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Confucius, the Latinized form of the name of Kung Fu-tzu, was bom in 551 B.C. and died in 479 B.C. The philosophy that is known as Confucianism comes mainly from the speeches and writings of Confucius. Disciples (followers) of Confucius, such as Mencius, made important contributions to Confucianism as well. The ideas of Confucianism are found in nine works: the “Four Books” and the “Five Classics.”
Confucianism is an ethical system rather than a religion. (Ethics deals with human behavior and conduct.) Confucius was mainly concerned with how human beings behaved toward each other and paid little attention to such matters as sin, salvation, and the soul. He developed a system of government, society, and justice which we call Confucianism.
Confucius believed that people, because of their nature, desire to live in the company of other people, that is, in society. It is only in society that people reach their fullest development. Therefore, it is important for people to know how to behave in society, that is, in their relations with other people.
The Five Basic Relationships
According to Confucius, each person had a specific place in society and certain duties to fulfill. Confucius hoped that if people knew what was expected of them they would behave correctly. Therefore, he set up five principal relationships in which most people are involved. These relationships were (1) ruler and subject; (2) father and son; (3) elder brother and younger brother; (4) husband and wife; and (5) friend and friend. All, except the last, involve the authority of one person over another. Power and the right to rule belong to superiors over subordinates; that is, to older people over younger people, to men over women. Each person has to give obedience and respect to “superiors”; the subject to his ruler, the wife to her husband, the son to his parents, and the younger brother to the older brother. The “superior,” however, owes loving responsibility to the inferior.
The Family and the State
Confucius placed great importance on the family. Family fife was seen as a training ground for life in society. It is at home in the family that the child learns to deal with problems that he or she will face later in the world. The family is responsible for educating the child to be a good member of society. Confucius emphasized the importance of education, the aim of which is to turn people into good family members, responsible members of society, and good subjects of the emperor.
The state (government) was regarded as an extension of the family in many ways. The emperor and his officials were referred to as the parents of the people. Subjects owed the same loyalty to their rulers that they owed to the senior members of their family.
However, the emperor had duties to fulfill as well. Confucius believed that for society to be well ordered and for people to live in peace and prosper, it was necessary to have a good government and a virtuous ruler. It was the duty of the emperor and his officials to set a good example for the people. The good example of the ruler would transform the people, and make them better. Confucius believed that only the wisest and most humane men should rule. He further believed that if the emperor was not morally perfect, heaven would cause the world to suffer.
The emperor also had to maintain the proper relationship between himself and heaven. Heaven was regarded as the governing authority of the universe and the final judge of right and wrong. The Chinese believed that a dynasty ruled as long as it held the “Mandate of Heaven,” that is, the right to rule. The people felt they had the right to say whether or not the ruler had the Mandate. When the Emperor did not see to it that there was water for irrigation, that canal barges could transport rice, that rivers did not flood, and that roads were safe for traveling, the people suffered. When the people suffered, they were sure that Heaven had taken away its protection of the Emperor, so they rebelled. When the rebellion was successful, the Mandate of Heaven was given to the leader of the rebellion. He became the emperor of a new dynasty.
The Importance of Confucianism
For 2,000 years Confucianism was the official philosophy of China. The only way a person could achieve an important position in the government or in society was by having a good knowledge of Confucianism. To become a government official it was necessary to pass a difficult civil service examination based on the ideas of Confucius. Since it was Confucianism that kept the leaders in power, they were opposed to any changes. The Confucianists believed that they were the only civilized community in the world and they looked down on the beliefs and cultures of other people. This attitude made the Chinese unwilling to change their way of life when they were first exposed to Western culture. This unwillingness to adopt Western ideas and techniques in the late 19th and early 20th centuries proved to be disastrous for the Chinese.
Confucius himself was not very interested in the ideas of a God, an after life, heaven, and other ideas that we associate with religion. However, when Confucianism became the official philosophy of China, religious functions were incorporated into it. Confucius, together with his ancestors and famous followers, became objects of worship. Confucian temples were built all over China and sacrifices and rituals were performed.