas. The religion, traditions, social and political norms of each time period had a great impact on the views of the scholars and philosophers of different eras, and all these outer factors became the reasons for such different interpretations.


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