Here’s the simplistic version. Confucianism is a philosophical system founded by Confucius (559–471 BCE), whose Analects are its founding document. This philosophy has been the dominant force in Chinese thought for two and a half thousand years. Reading the Analects is the key to unlocking modern China and making sense of one of the world’s greatest and longest-enduring powers.
Unfortunately, pretty much everything in that paragraph is wrong. Let me set the record straight on a few points.
All that said, there is a philosophical tradition that begins with Kongzi and that produced three brilliant texts that survive from the Classical period. In this post, I’ll say a little about the historical context and offer a brief overview of those three texts.
The Zhou Dynasty (1046–221 BCE) is the longest-lasting of all the Chinese imperial dynasties. But for most of that time, the Zhou emperors were little more than figureheads while real power rested in the hands of squabbling warlords.
According to legend, the dynasty was founded by King Wen, his son, King Wu, and Wu’s brother, the Duke of Zhou. Wu wrested power from the corrupt tyrant who was the last ruler of the preceding Shang Dynasty. This new dynasty claimed the “mandate of heaven” as legitimizing their rule. Because, and only because, they ruled justly and lived virtuously, they were entitled to the imperial throne.
The Zhou Dynasty didn’t live up to this mandate for long. A series of weak and corrupt rulers led to the increasing fragmentation of the Zhou state, first during the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BCE), and with accelerating ferocity during the Warring States period (c. 475–221 BCE), before the Zhou was swept away like the Shang before it. The Zhou was replaced by the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE) and the longer-lasting Han (202 BCE–9 CE and 25 CE–220 CE).
Bad times make for good philosophy. As warlords and bandits ravaged the countryside, people found themselves asking what went wrong and what a more harmonious social arrangement might look like. This was the period of the “Hundred Schools of Thought,” in which sages and scholars competed in their diagnoses and prescriptions.
Although the Analects date from centuries after his death, Kongzi was almost certainly a real person and the Analects paint a compelling portrait of him. From this collection of sayings and anecdotes emerges a man of deep intellectual and spiritual seriousness, but with a wry wit and an acute sense of irony. He also comes across as a masterly teacher. Different anecdotes present him as giving different answers to the same question from different interlocutors, suggesting a keen sensitivity to what each individual questioner needs to hear to advance their own understanding.
Kongzi was born into an aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times. His own life story was one of hardship as well. He offered himself as an advisor to rulers who were glad to hear his counsel on upright leadership but less enthusiastic about changing their ways in order to put Kongzi’s teaching into practice. He took on a number of disciples but didn’t see himself as founding a school. At the time of his death, he would have had no reason to expect that his teachings would make a deep impression on Chinese thought and culture for thousands of years.
Kongzi’s failure to effect much change in his lifetime and his outsize posthumous influence are related. Both stem from the uncompromising stance he took with regard to upright conduct. When ambitious rulers ask Kongzi for advice on agriculture or military strategy he demurs. These rulers have missed the point, to Kongzi’s mind. If they learn to cultivate righteousness and benevolence, they will serve as an example that will spread to the people as a whole. In such a state, practical matters will take care of themselves.
Things haven’t changed much. You can imagine how a contemporary political leader would respond to an advisor who, when asked about industrial policy, responded by telling the politician to cultivate honesty. On the other hand, Kongzi’s higher aspirations can inspire people far beyond his own place and time in a way that hard-headed practical advice would not have done.
Central to Kongzi’s teaching was the importance of ritual. Ritual as Kongzi understood it wasn’t confined to religious ceremony but rather embraced all the formal and formulaic practices of his culture. Think of handshakes, small talk, or saying “please” and “thank you” and you’ll see that ritual in this sense is alive and well today.
For Kongzi, ritual is the glue that holds a society together. Our social lives are elaborate systems of role playing. I’m a son, a brother, a friend, a teacher, a citizen, a Canucks fan. Each of these roles comes with its own norms for how to behave (mostly with tears if you’re a Canucks fan). For Kongzi, a society functions harmoniously when people learn to play their roles well. It might sound like Kongzi is advocating artificiality over sincerity but the truth is more like the reverse. We can’t function socially without occupying various roles and it’s through careful attention to ritual that we imbue these roles with meaning and significance.
Kongzi’s emphasis on ritual was also a diagnosis of what had gone wrong in his own time. People had stopped observing appropriate ritual behaviour and had lost their sense of social harmony. Just as it takes practice and experience to develop an ear for music, so it takes practice and experience to develop an ear for social harmony.
Someone who behaves according to ritual, who leads by example, who is effortless and at ease while conducting himself impeccably is a gentleman (junzi), according to Kongzi. The word junzi literally means “lord’s son,” and was originally an epithet for an aristocrat. But for Kongzi, what makes a true gentleman has nothing to do with birth and everything to do with conduct. We see a similar move in the early Buddhist texts, where the Buddha argues that the true brahmin isn’t someone born into the priestly caste of society but rather someone who exhibits high spiritual attainment.
For Kongzi, what mattered was our social conduct. But that didn’t mean he esteemed the social hierarchy as it stood. He aspired to live in a world where that hierarchy would be determined by moral rectitude and not by force of arms. He knew that wasn’t the world he lived in but he refused to bend in his principles. His uncompromising stance ultimately made him a tragic figure, but also a deeply inspiring one.
Mengzi (pronounced roughly “mung-dzuh”) is the only Chinese philosopher besides Kongzi to be better known in the West by a Latinized name, in his case Mencius. (By contrast, we call the author of the Daodejing Laozi or Lao Tzu but rarely “Laocius.”) The Latinized name speaks particularly to Mengzi’s tremendous importance to Neo-Confucian thinkers who honoured him as the “Second Sage” after Kongzi himself. These Neo-Confucians were in the ascendant when Jesuit scholars had their first encounter with Chinese thought in the late 16th century.
Mengzi’s exact dates are uncertain but he was active in the second half of the 4th century BCE, which places him a couple generations after Kongzi. This was the time of the fractious Warring States period as well as the flowering of the hundred schools of thought. In the Mengzi, the eponymous text that records his teaching, we see Mengzi engaging much more vigorously than Kongzi in debate with rival philosophers. Mengzi needs to show the superiority of Kongzi’s teachings to the ninety-nine other rival schools.
Imagine a child about to fall into a well, says Mengzi, anticipating by a couple thousand years a famous thought-experiment by Peter Singer. Your natural reaction would be to rush to save the child from falling and drowning. Not because you’d expect a reward from the parents, not because you’d expect praise from others, not because you couldn’t stand the child’s cries—the impulse to rescue the child would come before any such calculations.
Mengzi calls this basic capacity for compassion the “sprout of benevolence.” Human nature is basically good, Mengzi argues. We don’t need to refashion human nature to make society harmonious. We just need to cultivate the natural tendencies we already have.
In another vivid example, he tells of a foolish farmer who spends the day out in the field pulling on the stalks of grain to help them grow. At the end of the day he’s exhausted and has caused the stalks to wither. Cultivating human goodness is like cultivating a garden. Trying to force things is counter-productive. What we need to do is provide the right circumstances, do a bit of weeding, and allow our natural goodness to grow of its own accord.
Mengzi isn’t naïve. He isn’t saying that human beings are good—such a claim would sound even less plausible during the Warring States period than it would today. But he thinks our natural tendency is toward the good. To the extent that people aren’t good, that’s due to unhealthy political conditions. But Mengzi carries the optimistic view that setting humanity on the right track should work with and not against the natural grain of human dispositions.
Because he had such faith in human goodness, ritual has a less prominent place in Mengzi’s thought than in Kongzi’s or Xunzi’s. For those other two, ritual plays an important role in formalizing social conduct and training people in appropriate behaviour. Especially for Xunzi, ritual can be a way of disciplining a recalcitrant human nature.
Mengzi also makes room for ritual but it plays a less coercive role. People will find their way toward benevolence if they’re given the opportunity. For this reason, Mengzi places greater emphasis on reflection. We see this emphasis in his elegant way with examples and thought experiments. People already know in their hearts what’s right, so all they need is the prompting to get them to reflect on a situation with lucidity.
Xunzi lived in the 3rd century BCE, right at the end of the Warring States period, and might have lived to see the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty. Things were at a nadir politically speaking, so it shouldn’t surprise us that Xunzi had a more pessimistic outlook than Mengzi. Unlike the Analects and the Mengzi, the text that bears Xunzi’s name appears to have been written by him. He writes in an expository and analytic style, working rigorously through arguments in a way that would be familiar to contemporary philosophers.
If Xunzi’s name were a common noun, it would score high points in Scrabble, but it likely also befuddles the average reader of English. It’s pronounced something like “Soon dzuh” or “Shoon dzuh,” where the “oo” is pronounced as it is in “book.” The letter X in the pinyin transliteration is somewhere between a SH and an S sound, as it is in the name of Chinese premier Xi Jinping.
Unlike Kongzi and Mengzi, Xunzi doesn’t have a Latinate form to his name. What Renaissance Europeans saw fit to do with Chinese names actually does reveal something about Xunzi’s thought. The Neo-Confucians who hailed Mengzi as the “Second Sage” lived in a China that had been absorbing Buddhist influence for the best part of a millennium. According to Mahāyāna Buddhism, which is the form that predominated in China, every person has “Buddha nature” within them—they have the potential to achieve Enlightenment. This idea of Buddha nature harmonizes nicely with Mengzi’s teaching about the natural goodness of human beings.
Xunzi, by contrast, took a darker view of human nature. People are naturally self-centred, according to Xunzi, and must be reformed if they are to become good. Seeing and hearing come naturally to us and that’s why they require no effort. Becoming good takes work, which Xunzi gives as evidence that goodness isn’t in our nature the way that seeing and hearing are. This less optimistic view of human nature explains why Xunzi might have been less esteemed by Buddhist-influenced Neo-Confucians, which in turn explains why those Neo-Confucians’ European interlocutors didn’t bring Xunzi to Latinized Europe with such fanfare.
Because he thinks we have a basic inclination toward goodness, Mengzi sees less need for ritual than Kongzi. Because he thinks we have a basic inclination toward selfishness, Xunzi doubles down on the importance of ritual. For Xunzi, ritual helps overcome our basic selfishness and reshapes our desires in a more pro-social direction.
But Xunzi is also skeptical about ritual as having any kind of supernatural efficacy. A rain sacrifice doesn’t bring rain, says Xunzi—sometimes you do the sacrifice and it doesn’t rain, and sometimes it rains when you don’t do the sacrifice. Nonetheless, it’s important to do the sacrifice. Not to make it rain, but in order to give things their “proper form.” The purpose of ritual is to reshape our motivation and channel our desires. Ritual teaches us to act in unselfish ways. It’s the effect that ritual has on people, and not on the heavens, that matters.
Because he doesn’t trust people’s natural inclinations, Xunzi places a strong emphasis on education. The rigorous civil service examinations that became crucial to the Chinese administrative state starting in the Han Dynasty owed a great deal to Xunzi’s influence. He may have been on the outs with the Neo-Confucians, but his influence was by then firmly established.
Xunzi likens sages to craftspeople. Just as a potter has to mold clay in order to give it its proper form, so a sage must mold human nature. We saw that Mengzi uses many agricultural metaphors to show how human goodness grows naturally from the right soil. Xunzi leans heavily on metaphors of crafts and tools, suggesting that wisdom calls on us to impose a form on nature rather than to let it follow its own course.
The tradition founded by Kongzi continued to evolve and develop beyond the final collapse of the Zhou dynasty. Indeed, its influence only grew during the Han Dynasty, where it became something close to the official state philosophy. This was the period in which the Analects were compiled in the form that we have today and in which it and the “Five Classics” were established as part of the standard curriculum for the civil service examination.
Buddhism first reached China during the Han Dynasty and reached its peak of influence during the Tang (618–907). It was largely in reaction to the growing influence of Buddhism that Han Yu (768–824) spearheaded Neo-Confucianism, a movement that reached its peak in the Song Dynasty in the figure of Zhu Xi (1130–1200). As I noted above, Neo-Confucians prized Mengzi’s emphasis on benevolence as harmonizing with Buddhist teachings about our innate Buddha nature. More generally, Neo-Confucianism exhibits strong influence from Buddhism while asserting its roots in pre-Buddhist Chinese thought.
Kongzi’s teachings came to be so associated with Chineseness that the Manchu heads of the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912) vigorously promoted it as a way of asserting their own right to govern.
The tradition found less active support in Maoist China, as Mao and other communist officials disparaged older traditions as counter-revolutionary. But this disparagement wasn’t universal. In particular, Liu Shaoqi (1898–1969) adapted Confucian ideas about ethical self-development to Marxist ideas about developing class consciousness.
Today, Kongzi and his legacy are more warmly received in the People’s Republic of China. The government promotes Chinese culture abroad through a network of “Confucius Institutes” and Kongzi is taken as a pillar of China’s enduring cultural significance. A “New Confucianism” has also taken hold in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere that attempts to harmonize Confucian thought with Western rationalism and humanism.