the influence of confucius -- 9/23/15

Today's selection -- from Confucius (known in China as Kong Zi or "Master Kong," the name we use is a transliteration of the name Kong Fuzi, also "Master Kong," by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th Century) was a teacher, politician and philosopher who lived from 551 to 479 BCE and remains the most influential philosopher in Chinese thought even today:

"Confucius [is] one of the most important men who ever lived. His teachings shape the daily lives of well over 1.6 billion people today, nearly a quarter of the world's population -- in a huge geographic swath stretching from northern Japan down to Java in Indonesia. Only Christianity can claim to hold greater sway over modern global culture. Even as Asia has been bombarded by outside influences ... Confucius has endured, too much a part of daily life to be smothered, uprooted, or replaced. Confucius, then, ranks with Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, and Siddhartha Gautama (better known as the Buddha), and Aristotle and Plato, as one of the founders of modern civilization.

A portrait of Confucius by the Tang dynasty artist Wu Daozi (680–740)

"Despite this reality, most westerners hardly know anything about Confucius. ... What we in the United States and Europe have to appreciate is that East Asian civilization is constructed on an entirely different philosophical basis than our own -- to a great degree, the teachings of Confucius. Scholars and politicians in the West have for centuries studied the Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Plato, Socrates), the Bible and other Judeo-Christian works, and the thinkers who laid the foundation for modern society in the West, such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith. Not so in East Asia. Historically, academics, writers, and state officials in that part of the world have read the Confucian classics, which provided the ideological backbone of East Asia's governing institutions, the curricula of its academies, and the norms of social discourse. In China, knowledge of the Confucian canon, and the many commentaries and essays expounding on it, was traditionally a prerequisite for social and professional advancement, the basic education one had to have in order to be considered truly civilized.

"Chinese civil servants earned their jobs by mastering these classics for 1,900 years. In East Asia, it was Confucius, not Moses, who handed down the standards for human morality. It was Confucius, not Locke or Thomas Jefferson, who forged the relationship between citizen and state and the position of the individual in society. Confucianism has not been the sole influence on East Asian civilization. Buddhism, for instance, has played an important role. So have foreign religions and ideologies that arrived in the region over the past two hundred years, from Christianity to Marxism. And Confucius is far from Asian history's only philosopher of brilliance. Laozi, the (perhaps mythical) founder of Daoism, is just one of several important thinkers whose influence can still be felt in Asian life. Yet no individual has held more sway over East Asia for such an extended period of time as Confucius. Indeed, the history of East Asian civilization is synonymous with the development of Confucian doctrine. ...

"Confucius may be the greatest teacher in human history. Though at one point in his career he was a marginally successful statesman and government official, he spent most of his professional life teaching, and it was as a teacher that he left his indelible mark on Asia. The most famous text associated with him, the Analects, consists, for the most part, of snippets of conversations he had with his students while instructing them on virtue, good government, interpersonal relations, ethics, and history. What Confucius taught was the wisdom of Chinese antiquity, a timeless code of morality and gracious vision of humanity that can stir anyone reading his words today. ...

"Confucius's teachings cannot simply be compared to Judeo-Christian faiths. 'Most religions have books that tell you that if you follow what is in them, you will be saved. We have books, too, but they don't tell you that,' Sungkyunkwan's Park, a self-proclaimed practicing Confucian, told me outside the university's Confucian shrine. 'In other religions, you need a god and ceremonies, but Confucianism is about doing your best in the world we live in. Everything is based on a self-critique of your own behavior. You believe you have to be nice, to be good to other people, to be generous. It is about following Confucius's teachings.'

"Despite his lofty stature, Confucius has not always been a beloved figure. Perhaps no other founder of a major faith or philosophy has generated as much controversy as he has. Asians and non-Asians alike have lambasted Confucius as the source of all the ills of the civilization he created. Confucius has been blamed for suppressing women, stifling innovation, impoverishing peasants, encouraging despotism, and sparking financial crises. It is because of Confucius, his critics have claimed, that China failed to develop capitalism before the West and fell behind the United States and Europe in technology. Many modern East Asians, imbibing Western ideas on civil liberties and political freedom, have perceived Confucius as an impediment to democracy and human rights in the region. ...

"Still, damning Confucius for such prejudicial social practices isn't completely justified. His teachings have been so twisted and distorted by centuries of self-interested emperors, scholars, and officials that in some cases they have deviated drastically from the sage's own positions and gotten him attacked for things he never advocated and would never support. Li Dazhao, one of the founders of China's Communist Party and a stiff twentieth-century critic of the great sage, admitted as much. 'We are launching an attack not upon Confucius himself but upon the Confucius whom the past successive emperors have molded into a political idol and authority -- not upon Confucius himself but upon the Confucius whom the emperors have invested with a tyrannical soul,' he wrote."


author:

Michael Schuman

title:

Confucius: And the World He Created

publisher:

Basic Books

date:

Copyright 2015 by Michael Schuman

pages:

xi-xiii, xix-xxi, xvii
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