Confucianism: The Bedrock of Chinese Civilization, Philosophy

Confucianism is the most prominent Chinese philosophical system that influenced its rulers, scholars and common citizens for the most part of the last three millennia.

A fusion of scholarly tradition, social ethics and statecraft, it has long been viewed as a source of values governing social, political and economic life of the Chinese nation. The human-centered spirituality, thought process and the way of living it espouses present Confucian philosophy as a social tradition that transcends all religious creeds and affiliations.

History of Confucianism

Confucianism was based on the teachings of Confucius, the greatest philosopher, thinker and educationist in the Chinese history.

Confucius - Confucianism

Born in 551 BC near Qufu, then seat of Lu feudal rulers and now capital of Shandong Province, Confucius aspired to become state official. However, his dream did not have much fulfillment and he left the official position after failing to implement his political reforms. He had already built his reputation as an astute social thinker, influential teacher, person of high intellect and political ideologue by the time he became 50 years old.

In 497 BC, he left his home and travelled throughout the north and central China to teach his political, educational and social ideas. Confucius died at the age 73, five years after returning home. During the last years, he taught as many as 3,000 scholars and they transmitted his philosophy to the Chinese system in every aspect. Mencius and Xunzi expounded Confucian mission and vision further and the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as its official state credo during the rule of Emperor Wu in 141 BC.

Important Features

Humanism: The Core

Humanism is the foundation of Confucian thought. Confucianism encourages people to understand the world through the logic of humanity. According to Confucius, humaneness (Ren) leads to virtues and moral disposition (Yi) and establishes the path for normative conduct (Li). His ethical philosophy says that people have the obligation to cultivate virtues, shun bad habits and show humaneness toward fellow beings. "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you" is keystone Confucian humanism.

Self-Cultivation of Virtues

Confucius stressed on cultivation of virtue. According to him, men are born as good and need to keep them kind-hearted and righteous through cultivation of virtues. Confucianism harps on five must-have virtues, known as the Five Constants, and regards them as key to human excellence. These are 

  • Humaneness
  • Righteousness
  • Propriety/ moral disposition
  • Knowledge/ wisdom
  • Honesty

The Confucian philosophy also calls one to inculcate loyalty, continency, kindness, sense of right and wrong, forgiveness, modesty and a host of other qualities inherently recognized as fundamental to a good society.

Social Ethics

Confucianism focuses on social content and healthy lifestyle. Confucius vigorously advocated norms and high level of ethics in social life. According to him, people got involved in many activities knowingly and unknowingly and must follow an ethical code in every matter to maintain propriety. He put emphasis on etiquette, family values, loyalty in relationships, reverence of elders and becoming an ideal gentleman. His concept of perfect human being is a combination of saint, scholar and gentleman. Confucius preached value in relationships at every stage as key to social harmony.

Political Thought: Meritocracy and Good Governance

Meritocracy based on study and knowledge advocated by Confucian philosophy was adopted by the Han rulers and became the basis of Chinese bureaucratic system. For Confucius, a king must inculcate personal virtues first before expecting the subjects to obey and follow him fully. His ruler is the symbol of virtue, full of goodness, humanly in attitude and one who considers subjects as his children. His interpretations added a new dimension to the Mandate of Heaven and conditioned the right to rule with virtues of a good ruler. Later Mencius added respect toward public opinion as a key component of Confucian political thoughts.

Education and Knowledge

Confucian philosophy advocated knowledge through education in both social and political spheres. It views one a perfect man only when he is well-educated and exhibit scholarly traits. Confucius worked to spread education as a mean to enhance self-inculcation of virtue by men and made it a key condition for social harmony. In the political arena, the philosophy demands that ruler and his officials must establish educational and knowledge credentials to justify their actions.

Influence on Chinese Civilization

Chinese rulers starting from the Han Dynasty accorded official status to Confucianism and exalted it as a key component of their dominion. Their ruling doctrine adopted Confucian political orientation to validate actions. The Han Dynasty created a strong ruling system led by statesman graduated from the Confucian school and well admired for their patriotism, sense of duty and dedication. It decimated the feudal structure leading to a centralized rule unifying China. This cadre of government officials became the life blood of administrative system that managed to continue over 2,000 years and through a dozen of dynasties.

Meritocracy proved by written exam, advocated by Confucius as the basis of ancient Mandarin system, transcended the geographic barriers and has now become the mainstay of bureaucratic selection systems worldwide. The lives of great political and military leaders who steered the course of Chinese civilization draw attention to exemplary incorporation of Confucianism at both personal and state levels. All foreign religions, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, derived freely from the philosophical system. The interaction between Confucianism and Buddhism profoundly influenced Zen and Han Buddhist schools. The human principles of Confucius continue to remain in the heart of every Chinese irrespective of his religious affiliation.

Confucian philosophy is associated with intellectual development of Chinese civilization and dominant Han ethnic people consider it as their key philosophy of life. The top echelon of communist leaders stresses on social harmony, good governance, rationality in decision and education that was talked by the "the teacher of ten thousand generations" two millennium ago. The philosophical system also influenced the local religions and many, including scholars, adopted it progressively.

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