Confucianism is a Chinese teaching of morality, right action and right education, based on the ethical teachings of Confucius. Up until 1382, statues of Confucius were common in public places. Every city had a shrine dedicated to Confucius and at least two state festivals were held in his honor during mid-spring and mid-autumn. The roots of Confucianism can be found in the ancient Chinese scholar class, the Ju. They were experts on rituals, sacrifices and the connection between heaven and earth.¹
Following Confucius’ death in 479 BCE, various schools of Confucianism arose. These Confucian schools are often contrasted with the more mystical aspects of Taoism. Confucianism is usually associated with precise rules of behavior and the State education that persisted in China early into this century. Taoism, on the other hand, is usually associated with the free-floating, unregulated ideas of Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, as popularized by Alan Watts and others.
But such a contrast is arguably overemphasized due to Western misunderstanding.
The rites of Confucianism (li) are meant to guide our natural and inherently good human potential (jen), they are not meant to oppress or stultify. Rules ideally are like stakes guiding a growing plant. Oppression arises when li are distorted or corrupted because a ruler is out of sync with the cosmic harmony (Tao). Notably, Confucius was not a snob. He believed that all people could attain ethical correctness and thus become noble (chun tzu).
These fundamental ideas belong to both Confucianism and Taoism. Differences were arguably not categorical but more about emphasis. The Neo-Confucian Mencius favored following personal intuition instead of adhering to external rules. But he certainly knew that one must calibrate one’s actions to one’s social circle, which, sociologists will tell us, always implies a kind of structure and rule. Mo Tzu highlighted the importance of universal love. Meanwhile, Mencius stressed the importance of love within one’s immediate circle, which, again, to be effective must take in to account socio-cultural rules and expectations.
Earlier Chinese religion practiced divination through oracle bones and the belief in a great cosmic being. But Confucianism generally tried to steer thinking away from the transcendent toward the humanistic. This trend is found in the main Confucian texts of the Analects, The Book of Rites, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean.
¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 203-205).
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