Confucius as an administrator

Fang-fu Ruan wrote: For some 2,000 years, Confucianism enjoyed almost unassailable prestige as the ideology of the imperial bureaucracy, an essential element of China's political unity. Regardless of how much a particular ruler might prefer Buddhism or Taoism, Confucianism had a practical importance in the affairs of government that could not be denied or neglected. Philosophical Confucianism was very successful as a political ideology, as well as being an impressive system of moral philosophy. [Source: Fang-fu Ruan, “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds.,

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Confucius (551-479 B.C.) lived at a time of political turmoil and transition. The China of his time consisted of a number of small feudal states, which, although theoretically subject to the kings of the Zhou Dynasty, were actually independent. Confucius and many of his contemporaries were concerned about the state of turmoil, competition, and warfare between the feudal states. They sought philosophical and practical solutions to the problems of government — solutions that, they hoped, would lead to a restoration of unity and stability. Confucius had no notable success as a government official. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Confucius during his life was only a private tutor in the small feudal state of Lu in eastern China, and his influence was small. Although he attempted to persuade many feudal leaders of his time to adopt his ideas and institute a ritualized form of government and state education, his teachings were largely ignored. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

Peter Mattis wrote in China Brief: Although forms of filial piety in state-led Confucianism have been used to justify subordination to the government for hundreds of years, Confucius's emphasis on virtue far outweighs obedience: “in the face of a wrong or unrighteousness, it is the duty of the son to oppose his father, and the duty of the servant to oppose his superior." In an explicitly political context, Confucius was even more clear, pointing out “tyrannical government is more dangerous than man-eating tigers." Mencius combined these ideas into the Mandate of Heaven, which justified rebellion against incompetent or malignant governments. He wrote “when a ruler treats his subjects like grass and dirt, then the subjects should treat him as a bandit and an enemy." Mao, a thorough student of the power of principles, understood this, which is why he sought to destroy Confucianism as a Chinese challenger to the foreign-born Marxist-Leninist ideology he espoused. Due to Chinese disenchantment with foreign rule after the Qing Dynasty, Confucian thought in the hands of nationalists would have been dangerous to the revolution. [Source: Peter Mattis, China Brief (Jamestown Foundation), March 2012]

Confucius regarded government and education as inseparable. Without good education, he reasoned, it was impossible to find leaders who possess the virtues to run a government. "What has one who is not able to govern himself, to do with governing others?" Confucius asked. On war Confucius said: “When a good man has taught the common people for seven years, they should be ready to be employed in war.” (13:29) and “To lead the people to war without having taught them is to throw them away.” (13.30)

Good Websites and Sources on Confucianism: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Confucianism ; Religion Facts Confucianism Religion Facts ; Confucius ; Confucian Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Cult of Confucius / ; ; Virtual Temple tour; Wikipedia article on Chinese religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies; Qufu Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO

Analects On Government

an illustrated scene from the Analects

Short passages from the “Analects” on government: The Master said, “Governing by means of virtue one is like the North Star: it sits in its place and the other stars do reverence to it.” (2.1) “Virtue is never lonely; it always attracts neighbors.” (4.25) The patrician Ji Kangzi asked, “How would one use persuasion to make one’s people respectful and loyal?” The Master replied, “Approach them with seriousness and they will be respectful. Be filial towards your own parents and loving towards your children and the people will be loyal. Raise the good to positions of responsibility and instruct those who do not have abilities and they will be persuaded.” (2.20) The Master said, “I am no better than another at passing judgment in disputes of law. What is needed is to end the need for lawsuits.” (12.13) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“The patrician Ji Kangzi was troubled by banditry and asked Confucius about it. Confucius replied, “If you yourself were without desires others would not steal though you paid them to.” (12.18) Ji Kangzi questioned Confucius about governing. “How would it be if I executed the immoral so as to push others towards the good?” Confucius replied, “What need is there for executions in governance? If you yourself wish to be good, the people will be good. The virtue of the "junzi" is like wind and that of the people like grass. When the wind blows over the grass, it bends.” (12.19) The Master said, “Not to instruct the people in warfare is to throw them away.” (13.30) The Master said, “In ruling a state of a thousand chariots, one is reverent in the handling of affairs and shows himself to be trustworthy. One is economical in expenditures loves the people, and uses them only at the proper season.” (1:5).

“Zigong asked about government. The Master said, “Sufficient food, sufficient military force, the confidence of the people.” Zigong said, “If one had, unavoidably, to dispense with one of these three, which of them should go first?” The Master said, “Get rid of the military.” Zigong said, “If one had, unavoidably, to dispense with one of the remaining two which should go first?” The Master said, “Dispense with the food. Since ancient times there has always been death, but without confidence a people cannot stand.” Ji Kang Zi asked Confucius about government, saying, “How would it be if one killed those who do not possess the Way in order to benefit those who do possess it?” Confucius replied, “Sir, in conducting your government, why use killing? If you, sir, want goodness, the people will be good. The virtue of the noble person is like the wind, and the virtue of small people is like grass. When the wind blows over the grass, the grass must bend.” (12:7)

Analects On Rulers and Leadership

Sacrifical horsepit of Duke Jing of Qi

According to the “Analects”: “Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, “Let the ruler be a ruler; the minister, a minister; the father, a father; the son, a son.” “Excellent,” said the duke. “Truly, if the ruler is not a ruler, the subject is not a subject, the father is not a father, and the son is not a son, though I have grain, will I get to eat it?” (12:11) Zilu asked how to serve a ruler. The Master said, “You may not deceive him, but you may stand up to him.” (14:23) “The Master said: “‘He took no action and all was ruled’; would this not describe the Emperor Shun? What action did he take? He honored himself and sat facing south, that is all.” (15.5)[Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 44-63; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“The Master said, “If the noble person is not serious, he will not inspire awe, nor will his learning be sound. One should abide in loyalty and trustworthiness and should have no friends who are not his equal. If one has faults, one should not be afraid to change.” (1:8 ) The Master said, “Lead them by means of regulations and keep order among them through punishments, and the people will evade them and will lack any sense of shame. Lead them through moral force (de) and keep order among them through rites (li), and they will have a sense of shame and will also correct themselves.” (3:19) Duke Ding asked how a ruler should employ his ministers and how ministers should serve their ruler. Confucius replied, “The ruler should employ the ministers according to ritual; the ministers should serve the ruler with loyalty.” (3:19) [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 45-50, 52, 54-55; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

In sections on Guan Zhong, minister to the first hegemon, Duke Huan of Qi. “The Master said, “Guan Zhong was a man of small capacities.” Someone responded, “But was he not thrifty?” “Guan Zhong had three residences,” said the Master, “what thrift was there in that?” “But surely Guan Zhong knew "li".” “The ruler of a state sets up a screen before his gate; Guan Zhong did likewise. The ruler of a state possesses a drinking stand for the ceremony of inverted cups so that he may properly entertain rulers of other states. Yet Guan Zhong also possessed such a stand. If Guan Zhong knew "li", then who does not know “li”?” (3.22) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The disciple Zilu said, “When Duke Huan killed his brother Prince Jiu, the prince’s follower Shao Hu properly committed suicide, but Guan Zhong did not die for his lord. Surely we may say that he was not “ren”.” The Master said, “Duke Huan convened the patrician lords nine times without using military force, and this was all due to the efforts of Guan Zhong. How “ren” he was! How “ren” he was!” (14.16) The disciple Zigong said, “Guan Zhong was not “ren”, surely! When Duke Huan killed Prince Jiu he was unable to die for his lord and even went on to serve his murderer!” The Master said, “When Guan Zhong served Duke Huan, the duke rose to hegemon of the lords and rectified all the empire. People have been blessed by these gifts down to this day. Were it not for Guan Zhong, we would all wear our hair loose and button our jackets on the left as the nomads do. Should he have preserved his honor like a common man or woman and strangled himself in some ditch where none would ever know?” (14.17)

Analects on Ideal Government

Confucian disciple Zilu by a Japanese artists

According to the Analects 11:25: “Zilu, Zeng Xi, Ran You, and Gongxi Hua were seated in attendance. The Master said, “Never mind that I am a day older than you. Often you say, ‘I am not recognized.’ If you were to be recognized, what would you do?” Zilu hastily replied, “In a state of a thousand chariots, hemmed in by great states, beset by invading armies, and afflicted by famine — You [referring to himself] if allowed to govern for the space of three years, could cause the people to have courage and to know their direction.” The Master smiled. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 44-63; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

““Qiu, what about you?” He replied, “In a state of sixty or seventy li [about one-third of a mile] square, or even fifty or sixty — Qiu, [Referring to himself] if allowed to govern for three years, could enable the people to have a sufficient livelihood. As for ritual and music, however, I should have to wait for a noble person.” “Chi [Referring to Gongxi Hua], what about you?” He replied, “I do not say that I am capable of this, yet I should like to learn it. At ceremonies in the ancestral temple and at the audiences of the lords at court, I should like, dressed in the dark robe and black cap, to serve as a minor assistant.” “Dian [referring to Zeng Xi or Zeng Dian], what about you?” As he paused in his playing the qin [a five-stringed musical instrument, such as a zither] and put the instrument aside, he replied, “My wish differs from what these three have chosen.” The Master said, “What harm is there in that? Each may speak his wish.” He said, “At the end of spring, when the spring clothes have been made, I should like to go with five or six youths who have assumed the cap, and with six or seven young boys, to bathe in the River Yi, to enjoy the breeze among the rain altars, and to return home singing.” The Master sighed deeply and said, “I am with Dian.”

“When the other three went out Zeng Xi remained behind and said, “What did you think of the words of the others?” The Master said, “Each one spoke his wish, that is all.” “Why did the Master smile at You?” “One governs a state through ritual, and his words reflected no sense of yielding. This is why I smiled.” “Was it not a state that Qiu wanted for himself?” “Yes, could one ever see a territory of sixty or seventy li, or of fifty or sixty li, that was not a state?” “And was it not a state that Chi wanted for himself?” “Yes, is there anyone besides the lords who frequent the ancestral temple and the audiences at court? If Chi were to play a minor role, who would play a major one?”

Analects 13:3: “Zilu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for the Master to administer his government. What should come first?” The Master said, “What is necessary is the rectification of names.” Zilu said, “Could this be so? The Master is wide of the mark. Why should there be this rectification?” The Master said, “How uncultivated, You! In regard to what he does not know, the noble person is cautiously reserved. If names are not rectified, then language will not be appropriate, and if language is not appropriate, affairs will not be successfully carried out. If affairs are not successfully carried out, rites and music will not flourish, and if rites and music do not flourish, punishments will not hit the mark. If punishments do not hit the mark, the people will have nowhere to put hand or foot. Therefore the names used by the noble person must be appropriate for speech, and his speech must be appropriate for action. In regard to language, the noble person allows no carelessness, that is all.”

Confucius and His Political Failure

Confucius as a scholar

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Confucius in his lifetime had sought for many years to find a ruler who would employ him and implement his policies. If we read the accounts of Confucius’s attempts in the “Analects” , it becomes clear that Confucius did, indeed, encounter promising opportunities in an number of states; however, in each case Confucius judged the political actors of the state to be insufficiently ethical and he left. The message that this sort of behavior conveyed was that while the “junzi” was obligated to seek out real opportunities for ethical action, in a world where even the seeds of good government had disappeared from the courts of established rulers, political opportunities were in general merely invitations to sell one’s soul in the service of predatory warlords. In such a world, the only prudent policy was to withdraw. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The disciple Xian asked about shame. The Master said, “When a state possesses the Dao, one should serve it. To serve a state that does not possess the Dao: that is shame!” (14.1) “When the Dao prevails in the world, appear; when it does not, hide! When a state possesses the Dao, to be poor and of low station is a shame, but when it does not possess the Dao, to have wealth and high position is shameful.” (8.13) In the end, individuals could not bring about the total transformation of China and restore it to order. That work could only be engineered by Heaven, who was ultimately guiding China’s destiny. /+/

“As we have seen, Confucius viewed himself as Heaven’s agent in the preservation of the patterns of the ancient sage kings. Confucius’s return to the state of Lu about 485, ending his futile search for a political role, represented his reconciliation with the fact that despite the ritual discipline that he had personally acquired through long study, he was not to be granted the mandate to transform the political landscape of China. Instead, he had learned to be content with his role as a teacher of the disciples, men who would carry on his work into future generations, awaiting the day when the times were ripe for a restoration of the old order in a new utopia. This awareness is reflected in Confucius’s thumbnail autobiography. /+/

“Confucius became reconciled with the decree of Heaven. He came to accept his political failure and believed that through teaching he would plant the seeds for future social transformations. This belief was shared by the compilers of the “Analects” , who recorded the following tale about Confucius leaving the state of Wey after having despaired of the ruler’s capacity for moral government. (To understand the passage, you need to know that a “wooden bell” was carried by town criers in ancient China, and they would sound it as an alarm to the people if danger threatened.) The keeper of the pass at Yi requested an interview with the Master. “I have never been denied an interview with any gentleman coming to this place,” he said. The disciples admitted him into the Master’s presence. When he emerged, he said to them, “Gentlemen, what have you to regret in your Master’s failure? The world has long been without the Dao. Heaven means to use your Master as a wooden bell.” (3.24) /+/

“When Confucius died in the hands of his disciples some years later, the message he left to his community of followers stressed the dangers rather than the opportunities of the world around them. Although Confucian ideas and rhetoric became increasingly well known and influential during the remaining two and a half centuries of the Classical era, the Confucians generally avoided direct entanglements with the political powers of their time. Instead, they passed along their ritual traditions through generations of disciples, accepted non-political positions as court tutors or ritualists, became increasingly devoted to a growing set of ancient texts (many of which they wrote themselves), entered into debate with competing philosophical schools, and made known to the world their many judgments, mostly negative, on the rulers of the late Zhou. Through it all they patiently awaited the day when Heaven would act to change the nature of the times and provide their community with real opportunities for ethical action in the political world.” /+/

Confucianism and Government in the Chinese Imperial Era

Song Neo-Confucian Zhou Dunyi

Confucianism originated and developed as the ideology of professional administrators and continued to bear the impress of its origins. Imperial-era Confucianists concentrated on this world and had an agnostic attitude toward the supernatural. They approved of ritual and ceremony, but primarily for their supposed educational and psychological effects on those participating. Confucianists tended to regard religious specialists (who historically were often rivals for authority or imperial favor) as either misguided or intent on squeezing money from the credulous masses. The major metaphysical element in Confucian thought was the belief in an impersonal ultimate natural order that included the social order. Confucianists asserted that they understood the inherent pattern for social and political organization and therefore had the authority to run society and the state. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Confucianists claimed authority based on their knowledge, which came from direct mastery of a set of books. These books, the Confucian Classics, were thought to contain the distilled wisdom of the past and to apply to all human beings everywhere at all times. The mastery of the Classics was the highest form of education and the best possible qualification for holding public office. The way to achieve the ideal society was to teach the entire people as much of the content of the Classics as possible. It was assumed that everyone was educable and that everyone needed educating. The social order may have been natural, but it was not assumed to be instinctive. Confucianism put great stress on learning, study, and all aspects of socialization. Confucianists preferred internalized moral guidance to the external force of law, which they regarded as a punitive force applied to those unable to learn morality. *

Confucianists saw the ideal society as a hierarchy, in which everyone knew his or her proper place and duties. The existence of a ruler and of a state were taken for granted, but Confucianists held that rulers had to demonstrate their fitness to rule by their "merit." The essential point was that heredity was an insufficient qualification for legitimate authority. As practical administrators, Confucianists came to terms with hereditary kings and emperors but insisted on their right to educate rulers in the principles of Confucian thought. Traditional Chinese thought thus combined an ideally rigid and hierarchical social order with an appreciation for education, individual achievement, and mobility within the rigid structure. *

While ideally everyone would benefit from direct study of the Classics, this was not a realistic goal in a society composed largely of illiterate peasants. But Confucianists had a keen appreciation for the influence of social models and for the socializing and teaching functions of public rituals and ceremonies. The common people were thought to be influenced by the examples of their rulers and officials, as well as by public events. Vehicles of cultural transmission, such as folk songs, popular drama, and literature and the arts, were the objects of government and scholarly attention. Many scholars, even if they did not hold public office, put a great deal of effort into popularizing Confucian values by lecturing on morality, publicly praising local examples of proper conduct, and "reforming" local customs, such as bawdy harvest festivals. In this manner, over hundreds of years, the values of Confucianism were diffused across China and into scattered peasant villages and rural culture. *

Confucianism and Traditional Chinese View of the State

Dr. Eno wrote: “The traditional Chinese state was a powerful force throughout Chinese history, with the king or emperor a central concern of individuals at every level of society. In many ways, the state was pictured as a larger version of the family. The king or emperor was, himself, the leader of a family, and owed his ruling position to the status of that clan and his position within it. From a very early date, the populace of China under the ruler’s control was referred to as “the hundred surnames” – picturing the ruler’s subjects in terms of their family identities. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The earliest formal ideology of the Chinese state – a system of thought we now call “Confucianism” – began by making a very clear distinction between the unqualified obedience to one’s parents and one’s obligations towards a ruler. In the case of a ruler, one owed not unqualified obedience of filiality, but rather unqualified loyalty, which included an obligation to argue against bad policies and to refuse to act on immoral orders. But over the centuries, as the power of the imperial state grew, this distinction grew increasingly unclear to most people and most government officers. Early Confucianism had spoken of the ruler as “the father and mother of the people.” Originally, this had pointed to the ruler’s obligation to treat the people with as much care as he would treat his children, but in time it came equally to suggest that people owed to the ruler the same unquestioning obedience they owed to their fathers. /+/

“In practice the state’s attitude towards the people was much closer to a master-servant relationship than a family one, and enormous resources were devoted to providing the state with tools of social control that would ensure obedience. While China was far too large and communications far too undeveloped for the state to be truly “totalitarian,” in the modern sense, there was no belief that individuals had “rights” that the government could not violate without strong justification, and the basis for a true totalitarian period that China underwent in the 20th century was well laid in the structures and ideology of the traditional state. In a sense, the strong concept of the group and the relatively weak concept of the individual as a formally independent being that lay at the center of the Chinese family enabled the state to make claims on people almost as strong as those of the family. /+/

Confucian Bureaucrats

Ming scholars

The Chinese civil service has roots that go back at least 2,500 years but became formalized in its modern form during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Largely based on principals set down by Confucius in the 6th century B.C., it provided the the only way to a better life and families did everything they could to get their sons in. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “During the time that the Qing dynasty ruled China, the ideas of a civil government based on meritocracy and social responsibility were admired and promoted by prominent writers and philosophers of the 18th-century Enlightenment period in Europe and the 19th-century Transcendentalist movement in America, including Voltaire in France, English diplomats serving in China, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the United States. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant]

The Emperor needed the Confucian bureaucrats to administer his realm and the Confucian bureaucrats needed the Emperor for employment and legitimacy but there was always tensions in their relationship. The bureaucrats feared the despotic tendencies of the Emperor and the Emperor feared the bureaucrats would turn on him and favor the people rather than him.

Many Confucian bureaucrats operated as local leaders. They served as links between the masses and the Emperor and often functioned as landlords and tax collectors. When times were good the system worked well but when times were bad — as a result of corruption, natural disasters or war — the relations between the bureaucrats, the people and the Emperor became strained. Sometimes the system collapsed and a period of disorder and chaos persisted until strong leadership emerged and the system could be restored.

Confucianism and Education

Confucian view of teacher and student

Confucius is credited with organizing China's first educational system and setting up an efficient administration system, based on the careful selection of a bureaucracy that helped the emperor and other leaders rule. Members of the bureaucracy were trained in special schools and chosen for their jobs based on their the proficiency on a civil service exam that tested their knowledge of Confucian texts. Before Confucius's time the only schools in China were ones that taught archery.

Confucius regarded government and education as inseparable. Without good education, he reasoned, it was impossible to find leaders who possess the virtues to run a government. "What has one who is not able to govern himself, to do with governing others?" Confucius asked.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Confucius had no notable success as a government official, but he was renowned even in his own time as a teacher. His followers recorded his teachings a generation or two after his death, and these teachings remain influential in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan to this day. The anecdotes and records of short conversations compiled by his disciples go under the English title of the Analects. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

The basic principal behind Confucian education is that if you work hard, endure and suffer as a young person you will reap rewards later in life. The strategy of Confucian education, used in China for centuries, is to memorize the moral precepts in the hopes that they will rub off and improve the character of the person who memorizes them and make him or her more moral.

Under Confucianism, teachers and scholars were regarded, like oldest males and fathers, as unquestioned authorities. They have traditionally been held in high esteem and their power and control has been regarded as almost absolute.

Analects on The Dao

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Perhaps the greatest of Confucius’s social innovations was his invention of the role of professional teacher. He appears to have lived most of his life by means of the “tuition” which his students supplied. (Since some of these were prominent while others very poor, there was probably no set fee, just the expectation that the “master” would be properly honored by the sacrifice each student made.) While we may presume that patricians had long had adept men in their entourages who were expected to train the sons of the lord in the arts of their class, Confucius seems to have been the first man to offer to accept students of all classes. “I have never refused to teach any who offered as much as a bundle of dried sausages.” (7.7) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Moreover, Confucius, not his “employer,” was in charge of the curriculum he offered. Confucius’s teaching was not simply a variety of the human arts and skills of the day, it was holistic syllabus, which he believed represented the unified cultural vision of the former sage kings. “I have a teaching; it is not divided into subjects.” (15.39). This unified curriculum Confucius called his “Dao,” a word that originally denoted a path or a method, and which we often translate as “Way” to include both these senses. Confucius saw his Dao as a path to personal and social perfection which had been discovered and passed down over the centuries, and which, once mastered, generated in individuals an all.encompassing form of knowing and skill. /+/

Commentaries of the Analects

Short passages from the “Analects” on The Dao: The Master said to Zeng Shen, “Shen! My Dao links all on a single thread.” Master Zeng replied, “So it does.” When the Master had gone, the other followers asked, “What did he mean?” Master Zeng replied, “The Master’s Dao is simply loyalty and reciprocity.” (4.15) The Master said, “A person can enlarge the Dao; the Dao does not enlarge a person.” (15.29) The Master said, “How grand was the rule of the [Sage King] Yao! Towering is the grandeur of Heaven; only Yao could emulate it. So grand that the people could find no words to describe it. Towering were his achievements! Glimmering, they formed a paradigm of pattern.” The Master said, “In the morning hear the Dao; in the evening die content.”

“The Master said to the disciple Zigong Si, “Si, do you take me to be one who has studied much and remembers it all?” “Yes,” replied Zigong. “Is it not so?” “It is not,” said the Master. “I link all upon a single thread.” (15.3) “In the morning hear the Dao; in the evening die content.” (4.8) The disciple Master Zeng said, “A true “shi” must be stalwart: his burden is heavy and his Way is long. To take “ren” as your personal task, is this not a heavy burden? To cease bearing it only after death, is not this Way long?” (8.7) In the West, because of the influence of Daoist single threphilosophy, which arose later than Confucianism and took the word “Dao” for its own, people who have encountered the term it often think of “the Dao” as something mystical or at least mysterious. Yet the evidence suggests that Confucius’s Dao was a straightforward combination of training in the arts of archery and charioteering, poetry citation and exegesis, ritual choreography, music, and dance. As his students mastered these various traditional skills, they were led to understand them both in terms of the Heaven-guided history of Chinese culture and in terms of their own destined roles as men of pattern in leading China towards a future perfection under a single sage ruler. Confucius’s vision was directed fully towards the worlds of history and society, and for him one needed to look nowhere but in the patterns of the ideal past to find the meaning of life. /+/

“The disciple Zigong said, “The insignia of pattern given to us by our Master is what we may know of him. As for what he may have said about human nature and the Dao of Heaven, that cannot be known.” (5.13) And to disciples who believed that Confucius had some secret knowledge or action that he was withholding from them in their ordinary studies, he replied “Do you gentlemen believe that I have something I am concealing from you? I have concealed nothing at all from you. I do nothing that I do not share with you. That is who I am.” (7.24) Still, there are some passages in the “Analects” which suggest a sense of mystery about Confucius’s teachings, such as the following remark attributed to Confucius’s finest disciple: Sighing deeply, Yan Yuan said, “The more I look up at it the higher it grows; the more I drill into it the harder it becomes – I glimpse it ahead and suddenly it is behind. How the Master lures us on step by step! He broadens me with pattern and constrains me with ritual. I long to give up but I cannot; yet it seems that all my abilities are exhausted. Still it is as if he stands so far above me that though I wish to follow after him, there is no path that reaches there.” (9.11)

Analects on Teaching and Learning

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The “Analects” is designed to illustrate for later generations the fulfillment that may be found in a life of ritual study, even if the outside world fails to offer recognition and rewards. The very first passage of the text sounds this theme. “The Master said, “To study and at due times to practice what one has studied, is this not pleasure! To have friends like oneself come from afar, is this not joy! To be unknown and remain unsoured, is this not a “junzi”!” (1.1) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Confucius and his students

Short passages from the “Analects” on teaching and learning: “The Master said, “To learn without thinking is unavailing; to think without learning is dangerous.” (2:15) The Master said, “You [Zhong You, also known as Zilu, was known especially for his impetuousness], shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know something, to know that you know it. When you do not know, to know that you do not know it. This is knowledge.” (2:17) “The Master said, “It is hard to find students who are willing to study for three years without taking a salaried post.” (8.12) [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 44-63; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“The Master said, “Shen! In my Way there is one thing that runs throughout.” Zengzi said, “Yes.” When the Master had gone out the disciples asked, “What did he mean?” Zengzi said, “The Master’s Way is loyalty and reciprocity, that is all.” (4:15) The Master said, “The noble person is concerned with rightness; the small person is concerned with profit.” (4:16) Zigong said, “What I do not want others to do to me, I also want to refrain from doing to others.” The Master said, “Zi, this is not something to which you have attained.” (5:11) The Master said, “I transmit but do not create. In believing in and loving the ancients, I dare to compare myself with our old Peng.” [The identity of “our old Peng” is unclear, but he is usually taken to be the Chinese counterpart to Methuselah.] (7:1) The Master said, “From one who brought only a bundle of dried meat on up, I have never declined to give instruction to anyone.” [Dried meat, or other food, was offered as a present for teachers. Here it suggests the least one might offer] (7:7)

“The Master said, “To one who is not eager I do not reveal anything, nor do I explain anything to one who is not communicative. If I raise one corner for someone and he cannot come back with the other three, I do not go on.” (7:8) “The Master said, “Having coarse rice to eat, water to drink, a bent arm for a pillow.. joy lies in the midst of this as well. Wealth and honor that are not rightfully gained are to me as floating clouds.” (7:15) “The Duke of She asked Zilu about Confucius, and Zilu did not answer him. The Master said, “Why did you not simply say, ‘This is the sort of person he is: so stirred with devotion that he forgets to eat, so full of joy that he forgets to grieve, unconscious even of the approach of old age’?” (7:18) “The Master said, “Walking along with three people, my teacher is sure to be among them. I choose what is good in them and follow it and what is not good and change it.” (7:21) “There were four things the Master taught: culture, conduct, loyalty, and trustworthiness.” (7:24) The Master was mild and yet strict, dignified and yet not severe, courteous and yet at ease. (7:37) Four things the Master eschewed: he had no preconceptions, no prejudices, no obduracy, and no egotism. (9:4)

“Yan Yuan, sighing deeply, said, “I look up to it and it is higher still; I delve into it and it is harder yet. I look for it in front, and suddenly it is behind. The Master skillfully leads a person step by step. He has broadened me with culture and restrained me with ritual. When I wish to give it up, I cannot do so. Having exerted all my ability, it is as if there were something standing up right before me, and though I want to follow it, there is no way to do so.” (9:10) The Master said, “A human being can enlarge the Way, but the Way cannot enlarge a human being.” (15:28) The Master said, “In education there should be no class distinctions.” (15:38) The Master said, “By nature close together; through practice set apart.” (17:2) [This simple observation attributed to Confucius was agreed upon as the essential truth with regard to human nature and racial difference by a group of international experts in the UNESCO “Statement on Race” published in July 1950.]

“Chang Ju and Jie Ni were working together tilling the fields. Confucius passed by them and sent Zilu to inquire about the ford. Chang Ju said, “Who is it who is holding the reins in the carriage?” Zilu said, “It is Kong Qiu.” “Would that be Kong Qiu of Lu?” “It would.” “In that case he already knows where the ford is.” Zilu then inquired of Jie Ni. Jie Ni said, “Who are you, sir?” “Zhong You.” “The follower of Kong Qiu of Lu?” “Yes.” “A rushing torrent.. such is the world. And who can change it? Rather than follow a scholar who withdraws from particular men, would it not be better to follow one who withdraws from the world?” He went on covering seed without stopping. Zilu went and told the Master, who sighed and said, “I cannot herd together with the birds and beasts. If I do not walk together with other human beings, with whom shall I associate? If the Way prevailed in the world, [I] Qiu would not be trying to change it.” (18:6)

Chinese Imperial Exams

Chinese Imperial Exam

The Chinese civil service exam was essentially a test of knowledge of Confucian texts. For 2000 years, up until 1905, the heart of the exam was a regurgiation of the Four Great Books and Five Classics, including Confucius's Analects, the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. Test takers were given a certain amount of time (sometimes six weeks) and they were supposed to write everything they knew. Ideally, the students with the best scores were chosen for the best positions in the bureaucracy.

There were local, provincial and palace exams and they covered a number of topics, including poetry, philosophy, politics and ethics. Passing was said to be more difficult than getting into Harvard. Stephen West, a Chinese literature professor at Berkeley told U.S. News and World Report, "The magnitude of their accomplishments was impressive. It would be as if a Henry Kissinger was a gifted poet. Or if W.H Auden was also a superb government policy specialist."

Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: The examinations took place within huge walled enclosures, inside of which were thousands of small brick cells, laid out in straight rows like the houses of a town. Each cell contained a bench and table, and housed a nervous candidate. Every precaution was taken to prevent cheating. Candidates were searched before entering the enclosure, carefully watched while the examination was in progress, and not permitted to leave until it was over. Each examination commonly lasted several days and was of unbelievable difficulty. In 1889, for example, out of more than 14,000 candidates taking the examination in Peking, only slightly over 300 passed. The reward for success, however, was entry into the honored ranks of the scholar-officials who governed the country. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 ]

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “Some candidates had to spend three days and nights in an examination cell measuring 6ft by 3ft (1.8 meter by 0.9 meter), the culmination of years of rote learning. Frances Wood, curator of the Chinese collection at the British Library told the BBC: "The civil service exams developed over the centuries. The essays were largely to do with the content of the Confucian classics - how do you rule the people? You rule them through good, you rule them through example. It's morality that they're being examined on - their ability to cough up gobbets of Confucian morality." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 17, 2014]

Confucianism Institutionalized Through the Examination System

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Imperial China was famous for its civil service examination system, which had its beginnings in the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE) but was fully developed during the Qing dynasty. The system continued to play a major role, not only in education and government, but also in society itself, throughout Qing times. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The civil service examination system was squarely based upon the Confucian classics and upon recognized commentaries on those classics. The examination system was the basic support for the ongoing study of the Confucian classics during late-imperial times and could be said to have been the impetus behind the school curriculum that was followed all over China, even at the level of the village school for young boys. (In imperial times educational opportunities were far more restricted for girls and women than were for boys. Some girls did get an education, but this was a minority.)

“The Confucian tradition was institutionally upheld by the imperial state in a very direct way. The opening lessons in the curriculum that gave these children basic literacy were the Confucian classics and other approved texts. For a young boy, simply going to school meant beginning the early part of the very curriculum which, if he succeeded at every level, would propel him into the examination system. What this curriculum meant, among other things, was absolute mastery of key Confucian texts.

Exam takers

History Chinese Civil Service Exams

Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: The Chinese examination system seems to have been started in 165 B.C., when certain candidates for public office were called to the Chinese capital for examination by the emperor on their moral excellence. In following centuries the system grew until finally almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 ]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The exam system in China was born as early as 100 B.C., soon after the time that the Han Dynasty Emperor Wu accepted the proposals of his courtier Dong Zhongshu and established Confucianism as state orthodoxy. It is recorded that the emperor himself conducted the earliest exams, posing questions to the graduates of the state academy and determining their role in government on the basis of their replies. Although some sort of examination procedures were used at intervals during the Han and then later in some of the many kingdoms of the Six Dynasties period, the exam system as we usually think of it did not become fully institutionalized until the short-lived Sui Dynasty (589-617) brought an end to China’s medieval period of disunity and reinstituted a Confucian pattern as the basis of revived centralized government. From that time until this century, the exam system was central to government in China. Although the nature of the exams changed over time, the system was intrinsically a Confucian one..exam papers were no place to demonstrate one’s Daoist or Buddhist insights. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Although the intricacies of the examination system were endless, its basic structure was simple. Throughout the period from about 589 to 1905, the central imperial government held massive exams at the various capitals of China every three years. Those who performed best on these exams earned the right to receive government positions; the specific position was determined through a combination of exam scores, personal influence, and available openings. To select the thousands of young men (and men only) who could compete for these exams, lower level tests were administered annually at provincial and county levels. The aspiring young man could expect to spend several years moving upward through this pyramid of exams..that is, assuming that he was successful at the lower levels: most were not.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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