Published on Jul 6, 2012 by NTDTV
Today, we are going to be starting off this first episode talking about Confucius. And if you are talking about notable figures in Chinese history, Confucius is a great place to start—because he really is the philosopher who defined Chinese society for the past two thousand years.
Confucius is thought to have lived from 551 to 479 BC, during the so-called ‘Spring and Autumn Period,’ when China’s Zhou Dynasty was slowly splitting up. This era later turned into the ‘Warring States Period,’ before China was unified again in around 200 BC.
Confucius was born in the state of Lu. This is the modern day Shandong province. Now, at the time when Confucius was born, China was kind of like Medieval Europe. Different states were competing with each other for power.
Confucius saw morality deteriorating and the aristocracy turning their back on the traditions of the Zhou Dynasty that Confucius viewed as a kind of Golden Age. Confucius felt he had a mission to return China to its former glory, to return to the ‘Way’ or Dao.
Today, the Dao refers to China’s traditional culture of self-cultivation and emphasis on the way of virtue. Confucius felt people in his age had lost true respect for the established rituals and norms of society. They merely carried out the formalities—without really understanding the true essence. To use the words of the time, “The world lacked the Dao.” Thus Confucius started his mission of educating the populace.
Confucius taught his disciples to become Gentlemen…instructing them in the six arts: Rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics.
Confucius stressed several philosophical concepts that would serve to maintain China’s social structure for the next two millennia. These include: Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness. As well as loyalty and filial piety, the respectful relationship between subordinates and their superiors, such as sons and their fathers, or subjects and their rulers.
Confucius was never employed in any significant government post during his lifetime. But during the Han Dynasty, almost 300 years after his death, Confucianism was adopted as China’s state philosophy.
Confucianism became known as one of China’s three belief systems—along with Buddhism and Daoism.
But, Confucianism is very much a philosophy for those living in society—whereas Buddhism and Daoism stress withdrawing from the world to seek spiritual enlightenment.
The Confucian belief that rulers needed to be virtuous led to the establishment of the imperial examination system. These examinations started in the Sui Dynasty, which ran from 589 to 618 AD.
The examinations saw officials selected based on their academic achievements rather than through a hereditary system, as was common in other parts of the world at the time. Thus scholars noted that for many centuries, China had the most advanced political system in the world.
Gradually, these examinations became more structured through history. They saw prospective officials tested on their understanding and ability to memorize Confucian texts. Their answers during the exams had to demonstrate the well-cultivated thinking of a Confucian gentleman.
The exam system ended a few years before the fall of imperial China in 1911. And after the Communist takeover in 1949, Confucianism was ruthlessly attacked—especially during the Cultural Revolution and campaign to smash the four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas.
Since Confucianism had been at the very core of Chinese society for two thousand years, the Communist regime’s attack against Confucianism can be seen as an attack on the very essence of Chinese culture.
But Confucianism has survived, particularly due to the preservation of the customs in Taiwan and other countries.
Today, when speaking of traditional Chinese culture, Confucius can be seen as one of the most influential figures from ancient times till the present day. His teachings are at the very heart of China’s traditional culture of self-cultivation and emphasis on virtue.