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an introduction to Confucius, his ideas and their enduring relevance

By on September 9, 2021 0

The man widely known in English as Confucius was born around 551 BCE in today’s southern province of Shandong. Confucius is the phonic translation of the Chinese word Kong fuzi , in which Kong was his last name and fuzi is an honorary title for scholars.

Widely credited with creating the thought system we now call Confucianism, this learned man insisted that he was “not a creator but a transmitter”, simply “believing and loving the ancients”. In this, Confucius could be seen as acting with modesty and humility, virtues to which he greatly valued.

Or, like Kang youwei – a leading reformer of modern China argued – Confucius tactically presented his revolutionary ideas as lost ancient virtues so that his arguments were met with less criticism and less hostility.

Confucius was nothing like the great sage of his day, as he is widely known in ours. To his contemporaries, he was perhaps primarily an unemployed political adviser who wandered around different fiefdoms for a few years, trying to sell his political ideas to different rulers – but never to come to an agreement.

It seems Confucius would have preferred to live half a millennium earlier, when China – according to him – was united under benevolent, competent and virtuous rulers at the dawn of the Zhou Dynasty. By its time, China had become a divided land with hundreds of small fiefdoms, often ruled by greedy, cruel, or mediocre lords frequently at war.

But the ideas of this frustrated scholar have deeply shaped politics and ethics in China and beyond since his death in 479 BCE. The greatest and most influential Chinese thinker, his concept of filial piety, remains very popular with young people in China, despite rapid changes in the country’s demographics.

Despite some doubts as to whether many Chinese take his ideas seriously, Confucius’ ideas remain directly and closely linked to contemporary China.

This situation is perhaps comparable to Christianity in Australia. Although institutional participation is in constant decline, Christian values ​​and narratives remain influential on Australian politics and vital social issues.

The danger today is that Confucianism is seen as the sole reason for China’s success or failure. British writer Martin Jacques, for example, recently affirmed Confucianism was the “single biggest reason” for East Asia’s success in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, without giving any explanation or justification.

If Confucius were alive, he probably wouldn’t hesitate to call this lonely root of triumph or disaster as lazy, incorrect, and reckless.

Political structure and mutual responsibilities

Confucius wanted to restore good political order by persuading rulers to restore moral standards, exemplify proper social relationships, perform age-old rituals, and ensure social welfare.

Confucius painted by Kano Yôsen’in Korenobu (Japanese, 1753-1808).
Fenollosa-Weld Collection / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

He worked hard to promote his ideas but gained few supporters. Almost all rulers viewed punishment and military force as shortcuts to greater power.

It was not until 350 years later, during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han that Confucianism was installed as the state ideology of China.

But this state-sanctioned version of Confucianism was not an honest revitalization of Confucius’ ideas. Instead, he absorbed many elements of rival schools of thought, including legalism, which emerged in the second half of China’s Warring States Period (453-221 BCE). Legalism has argued that effective governance relies on impersonal laws and regulations – rather than moral principles and rites.

Like most of the great thinkers of the Axial age between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE, Confucius did not believe that everyone was created equal.

Similar to Plato (born over 100 years later), Confucius believed that the ideal society followed a hierarchy. Asked by Duke Jing of Qi about government, Confucius replied:

that the leader be a leader; the minister, a minister; the father, a father; the son, a son.

However, it would be a cursory reading of Confucius to believe that he called for unconditional obedience to rulers or superiors. Confucius advised a disciple “not to deceive the ruler but to stand up to him.”

Confucius believed that the legitimacy of a regime rests fundamentally on the trust of the people. A leader must tirelessly work hard and “lead by example.”

As in a family, a good son listens to his father, and a good father earns respect not by imposing strength or seniority, but by offering genuine love, support, advice and care.

In other words, Confucius saw a mutual relationship between the ruler and the ruler.

Love and respect for social harmony

For Confucius, proper relationships among family members are not simply metaphors for ideal political orders, but the basic fabrics of a harmonious society.

An essential family value in Confucius’ ideas is xiao 孝, or filial piety, a concept explained in at least 15 different ways in the Interviews, a collection of sayings by Confucius and his followers.



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Depending on the context, Confucius defined filial piety as respect for parents, as “never dissenting” from parents, as not letting parents feel unnecessary anxiety, as serving parents with a label when they are alive, and as bury and commemorate parents with decorum after their death. a way.

Confucius expected leaders to exemplify good family values. When Ji Kang Zi, the powerful prime minister of Lu, Confucius’ home state, asked for advice on keeping people loyal to the kingdom, Confucius responded by asking the ruler to show filial piety and benevolence (this ).

The first sheet of ‘Song Album of The Classic of Filial Piety in Painting and Calligraphy’, with Confucius seated in the center. Calligraphy and painting by Gaozong (1107-1187) and Ma Hezhi (c.1130-c.1170), Song dynasty.
National Palace Museum

Confucius viewed moral and ethical principles not only as personal matters, but as social assets. He deeply believed that social harmony ultimately rests on virtuous citizens rather than sophisticated institutions.

In Confucius’ ideas, the most important moral principle is ren 仁, a concept that can hardly be translated into English without losing some of its meaning.

Like filial piety, ren manifests itself in the love and respect we have for others. Corn ren is not limited to family members and is not based on blood or kinship. Ren guide people to follow their conscience. People with ren have strong compassion and empathy towards others.

Translators arguing for a single English equivalent for ren have attempted to interpret the concept as “benevolence”, “humanity”, “humanity” and “goodness”, none of which quite grasp the full meaning of the term.

The challenge of translation ren is not linguistic. Although the concept appears more than 100 times in the Analects, Confucius did not give a precise definition. Instead, he explained the term in different ways.

As summarized by Chinese historian Daniel Gardner, Confucius defined ren like:

love others, submit and return to ritual decency, be respectful, tolerant, trustworthy, diligent and kind, have courage, be free from worry, or be purposeful and firm.

Instead of looking for an explicit definition of ren, it is perhaps wise to view the concept as an ideal type of the highest and ultimate virtue that Confucius believed good people should pursue.

Relevance in contemporary China

Confucius’ thought has had a profound impact on almost every great Chinese thinker since. Based on his ideas, Mencius (372-289 BCE) and Xunzi (c310-c235 BCE) developed different schools of thought within the system of Confucianism.

Opposing these ideas, mohism (4th century BC), Taoism (4th century BC), Legalism (3rd century BCE) and many other influential thought systems emerged in the 400 years after Confucius’ time, continuing to shape many aspects of Chinese civilization over the past two millennia.

Modern China has a complicated relationship with Confucius and his ideas.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, many intellectuals influenced by Western thought began to denounce Confucianism as the reason for China’s national humiliations since the first opium war (1839-42).

Confucius received strong criticism from liberals and Marxists.

Hu Shih, a leader of China’s New Culture movement in the 1910s and 1920s and a Columbia University alumnus, advocated the overthrow of the “House of Confucius”.

Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, has also repeatedly denounced Confucius and Confucianism. Between 1973 and 1975, Mao dedicated the last political campaign of his life against Confucianism.



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Despite these fierce criticisms and harsh persecutions, Confucius’ ideas remain in the minds and hearts of many Chinese, both in China and abroad.

A prominent example is PC Chang, another Chinese alumnus of Columbia University, who was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948. Thanks to Chang’s efforts, the spirit of some of the most essential Confucian ideas, such as ren, was deeply rooted in the Declaration.

The first session of the Drafting Committee of the International Bill of Rights, Commission on Human Rights, at Lake Success, New York, on Monday, June 9, 1947. Dr PC Chang was vice-chairman of the committee, and sits second to the left.
United Nations / flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Today, many Chinese parents, as well as the Chinese state, want the children to be provided a more Confucian education.

In 2004, the Chinese government named its initiative to promote language and culture abroad as Confucius, and its leadership was enthusiastically embrace the lessons of Confucius consolidate their legitimacy and power in the 21st century.



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