Humanity: Asian Thought

views updated

Humanity: Asian Thought

Philosophy in East Asia generally avoids abstract metaphysical speculation and focuses on practical questions. Discussions of human nature tend to be related to concerns about social problems and how to solve them. This practical orientation can be seen in the thought of Confucius (Kong fuzi, 551479 b.c.e.), China's most influential philosopher, who lived during a time of social strife and whose life was dedicated to reforming China and returning it to the paradigms of the past as he understood them.

Confucius's study of ancient Chinese classics led him to believe that during the reigns of the "sage kings" Yao and Shun, China had been well governed and harmony had prevailed throughout their realms. This was accomplished not through harsh punishments or excessive regulations, but by the moral force of their personalities and their attention to social rituals. They are extolled as examples of "noble men" (junzi ), who embodied the best of human virtues and whose good qualities prompted others to strive for moral excellence themselves. Confucius believed that the presence of such people in a society is the key to social harmony and that all men have the capacity to become perfect exemplars of virtue. He was, however, a product of his time, and his writings indicate that he did not view women as having the same capacities as men. All of his students and close associates were men, and the few instances of mentions of women indicate that he mainly saw them as wives and supporters of men striving to perfect themselves.

For Confucius, education is the key to moral development. Although humans have the capacity to become "noble men," only those who study diligently and actively pursue this ideal are able to reach it. He urged his students to study the classics in order to discern for themselves the eternal paradigms that guide sages. A true sage, in his conception, is one who has learned to discipline his mind and body, whose outward comportment is always appropriate and whose thoughts are oriented toward the betterment of society. Such a person is resolute in the pursuit of virtue but not rigid, learned but not boastful, deeply moral without being moralistic, courageous but not reckless, and always strives to practice what is right in any given situation.

Human Nature: Good or Evil?

One of the enduring questions of East Asian philosophy concerns how human nature should be construed: Are humans by nature good or evil? Is morality natural to humans, or must they be taught (or coerced) to do what is right? Confucius never directly answered these questions, but the perfectibility of humanity is a dominant theme in his philosophy, and he clearly thought that humans (or at least male humans) possess the capacity for perfection, although they must consciously strive to actualize it. Mencius (Mengzi, c. 371c. 289 b.c.e.), the most prominent thinker in the tradition after Confucius, asserted that human nature is good, and believed that people are naturally inclined toward virtue. Unfortunately, the negative elements of society tend to corrupt most people, and only a few are able to overcome them. He compared the tendency toward goodness to Ox Mountain, a hill that was once forested. The trees were cut down in order to make a place for cows to graze, but tree shoots continue to crop up there. The cows chew them, and so the trees never reach maturity, but the potential for tree growth is always present. In the same way, humans have the capacity to pursue sagehood, but most become corrupted and fail to actualize this potential.

According to Mencius, the path to perfection begins with cultivation of the heart/mind (xin ), an innate faculty that allows us to discriminate between right and wrong. It operates in harmony with "vital energy" (qi ), a universal force that pervades all phenomena and that promotes both personal morality and social harmony. Those who cultivate their heart/mind through study and practice of morality increase the power of their vital energy, which becomes a "flood-like qi " (haoran qi ) in sages. As a strong wind bends grass, flood-like qi prompts those who encounter sages to emulate their example.

After Mencius, the notion that human nature is basically good was widely accepted by Confucians, but many of their rivals held other positions. The Legalists, for example, contended that human nature is evil and that unless people are regulated by laws and punishments they will go astray. Society only functions harmoniously when the populace fears the apparatus of state control, and the Legalists counseled rulers to keep their subjects in line by publicly inflicting harsh punishments on those who transgress the laws and by maintaining a powerful and pervasive police force and a network of spies.

A rival position was propounded by Mozi (c. 470c. 391 b.c.e.), who advocated a philosophy of "universal love" (jianai ). He contended that China's problems stemmed from a lack of shared benevolence, and he urged people to recognize that if everyone were to practice love of everyone else, the entire society would benefit. When people pursue their self-interest at the expense of others, everyone suffers, and so he taught that the most rational course of action for individuals is to contribute to the common good so that everyone might prosper.

Responding to Mozi, Confucians characterized his ideas as impracticable. First, Confucians believed that people naturally have deeper feelings for those who are close to them and that it is appropriate to favor them. Second, an appeal to pursue morality out of self-interest is bound to fail because those who are moral for selfish reasons will soon realize that while the whole society may benefit from universal love, an individual who takes advantage of the situation might well profit more than others. Only a universal code of morality will make people behave in a truly moral way.

In responding to the Legalists, the Confucians stated that in their version of society people become morally degenerate. They live according to society's expectations and will only be moral as long as there is a credible threat of punishment. They will not develop a moral sense, which is only possible for people who feel shame when they transgress the moral code. Shame keeps the noble man on track even when there is no one to punish or disapprove of immoral behavior.

Another alternative view of human nature was propounded by the Daoists. Laozi (571?480? b.c.e.), the most prominent of the early Daoist thinkers, held that humans at birth are like uncarved blocks of wood (pu ) and that as they get older, society molds and shapes them. While the Confucians believed that this process is desirable and that education is the key to attaining human perfection, Laozi contended that it brutalizes people and creates the seeds of social turmoil and negative behavior. Trees need no education to grow in accordance with the rhythms of nature, nor does water need to study the classics in order to flow toward its lowest point. Like all the things of the world, humans are born with an innate sense of right and wrong, which accords with the movement of the dao, an impersonal, universal force that pervades all phenomena and regulates how things grow and develop.

In the ideal Daoist society, people do not waste their time with education and moral training; rather, the Daoist ruler works to keep his subjects ignorant so that they remain happy with their simple lives. He ensures that they have enough to eat and he avoids conflicts with neighboring states so that the people are not disturbed by wars or overburdened with taxes. In the perfect society, according to Laozi, the people will be so content in their rural villages that even if they hear the cocks crowing in a neighboring town they have no interest in visiting because they have everything they need at home.

Revival of the Tradition

During most of Chinese history Confucianism was the dominant philosophy and the basis of the state cult, but significant numbers of Chinese intellectuals rejected it in favor of Daoism and later Buddhism. Following centuries of decline, the Confucian tradition was revived in the Song dynasty (9601279), when a new movement generally referred to as Neo-Confucianism (xing li xue, "learning of nature and principle" in Chinese) began among Chinese literati. Many of them had been Buddhists and Daoists, and they often incorporated elements of these systems into their philosophies. During this time the new Confucians initiated educational and political reforms, wrote new histories, and edited classical texts. At the same time, new evolutionary cosmologies and systems of humanistic ethics were devised, and a vigorous defense of Confucianism was mounted.

The Neo-Confucians dismissed Daoism as impracticable and unsuited to the real needs of Chinese society, while Buddhism was characterized as un-Chinese because of its emphasis on monasticism (which they claimed leads people to ignore their filial duties). In addition, the Buddhist doctrine of "emptiness" (Sanskrit, sunyata ; Chinese, kong ) was used as an example of the "nihilism" of Buddhism, while Confucianism was described as practical and world-affirming. Moreover, because Buddhist monastics are not supposed to work for a living and are required to subsist on alms, they were characterized as social parasites.

At the same time, aspects of society that had been neglected by Confucius and early Confucians were addressed by thinkers of this period. A number of books regarding the proper conduct of women were composedmostly by men, although a few were written by women. A central concern was women's education. Early Confucians had generally held that women should be illiterate because their mental capacities are inferior to those of men and education is irrelevant to their primary duties within the domestic sphere. The Neo-Confucians accepted the inferior status of women and the notion that their main roles in the society should be as wives and mothers, but some contended that they would be more effective in raising and training their children if they had at least rudimentary knowledge of the classics and the philosophies of Confucianism.

One of the earliest writers to espouse this theme was Ban Zhao (c. 798 b.c.e.), whose Admonitions for Women (Nujie ) is a set of instructions regarding the "way of wives" (fudao ). She accepts the traditional hierarchy of Chinese society, in which wives are subservient to their husbands, and their primary sphere of activity is within the home and family. She advises her readers to be humble and thrifty, to serve their husbands and families to the best of their abilities, but she also holds that success in women's work requires a solid education.

Other female Confucian writers echoed these sentiments while acknowledging the secondary place of women in society. But just as Confucian officials had a duty to remonstrate with wayward or corrupt rulers even at the risk of imprisonment or death, women were allotted the role of moral compass for their husbands. In Madam Cheng's Classic of Filial Piety for Women (Nu Xiaojing ), for example, women are told to be humble and obedient, but service to their husbands also requires that they correct them when they transgress Confucian morality. In Madam Cheng's vision, the virtue, humility, and filiality of their wives should serve as salutary examples for husbands, whose own conduct will be uplifted by that of their spouses. In the fifteenth century, Empress Xu (the third wife of the third Ming emperor, Yongle) expanded the potential role of women in Chinese society, arguing that all humans possess the same capacity for sagehood and that even women can aspire to the supreme goal of Confucianism. In her Instructions for the Inner Quarters (Neixun ), she contends that women play a central role in the regulation of the state, which begins with well-trained children and well-regulated families. She accepts the notion that the home is the primary sphere of women's activities, but in her system it is the basis for proper functioning of the whole society, and women are not merely adjuncts to their husbands, but rather complementary partners in the task of promoting social harmony and order.

Zhu Xi and the Study of Principle

The most influential thinker of Neo-Confucianism was Zhu Xi (11301200), who wrote new commentaries on most of the Confucian classics and whose school became the orthodox tradition in China and Korea. Zhu emphasized the "learning of principle" (lixue ). The term "principle" (li ) appears in the classics, where it refers to a standard or pattern. Zhu contended that there is a principle that underlies all existence and that this can be discerned through studying phenomena. There is one principle, but it is manifested variously in the things of the universe. The myriad phenomena are in a state of constant flux, but all changes are determined by the universal principle. The force behind change is vital energy, which is the means by which principle is manifested. Both principle and vital energy influence each other, and they are central to the proper functioning of both the natural world and human society. Sages regulate and control their vital energy and act in accordance with principle, and thus they are able to manifest human-heartedness, filiality, and righteousness.

In common with the mainstream of the Confucian tradition, Zhu believed that education is the key to both moral behavior and sagehood. His approach is referred to as "investigation of things" (kewu ), which involves beginning with what is known and then proceeding to understand the mysterious. Because everything manifests principle, as one investigates things, one progressively comes to understand the nature and elaborations of principle, and this in turn leads to improved wisdom and morality.

Zhu's main opponent was Wang Yangming (14721528), who rejected the notion of the exhaustive study of things as a waste of time. He agreed with Zhu that principle is manifested in all phenomena, but held that the human faculty of the heart/mind allows people to discern it directly without an exhaustive study of things. Because humans are innately endowed with the capacity for sagehood, all that is necessary is to engage in introspection using the heart/mind, and through this they can comprehend principle directly.

The Spread of Confucianism

Although Wang's school was widely influential, Zhu's tradition became the state orthodoxy in China, and it was also imported to Korea and Japan. By the fourth century c.e., Confucianism was well-established in Korea, and during the Koryu dynasty (9181392) a number of Confucian academies were built. Although Buddhism was the official state ideology, the government instituted a system of civil examinations that followed the Chinese Confucian model.

During the Yi dynasty (13921910), Confucianism replaced Buddhism as the state ideology, and Zhu Xi's school became dominant. Korean Confucians generally emphasized the study of human nature and principle (songnihak ) and "learning of the way" (tohak ). Following Zhu's lead, Korean Confucians focused on the concepts of principle, vital energy, and heart/mind. The most influential Korean Neo-Confucian, T'oegye (the literary name of Yi Hwang, 15011570), was primarily concerned with practical questions of how Confucian ideas should be manifested in human activity.

After Confucianism became the state ideology, the main emphasis of the tradition was textual study, which over time became mostly arid and unoriginal. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a new school arose in Korea, which came to be known as the "Practical Learning" (Silhak). Its proponents criticized the scholastic Confucians for focusing on words and ignoring practical concerns. Chung Mong-ju (13371392), the founder of the movement, stated that "the way of Confucianism lies in the ordinary affairs of daily life. Even in sexual relations and in eating and drinking there is a meaningful principle." The main focus of this school was on how to improve society and directly help the people, and its adherents characterized traditional Confucians as being overly concerned with empty academic study that had no practical use.

The Yi dynasty ended with the Japanese invasion and annexation of Korea in 1911. During the occupation, Confucianism declined due to lack of state support, and when the Japanese were expelled after World War II, the new government decided not to support Confucian institutions, which continued their decline. In the early twenty-first century most of the remaining Confucian academies are museums, but there is still one Confucian university, the Songgyun'gwan in Seoul, and a few traditional scholars (mostly elderly) who continue to uphold the tradition. Their numbers are dwindling, however, and there are few young Koreans who are interested in undertaking the extensive training required of traditional Confucians.

Despite its modern travails, Confucianism continues to be widely influential in East Asia, and its philosophies and moral codes are a core element of the culture of China, Korea, and Japan. In the early 2000s the Confucian educational system that once dominated the intellectual life of East Asia is a thing of the past, and the great Confucian academies are merely historical monuments, but Confucian ideas about human nature, morality, and good governance still influence the way people in the region see themselves and their societies.

See also Confucianism ; Daoism .


Ames, Roger T., ed. Self as Person in Asian Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mark, and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore, and JaHyun Kim Haboush, eds. The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Hall, David L., and Roger T. Ames. Thinking Through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Kohn, Livia. Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Daoist Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Mann, Susa, and Yu-Yin Cheng, ed. Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1985.

Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

John Powers