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Confucianism, The Philosophical System

Confucianism, the philosophical system founded on the teaching of Confucius, who lived from 551 BC to 479 BC, dominated Chinese sociopolitical life for most of the Chinese history and largely influenced the cultures of Korea, Japan, and Indochina. The Confucian school functioned as a recruiting ground for government positions, which were filled by those scoring highest on examinations in the Confucian classics. It also blended with popular and important religions and became the vehicle for presenting Chinese values to the peasants.

The school’s doctrine supported political authority using the theory of the mandate of heaven. It sought to help rulers maintain domestic order, preserve tradition, and maintain a constant standard of living for the tax paying peasants. It trained its followers in generous giving, traditional rituals, family order, loyalty, respect for superiors and for the aged, and principled flexibility in advising rulers. Confucius was China’s first and most famous philosopher. He had a traditional personal name (Qiu) and a formal name (Zhoghi).

Confucius’s father died shortly after Confucius’s birth. His family fell into relative poverty, and Confucius joined a growing class of impoverished descendants of aristocrats who made their careers by acquiring knowledge of feudal ritual and taking positions of influence serving the rulers of the many separate states of ancient China. Confucius devoted himself to learning. At the age of 30, however, when his short-lived official career floundered, he turned to teaching others.

Confucius himself never wrote down his own philosophy, although tradition credits him with editing some of the historical classics that were used as texts in his school. He apparently made an enormous impact on the lives and attitudes of his disciples. Confucianism combines a political theory and a theory of human nature to yield “dao,” a prescriptive doctrine or way. The political theory starts with a Doctrine of political authority from heaven’s command: the ruler bears responsibility for the well being of the people and therefore for peace and order in the empire.

Confucianism emerged as a more coherent philosophy when faced with intellectual competition from other schools that were growing in the schools that were growing in the fertile social climate of pre-imperial China (400-200 BC). Daoism, Mohism and Legalism all attacked Confucianism. A common theme of these attacks was that Confucianism assumed that tradition and convention was always correct. Mencuis (372-289 BC) developed a more idealistic inclination to good behavior that does not require education.

Xun Zi (313- 238 BC) argued that all inclinations are shaped by acquired language and other social forms. Confucianism rose to the position of an official orthodoxy during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). It absorbed the metaphysical doctrines of Yin (the female principle) and Yang (the male principle) found in the Book of Changes and other speculative metaphysical notions. With the fall of the Han Dynasty, Confucianism fell into severe decline. Except for the residual effects of its official status, Confucianism remained philosophically dormant for approximately 600 years.

Confucianism began to revive with the reestablishment of the Chinese dynastic power in the Tang Dynasty (618- 906 AD). The Zen Buddhist, Chan felt that “There is nothing much to Buddhist teaching. ” And, the education offered by Confucist teaching filled the intellectual gap. The Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) produced Neo-Confucianism, which is an interpretation of classical Confucianism doctrine that addressed both Buddhist and Daoist issues. Its development was due mainly to Zhenglo (1032) and Zhengi (1033-1107), but for the orthodox statement of Neo-Confucianism, one turns to Zhu Xi (1130- 1200).

His commentaries on the four scriptures of Confucianism were required study for the imperial civil service examinations. From the beginning of the 1200’s to about 1949 and the communist era in China, Confucianism was the belief that told the peasants of China that the mandate of heaven said that emperors were to rule the Chinese Empire. Because of this philosophy, westerners often viewed the Chinese lifestyle as odd and referred to the Chinese officials as inscrutable.

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