Better known in China as “Master Kong” (Chinese: Kongzi), Confucius was a Chinese thinker of the fifth century BCE. c. whose influence on the intellectual and social history of East Asia is immeasurable. As a culturally symbolic figure, he has been alternately idealized, deified, despised, vilified, and rehabilitated for millennia by Asian and non-Asian thinkers and regimes. Given his extraordinary impact on Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese thought, it is ironic that so little is known about Confucius. The tradition named after him, “Confucianism” (Chinese: Rujia), can be traced ultimately to the sayings and biographical fragments recorded in the text known as the Analects (Chinese: Lunyu). As with the person of Confucius himself, scholars disagree about the origins and character of the Analects, but it remains the traditional source of information about the life and teachings of Confucius. most scholars are confident that it is possible to extract from the analects various themes and philosophical views that can be safely attributed to this ancient Chinese sage. These are primarily ethical in nature, rather than analytic-logical or metaphysical, and include Confucius’s claim that tian (“heaven”) is aligned with the moral order but relies on human agents to actualize his will; his concern for li (ritual property) as the instrument through which family, state, and the world can align with the moral order of tian; and his belief in the “contagious” nature of the moral force (de), by which moral rulers spread morality to their subjects, moral parents raise moral children, etc.
- the confucius of history
- the confucius of the analects
- harmonious order
- moral strength
- the confucius of the myth
- the confucius of the state
- key interpreters of confucius
- references and further reading
1. the confucius of history
The sources for the historical recovery of the life and thought of Confucius are limited to texts after his traditional life (551-479 BC) by a few decades minimum and several centuries maximum. Confucius’ appearances in Chinese texts are a sign of his popularity and utility among literate elites during the Warring States (403-221 BC), Qin (221-206 BC), and Han (206 BC-AD 220) periods. . these texts vary in character and function, from collections of biographical and pedagogical fragments such as the analects to dynastic histories and works by later Confucian thinkers.
The historical Confucius, born in the small state of Lu on the Shandong Peninsula in northeast China, was a product of the “Spring and Autumn Period” (770-481 BC). we know it mainly from texts dating to the “warring states period” (403-221 BC). During these eras, China did not enjoy political unity and suffered from internal warfare by small states, remnants of the once great Zhou polity that collapsed after “barbarian” invasions in 771 BC. For more than three hundred years after the supposed year of Confucius’s birth, the Chinese would fight each other for dominance of the empire lost to the Zhou. In the process, life became difficult, especially for the shi (“servant” or “knight”) class, from which Confucius himself arose. as feudal lords were defeated and disenfranchised in battle and the kings of the various warring states began to rely on appointed administrators rather than vassals to rule their territories, these shi became lordless anachronisms and fell in Gentile poverty and roaming. However, their knowledge of aristocratic traditions helped them remain valuable to competing kings, who wished to learn how to recapture the unity imposed by the zhou and who sought to emulate the zhou by modeling court rituals and other institutions on those of the zhou. fallen dynasty.
Thus, a new role arose for the shi as itinerant antique dealers. in such roles, the shi found themselves in and out of office as the fortunes of various patron states came and went. Confucius is said to have held the position for only a short time before retiring on academic retreat. while not in office, veteran shi could gather small circles of disciples: young men of shi backgrounds who wished to succeed in public life. It is precisely these teacher-disciple exchanges between Confucius and his students that the Analects claim to record.
2. the confucius of the analects
Above all, the Analects describe Confucius as one who “transmits, but does not innovate” (7.1). what Confucius intended to convey was the dao (path) of the ancient Zhou sages; In the Analects, he is the learned guardian of the tradition who challenges his disciples to emulate the sages of the past and restore the moral integrity of the state. Although readers of the analects often assume that Confucian views are presented as a coherent and consistent system within the text, a careful reading reveals several different sets of philosophical concerns that do not conflict but complement each other. these complementary sets of concerns can be categorized into four groups:
- harmonious order
- moral strength
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- You, wei-ming. “li as a humanizing process,” in Your, Humanity, and Self-Cultivation: Essays on Confucian Thought (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1979), 17-34.
- van norden, bryan w. “Introduction,” in Confucius and the Analects: New Essays, ed. Bryan W. van norden (oxford: oxford university press, 2002), 3-38.
- walley, arthur, trans. The Analects of Confucius. new york: the macmillan company, 1938.
Those familiar with Enlightenment-influenced presentations of Confucius as an austere humanist who did not discuss the supernatural may be surprised to find the term “theodicy” as a framework for understanding Confucius’ philosophical concerns. Confucius’ record of silence on the subject of the divine is attested by the Analects (5.13, 7.21, 11.12). Indeed, as a child of the late Zhou world, Confucius inherited many religious sensibilities, including theistic ones. for the early Chinese (c. 16th century BC), the world was controlled by an all-powerful deity, “the lord of the heights” (shangdi), to whom supplications were made in the earliest known Chinese texts, inscriptions found on animal bones offered as a divinatory sacrifice. As the Zhou system of government emerged and triumphed over earlier Shang tribal rule, Zhou apologists began to regard their deity, tian (“heaven” or “heaven”) as synonymous with Shangdi, the deity of Shang kings. deposed, and explained the decline of shang and the rise of zhou as a consequence of a change in tianming (“heaven’s mandate”). therefore theistic justifications for conquest and rule were present very early in Chinese history. By the time of Confucius, the concept of the tian seems to have changed slightly. On the one hand, the complex ritual of the Zhou diviners, which served to determine the will of Tian for the benefit of the king, had collapsed with the Zhou government itself. At the same time, the web of religious obligations to multiple divinities, local spirits, and ancestors does not seem to have ceased with the fall of the Zhou, and Confucius seems to defend sacrifices to “gods and ghosts” as consistent with “passing on” noble tradition. however, in the analects a new aspect of tian emerges. For the Confucius of the Analects, discerning Tian’s will and reconciling it with his own moral compass sometimes turns out to be an unsettling exercise:
If heaven is about to abandon this culture, those who die afterward will not be able to participate in it; if heaven has not yet abandoned this culture, what can the men of guang [opponents of Confucius in this case] do to me? (9.5)
There is no one who recognizes me…. I don’t mind heaven and I don’t blame humanity. by learning about the lower I have understood the higher. the one who recognizes me, wouldn’t that be heaven? (14.35)
Heaven has forsaken me! heaven has forsaken me! (11.9)
as a. c. Graham has pointed out, Confucius seems to have two opinions about Tian. At times, he is convinced that he enjoys Tian’s personal protection and sanction, and therefore defies his mortal opponents as he undertakes his campaign of instruction and moral reform. at other times, however, he seems caught in the midst of existential despair, wondering if he has finally lost his divine backing. Tian seems to participate in “fate” and “nature” roles, as well as “deity” ones. What remains consistent throughout Confucius’s discourses on Tian is his threefold assumption about this absolute, extrahuman power in the universe: (1) its alignment with moral goodness, (2) its reliance on human agents to actualize his will, and (3) the variable and unpredictable nature of his associations with mortal actors. Thus, to the extent that the Confucius of the Analects is concerned with justifying the ways of the Tian to humanity, he tends to do so without questioning these three assumptions about the nature of the Tian, which are deeply rooted in the Chinese past.
4. harmonious order
Tian’s reliance on human agents to carry out his will helps explain Confucius’s insistence on moral, political, social, and even religious activism. In one passage (17.19), Confucius seems to believe that just as Tian does not speak but does his bidding for the cosmos, he can also remain “silent” (in the sense of being out of office, perhaps) and still be effective in promoting of his principles, possibly through the many disciples he trained for government service. In any case, much of Confucius’s teaching is directed at the maintenance of three interlocking types of order: (1) aesthetic, (2) moral, and (3) social. the instrument to effect and emulate all three is li (proper ritual).
don’t look, don’t listen, don’t talk, don’t do anything contrary to ritual propriety. (12.1)
In this passage, Confucius stresses the crucial importance of rigorous attention to li as a kind of self-replicating model for good manners and taste, morality, and social order. In his opinion, the appropriate use of a quote from the classic of poetry (shijing), the perfect execution of the guest-host etiquette and the correct performance of the court ritual serve a common purpose: they regulate and maintain the order. the nature of this order is, as mentioned above, threefold. it is aesthetic: citing the shijing upholds the cultural hegemony of Zhou literature and the conventions of elite good taste. it is also moral: good manners show both concern for others and a sense of place. finally, it is social: properly performed rituals duplicate ideal hierarchies of power, whether between ruler and subject, parent and child, or husband and wife. For Confucius, the supreme example of harmonious social order seems to be xiao (filial piety), of which jing (reverence) is the key quality:
watch what a person has in mind to do when his father is alive, and then watch what he does when his father is dead. if, for three years, he does not change his father’s ways, it can be said that he is a good son. (1.11)
[disciple] ziyu asked about filial piety. The teacher said, “today, for a person to be a filial does not mean more than being able to provide food for his parents. even dogs and horses receive food. if a person does not show reverence, where is the difference?” (2.7)
In serving your father and mother, you must discourage them from doing evil in the kindest way. if you see that your advice is ignored, you should not become disobedient, but should remain reverent. you shouldn’t complain even if you’re distressed. (4.18)
The character of this triple order goes deeper than mere conventions like taste and decorum, as the quotes above demonstrate. labeling it “aesthetic” might seem to demean or trivialize it, but to come to this conclusion is to fail to reflect on the peculiar way in which many Western thinkers tend to devalue aesthetics. As David Hall and Roger Ames have argued, this “aesthetic” Confucian order is understood to be both intrinsically moral and deeply harmonious, whether for a Shi family, the court of the king of a warring state, or the cosmos at large. when people and things are in their proper places – and here tradition is the measure of ownership – relationships are fluid, operations effortless, and good is sought and done voluntarily. In the hierarchical political and social conception of Confucius (and all his Chinese contemporaries), what is below is inspired by what is above. a moral ruler will spread morality among those under his rule; a moral father will raise a moral son:
Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son. (12.11)
lead people with moral force and regulate them with rituals, and they will possess shame, and furthermore, they will be fair. (2.3)
5. moral strength
The last quote from the Analects introduces a perhaps most famous term associated with a very different early Chinese text, the laozi (lao-tzu) or daodejing (tao te ching) – from (te), “moral force.” Like Tian, De is heavily laden with a long cultural and religious baggage, dating back to the mists of early Chinese history. During the early Zhou period, de seems to have been a kind of amoral, almost magical power attributed to various people: seductive women, charismatic leaders, etc. For Confucius, de seems to be just as effective magically, but strictly moral. it is both a quality and a virtue of the successful ruler:
Whoever rules by moral force can be compared to the pole star: he takes his place and all the stars pay homage to him. (2.1)
de is a quality of the successful ruler, because he rules at the will of tian, which for Confucius is resolutely allied with morality, and to which he attributes his own interior (7.23). de is the virtue of the successful ruler, without which he could not rule at all.
Confucius’ view of order unites aesthetic concerns for harmony and symmetry (li) with moral force (de) in the pursuit of social goals: a well-ordered family, a well-ordered state, and a well-ordered world . such an aesthetic, moral and social program begins at home, with the cultivation of the individual.
in the analects, two types of people are opposed to each other, not in terms of basic potential (since, in 17.2, Confucius says that all human beings are equal at birth), but in terms of developed potential. these are the junzi (literally, “son of the lord” or “knight”; your wei-ming has originated the useful translation “deep person”, which will be used here) and the xiaoren (“little person”):
The deep person understands what is moral. the little person understands what is profitable. (4.16)
The junzi is the person who always manifests the quality of ren (jen) in his person and shows the quality of yi (i) in his actions (4.5). Ren’s character is made up of two graphic elements, one representing a human being and the other representing the number two. Based on this, ren is often heard to mean “how two people should treat each other.” while such folk etymologies are common in discussions of Chinese characters, they are often as misleading as they are entertaining. In the case of Ren, usually translated as “benevolence” or “humanity,” the graphic elements of a human being and the number two are truly instructive, so much so that Peter Boodberg suggested an evocative translation of Ren as “co-humanity.” The way the junzi relates to his fellow men, however, highlights Confucius’ fundamentally hierarchical model of relationships:
The deep person’s moral strength is like the wind; the small person’s moral strength is like grass. let the wind blow over the grass and it will surely bend. (12.19)
d. c. Lau has pointed out that ren is an attribute of agents, while yi (lit. “what is appropriate” – “righteousness”, “righteousness”) is an attribute of actions. this helps clarify the conceptual links between li, de, and junzi. the junzi qua junzi exerts de, moral force, according to what is yi, appropriate (i.e., what is aesthetically, morally, and socially appropriate), and thus manifests ren, or the virtue of co-humanity in a universe. interdependent and hierarchical chaired by tian.
Two passages from the Analects go a long way in indicating the path to self-cultivation that Confucius taught would-be junzi in fifth-century BCE China. c.:
Since I was fifteen, I have set out to learn; from thirty onwards, I have established myself; from forty onwards, I have not been confused; from fifty onwards I have known the mandate of heaven; from the sixties my ear is tuned; From the seventies onwards, I have followed my heart’s desire without transgressing what is right. (2.4)
the path of the teacher is nothing more than consideration for others and self-reflection. (4.15)
The first passage illustrates the gradual and long-term scale of the self-cultivation process. it begins during adolescence and extends into old age; it proceeds gradually from intention (zhi) to learning (xue), from knowing heaven’s command (tianming) to doing both what is desired (yu) and what is right (yi). In his disciple Zengzi’s (tseng-tzu) summary of his “path” (dao), Confucius teaches only “consideration for others” (zhong) and “self-reflection” (shu). these terms deserve their own discussion.
The conventional meaning of “other respect” (zhong) in Classical Chinese is “loyalty”, especially loyalty to a ruler on the part of a minister. In the Analects, Confucius broadens the meaning of the term to include exercising oneself to the fullest in all relationships, including relationships with those below oneself as well as those above oneself. Confucius explains “self-reflection” (shu) as a negative version of the “golden rule”: “what you don’t want for yourself, don’t do for others”. (15.24) when one reflects on himself, he realizes the need to care for others. The self conceptualized by Confucius is a deeply relational self that responds to internal reflection with external virtue.
similarly, the self that Confucius wishes to cultivate in himself and his disciples is one that looks inward and compares itself to the aesthetic, moral, and social canons of tradition. Mindful of his source in tian, he seeks to maximize ren through learning li to exercise in a manner befitting a junzi. Because Confucius (and early Chinese thought in general) does not suffer from the Cartesian “mind-body problem” (as Herbert Fingarette has shown), there is no dichotomy between inside and outside, self and all, and therefore the cumulative effect of confucian self-cultivation is not merely personal, but collectively social and even cosmic.
7. the confucius of myth
While the Analects are valuable, though not infallible, as a source for reconstructing Confucian thought, it is far from the only text that Chinese readers have turned to in their quest to discover his identity. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), numerous hagiographic accounts of Confucius’s origins and deeds were produced, many of which would surprise readers familiar only with the analects. According to various texts, Confucius was a superhuman figure destined to rule as the “uncrowned king” of pre-imperial China. At birth, it was said that his body bore special markings indicating his exemplary status. After his death, it is alleged that he revealed himself in a glorified state to his living disciples, who then received further esoteric teachings from his mighty teacher. eventually, and perhaps inevitably, he was recognized as a deity and a cult was organized around his worship. Feng Youlan has suggested that if these Han images of Confucius had prevailed, Confucius would have become a figure comparable to Jesus Christ in Chinese history, and there would have been no disputes among scholars about whether or not Confucianism was a religion like China. Christianity.
To both ancient modern eyes, the fantastic and improbable myths of Confucius must be added more recent myths about the sage dating from the first sustained contact between China and the West during the early modern period. the latinization of kong(fu)zi to “confucius” originates with the interpretation of chinese culture and the thought of the jesuit missionaries for their western audiences, followers and critics. the Jesuits immersed in Renaissance humanism saw in Confucius a Renaissance humanist; German thinkers such as Leibniz or Wolff recognized in him a wise man of the Enlightenment. Hegel condemned Confucius for exemplifying those whom he saw as “the people without history”; Mao criticized Confucius for imprisoning China in a cage of oppression and feudal archaism. each remade Confucius in his own image for his own purposes, a process that continues throughout the modern era, creating much heat and little light when it comes to the historical Confucius himself. Every mythologist has seen Confucius as a symbol of what he loves or hates about China. ash. gram. As Creel once said, once a figure like Confucius has become a culture hero, stories about him tell us more about the storytellers’ values than about Confucius himself.
8. the confucius of the state
However, such mythmaking was very important to the emerging Chinese imperial state as it struggled to impose cultural unity on a vast and conflict-ridden territory during the last few centuries BCE. c. and beyond in the common era. After initial persecution by the Confucians during the short-lived Qin dynasty (221-202 BCE), successive Han emperors and their ministers used Confucius as a vehicle for legitimizing their rule and social control of their subjects. The “Five Classics”—five ancient texts associated with Confucius—were established as the basis for the Imperial Civil Service Examinations in 136 B.C. c., making the memorization of these texts and their orthodox Confucian interpretations mandatory for all who wished to obtain official positions in the han government. The state’s love affair with Confucius continued until the end of the Han in AD 220, after which Confucius fell out of official favor when a series of warring factions fought for control of China during the “Period of Disunity” (AD 220). -589 AD) and indigenous and foreign religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Daoism, vied with Confucianism for the attention of the elite.
After the restoration of unified imperial rule with the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), however, the future of Confucius as a symbol of the Chinese cultural and political establishment became increasingly secure. state-sponsored sacrifices to him were part of the official religious complex of temple rituals, from the national to the local level, and orthodox hagiography and history cemented his reputation as a culture hero among the masses. Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, AD 1130-1200) of the Song Dynasty (AD 969-1279) institutionalized the study of the Analects as one of the “four books” required for imperial civil service examinations redrawn, and would-be civil servants continued to memorize the text and orthodox commentaries on it until the early 20th century.
With the fall of the last Chinese imperial government in 1911, Confucius also fell from his position of state-imposed greatness, but not for long. shortly after the abdication of the last emperor, royalists conspired to restore a Confucian ruler to the throne. Although these plans did not materialize, the nationalist regime in mainland China and later Taiwan has promoted Confucius and Confucianism in a variety of ways to distinguish itself from the iconoclastic communists who followed Mao to victory and control over most of the world. china in 1949. even the communist regime in china has bowed in reverence to confucius on occasion, though not before vilifying him, especially during the anti-traditional campaigns of the “cultural revolution” of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Today, China’s communist government spends a great deal of money rebuilding and restoring ancient imperial temples dedicated to Confucius across the country, and has even erected many new Confucius statues in areas likely to be frequented by foreign tourists . Unsurprisingly, Confucius, as a philosopher, has been rehabilitated by culturally Chinese regimes across Asia, from Singapore to Beijing, as WM. s. De Bary has called “East Asia’s challenge to human rights” has sparked attempts to base “Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics” on a truly traditional source. In short, Confucius seems far from dead, though one wonders if the true spirit of his fifth-century B.C. c. will ever live again.
9. key interpreters of confucius
A detailed discussion of the key interpreters of Confucius is best reserved for an article on Confucian philosophy. however, it is worth including here a summary of the most important commentators and their philosophical trajectories.
The two best-known early interpreters of Confucian thought, in addition to the compilers of the Analects themselves, who worked gradually from the time of Confucius’s death until sometime during the ancient Han dynasty, are the philosophers of the states in war “mencius” or mengzi. (meng-tzu, 372-289 BC) and xunzi (hsun-tzu, 310-220 BC). they neither knew Confucius personally, nor did they know each other, except retrospectively, as in the case of Xunzi commenting on Mencius. the two are usually portrayed as opposed to each other due to their disagreement over human nature, a subject on which Confucius was remarkably silent (analects 5.13).
mencius illustrates a typical pattern of Confucian interpreters in which he claims to be doing nothing more than “transmitting” Confucian thought while introducing new ideas of his own. for mencius, renxing (human nature) has an inborn disposition towards ren, but requires cultivation through li, as well as yogic disciplines related to one’s qi (vital energy), and can be atrophied (although never destroyed) by negligence or negative environmental influence. Confucius does not use the term renxing in the analects, nor does he describe qi in the sense of mencius, and nowhere does he account for the basic goodness of human beings. However, it is Mencius’s interpretation of Confucian thought, especially after the rise of Zhu Xi’s brand of Confucianism in the 12th century, that most Chinese thinkers considered orthodox.
As I mentioned, Xunzi claims to interpret Confucian thought authentically, but he ferments it with his own contributions. While Mencius asserts that human beings are originally good but argues for the need for self-cultivation, Xunzi asserts that human beings are originally evil but argues that they can be reformed, even perfected, through self-cultivation. Also like Mencius, Xunzi sees Li as the key to renxing cultivation. Although Xunzi condemns Mencius’s arguments in no uncertain terms, when one has risen above the smoke and din of the fray, one can see that the two thinkers share many assumptions, including one that links them to Confucius: the assumption that human beings can be transformed by participation in traditional aesthetic, moral and social disciplines.
Later interpreters of Confucian thought between the Tang and Ming dynasties are often lumped together under the label “Neo-Confucianism.” this term has no cognate in classical Chinese, but is useful insofar as it unites various thinkers from disparate times who share common themes and concerns. Thinkers such as Zhang Zai (Chang Tsai, AD 1020-1077), Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, AD 1130-1200), and Wang Yangming (AD 1472-1529, the wellspring of the Confucian tradition, share Mencius’ understanding of human beings. as innately good human beings, and revere the “five classics” and “four books” associated with Confucius as authoritative sources of standards of ritual, moral, and social propriety. These thinkers also display a bias toward the cosmological and metaphysical that insulates them from the Confucius from the Analects, and betrays the influence of Buddhism and Daoism, two movements with little or no popular following in Confucian China, on his thought.
This quick review of some seminal interpreters of Confucius’ thought illustrates a principle that must be followed by all who seek to understand Confucius’ philosophical views: suspicion of sources. All sources for reconstructing Confucius’s views, from the Analects downward, postdate the master and come from a hand other than his, so all should be used with caution and with an eye toward possible outside influences. 5th century BC China
10. references and further reading
jeff richey email: email@example.com berea college u. s. a.