The cult of China
Like Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus and the Ganges regions, China is anciently based on a fertile river where agriculture flourished.
left: Chinese scapulinancy on a turtle shell
Qin (pictured left) provides historical basis for the twentieth century Chinese "cultural revolution" of Mao Zedong (left)
Left: the dizi is still the basic instrument in Chinese music.
Left: Modern celebration of the birthday of Confucius
Legend says that the wise Emperor Fu Xi invented Chinese writing from his careful study of chicken tracks. He is said to have belonged to the Xia dynasty, but at about the time of Hebrew Exodus the Xia were superseded in the Yellow River valley by a verified historical dynasty known as the Shang (cir. 1550- cir. 1027 BCE).
Early records written on silk and bamboo have been lost, but the surviving Chinese literary record begins with Shang scapulimancy, inscriptions on turtle shells and shoulder bones of pigs. (Compare the talking food animals from Lesson 5.) The Shang characters are pictographs, clear predecessors of modern Chinese script. (See table in Damrosch A1020.) The subjects are communications with ancestors and prophecies on the weather, hunts, dreams, and births of children. Prophetic Shang rulers consulted Di, a supreme ruler of the heavens called to attention with bamboo flutes, Dizi.
The Shang mysteriously disappeared in 1122 or 1027 BCE, roughly the same time as the Trojan War and the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations throughout central Eurasia. The classical Chinese scholar Confucius (551-479 BCE) attempted to describe the successors to the Shang as a unitary group of his ancestors, "the Zhou people," led by King Wen ("the ritual king") and King Wu ("king of war"), but the truth seems to be that the social order in the dark age and early classical age was as de-centralized in China as in the west, with government at first confined to the family and local level. As the classical period developed, city states and small-scale literary cultures of the academic type became numerous in China, much the same as among the classical Greeks. The period often referred to as the Warring States period (403-221 BCE) is also the age of the Hundred Schools of Thought, when Confucians, Daoists, Legalists and other philosophical groups proposed a variety of programs for social development and personal happiness.
Political power was not re-consolidated in China until the arrival of the so-called first emperor of China, the Great Wall builder Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE), who was a student of the philosopher of legalism, Han Fei (fl. 223 BCE). Among other tactics used to build his empire and thwart dissent, Qin decreed in 213 BCE that most all existing texts were to be burned, and his edict was carried out in the next seven years to the extent that our picture of the Xia, Shang and Zhou China is forever dim. The emperor installed a bureaucracy of administrators throughout the land; they were trained alike through study of the same texts that were of interest to him.
Unification by Five Classics
Qin was soon buried with his terracotta army (see Damrosch A1016), but his legalistic and bureaucratic methods carried over throughout the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) which formalized a system of civil service competition. To be fit to enter the government, one had to acquire a considerable like-mindedness with all others in the government, and so there was a set of standard texts to be learned by all would-be administrators. This was the world's first and most famous canon, "the Five Classics." These books, alleged to have been collected by Confucius, included:
1. The Spring and Autumn Annals: a chronicle of events in the state of Lu (in the inland part of the Shandong region), Confucius' native state, covering events from roughly 722 to 481 BCE. As the chronicle ends at about the time of Confucius' death, this classic indeed may have been composed by him, as tradition asserts; in any case it is insightful into the great philosopher's birthplace. Under the rule of the Ji family, Lu was regarded by Confucius as the old homeland of the Zhou, where the earliest traditions of China were best preserved, a model for other upstart parts of China. The founders of the Ji long had been "asleep" but in their "dream" they still knew everything that was happening in Lu. That is, the living in Lu were encouraged to believe that they were the dream of the dead Zhou. They could consult these famous ancestors to learn what was going to happen in the future. Keeping the ancestors pleased was thus critical to obtaining good fortune.
2. The Book of Songs: a miscellany of 300 pieces apparently dating from the early and middle Zhou period, but possibly reconstructions or simulations of old tests that Qin had burned. The verse forms (including rhyme) suggest that early Zhou China was largely or entirely preliterate; that is, knowledge was conveyed by memorized song. The collection may have been known to Confucius; the Analects written by disciples of Confucius contains comments on specific songs and on the anthology as a whole (Damrosch A1044-1045). Those who do not know the songs will not be able to carry on a conversation, Confucius says (Analects 16.13). The collection was quoted for centuries throughout Asia and it now has a worldwide following. It includes folk songs, work songs, festival songs, hymns, and eulogies or odes used in sacrificial communions with the dead. Numbers 266 to 296 are thought to be the sacrificial odes of the Zhou.
3. The Book of Rites: a description of ceremonies, social forms, rules for conduct, court manners, and governmental organization probably from the middle Zhou period. This is a how-to manual for the Chinese courtier. (For etiquette of a scholar see note 4 below.)
4. The Book of History (aka The Book of Documents): perhaps in part dating back to the mid Zhou period, this book which exists in variant forms presents records of early China, including the Xia, Shang and Zhou period. The earliest legends are contained here.
5. The Book of Changes describes a divination system used in the Zhou period.
So Han China became a meritocracy where skillful reading could lead to government work. The civil service system in contemporary China traces its roots to systematic education by the Five Classics canon more than 2,000 years ago. In this sense it is meaningful to characterize China, or Chinese officialdom at least, as a literary cult.
Confucius (Kong Fuzi in the official Pinyin spelling) sought to restore general social order imagined to have existed in Xia and Shang China. "The resplendent Zhou follows the examples of two great dynasties," he wrote. "I am for the Zhou." But nobody listened, except a few students, and the Zhou never made a comeback. It was not until Han times that Confucius became "the great master" or intellectual father of the Chinese state.
As is the case with Buddha and Jesus, the stories about Confucius in the Analects and elsewhere are thought to be the work of disciples writing generations after his death. So it is difficult to say precisely what Confucius thought or taught, but we can speak of Confucian teachings ascribed by followers. Key components of Confucianism are:
Analects portrays Confucius as a teacher of a prince who is not entirely receptive to the idea that he needs to be good, and it makes clear that Confucius will not sacrifice his principles for the sake of a job. When the boss expects immoral deeds to be done for him the job is not going to be successful; it is contrary to the justice that dwells in the nature of things. So it is better to walk away and wait for a better job that is in tune with justice and the moral force in the nature of things.
The rest of Confucius' class are non-royal students, several of whom impress the Master but a few of whom do not. The teachings on personal morality may seem somewhat bland today, but they are unprecedented in surviving world literature. Socrates would teach the Gold Rule but not for almost 100 years after Confucius, if the Analects portrays Confucius correctly. Jesus would not preach the Golden Rule for another 500 years beyond Confucius.
So what is it that makes the "good" person or the "gentle" person who lives in harmony with others and with the moral power of Heaven? Analects has a lot to say on this topic.
Good people are not unhappy (9.29). They serve mankind (11.12), but they are not upset when their merits are ignored (1.1). They act with honor and care to avoid bringing their superiors in disgrace (13.20). They do not work for masters who jump from one patron to the next; instead of chasing bad jobs they will retire from the world (18.6). They make hard-to-please bosses because they never want immoral acts to be committed in their service (13.25).
Through thick and thin they preserve their humaneness (4.5) by taming the self and practicing the rites (12.1). They always take the side of justice (4.10, 4.16)). They treat others with deference and courtesy (12.5). They hate only those who act with hate toward others (17.24). They are not necessarily popular, except among good people, nor are they unpopular, except among bad ones (13.24).
They are not "pots." That is, they are not technicians specialized for particular uses, but rather they are generalists (2.12, 9.2) who see the big picture (2.14). They expand their learning through literature but restrain themselves through ritual (6.27), and they are never so obsessed with culture as to become pedants (6.18). A place is no longer a barbarian wilderness when a gentle person settled there (9.14).
They are not arrogant or rash in attitude, they do not act with vulgarity or silliness, and they speak the truth (8.4, 13.26). Words are extremely important to them. They do what they say (2.13). Their word is trustworthy (13.20). They must have command of meaningful language not only to be able to speak their thoughts, but to do what they say they will do (13.3). They are shamed if their acts do not match their words (14.27). They do not say or do things that are improper (12.1).
Nobody has ever devoted all of his or her energy to the good (4.6). Nobody is completely steadfast because we are driven by desires (5.11). Nobody loves virtue more than sex (9.18). Nobody ever understands and admits his own faults (5.27). The gentle person is not saintly or perfect (7.26). He does not always attain his potential (14.6). Yet goodness is not out of reach: it is at hand if anyone reaches for it (7.30). Morality has power which is accumulated by following justice and by putting loyalty and faith above all else (12.10).
Lesson Summary: Traditionally in China Confucius was seen as the great editor who put together the Five Classics as the book on the Chinese state. He was aware of a catastrophe that had occurred in about 1027 BCE, when Heaven had overthrown the great Shang Empire, and he thought this had happened because Heaven was punishing the Shang rulers for immorality. In response, he saw it as his business to teach virtue to princes and to the people alike.
1. Public education: The canon of the Five Classics is an ancient system of public education. It produced Han court culture. What culture is being produced today by public education, and its standard courses and readings? Is our country also a literary culture in some meaningful sense, or is book learning now detached from the "real world" outside of school?
2. Confucian precept for students: To study without thinking is futile, and to think without studying is dangerous (Analects 2.15). What do you think this means? Is it applicable to you?
3. What would Confucius think? What would Confucius think of our government? Our goodness? Our culture? Our ritual? (By "ritual," Confucius means not only public and religious ceremonies but codes of behavior of every kind, such as fashions, manners, and conventions.) If you think that Confucius would be a critic of our culture, would his criticism have any merit? What can we learn from the Master?
4. Book burning and censorship: if there is a tradition of book burning and censorship in China from the time of the first emperor, is it realistic or even productive today for western nations to call on the People's Republic of China to adopt policies of free speech and free press? Conversely, would it be appropriate for the Chinese to expect Europeans and Americans to adopt Chinese-style censorship?
5. A billion Chinese: China is most populated nation in the world, and this seems to have been the case throughout recorded history. How might population density or other demographic or geographic aspects of China bear on Confucianism?
6. Online sources.
The Book of Songs
of Rites in Translation:
and Autumn Annals in translation:
of Changes in translation:
of History in translation:
Analects in translation:
Confucius, Mencius, et al. at Project Gutenberg:
sourcebook of Chinese civilization:
Ruthless Emperor Who Burned Books
Man Who Was Confusius' s Hero
7. From the Book of Rites: the Behavior of a Scholar
Duke Ai of Lu asked Confucius, saying, 'Is not the dress, Master, which you wear that of the scholar?' Confucius replied, 'When I was little, I lived in Lu, and wore the garment with large sleeves; when I was grown up, I lived in Song, and was then capped with the kang-fu cap. I have heard that the studies of the scholar are extensive, but his dress is that of the state from which he sprang. I do not know any dress of the scholar.'
The duke said, 'Allow me to ask what is the conduct of the scholar.' Confucius replied, 'If I were to enumerate the points in it summarily, I could not touch upon them all; if I were to go into details on each, it would take a long time. You would have changed all your attendants-in-waiting before I had concluded.' The duke-ordered a mat to be placed for him, and Confucius took his place by his side.
He then said, 'The scholar has a precious gem placed upon its mat, with which he is waiting to receive an invitation (from some ruler); early and late he studies with energy, waiting to be questioned. He carries in his bosom leal-heartedness and good faith, waiting to be raised (to office); he is vigorous in all his doings, waiting to be chosen (to employment): so does he establish his character and prepare himself (for the future).
'The scholar's garments and cap are all fitting and becoming; he is careful in his undertakings and doings: in declining great compliments he might seem to be rude, and in regard to small compliments, hypocritical; in great matters he has an air of dignity, and in small matters, of modesty; he seems to have a difficulty in advancing, but retires with ease and readiness; and he has a shrinking appearance, as if wanting in power - such is he in his external appearance.
'The scholar, wherever he resides, ordinarily or only for a time, is grave as if he were apprehensive of difficulties; when seated or on foot, he is courteous and respectful; in speaking, his object is, first of all, to be sincere; in acting, he wishes to be exact and correct; on the road, he does not strive about the most difficult or easiest places; in winter and summer, he does not strive about the temperature, the light and shade; he guards against death that he may be in waiting (for whatever he may be called to); he attends well to his person that he maybe ready for action - such are his preparations and precautions for the future.
'The scholar does not consider gold and jade to be precious treasures, but whole-heartedness and good faith; he does not desire lands and territory, but considers the establishment of righteousness as his domain; he does not desire a great accumulation of wealth, but looks on many accomplishments as his riches; it is difficult to win him, but easy to pay him; it is easy to pay him, but difficult to retain him. As he will not show himself when the time is not proper for him to do so, is it not difficult to win him? As he will have no fellowship with what is not righteous, is it not difficult to retain him? As he must first do the work, and then take the pay, is it not easy to pay him?--such are the conditions of his close association with others.
'Though there may be offered to the scholar valuable articles and wealth, and though it be tried to enervate him with delights and pleasures, he sees those advantages without doing anything contrary to his sense of righteousness; though a multitude may attempt to force him (from his standpoint), and his way be stopped by force of arms, he will look death in the face without changing the principles which be maintains; he would face birds and beasts of prey with their talons and wings, without regard to their fierceness; he would undertake to raise the heaviest tripod, without regard to his strength; he has no occasion to regret what he has done in the past, nor to make preparations for what may come to him in the future; he does not repeat any error of speech; any rumors against him he does not pursue up to their source; he does not allow his dignity to be interrupted; he does not dread to practise (beforehand) the counsels (which he gives) - such are the things in which he stands out and apart from other men.
'With the scholar friendly relations may be cultivated, but no attempt must be made to constrain him; near association with him can be sought, but cannot be forced on him; he may be killed, but he cannot be disgraced; in his dwelling he will not be extravagant; in his eating and drinking he will not be luxurious; he may be gently admonished of his errors and failings, but he should not have them enumerated to him to his face - such is his boldness and determination.
'The scholar considers whole-heartedness and good faith to be his coat-of-mail and helmet; propriety and righteousness to be his shield and buckler; he walks along, bearing aloft over his head benevolence; he dwells, holding righteousness in his arms before him; the government may be violently oppressive, but he does not change his course - such is the way in which he maintains himself.
'The scholar may have a house in only a mu of ground - a poor dwelling each of whose surrounding walls is only ten paces long, with an outer door of thorns and bamboos, and openings in the wall, long and pointed; within, the inner door stopped up by brushwood, and little round windows like the mouth of a jar; the inmates may have to exchange garments when they go out; they may have to make one day's food serve for two days; if the ruler respond to him, he does not dare to have any hesitation in accepting office; if he do not respond, he does not have recourse to flattery - such is he in the matter of taking office, however small.
'The scholar lives and has his associations with men of the present day, but the men of antiquity are the subjects of his study. Following their principles and example in the present age, he will become a pattern in future ages. If it should be that his own age does not understand and encourage him, that those above him do not bring him, and those below him do not push him, forward, or even that calumniators and flatterers band together to put him in danger, his person may be placed in peril, but his aim cannot be taken from him. Though danger may threaten him in his undertakings and wherever he is, he will still pursue his aim, and never forget the afflictions of the people, which he would relieve - such is the anxiety which he cherishes.
'The scholar learns extensively, but never allows his researches to come to an end; he does what he does with all his might, but is never weary; he may be living unnoticed, but does not give way to licentiousness; he may be having free course in his acknowledged position, but is not hampered by it; in his practice of ceremonial usages he shows the value which he sets on a natural ease; in the excellence of his pure-heartedness and good faith, he acts under the law of a benignant playfulness; he shows his fond regard for men of virtue and ability, and yet is forbearing and kind to all; he is like a potter who breaks his square (mould), and his tiles are found to fit together - such is the largeness and generosity of his spirit.
'The scholar recommends members of his own family to public employment, without shrinking from doing so because of their kinship, and proposes others beyond it, without regard to their being at enmity with him; he estimates men's merits, and takes into consideration all their services, selecting those of virtue and ability, and putting them forward, without expecting any recompense from them; the ruler thus gets what he wishes, and if benefit results to the state, the scholar does not seek riches or honors for himself - such is he in promoting the employment of the worthy and bringing forward the able.
'The scholar when he hears what is good, tells it to his friends, and when he sees what is good, shows it to them; in the view of rank and position, he gives the precedence to them over himself; if they encounter calamities and hardships, he is prepared to die with them; if they are long (in getting advancement), he waits for them; if they are far off, he brings them together with himself - such is he in the employment and promotion of his friends.
'The scholar keeps his person free from stain, and continually bathes and refreshes his virtue; he sets forth what he has to say to his superior by way of admonition, but remains himself in the back-ground, trying thus quietly to correct him; if his superior do not acknowledge (his advice), he more proudly and clearly makes his views known, but still does not press them urgently; he does not go among those who are low to make himself out to be high, nor place himself among those who have little wisdom to make himself out to have much; in a time of good government, he does not think little of what he himself can do; in a time of disorder, he does not allow his course to be obstructed; he does not hastily agree with those who think like himself, nor condemn those who think differently - so does he stand out alone among others and take his own solitary course.
Like a prince of a state; he is watchful over himself in his retirement, and values a generous enlargement of mind, while at the same time he is bold and resolute in his intercourse with others; he learns extensively that he may know whatever should be done; he makes himself acquainted with elegant accomplishments, and thus smoothes and polishes all his corners and angles; although the offer were made to share a state with him, it would be no more to him than the small weights of a balance; he will not take a ministry, he will not take an office - such are the rules and conduct he prescribes to himself.
'The scholar has those with whom he agrees in aim, and pursues the same objects, with whom he cultivates the same course, and that by the same methods; when they stand on the same level with him, he rejoices in them; if their standing be below his, he does not tire of them; if for long he has not seen them, and hears rumours to their prejudice, he does not believe them; his actions are rooted in correctness, and his standing in what is right; if they proceed in the same direction with him, he goes forward with them, if not in the same direction, he withdraws from them - so is he in his intercourse with his friends.
'Gentleness and goodness are the roots of humanity; respect and attention are the ground on which it stands; generosity and large-mindedness are the manifestation of it; humility and courtesy are the ability of it; the rules of ceremony are the demonstration of it; speech is the ornament of it; singing and music are the harmony of it; sharing and distribution are the giving of it. The scholar possesses all these qualities in union and has them, and still he will not venture to claim a perfect humanity on account of them - such is the honor he feels for its ideal, and the humility with which he declines it for himself.
'The scholar is not cast down, or cut from his root, by poverty and mean condition; he is not elated or exhausted by riches and noble condition; he feels no disgrace that rulers and kings may try to inflict; he is above the bonds that elders and superiors may try to impose; and superior officers cannot distress him. Hence he is styled a scholar. Those to whom the multitude now-a-days give that name have no title to it, and they constantly employ it to one another as a term of reproach.'
When Confucius came from his wanderings to Lu to his own house, duke Ai gave him a public lodging. When the duke heard these words, he became more sincere in his speech, and more righteous in his conduct. He said, 'To the end of my days I will not presume to make a jest of the name of scholar.'