Confucianism: An Overview
CONFUCIANISM: AN OVERVIEW
Over the two and a half millennia since the death of Kongzi (trad. 551–479 bce), the figure whose name was latinized into "Confucius" by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century, diverse groups have identified him as the source of their texts and practices. As a result, a wide variety of phenomena are called "Confucianism," many of which appear to have only a distant connection to one another. The term "Confucian" is applied to religious traditions grounded in the transmission and interpretation of sacred texts and practices, as well as to educational, ethical, and social systems. While some have argued that Kongzi's primary message was philosophical and secular, historians are increasingly questioning the justification for considering the ethical dimension of Confucianism as either more original than, or as separate from, its other aspects. Wing-tsit Chan's entries—"Foundation of the Tradition" and "Neo-Confucianism"—in the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion are among the most cogent yet nuanced treatments of Confucianism viewed as the legacy of a genealogy of philosophers. Instead of trying to rewrite his classic treatment, this article shifts perspectives to portray Confucianism as a set of plural and diverse strands that different interests have woven together (and occasionally unraveled) over the course of several millennia of East Asian history.
The following description begins with three topics central to the formative period of most strands of Chinese Confucianism: the legacies of the former sages; Kongzi and the disciple traditions; and the attempts to define the link between ethical self-transformation and rulership in the centuries immediately after Kongzi's death. In this period, expertise in a set of practices based in the rites, music, and classics of antiquity became the basis of vocations in advising rulers and teaching potential officials. Through the filter of dialogs transmitted in multiple disciple traditions, Kongzi came to be considered the paragon of these specializations. The second phase saw a redefinition of the relationship between the state and the legacies that Kongzi represented, as the study of the classics bifurcated into official academic positions sponsored by the state and private institutions, where transmissions of the classics gradually were cast as alternatives to very different kinds of Daoist and Buddhist lineages. In the early imperial and medieval period, the authority of Kongzi's representation of antiquity was grafted onto a variety of novel social institutions. In the third phase, as the dynasties of late imperial China alternated between rule by indigenous and foreign powers, and as the spread of monastic institutions transformed society, Kongzi's project was seen as a model for a quest to recover the indigenous traces of the early sages. Under the influence of the redefinition of the tradition sparked by Zhu Xi (also romanized as Chu Hsi, 1130–1200 ce), competing scholastic lineages theorized the connection between practice and politics, and between knowledge and the study of the classics. Confucianism today both receives support and is subject to restrictions in the People's Republic of China, even while its adaptation to modernity has continued in the communities of the East Asian diaspora.
Legacies of the Early Sages
Even prior to the birth of Kongzi in 551 bce, many of the elements that are today associated with Confucianism had long been present in Chinese society. Both the textual record of antiquity and the writings associated with Kongzi and his disciples credit the development of principal political and religious ideals and institutions to the great sage kings of antiquity, such as the third millennium bce rulers Yao, Shun and Yu, and the more recent founders of the Zhou dynasty (trad. 1027–221 bce). The central political narrative of pre-imperial China was the receipt of the sanction of Heaven (tian ) by the eleventh century bce Zhou founders, Kings Wen and Wu, on account of their virtue (de ). References to this mandate (ming ) are ubiquitous in both the Classic of Documents (Shujing ) and Classic of Poetry (Shijing ), works that predate Kongzi and were considered authoritative by him. This implicit connection between personal virtue and political legitimacy informs Confucian traditions to the present day, even while the connotations of the term Heaven and the nature of the connection have changed over time. Kongzi also credited the Zhou founders with the codification of an archaic ritual system built on a set of normative hierarchical social networks. While early records testify to a developed system of ancestor worship that reinforced the value of intergenerational family loyalty, there is less evidence that many elements of the ritual code preserved in works like the Zhou Rituals (Zhouli), the Ceremonies and Rituals (Yili), and the Records of Ritual (Liji) actually date to the early Zhou period. Regardless of their actual age, the antiquity of the political and ritual order associated with the ancient sages and, in particular, with the reforms of the Zhou, was a central religious assumption of the age into which Kongzi was born.
The identity of religion and politics dates back to the earliest records in China, the "oracle bone" inscriptions (jiaguwen ). The Shang court (trad. c. 1750–1027 bce) used inscribed cattle scapulae and tortoise plastrons to record inquiries addressed to the ancestors of the ruling clan. The application of heat produced a crack in the bone or shell that was interpreted as a divine communication, and the political authority of the ruler derived in part from an ability to contact the ancestral spirits. In the oracle bones, the ruler's "shining" virtue correlated with an ability to secure the support of the ancestors, and for this reason the term for virtue has also been translated as "power" and understood as a form of "moral charisma." The practice of carrying out divinations and sacrifice to assure good fortune continued after the Shang, and broadened to address anthropomorphic deities and celestial officials as part of Chinese popular religions.
In the Zhou, Shang reliance on the approval of the "Highest Ancestors" (Shangdi ) was redirected to a concern with the conditional guidance of Heaven. Bronze inscriptions (jinwen ) from Western Zhou vessels commemorate honors bestowed in such a way as to reveal an elaborate scheme of sumptuary rituals, records whose location in tombs suggest that they were directed to the ancestors. Records in the Classic of Documents in the voice of the Zhou rulers explain how the Shang lost the support of Heaven through immoral and irreverent actions. The Zhou's own usurpation of the Shang is cast as a matter of complying with the mandate, and the Zhou rulers' resulting claim to the title of "Son of Heaven" (tianzi ) became both the prototype for divinely sanctioned political authority in imperial times and a paradigm for the ideal relationship between the human and nonhuman worlds. Through ritual, the Zhou continued to draw a parallel between state hierarchy and family hierarchy, and to affirm the continuity of loyalty on the part of the inferior and kindness on the part of the superior, even after the death of the superior.
The ritual system of the Zhou encompassed myriad seasonal and occasional rites and defined role-specific behavior both at home and at court. The rites defined a pattern of complementary obligations, while they reinforced social and familial hierarchies. The regularity of ancestral sacrifice and the elaborate and expensive nature of court funeral ceremonies illustrate the importance placed on situating the mourner in a proper relationship with the ancestral spirits, a practice that likely served both a therapeutic and a protective function. The Zhou religious system, at least as it existed in the imagination of early imperial China, was based on an elaborate regimen of sacrificial observances. According to the "Methods of Sacrifice" (Jifa ) chapter of the Records of Ritual, the Zhou state had altars for sacrifice to Heaven and Earth (tan and zhe ), temples for sacrifice to the imperial ancestors (zongmiao ), and platforms for sacrifice to the spirits of the soil and grain (she and ji). There were also altars to the seasons, cold and heat, sun and moon, stars, floods and drought, and the four directions. The same chapter records sacrifices to the "hundred spirits," those animating the "mountains and forests, rivers and valleys, rises and hills. They can generate clouds, make the wind and rain, and appear as monstrous beings." In keeping with the need to secure blessings for specific or generalized actions that animated Shang religious practice, the emphasis in Zhou observance emphasized appropriate action toward the spirit world, rather than gathering specific information from it. Texts like the Zuo Commentary [to the Spring and Autumn ] (Zuozhuan ) contain what are generally accepted to be retellings of ancient records of how rulers conducted divination and sacrifice to eliminate baleful omens such as droughts or illnesses connected with nature deities such as particular mountain and river spirits. Sometimes, in the Zuo Commentary, such sacrifices are condemned by an interlocutor who favors action directed at Heaven because the latter's reach is universal rather than local, as in the case of nature deities. Hierarchies in the pluralistic Zhou pantheon influence later religious developments, such as the Confucian veneration of Heaven and an emphasis on ritual purity. The particular henotheism of Zhou sacrificial practices formed the background for attempts at communicating with ancestral or celestial spirits to neutralize dangers from rogue or terrestrial spirits. In addition, elements of the language and form of the ritual purification (zhaijie ) ceremony, entailing abstinence from certain foods and actions, turn up in later discussions of self-transformation.
Beyond their specific discussions of the sages' reception of the mandate and the necessity of ritual performance, the Zhou worldview also drew a connection between the two. The attitude of reverence (jing ) in the presence of the ancestral spirits was the same one the Classic of Documents says the current ruler should have when listening to the words of the rulers of the past. More generally, proper ritual performance demonstrates reverence in the eyes of the ancestral spirits and of Heaven, in effect a domestication of the way that proper court behavior was evidence that the sages of antiquity were qualified to rule as kings. Historically, the qualities of familial piety (xiao and di ) displayed by the sage king Shun's subjecting himself to harsh abuse at the hands of his father and elder brother was testimony to his virtue and qualities as ruler. The connection between political authority and ancestor worship that derived from the Zhou identity of clan and political authority is also demonstrated by Liu Zehua's observation that in the Zhou period, familial piety was a matter of revering both one's ancestors and parents and one's lineage founder. These elements of early Zhou religion were adapted and preserved by the classical tradition that grew out of the teachings of Kongzi, and they therefore represent a selective prehistory of Confucianism rather than a comprehensive portrayal of the Zhou religious landscape.
The degree to which Kongzi looked to Zhou institutions as a model in his teachings is apparent in the Analects. In the eighth century bce, infighting and incursions on the western border forced the removal of the Zhou capital east from Hao to Luoyang, setting the stage for the two major divisions of the Eastern Zhou period (770–256 bce): the Spring and Autumn period (722 – 481 bce) and the Warring States period (403 – 221 bce). By the sixth century bce, the old Zhou polity was weakened and shared power with a set of increasingly autonomous states competing for authority, and both ritual forms and moral justifications for authority were often sacrificed in the face of military expediency. In the Analects (Lunyu ), the text that today is identified most closely with the historical Kongzi, he nostalgically argues that the virtue of the rulers of Zhou was the highest of all (Analects 8.21), writing: "I follow Zhou" (Analects 3.13). In particular, he identified himself with the Duke of Zhou, whom he saw as the epitome of the gifted sage (Analects 8.11), and who appeared to him in his dreams (Analects 7.5). There is no question that such claims served to confer the authority of a usable past on Kongzi's teachings; at the same time, his re-conceptualization of systems and attitudes inherited from the Zhou was the heart of his project of developing a model for rulership and public service.
Early Traditions Surrounding Kongzi and His Disciples
While the traditions of Confucianism contain many elements that predate Kongzi, the centrality of his role is illustrated by the fact that many of these components later became identified with his name. Observers outside of China have exaggerated this point by translating as "Confucian" a number of terms that do not reference Kongzi in the original Chinese, such as Ru (more accurately, classicists), the derivative terms Rujia and Rujiao (bibliographical and ceremonial sub-traditions based on classical texts and practices), jingxue (the exegesis of the classics), and even daoxue (the study of the indigenous Way, which overlaps with the English term neo-Confucianism). Narratives about Kongzi were among the focal points that these traditions used to clarify their own projects, although they were not the only ones used in this way. Defining Kongzi's life and thought was at the heart of the contest over the appropriation of his authority by these burgeoning multifocal traditions.
After Kongzi's death around 479 bce, works purporting to record dialogs, teachings, and biographical narratives of the sage began to appear. Collections based on material from the early Zhou period, such as the songs of the Classic of Odes and the terse chronicles of the state of Lu in the Spring and Autumn (Chunqiu ), were identified as having been edited by him. Recent archaeological discoveries confirm that narratives and chapters concerning Kongzi circulated independently in the fourth and third centuries bce. The third century bce collection Han Feizi records the existence of eight distinct disciple traditions and notes that what each group "adopted and discarded (from Kongzi) was different and contradictory, but each claimed to represent the authentic Kongzi." The project of taking these diverse sources and assembling a complete picture of Kongzi and his teachings was undertaken in earnest after the early imperial dynasties of Qin (221–206 bce) and Han (206 bce–220 ce) unified the Warring States–period patchwork of independent kingdoms that had grown up as Zhou central authority waned. Influential collections of dialogs and narratives organized in the second and first centuries bce, such as the Analects and the Records of Ritual, were based on selections from disciple-specific traditions or independently circulating stories, as was the first biographical treatment of Kongzi in the Records of the Historian (Shiji ), compiled around 100 bce. Portraits of Kongzi transmitted through later history were generally based on principles of selection from this distant vantage point, several centuries after his death and after the transition to an imperial government. This is one reason why, while few call into question the historicity of Kongzi, there is growing scholarly awareness of the ways in which his teachings and biography have been mediated. This also explains an important facet of the emphasis in later Confucian scholarship on textual dating and authenticity. Debates over the provenance and age of individual works of antiquity are secondarily debates about the nature of the biography of Kongzi, and indeed about the very nature of his project and his teachings. The following section introduces how three influential early imperial collections selected and transmitted early materials associated with Kongzi, and then triangulates the views of self-transformation practice, theories of ritual performance, and ethics of government service implicit in these sources.
The earliest biographical arrangement of Kongzi materials, some of which overlap the Analects, was made by Sima Qian (c.145–c.86 bce). Two chapters of his Records of the Historian portray Kongzi as an advisor to rulers and as a teacher who trained his disciples to become moral officials, a division that likely reflects two dominant narratives about Kongzi. In the "Hereditary House of Kongzi," Kongzi is portrayed as an advisor who, due to his own integrity and the jealousies that his abilities inspired, was forced to move from state to state in search of patronage. While Sima Qian generally placed treatments of individuals in the "arranged traditions" (liezhuan ) section of the Records of the Historian, he placed Kongzi among the treatments of "hereditary noble lineages" (shijia ), something that the Tang dynasty commentator Zhang Shoujie explained was because scholars and all those who cultivate themselves through the "six arts" (liuyi ) revered Kongzi and recognized him as the epitome of sagehood. According to the "Hereditary House of Kongzi," Kongzi was born in the state of Lu and as a small child displayed an unusual interest in and knowledge of the rites, causing at least one member of the Lu nobility to seek his guidance in ritual forms. Kongzi was given the sobriquette Zhong Ni, literally "second-born Hill," because of a rise on his forehead. In Sima Qian's time, these aspects of the biography would have been read as omens of his extraordinary ability. In adulthood, however, Kongzi only rose to occupy technical and clerical offices, directing ceremonies and managing provisions and animals.
Sima Qian arranges Kongzi's advice to rulers about adhering to ritual and self-control in a narrative framework that stresses the way Kongzi was slandered, overlooked, or treated in a ritually improper way. Kongzi journeyed from Lu to Zhou, returned to Lu, and subsequently went through the states of Qi, Wei, Song, Zheng, Chen, Cai, and She in a futile search of a patron who would recognize his extraordinary abilities and heed his advice. The picture of how the age never recognized Kongzi's talents reflects Sima Qian's own self-conception as a victim of mistreatment by Emperor Wu of the Han (r. 140–87 bce).
A second set of Kongzi narratives is related in the "Arranged Traditions of Zhong Ni's Disciples" chapter of the Records of the Historian, mostly instructive conversations arranged under the names and short biographies of each disciple. The names are divided into three categories: "virtuous actions" (dexing ), "government service" (zhengshi ), and "learning in cultural forms" (wenxue ). In these conversations, particular attention is paid to the way Kongzi addressed the particular strengths and concerns of each of his students. The bipartite structure of the Records of the Historian reflects the fact that at the end of the second century bce, Sima Qian was reliant on two kinds of dialogs: pedagogical ones transmitted through the disciple traditions and political anecdotes preserved in diverse Warring States sources.
The Records of Ritual mixes these two types of text in a composite collection that reflects the different genres and viewpoints surrounding ritual at the time of its collation in the early empire. The Records of Ritual was likely compiled in the first century bce. Kongzi is cast as a ritual expert in many of its chapters, but there are at least three distinct ways in which he treats the subject. Chapters like "Tan Gong," and "Disciple Zeng asked" (Zengzi wen ) record questions from disciples about the authenticity of specific funerary and sacrificial practices and Kongzi's definitive answers. These dialogs pay particular attention to issues such as the actions, clothing, gait, and carriages suitable to particular ranks, and relationships to the deceased. By contrast, the "Transformations of the Rites" (Liyun ) and "Vessels of the Rites" (Liqi ) chapters tend to historicize ritual practices in the context of the governance of the sage kings, explaining the function and adaptation of ritual. These chapters contain narratives about the proper attitude to ritual as well anthropologies that explain the reason for sacrifice, such as the "Transformations of the Rites" explanation of sacrificial ceremonies as attracting the spirits in order to secure the blessings of Heaven. A third set of chapters locates the rites less historically and more cosmologically. "Duke Ai asked" (Aigong wen ), "Black Robes" (Ziyi ), "Records of Dykes" (Biaoji ), "Great Learning" (Daxue ) and "Doctrine of the Mean" (Zhongyong ) contain wide-ranging dialogs and essays stressing the importance of ritual hierarchies for social order, often relating this to notions of cosmic order. Ritual is related to good government by the assumption that proper behavior and correct measures on the part of a ruler create complementary responses on the part of the ruler's subjects. Indeed, the ability of the sage ruler to transform his people is only one aspect of the sage's special relation to Heaven that is explored in some of these chapters. Because it was collated in imperial China, the Records of Ritual contains several distinct layers that likely represent either different schools of thought or distinct stages in the development of early views on the nature of Kongzi's teachings on ritual.
Made up of compact statements and dialogs that are often only loosely related from one to the next, the twenty chapters of the Analects derive from the records of the disciple traditions. The dating of the Analects is controversial. Han dynasty historian Ban Gu (32–92 ce) dates it to the fifth century bce, writing: "At the time, each disciple kept his own records. After the master died, the second-generation disciples together collated them, then considered and selected from among them." However, references to the title of the Analects only appear in works from the second century bce; the earliest excavated version, the first commentaries, and evidence that it had taken on a fixed form come from the first century bce. While there is no single theme in the Analects, many of its chapters see Kongzi exhort his disciples to pursue the noble ideal (junzi, often translated as "gentleman") by cultivating a set of moral dispositions. The description of the noble ideal often turns on the presence of particular ethical dispositions of benevolence (ren, a sensitivity to the personhood of others) and ritual propriety (li, regulating speech and demeanor as befits one's status). These two dispositions are intimately linked: Kongzi tells his disciple Yan Yuan, "To control one's self and return to ritual propriety is to act with benevolence" (Analects 12.1), while elsewhere he asks rhetorically, "Being human but not benevolent, how could this accord with the rites?" (Analects 3.3). At other times, the noble ideal of the Analects is distrustful of others' words when actions can also be examined, and it possesses a capacity to judge people and circumstances that comes from wisdom (zhi, a knowledge of the past that allows one to assess the present). Personally, the noble ideal is loath to speak and scrupulous about trustworthiness (xin, being true to one's word). In public life, the Analects expects the noble ideal to be steadfast in resisting coercion and preserving righteousness (yi, conducting oneself impartially and fairly) even if it imperils the prospects for advancement. Finally, in private life, the noble ideal is reflective about study and practices familial piety, because the constancy of both the self-transformation process and the omniscience of Heaven means that ethical action cannot be compartmentalized. In this way, the noble ideal cultivates the Way (dao ), a normative path to personal or political perfection. The Analects is perhaps most concerned with the application of ritual and ethics in public life, and Kongzi continually examines the motives and conduct of his disciples from their preparation for an official career through their service in that career.
These three early imperial repositories of lore about Kongzi share significant features and derive from a common fund of stories in wide circulation, and are reinforced by more fragmentary accounts in Warring States texts and archaeologically discovered materials. Warring States collections of essays—such as the Mencius (Mengzi or Meng Tzu ), Xunzi (also romanized as Hsün Tzu ), and Zhuangzi (also romanized as Chuang Tzu )—all contain passages that credit Kongzi as the originator of their own perspectives, although sometimes the content of their teachings differ significantly from those in early imperial collections. Materials excavated in the 1990s from tombs sealed at the end of fourth century bce include material from the Records of Ritual (e.g., the "Black Robes" chapter), alternate versions of chapters in the Analects (e.g., a text named "Zhong Gong" that appears to have been abridged as Analects 13.3), and new works (e.g., "Kongzi discusses the Odes," a pedagogical exegesis of selected poems in the Classic of Odes ). Taken together with the collections described above, these works provide a more robust picture of early approaches to moral self-transformation, ritual performance and public service.
The course of self-transformation that Kongzi advocated is predicated on a model wherein a mastery of the classical arts, rites, and music leads to the development of a set of cultivated moral dispositions. Proficiency in the "six arts" of the rites, music, archery, charioteering, writing and mathematics led one to behave consistently with the noble ideal. Scholars of religious ethics like Philip J. Ivanhoe have treated the cultivation of dispositions like benevolence as an example of classical "virtue ethics" (since de is usually translated as "virtue," the term "excellence" will be used where one might apply the category of a virtue like the Greek arête in a comparative context). Characteristically for such a system, evaluation of actions is not based on outcomes but on the presence of authentic moral motivation. That is, Kongzi would criticize seemingly good actions that are really the result of desires for personal gain or fear of punishment. This is the basis for the famous condemnation of punishment in the Analects : "Lead them by government and equalize them through punishment, and people will know to avoid it but not to be ashamed. Lead them by virtue and equalize them through ritual, and they will have shame and so regulate themselves" (Analects 2.3). A contrast with this virtue ethics model is the radically different ethical system of Kongzi's rough contemporary Mozi (trad. 480–390 bce, also romanized as Mo Tzu), who counseled rulers in defensive warfare and the frugal use of resources. Mozi's ethic looked only at the consequences and not the motivations of action. Chapter 16 of the posthumous collection Mozi rejects traditional norms like familial piety as partial and therefore unjust, arguing for impartial distribution of resources instead: "one must treat one's friend's body as if it were one's own, and one must treat one's friend's parent as if he or she was one's own." Because Mozi's cosmology held that good acts are automatically rewarded by Heaven, he had no patience for programs for the cultivation of excellences, such as chanting the Classic of Odes and practicing ritual forms. Conversely, Kongzi's advocacy of gradual training to develop dispositions was precisely because he held that good behavior did not always benefit the actor. The disciple Zixia's statement that "life and death are a matter of the mandate, while wealth and noble rank are a matter of Heaven" (Analects 12.5) illustrates Kongzi's redeployment of the Zhou concept of Heaven's mandate to describe the fragility of the moral person's situation in the world, a microcosm of the Zhou view of the contingency of divine support for the ruler.
Beyond the efficacy of ritual in the context of a program of personal self-transformation, Kongzi also justified reinstituting the ritual system of the Zhou on the basis of its social utility. The value of reverence, inherited from the Zhou, is an important facet of Kongzi's treatment of ritual (Analects 2.7), and it is applied not only to sacrificial contexts but also to the context of official service (Analects 13.19). With its emphasis on self-transformation, the Analects draws a distinction between formally proper ritual, and authentic ritual performance with proper feelings: "When one says 'The rites this, the rites that …' is it really only a matter of jade and silk?" (Analects 17.10). A related facet of Kongzi's discussions of ritual is his criticism of excessive sacrifice, either directed at ritually improper contemporary rulers (Analects 3.1, 3.6) or at those who sacrifice to other than their own ancestors (Analects 2.21). By contrast, chapters of the Records of Ritual that justify the rites based on cosmology argue that the rites replicate an ideal balance between humans and the ancestors and support a natural hierarchy in society that leads to harmony. In the "Duke Ai asked" chapter, Confucius tells the duke: "In order to enact good government one must first attend to ritual, because ritual is the root of good government." While ritual performance is theorized in several different ways, rarely is it justified by simple appeal to tradition.
The political perspective of the early dialogs borrows the notion of rule by virtue from Zhou religion but adapts it to the particular sociological status of Kongzi and his early disciples. No longer genuinely in the service of regional kings, the minor official Kongzi's education of his disciples effected the adoption of an unconventional set of values that rendered them immune to the temptation to take advantage of their official status. In the Analects, Kongzi explains: "Wealth and noble rank are what all people desire, but if they are not attained in a way consistent with the Way, then one cannot accept them" (Analects 4.4). When one of his disciples in the service of a wealthy clan helps them collect excessive taxes to augment their already exceptional wealth, Kongzi disavows him, and says: "It is now suitable for the younger disciples to shriek at him and play the drums to chastise him" (Analects 11.17). Kongzi stressed to his disciples that they not be ashamed of poverty, and that he himself preferred to be paid not in luxury items, but in meat, rejecting standards of conventional economic exchange but accepting an item of value in a sacrificial context. In a similar way, Kongzi observes: "The noble ideal understands righteousness, while the petty person understands profit" (Analects 4.15). The cultivation of the excellences is in effect an alternative system of value that renders initiates incorruptible in official contexts. This version of the Zhou notion of Heaven mandating rule by the virtuous was in effect an argument for administration by the benevolent, modified in a context in which kingship was effectively the product of military success.
Self-Transformation and Rulership in the Fourth and Third Centuries bce
The florescence of diverse perspectives on politics, religion, and philosophy known in Chinese history as the "many masters and hundred experts" (zhuzi baijia ), and included by Karl Jaspers in his description of the "Axial Age," led to the development of both alternatives to and elaborations of Kongzi's views. In this period, the pivot of disagreements over methods of government and personal self-transformation was a lively debate over the content of human nature (xing, the course of development characteristic of all members of a species or kind). Kongzi's defense of Zhou institutions was explicitly challenged by the moral skepticism of the Zhuangzi and the political absolutism of the Han Feizi, even while the Mengzi and Xunzi grounded it in distinct theories of human nature. Their adaptations demonstrated a growing attention to human psychology and to the mechanisms by which the inner cultivation of the sage was related to the external authority of the ruler. Because the Mengzi and Xunzi rhetorically situate themselves in the tradition of Kongzi's advocacy of the cultivation of moral dispositions, they are often seen as the second major stage of Confucian traditions.
The phrase "inside a sage and outside a king" (neisheng waiwang ) is often invoked to refer to one of the central concerns of later Warring States texts: the need to examine and account for the link between self-transformation and rulership. This phrase is common to both ritual texts and late Warring States works like the Zhuangzi. Central to this inquiry were accounts of the sage kings of antiquity and theories about the origin and nature of sagehood. Two works that address this concern by taking related but ultimately different approaches are the excavated "Five Kinds of Action" (Wuxing ) and the Mencius. Both texts locate four of Kongzi's cardinal excellences (benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, and ritual propriety) in cultivated dispositions present at birth in the inner mind (xin, the locus of cognition and emotion located in organ of the heart). However, they differ in the way they relate this to the debate over the exceptional characteristics of the sage.
The Mencius is attributed to the disciples of the fourth and third century bce writer Mengzi (Meng Ke or Mencius, c. 380–c. 290 bce), and both its content and form depict Mengzi as a latter-day Kongzi, an advisor to the rulers of different states and a teacher of various disciples. It embeds the character traits advocated in the Analects into a model of the body in which a disposition to morality is part of one's makeup at birth. "Sprouts" (duan ) of moral reactions are already present in the inner mind, as the Mencius notes: "people have these four sprouts just like they have four limbs" (Mencius 2A6). Proof of their existence lies in the natural, spontaneous reaction to the sight of another person in danger, such as an infant about to fall in a well (Mencius 2A6). Yet the Mencius admits that it is possible that a person who is continuously exposed to the depredations of a hostile environment might end up as bereft of their original moral dispositions, like a bare mountainside whose trees and topsoil have been lost to deforestation (Mencius 6A8). For this reason, despite its common currency, it is simply not the case that the Mencius holds that "human nature is good" (xing shan ). Instead, the text argues that the inner mind has dispositions to goodness at birth, which need to be cultivated in order to flourish. What the Mencius does say that is not a part of Kongzi narratives is that the biological model in which all people are born, with the sprouts of morality in their inner mind, is what makes sagehood a possibility for all people (even members of the border nations) at birth (cf. Mencius 4B1). Numerous times the Mencius contains statements to the effect that the sage king "Shun was a person, and I, too, am a person," (Mencius 3A1, 4B28, 4B32, 6A7, 6B2). Yet the fact that people begin life with the same sprouts of moral reactions does not assure they all end up as sages.
Archaeologists have excavated two manuscript versions of the "Five Kinds of Action," one in Hunan province in 1973 and one in Hubei province in 1993. A complex, and at times obscure treatise on moral psychology, this text adds a fifth term associated with "the Way of the cosmos" (tiandao, with tian here translated as "cosmos" connoting a naturalistic version of the previously anthropomorphic "Heaven") to the four cardinal excellences listed in chapter two of the Mencius. In positioning "sagehood" as the culmination of the human excellences, the "Five Kinds of Action" addresses problems of plural and conflicting values common to virtue ethics systems by arguing that sagehood harmonizes moral actions in a way that eliminates potential quandaries. The Five Kinds of Action also develops a metaphorical vocabulary to describe the way that sagehood is transmitted across generations through "hearing," establishing a model in which cultural forms that express the intentions of the sages of the past can "activate" people in the present similar to the way one instrument can cause another to sound through the phenomenon of resonance. The resultant changes in an activated person's inner mind are observable as changes in the voice, according to section six of the "Five Kinds of Action": "if one is sharp-eared then one can hear the Way of the noble ideal. If one can hear the Way of the noble ideal then one will have a jade tone." This view of sagehood as the result of a special endowment from the cosmos, making a person physically different from others, takes a step away from the universality of the more biologically oriented Mencius in explicating its model of self-transformation.
The above descriptions of an intuitive, and at times mystical, approach to self-transformation illustrates the affinities between certain threads of Warring States Confucianism and texts such as the fourth through second century bce Zhuangzi, classified as "Daoist" (daojia ). The phrase "the Way of the cosmos" is part of the basis of the Zhuangzi 's challenge to methods of self-transformation associated with the Zhou founders and with Kongzi. Much of that composite text advocates a return to an innate human nature, one imagined to have existed prior to the forced imposition of the distinctions inculcated by ritual performance. Reading the term for Heaven as something closer to modern conceptions of the cosmos, the Zhuangzi advocates that people return to an original, spontaneous, and Heaven-given human nature. By elevating a cosmically endowed disposition to sagacity above the four innate dispositions of the Mencius, the "Five Kinds of Action" argues that for the sage, the cultivation of these dispositions may lead to a spontaneous level of action in harmony with the cosmos. While the author of "Five Kinds of Action" is unknown, there are other early texts that associate similar views with Kongzi. The phrase "the Way of the cosmos" only has one controversial appearance in the Analects, but it plays a significant part in the chapters of the Records of Ritual that explain ritual in cosmological terms. In the "Duke Ai asks" chapter, when the duke asks why the noble ideal is to value the Way of the cosmos, Kongzi's reply points out the ways in which the ideal acts like the sun and moon, including "not acting intentionally yet completing things, as with the Way of the cosmos." This self-negating language recalls a section of another chapter of that text, "Kongzi was at leisure" (Kongzi xianju ), and a parallel passage in an early-third-century excavated text called "Father and Mother to the People" (Min zhi fumu ), which record Kongzi's advice that the ruler put into practice "soundless music, disembodied ritual, and sacrifice without offerings." This apophatic mode implies an early stage of cross-fertilization between Confucianism and its erstwhile Daoist critics.
The intuitionist aspects of the Mencius may have been similar to the Zhuangzi, but they are also the key to the text's disagreements with the Xunzi. The contents of the Xunzi are diverse, but the chapters thought to be authentically the work of Xunzi (Xun Qing, c.310–c.220 bce) are chiefly essays that argue that sagehood can only be accomplished by the process of externally oriented habituation through ritual and music. According to the Records of the Historian, Xun Qing was patronized by the King of Qi at Jixia from 285 – 275 bce, where he held a ritual-related post. The "Encouraging Learning" (Quan xue ) chapter of the Xunzi explains that: "In terms of its process, [learning] begins with reciting the classics and ends with reading the rites. In terms of its significance, [learning] begins with being a candidate for office, and it ends with being a sage." Where the Mencius locates morality in the inner mind, the Xunzi looks to cultural forms. Since human nature has none of the dispositions that Mencius thought it did, society is wont to fall into chaos as people compete for resources to sate their unlimited appetites. Only the Zhou solution to this predicament, the rites and music developed by the sage kings, hold the possibility of changing behavior. In addition to ritual and music, a person needs the influence of a teacher to habituate the proper set of reactions to external stimuli, in effect transforming the person's affective dispositions (qing ). The Xunzi' s view of affective dispositions dovetails with that of an early third century excavated text called "A discussion of human nature and affective dispositions" (Xingqing lun ) which holds that "study and acculturation shift one's intentions" and that the shift is not simply a matter of human nature. By properly training a person in ritual, music, and the classics, one may systematically alter affective responses to external stimuli and in so doing change that person's behavior. Similar to the excavated text's denial that self-transformation is only a matter of human nature, the Xunzi directly criticizes the quasi-mystical notion of "hearing" the Way of the noble ideal: "Just because their eyes are clear-sighted and their ears sharp of hearing, does not mean they understand what they are taught." Instead, the text celebrates the effect of ritual and music in both limiting one's appetites and transforming them into an intention to pursue sagehood.
Epistemologically, the two alternatives provided in the Mencius and Xunzi differ in where they locate morality: in the inner mind versus in the cultural creations of the sage kings. While the Mencius enjoyed a renaissance in the Song dynasty (960–1279 ce), the views of the Xunzi exerted more influence in the early imperial period. In part, this influence was through the secondary influence of Xunzi's student Prince Fei of the state of Han (c.280–c.233 bce), associated with the third century "Legalist" (fajia ) work Han Feizi. Like the Xunzi, the Han Feizi argues that people struggle and compete for their livelihoods because of population growth combined with a scarcity of goods, and that one must adopt the most efficacious system to avoid a state of social chaos. In a way more similar to some sections of the Zhuangzi, however, the Han Feizi concluded that, "benevolence and righteousness were useful in ancient times, but not in the present." Instead, a ruler should apply a strict code of penal law and a precise set of assignments for officials indexed to a clear set of models of behavior (fa, a term also used to refer to law). While this conclusion, giving up as it did on the possibility of self-cultivation for the majority, was diametrically opposed to that of his mentor, Prince Fei shared many of Xunzi's assumptions about the malleability of human behavior and the importance of training. This was a point on which most early imperial writers also agreed.
The Han Feizi 's influence on the Qin dynasty (221–206 bce) may be seen in its detailed legal codes, a large part of which was adopted in the following Han dynasty, to the consternation of some who worried about its effect on people's ability to develop a sense of shame (cf. Analects 2.3 above). This is just one of the many ways in which social and economic changes in the early imperial period exerted pressure on the reception of the texts and practices of the Zhou as revitalized by Kongzi, and as grounded in human nature by the Mencius and Xunzi.
Han Confucian Traditions and the Influence of the Imperial State
The 221 bce unification under the Qin led to major changes in the system of patronage and in the nature of official service, two major aspects of the social background of the pre-imperial works associated with Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi. Not only would Kongzi's movement from state to state as he fled unprincipled patrons have been impossible in the unified empire, but the rejection of conventional economic exchange within the master-disciple community was undermined by the bureaucratization of the fields in which advisors, teachers, and experts in the classics had once specialized. In addition, the link between self-transformation and sagehood became a sensitive topic, since the imperial clan's reliance on hereditary succession did not fit well with transmitted narratives that celebrated nonhereditary transfers of power based on virtue. In the following treatment of the Qin, Western Han (206 bce – 9 ce), and Eastern Han (25 ce–220 ce) dynasties, the emphasis will be on the ways that the legacy of Kongzi was appropriated by the imperial state, and on early attempts to transmit the classics through independent channels.
As the state took control of access to the vocations of advising rulers, and to the teaching of potential officials based on expertise in the rites, music, and classics, service as an imperial official was increasingly associated with mastery of the texts and practices that Kongzi had refashioned out of the cultural memory of the Zhou. The Qin and early Han emperors appointed Erudites (boshi) as experts in important classical texts, even though Sima Qian's Records of the Historian relates the story that the Han founder, Emperor Gao, was not very fond of the scholar-officials of his age. Gao remarked that since he had unified the empire on horseback he had little need for the classics of Odes and Documents. The major institutionalization of the study of those classics did not happen until two imperial edicts were issued by Emperor Wu (r. 140–87 bce). A 136 bce edict added Erudites in the Classic of Documents, Classic of Ritual (probably a reference to the Rituals of Zhou ), and Classic of Changes (Yijing ) to the existing ones in Master Gongyang's commentary to the Spring and Autumn (Chunqiu Gongyangzhuan ) and the Classic of Odes. In 124 bce, he established an Imperial Academy (taixue ) under the supervision of the Master of Rites (taichang ), modeled on the institutions of the early Zhou. The Imperial Academy functioned to evaluate a candidate's knowledge of these Five Classics (wujing ) to determine their suitability for service in office. In less than a generation, however, critics like Sima Qian offered veiled criticisms of the way in which the institutionalization of the study of the classics had co-opted the tradition that he traced back to Kongzi. Many of the Western Han writers that are today identified as Confucian were celebrated in their day primarily for their expertise in the classics and their assembly of collections of explanatory material about the classics. Examples are Fu Sheng (fl. 200 bce), an expert in the Classic of Documents, and Han Ying (c. 200–120 bce), an expert in the Classic of Odes, who both served as Erudites.
Two particularly influential Western Han exegetes were Jia Yi (200–168 bce) and Dong Zhongshu (c.179–c.104 bce), both of whom adapted thinking about cultivating excellences to the new imperial cosmology of the Han. In the early empire, the epistemological project of synthesizing "many masters and hundred experts" texts and different regional practices, was conceptualized as a search for an overarching "Way" behind the validity and efficacy of what were at one time competing schemes. In his essay titled "Protecting and Tutoring," Jia Yi, the outspoken Erudite and Palace Grandee for Emperor Wen (180–157 bce), explains the failure of short-lived Qin dynasty as being a matter of failing to value yielding and righteousness, and of abrogating ritual in favor of punishment. At the same time, in his ethical theory Jia Yi accepted the idea that self-transformation is a matter of an externally oriented habituation: "The fate of the people of the world depends upon the crown prince and, in turn, the competence of the crown prince is determined by early instruction and the selection of the prince's attendants." In accepting the Xunzi 's understanding of the origins of morality, Jia Yi well represents the Han view that human nature is malleable and self-transformation a matter of practice. In the Han, Dong Zhongshu was most famous for his interpretation and transmission of the Gongyang commentary to the Spring and Autumn, but today he is recognized as the person who adapted Kongzi's ethics to the Han belief that "the cosmos and human beings resonate with one another" (tianren ganying ). In his discussion of the human nature debate in "An in-depth investigation into names" (Shencha minghao ), Dong Zhongshu used the dualistic model of a balance between the feminine and masculine principles of yin and yang to effect a compromise in which affective dispositions (which need to be regulated) and human nature (which may be good, but needs to be awoken) together are responsible for moral behavior. The Warring States controversy between the Mencius and Xunzi was thus bypassed by a cosmologically justified compromise view of self-transformation. Like Jia Yi, Dong Zhongshu was less interested in identifying the content of human nature than describing the correct environment and method for self-transformation.
Following the brief interregnum of the Xin dynasty (9–23 ce), the Eastern Han saw the maturation of trends begun in the first centuries of the early empire, magnifying the stature of Kongzi both in educational and religious contexts. Besides establishing fourteen new Erudites and continuing the practice of basing the official examinations on texts associated with Kongzi, students at regional schools and scholars at the Imperial Academy sacrificed to Kongzi as the founder of the scholarly traditions. Emperor Ming (r. 57–75 ce) combined the sacrifice to Kongzi with sacrifices to the Sage's disciples in 59 ce. Observances at the Master's birthplace were first augmented by official sacrifices at the capital in 241 ce. In the first century bce, the imperial court began to favor a compilation that included shorter pieces long associated with Kongzi, the Analects, in contexts such as the education of the crown prince. The Eastern Han exegete Zheng Xuan (127–200 ce), who is credited with commenting on eighty texts and established an authoritative school of Analects interpretation, claimed to have been visited by Kongzi in a dream. Other Han works, such as Yang Xiong's (53 bce–18 ce) imitation of the Analects called the Model Sayings (Fayan ), the partially extant Records of Kongzi in the Three Courts (Kongzi sanchao ji ), a lost eight-chapter work called Zheng's Treatises (Zhengzhi ) devoted to Zheng Xuan's answers to questions about the Analects, and the Sayings of Kongzi's School (Kongzi jiayu ) attributed to Wang Su (195–256 ce) show that a connection with Kongzi was of increasing interest to writers and readers, even as Kongzi was increasingly invoked by the imperial state.
At the same time, Kongzi was also a potent symbol for those who questioned the prerogatives of the imperial state. In the Western Han, a number of non-official schools provided alternatives to the official network, beginning with the second-century example of the unjustly punished imperial advisor, Master Shen. Shen was an expert in the Classic of Odes who established a school after retiring to his home in Kongzi's old state of Lu and became recognized as a teacher of the major Han exegetes of that classic. By the Eastern Han, the History of the Latter Han (Hou Hanshu ) records that the Odes specialist Wei Ying had several thousand registered students. Besides the popularity of private academies for the teaching of the Five Classics, a related phenomenon was the development of a set of prophetic texts ancillary to each of those classics. The reign of the Eastern Han founder, Emperor Guangwu (r. 25–57 ce), began in an atmosphere strongly influenced by a view of Kongzi as the "pure king" (suwang ) who had encoded his method of rulership between the lines of the classic Spring and Autumn chronicle. Not only Guangwu, but other pretenders to the imperial crown sought to ground their claims to authority in prophecies associated with Kongzi from texts with titles like Kong Qiu's Secret Classic (Kong Qiu mijing ). The intellectual historian Feng Youlan observed of the Han view of Kongzi that "if these views had prevailed, Kongzi would have held in China a position similar to that of Jesus Christ." These prophecies became the models for a new genre of writing called "apocrypha" (chenwei), actually a combination of two types of work: "charts and proofs" (tuchen ) or prophecy texts and "weft books" (weishu ) or texts ancillary to the classics. The many texts in the latter category constitute a shadowy complement to each of the Five Classics, often using numerology and correlations to obliquely comment on the relations of the classic to kingship.
Medieval Confucian Traditions and the Encounter with Buddhism
The secret methods of a prophetic Kongzi must have been especially attractive in an Eastern Han dynasty weakened by a combination of natural disasters, infighting between eunuchs, aristocratic clans and the ruling house, and religious rebellions. Following the gradual demise of central authority in the second century ce, the strands of official and unofficial Confucianism responded in different ways to the initial stages of major changes in the Chinese religious landscape. While sacrifices connected with Kongzi continued in the Imperial Academy in Luoyang, the city was also home to the first translators of Buddhist sūtras from the West, and to refugees fleeing the rebellions in the Southwest and Northeast that eventuated in the community of healers that became the basis for the Celestial Masters (Tianshi ) tradition of organized Daoism (daojiao ). As the Han gave way to the Six Dynasties period (222–589 ce), few would have predicted that it would be four centuries until a similarly unified dynasty would emerge. Spurred on by the way in which Buddhism's independent institutional existence allowed it to maintain its integrity without relying on a precarious social organization, the other previously diffuse traditions emerged from this period of disunity having copied those characteristics to become part of the "Three Teachings" (sanjiao ): Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism.
Records of the early reception of Buddhism in China are limited to brief mentions in official histories, providing only occasional glimpses of the way that it affected culture outside the imperial court. Some of these indicate that Buddhist practice was first received as a method of controlling desires along the lines of early Daoist practices like "preserving the one" (shouyi ). The response of classical scholars to Buddhism changed during the Six Dynasties, with initial strategies of accommodation to other traditions giving way to criticism. While exegetes like He Yan (190–249 ce) and Wang Bi (226–249 ce) of the Wei (220–265 ce) dynasty developed a hybrid "Study of the Mystery" (Xuanxue, also translated as "Abstruse Learning" or "Mysterious Learning") that integrated elements from works like the Zhuangzi, scholar officials in the Eastern Jin (317–420 ce) and Southern Dynasties periods (420–529 ce) developed a broad attack on Buddhist cosmology. Study of the Mystery applied classical exegetical principles to the mysteries of the Classic of Changes, the Laozi, and the Zhuangzi. It also applied terms deriving from the latter texts, such as "naturalness" (ziran ) and "nothingness" (wu ), to the understanding of classical texts like the Analects. Finally, in what some scholars argue is an accommodation to Buddhism, but which also owes much to the interpretations of the Classic of Changes, Study of the Mystery drew new ontological distinction such as those between "substance" (ti ) and "function" (yong ), with which one may distinguish between the essential featureless substance of a thing, containing all of its potential permutations, and its function in a given situation at a specific time and place. The sage was able to realize the identity of substance and function, and thereby adapt a knowledge of the past to any situation in the future. While Study of the Mystery had a major influence in Six Dynasties period commentaries, it also rather quickly attracted criticism from Confucian scholars in their official capacities. The conservative reaction is seen in writings attributed to Sun Sheng (302–373 ce), a chronicler of the early Six Dynasties period who attacked the Study of the Mystery claim that the Daoist patriarch Laozi was a sage comparable with Kongzi, and who argued against the notion that any aspect of consciousness could survive death (as Buddhist cosmology held). Fan Ning (339–401 ce) specifically criticized Wang Bi for allowing "benevolence and righteousness to sink into darkness," holding that Kongzi's "subtle" or "esoteric" (wei ) doctrines could be learned from the study of the early commentaries to the Spring and Autumn.
Following the division of the former Han state into separate lines of successive kingdoms in the north and south from the fifth and sixth centuries, the continuity of interpretive traditions became even more closely associated with the careers of individual scholars. On the popular level, this period is identified with the growth and consolidation of Buddhism, the accelerated translation of Sanskrit texts, and the increased accuracy of translations by Kumārajīva (344–409 ce) and his disciple Seng Zhao (374–414 ce) led to a sense of its deeper differences from Daoism. The transmission and exegesis of the legacy of the Zhou as synthesized by Kongzi continued in official schools and private academies, but as imperial patronage became increasingly unreliable, more modest goals of consolidation and preservation took precedence. The retrospective concern with preserving the order of the Zhou and Han also contributed to a turn toward bibliography, taxonomy, and the assembly of comprehensive commentaries on the classics. Nevertheless, the Liang Erudite Huang Kan (488–545 ce) surpassed the precedent set by He Yan by not only assembling the glosses of prior commentators on the Analects, but also incorporating them into his own synthetic interpretation of the text based in part of the Xunzi 's view of human nature and affective dispositions. Individual courts such as the Liang (502–557 ce) continued to establish Erudites and authorize textual lineages in the classics, while others like the Cheng Han (302–347 ce) in the southwest derived their authority from association with Daoist lineages. Famous anti-Buddhist polemics were written by Fan Zhen (450–510 ce) and Xing Shao (496–c. 563 ce), and the competition between the Three Teachings for patronage was institutionalized in a set of debates in the Northern Qi (550–557 ce) about the relative merits of different traditions.
Even while nominal affiliation with one of the three teachings became increasingly important for individuals intent on securing patronage, the pluralistic atmosphere led to cross-fertilization of doctrines and practices between the traditions. Critics of elements of Buddhism like Liu Jun (462–521 ce) enlisted aspects of Daoist cosmology when he refuted the Buddhist notion of karma. Liu Jun argued that natural endowments of pneumas and unpredictable environmental influences determined the outcome of people's lives, reading the Zhou notion of the "mandate of Heaven" in terms of the Study of the Mystery notion of "naturalness." Other scholars consciously sought to bring Buddhist ideas into Confucianism. Examples include Yan Zhitui's (b. 531 ce) integration of the "five precepts" (wujie ) of Buddhism into discussions of ethical behavior and Wang Tong's (584 – 617 ce) advocacy of a unification of the Three Teachings. In addition, the very terms of debates with Buddhism shifted the Confucian discourse toward issues like cosmology and the social consequences of religious institutions, and away from late Warring States concerns with moral psychology and the nature of self-transformation. It was only after the reunification of China in the sixth century ce and the development of a nativist impulse to revive the pre-Buddhist transmission of Confucianism that the first attempts were made to recover those notions and use them to create "indigenous" alternatives to increasingly popular Buddhist and Daoist practices.
Tang and Song Confucian Traditions and the Study of the Indigenous Way
While the idea of interpretive lineages had been a part of Confucianism since the institutionalization of the study of the classics in the early empire, the reunification under the Sui (581–618 ce) and Tang dynasties (618–907 ce) saw the rise of more general conceptions of the "transmission of the Way" (daotong ) and the "transmission of good governance" (zhengtong ) that had been abandoned during the preceding period of disunity. When Tang writers attempted to rejuvenate classical ideals in an effort to recover a transmission from the sage-kings that had not been corrupted by foreign doctrines, they began to look outside the canon of the Five Classics for records of the early period. Han Yu (768–824) traced the transmission of the Way from the ancient sage kings to the rulers of the Zhou dynasty to Kongzi and then to Mengzi. Later writers such as Pi Rixiu (833–883 ce) and Liu Kai (947–1000 ce) amended the transmission so as to identify the first figure in the revival of the transmission as Wang Tong, but they also identified Han Yu as Wang's successor. In addition to attacking the validity of Buddhist ideas of karma and rebirth, Han Yu's rhetoric also centered on the proper origins of knowledge, holding that Buddhist traditions were invalid because they did not derive from the Way of the ancient sage kings. As a result, Buddhism lacked the proper connection between knowledge and action, and so contradicted Confucian values of ritual propriety and social engagement. Tang writers like Han Yu and Li Ao (d. c. 844 ce) began to reweave disparate strands of the traditions associated with Kongzi in such a way as to emphasize earlier concerns with idealism and human nature.
Complementing this classical revival, the emperors of the Tang established an official network of temples dedicated to Kongzi in all prefectural and county schools, while simultaneously supporting and exercising control over Daoism and Buddhism. Yan Shigu (581–645 ce) was commissioned by Emperor Taizong (626–649 ce) to direct the compilation of an authoritative edition and commentary on the Five Classics, resulting in the "Corrected Meanings of the Five Classics" (wujing zhengyi ), which took sixteen years to complete. During the Tang, however, the classics began to take second seat to the revival of interest in Warring States "many masters and hundred experts" texts. In an atmosphere that acknowledged a plural approach to the traces of the sage kings, influential figures like Liu Zongyuan (773–819 ce) applied a similar approach to Buddhism when he criticized Han Yu's sole focus on the social effect of monastic institutions. Liu Zongyuan wrote that Chan (in Japan, Zen ) Buddhism as expressed through Huineng's (638–713) Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch (Liuzu tanjing ), with its condemnation of popular practices in favor of reflection in order to remove the desires that obscure self-nature, was in agreement with Confucianism on some key points, such as what he characterized as the Mencius 's view that "human nature is good." At the same time, the Tang expanded the corpus of the imperial service examination system to include texts like the Zhuangzi, as pre-imperial texts of all kinds were increasingly seen as a means to recover the ancient past.
In the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127 ce) this culminated in an official redefinition of the canon, in part through the efforts of the pivotal figure Zhu Xi (1130–1200 ce). The Five Classics gave way to the "Four Books" (sishu ), which elevated the Analects to canonical status along with the Mencius and two chapters of the Records of Ritual : the "Great Learning" and the "Doctrine of the Mean." The latter two works had already attracted interest both inside and outside Confucian traditions, in part because the interplay between psychology and cosmology implicit in their use of concepts such as the quality of sincerity (cheng ) linking the sage to the cosmos, and the strategy of "attending to oneself in solitude" (shendu ), read by Zhu as a type of enhanced self-scrutiny. Read in this way, these works lent themselves to the concerns and practices of the time. Zhu Xi held that each of the four was written in a different generation, and so each represented a successive stage in the transmission of the Way. The four began with Kongzi's version in the Analects, followed by the disciple Zengzi's "Great Learning," the second generation disciple Zisi's "Doctrine of the Mean," and finally Zisi's student Mengzi's Mencius. Even though the canon no longer centered on the Zhou classics associated with Kongzi, this reading of the Four Books illustrated the way that the interpretation of the Way changed from one generation to the next, and so shed light on the process of teaching and learning in an inductive fashion. As Song interpretations of the Four Books became the basis of the imperial examination system, the reception of the classics was dramatically changed through the imposition of Zhu Xi's new interpretive orthodoxy.
While Song writers developed a new interpretive paradigm for recovering the meaning of pre-Buddhist texts, the method was only partially developed from the vocabulary of early texts themselves. In particular, the dual concepts of "principle" (li, a different character than the li for ritual) and "matter" (qi, a neutral description of the animating pneumas of the cosmos that came to be especially associated with human desires) were central to Zhu Xi's reading of the Four Books, even though their currency in Confucian traditions largely dates from early imperial times. Zhu Xi was the son of a local official who was exposed to Chan Buddhism, but at twenty he turned his attention to the classical scholarship of the Cheng brothers (Hao, 1032–1085 ce and Yi, 1033–1107 ce) and their new explanation of human nature. Scholars sometimes trace their explanation to Zhou Dunyi (Zhou Lianxi, 1017–1073 ce) and Zhang Zai's (Zhang Zihou, 1020–1077 ce) conception of a "supreme ultimate" (taiji ). Zhou Dunyi's supreme ultimate imbues all things, both animate and inanimate, but expressed in its purest state it is simply the nature of human beings, as outlined in his "Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate" (Taijitu shuo ). The Chengs developed and elevated the notion of human nature to subsume related notions of fate, mind, affective dispositions, the Way, and the cosmos. Cheng Yi held that morality inheres in the part of one's nature that is an expression of the natural pattern of principle, but is obscured by material. "Settling one's nature" (ding xing ) and cultivating an attitude of reverence refines the matter of the inner mind, making it possible to discover the purity of cosmic principle contained therein. Because human nature, once settled, reflects the same cosmic principle that underlies ritual and the Way, social hierarchies implicit in the rites are then also implicit in the cosmos.
Zhu Xi adopted the Cheng brothers' view of a human nature that contains cosmic principle, and integrated this with a concrete approach to self-transformation. For this reason, Zhu's rereading of Confucian traditions is sometimes called the "Study of Principle" (lixue ), or the Cheng-Zhu school. Some scholars have applied terms like rationalist or metaphysical to what has also been called Zhu Xi's "neo-Confucian" position. While these terms fail to capture certain aspects of the cosmological basis for Zhu Xi's readings, it is true that human nature was an expression of a cosmic principle that transcended the category of human beings. Zhu Xi's noble ideal attains benevolence through discovery of the cosmic principle that had been understood by past sages, and so self-transformation was a matter of rediscovering their system of ritual and the study of the classics. To accomplish this, he promoted a program that combined quiet sitting (qingzuo ) to settle the inner mind and a method of studying the classics that stressed the need to "penetrate things" (gewu ). "Penetrating things" is a phrase adapted from a description of the way the ancient sages moved from self-transformation to ordering the state in the "Great Learning," and for Zhu Xi it was the method that allows one to "fully comprehend principle" (qiongli). In engaging the affairs and things of the past, "penetrating things" depends on fostering a resonance between the principle in the subject's mind and the principle of the object being interpreted. According to Chen Lai, one need not experience actual situations or develop concrete rules, but instead one must develop the capacity to infer such rules from study and ethical practice. A cross between meditation and hermeneutics, this view of learning through mutual activation meant that exegesis was a crucial part of the process of becoming a moral person. Zhu Xi established an academy called "White Deer Hollow" (Bailu dong ), where moral instruction, commentary, and sacrifice were all part of the curriculum. While Zhu Xi was critical of study undertaken in order to attain office, graduates of his academy went on to take the civil service examination, and in the middle of the thirteenth century his commentaries came to be regarded as the best guarantee of success on the examination.
While a variety of factors, including nativism, led to this emphasis on recovery of an indigenous Way, no scholarly consensus exists on the degree to which Zhu's reconceptualization itself was influenced by Buddhism. In part this is because underlying issues of cultural identity are still being contested. The lack of consensus is also because the possibility of isolating purely "Confucian" and "Buddhist" figures in the whirling dance of translated Sanskrit sūtras, hybrid Chinese Buddhist works, Buddhist commentaries on pre-Buddhist classics, and Daoist-influenced anti-Buddhist polemics, is so remote. It is true that some of the central differences between late imperial Confucianism and what came before it—such as the notion of the recovery of "cosmic principle" or an "original inner mind" prior to its becoming obscured by matter—appear to show a movement in the direction of Chan Buddhism. However, even critics of Zhu Xi, such as the twentieth century "New Confucian" (xin Ru ) Mou Zongsan (1909–1995), rejected the notion that the Song revival was "equal parts Confucian and Buddhist" (yang Ru yin Shi ). Mou argued that while the two traditions shared certain generic conceptual schemes and attitudes to practice, these were external to the distinctly Confucian inner essence of Zhu Xi's thought. On one level, Mou is echoing Cheng Hao's Song dynasty critique of Buddhism—that it includes comportment by which to control oneself internally, but not the excellences by which to order oneself externally. On another level, his testimony is itself evidence of how a tradition predicated on the intergenerational transfer of sagely knowledge resists the imposition of models that call into question the integrity of this transfer. What is certain is that in scholastic conflicts throughout the early imperial period, the accusation of Buddhist influence was a partisan charge leveled against most Confucian writers. Zhu Xi himself hesitates in accepting Xie Liangzuo's (1050–c.1121 ce) use of the term "awakening" (jue ) to explain benevolence because it has too much of a Chan Buddhist flavor. The compilation of his writings compiled by his disciples called Classified Utterances of Master Zhu (Zhuzi yulei) contains condemnations of the writings of Zhu Xi's contemporary Lu Jiuyuan (Lu Xiangshan, 1139–1193 ce) along the same lines. Lu Jiuyuan's call for a return to the "inner mind" is ridiculed as revealing a lack of understanding of the Analects phrase "control one's self and return to ritual propriety," as well as a neglect of the importance of the records of past sages and worthies. As such, "inner mind" was considered nothing more than Chan Buddhism.
Zhu Xi's "Study of Principle" became the orthodoxy for the study of the classics through the institution of the civil examination system, yet even after the abolition of that system, his commentaries continued to be regarded as authoritative. Imperial edicts in 1415 and 1715 led to the sponsorship of the issue and reissue of versions of The Great Collection on Human Nature and Principle (Xingli daquan ) based on Zhu's writings. In part this was a testament to his own exegetical flair and the clarity of his presentation. Yet despite a major challenge in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 ce), the dominance of the "Study of Principle" continued well into the Qing dynasty (1644–1911 ce), in part because it provided a model that fused scholarship with practice, and in part because it revived the early goals of moral self-transformation without challenging dynastic authority.
Ming and Yuan Confucian Traditions and the Relation between Practice and Politics
In the Yuan (1206–1368 ce) and Ming dynasties, the gap between official service and the study of the classics was reflected in the critique of a lack of social engagement on the part of "School of Principle" adherents made by Wang Yangming (born Wang Shouren, or Wang Bo'an, 1472–1529 ce), the major figure in the alternative "Study of the Inner Mind" (Xinxue ) tradition. Although the Yuan Dynasty was ruled by the Mongols, a dual-track civil service examination system was reinstituted in 1314, and the curriculum for both Chinese and non-Chinese tracks included "School of Principle" commentaries on the Four Books, causing it to gain wide currency. Yuan scholar officials, like Jin Lüxiang (Jin Jifu, 1232–1303 ce), a representative of the southern Jinhua school who accentuated the importance of commentary in the study of the classics, with few exceptions saw themselves as continuing in the "School of Principle" tradition.
When Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398 ce), the founding emperor of the Ming, replaced the Mongol Yuan with a highly centralized and autocratic state, his xenophobia and anti-intellectualism boded at best a continuation of the conservative Yuan scholarship. Yet even the first generation of Ming scholars showed a greater willingness to innovate within the "Study of Principle" framework than might have been expected. Xue Xuan (Xue Dewen, 1392–1464 ce), associated with the Hedong School of the "Study of Principle," served in office until retiring to teach for the last eight years of his life. He revived the idea of "returning to human nature" (fuxing ), promoted by Li Ao in the Tang dynasty, in such a way as to deny the notion that principle preceded matter and argue that principle and matter arise simultaneously. This had the effect of moving the "School of Principle" even further from a focus on the discovery of principle in an untouched inner mind as advocated by Lu Jiuyuan, toward Xue Xuan's explicit emphasis on the training of the senses and the body through ritual and daily activities. Chen Xianzheng (Chen Gongfu, 1428–1500 ce) emphasized bodily training though quiet sitting, but connected it to a revival of Lu Jiuyuan's equation of the inner mind and cosmic principle. Chen Xianzheng's success in the civil service examination late in life and his positive message of returning to a natural state to access the cosmic principle in the inner mind made him the first Ming voice in what developed into a genuine alternative to the "School of Principle."
Echoing the criticisms of Lu Jiuyuan and Chen Xianzheng that Zhu Xi artificially divided the inner mind and cosmic principle, the "Study of Inner Mind" (also called the Lu-Wang School) posited a necessary relationship between knowledge (zhi) and action (xing), and a superiority of experiential knowledge gained through action over ordinary knowledge gained through study. This emphasis on accessing an intuitive level of understanding has led some to label it (somewhat misleadingly) as "idealism." The founder of the school was Wang Yangming (1472–1529), who passed the civil examination at the age of twenty and went on to serve in a variety of official positions. Wang appropriated the phrase "true knowing" (liangzhi) from Mencius 7A15: "What a person is able to do without having to learn is what he can truly do; what a person knows without having to reflect is what he truly knows." In its original context, true knowing is identified with caring for parents and respect for elders, and Wang Yangming used this to explain the way that knowledge of principle is incipient in the original substance of the inner mind.
This imperative to social engagement coincided with a different approach to classical traditions. In his critique of Zhu Xi's program, Wang Yangming returns to the "Great Learning" in arguing that the "investigation of things" must be in service of "arriving at knowing" (zhizhi) of morality and so refers to investigating the principles that were already present in the inner mind. Wang eschewed complex textual exegesis, arguing that classics are but commentaries on the mind. Instead, he focused on character formation through realizing "original substance" (benti) by the cultivation practice (gongfu ) of applying morality by being sincere in daily life. Philip J. Ivanhoe has likened Wang Yangming's view of moral self-transformation to a model of acting on affections, and Wang himself quotes the "Great Learning" when he likens moral action to "loving pretty colors or hating bad stench." Just as with Zhu Xi, modern scholars have compared Wang Yangming's view that moral knowledge depends on clearing away the dust of the desires to reveal the mind's inherent moral principles to Chan Buddhist notions of the "original mind" (benxin ). Despite his vociferous criticism of Buddhists as living a life of emptiness and silence, lacking any engagement with society, the revisionist "Study of Inner Mind" scholar Liu Zongzhou (Liu Qidong, 1578–1645 ce), acknowledged the mutual influence when he wrote that Wang Yangming "resembled Chan but then condemned Chan." Indeed, criticisms of "Study of Inner Mind" by later Confucians sometimes read like criticisms of Chan by later Buddhists.
Even viewed in the context of the orthodoxy of Zhu Xi's intellectualism, Wang Yangming's reification of intuition was a radical epistemological position, and the later history of the "Study of Inner Mind" school is one of different degrees of accommodation with prior views concerning the legacies of the past sages. While Wang Yangming's early disciples—such as Wang Ji (Wang Longxi, 1498–1583 ce), whose theory of the inner mind led to a version of reincarnation, and Wang Gen (Wang Xinzhai, 1483–1540 ce)—were dedicated to making their teacher's intuitionism more robust, others tried to temper it. Chen Xianzhang's student Zhan Ruoshui (Zhan Yuanming, 1463–1557) argued that there was no correction possible once one has arrived at one's inner mind's true knowing, and so integrated that goal into the more general project of "in every place realizing cosmic principle" (suichu tiren tianli). While Zhan Ruoshui agreed that the inner mind was central to the discovery of principle, his understanding of the inner mind was of a nexus between the external world full of the resources that the "Study of Principle" drew on, and the intuitions favored in "Study of Inner Mind." Liu Zongzhou reread the phrase "attend to oneself in solitude" from the "Doctrine of the Mean" to refer to a solitary disposition to goodness in the original mind that must first be made sincere through self-cultivation practice before embarking on external study. That Wang Yangming's viewpoint was developed in numerous directions is shown by Liu Zongzhou's student, Huang Zongxi (Huang Taichong, or Huang Lizhou, 1610–1695 ce), who delineates eight regional "Study of Inner Mind" schools in his chronicle of Ming scholasticism, Examples of the Studies of Ming Classicists (Mingru xue'an ). Huang Zongxi's own rejection of pure intuitionism is illustrated by his description of Wang Ji and Wang Gen as promoters of Chan Buddhism. As Zhu Xi's writings had, Wang Yangming's works also had a major impact on Confucianism, as well as literature and politics in Yi Korea as well as Tokugawa (1600–1868) Japan.
Qing Confucian Traditions and the Study of the Classics
In late imperial China, issues of national identity and academic and political authority were all bound up in the identification of Kongzi as a ritualist and a scholar. When, in 1644, the Manchu Qing dynasty replaced the Ming, the new rulers recognized the legitimacy that might be conferred by continuing patronage of classical scholarship. While discourse on the Chinese past was increasingly limited to a discussion of ritual and exegesis, new trends in interpretation and a valuation of evidence-based scholarship (kaozheng ) over Song and Ming scholasticism led to a new orientation to classical traditions. While scholars associated with "School of Principle" and "Study of Inner Mind" traditions of self-transformation still taught students and held office, a dissatisfaction with those traditions gave rise to a new kind of exegete who did not aspire to sagehood, but instead to accurately understand the past. Later and more iconoclastic Qing scholars developed new perspectives on the classics that elevated proper engagement with texts to the highest level of experience.
The "Han Studies" (Hanxue ) movement associated with Gu Yanwu (Gu Yinglin, 1613–1682 ce) was begun in the atmosphere of the anti-Manchu sentiment of the early Qing. Han Studies may be linked to resistance to foreign rule, in that it sought to return to an authentic Chinese worldview, before it was polluted by what many Qing scholars called the Buddhist-inspired "Song Studies" (Songxue ). Because careful research into the early meanings of the classics had the effect of undermining the anachronistic cosmologies that earlier imperial scholars had used to interpret them, Han Studies was a pragmatic reaction against the academic tendency to focus on abstract concepts like cosmic principle, and a turning away from what was seen as a sterile and failed approach to the past. The earliest Han Studies scholars were iconoclasts who generally rejected affiliation with established lineages and pursued different approaches like historical study, philology, or natural philosophy as pragmatic alternatives to earlier and narrower models of classical scholarship. The Ming loyalist Wang Fuzhi (Wang Chuanshan, 1619–1692 ce) sought to use Zhang Zai's "supreme ultimate" to provide School of Principle cosmology a more materialistic basis, rejecting Zhu Xi's view of the primacy of principle over matter, and arguing, for instance, that desires also contained an expression of principle. An autodidact, Wang Fuzhi criticized the more abstract elements of Daoism and Buddhism, but read the classics alongside historical and literary works and wrote a commentary on the Zhuangzi. Gu Yanwu, like Wang Fuzhi, a Ming official who refused to serve under the Qing, developed a number of new approaches to classical studies, making contributions in phonology, textual criticism, and historical geography. While he grounded this approach in Kongzi's imperative to "study widely in literature" (boxue, see Analects 6.27, 9.1, 12.15, and 19.5), Gu Yanwu's valuation of the work of early imperial commentators like Zheng Xuan signaled a major shift in Confucian hermeneutics toward a more historical approach. Other Ming loyalists broadened the subjects of classical research, with Fu Shan (Fu Qingzhu, 1607–1684 ce) focusing on medical and "many masters and hundred experts" texts, and Lü Liuliang (Lü Zhuangsheng, 1629–1683 ce) making pointed observations about foreign relations in historical texts. The explicit justification for such broad study was its potential application in contemporary society, in spite of the fact that these authors eschewed official service under the Manchus.
The middle period of the Qing was characterized by the further development of independent scholarly fields that each identified itself with the tradition of Kongzi, and it continued the focus on the issue of the social relevance of classical learning. Yan Yuan (Yan Yizhi, 1635–1704 ce) was an early critic of the exegetical emphasis of Han Studies for their neglect of practical knowledge in other fields. Yan Yuan's view of the classics was that they should be seen as an expression of intentions that under different historical circumstances might have been expressed through concrete actions. By contrast, Dai Zhen (Dai Dongyuan, 1723–1777 ce) took the developing Han Studies emphasis on philological method and, in his "Tracing the Origins of Goodness" (Yuanshan ), argued that it was a necessary antidote to the subjectivity inherent in later imperial readings of the classics. He attacked the differentiation of principle and matter, the hierarchy between which was the cosmological justification for longstanding social hierarchies that he maintained had to end. What the approaches of Yan Yuan and Dai Zhen had in common was a genuine disregard for the dualism that informed the writings of both Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, and by the eighteenth century the bitter disagreements between their followers had been replaced by a view that they shared common shortcomings. Nonsectarian approaches like that of Peng Dingqiu (Peng Qinzhi, 1645–1719 ce) promoted not only the essential unity of the "Study of Principle" and "Study of Inner Mind," but also a synthesis of the Three Teachings that emphasized conduct and a vegetarian diet. The Qing's dissemination of "morality books" (shanshu ) that promoted a syncretic moral system that stressed values like loyalty to the state reinforced the idea that the Three Teachings were based on a common moral foundation.
It was in the Qing Dynasty that several tendencies cemented Kongzi's status as the founder of the diverse strands of scholarship, service, and practice with which he had previously been associated. Kongzi was increasingly viewed as the founder of the projects in which both private and official scholars were engaged. In the words of the Qing scholar Pi Xirui (Pi Lumen, 1850–1908 ce), the author of History of the Study of the Classics (Jingxue lishi), "The first age of the study of the classics began with Kongzi's editing of the Six Classics." Here the "Six Classics" refer to the Five Classics plus the lost classic of Music (Yuejing ). When classical scholars like Pi Xirui constructed genealogies from which they claimed authority, Kongzi was always placed at the beginning. What both proponents of evidence-based scholarship and those who tried to reconcile the approaches of Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming had in common was the search for a pure past whose interpretation had been politicized by the disagreements of late imperial scholars. The assumed unity of Kongzi's intentions became the basis for postulating the existence of a common source from which the many strands of Qing Confucianism once derived. The period also saw a renewal of interest in Kongzi as a prophetic figure and religious founder, a renewal tied to late Qing encounters with the west.
The culmination of the emphasis on social relevance of the classics was Kang Youwei's (1858–1927 ce), portrait of Kongzi as a prophetic social reformer. Kang Youwei was classically trained at a time when European, American, and Japanese imperial aspirations convinced most Chinese of the need to promote scientific and military development. In his 1897 Kongzi as a Reformer (Kongzi gaizhi kao ), Kang Youwei turned back to early commentaries on the Spring and Autumn and the Confucian apocrypha to construct a view of Kongzi as a religious founder along the lines of Jesus Christ, and to reject the orthodox Study of Principle reading of Kongzi as a teacher and advisor. His direct influence on the young Qing emperor Guangxu (r. 1875–1908) led to a series of explicit measures intended to transform China into a constitutional monarchy, which were ended by what was effectively a coup d'état by the Empress Dowager Cixi in September of 1898. While Kang Youwei fled to Japan, his student Liang Qichao (1873–1929 ce) revived a reformist constitutional movement in the period from 1905 through 1911. Qing intransigence frustrated these reforms up until the success of the Republicanism espoused by Sun Zhongshan (i.e., Sun Yat-sen, 1866–1925 ce) in ending the Qing and most aspects of the imperial system in 1911.
The 1919 May Fourth movement was critical of many aspects of traditional culture, but it was far outdone by the 1949 revolution that established the Communist People's Republic of China. As the locus of Confucian thinking and scholarship moved to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora, the fraying of ties between the state and both the performance of ritual and the mastery of the classics significantly changed the nature of the tradition. Institutionally, the home of some of the most versatile forms of modern Confucianism is the international university, and its voice is identified with that of academics such as Tu Weiming (or Tu Wei-ming, b. 1940). In this context, inter-religious dialog and attempts to accommodate traditional views to the concerns of modernity have come to the fore. At the same time, there is interest in a revival of Confucian ethics as a resource for combating official corruption in the People's Republic of China, while particular Confucian traditions, such as evidence-based scholarship and sacrifice at temples to Kongzi, continue in many traditional venues.
Throughout history, the traditions drawn upon by people who today identify themselves with Confucianism were woven and unwoven in response to outside influences. These traditions have adapted in response to criticisms by Warring States thinkers like Mozi and Zhuangzi, to the popularity of early Buddhist institutions, or to the perception that religion played a role in the technological progress of nineteenth-century imperial powers. While recent scholarship on the historical development of Confucianism has called into question the notion that Kongzi founded the multiple threads of the tradition, there is no question that, for the past several centuries, contests over his biography and teachings have been the dominant common feature of these threads. Going back in time, however, other common features may be found: a theory of history based on a particular model of familial and social relations; an ethic of stewardship; a view of archaic ritual practice; and a set of texts and interpretations that form the curriculum of the civil service examinations. Whether one considers Confucianism a religion or not is ultimately a question of whether one is looking at the "humanistic" thread isolated out by Jesuits looking for natural theology and reformers looking for natural philosophy, or at other threads at other times.
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