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Confucianism: The Chinese Operating PhilosophyTerm Paper

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¶ … Confucianism, its beginning, its founder, the moral and ethical aspects of Confucianism, and how it is used and interpreted in modern Chinese society. This paper takes the position that the central and original features of Confucianism are valid and should be applied to moral and ethical problems in the 21st century. I do not agree with modern China's emphasis on the subordination of women, as one of three key tenets in how Confucianism is interpreted and put into practice today.

What is Confucianism?

Confucianism was a philosophy that was started by Confucius. He lived from 551 to 479 B.C. And his Chinese name was "Kongzi" (or "Kong Qiu"). He was above all a reformer and there was definitely a need for reform in his era because there was great "political, social, and spiritual crisis" in China, according to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The crisis in China was ruining the traditional way that people lived in China. At that time in China there was a feudal system (Zhou) and it had plunged into "decay" -- which opened the door to a "new social mobility" which helped to create a new but small middle class (Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

This emerging middle class group hired private teachers to educate the young; the trend at that time was to build up individuals through knowledge rather than have people just continue their way of life as those in their families and their forbearers lived. One of the teachers mentioned in this paragraph was Confucius. It is believed that he taught what was known as the "six arts" at that time: mathematics, music, charioteering, archery, writing and "ritual property" (Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

What Confucius actually believed and taught was related to social morality, and he dedicated his life to the discussion of morality within the context of his teaching of education. He believe that getting an education "transcends the social boundaries" -- in other words, no matter what class you come from, the lower class, the middle class, or the upper class, with an education you become a gentleman if you're a man, and no matter what gender you will become "a truly moral person in solidarity with the community and rooted in self-respect" (Encyclopedia of Philosophy). What Confucius wanted to do, basically, was to change the world because he believed society had "lost the dao, the right way"; and as mentioned, he believed the world was in crisis (Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

In Confucius' "Collected Words" (called Lunyu) he emphasized that the ethical life is one in which the individual "internalizes" a sense of "self-reference" -- which meant that one must constantly be aware of how important an ethical life should be in society (Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Every human is perfectly capable of cultivating the moral side of life, and that belief set Confucius' philosophy apart from the "Daoist" view of a return to nature. What were the general ideas that Confucius put forward in his Lunyu?

According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there were three concepts and viewpoints that Confucius believed needed to be understood in order to become an ethical person. First, Confucius believed that a "gentleman" begins to not trust society and then turns away, he shows that he no longer "trusts public reputation and the opinions of the majority"; also, he understands that his motives and his actions will not be understood or trusted by others. So, secondly, that gentleman "turns into his inner self" in order to get his self-respect back; in seclusion he tends to ignore religion and ethics, which in Confucius' viewpoint is "the ultimate reason for being moral."

Still, that person goes through a process of "self-reflection and critical self-examination" in order to preserve the "purity" of his intentions. That having been done, in the third step individual then "overcomes himself" and comes back into the fold of society; when he returns and leaves his isolation he comes to accept his responsibility as a moral authority because more important than any individual actions is the "common good" (Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Within the return to society there must be rules regarding the propriety of how people should live, and that person returning accepts that without those rules in a hierarchical world (male seniority) there would be no moral standing and no humaneness: a) the Lunyu explains that the "most conspicuous variants" involve love and the golden rule ("Do not do to others, what you would not want them to do to you"); b) humaneness must be practiced throughout one's life; and c) a person can keep the faith and be humane without "surrendering to it" (Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Confucius did not try to create a new religion

Meanwhile, Judith Berling writes in the peer-reviewed Focus on Asian Studies that Confucius didn't want to create a new religion but he did want to interpret the old religion from the Chou dynasty. What did the people in the Chou dynasty believe? They thought being ruled by ancient religious beliefs was "bankrupt" because those Gods obviously did not have the power to prevent "social upheavals" (Berling, 1996). He sought to answer the "burning issue of the day" by simply asking his followers to embody the "civilized and cultured patterns of behavior developed through generations of human wisdom" (Berling, p. 5).

If that seems a little general and a little vague, it actually is rather vague. A reader can boil all the views from Confucius as an approach to morality and humaneness. "Only when things are investigated is knowledge extended," he wrote in his "The Great Learning" section in his "Classic of Rituals" (Berling, p. 5). What he was doing in the description of needed rituals is presenting a chain of events, with one needing to follow what went before it in order to arrive at a good society where people are humane, and where values create a unity of understanding and conformity.

"Only when knowledge is extended are thoughts sincere," he went on in that same passage. One can see that he believed thinking deep brings knowledge and sincerity. He also said, "Only when thoughts are sincere are minds rectified" and "Only when minds are rectified are the characters of persons cultivated" (Berling, p. 5). And once characters are cultivated the family is stronger, and when families are stronger then states are also stronger and well governed. And finally in this "blueprint" of Confucianism, only when families and states are strong and well government will there be "peace in the world" (Berling, p. 5).

The ruler of the nation should be like a "father figure" and treat his people with respect, looking after their basic needs; Berling also points out (p. 6) that the citizens should "criticize their rules and refuse to serve the corrupt." This appears to be the foundation for democracy, and through many years Confucianism was the ruling principle. But when Mao came along and put his "People's Republic of China" in place, it was a matter of basically abandoning Confucianism (Berling, p. 6).

Xinzhong Yao writes in the book An Introduction to Confucianism that Confucius did not create what today is called "Confucianism"; that is, using "Confucianism" is a "misnomer" because all Confucius really did was to play "a key role in the development of the tradition" (Yao, 2000). Indeed Confucius "reinterpreted the meaning and methods of learning and education in the ru tradition" (ru was the social school founded by Confucius; ru emphasized the virtues of "humaneness [ren] and righteousness [yi]) (Yao, 17).

Because he made such a special point of educating young people to be virtuous in government, and to challenge corrupt leaders and offer advice to government officials, he was asked why he never got involved in government. While he did eventual serve as "magistrate of the district Zhongdu" when he was fifty, and later to "Minister for Construction" (500 BCE) and "Chief Justice," he said just by being a good "son and friendly to his brothers, a man can exert an influence upon government" (Yao, 24).

What Confucius expected of his students

Confucius was basically trying to bring morality to government, according to his biography in the scholarly database, Historic World Leaders. His students -- his goal was to train a whole corps of what today we would call "civil servants" -- would, when fully trained, be "truly men of principle." He didn't care if a minister of government had no experience in administration, but he did want that future minister of government was "…humane, honest, and above corruption and personal gain" (Historic World Leaders).

The young people that Confucius trained who later went into government were taught to "speak their minds to the rules, within the bounds of propriety"; those young people were trained to "admonish and critique policies" and to make practical suggestions, but it didn't always work out well. In fact being honest in government during Confucius' era could put these trained young people "in jeopardy"; many of them met "untimely deaths because they stood by their convictions" (Historic… [END OF PREVIEW]

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