Chinese Thought: Confucius 孔子 (551–479 BCE)

Confucius (551–479 BCE) is the most celebrated figure in China’s history. He was a teacher, advisor, editor, philosopher, reformer, and prophet. His thought and philosophy form the basis of Confucian or Ru thought in China and the entire moral codes of China and other East Asian countries like Japan and Korea. Whereas in the West follows Judeo-Christian ethics, in China people live by a Confucian code of ethics.

Confucian philosophy is rooted in the concept of ren or compassion and love for others. This involves deprecating yourself as you show concern for others. Confucius’s golden rule was ‘What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.’ He also believed in the importance of reciprocal relationships: ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, brother to brother and friend to friend. In each relationship there is responsibility on the side of both parties. For example, a husband treats his wife with kindness and she, in return, is obedient and loyal. One’s place and status in society are also important. Confucius’s sayings were collected by his disciples and compiled into a book called The Analects.

In Imperial China, Confucius was identified with interpretations of the classics and moral guidelines for administrators, and therefore also with training the scholar-officials that populated the bureaucracy. At the same time, he was closely associated with the transmission of the ancient sacrificial system, and he himself received ritual offerings in temples found in all major cities. By the Han Period (202 BCE–220 CE), Confucius was already an authoritative figure in a number of different cultural domains, and the early commentaries show that reading texts associated with him about history, ritual, and proper behavior was important to rulers. The first commentaries to the Analects were written by tutors to the crown prince and select experts in the “Five Classics” (Wujing 五經) were given scholastic positions in the government. The authority of Confucius was such that during the late Han and the following period of disunity, his imprimatur was used to validate commentaries to the classics, encoded political prophecies, and esoteric doctrines.

By the Song period (960–1279), the post-Buddhist revival known as “Neo-Confucianism” anchored readings of the dialogues of Confucius to a dualism between cosmic pattern, distinctive moral cosmology that marked the tradition off from those of Buddhism and Taoism. The Neo-Confucian interpretation of the Analects by Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200) integrated the study of the Analects into a curriculum based on the “Four Books” that became widely influential in China, Korea, and Japan. The pre-modern Confucius was closely associated with good government, moral education, proper ritual performance, and the reciprocal obligations that people in different roles owed each other in such contexts.

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