Confucius 551-479 B.C.

To this day there is virtually no aspect of East Asia on which Confucius and his ideas have not had some impact. He became well known only after his death. 350 years later, Confucian values became known and revered and became the basis for official Chinese state ideology during the Han Dynasty. He is a national icon for China’s venerable past. His works were critiqued vociferously during the 20th century.


Life and Times

Confucius came from the lower ranks of hereditary nobility. He left Lu and spent many years wandering from court to court in search of a ruler who would appreciate his talents and political vision. No leader ever took him on as a guide.


The Zhou Heritage and Confucius’s Innovation

Confucius’s philosophical vision brims with admiration for the values of the early Zhou rulers. Confucius admired 1) a concern for the people and enforcing wise policies 2) The Duke of Zhou who protected his nephew from rebellions and challenges to the newly founded dynasty and was an exemplary regent, with an eye to the welfare of the dynasty, not on his personal ambitions. In the Analects Confucius often sharply criticizes the irreverent behavior of the feudal lords toward the Zhou king and showcases their corruption to explain his vision of proper government. He built a new tradition. Political chaos could be avoided by returning to the moral values of the venerable founders of the Zhou Dynasty. There was an emphasis on the importance of social roles and rituals to reinforce existing hierarchies. Everyone has inner potential to find a meaningful place in society. We can read a group of texts like the “Confucian Classics” and apply them to life’s challenges. These works enabled people to better understand and take control of their lives. The works suggested following moral models, historical precedents and words of wisdom.


Diversity and Core Values in the Analects

The Analects is best translated as “Collected Sayings.” A collection of brief quotations, conversations, and anecdotes from the life of Confucius, the Analects were not written by the master himself, but compiled by later generations of disciples. The Analects throw light on people, concrete situations, and above all, the exemplary model of Confucius himself. “Goodness” or “humanity”, “ritual” and “respect for one’s parents” were important. He might utter different, even contradictory, maxims. Since the Analects was compiled over several centuries, they include the changing opinions of the compilers.



Confucius set forth a core set of values; one was ritual which makes social life meaningful. We should strive to learn from historical figures of exemplary moral conduct.


Social Roles

A second recurrent concern in the Analects is Confucius’s attention to social roles. Humans owe each other “goodness” or “humanity”; empathy and reciprocal concern; mutual respect and obligation. There should be a balance between self and society.


Efficient Action

A third concern is efficient action which helps maintain the other ideals. It is possible to harmonize one’s natural impulses with social norms and thus become an efficient, harmonious agent in society. The notion that the moral charisma of a sage ruler can be so powerful that there is no need to resort to lowly means of war and violence became the basis of the traditional Chinese view of rulership. Efficient thinking and speech were prized.


The Importance of Canonical Texts in Confucianism

Confucius and his followers, called Ru, or “traditionalist scholars,” considered the study of the ancient texts that contained the legacy of the Zhou as paramount to self-cultivation. Today hardly anybody believes that they were written or compiled by Confucius. These books became the curriculum in the first Chinese state university, founded in 124 B.C. For more than two millennia these texts were the backbone of the training of political and cultural elites throughout East Asia.

Early Chinese Literature and Thought

China is the oldest surviving civilization whose literary tradition stretches over more than three thousand years. Its earliest literature set patterns and posed questions for thousands of years to come and gave its civilization a sense of continuity and unity. China went through many changes and has hosted many languages. China was an idea tied to cultural values and the power of the written word. The people could resist change through cultural values, institutions, and writing and thus become “Chinese.” There is belief in cultural and political unity.


Beginnings: Early Sage Rulers

There was contact between sections, but they developed independently. In the second millennium B.C. a lineage of sage rulers laid the foundations for Chinese civilization. One can research an entire list of early rulers and what each contributed. Encapsulated in this lineage of legendary rulers are fundamental values of Chinese civilization: the importance of writing and divination; an economy based on intensive agriculture and silk production; a political philosophy of virtue that emphasizes fixed social roles; and practices of self-cultivation and herbal medicine.


Earliest Dynasties, China During the Bronze Age and the Beginning of Writing

China’s Bronze Age began around 2000 B.C. They used bronze for molding weapons, spoke-wheel chariots and bronze vessels used in ceremonies. The second dynasty was the Shang from 1500-1045 B.C. They had a complex state system, large settlements, and, most important, a common writing system. Writing was part of ritual practices that guided political decision-making and harmonized the relation between human beings and the world of unpredictable spiritual forces in the cosmos. The Chinese venerated their dead ancestors and various gods.

The Zhou Conquest and the “Mandate of Heaven”

Around 1045 B.C. the Zhou people overthrew the Shang. The Zhou claimed a higher moral ground. After the Zhou conquest, the claim to power in China depended on the claim to virtuous rule, which in large measure meant holding to the statutes and models of the earliest sage rulers and the virtuous early Zhou kings.


The Decline of the Eastern Zhou and the Age of China’s Philosophical Masters

In 771 B.C. the king was killed. The Eastern Zhou Period was one of the most formative periods in Chinese history. There was interstate diplomacy, new military technology, and a new class of advisers and strategists. The Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.) was characterized by coercive drafts, raw power politics and strategic deception. The crossbow was invented. Confucius formulated visions of how to live and govern well in a corrupt world. “A hundred schools of thought bloomed.” Chinese call the texts written by masters or compiled by their disciples “Masters Literature.” Masters Literature flourished from the time of Confucius through the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 C.E.) during which there was a broad spectrum of opinions on fundamental questions. The most prominent schools were the Confucians, the Mohists (named after their master, Mozi), the Daoists, the Logicians, the Legalists, and the Yin-Yang Masters, each advocating its own programs, adopting different styles of argument, and engaging the rival camps in polemical disputes. Confucianism and Daoism became the intellectual and religious backbone of traditional China, joined later by Buddhism. There are differences between the Confucians and the Daoists. Confucius, the first and most exemplary master whose sayings are preserved in The Analects, believed that a return to the values of the virtuous early Zhou kings, a respect for social hierarchies, self-cultivation through proper ritual behavior, and the study of ancient texts, could bring order. The most radical opponents of Confucius and his followers were thinkers who advocated passivity and following of the natural “way,” or dao. The Daoists had a deep mistrust of human-made things: conscious effort, artifice, and words. Laozi, a collection of poems and the foundational text of Daoism, proposed passivity as a means of ultimately prevailing over one’s opponents and gaining spiritual and political control. By contrast, many passages in Zhuangzi, the second most important Daoist text of Masters Literature, renounce any claim to societal influence and celebrate the joy of an unharmed life devoted to reflecting on the workings of the mind and on the relativity of perception and values.


Foundations of Imperial China: The Qin and the Han

The state of Qin, which had a reputation for ruthlessness and untrustworthiness, but whose armies were well disciplined and well supplied, destroyed the Zhou royal domain in 256 B.C. and conquered the last of the independent states in 221 B.C.: one of the most important dates in Chinese history. Conscious of the historical moment’s weight, the king of Qin conferred the title “First Emperor of Qin” upon himself to mark the novelty of his achievement. Although the Quin was a short-lived dynasty, many of its measures—designed to create a new type of state with a strong centralized bureaucracy—were adopted and adapted by the rulers of the subsequent Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 C.E.). With the Qin unification, China was finally an empire. Imperial China, with its upheavals, dynastic shifts, and momentous changes, would last another 2, 100 years—until the Republican Revolution of 1911. The kings of Qin reduced the power of the old nobility and based governance on a direct connection between ruler and bureaucrats controlled by the strict rule of written law codes and policies that were adopted by the new empire. The “Qin Burning of the Books,” of 213 B.C. was one of the most traumatic events in Chinese history. Liu Bang became the first emperor of the Han Dynasty; a Dynasty that lasted more than four hundred years. The Han was the crucial phase of imperial consolidation that set patterns for future Chinese dynasties. The most influential Han ruler was Emperor Wu. He was the first emperor to privilege Confucian scholars and teach the so-called Five Classics: the Classic of Changes, Classic of Documents, Classic of Poetry, Spring and Autumn Annals and the Record of Rites. During Emperor Wu’s reign, the first comprehensive history of China was written. These first 1,500 years of Chinese history, from the Shang Dynasty to the end of the Han Dynasty, saw the emergence of enduring political institutions and ideologies, of moral standards and social manners. The literature produced during this period encapsulates these values and formative patterns and is still the canonical foundation of Chinese civilization.