How Confucianism Impacted China Essay

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Confucianism in Pre-Modern China

Confucianism comes from the Chinese philosopher Confucius, after whom the philosophy takes its name. Confucius lived from the middle of the 6th century BC to the first part of the 5th century BC and was a teacher of the values of those who lived in the days of Chinese antiquity. For Confucius, the greatest years of the Zhou dynasty had come in the three centuries prior to his birth. The dynasty itself lasted for centuries following Confucius' life, though in a much different form from what came before. Confucius viewed the lessons of the early Zhou dynasty as containing valuable nuggets of wisdom. Confucius' teachings carried on well after his day as did many other schools of thought in China, where philosophy and wisdom were highly prized and sought after by many Chinese leaders from Confucius' own time till the end of the 3rd century BC. The reason that philosophy was so highly regarded for so many years was because China itself was plagued by disputes and wars and leaders wanted to know how to best govern their realms and how to best lead their people. For this reason, the Hundred Schools of Thought emerged in the years between Confucius' day to the around the end of the Zhou dynasty in the 3rd century BC. This paper will discuss how Confucianism impacted China in the pre-modern age from its first days during the Zhou dynasty on up through the centuries.


Confucius wore many hats during his lifetime: he taught, wrote, edited, and even acted politically. He authored a history book about China -- but his greatest contribution was the philosophy he enunciated that became his legacy.

The essence of the philosophy taught by Confucius was that morality should be the basis of conduct between persons, whether on a social level or on a governmental level. The principles that Confucius asserted were not novel: that is, he did not create them himself. Rather they stemmed from the traditional teachings that had for many years served as the bedrock of Chinese culture. Confucius supported these traditional concepts -- such as devotion to family, respect for ancestors and older persons, and what has been called the Golden Rule -- i.e., one should treat others that way that one wants to be treated.

Confucius himself was neither a commoner nor an aristocrat. His family's class was between the two -- so he was afforded the opportunity of seeing how both lived by looking from the outside in. He developed an objective manner that enabled him to see things clearly and for what they were. He was educated in the Six Arts, which formed the basis of all education during the Zhou dynasty. These arts included music, archery, calligraphy, mathematics, rites, and horseback riding. Confucius taught these arts to his own disciples, according to the works of Chinese historians like Kong Zonghan and the artists who depicted Confucius with his 72 disciples who learned the Six Arts (Lagerwey, Marsone 815). Thus, from the beginning, Confucianism was about passing on the traditional elements of learning that Confucius himself received as a young man growing up. These Six Arts were like the corner stones or foundation of the well-rounded person in China -- and that is what Confucius promoted.

Confucius became a governor around 500 BC -- but this was just one of the many things he did (Schuman 191). Confucius was also an advisor to leaders who sought his opinion. When it came time for him to retire, he set off for home: he was nearly 70 years of age -- but still teaching. According to the Analects -- a body of work that contains sayings and thoughts that are said to be those of Confucius -- the philosopher gave to his 72 disciples the books that later became known as the Five Classics. These books include the Classics of Poetry, the Book of Documents, the Book of Rites, the Book of Changes and the Spring And Autumn Annals (Nylan 4).

Essentially, Confucius simply worked to codify a system of beliefs already present in Chinese culture. He imbibed these beliefs and then taught them to his own students and exemplified them in his own life. The logical basis upon which these beliefs rested served as the entry point for later generations who sought to utilize a teaching tool that could guide, using moral and ethical principles. Over time the philosophy attributed to Confucius even grew as more ideas were added to the body of work that became known as Confucianism.
This body of work was the result of logical extrapolation of ideas from the foundation laid out both by traditional Chinese culture during the Zhou dynasty and Confucius himself who simply emphasized and promoted the traditional education and philosophy that he himself received. The ideal that Confucius promoted for people to strive toward was the junzi -- the exemplary figure (Ames 39).


Confucianism is not a formalized creed, as one might find in a religion: its tenets are essentially philosophical and broadly based on the traditional mores of ancient Chinese customs. Some in China view it as a religion because Confucius did touch upon spiritual matters such as the wisdom of following astrological signs, which come from Heaven to guide men. Others view it as a basic philosophy that can be used as a foundation for forming one's character. As Hu Shih point outs, "the Chinese people are the least religious among the civilized races...Chinese philosophy has been most free from the domination of religious influences" (Chou 81). This statement reflects the status of Confucianism in China most accurately. Religions such as those that developed in the West stemmed from belief in divine revelation. In the East, such revelations were uncommon, and the vast majority of Chinese recognized in Confucianism a way of thought or a mode of thought that could facilitate them in their ordinary lives and move them toward a better place in life.

The Chinese people were, however, also capable of becoming intensely religious, as their history shows. Hi Shuh again comments that "in certain periods of history, China became so fanatically religious that many monks and nuns would willingly burn themselves to death as the supreme form of sacrifice to some Buddhist deity" (Chou 81). In fact, as Shuh observes, the influence of religion throughout the centuries of Chinese history has left its mark on the development of Chinese philosophy -- including Confucianism. Shuh would lump Confucianism in with the traditional religions of China, identifying it as the "state religion" of China (Chou 82) and categorizing it with Moism and Taoism together under an umbrella he calls Siniticism. For Shuh, writing from the perspective of the Enlightened irreligious modern thinker, religion was a roadblock for real intellectual progress, and thus Confucianism was a backwards philosophy-religion that served as an obstacle to actual advancement. It was so ingrained in Chinese life that it was to China "what Hinduism has been to India" (Chou 82).

As Shuh notes, the Sinitic Age -- i.e., the age of traditional Chinese philosophy-religion (Confucianism) lasted roughly until the 4th century AD, when Buddhism became prominent in Chinese thought, displacing the more traditional Confucianism. The Buddhist Age last until around 1100 AD in China, when it was displaced by the rise of Neo-Confucianism -- the dawn of Chinese Renaissance in which the value of the old ways of thinking were rediscovered and once again promoted (Chou 82).

The old ways of thinking were deemed important because they reflected a practical and social aspect of Chinese culture deemed valuable on many levels: they taught familial respect, patriarchy, veneration for ancestors, duty, honor, and the virtues necessary for holding families together and paying homage to one's leaders and rulers. The hierarchy of authority was important in these pre-democratic, modern times and thus the values that Confucius taught reflected what Chinese families, fathers, leaders and educators all sought to embody in their culture. This is why it became the "state religion" as Shuh notes -- although it was never really a religion at all but rather a philosophical outlook.

Confucianism also taught the value of human life over that of material things: this represented the principle of the sacredness of life, which could also be seen in the rule that Confucius taught (similar to the Golden Rule): Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself (Hongladaroom 173). The main idea here was that fairness and even-handedness was a virtue that should guide all one's dealings. The Chinese were very responsive to this because for them it was a strong philosophical tenet that made logical sense. Without having the kind of divine revelation that those in West were having and using as the bedrock of religious belief and devotion, the Chinese -- like the ancient….....

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Works Cited

Adshead, Samuel. China in World History. NY: Macmillan, 2001. Print.

Ames, Roger, Ed. The Analects of Confucius. NY: Random House, 2000. Print.

Chaliand, Gerard. A Global History of War: From Assyria to the Twenty-First Century. CA: University of California Press, 2010.

Chou, Chih-P'ing, Ed. "Religion and Philosophy in Chinese History." In English Writings of Hu Shih. Berlin: Springer, 2013. Print.

De Bary, William T. Sources of East Asian Tradition: Premodern Asia, Volume 1. NY: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Hongladaroom, Soraj. Food Security and Food Safety for the Twenty-first Century. NY: Springer, 2015. Print.

Lagerwey, John; Marsone, Pierre, Eds. Modern Chinese Religion I. Boston: Brill, 2010. Print.

Nylan, Michael. The Five Confucian Classics. CT: Yale University Press, 2001. Print.

Parker, John. Windows into China. Boston: Brill, 2001. Print.

Schuman, Michael. Confucius: And the World He Created. NY: Basic Books, 2015. Print.

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