Confucius
K'ung-fu-tzu or Kongfuzi

Confucius, (Wade-Giles K'ung-fu-tzu, Pinyin Kongfuzi), or , Master K'ung (551-479 BC), whose life defines the end of the Spring and Autumn Period in Chinese history, becomes long after his death the dominant Chinese philosopher both morally and politically. In the Warring States Period Mencius (Meng Tzu, , c.390-305 BC) extended and systematized Confucius's ideas; but with Confucius's adoption in the Hàn Dynasty as the official moral and political doctrine of the State, the Confucian tradition became so broad that "Scholar" or "Literatus" became all but synonymous with "Confucian," and so Confucianism could simply be called the Ju Chia [], or School of the Literati -- one of the Six Schools of Chinese philosophy. As one of the "Three Ways," or (the three "doctrines" or religions), together with Taoism [] and Buddhism [], Confucianism [] also grew into one of the traditional religions of the Hàn Chinese [1].

The following table gives the basic moral terminology of Confucius, with the Chinese characters. This goes a long way to explaining the nature of Confucius's moral doctrine, since each term embodies the values or disvalues considered morally important. The table is divided into categories that are familiar from the structure of ethics in Western philosophy. Indeed, while many people may think of Indian or Chinese philosophy as intuitionistic or mystical, which is rather like what we do find in Taoism, Confucianism has been said to be a hundred times more rationalistic than Western philosophy. Confucian ethics are certainly clear and uncompromising, with points of similarity to Immanuel Kant and Christianity.

BEINGDOING/MEANSENDS
Rén, "benevolence, charity, humanity, love," kindness. The fundamental virtue of Confucianism. Confucius defines it as "Aì rén," "love others."
[Analects XII:22]
, "right conduct, morality, duty to one's neighbor," righteousness. , "profit, gain, advantage": NOT a proper motive for actions affecting others. The idea that profit is the source of temptation to do wrong is the Confucian ground of the later official disparagment of commerce and industry.
The Master said, "The gentleman (chün tzu, ) understands . The small/mean man (hsiao-jen, ) understands ." [Analects IV:16]
Li3, "propriety, good manners, politeness, ceremony, worship." Xiào, "to honor one's parents," filial piety. may be broken down [Analects IV:15] into: zhong1, doing one's best, conscientiousness, "loyalty" [2]; and shù, "reciprocity," altruism, consideration for others, "what you don't want yourself, don't do to others" [Analects XV:24 or 23].
quoted definitions, Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, Harvard, 1972; quotations from Analects translated by D.C. Lau, Penguin Books, 1979

Confucius himself had a simple moral and political teaching: to love others; to honor one's parents; to do what is right instead of what is of advantage; to practice "reciprocity," i.e. "don't do to others what you would not want yourself"; to rule by moral example () instead of by force and violence; and so forth. Confucius thought that a ruler who had to resort to force had already failed as a ruler -- "Your job is to govern, not to kill" (Analects XII:19). This was not a principle that Chinese rulers always obeyed, but it was the ideal of benevolent () rule. It should be noted, however, that even such humane principles are paternalistic and statist, without a hint of the ideals of individual liberty that are the basis of modern liberal society. Nevertheless, the Confucian ideal avoids the worst of modern paternalism with the principle of government by example and by "Not Doing" (), putting Confucianism closer to Taoism than to modern practices of authoritarian control. Confucius thought that government by laws and punishments could keep people in line, but government by example of virtue () and good manners () would enable them to control themselves (Analects II:3). "The way the wind blows, that's the way the grass bends" (Analects XII:19). Self-control, indeed, is the basis of all the industrious virtues that have made the Chinese people economically successful whenever they have been allowed to prosper, whether in California, Malaya, or China proper. Unfortunately, although Confucius himself says, "Wealth and high station are what men desire" (Analects, IV:5), later Confucians (beginning no later than Mencius) turned warnings against the temptation of profit () into a condemnation of profit, which meant that their influence was often turned against the development of Chinese industry and commerce. Thus, Confucians themselves were perfectly happy to seek "high station," while stiffling the ability of ordinary Chinese to produce "wealth." Over time, this was an evil influence in Chinese history [3].

While the essence of morality is the limitation of self-interest, Confucius is clear that this does not mean complete denial of self. We have already seen a hint of this with Analects XV:23, which begins with the character for "self" and ends with the characters for "others" (or "persons"). If what you don't want for yourself, you shouldn't to do others, then you would like others to do for you what you would indeed like for yourself. We see a similar word structure, and stronger implication, at Analects VI:28, "If you desire to establish yourself, also establish others." This sounds more like what Mohism called "mutual profitableness," but it is clearly essential to Confucius. The idea is distilled in a modern Japanese saying, jiri rita, "self profit, profit other," or "self-interest[ed] altruism." This can, of course, also be read in Chinese, as shown. It contains different characters for "self" and "other" than Confucius uses, but these could easily be substituted, as can be seen by clicking on the image for a popup with the corresponding characters. Helping oneself and others at the same time is characteristic of what we might even call the "worldliness" of Confucianism and Chinese civilization. The Chinese have never been very big on the world-denying renunication so characteristic of India; and even though monasticism was brought to China by Buddhism and adopted by religious Taoism, Confucianism, which usually also meant the government, always remained suspicious of it:  Monks and nuns were often suspected of being licentious freeloaders, an attitude we see expressed in the Judge Dee novels. The hostility to profit that can occur in Confucianism thus has to compete against this contrary sense that self-interest can be promoted by cooperating with and pleasing others -- the essence of a market exchange.

During the T'ang Dynasty, the canon of Confucian Classics became the basis for the great civil service examinations that henceforth provided the magistrates and bureaucrats (the "Mandarins") for the Chinese government. This system is still impressive, but, because of the attitude of the Confucian scholars, it was not entirely to good effect. The founder of the Míng Dynasty (1368-1644) Chu Yüan-chang, an illiterate peasant who rose to expel the Mongols and win the throne, was suspicious of the influence of the scholars. He tried to balance the scholarly with the military establishment so that neither would dominate the government. Later, when the Chinese sent Admiral Cheng Ho [Zheng He], a Moslem eunuch who started out as a war prisoner and slave, on seven great naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433, it was the scholars who powerfully opposed engaging in anything so lowly as trade and dealing with such uncivilized barbarians. The expeditions, indeed, visited not only Indonesia and India, but penetrated into the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and far down the east coast of Africa. The fleets were large, heavily manned, well armed, and contained ships of nine masts (the baochuan, "treasure ships") that, reportedly, were more than 400 feet long.

But when the court faction of the scholars triumphed and ended the expeditions, they also destroyed their records and made it a capital offense to build anything larger than a two-masted ship. This crippled Chinese trade and foreign involvement; and one is left to wonder just how world history would have been different had Vasco da Gama arrived in the Indian Ocean in 1498, just 65 years later, to discover an overwhelming and technologically equal or superior Chinese naval presence.

In China itself, the scholars indeed went on to dominate the government and tip the balance against the military, which left the country so unprepared that in 1644 the last Ming emperor was forced to call in Manchuria to deal with a rebellion. The Manchus took advantage of this to take over the country; and so the final Chinese Dynasty, the Ch'ing [Qing] (1644-1912), wasn't Chinese at all. This was probably not what the scholars would have wanted, but they had certainly brought it about. Curiously, the Ch'ing Emperors adopted scholarly sensibilities and retained Ming naval and maritime policy xenophobia. This left China once again helpless when forces technologically superior to the Portuguese, especially the British, eventually arrived, irresistibly pressing for commercial access to the country. The scholars never did adapt, and the examination system was eventually abolished rather than modernized.

A curious and noteworthy aspect of the teaching of Confucius is his arm's length attitude towards religion. There is considerably irony in this, not only because Confucianism later became one of the major religions of China, but in comparison to the life of Socrates, who was born just nine years after Confucius died. Socrates, although he talked about the gods all the time, and saw his own philosophical project as a divine mission, was condemned and put to death for presumably not believing in them. Confucius, although he later became a god, to whom temples were dedicated in every Chinese city, as the patron of students and scholars, nevertheless didn't talk about the gods at all:

The topics the Master did not speak of were prodigies, force, disorder, and gods. [Analects translated by D.C. Lau, Penguin Books, 1979, VII:21, p. 88]

The term for "god" here, (shin or kami in Japanese), is often translated "spirit" or even "spiritual beings." We see another term in this quote:

Chi-lu asked how the spirits of the dead and gods should be served. The Master said, "You are not able to serve to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?" [XI:12, p. 107]

"Spirits" or "spirits of the dead" here are kuei, , "spirits, demons, ghosts." This is a remarkable passage considering the attention given by Confucianism as a religion for one's ancestors and for the care of one's family grave plot (at the time of Ch'ing Ming, ). This seems comparable to an instruction from Jesus:

[Matthew 8:21] And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. [8:22] But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.

Few Christians are so unconcerned about burial of relatives, or Confucians about the service of spirits -- although there was disagreement about the nature of the Chinese soul. What Confucius honored rather than pious ritual is implied here:

The Master was seriously ill. Tzu-lu asked permission to offer a prayer. The Master said, "Was such a thing ever done?" Tzu-lu said, "Yes it was. The prayer offered was as follows: pray thus to the gods above and below." The Master said, "In that case, I have long been offering my prayers." [VII:35, p. 91]

This is interpreted to mean that Confucius has been praying all that was necessary just by being good and polite. Further prayers are unnecessary.

While the practice of Confucianism was not entirely consistent with these principles of Confucius just expressed, his attitude did have a significant effect on the conduct of Chinese religion, where popular gods possessed less status in terms of politics and high culture than we see in most other civilizations. Thus, while most people have a least heard of major Indian gods, like Shiva and Krishna, I have frequently found entire classes of students who were unable to name even a single traditional Chinese god [4]. The government of Imperial China treated the gods rather like other subjects of the Empire, assigning them rank and promoting or demoting them depending on their popularity or moral wholesomeness. Confucian authorities thus never doubted their standing to judge the status and worth of the gods. The Imperial cult, like Confucius himself, was concerned with much more abstract and impersonal entities, like Heaven. Sometimes "Heaven," , is therefore translated "God," but it is a principle, one that is certainly inherent in things, but it is not a personal deity.

The reality of Heaven, however, does refute attempts to characterize Confucius as the sort of skeptical and positivistic "secular humanist" who has become familiar in modern society. That interpretation goes along with a program, motivated by the circumstances of Confucianism just considered, that has led many people to conclude that Confucianism was never a religion at all, either as we find it in Confucius or in the later tradition of the Literati. Since, as we know, Confucius did not talk about gods or spirits or the dead, and the principal content of the teaching of Confucius is clearly moral, social, and political, this interpretation is given a running start. It comes to grief, however, not only on Heaven, but most importantly on the "Rites," . The meaning of this, strongly endorsed by Confucius, first of all as propriety and manners, also extends to the rites and rituals of Confucian religion, particularly in the veneration of one's ancestors and the care of the family grave plot. Oddly enough, the religious character of the Rites was a matter of controversy in the Catholic Church.

When the Jesuits arrived in China, they adopted a strategy, largely due to Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), of accepting Confucianism as the moral equivalent of Christianity. By this they hoped to persuade educated Chinese that they were already half Christian and should convert and come all the way over. At the same time, the Jesuits argued that the Rities of Confucianism were not religious at all and therefore the Chinese could in a sense remain Confucians once they converted to Christianity. And the Jesuits could present themselves as good Confucians in the Chinese Court. This outraged other Catholic missionaries in China, who were well aware that the pagan religion of the Romans who persecuted Christians was itself largely a matter of ritual, without the sort of superstructure of doctrine, creed, and confession that became famliar in Christianity itself and later in Islam. Thus, to avoid persecution, Christians did not need to abjure their faith or confess belief in the Roman gods. All they had to do was offer a libation at a pagan altar. Christians died rather than offer that libation; but the Jesuits were now saying that even participation in the Rites of the Chinese State, involving the worship of Heaven or the veneration of the Imperial ancestors, was perfectly acceptable.

As it happened, the Jesuit strategy was ineffective in converting many Chinese. But it did make the Jesuits acceptable enough that they found a permanent place at the Ming Court, renewed in the subsequent Ch'ing Dynasty, providing advice on the calendar. This was harmless enough that the controversy over the Rites faded away, now to be revived in attempts to reinterpret Confucianism as a form of secular humanism before-its-time. All such efforts, however, fall afoul of the history of religion, where most of ancient religion, and a great deal of modern, consists of ritual practices whose purpose or rationality is not at all obvious and which are not justified by the sort of systematic theology that became familiar in the Western monotheistic religions -- Protestants even rejected much of the traditional ritual of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Thus opinion polls in Japan consistently report that a large majority of Japanese are not religious, even while a large majority of Japanese participate in the Rites of the New Year and other occasions at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and otherwise patronize these places for prayer and amulets to help with personal problems, from disease to driving safety. A country with little Shinto shrines in laundromats does not seem to me to be particuarly irreligious -- in the clever title of the book by Ian Reader and George Tanabe, it is Practically Religious [U. of Hawai'i Press, 2004]. Theirs is still a religion of practice more than of confession -- and questions from pollsters about religious belief tend to evoke unpleasant associations with people like the Jehovah's Witnesses coming to the door. Thus, a secularized Confucianism only makes sense in terms of a particular kind of religion, that of doctrine and confession familiar in the Mediaeval and Modern West and Middle East.

Psychological Types, Typology of Chinese Virtues

The Six Relationships and the Mandate of Heaven

The Confucian Chinese Classics

Key Passages in the Analects of Confucius

Chinese Virtues

The Chinese Soul

Ethics

History of Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy

History of Philosophy

Home Page

Editorial Note:

This page on Confucius is intended to focus on some particular issues of ethics and political economy that are important for the Friesian School and which I have stressed in my classes. There is consequently nothing here about his life, which is largely legendary anyway. Specialists may consider the detail here insufficient and oversimplified, and certainly anyone with a serious interest in Confucius should go to treatments by real historians of Chinese philosophy. But the goal here is summary and basic, and could even be regarded as tendentious. Indeed, the philosophy links are largely to pages that otherwise have little to do with Chinese philosophy. The historical links are edifying in their own way.

Both Wades-Giles and Pinyin transcriptions are used on this page because both will be encountered in academic sources on China and Chinese philosophy. There are also Chinese people, as from Taiwan, who refuse to use Pinyin because of its origin and associations (with Communist China). Pinyin has some convenient innovations (like d for /t/), but it is also is phonetically redundant (with separate symbols for palatal and retroflex intitials, which are unnecessary) and gives some letters values (like /thsh/, English "ch," for q) that are opaque and bewildering for those not already familiar with the system.

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2013 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


Confucius, Note 1


The Hàn () Chinese are to be contrasted, for instance, with the Huí () Chinese, who are simply those who practice Islâm, (i.e. the "religion of the Huí"), which is not one of the Three Ways. Since huí can also mean "Turks" or "Uighurs," Moslem Chinese obviously were thought of as the equivalent of foreigners. Confucians originally thought of Buddhists as similarly un-Chinese; but Buddhism became so popular after the fall of the Later Hàn Dynasty (220 AD) that, by the time of the Suí (590-618) and T'ang [Táng] (618-906), it was accepted as properly Chinese. The Huí are still counted as an ethnic minority, some 6,490,000 as of 1980, and in the northern province of Ningxia constitute a majority of the population.

Although this usage has now lapsed, the Huí, or Huíhuí (), in the Ming dynasty meant Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. All three groups had come down the Silk Road from Central Asia. The original Christians in this case, of course, were the Nestorians who appeared at the T'ang court in 635. Jews as well as Muslims did not eat pork. They all used related sacred languages, like Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew. They claimed many of the same prophets, like Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. To the Chinese then, although there might be some differences between these groups, they were more similar to each other than to anyone else, and very different in belief, language, and culture from the Chinese.

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Confucius, Note 2


In Japan, as "loyalty," pronounced chû, comes to mean "blind loyalty," absolute obedience to a feudal lord or the emperor, regardless of whether instructions are right or wrong. This was in stark contrast to the Chinese sense, where an expression of "true" loyalty might be the willingness to be put to death rather than do what is wrong. See "Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao."

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Confucius, Note 3


The attitude of Confucius towards profit () is, at best, ambiguous. The most interesting statement is Analects IV:5, "Wealth and high station are what men desire, but unless I got them in the right way, I would not remain in them. Poverty and low station are what men dislike, but even if I did not get them in the right way, I would not try to escape from them" [D.C. Lau, p.72]. There is some question about the translation here, but the thought is clearly that if wealth and high station can only be obtained, or poverty and obscurity avoided, by wrongful actions, then the good person will still not do wrong but will willingly accept the poverty and obscurity. While Confucians would always disparage those working for profit, they certainly had no disinclination to avoid "high station," which eventually would be obtained through the system of Examinations (allowing them to live off the wealth generated by others). Yet Confucius treats profit and high station identically here, so one might think that pursuing high station, i.e. the government rank of a Mandarin, would be no more worthy than the wealth generation of the merchant. The interpretation we get, indeed, is what proved advantageous for the Confucians.

Some other statements in the Analects are ambiguous but tending towards condemnation. Thus, at VII:12 we find, "If wealth were a permissible pursuit, I would be willing even to act as a guard holding a whip outside the market place. If it is not, I shall follow my own preferences" [ibid. p.87]. Since we do not find Confucius working as a guard, and he does follow his own "preferences," it looks like wealth would not be a "permissible pursuit."

Recently, I had a student produce a Confucius quote from the internet: "One who, on seeing profit, thinks of righteousness, may be considered a perfect man." I tracked this down to a webpage which took it to mean, "Confucianism regards as ideal the harmony between profit and justice. Profit (or wealth) per se is not regarded as immoral, but it should be in harmony with justice." Now, I think this all would be a constructive and beneficial interpretation of Confucius (which the student unfortunately took to be unproblematic), but I am not sure we can quite get that out of the text. It does not follow from the quote given (Analects XIV:12 or 13), for that need not be interpreted to allow the "perfect man" to go ahead and pursue the profit after thinking of righteousness. He may well be stopped in his tracks. And the quote has been redacted. In full (according to Lau), it goes, "If a man remembers what is right at the sight of profit, is ready to lay down his life in the face of danger, and does not forget sentiments [or promises] he has repeated all his life even when he has been in straitened circumstances for a long time, he may be said to be a complete man" [p.126]. This has a very different feel to it and clearly, with the reference to danger (and previous references to the wise), is not describing the righteous merchant.

After Confucius, Mencius starts in after profit like bulldog. At the very beginning of the Mencius, , King Hui of Liang asks, "Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand li, may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?" [James Legge translation, The Works of Mencius, Dover, 1970, p.125]. Mencius in an annoyed and irascible way answers by taking exception to the use of the word "profit." He is not there to do anything of profit for the King, but only of "benevolence and righteousness" []. "Let your Majesty also say, 'Benevolence and righeousness, and let these be your only themes.' Why must you use that word 'profit'?" [ibid. p.127]. From such a beginning, it is not surprising what follows in the Confucian tradition.

By the way, King Hui of Liang was Hui of Wei, , one of the Six Kingdoms during the Warring States Period. He was a first the Marquis (Hou) of Wei (344-334) and then King (Wang) of Wei (334-319 BC). See the details of the ranks of Chinese feudal nobility elsewhere. Liang () was the capital of Wei. It would later be one of the Six Southern Dynasties (502-557 AD). Judge Dee afterwards would be made the Duke of Liang ().

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Confucius, Note 4


An example of a popular Chinese god would be the goddess of mercy, Kuan-yin, (or -- Kannon or Kanzeon in Japanese, Kwanse'um in Korean, or Quan-âm in Vietnamese), who was a Chinese development of the Buddhist Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara -- the one who "Observes the Sounds of the World" (literally, avalokitâ, "observer," îshvara, "lord"). Three other popular gods in China are , , , , and Shòu, -- "Happiness," "Success," and "Longevity." , consistent with Confucian ideas about "success," is shown in the robes of a Chinese judge, like Judge Dee, while Shòu, consistent with religious Taoist aspirations for immorality, is shown with the grooming and accoutrements of a wandering Taoist sage. The three gods get combined into one in Japan, Fukurokuju, , as seen at left. A god perhaps the most familiar to Westerners, but usually misidentified, is Pu-tai, , seen at right. He is commonly called the "Laughing Buddha" but is not a Buddha -- in popular culture, as in the Ming novel Journey to the West, ("Record of the Western Journey"), he seems to be identified with the Bodhisattva Maitreya. His name actually means "Cloth Bag," after the bag he carries, holding presents. He is, after a fashion, simply the Chinese Santa Claus, fat, jolly, and generous. In Japanese his name is Hotei. In Japanese observance, Fukurokuju and Hotei are among the Seven Lucky Gods, the Shichifukushin, , or Seven Gods of Good Fortune, who usher in a prosperous New Year.

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Burning Money, The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld, by C. Fred Blake, University of Hawai'i Press, 2011

The Six Relationships and
the Mandate of Heaven

When a man has been your teacher for a single day,
you should treat him as your father for the rest of his life.

Journey to the West, , Volume II
[Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1993, 2007, p.711]

The "Six Relationships" or "Six Relations," , are supposed to be the basis of all social connections between persons, and all six are based on the fundamental relationship between parents and children. Thus they are all variations of xiào, or "filial piety" (Latin pietas filialis), the religious respect that children owe to their parents. Originally, the "six" referred to the six members of three sets of relations, as follows:
123
456

Different versions of these three sets can be found, however, and it is possible to expand the system so as to contain six entirely different sets of relations, including the following at right:  
456

While the classic form of the six relationships did contain only three pairs, the later influence of the theory of the five elements gave the impression that there should be "five relationships," . Being an odd number, five relationships would require five whole pairs, not two and a half pairs. These are given with the Chinese Elements. Teacher and student seems to be the pair that gets left out in that version -- here distinguished by a darker background, and by my not being aware of a simple two-character expression for the relationship, as with the other five.

In each of the relationships, the superior member (father, husband, etc.) has the duty of benevolence and care for the subordinate member (son, wife, etc.). The subordinate member has the duty of obedience. The only exception might be the relationship between friend and friend, which may actually involve equality -- unless, of course, one is older than the other, which would turn it into a relationship like that between older and younger brother. The reverential attitude toward the teacher (rather like the relationship in India to the guru) may be easily seen in the Bruce Lee movie The Chinese Connection [1972], in which Bruce Lee avenges the murder of his boxing master, whom he all but worships, by the Japanese in 1930's Shanghai. The expression (sensei, also "teacher," in Japanese) is used today for the title "Mr." in Modern Chinese. In European languages, we see feudal titles like "lord" (Señor, Herr) and "master" used as such an honorific, while in Chinese it is "teacher" instead.

Although they are not formally part of the six relationships, we have matching terms for sisters, older and younger, just as for brothers. Used together, jiemèi, the characters can mean "sisters," or reduplicated we get polysyllabic words for "elder sister," jiejie, and "younger sister," mèimei. Indeed, is an expression that we find in the recent science fiction series Firefly, used affectionately for, as it happens, a younger sister, but also for a friend. We also see older and younger sisters expressed with the characters for older and younger brothers, with the addition of the character for "woman" or "female":  . This striking device adds some evidence for our evaluation of the feminist theory of "sexist language."

Unlike India, where social obedience was absolute and, for instance, a wife was supposed to obey and worship her husband even if he was worthless, unfaithful, abusive, etc. (because it would be her karma to be in such a relationship), obedience in the Six Relationships in China was contingent on the superior member actually observing their duty to be benevolent, , and caring. Since the highest Confucian "obedience" is to do what is right, "true" obedience to parents, husband, ruler, etc. is to refuse to obey any orders to do what is wrong.

Refusal to obey the emperor out of "true" obedience could, of course, get one put to death; and Chinese history celebrates such martyrs. An emperor who was no longer benevolent, however, could also be overthrown, and that is an interesting consequence of the conditional nature of obedience. In this area, the matter is usually stated as part of the theory of the , the "Mandate of Heaven." This means at least four things, the first two of which are already present in the thought of Confucius himself:

  1. The moral order of the universe: Thus Confucius says, "At fifty I understood the Mandate of Heaven" [Analects II:4], i.e. knew what right and wrong were, and also perhaps the design of good government.

  2. Fate: Thus, in the Analects one of Confucius's students is quoted as saying, "Life and death are the Mandate of Heaven," i.e. beyond our control [Analects XII:5].

  3. The right to rule: This becomes the most important meaning of the "Mandate of Heaven." Knowing the moral order of the universe and actually observing it make one a worthy ruler. Otherwise one has no business, and no right, being in power. Such an idea is quite different from mediaeval European ideas about government, where the king (Pope, emperor, or whatever) often derived authority directly from God and was answerable only to God. There was therefore no right to rebellion in Western thought until the Protestant Reformation (which questioned the authority of Catholic rulers). But the right to rule of the Chinese ruler is conditional.

  4. The judgment of history: This combines the "right to rule" with "fate," for the Chinese view was that losing the Mandate of Heaven as the right to rule would shortly be followed by the actual loss of power. The historical precedent for this was the brief and ferocious rule of the Qin Dynasty (255-207 BC) followed by the more benign and durable tenure of the Han emperors (the Former Han 206 BC-25 AD, the Later Han 25 AD-220). This becomes a principle that informs the writing of Chinese history: Beginning with the Later Han Dynasty, one of first acts of a traditional Chinese dynasty was the commissioning of an official history of the previous dynasty (in that case the great History of the Former Hàn Dynasty). Such a history in effect becomes the certificate of legitimacy for the new dynasty, showing how the previous dynasty was at first benevolent but then eventually lost the Mandate of Heaven, which means it was the obligation of the new dynasty to replace it. The history of the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912), was completed by the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan.

The Confucian Chinese Classics

Key Passages in the Analects of Confucius

Ethics

History of Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy

History of Philosophy

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Confucian Chinese Classics

The word for a classic text is Ching [Pinyin Jing1, Kyô in Japanese, Kinh in Vietnamese]. The Confucian classics [] are the texts of the Confucian or the Ju [], "Learned," School. Taoism [q.v.] has its own classics [], including the Tao Te Ching []; and ching is used to translate the Sanskrit word sûtra for Buddhist texts. Buddhism thus has its own "classics" [],
The Five Classics:
1. I Ching, , Book of Changes
2. Shih Ching, , Book of Odes (Songs/Poetry) -- Kinh-Thi in Vietnamese
3. Shu Ching, , Book of History
4. Li Chi, , Records of Ritual (or Book of Rites, the Li Ching, )
includes:4a. Ta Hsüeh, , The Great Learning [1]
4b. Chung Yung, , The Doctrine of the Mean [1]
5. Ch'un Ch'iu, , Spring and Autumn Annals [2]
The Nine Classics:
6. Chou Li, , Rites of Chou (part of the Li Ching)
7. I Li, , Ceremonial and Ritual (part of the Li Ching)
8. Hsiao Ching, , Filial Piety Classic
9. Lun Yü, , Analects [1]
The Thirteen Classics:
10. Meng Tzu, , the Mencius [1]
11. Erh Ya, , Dictionary of Terms
12. Kung-yang Chuan, , commentary on Ch'un Ch'iu
13. Ku-liang Chuan, , commentary on Ch'un Ch'iu [3]
as for instance with the Lotus Sutra, the Saddharma- pun.d.arîka Sûtra (True Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra), which was translated into Chinese as and then rendered into Japanese as Myôhô-renge-kyô -- a title then used as a mantra by the Nichiren sect of Japanese Buddhism.

The I Ching, , is supposed to be the oldest of the Classics. Indeed, its device of broken and unbroken lines appears to go back to the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty. It ends up as much more than just a Confucian Classic, with strong affinities to most of the rest of Chinese philosophy, especially the Yin-Yang and Taoist Schools. The dualism and Yin and Yang is discussed here in a separate essay; it is also used as a device for organizing the Chinese elements.

The notes in the table refer to the following glosses:
  1. One of the "Four Books" of the Confucian Canon. The Analects is probably the best known work associated with Confucius, though it looks like a collection assembled by his students after his death. The Meng Tzu is named after the Confucian sage Mencius (390-305 BC), who authored it, organizing and expanding the principles of Confucian thought. It is said, perhaps in bitter jest, that all the copies of the Menicus sent to Japan were lost at sea, because the Japanese never adopted the Chinese ideas of conditional authority embodied in the principle of the Mandate of Heaven.
  2. The Ch'un Ch'iu is a chronicle of Confucius's native state of Lu and is supposed to have been a work of Confucius himself, though it is more historical than philosophical in nature. It gives its name to the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history.
  3. The Tso Chuan, , the "Tradition of Tso," is another commentary on the Ch'un Ch'iu, or perhaps we should say a supplement, since it is an independent narrative history, the first in China, which subsequently simply got associated with the Ch'un Ch'iu. All the commentaries on the Ch'un Ch'iu are the , "Three Traditions," "Records, Chronicles."

The "Five Classics" were originally supposed to correspond to the Liu Yi, or the "Six Arts," including the Yüeh Ching, or Book of Music, which is no longer preserved as separate work, according to Fung Yu-lan (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Free Press, 1948, 1966, p. 39). The Confucian Canon began to be taught in government schools in the Former Han Dynasty, to educate officials. In the T'ang Dynasty, a system of civil service examinations was created to qualify officials. It was used down to the 20th century [note]. Hence, the Chinese god , "prosperity, success, salary," is seen in the robes of a Chinese judge. The Portuguese called Chinese officials "mandarins," getting the word from Sanskrit (mantrin) by way of Malay (menteri), meaning "counselor." "Mandarin" not only stuck to the officials, in many languages, but has widely become the name of the principal spoken language of China.

The Classics are listed here as given in Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard, 1972] under ching, character 1123, p.156.

Confucius [K'ung-fu-tzu or Kongfuzi]

The Examination System

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The Confucian Chinese Classics,
The Examination System

The Confucian Classics were the basis of the examination system. Candidates for the bureaucracy began to be educated in the Classics in the Han Dynasty, but the regular examination system seems to date from the Sui and the T'ang.

Any man could begin taking the examinations (we don't seem to have any stories of women doing it in disguise), as long as he himself was not in mourning and his family had not engaged in a "base occupation," like running a brothel, for three generations. However, usually candidates were from families that could afford the expense of educating them, and of supporting them if it was necessary to try again. If one did not pass, the examinations could be taken any number of times, unless, of course, one had committed some kind of misconduct, which could bar a candidate from a certain number of reexaminations -- or permanently. Also, failure was not always the result of poor work. There was a quota on the number of passes accepted from each exam; so one's fate could be determined by one's rank in the results. In the Ming Dynasty, quotas were also set by region, so that more candidates from the North were passed than from the South. This is an interesting case of an early use of political preferential policies.

Examinations were given in a three year cycle. This began at the local level, in each District, (hsien or "County"), where examinations, the hsien-shih, , were given the first two of the three years. In Ming times there were about 1100 Districts. This is the administrative level of government where we find Judge Dee. This lowest level of examinations was in principle provided for boys who had not yet come of age. Older boys and men could take the examination also, but they were supposed to have harder questions. False ages were often given and beards shaved, strategems frequently tolerated by the authorities. The District examinations were administered by the Magistrate himself (something we never find Judge Dee doing, by the way), in a hall at the District Tribunal where candidates sat at desks. The test continued through the day until the light failed. The Magistrate himself scored the tests, which were only identified by the desk number where the candidate had sat.

Success at the District level simply meant that candidates moved up to the examinations, the fu-shih, , then given at the capital of the Prefecture, , where an examination was administered much like the one at the District level. Success at this level meant that one could proceed to the "qualifying examination," yüan-shih, , given at the Prefectural capital again, but under the direction of the Provincial "director of studies." A candidate who passed this examination became a sheng-yüan, , a "student officer," "graduate official," "licentiate," or "matriculate." This actually entitled the candidate to no more than the right to enter a District or Prefectural school. But it also gave him a rank, the lowest, the 9th, in the Civil Service system, signified by distinctive dress and certain legal privileges. A licentiate might make a living clerking, sometimes permanently, for a Magistrate or other official.

Every third year (specifically in the years of the Rat, Rabbit, Horse, and Chicken), licentiates, having completed their schooling and passed some qualifiying exams, could move up to examinations, the hsiang-shih, , at the level of the Provinces, . (The whole administrative system of Districts, Prefectures, and Provinces is discussed elsewhere.)

At the Provincial level the number of candidates taking the examinations was large enough that dedicated buildings in their own extensive compounds were provided for this purpose. The examination buildings contained small individual cells, closed off with no more than a curtain, where a candidate wrote alone during the days and nights of the examinations, which were given in three sessions over a week. There were three planks provided in a cell, which could be arranged, using ledges on the walls, as a shelf, a seat, a desk, and, at need, a bed. A candidate brought his own food and any cooking implements. Soldiers observed the cells, often with displays of bullying that the soldiers knew would not be possible with successful candidates.

In the two off years of the examination cycle, the buildings stood empty. They often came to be regarded as haunted, since some candidates, overwhelmed with their sense of failure, might commit suicide. This is not unknown at modern universities, although I have not heard of suicides during examinations. Also, students studying for examinations might seduce young women with the promise of marriage once they made their fortune by passing the examination. If a young woman was then abandoned, she might commit suicide. We then have no difficulty imagining her ghost, , appearing and distracting, reproaching, or assaulting the candidate during the examination in order to have revenge by preventing him from passing. This could result in his suicide as well. There are so many stories of this sort that collections of them were published. Thus, over the years, the examination halls, standing empty most of the time, could have become crowded with spirits suffering from various causes of distress -- a belief encountered in the Judge Dee novel Murder in Canton. Since candidates and staff were locked into the compounds during the testing sessions, anyone who died, from natural causes or otherwise, was wrapped in a mat and actually thrown over the wall to be disposed off outside. Other miraculous events are reported during examinations, both to reward the virtuous and to punish the vicious.

As we can imagine from modern schools, cheating was a common problem in the examinations. Arriving candidates were searched more than once, with an eagerness and thoroughness by attendants motivated by awards in silver for contraband (books, notes) found, and punishments for anything not found. All exams were submitted using the same device of numbers to conceal real names. Since the handwriting of many candidates might be familiar to the examiners, all examinations, which were written in black ink, were rewritten by copyists, who were only given red ink. Corrections of the copy against the original were subsequently made by other examiners using yellow ink. The basic grading was done by examiners writing comments and evaluations in blue ink. Since there could be 10,000 to 20,000 examinations submitted at the Provincial examination (which gives some idea of the size of the examination compounds), the grading was often a harried and careless business, as many modern teachers might imagine from their own experience of grading finals at the end of the semester. Nevertheless, despite all the precautions, the potential for bias and bribery still existed. The style or particular expressions of a candidate might give him away, accidentally or deliberately, innocently or by arrangement. The battle over cheating and corruption was thus an ongoing process.

Passing the Provincial examination made a candidate a chü-jen, , an "elevated person." This entitled him to a higher Civil Service rank, the 7th, and he could even be appointed to some offices. Or he could continue on to the Metropolitan examination, the hui-shih, , in the Capital in the year following the Provincial exams (namely the year of the Ox, Dragon, Sheep, or Dog). Passing the examination there made one a chin-shih, , or "presented scholar," using the term for the highest of the four traditional classes, the "scholar," of Chinese society. On analogy with western academic degrees, the sheng-yüan can be regarded as the "bachelor," the chü-jen the "master," and the chin-shih the "doctor."

The "presented scholar" would qualify for all administrative appointments in the Empire. But another level of examination was added in the Sung Dynasty. The Palace Examination, tien-shih, , was in principle administered by the Emperor himself, and was intended to put the Emperor in the place of revered Teacher to all the candidates. The circumstances of the examination were again like those of the District exams, with candidates sitting at desks in a hall within the Palace and writing until dark. To an extent, it was a pro forma exercise. However, higher ranking there, bestowed personally by the Emperor, entitled one to enter the Imperial Hanlin Academy; and so exalted a Scholar might spend his whole life in the Capital, as a resident of the Imperial Academy, lecturing to the Emperor, and as one of the higher officials of the realm. But of the 20,000 officers of the Ming civil service, only 2000 would serve in the Capital. The rest fan out to the Districts, Prefectures, and Provinces.

A completely separate system of military examinations existed along side the civil service system. In theory, especially at the beginning of the Ming, the military system was co-equal in dignity, value, and authority to the civil system. However, Confucians had little respect for soldiers, and the status and power accorded to the civil and military establishments came to vary inversely, with the advantage going to the Scholars. Even successful generals might be executed for one defeat, pour encourager les autres, or for the barest suspicions or accusations of rebellion. Consequently, many Ming generals had no difficultly accommodating themselves to the Manchus. Also, the military examination system never achieved the status and value that the military academies would in later armies. Thus, products of the examination system were not taken very seriously in the Army itself, where successful generals usually came up from the ranks, tried, proven, and promoted in battle.

The literary basis of the civil examinations, intended to morally educate the candidates, and although drawing on examples from Chinese history and law, included little otherwise of importance to the practical side of government or the technical problems that might arise under various levels of administration. Rather than update the examinations to include education in practical government and familiarity with modern science and engineering, the whole system was abolished in 1905.

Much of the information here is from China's Examination Hell, The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China, by Ichisada Miyazaki, translated by Conrad Schirokauer [1963, Yale, 1981], with some details from other sources given on the main page for Chinese Emperors.

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