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  Confucianism is named after Confucius, the Latin form of Kong Fu Zi (‘Master Kong’). Little is known for certain of Kong himself. He lived in the 6th-5th centuries ( BCE c. 551 - 479 BCE), and is said variously to have been a civil servant, a government minister, a provincial ruler and a teacher. After his death he acquired a reputation not unlike that of Socrates in the West: a ‘method’ was attributed to him, a body of anecdote was created by followers, and ‘his’ teachings became the basis for a vast philosophical system. Unlike Socrates, however, he became personally revered, as a semi-divine being: temples were built to him, and pilgrims visited his tomb, right down to the present day.

Confucius was not a religious teacher, but an ethical philosopher. He became associated with religion because he edited the Wu Jing (‘Five Classics’), a repository of Chinese religious and ethical thought and history, and because his followers produced a collection of dialogues and sayings purportedly his, the Lun Yü (‘Collected Sayings’ or ‘Analects’), which became a central text of the Confucian religion, and is still treated with the reverence due to holy scripture. His disciples Meng-zi (Mencius, 372-389  BCE and Xun-zi c. 300-238  BCE) further codified the system of thought and belief, something Confucius himself would probably have deplored now attached to Confucius\' name. Until the outbreak of World War II, knowledge of this system, and of the Confucian scriptures (collectively known as ‘The Great Learning’) which enshrined it, were compulsory parts of all tertiary education and civil service training in China.

Essentially, Confucius was uninterested in religion. He spoke of a supreme being (Tian, ‘heaven’), but was entirely happy with the vast pantheon of gods and supernatural beings of traditional Chinese religion. Although later Confucianism had, and has, temples, priests and a creed-like codification of belief, none of these are essential. There is no fundamentalism in Confucianism, any more than in Platonism or Jungianism.

In the absence of a religious hierarchy, Confucius taught that the solution to the problems of life lay in the practice of li (a combination of what we might call custom, propriety and ritual observance). The practice of li ensures continuity; without it there is chaos. Li is concerned with maintaining the balance of the universe, a balance which was not created but which exists of itself and because we tend it. In this balance, supernatural beings and mortals all have their place; institutions, whether in the supernatural or mortal worlds, depend on it and guarantee its survival as it guarantees theirs; past, present and future are a continuum in which all actions take their place, affecting not just the present but the future and the past.

Insofar as religious practice is concerned, the main duty we owe to the continuum is to our ancestors. They live in the afterlife as we live in the presentlife, and they have needs and problems just as we do. Li involves looking after these needs and trying to help with these problems. We attend to our ancestors\' physical needs by making paper models of the objects they will need in the afterlife (everything from food and drink to toys and radiograms); we burn the models ceremonially, and the real objects are re-created for our ancestors in the afterlife. We attend to our ancestors\' emotional and intellectual needs by constantly talking to them, involving them in our affairs and ourselves in theirs. Simple in essence, this practice grew, over the centuries, into an enormous edifice of duty, in which families might easily bankrupt themselves in the here-and-now in order to ensure their ancestors\' well-being in the afterlife, and in which sacrifice and other interaction with the supernatural became main components of every waking hour.

Confucius and his immediate disciples seem to have regarded li as a moral and ethical force for social engineering. The Analects put it bluntly: ‘If you lead people with legal measures and regulate them with punishment, they will have no sense of honour and shame. If you lead them by the power of de (virtuous example) and regulate them by the rules of li, they will have a sense of shame and will thus rectify themselves.’ To be truly moral, a person and a society should possess ren (‘humanity’), and to acquire this was the main goal of all Confucian teaching and practice. A person who has it, by self-discipline, contemplation and behaviour of integrity, is zhun-zi (a word which originally simply meant ‘aristocrat’, but which Confucius developed to mean ‘person of superior merit’). Such a person should be openminded, compassionate and not concerned with self; provided that he—Confucianism never refers to females—has these qualities, his actual status in life, whether prince or beggar, is unimportant.

Like many ethical and moral systems predicated on continuity and stability, Confucianism was fine so long as it was confined to a small group of people and maintained its pure form, but as soon as it was universally applied, it became grossly simplified and corrupted. In particular, the idea of li was applied to society and to intellectual thought, with stultifying results. Reverence for one\'s forebears is one thing, but obsession with intellectual precedent is quite another (and unrelated). ‘Official’ Chinese learning became a matter of the mastery of ever-larger amounts of dead facts, the accreted wisdom of the past; invention was allowed (because technology was regarded as an activity for lower-class persons, beneath the notice of the intellectual élite), but novelty of thought was discouraged. The observance of ritual became an all-consuming passion, from the ancestor-devotions of ordinary households to the grand processions, prayers and sacrifices with which the emperor and his officials guaranteed the continuity of the state. Hierarchies applied to every facet of life, and movement from one level to another was difficult and often a punishable offence. In short, the dynamism inherent in Confucius\' own teaching (or at least the teaching attributed to him) was replaced by forms of etiquette, which determined Chinese life and culture for two millennia, until they were abolished by the Communist government in 1949. The problem is not (as with some other ethical and religious systems) that modern societies are trying to base their whole way of life on systems devised for small groups in ancient or medieval times, without modifying them, but that Confucius\' teaching has been, from the start, disastrously misinterpreted and misapplied. Its entanglement with religious practice perhaps lies at the heart of this and is something which Confucius himself (as a soul mate, so to speak, of Socrates) would surely have deplored. KMcL

See also Buddhism; Daoism.Further reading Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius (contains good introduction and notes); , Herbert Fingarette, Confucius—the Secular as Sacred.



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