The Birth of Confucianism

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“If we were to characterize in one word the Chinese way of life for the last two thousand years, the word could be ‘Confucian’. No other individual in Chinese history has so deeply influenced the life and thought of his people, as a transmitter, teacher and creative interpreter of the ancient culture and literature and as a moulder of the Chinese mind and character.” (de Bary, et al., 1960, vol. 1: 15)

Yet the impacts of Confucius’s teachings, and of the resultant philosophy bearing his name, have hardly been confined to China – Confucianism has had a profound effect on East Asian culture as a whole, greatly influencing Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, and even reaching Western scholars. Few men of history can rival the international renown and prestige of Confucius, and certainly no other philosophy is so deeply ingrained into East Asia as Confucianism.

However, Confucius the revered philosopher, while described by a later disciple as an “inerrant” figure of “great authority”, can hardly be compared to the historical Kong Qiu (Confucius’s real name), a failed government bureaucrat of minor nobility, just as Confucianism today in its various forms across Asia is wildly different to his original teachings. The early development of Confucianism exemplifies the divergence of a popular belief system from its origins due to changes in historical circumstance.

Confucius was born around 550 BC in the north-eastern province of Lu (modern day Shandong) during the turbulent ‘Spring and Autumn’ period of Chinese history (roughly 770 to 476 BC), during which the decline of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty saw the emergence of autonomous regional states under the de facto rule of dukes. This was a period of immense change in Chinese history of which the Confucian school was an ideological outgrowth.

The Zhou Dynasty (1050 – 221 BC) had established a feudalistic and decentralised system of confederation-like government known as Fengjian, under which the Zhou kings allocated lands to their nobles. These nobles then became de facto rulers of their regions, taking the hereditary position of dukes. The establishment of these semi-autonomous vassal states caused the eventual downfall of the Zhou.

Following the sack of the old Zhou capital, the court moved east to Wangcheng in 771 BC, marking the end of the Western Zhou Dynasty and the start of the Eastern Zhou. However, the movement of the court to Wangcheng in the Yellow River Valley damaged the king’s control over the Guangzhou region and its key military forces, instead needing to rely on surrounding vassal states. Consequently, the Zhou court lost most of its authority and held only nominal power for its remaining years. 

With the Zhou kings having been relegated to mere figureheads, the previous vassal fiefdoms became autonomous states. However, the most powerful states soon began to contend with each other for suzerainty over the smaller states, the majority of which were absorbed into the larger states over the next two centuries.

The period of the ‘Five Hegemons’ and subsequent power struggles between the dominant states of Qin, Jin, Qi and Chu became known as the Spring and Autumn period, and the later years of conflict the Warring States period. The latter ended with the Qin conquest of all the other states by 221 BC under Ying Zheng (who became known as Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of Qin), unifying China and ushering in the millennia-long imperial age.

It was during the Spring and Autumn period that Confucius was born. The son of a commandant of the local Lu garrison, he was of the shi class – a sort of civil service nobility, ranking just below the titled nobility. Yet despite his relatively high status, Kong Qiu had a difficult childhood, suffering the death of his father at age three and being raised in poverty by his mother. He was educated at schools for commoners but nonetheless dreamt of becoming a government official.

In his early 20s, Kong Qiu attained the minor government post of keeper of the public granary and later of the public fields. At the same time, he tutored private pupils to supplement his income, gaining the reputation of being the most learned man in the state with his profound teaching. It is certainly remarkable that at such a young age, and having received only an ordinary level of education, he was able to reach such prominence.

Confucius would display yet more admirable qualities later in his life, especially in matters of the governance of Lu. At 35, he followed into exile Duke Jao, the nominal ruler of the state of Lu who had been banished for attacking the three viscounts who controlled its military. By choosing to follow the disgraced duke into exile, Confucius established his political sympathies as a legitimist (a supporter of hereditary claims to the throne).

The political turbulence that plagued the Zhou states during this time was reflected in the internal instability and discord of the Lu government. Several more revolts and political disturbances bedevilled the Lu state during Confucius’s lifetime, and he was on several occasions tasked by the leading political figures to provide solutions, gaining more and more repute after each instance not only as a man of immense wisdom and knowledge but also of bold action.

The most significant was perhaps in 499 BC, when Confucius put forward a daring plan to restore peace to Lu: for the viscounts to restore the duke to the actual state government, to hand over control of the military to that government, and to raze the walls of their castles so as to limit their power. To ask a noble in power and with the support of the military to voluntarily release it was undoubtedly a bold plan with a high chance of failure. Nonetheless, Confucius was startlingly close to success, with only the third viscount remaining unpersuaded. Knowing that his political career would be destroyed if the plan failed (and indeed it did – he was forced into a 13-year exile), the fact Confucius committed to it anyway reveals his commendable personal character and lifelong creed – that, in the words of one historian, Homer Dubs, “a cultured man’s duty is to his state and he should exalt moral idealism in government as well as in personal conduct”.

Yet the achievements of Confucius the man cannot explain the rise of Confucianism in the centuries following his death in 479 BC, let alone its continuing influence. During his lifetime, China was experiencing its ‘Golden Age of Philosophy’, known as the Hundred Schools of Thought (Zhuzi Baijia). Many other acclaimed works were published, such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and other notable Eastern philosophies were created – Daoism, Legalism and Mohism, to name a few. The fierce ideological competition meant Confucius’s thought initially gained little traction, but built it up over many centuries.

The sudden explosion of hundreds of these ‘schools of thought’ during the Eastern Zhou periods was explained by three factors. For one, it was socially prestigious for nobles to host menke (dependent groups of scholars), which allowed said scholars to focus on scholarship instead of personal worldly concerns. The political situation also contributed, as the weakness of the central government meant there was little to no state censorship. Finally, and most evidently, the sudden loss of the central Zhou authority and the ensuing political turmoil, civil strife and external conflicts prompted many scholars to develop their own political philosophies not only to explain what went wrong but also to theorise how best to restore harmony and unity to China.

For Confucius, a conservative, the answer lay in the teachings of the early Western Zhou kings, such as in the Rites of Zhou written by the Duke of Zhou (r. 1042 – 1035 BC) that called for ‘Sage Emperors’ (comparable to the ‘philosopher kings’ of Plato’s Republic) possessing the Mandate of Heaven (the right to rule China bestowed on the monarch for his virtue), and the return of the old ceremonial rites of Western Zhou as a means to consolidate the existing social hierarchy and therefore bring about order. This belief was certainly reflected in his political career, as shown by aforementioned examples such as his following Duke Jao into exile displaying his legitimist sympathies.

But for others the approach was wildly different: Daoists, under Laozi (an honorific meaning ‘Old Master’), called for a passive and reactive approach, namely that the individual should adapt to the Dao (‘way’) of the cosmos. At the other extreme were the Legalists, who, under figures such as Li Kui, Shang Yang, Han Fei and Li Si, believed human nature was fundamentally selfish, and that accordingly strict discipline and a harsh code of law had to be imposed by a central authority to achieve order and stability. These ideas were ascendant within the Qin state and short-lived Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BC).

The most significant reason that Confucius was less widely renowned in his own lifetime was because those in power during his time were the diametric opposites of what his philosophy espoused. The principles of knowing your station, acting morally in public and private life, and returning to the old Zhou system of ritual and governance did not resonate with the myriad nobles and ministers trying selfishly to seize power and influence during the turbulent and fractious period. Despite this, he had established a sizeable school by his death in 479 BC, which had been enough ensure to survival of his teachings.

It is largely thanks to the diligent work of these disciples (numbering 72 core pupils at the time of his death) that Confucianism firmly established itself during the Warring States and even became the state ideology in the Han Dynasty. Indeed, it was only after his death that the sayings of Confucius were collated by his followers in the Analects – now a world-renowned classic.

In fact, the rise of Confucianism is mostly credited to later disciples such as Xunzi (c.300 – c.230 BC) and Mencius (372 – 289 BC), who developed Confucian principles and maintained its relevance by incorporating elements of other schools of thought. Under the former, who lived in the later stages of the Warring States period and therefore experienced rising Qin influence, elements of Legalism were transfused into the Confucian system; under the latter, components of the mystical theory of the Five Elements were assimilated, paving the way for Confucianism to develop theologically under the Western Han. This malleability has been one of Confucianism’s most remarkable characteristics, able to assimilate other popular ideas or to be assimilated.

Early in the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 9), a Legalistic form of Confucianism (similar to that of Xunzi) was made the state religion, elevating the status of Confucian studies to that of the Holy Writ (reserved for religious writings of unchallenged authority). His ideas were held in similar reverence, in practicality if not legally, for the entirety of the imperial age.

However, rites and reading of Confucian philosophy are not necessary for its influence to be pervasive; its greatest influence has been in the institutionalised cultural norms of Asia today. The importance of filial piety, familial loyalty and practicing ren (benevolence) and li (propriety) in public and private life can be attributed to the teachings of one man living in a time of unprecedented turmoil and to the development of those principles by his disciples in the following millennia.

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