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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Religions of the World

Part One
Oriental Religions

Chapter 6

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University


Confucianism is the whole body of religious, ethical and political doctrine which Confucius gathered together from antiquity, personally taught by word, writing and example, and passed on to his successors. It is this same body of doctrine which Mencius in the pre-Christian era consolidated into a compact system and to which Chu His in the early Middle Ages gave the naturalistic interpretation that, at least in learned circles, has prevailed into the present century.

Some historians prefer to consider Confucianism neither a religion properly so-called nor a system of philosophy, but a way of life that for our two thousand years has inspired the religious sentiments of the Chinese people and given them ethnic solidarity. Having no creed, priesthood, or ecclesiastical organization, it is yet a religion in the broad sense of an expression of belief in spiritual reality and of man’s ultimate attitude towards the universe. Confucianism makes no claim to an original divine revelation, and its sacred books are highly respected but, unlike the Koran of Islam or the Vedas of Hinduism, are not considered supernatural communications to chosen prophets or seers.

Life and Veneration of Confucius

The present Latinized name, Confucius, was given to K’ung-Fu-Tze by Jesuit missionaries to China, notably Mathew Ricci, who in the late sixteenth century introduced the founder of Chinese culture to the European world. Born in 551 B.C. in what was then the feudal province of Lu and is now the province of Shantung, Confucius came of a family of the lesser nobility. His father, Kung Shu-Liang Ho, married at the age of seventy a young girl of fifteen, and Confucius was their only known child. Orphaned by his father at the age of three, and his mother at twenty, Confucius married shortly before his mother died. While we know nothing about his wife, it is certain he had one son and at least one daughter. Though reputedly descended from the royal line, he lived in poverty. Biographers mention that his stature, over six feet in height, added to his moral prestige and earned for him the name of ‘giant.’

From childhood he showed a great love for learning, and though poverty required that he work as a servant to support himself and his mother, he found time to cultivate his favorite studies and by the time he was twenty opened a school that attracted a large following. Tradition has it that when teaching he always faced the south and spoke from an elevation of several steps above his audience. The figure of three thousand disciples seems exaggerated, among whom he chose seventy-two special confidants; of these, ten were called the ‘flower of the school.’

His method was to stimulate private reflection. “I teach nothing,” he used to say, “to those who make no effort to understand. I cannot force expression on those who will not speak. If after I have explained one angle of a question, people are unable to find the other three, I will not repeat what I have said.” Among the six liberal arts that young Chinese studied between the ages of ten and twenty, Confucius taught only writing, music and mathematics. He held it as a point of honor to discover nothing new, but only to transmit the wisdom of the ancients. “I communicate and do not invent. I have faith in antiquity and consecrate all my affection to its cause,” which meant that his only aim was to give others a faithful interpretation of the past.

China in the time of Confucius was a feudal country, divided into a large number of petty states, of which something like one hundred covered the territory in the basin of the Yellow River. Over these ruled a king of the decadent dynasty of Chou, whose sovereignty was mostly nominal. Around 517 B.C. Confucius betook himself to the court at Loyang, present Honan, to better pursue his study of the ancients. This was the turning point of his life, where he discovered much of the wisdom that would later immortalize his name, especially from the writings of the Duke of Chou, father of the first king of that country, dating from the eleventh century B.C.

From 501 to 499 he first accepted the governorship of a city, later the office of superintendent of public works and finally that of minister of justice in the principality of Lu. His administration brought on an amazing change of manners. Men were recognized for their faithfulness and sincerity, and women for their chastity and submissiveness. Merchants dealt honestly with their customers and employers with their workmen.

Confucius became the ideal of the people, but also the subject of suspicious envy. Neighboring princes began to fear that if Lu continued in this prosperous condition, it would soon gain the ascendancy and dominate the whole kingdom. To forestall this possibility, they sought to distract its prince by sending him eighty attractive dancing girls and one hundred twenty-five of the finest horses. The stratagem worked, and Confucius was forced to leave on seeing his advice wasted on a dissipated prince who neglected the people. For fourteen years he traveled from state to state in the hope of finding somewhere a ruler willing to accept his counsel.

At length in his sixty-ninth year he was able to return to Lu and spent the remaining five years of his life in meditation and writing the books that have since become attached to his name. In his last illness, he was seen walking in front of his house, cane in hand, chanting amid tears that “The highest mountain is about to fall. The roof-beam is due to collapse. The wise one will soon have to depart.” He died in 478 B.C. in his seventy-fourth year, as a contemporary of Buddha who died shortly before the age of eighty.

The most complete character portrait of Confucius has been left us by his disciples in The Sayings of Confucius, particularly in the tenth chapter, where the man’s natural dignity is portrayed in full.

Among his own country folk, Confucius wore a homely look, like one who has no word to say. In the ancestral temple and at court, his speech was full, but cautious. At court he talked frankly to men of low rank, winningly to men of high rank. In the king’s presence he looked intent and solemn. When bearing the scepter, his back bent, as under too heavy a burden. He held his hands not higher than in bowing, nor lower than in giving a present. He wore an awed look, and dragged his feet, as though they were fettered.
He did not eat much. He did not talk at meals, nor speak when in bed. His stables having been burnt, the Master on his return from court said, “Is anyone hurt?” He did not ask after the horses. When summoned by the king, he walked, without waiting for his carriage. When a friend died who had no home to go to, he said, “It is for me to bury him.” When a friend sent a gift, even of a carriage and horses, he did not bow. He only bowed for sacrificial meat. [1]

Relatively unknown in his lifetime Confucius became famous from the day of his death. The prince of Lu made up for his previous neglect of the sage by erecting a temple in his honor, where at every station an oblation was to be offered. Yet the cultus remained localized for over four centuries, until in 57 B.C. when a decree enjoined the offering of sacrifices to Confucius at the Imperial University and the principal colleges of the empire.

However the veneration of Confucius still remained associated with the Duke of Chou, his master. It was only in 609 A.D. that rooms came to be built in honor of Confucius alone. The custom of building these monuments, mistakenly called temples, continued into the present century, notably at institutions of learning. No statues of idols are displayed, but only tables of inscriptions listing the names of Confucius’ disciples and the principal exponents of his doctrine. Before 1912 the emperor offered sacrifices in his honor twice a year, in the spring and fall, and over the centuries imperial documents are filled with the praises of Confucius’ virtue and wisdom.

After the Christian penetration into China in the sixteenth century, the problem arose of whether converts to Christianity might continue to pay their respects to Confucius, which provoked the heated controversy over the Chinese rites. By 1939 the issue had sufficiently cleared for a formal declaration in favor of converts to Catholicism, allowing them not only to retain their veneration for Confucius but show external marks to that effect, without compromising their Christian beliefs. Few statements emanating from the West describe as accurately the status of Confucianism in modern times. “It is a matter of common knowledge,” the decree stated, “that some ceremonies common in the Orient, though in earlier times connected with rites of a religious character, have at the present time, owing to changes in customs and ideas in the course of centuries, no more than mere civil significance of filial respect for ancestors, of patriotic sentiment or of social amenity.” Hence, a different attitude should be adopted by Chinese Christians than was formerly prescribed.

Inasmuch as the Chinese Government had repeatedly and explicitly proclaimed that all are free to profess the religion they prefer, and that it is foreign to its intentions to legislate or issue decrees concerning religious matters, and that consequently ceremonies performed or ordered by the public authorities in honor of Confucius do not take place with intent to offer religious worship, but solely for the purpose of promoting and expressing the honor due to a great man, and proper regard for tradition: it is licit for Catholics to be present at commemorative functions held before a likeness or tablet of Confucius in Confucian monuments or schools.
Hence it is not to be considered illicit, particularly if these authorities should order it, to place in Catholic schools a likeness of Confucius or even a tablet inscribed in his name, or to bow before such. [2]

The declaration goes on to explain that where scandals might be feared, the right intention of Christian admirers of Confucius should be made clear; but there is no question of suspecting their integrity of faith if they manifest what formerly were considered acts of religious Confucianism, not excluding “inclinations of the head and other signs of civil respect in the presence of the dead or before their images, or even before a tablet inscribed simply with the names of the deceased.” [3] They are all to be regarded as “licit and proper.”

Written Sources

The Scriptures of Confucius are two sets of writings, not considered inspired in the ordinary sense, but all somehow associated with the memory of the great sage. They are the Five Classics, also called the texts of King, and the four Shu, which means the four books. Not all were written by Confucius, but they were at least sanctioned by his authority or, like the last of the Shu, composed by one of his disciples.

First among the King texts is a manual of divination, the Yi King (Book of Changes). It consists of a series of diagrams of unknown antiquity together with the more modern commentaries upon them. The diagrams now number sixty-four, but may have been originally eight. These eight are made by taking two straight lines, one continuous and the other broken in the middle, and setting them one above the other to form three lines or trigrams, varying the relative order of the two species of line in every possible manner, e.g., three unbroken lines or three broken lines or one of several combinations. To the original trigrams ancient mystical meanings were attached, typifying the heavens, body of water, fire, thunder, running water, hills or mountains and the earth. Each also represented a point of the compass.

The trigrams were further combined with one another to form hexagrams, which became instruments of magic. They are still employed for casting lots, and decisions of importance are reached by appealing to them. A common method is by reading the marks on tortoise shells or the arrangement of the stalks of the Chi plant, such as still grows by the traditional grave of Confucius. These natural markings direct the soothsayer to one or another of the trigrams or hexagrams, and by consulting the commentators he judges of the future.

However something more than magic was brought into the Yi in the twelfth century B.C. when a certain Wan, founder of a royal dynasty, was cast into prison by a rival and to pass the time wrote moral (and not magic) interpretations of the sixty-four hexagrams. His son added to the commentaries and, according to the Chinese, Confucius added still others. There can be no doubt that Confucius was deeply interested in the Yi and is reported to have spent two years studying only the first two hexagrams. In his old age he declared, “If I could be assured of enough years, I would devote fifty of them to a study of the Yi.”

Many of the hexagrams have remarkably sacred interpretations, as the famous Chien hexagram which is an exhortation on humility. The figure consists of five broken and one unbroken line. It is the fifteenth in a series appropriately follows the Ta Yu hexagram that treats of abundant possessions. The commentary, here as elsewhere, consists of a short introductory statement and six explanatory ones, for each line of the figure.

Chien indicated progress and success. The superior man, being humble as it implies, will have a good issue to his undertakings.
The first line, divided, shows us the superior man who adds humility to humility. Even the great stream may be crossed with this, and there will be good fortune.
The second line, divided, shows us humility that has made itself recognized. With firm correctness there will be good fortune.
The third line, undivided, shows the superior man of acknowledged merit. He will maintain his success to the end, and have good fortune.
The fourth line, divided, shows one whose action would be in every way advantageous, stirring up the more his humility.
The fifth line, divided, shows one who, without being rich, is able to employ his neighbors. He may advantageously use the force of arms. All his movements will be profitable.
The sixth line, divided, shows us humility that has made itself recognized. The subject of it will with advantage put his hosts in motion; but he will only punish his own towns and State. [4]

According to Chinese scholars, this is “the lord of the hexagram,” when a whole third line amid five others divided occupies the topmost place in the lower trigram. It is said to represent humility which is strong and yet willing to abase itself. Not all the hexagrams are equally intelligible, and some are entirely cryptic, except to the initiates who have made a lifetime of study of their meaning.

A short essay following the main treatise adds reflective notes on the principal hexagrams. Thus to explain the meaning of the word Shan, “when we speak of Spirit we mean the subtle presence and operation of God with all things,” or “Chien is the symbol of heaven, and hence has the appellation of father. Khwan is the symbol of earth, and hence has the appellation of earth.” [5] Several hundred terms are defined, correlated with one another and offered as “symbols…emblems…words that suggest the idea of” a maze of items which the expert diviner discovers from examining tortoise shells or configurations of the stalks of plants.

The Shu King (Book of History) is a work of moral and religious narrative which traces the hand of Providence in the great events of the past, while teaching the lesson that the Heaven-god blesses only virtuous rulers with peace and posterity. It reaches back to the early third millennium before Christ and is therefore China’s oldest history.

Typical of the idealism of the Book of History is the last of several instructions of I Yin (died about 1700 B.C.), minister of a ruler named Thang, addressed to the people on the occasion of his retirement from office. He compares the lot of virtuous men like himself and the King of Shang with the weakness and cruelty of oppressive monarchs like the King of Hsia (a rival prince). The narrator remarks that I Yin was setting forth admonitions on the subject of virtue; and then quotes the minister at length:

It is difficult to rely on Heaven: its appointments are not constant. But if the sovereign sees to it that his virtue be constant, he will preserve his throne; if his virtue be not constant, he will lose the nine provinces. The King of Hsia could not maintain the virtues of his ancestors unchanged, but condemned the spirits and oppressed the people. Great Heaven no longer extended its protection to him. It looked out among the myriad regions to give its guidance to one who should receive its favoring appointment, fondly seeking a possessor of pure virtue, whom it might make lord of all the spirits.
Then there were I Yin and Thang, both possessed of pure virtue, and able to satisfy the mind of Heaven. Thang received in consequence the bright favor of Heaven, so as to become possessor of the multitudes of the nine provinces.
It was not that Heaven had any private partiality for the lord of Shang; it simply gave its favor to pure virtue. It was not that Shang sought the allegiance of the lower people; the people simply turned to pure virtue. Where the sovereign’s virtue is pure, his enterprises are all fortunate; where his virtue is wavering and uncertain, his enterprises are all unfortunate. Good and evil do not wrongly befall men, but Heaven sends down misery or happiness according to their conduct. [6]

I Yin concludes by exhorting the new king and his minister to the practice of virtue, above all to humility of spirit. “Do not think yourself so great,” he tells the incoming rulers, “as to deem others small.” Their reward will be to have a place after death in the temple of the ancestors.

In the Shik King or Book of Songs are collected three hundred short lyric poems, some going into the Shang dynasty in the eighteenth century B.C., but most belonging to the Chou period under which Confucius lived. On first reading, the hymns appear to be mainly secular and even earthly in tone, with only rare songs of a more religious nature. But the Chinese find innumerable symbolic overtones in these odes and have written volumes of commentary on single pieces.

One of the best known and most religious, entitled A Multitude of Counselors but No Wisdom, carries through the same idea developed earlier by I Yin. The author is supposed to be one of the officers of the royal court of King Yu. His purpose is to create disgust at the king’s readiness to listen to anyone, wise or foolish, and as a result forfeit the help of the deity.

Heaven, that was once compassionate, is wrathful now.
Its anger lowers above this wicked world of ours.
For the king will not abate his purposes for ill designed.
Why loves he crooked ways to choose, and better counsel to refuse?
Distressed am I in heart, in mind.

The omens now are mute and dead, discerned once from the tortoise shell.
Counselors many among us dwell, yet nothing is accomplished.
Upon the court they pile a load of speech, yet not a deed is done.
A man may prate of going on, nor take one step along the road.
Rulers of the State, choose for patterns men of yore,

Who thought all shallow trifles less than naught,
Whose principles were calm and great.
You build a house beside the way, in vain you try to finish,
For all the travelers passing by derange your plans by what they say.

Implicit in the hymns are the principles of Confucius, that wisdom abides with the ancients and those who depart from tradition are doomed. Present counselors are therefore to be measured for prudence by their agreement or discord with the teachings of the past.

The Book of Rites (Li Ki) in its present form dates from the first to the fourth centuries of the Christian era, but contains material from the Chou dynasty. As a code of rules on worship, social and family relations, it remains to this day the authoritative guide for good conduct among cultured Chinese. In the Li Ki are many of Confucius’ aphorisms and several treatises by his disciples that faithfully reflect their master’s teaching, including the tract Chung-yung or “Doctrine of the Mean” which is assigned to a grandson of Confucius, and the “Great Learning “ which describes the qualities of a political ruler who lives according to moral standards. Last in the King series is a bare set of chronicles, known as the Annals of Spring and Autumn, that tell the history of the state of Lu for three hundred years, up to the fifth century B.C.

Tradition has added a sixth book to the Five Classics, the Hsiao King on filial piety, which the Chinese attribute to Confucius but Western scholars commonly say is the product of Tsang-tze, one of his followers. Only a small part deals with the obedience and respect due to parents (to be seen later), and most of the treatise is concerned with civic virtue. Few other works of Confucian origin give a clearer insight into the comprehensive nature of filial piety among the Chinese.

At the top rung stands the filial piety of the highest ruler of state, the “son of heaven.” Devotion to his parents is a lesson of virtue to the people, and “he becomes a pattern to all within the four seas.” Next in line is the piety of princes of lesser states. “When their riches and nobility do not leave their persons, they are able to preserve the altars of their land and their grain, and to secure the harmony of their people and men in office.” [8] Ancient commentators dwelt on the princes’ duty to sacrifice to the Spirit (or spirits) presiding over the land. So long as a family ruled in a region, its chief offered these oblations. The extinction of sacrifices was an emphatic way of describing the ruin and extinction of the ruling House.

Filial piety among high ministers and great officers was to be shown in their clothing, speech and conduct. “When these three things---their robes, their words, and their conduct---are all complete as they should be, they can preserve their ancestral temples.” [9] Again the accent on worship, except that for ministers and state officials their ancestral temples served the same function as the altars for feudal lords. Every grand officer had three temples or shrines, in which he sacrificed to the first chief of his family or clan, to his grandfather, and to his father. While these remained, the family remained, but once they were neglected, everything else collapsed.

Among inferior officers, the twin duties of love and reverence to their superiors were enjoined, after the manner of love for one’s mother and reverence for one’s father. “Not failing in this loyalty and obedience in serving those above them, they are able to preserve their emoluments and positions, and maintain their sacrifices.” [10] Unlike the higher officials, the lesser gentry had only private or personal places of sacrifice. They had no right to offer oblations in the name of others.

The logic of the Hsiao King is not abstruse. Under the concept of filial piety is included every aspect of devotion to the originators of one’s being. It begins with obedience and respect for one’s parents. “Our bodies---to every hair and bit of skin---are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to offend or injure them. This is the beginning of filial piety.” Next come the heads of government and their ministers whose office corresponds in the social order to that of parents in the physical; consequently filial piety “proceeds to the service of the ruler.” Finally there is Heaven or God, which the classic books of China equate, to be served by living according to one’s “heaven-sent nature.” And therefore filial piety “is completed by the establishment of character.” [11]

An interesting sidelight on the Hsiao King is the admission it makes that already a thousand years before the Christian era Chinese religion had in various places fallen from its previous nobility. Ostensibly quoting Confucius, the writer says that “Anciently, the intelligent kings served their fathers with filial piety, and therefore they served Heaven with intelligence. They served their mothers with filial piety, and therefore they served Earth with discrimination. They pursued the right course with reference to their own seniors and juniors, and therefore they secured the right relation between superiors and inferiors throughout the kingdom.” [12]

This nostalgic reference to the past is repeated in order to emphasize its importance; and though admittedly obscure it suggests that already during the Chou dynasty (1122-256 B.C.) unguarded preoccupation with filial piety first tended to dualize the divinity, after the analogy of parenthood, and later to lower it still further by mingling an earlier monotheism with some form of nature worship. Monotheism never disappeared, but became heavily obscured. The Chou, it should be recalled, set the pace for Chinese emperors to call themselves T’ien Tzu or “Son of Heaven.” In this capacity they worshiped Heaven in the people’s behalf at regular ceremonies, without which it was felt that the harmony between earth and heaven, i.e., man and God, would be disrupted.

In the eleventh century of our era, two of the treatise of the Book of Rites, namely the Doctrine of the Mean and the Great Learning, were combined with the Analects and the Book of Mencius to form the four Shu which constitute the second category of Confucian sacred writings.

The basic Analects were at first orally transmitted by successive generations, until put into written form at the beginning of the fourth century before Christ. However the extant text dates only from six hundred years later, although based on manuscripts written about 200 B.C. As the best-known and most popular Confucian sources, the Analects have been translated into all the modern languages, and in twenty short chapters give an authentic picture of the main lines of historical Confucianism.

Mencius’ volume of commentary, written more than a century after Confucius, stabilized the master’s teaching by giving his ethics a more speculative form. More strongly even than Confucius, he stressed the natural goodness of human nature. “Benevolence, righteousness, propriety and knowledge,” he thought, “are not infused into us from without. We are certainly furnished with them.” [13] Like Confucius, he believed in a spirit world and accepted the current worship of ancestors, but his main interest was ethical and not professedly religious.

Confucian Ethics

If Confucianism as a national culture is a glomeration of religion, philosophy and ritual, its characteristic feature is ethical. It was the ethical standards that Confucius borrowed from the ancients, sifted and interpreted, and passed on to his people that represent his main contribution to the religious system that now bears his name. These standards are scattered throughout the written sources but concentrated in the Analects which correspond to the Memorabilia of Xenophon or the Symposium of Plato in their description of Socrates. However the Analects are in no sense panegyric. They are a simple collection of aphorisms, often in dialogue form, which Confucius’ disciples had memorized of their master’s teaching. As the foundation of Confucianism, they offer the best primary insight into its spirit and orientation.

Superior Man

Thematic in the Analects is the “superior man,” chun-tzu, or “gentleman,” whom Confucius described from numerous character angles as the prototype of human perfection. “Look at a man’s act,” he advised, “watch his motives; find out what pleases him. Can the man evade you?” His personality is self-revealing in the actions he performs. Then follows an elenchus of qualities that should distinguish the man of virtue.

What is a superior man? He put words into deed first, and sorts what he says to the deed. A superior man is broad and fair; the vulgar are biased and petty.
A superior man has no likes and dislikes below Heaven. He follows right. Superior men cherish worth; the vulgar cherish dirt. Superior men trust in justice; the vulgar trust in favor.
A superior man considers what is right; the vulgar consider what will pay. Men of old were loath to speak, lest a word they could not make good should shame them. A superior man wants to be slow to speak and quick to act.
Tzu-lu asked: “What is a gentleman?” The master said, “A man bent on shaping his mind.” “Is that all?” said Tzu-lu. “On shaping his mind to give happiness to others.” “And is that all?” “On shaping his mind to give happiness to the people,” said the Master.
A superior man makes right his base. Done with courtesy, spoken with deference, rounded with truth, right makes a superior man. His unworthiness vexes him; to live unknown does not vex him. He fears lest his name should die when life is done. He is firm, not quarrelsome; a friend, not a partisan. He is consistent, not changeless. [14]

However, in the very act of describing virtue, Confucius admitted he was painting the ideal. “A superior man,” he summarized, “has nine aims: to see clearly, to understand what he hears, to be warm in manner, dignified in bearing, faithful in speech, painstaking at work, to ask when in doubt; in anger to think of difficulties; in sight of gain to remember right.” On which he sadly reflected, “I have heard these words, but met no such men.” [15]

One religious note in this catalogue is motivation. “A superior man holds three things in awe. He is in awe of Heaven’s destiny; he is in awe of great men; he is awed by the speech of the holy.” [16] In view of the heavy emphasis on precept and words, the reference to heavenly sanctions and the distinction between wisdom and goodness are significant.

Meaning of Love

Parallel with the stress on fidelity to duty as a mark of virtue, Confucius pointed out the necessity of love. When a prominent person was praised before him, he admitted the man’s courage and justice, or even his learning and humility, and then would ask, “But had he love?” This was the acid test of greatness, loving-kindness to others. “Love,” he said, “makes a place beautiful. Who chooses not to dwell in love, has he got wisdom?”

His disciples frequently questioned him on “what is love?” -- to which he gave different answers, each bearing on the single virtue of concern for others.

Fan Ch’ih asked, What is love? The Master said, “To be respectful at home, painstaking at work, faithful to all. Even among savages none of these may be dropped.”
Tzu-Chang asked Confucius, What is love? “Love,” said Confucius, “is to mete five things to all below heaven: modesty and bounty, truth, earnestness and kindness. Modesty escapes insult; bounty wins the many; truth gives men’s trust; earnestness brings success; kindness is the key to men’s work.”
Fan Ch’ih asked What is love? The Master said, “To love mankind!” He asked, What is wisdom? “To know mankind.” [17]

Confucius did not speculate. His definitions are descriptions of virtue in action. Occasionally he reflected on the benefits of affection. “Loveless men cannot bear need long, they cannot bear fortune long. Loving hearts find peace in love.” And while affirming that “Love can alone love others,” he added, “or hate others,” when spurned. On the other hand, “a heart set on fire will do no wrong,” and therefore should be prized above all other virtue. “Shorn of love, is a superior man worthy of the name? Not for one moment may he sin against love, not under provocation nor in excitement, nor even when utterly opposed.”

Again realistically he confessed that “were a man to give himself to love but for one day, I have seen no one whose strength would fail him. Such men there may be, but I have not seen one.” [18] He offers to people the norms of morality but laments that so few, if any, live up to them.

Filial Piety

The practice of filial piety is the wellspring of Confucianism and, though his disciples developed the fragmentary passages in the Analects, the principles set down by the Master became normative for all subsequent commentators.

In Confucius’ theory, the family stands at the foundation of the whole political and social structure of the state. Even the sovereign can rule successfully only if he imitates the paternal relationship that should obtain in the family. In proportion as the domestic virtues of kindness, obedience to authority, respect for elders, and devotion to the memory of one’s ancestors are cultivated, the civil life of the nation at large is assured.

Filial duties are divided into two classes, the material or physical and the spiritual. Under the former, Confucius listed due attention to the bodily needs of parents; caring for one’s own body as a legacy received from one’s ancestors; rearing children to provide for the family continuity and perpetuating the family name. Under spiritual obligations he included obedience to parental authority; respectful remonstrance with them when they fall into error; being mindful of them after death by annual sacrifices; carrying out their cherished wishes and unfulfilled plans; and winning all the success and honor that bring luster on the family name.

It is undesirable, said Confucius, for a son to live far away from his parents during their lifetime. He cannot delegate his duties to others, and must not make it physically impossible to care for his aging parents. “While his parents are alive, a son should not go abroad to a distance. If he does go abroad, he must have a fixed place to which he goes. A father’s and a mother’s age must be kept in mind; with joy on the one hand and with fear on the other.” [19]

Obedience is the touchstone of piety. One of his disciples asked the duty of a son, to which the Master answered in one word. “Obedience.” When further asked to explain, he said, “While parents are alive, they should be served according to propriety. When dead, they should be laid to rest according to propriety, and sacrificed according to propriety.” [20]

A man is called dutiful today if he just supports his parents. But we keep dogs and horses, without having reverence for them. Surely there must be something to distinguish the one support from the other. The difference is in the cheerful readiness to help. When parents have some troublesome work to be done, and their children assist them; or when the young have wine and food set before their elders, is this enough to satisfy the duties of filial piety? [21]

Devotion to one’s parents does not forbid calling their attention to what is wrong. “A father and mother may be gently reproved. If they do not change, be the more humble in their regard, but persevere in your kindly reproof. Do not complain, however, if the trouble follows because the correction was not taken in good part.” This would be a rare exception since Confucius assumed that parents are models of virtue to their children. Thus, if for three years a son does not forsake his father’s ways, he may be called dutiful, after reaching maturity. [22]

The Analects say little about the duties of children toward their parents after death, except recommending “careful attention to perform the funeral rites for parents, and let them be followed when long gone with the ceremonies of sacrifice. Then the virtue of the people will resume its proper excellence,” should it have fallen into decay. [23] More detailed emphasis on this obligation is found in the Doctrine of the Mean which, though written by his grandson, faithfully reflects the mind of Confucius.

Dutiful sons, says the Doctrine, have always served their deceased forebears as they would have served them alive, paying homage to the departed, as they would have done had they continued living among them. Nothing is better calculated to establish a stable social order than fidelity to the two-fold respect to God and to the spirits of the dead. “By the ceremonies of the ancestral temples the people sacrificed to their ancestors. He who understands the ceremonies of the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth, and the meaning of the several sacrifices to the ancestors, would find the government of a kingdom as easy as to look into the palm of his hand.” [24] For all his insistence on ancestor worship, however, the basic motive for Confucius was social. Its observance was to help preserve the unity of the family, and secure political peace and social security; yet quite naturally. He never asserted that the spirits of the dead can supernaturally intervene, to bless or inhibit the welfare of those on earth, depending on whether sacrifice is offered them or not.

On the distinction between a natural and supernatural concept of ancestor worship rests the whole tension between original and, it would seem authentic, Confucianism and its popular development or aberration. Confucius and his followers stressed the value of sacrifice to ancestors because of its psychological importance. As the Book of Rites explained, sacrifice is at once an act of “gratitude towards our originators and a memorial of our beginnings.” Ancestor worship, therefore, is merely an extension of filial piety.

Doctrine of the Mean

Not unlike the ethical theory of Aristotle who taught that moral virtue consists in a mean (mesotes) suitable to our nature and fixed by reason, Confucius held to the Doctrine of the Mean, which is both the title of a Confucian classic and the expression of an ethical ideal. “Perfect is the virtue,” the Master is quoted in the Analects, “which is according to the Mean. Rare for so long time has been its following among the people.” [25]

In order to achieve the perfection of virtue (jen), we must strive after balance in our actions, by failing neither through excess nor defect. “I know how it is,” Confucius explained, “that the way of the Mean is not followed. The clever exceed it, and the foolish do not come up to it. I know how the way of the Mean is not comprehended---the men of talents and ability go beyond it, and the worthless do not approach it. All men eat and drink, but few approach the more subtle flavors.” In like manner only the cultured man of jen attains the reasonable medium between exuberance and its opposite.

He cultivates a friendship harmony with others without being weak in conviction. How courageous he is! He uses the mean of two extremes without inclining to either side. When good government exists, he carries out his fundamental principles without leaning to others. When bad government prevails, he pursues the path of reason until death without changing. [26]

Despite its similarity to the Aristotelian mesotes, however, the Confucian concept of the mean is less stable, and therefore, can less accurately be called a standard or fixed norm of morality. It partakes of two elements that are at most implied in Aristotle, namely, adaptation to circumstances and submission to higher powers. The superior man, chǘn-tzu, has developed an instinct for adaptability to environment and conformity to the will of Heaven.

He does what is proper to the station in which he is; he does not desire to exceed this. In a position of dignity, he does what is proper to a position of dignity. In a poor and humble position, he does what is proper to such condition. Situated among wild tribes, he does what is proper in a position among wild tribes. In a position of sorrow and difficulty, he does what is proper in such a condition.

The superior man can find himself in no situation in which he cannot be himself. In an exalted position, he does not treat his inferiors with contumely. In a humble position he does not curry favor with superiors. He rectifies himself and asks for nothing of others, and so has no dissatisfactions. He neither murmurs against Heaven, nor grumbles against man. Thus it is that the superior man is quiet and calm, waiting for the appointments of Heaven, while the mean man treads on dangerous ground, seeking for the happening of chance. [27]

It is difficult to reconstruct a philosophy of the Confucian doctrine of the mean without invoking the authority of the Master’s great disciple Mencius (371-288 B.C.), who is considered “the Second Inspired One.” More strongly than Confucius, he gave to ethics a naturalistic form, and at the same time systematized the Sage’s teaching. Taking Mencius as guide, we may further analyze virtue not only as a balance between extremes but the concept of moral goodness in itself.

All men are alike endowed with the same moral nature, which is intrinsically good. This is the bedrock of orthodox Confucian ethics. “Man’s nature,” wrote Mencius, “is endowed with feelings which impel it toward the good. That is why I call it good. If men do what is not good, the reason does not lie in the basic stuff of which they are constituted. All men have the feeling of sympathy, shame, and dislike, reverence and respect, and recognition of right and wrong. These feelings give rise to the virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom. These virtues are not infused into me from without, they are part of the essential me. Therefore it is said: ‘Seek them and you will find them, neglect them and you will lose them.’ Men differ from one another, some by twice as much, some by five times as much, some incalculably, simply because in different degrees they are unable fully to develop their natural powers.” [28]

According to the term ‘good’ in Confucian language is that which arises spontaneously from human nature. Mencius points out that men’s mouths, ears, and eyes are alike and have the same responsive powers; in the same way their minds instinctively approve similar moral principles. If men deviate from this inborn approval they become less good, or evil.

But why do men deviate from this “Inner Sage”? The immediate reason is not because they abuse their free will but because of the circumstances in which they find (or place) themselves. If you want a child, Mencius taught, to speak the dialect of ch’i, you should send him to the province of Ch’i, where everything around him will conduce to his knowledge. So if you want a man to cultivate virtue, have him associate with virtuous people. A wise king who wants his subjects to be good, must provide the kind of environment in which moral goodness will flourish. Good example and a sufficiency for bodily needs are paramount; without the one the native jen in man’s person will not be evoked and without the other it may arise but soon be stifled to extinction.

Stages of Development

Parallel with the orthodox theory of morality evolved by Confucius and Mencius, were other systems of ethics that have had great influence in shaping the Chinese religious culture.

Within a century of Confucius’ death, the social anarchy of the late Chou dynasty (350-220 B.C.) made such optimism as ‘natural goodness’ less plausible. Hsǘn-Tzu (335-288 B.C.) took the opposite view, that human nature is evil. His description of man as essentially evil is one of the most graphic in religious literature.

The nature of man is evil. Whatever is good in him is the result of acquired training. Men are born with the love of gain; if this material tendency is followed, they are contentious and greedy, utterly lacking in courtesy and consideration for others. They are filled from birth with envy and hatred of others; if these passions are given rein they are violent and villainous, wholly devoid of integrity and good faith. At birth a man is endowed with the desires of the ear and eye, the love of sound and color; if he acts as they dictate he is licentious and disorderly, and has no regard for justice or moderation or the code of correct behavior.
How control these inordinate desires or stem this tide of passion? Certainly not by conforming to nature. “To accord with man’s original nature and act as instinct dictates must lead to contention, rapacity, and disorder, and cause humanity to revert to a state of violence. The only remedy is instruction and discipline supplied from outside of man.
Crooked wood must be steamed and forced to conform to a straight edge, in order to be made straight. A dull blade must be ground and whetted, to make it sharp. Similarly human nature, being evil, must be acted upon by teachers and laws to be made upright, and must have li and justice added to it before men can be orderly. Without teachers and laws, men are selfish, malicious and unrighteous. Lacking li and justice they are unruly, rebellious, and disorderly. [29]

When his critics challenged Hsǘn Tzu to explain how the teachers acquired wisdom or rulers the prudence to pass good laws, he was unconvincing. “The sages,” he answered, “were able to produce li and justice, and set up laws and regulations, only as a result of long thought and correct practice.” These things “were produced by the acquired training of the sages, not by man’s original nature.” [30] This repudiation of man’s innate capacity to discover truth and goodness left a void that later generations of authoritarianism and mysticism sought to fill---the one by legalists who claimed that few men are capable of altruism, and that most people can be kept in order only by laws imposed upon them by force; the other by successive waves of Buddhism and Taoism which supplied the religious elements that were lacking in Confucian thought.

Between the second century B.C. and the early Middle Ages of the Christian era, most Confucians sought to reconcile the extremes of perfect optimism and pessimism by adopting some intermediate position offered by the compromisers---generally in the direction of Confucius and Mencius. Yang Hsiung (52 B.C. - 18 A.D.) believed that human nature is a composite of good and bad. Han Yǘ (768-824 A.D.) segregated the human race into three classes: the naturally good, who can be improved by education, the naturally bad who can only be restrained by fear of punishment; and those who are a mixture of good and evil, and capable of going in either direction. The founders of Neo-Confucianism, Ch’eng Yi (1033-1107 A.D) and Chu His (1130-1200 A.D.), revived the orthodox theory in qualified form.

Chu Hsi did more than restore Confucian optimism in ethics. He elaborated a philosophical system whose central idea is a form of dualism reminiscent of Buddhist speculation. In fact Chu Hsi had much to do with strengthening the hold of Buddhist ideas on modern Confucianism. Man’s nature, he said, is his li or principle, which is a part of the Supreme Ultimate and the same in all men. But their chi or substance is different. If the latter is impure, the nature is vitiated, and hence the task of moral improvement is to recapture one’s original (good) nature by getting rid of the personal adulteration. This is accomplished by reflective meditation on reality, for which Chu His found ample warrant in such Confucian Scriptures as the Great Learning.

Those who anciently wished to exemplify illustrious virtue to the whole world first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own characters. Wishing to cultivate their characters, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first made their thoughts sincere. Wishing to make their thoughts sincere, they first extended their knowledge to the utmost. This extending of their knowledge to the utmost lay in the investigation of things. [31]

In Chu Hsi the victory of Confucian optimism was made permanent. Later thinkers modified his dualism according to idealist or materialistic standards, but they did not substantially change his ethical structure. For six hundred years, into the present century, his commentaries on the classics were officially approved and made mandatory reading for government examinations.

Religious Principles

Confucius never considered himself the founder of a new religion, and much less a kind of deity. With the exception of the very ignorant, the Chinese never made him a god but considered him only their “Foremost Teacher” and “Ultimate Sage,” with no implications of divinity.

It is more than academically important to recognize that Confucianism, at its roots, is truly religious and grounded on the acceptance of a supreme, supra-mundane entity. Some would say, “It is perhaps more true of Confucius than of any equally famous thinker that he divorced ethics from metaphysics.” [32] And according to Max Weber, “In the sense of the absence of all metaphysics and almost all residues of religious anchorage, Confucianism is rationalist to such a far-going extent that it stands at the extreme boundary of what one might possibly call a ‘religious’ ethic.” [33]

These opinions are impossible to square with the authentic statements of Confucius and with the evidence of almost two millennia of recorded Chinese history.

No doubt, Confucius’ own teaching was secondarily religious, but only because he accepted from the ancients and bequeathed to others the worship of a Supreme Being, who from at least the twelfth century before Christ was called Ti or the Ruler, or more often Schiamti or Supreme Ruler: and from the eleventh century B.C. was known as Ttien or Heaven, without qualification or modified by such adjectives as August and Immense. These titles were quite interchangeable as appears from a passage in the Book of History where the fame of a certain king of Uen is said to have “reached even the Supreme Ruler, and the Ruler approved of his deeds. Thereupon Heaven gave a grand commission to the king of Uen.” [34]

The Analects of Confucius show that for him, as for all the ancient Chinese, Heaven is the “only Great One,” on whom everything depends, “I have heard that life and death are allotted, that wealth and honors are in Heaven’s hand.” [35] From Him the wise man receives his wisdom, the good man his virtue, and the philosopher his knowledge. In conflict with his enemies at K’uang, Confucius looked to help from above. “If Heaven uphold wisdom, what can the men of K’uang do to me?” [36] More than once he recommended asking for assistance from the spiritual world. When lying ill, he accepted the prayers of his disciples, on the strength of a tradition to “pray to the spirits in heaven above and on earth below.” [37]

When tempted to discouragement over his ill success among men, he found solace in the fact that someone at least understood.

The Master said, “Alas, no man knows me.” Tzu-King said, “Why do you say that no man knows you?” The Master said, “Never murmuring against Heaven, nor finding fault with men; bearing from the lowest, cleaving to the heights, I am known but to One, but to Heaven.” [38]

On one occasion, Confucius was asked whether it is better to worship one of the lesser gods than the God of the Home. He replied, “Not at all; a sin against Heaven is past praying for,” suggesting that unless the Supreme Deity is honored, no prayer is of any avail. [39]

From the dawn of the Chinese nation, the ruler used to offer to this Supreme Ruler or Heaven a sacrifice which tradition assigned to one of the southern suburbs of the capital. To this day the Chinese favor suburbs for their business transactions and celebrations, which historians trace to the immemorial custom of holding religious gathering in suburban areas.

The oblations would be made out in the open, before dawn, on a platform erected for the purpose. Only the sovereign was permitted to offer these sacrifices, of which there is no historical evidence from the twentieth century before Christ. During the whole of the two millennia, the offerings were made to Heaven alone, until in 31 B.C. the Earth was associated with the heavenly Deity and the two remained coupled until modern times.

An unfortunate consequence of this coupling was to obscure the spirituality of Heaven by conceiving it as the Sky; and in time a host of lesser deities were joined in the pantheon, of whom less than a tenth had any historical foundation. For the most part they were legendary figures of the air, earth and sea.

In the fourteenth century, under the Mongols, there was a partial renascence of the ancient simplicity. Many of the divinities were suppressed, and others were made subordinate satellites of Heaven and Earth. Even this dualism seems never to have been taken too seriously by the more educated Chinese, many of whom tolerated the dualist terminology but conceptually worshipped one highest Being, who was immaterial, personal, and knowable to the human mind, whom they called the Highest Lord. Confucius was speaking in this strain when he observed the “people serve the Supreme Ruler when they offer sacrifice to Heaven and Earth in the suburbs.” [40]

The Chinese recaptured something in the past five hundred years of their original monotheism, under emperors who annually celebrated the cultus of Heaven at the winter solstice, notwithstanding the heavy inroads that Buddhism and Taoism had made among the unlettered peasants.

Custom and Ritual

The five cardinal virtues of Confucianism may be paraphrased in English as benevolence, seen especially in sympathy; duty, reflected in the feeling of shame; wisdom, shown in the sense of right and wrong; trustworthiness, or fidelity to promises made; and propriety or good manners, manifested in the deference given to all persons but especially to those of superior station or ability.

If benevolence, jen, is the highest of the virtues, propriety, li, is the most consequential because it touches the whole of a man’s life--his dealings with others and relations with the spiritual world. Indeed the concept of li profoundly affects the very notion of society according to traditional Confucian standards.

As a nation, the Chinese never looked with favor on the legalist school which said the social order must be sustained by prescriptions from without, and by punishments for disobedience of the law. They admitted the necessity of force, but preferred the sanction of custom on all its social levels: between father and son, ruler and subject, husband and wife, elder and younger, friend and friend. Speaking to rulers, Confucius told them, “If you govern men by regulations and subdue them by punishments, they may avoid trouble but have no sense of shame. But guide them by example and rule them by manners; they will learn shame and come to be good.” [41]

Ritual Practices

It is not surprising that the word li should have religious as well as social connotations, and that propriety in human relations should take on the meaning of ritual in matters of worship.

Among the ceremonies described in detail by the Book of Rites, the capping ritual is not unlike the Bar Mitzvah among the Jews. On reaching his twentieth year a young man was given a special name and a square cornered cap to mark the reaching of maturity.

As laid down in the same source, the recommended age for marriage was thirty for the man and twenty for the woman. Arrangements were to be made by the respective parents, after preliminary divination to ascertain the suitability of the couple for each other. Inter-family unions were discouraged, by forbidding espousals within the fifth degree of kindred. Monogamy was represented as the ideal, but divorce of the wife was allowed for any of seven causes, including infidelity and failure to bear a male offspring.

The mourning of the dead, especially of the father of a family, meant upwards of two years of marital abstinence, and Confucius sternly rebuked those who said a son might reduce the period of bereavement to one year.

In a traditional Chinese house may be found a family shrine in the main hall. Centered in the shrine are the ancestral tablets, going back five generations and including the last member of the family to die. Flanking the shrine are the names of various divinities and guardian spirits, Confucian, Buddhist or Taoist, depending on the local tradition. Elsewhere in the house re reserved other tablets of lesser deities, like the god of the bedchamber, the kitchen and the door. Oblations of food, wine, candles and incense are common; to be offered on the new and full moons or on festive occasions like the New Year, the day of Mid-Autumn and the Winter Solstice. Whenever anything of significance happens to the family---like birth, sickness, or recovery---the dead ancestors are informed because they are still concerned although unseen.

The Li-Ki has a memorable passage on the preparation and procedure to be followed in offering sacrifice. It illustrates the mystical element imbedded in Confucianism from the beginning and retained to the present say.

The severest vigil and purification are to be maintained and practiced in the inner self, while a looser vigil is maintained externally. During the days of the vigil, the mourner reflects on the departed, how and where he sat, how he smiled and spoke, and what were his aims and views, what he delighted in, and what he desired and enjoyed. By the third day he will perceive the meaning of such exercise.
On the day of sacrifice, when he enters the apartment (of the temple), he will seem to see (the deceased) in the place (where his tablet is). After he has moved about (to perform the ritual), and is leaving the door, he will be arrested by seeming to hear the sound of his movements, and will sigh as he hears the sound of his sighing.
Still and grave, absorbed in what he is doing, he will seem unable to sustain the burden, and in danger of letting it fall. Thus he manifests his mind and thought, and in his lost abstraction of mind seeks to commune with the dead in their spiritual state of being. [42]

Sacrifice, as an essential element of li, has always had a dual function in Confucianism. On the ethical side it was one of the means to integrate the kinship group, which is the strategic point for understanding the Chinese social organization. In secular terms, therefore, ancestor worship helps to cultivate family values like filial piety, kinship loyalty and continuity of the family lineage. This was no doubt the main intention of Confucius and his great disciples in promoting familial oblations. But on the spiritual level, for the common man another dimension has never been absent. The welfare of the soul of his departed relatives, and the prospect of their assistance as guardian spirits urged him to undertake sacrifice even when poverty stricken and perhaps unable to afford the expense. The hope of supernatural help and the fear of supernatural punishment, along with sympathy for the dead, have been powerful influences in stabilizing ancestral worship in the Confucian religious scheme.

This supernatural element does not mean belief in a higher than natural order of being, which in the Christian religion is the realm of divine grace. Perhaps a better term would be supramundane, in the sense of “beyond earthly” acceptance of an invisible world of reality that includes an objectively personal God, whose providence extends to mankind and on whose assistance depends the success of all human effort and action.

Music and Song

Confucianism from ancient times attached great importance to music. The Chinese were acutely aware of the power of music over the emotions and its possibilities as a social force by refining or corrupting the listener. Comparable to the supernatural efficacy attached to ceremonial rites, they conceived of music as mysteriously contributing to the harmony of the universe or disturbing its equilibrium. In the same context where he said that “people may be made to follow, they cannot be made to understand,” Confucius placed melody at the acme of effective agents over the human mind. “Education,” he said, “begins with songs, is confirmed by practice of the rites, and is completed by music.” [43]

In his time, he felt one of the gravest duties of the government was to forbid the lascivious airs of Cheng, and promote instead the compositions of Shao. “The Master said, ‘All beautiful and noble is the music of Shao.’ Therefore, choose for music the Shao and its dance, but banish the strains of Cheng, for they are wanton.” Again, “when the Master was in Ch’i, he heard the Shao music, and for three months did not notice the taste of his food. ‘I never imagined that music had reached such height,’ he said.” [44] His philosophy on the role of music in coordinating social life is epitomized in the chain sequence, which begins with deceit and hypocrisy in speech, through the “misuse of words,” and ends in political tyranny. When words are misused, human relations go wrong. When human relations break down, propriety and music weaken. When propriety and music weaken, law and justice fail. And when law and justice fail them, a people can move neither hand nor foot in servitude.”

Confucian interest in music and its association with ritual and social custom is based on a theory that is typically oriental. Rites and music are twin instruments for pacifying unruly desires in the individual and community. Where ritual and custom set limits to these desires according to age and social rank, music is the “crown” of propriety for harmonizing the passions, on the assumption that passions are not of themselves evil but become such only when not coordinated. The classic expression of this theory of harmony occurs in the Book of Rites.

Music makes for community, the rites make for distinction. When there is community, there is mutual affection; when there is distinction, there is mutual respect. When music predominates, differences lead to estrangement. It is the task of rites and music to coordinate the passions and to ornament appearances.

Music issues from within, the rites act from outside. Serenity is the result of music issuing from within; refinement is the result of the rites acting from the outside. Great music must be simple, great rites must be easy. When music is at its best there is no resentment, when rites are at their best men do not contend. It is to rites and music that this saying refers, “By bowing and giving way one could wet the world in order.” [45]

Confucian tradition sees music as the human counterpart of the cosmic harmony in the universe. It is man’s imitation of the variety of creatures in the world, all placed in their respective spheres of action and, though all different, cooperating to a common end--as in the interplay of celestial bodies with the forces of earth. “The graces of heaven and earth cooperate. They are drummed on by thunder, stirred by wind and rain, kept in motion by the four seasons, warmed by the sun and moon, from which the innumerable transformations arise. Music is therefore the harmony of heaven and earth.” [46] Its religious purpose is to duplicate within man and among men the peaceful effects of coordinated regularity.

Three Religions of China

Although Confucianism is popularly considered the only religion of China, there are actually two other major religions among the Chinese, Buddhism and Taoism, which join the first in a strange coexistence that would be hard to find in any other country. Perhaps the best explanation is that Confucianism needed the support of alien religious elements to supply for its own deficiencies, which are numerous.

Confucius and his disciples may have differed on many things, but they were at one in stressing the seriousness of life and the grave responsibility men have to improve themselves and the world in which they live. Early in its history, Confucianism took two unfortunate turns which Taoism sought to correct. One was the preoccupation with duty, imposed on every man by a rigid code of custom he had nothing to do with shaping; the other was new exploitation of the common people by despotic rulers who would make their subjects mere pawns in the game of politics, for their own ambitious ends. The result was a deep pessimism that was bound to create a reaction. A fair example of this gloomy attitude occurs in a Taoist work called Lieh Tzu. Its reputed author, Yang Chu, may never have written the book, but its spirit belongs authentically to the period when the first rival of Confucianism came into existence, between the mid-fifth and third centuries before Christ.

No man lives more than a hundred years, and not one in a thousand that long. And even that one spends half his life as a helpless child or a dim-witted dotard; of the time that remains, half is spent in sleep, or wasted during the day. In what is left he is plagued by pain, sickness, sorrow, bitterness, doubts, losses, worry, and fear. In ten years and more there is hardly an hour in which he can feel at peace with himself and the world, without being gnawed by anxiety.
Do we live for the sake of being cowed into submission by the fear of the law and its penalties, now spurred to frenzied action by promise of a reward or fame? Never for a moment do we taste the heavy wine of freedom. We are as truly imprisoned as if we lay at the bottom of a dungeon, heaped with chains. In life all creatures are different, but in death they are all the same. They are just rotten bones. And rotten bones are all alike; who can distinguish them? So let us make the most of these moments of life that are ours. We have no time to be concerned with what comes after death. [47]

This is not Taoism, but its sentiments ushered in a religious system that sought to modify the cold if not harsh legalism inherent in Confucian philosophy, by stressing the ideal of simplicity. Instead of a painful struggle to conform to customs set up by the ancients, let nature alone be the guide. Indeed all artificial institutions and all strivings are wrong. Activity by itself is not wrong, but all straining to obtain what causes anxiety is an error. In the words of the Taoist Bible, the Lao Tzu, “There is no greater misfortune than not to know when one has enough, and no calamity more blighting than the desire to get more.” [48]

The early Taoists condemned the Confucians mercilessly. For one thing the Confucians were successful philosophers when Taoism arose; they were also the guiding thinkers behind the government, which by Taoist standards could only do harm. When open assault failed, the Taoists claimed that Confucius was himself a secret convert to Taoism, which he criticized only to hide his real beliefs.

In the course of time Confucianism and Taoism became reconciled, in spite of periods when Taoists were persecuted by the state religion. One of the paradoxes of Taoism is the ability to survive with all its anti-Confucian, anti-governmental and often antinomian tendencies; and even flourish as a collaborator of Confucianism to produce the national culture. Where Confucianism stressed custom and man’s responsibility to society, Taoism favored the individual as a single person, and his right to call his soul his own. While Confucianism would amalgamate persons as members of a clan and subjects of the state, Taoism sought to liberate them by communing with nature (to the point of assimilation) and has inspired the best in Chinese art and literature.

The role of Buddhism in China has been much the same, except that Buddhism is a foreign import from India and entered China to offer a religious metaphysic rather than challenge the basic principles of Confucian thought.

Chinese Buddhism came into prominence, if not existence, somewhere about the first century of the Christian era. By the year 65 it was professed by a member of the imperial family, and by 165 it was accepted by the Emperor Huan Ti. By the beginning of the fourth century Chinese intellectuals were defending it as the greatest religious system created by the genius of man.

Not unlike Taoism, the Buddhist religion came to fill a void by offering balance to a rigid determinism and lack of spiritual ardor. Its impressive liturgy, monastic idealism and the answers it gave to the problems of life were spontaneously welcome. Near the center of these needs created by Confucianism was the question of human destiny. A famous naturalist, Wang Ch’ung (27-97 A.D.), called himself a Confucian, yet subscribed to a whole-hearted fatalism.

In conducting affairs men may be either talented or stupid, but when it comes to calamity or good fortune, there are some who are lucky and some unlucky. The things they do may be right or wrong, but whether they meet with reward or punishment depends on chance.
There are many persons who wish to display their loyalty (to a ruler), yet he rewards some and punishes others; there are many who wish to do him benefit, yet he trusts some and distrusts others. Those whom he rewards and trusts are not necessarily the true ones, nor are those whom he punishes and distrusts necessarily the false. It is simply that the rewarded and trusted ones are lucky, while those who are punished and distrusted are unlucky. [49]

There were two answers to this fatalistic uncertainty. Native Confucian thinkers had relied mostly on the explanation that fate was shared by members of the same family or clan, or by people who lived in the same area. This principle of joint responsibility of family or neighborhood has been woven into the fabric of Chinese government and law.

Buddhism was less simplistic. Its theory of Karma and transmigration of souls accounted for retribution not only in one life but also through a chain of subsequent incarnations.

Illustrative of the impact and dissemination of Chinese Buddhism are the temples and monasteries it established throughout the country, and the voluminous sacred writings it produced, upwards of sixteen hundred distinct works on every phase of religious thought. In Hangchow alone, a city in East China, a survey made in the early 1930’s showed there were almost a thousand Buddhist monasteries and temples for a total population of less than a quarter million. Most of the monks are drawn from poor families, although some are wealthy and well educated. Many are purchased by the monastery as children, where needy parents are willing to sell their offspring for a small fee and give their son (or daughter) an assured livelihood. Until the advent of Communism, which permits some Buddhist institutions to function, the inmates of monasteries enjoyed special imperial or government favor. This encouraged “vocations” to the monastic life. During one brief period of disfavor in North China, authentic records show that three hundred thousand monks and nuns were forcibly returned to secular life.

Although relatively few could become monks or nuns, everybody could be a lay Buddhist, and millions did. The appeal to a universal salvation, albeit delayed and not equal, satisfied the innate desire for eventual happiness; a vast array of spirits and divinities represented in exquisite figures of wood, ivory and porcelain, pleased the eye and religious emotions; and a graphic description of the fate of the wicked, through purgative states of horrible torment, answered to an instinctive sense of justice at which Confucianism only hinted, and Taoism largely ignored.

Undoubtedly many Chinese Buddhists have been ignorant people attracted by magic and naïve superstitions, but this is by no means a rule. A high ethical code drew some of the best minds to accept the religion of Buddha while remaining ostensibly faithful to the precepts of Confucianism.

It is next to impossible to distinguish clearly on the precise religious affliction of the people in China. Some historians have coined the term Siniticism to describe the mixture of Confucian ethics, Taoist naturalism, and Buddhism mysticism, which is actually professed by the majority of Chinese. Not that all three are simultaneously verified in any one person, but all have contributed to the structure of his faith. Confucianism stands for the politico-religious side of Chinese life, the Community and the State ranking foremost in the mind of its founder. Taoism symbolizes individualism, with stress on the spiritualistic and magical aspect of national life. Buddhism is also individualistic, but insists on the vanity of all things visible and the reality of things unseen.

Under Communism

The origins of Communism in China may be traced to the Marxist study groups formed in the spring of 1918 at Peking University under the leadership of Li Ta-chao. A severe critic of Confucianism, he felt the people had not gone far enough in dethroning Pu Yi, the last Manchu monarch in 1911 and setting up the Chinese Republic. Writing in October, 1918, he described the Russian Revolution as a cosmic liberation. “The real victory,” he said, “is not the victory of the Allies against the Germans, but the victory of the Bolshevists. Henceforth all national boundaries, all differences of classes, all barriers to freedom will be swept away.” [50]

While tempted by the messianic claims of Marxism, however, Li and his followers were too Confucianist to accept the full implications of Communist ideology. In 1919 he was trying to reconcile his fervent faith in the power of the human conscience with Marxist doctrine. He repeated his belief that “the existence of a moral sense in something we must all accept,” and that the call of duty exists in the human heart.” Yet there was a perceptible change, which symbolized the revolution going on in the minds of many Chinese intellectuals. The source of this moral sense should not be traced, as in Confucius or the Doctrine of the Mean, to any superhuman source, but can be found in the social instinct which man has developed in the course of his struggle for existence. While still not orthodox Leninism, this shift in traditional Chinese belief was only a shade removed from dialectical materialism.

Among the young student whom Li ta-chao converted to the Marxist camp was Mao Tse-tung, the Lenin of Chinese Communism and the first chairman of its Soviet Provisional Government.

Unlike Li, Mao Tse-tung had no compromise to effect with the ancient traditions. “I hated Confucius from the age of eight,” he once wrote. And in The New Democracy he claimed that “emphasis on the honoring of Confucius and the reading of the classics, and advocacy of the old rules of propriety (li) and education and philosophy are part of that semi-feudal culture” which must be overthrown. “The struggle between the old and new cultures is to the death.” [51]

Yet even he could not divorce himself from the past, and in outlining the future of his people stressed the distinctiveness of Communism in China, with its roots in Confucian thought. It must be admitted that “in the past China has suffered greatly by accepting foreign ideas simply because they were foreign. Chinese Communists should remember this in applying Marxism in China. We must effect a genuine synthesis between the universal truth of Marxism and the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution. Only after we have found our own national form of Marxism will it prove useful.” [52]

Among the most valuable tools the revolution needed was the acceptance of authority and uniformity of thought, which Confucian ethics could be made to supply at will. Above all respect for the ancient customs has been so inculcated by centuries of Confucianism that deference to the “traditional culture” and the wisdom of “previous ages” had to become part of the Communist approach. No mere aping of European revolutionaries is to be done, but a critical sifting of what is good (by Marxist standards) from the worthless debris of China’s past.

China’s culture should have its own form, the national form. The long feudal period in China’s history created the brilliant culture of previous ages. To make clear the process by which this traditional culture developed, to discard its feudal residue, and to absorb its democratic essence, are necessary steps for developing our new national culture and heightening our national confidence. This assimilation, however, must never be uncritical. We must carefully discriminate between those completely rotten aspects of the old culture that were linked with the feudal ruling class, and the excellent popular culture, which was more or less democratic and revolutionary in character. [53]

Other Communist leaders wrote in the same strain. They extolled the merits of Marxist principles but stressed the unique character of their Chinese implementation. More than unique, Communism in China is not only “powerful, armed with Marxist-Leninist theory,” but “the heir of all the splendid traditions of the many progressive men of though and action who have illumined the pages of Chinese history.” [54]

Confucius, Mencius and other philosophers were quoted, and their ideas integrated with Marxism. Reminiscent of the age-old discussion whether the sage emperors Yao and Shun were spiritual beings, with wisdom beyond the capacity of ordinary men, “There are those who say it is not possible, by means of study and self-cultivation, to attain the qualities of such revolutionary geniuses as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. They consider Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin to have been mysterious beings from birth. Is this correct? I think not.” Then a reminder of the Confucian tradition, “Mencius said, ‘Any man can become a Yao or a Shun.’” [55]

Instead of rejecting China’s Confucian ancestry, the new prophets denounced those who have failed to live up to its ideals. Those were criticized who pretended to honor the Master’s teaching but were actually using it to oppress the people and further their own interests. “Of course we Communist Party members cannot adopt such an attitude in studying the principles of Marx and Lenin, and the excellent and useful teachings bequeathed to us by the ancient sages of our nation. As we speak, so we must act. We are honest and pure; we cannot deceive ourselves, the people, or the men of old.” [56] Thus the new wine of Communist dogma was poured into the old bottles of Chinese form to create a religion for the masses.

The use of Confucianism for ideological propaganda is nothing strange in Chinese Communism, but the issue runs deeper. Quite apart from the contortions to which Marxists subjected the teachings of Confucius to serve their preconceived ends, the whole religious background of the Chinese played into their hands. The nation had suffered grievously through a generation of war and was being strangled to death, as Madame Chiang Kai-Shek expressed it, by an economic noose fashioned by Japan out of the shortsighted policy of the Western democracies. Soviet Russia alone seemed to be ready to cooperate with China on the basis of equality. Sun Yatsen, the father of the Chinese Republic and no Marxist, offered Three Principles of the People as a legacy from Russia, namely, “to curb the strong, support the weak, and promote justice,” and he promised the Soviet Union to “use the strength of our four hundred millions to fight against injustice for all mankind.” He found the inspiration for “this our Heaven-appointed task” in the Analects of Confucius.

Chapter 6 - Confucianism


[1] Analects of Confucius, X, 1-2, 5, 8, 15.

[2] Degree of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (December 8, 1939). Complete English text in Malcolm Hay, Failure in the Far East, Philadelphia, 1957, pp. 190-192.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Yi King, I, 15.

[5] Ibid., Appendix V, 6: 10, 10:14.

[6] Shuh King (Books of Shang), IV, 6: 1-2.

[7] Shih King (Songs for the Lesser Festivals), II.

[8] Hsiao King, III.

[9] Ibid., IV.

[10] Ibid., V.

[11] Ibid., I.

[12] Ibid., VII.

[13] Book of Menclus, VI, 1, 6.

[14] Analects, II, 13-14; III, 10-11; IV, 16, 22, 24; XIV, 45; XV, 17-21, 36.

[15] Ibid., XVI

[16] Ibid., XII, 22; XIII, 19; XVII, 6.

[17] Ibid., XII, 22; XIII, 19; XVII, 6.

[18] Ibid., IV, 5-6.

[19] Ibid., Iv, 19, 21.

[20] Ibid., II, 5.

[21] Ibid., II, 7-8.

[22] Ibid., IV, 18.

[23] Ibid, I, 11.

[24] The Doctrine of the Mean, XIX.

[25] Analects, VI, 27.

[26] The Doctrine of the Mean, IV, X.

[27] Ibid., XIV.

[28] Mencius, VI, I, 6.

[29] Homer H. Dubs, The Works of Hsǘn-tze, London, 1928, pp. 301-304.

[30] Ibid., p. 305.

[31] James Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. I, Oxford, 1893, pp. 357-358.

[32] H. G. Creel, Chinese Thought, Chicago, 1953, p. 38.

[33] H. H. Gerth & C. W. Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York, 1946, p. 293.

[34] Book Of History, IV, 94.

[35] Analects, XII, 5.

[36] Ibid., IX, 5.

[37] Ibid., VII, 34.

[38] Ibid., XIV, 37.

[39] Ibid., III, 13.

[40] Doctrine of the Mean, XIX.

[41] Analects, II, 3.

[42] Li-Ki, XIV, 5-7.

[43] Analects, VIII, 8.

[44] Analects, III, 25; VII, 13; XV, 10.

[45] Sacred Books of the East, London, 1926, vol. XXVII, pp. 98 f.

[46] Ibid., pp. 103 f.

[47] Lieh Tzu, VII, 1, 2.

[48] Lao Tzu, chap. 46.

[49] Wang Ch’ung, Lun-yǜ, XIII, 38.

[50] Hsin Ch’ing-nien, vol. 5, num. 5.

[51] Mao Tse-tung, China’s New Democracy, New York, 1945, p. 48.

[52] Ibid., p. 61.

[53] Ibid., pp. 61-2.

[54] Liu Shao-chi, How To Be A Good Communist, Peking, 1951, p. 83.

[55] Ibid., p. 16.

[56] Sun Yat-sen, The Three Principles of the People, Shanghai, 1929, pp. 17, 88.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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