Confucianism, the ideology and way of life propagated by Confucius in the 5th Century BCE, has provided the substance of learning, a well-defined source of social values, and created social code and mores for the Chinese people. Indeed, even in the decades under communist leadership leading up to the present, Confucianism has provided order in Chinese society and been the underpinning of all aspects of Chinese life. In many ways, Confucianism parallels for China what the political ideology of Plato and Aristotle is for the West.
Although interpretations of Confucianism have changed over time as Chinese political theorists have offered their own unique visions, its core values have remained consistent. Throughout the centuries of the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties, Confucianism formed the basis of crucial meritocratic institutions like the civil service examinations and gave legitimacy to the government. It has been a tool used to create stability, but has also been the object of hatred and denigration during the cultural revolution of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. Regardless of its vilification or glorification, Confucianism has played an integral role in shaping Chinese society. Confucian ideology has been used as a set of principles guiding social mores, a vehicle through which intellectuals have called for political reform, and as a scapegoat and enemy during the violent communist cultural revolution.
During the Ming Dynasty, the fundamental concepts of Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism formed the basis of Chinese bureaucracy and government. Xi’s ideology emphasized rational decision making and investigation. It was largely his writings that ascribed special significance to ancient texts including the Four Books, Five Classics, the Analects and the Mencius. For generations students would be required to read such works as a part of their education and preparations for the civil service exams. In his commentary on Greater Learning, one of the Four Books, Xi explains that according to his master Cheng Yi, The Greater Learning is a work handed down from Confucius; it is a gate through which beginner students enter into virtue.
This explanation in reality sums up the core essence of Confucian doctrine. The goal of education is not merely the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, but to create a virtuous and productive citizenship. His beliefs are also very meritocratic in nature, as he argues that unlike physical prowess, every individual has the innate potential for achieving wisdom or inborn luminous virtue. The notion of an even playing field in which anyone can become wise formed the basis of the civil service examinations. During the Song Dynasty, success on the examinations served as both a goal for the citizens and a ticket to upward mobility.
The presence of unbiased educational standards helped to reduce corruption in the government. Xi explains that the system of disciplined learning propagated by Confucius only ever failed because the dynasties of the past failed to properly implement it. The foreign political theorists who they turned to confused the world and misled people, blocking the way to humaneness and rightness and as a consequence lesser men were no longer so fortunate as to enjoy the beneficial effects of good government. According to Confucius’s model, government should work for the benefit of every citizen, regardless of wealth or social status. Part of what made Xi’s neo-Confucian beliefs so appealing was the direct and easily comprehensible language of his works.
Xi explains that Da Xue or Great Learning consists of eight specific steps which must be followed in order to ensure good government and social stability. He argues that each individual must cultivate their own virtue and govern themselves, and then to govern their households. Only after virtue has been instilled at the individual and family levels can the state be governed effectively. This system holds ordinary people accountable for the success and failures of the nation, and truly gives them a stake in government.
In this sense, it is the patriotic duty of every citizen to cultivate their own virtue through education. Xi speaks to the people effectively through his use of analogies. He describes the path toward virtue as a tree with self-cultivation as the roots. At the core of good and effective governance lies individual initiative and self-discipline. While Xi’s arguments on the path toward a virtuous society had a tremendous influence on the literati elite, more significant was their impact on the common people, who were given concrete goals to strive for.
Confucianism, although beneficial in that it provided order to Chinese society, puts a significant amount of responsibility on the individual and is just as important for what is lacks. Huang Zongxi, a political theorist during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, offers pointed criticism of the system of government, which he viewed as corrupt and inefficient. His writings strike a much different tone than those of Xi, who wrote optimistically about the dynastic system and traditional governing structure rooted in Confucian principles. He argued that dynastic rule was inherently selfish and that it did not conform to the Confucian ideal of governance in the public interest.
In his writings, he outlines a series of reforms that would improve government including a program that would utilize schools as venues for public discourse between citizens and representatives, a model similar to town halls. In his view, the dynastic model did not provide any concrete mechanisms for holding the emperor and his officials accountable. Huang effectively uses Confucian principles in order to justify his criticisms. Among its various impacts, perhaps one of the most significant benefits of Confucianism is that it provided a moral basis for critique of the state and an ethical standard at which institutions should operate. Huang makes a number of proposals, but they all share a deep-rooted disdain for a government centered on one leader.
He argues for the necessity of ministers, and explains that the reason for minister ship lies in the fact that the world is too big for one man to govern, so governance must be shared with colleagues. Therefore, when one goes forth to serve, it is for all under Heaven and not for the prince; it is for all the people and not for one family.
Later political theorists have offered far more radical interpretations of Confucian teaching and like Huang, used them to critique the structure of government. Among the most prominent voices was Wang Fuzhi during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. He was a vocal critic of the Qing, and possessed a deep-rooted hatred for its Manchu leadership. He was a follower of Confucius, but felt that the neo-Confucian teachings of thinkers like Zhu Xi had distorted the true essence of Confucian teaching. He wrote commentaries on the classics, and offered his own hyper-nationalist vision of the path forward for the Qing Dynasty.
He lived during the transition between the Ming and Qing dynasties, and his writings reflect a distant for the Manchu invaders. In his famous Yellow Book Fuzhi uses the analogy of animals in order to support his belief that societies should be separated based on ethnic lines. He argues that the forces of Heaven and Earth created ethnicity in order to separate groups of people and make them safer, and contends that ethnic separation fosters order among humanity.
This lofty sense of order is the same order that Confucius believes that governments must maintain. He also defines concepts like humaneness and righteousness in terms consistent with his ethnically centered approach. He defines humaneness as love for one’s own group and righteousness as managing the order within one’s own group. Fuzhi’s emphasis on maintaining order is unquestionably Confucian, but his heavy focus on ethnicity is original work outside the boundaries of traditional Confucian doctrine, which does not focus on racial or ethnic differences.
Nevertheless, Wang Fuzhi stands as another example of a political theorist claiming reverence for Confucian principles in order to justify and argue for a set of structural changes to the way in which the Chinese state is organized.
During the 20th century China went through a period of political instability which resulted in the Chinese Communist Party seizing power in mainland China and Chang Kai Shek and his nationalist party fleeing and establishing Taiwan in 1949. During this chaotic period, Confucianism was the source of tremendous controversy. In the 1930s, Chang Kai Shek resurrected Confucianism as he saw its unique capability to instill proper behavior and virtue in his people. After the communist takeover in 1949, Mao Zedong took the opposite stance, and violently sought to limit Confucian influences and silence literati intellectuals as part of his cultural revolution. He viewed Confucianism as a backward ideology supporting feudalism and the landed elite.
The Confucian philosophy of stability through social hierarchy runs directly counter to the communist notion of revolution through class conflict and struggle, and therefore Mao viewed is at threat which needed to be crushed. Furthermore, he despised it for its connection to the nationalist government and viewed it as counter-revolutionary. In Mao’s Sixteen Points of guidance for executing the cultural revolution, he explains that the people must criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeoisie academic ?authorities’ and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes. In referencing the ideology of the bourgeoisie, Mao alludes to the Analects and other Confucian works. In fact, Mao imposed a total ban of the Analects and systematically detained and tortured all Confucian scholars.
In addition, the Red Guards overran Confucian temples and defaced statues, and even went so far as to dig up Confucius’s grave just to prove that it was empty.
Although Confucianism transformed over time as it was adapted by various political theorists, it is still the source of values and social code of the Chinese people. Confucianism is a worldview, political ideology, scholarly tradition, and way of life simultaneously. Despite the CCP condemning Confucianism as a dangerous and counterrevolutionary ideology, it is now making a comeback in China. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping is now actively promoting the CCP as the defender of Confucian virtue, as he has taken action and reopened Confucian temples and sponsored Confucian institutes in countries throughout the world. By opening such institutes, Jinping extends Chinese cultural influence and soft power throughout the globe.
He has sought to draw connection between the Confucian view of the continuity of history and communism, which now must inevitably be included as an integral part of Chinese history. Moreover, the Confucian concept of reverence for ancestors and respect for elders falls in line with the communist idea of glorifying party leaders as role models for society. At a moment in history when China’s economy is rapidly expanding, Confucianism provides a platform through which Jinping can instill social values in the population. In this sense, he seeks to utilize Confucianism in a manner similar to the great theorists of the past like Zhu Xi.
Overall, the historical development of Chinese culture cannot be fairly studied without consideration for Confucianism and its principles. Throughout the generations it has guided Chinese social code, served as a platform providing legitimacy to calls for political reform, and been used as a scapegoat for all the problems associated with China’s dynastic past. It has been adapted and applied in various different ways, and remains to fully be seen what role it will play in 21st century China.
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