The legacy of Confucius

Rana Mitter examines why Confucianism has been so powerful in China across the millennia, despite the emergence of varied conflicting ideologies...

Statue of the great philosopher Confucius in Shanghai. Taken at the Shanghai Wen Miao, also known as the Shanghai Confucian Temple. (Photo by Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Over the centuries, Chinese thought has been the product of a variety of influences, Buddhism, Taoism, and Marxism among them. Yet one tradition above all has run through Chinese thought for more than two millennia – the ideas of the thinker Confucius (551 BC to 479 BC).
Who was Confucius? For a figure who came to symbolise Chinese philosophy, he was not greatly successful in his lifetime. He lived during an era when the country we now know as China was a patchwork of competing small kingdoms.
Confucius developed a political philosophy that reflected his horror at the constant warfare around him. He wandered from kingdom to kingdom, trying to persuade rulers to follow his teachings, but never achieved anything more than a low official position. However, he did develop a devoted group of followers, who transmitted his teachings to later generations. It was not until several hundred years later, during the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220) that “Confucianism”, an ethical system of behaviour and statecraft, became the defining system underpinning Chinese culture for the next two millennia.
What are the ideas underpinning Confucianism? It is not a religion as such, and although Confucius didn’t deny the existence of a spirit world, he stated that it was more important to concentrate on this world while one was in it.
Reflecting his distaste for war, he declared that order was a key requirement in society. Underpinning that order was a belief in the importance of hierarchical relationships. Subjects should obey their rulers, children should obey their parents, and wives should obey their husbands. However, Confucius didn’t intend that order to be imposed by force. Instead, society should be harmonious and people should be encouraged in “self-development” so that they could make the most of their position.
One’s moral status didn’t depend on social position. It was possible, and indeed quite likely, that there could be good peasants at the same time that there was an evil ruler or cruel aristocrat. Confucian thought also differed from modern thought in that it glorified the past and venerated old age. “I follow the Zhou,” said Confucius, referring to the ancient dynasty that was treated as a lost “golden age” by generations of Chinese rulers.
At the heart of Confucianism lies a social contract. The ruled owed allegiance to rulers, but rulers who were careless of the welfare of their people would lose the “mandate of heaven” and could be justly overthrown.
Confucius never gave rulers a licence for oppression. By participating in li, often translated as “ritual”, but really meaning something like “appropriate conduct”, human beings showed themselves to be civilised beings, regardless of ethnic background, and could aspire to become junzi (“people of integrity”) or even sheng (“sages”). Education, as the means to self-cultivation, was key.
Confucian thought changed immensely over time. Confucius himself would probably not have recognised the way in which his ideas were adapted by later rulers. Despite the stress on ethics and harmony as the best way to rule a country, Chinese rulers also made sure that they had monopoly over the use of force.
Confucius generally disapproved of the search for profit as a good in itself, but from the Song dynasty (AD 960 to AD 1279) onwards, China saw a commercial revolution, and in the late imperial period (AD 1368 to AD 1912) even official ideology made its peace with profit-making. Confucianism was not one monolithic set of ideas over 2,500 years, any more than Christianity was. However, its basic tenets underpinned what it meant to be Chinese for the whole period up to the mid-19th century.
The arrival of western influences, in the shape of opium traders and missionaries, brought an unwelcome jolt to the old world of Confucian thought. Although it was western guns that made the initial impact, it was the assumptions of modern thought that were longer-lasting. The impact of nationalism and communism, and their inherent love of newness and progress, rather than reverence for a past golden age, shattered many of the certainties of the old Confucian world. Yet those ideas have not disappeared, even now.
In contemporary China, the government, no longer tied to the ideology of Mao, is looking to China’s tradition to find a moral core for the 21st century. The “number one teacher” – Confucius – is once again on school curricula. Values of order, hierarchy, and mutual obligation clearly have their appeal in the 21st century as much as in the fifth century BC.
Rana Mitter is author of A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford University Press 2004).