By Amanda Wang, V Form
A Preliminary Probe into the Impact of Confucianism on China: How is a thought from two thousand years ago still relevant today?
Confucianism was born out of a disturbed and divided era, with wars plunging people into the abyss of misery and suffering. Different from the Taoists who observed the way and legalists who committed to harsh punishments, Confucius sought to restore a harmonious social order to China. The most prosperous dynasties of China applied Confucianism to state administration, and Confucius himself was known by the highest institutions down to the grass-root workers. The open sentence of The Analects: “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? Is it not delightful to have coming from distant quarters? Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?” is a proverb to all Chinese (Xue Er). It renders in my memory since the age of four. At that time, my friends and I could correctly recite around a hundred of those, without knowing what they actually meant. But every grown Chinese knows, through the Five Ideals of jen, chun-tzu, li, te, and wen, the sage influenced China profoundly in society, politics, and culture for thousands of years and beyond.
It is delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters. Confucius suggested that there is no self apart from human relationships (Smith). They are the source of humaneness, the center of life, and the foundation of society. In dealing with others, Confucius taught us to always be respectful because this reduces conflicts, to always be tolerant because this wins you favor, to always be honest because this brings you trust, lastly to always be benevolent, and you will receive rewards. These principles contribute to the righteous social characteristics of Chinese. A disciple asked, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master responded, “Is not RECIPROCITY such as words?” (Zi Gong). Chinese remember this when interacting with one another, accomplishing a conscientious and unified society. I feel this deeply in the United States: there is a secret menu for Pandahouse if you order in Mandarin, and my Korean friends always let me talk to the salesperson in Chinatown because that will give us a discount; I received enormous help from my fellow Chinese since I first arrived here. Without a doubt, Confucianism has aggregated China at times of fragmentation. It facilitated China in becoming the first nation-state, several hundred years earlier than the European nationalism, because the essence of a Confucian society existed in the heart of every Chinese.
Confucianism strengthened the patriarchal social structure in China. In the Five Constant Relationship, the husband is expected to be fulfilling, the wife listening. According to Confucianism, wives take responsibility in assisting the husband and bringing up the children. This causes a phenomenon in China today, in which more than sixty percent of the female population prefer to be housewives than career women (“Full-Time Housewife: Most Women’s Choice”). Despite the subordinate social status of women, Confucianism recognizes them as an indispensable part of society. The concept of family is particularly strong in Confucian China. “If there be harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation” (Smith). The word for nation in Mandarin is Guo Jia (国家), Guo meaning country, and Jia meaning family. Family is a small nation, whereas a nation is composed of millions of families. The best husbands and wives are the ones who are striving to love and protect each other.
It is pleasant to learn with constant perseverance and application. Confucius promoted education on a large scale. He once stated that there should be no distinction of classes in teaching (Wei Ling Gong). He founded private schools to provide education for commoners and taught his students in accordance with their aptitude. Confucius played a significant role in improving the level of knowledge of Chinese during his period. Chinese obey his ideas closely, such as “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous” (Wei Zheng) and “When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them” (Shu Er). Confucius impacted China’s education system to this day; students spend a great amount of time reviewing materials and learning from one another. Furthermore, Confucianism was implemented in the civil service exam, which was used to select the most prestigious students to enter bureaucracy. This exam based on the teachings of Confucianism gave the lower classes access to the government and social fluidity in general. With Confucian scholars in power, Confucianism has a momentous impact on China’s politics for certainty.
Chinese emperors took advantage of Confucianism to consolidate their central power. Among the Five Constant Relationships, that of ruler and subject occupied primary importance. While the subjects are loyal to their ruler and follow his commands, the ruler serves as a moral example, educating, understanding, and protecting his subjects. A good ruler by the definition of Confucianism rules by virtue and benevolence to obtain fondness from his subjects instead of by force and fear (Cleary). These Confucian teachings have guided many emperors from the Han, Tang, Song, and Ming dynasty to establish a flourishing China (Cox). Speaking of the recent Coronavirus outbreak, Chinese followed the guidance of the government closely and have been staying home starting from January because they believed in the ability of the authorities to protect them well. Confucianism had also influenced China’s diplomacy remarkably. In the course of colonization, China chose to continue its tributary system out of respect and preservation to other cultures because the Master told, “what you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others” (Zi Gong). We always say, “treat others the way you want to be treated”. This is the same.
Having discussed so much on the positive influences of Confucianism, it was not without deficiency. Confucianism attached little importance to the development of the sciences. This disadvantage became obvious as the rest of the world progressed and industrialized. In the May Fourth Movement, a group of Chinese students organized a large protest and asked for social attention to sciences and political transformation to diplomacy (Cox). Moreover, Mao Zedong criticized Confucius during the Cultural Revolution, rejecting some parts of his thoughts that were not suitable for the time (Cox). For a long time, China under the model of Confucianism advocated for the right-thinking instead of the right to think. Beyond all doubt, China has become one of the most nationalist and cohesive societies, but individuals have lost their voices in the midst of this.
The most conspicuous mark of Confucianism on China is probably filial piety, one of the five Constant Relationships. My Western friends can hardly understand these Chinese traditions: It is disrespectful to address your parents by their names, which I get blamed for a lot. And we do not pick up our chopsticks until the eldest on the table starts eating or allows us to do so. Children are also considered unfilial if they fail to provide a simple livelihood for their parents or are not able to accompany them regularly. This specific regulation is written in the Chinese Constitution. However, filial piety means not only for the children to respect and obey the parents but also for the parents to support and take care of their children. The love of a parent should be altruistic, and a parent should be wanting to give the best to the child.
Confucius devoted a lot of energy to nurturing art because he thought it ennobled spirit and induced self-contemplation (Smith). Confucian art embodied his teaching, depicting benevolent rulers and orderly societies. Artists also incorporated natural elements such as orchids to represent purity and loyalty (“The Educational Value of Confucian Art”). On the other side, Confucius emphasized courtesy and propriety as a form of moral art. The goal of Confucianism, different from other eastern religions such as Hinduism to achieve Moksha or Buddhism to be awake, is to be a jun-tzu, to be humanity at its best (Smith). That being said, the Chinese dedicate themselves to practicing rites daily, from the use of language to the art of tea, to become more human.
Confucianism has impacted China immeasurably in every aspect of life. It paved the way for countless good qualities of Chinese culture, including moderation, diligence, empathy, uprightness, and many more. In the twentieth century, Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek attempted to restore Confucianism in China for harmony but were fruitless (Cox). However, a new wave of the effort of reviving Confucianism has started at the start of the twenty-first century, with Confucianists building Confucian schools and promoting it. Although Confucianism is regarded as outdated in China by some people, the fact that it is already ineradicable in Chinese customs is undeniable. I would like to end this article on one of my favorite analects: “When the year becomes cold, then we know how the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves” (Zi Han).
Amanda Wang is a V Form boarding student from Shanghai, China. She is passionate about science and history. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, listening to music, and scuba diving.
- Cleary, J. C. Morality Begins at the Top. Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 2010, Summer/Autumn.
- Cox, Phil, et al. World History: Modern. Perfection Learning, 2020.
- “The Educational Value of Confucian Art.” The Confucian Weekly Bulletin, 28 Jan. 2016, confucianweeklybulletin.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/the-educational-value-of-confucian-art/.
- Full-Time Housewife: Most Women’s Choice, http://www.china.org.cn/english/2003/Jan/54184.htm.
- Smith, Hoston. World’s Religions. HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.
- Sturgeon, Donald. “Shu Er.” Chinese Text Project, ctext.org/confucianism.
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- Sturgeon, Donald. “Xue Er.” Chinese Text Project, ctext.org/confucianism.
- Sturgeon, Donald. “Zi Gong.” Chinese Text Project, ctext.org/confucianism.
- Sturgeon, Donald. “Zi Han.” Chinese Text Project, ctext.org/confucianism.