Dong Zhongshu

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ It was only with the founding of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 CE) that Confucianism became “Confucianism,” that the ideas associated with Kong Qiu’s name received state support and were disseminated generally throughout upper-class society. The creation of Confucianism was neither simple nor sudden, as the following three examples will make clear. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/]

“1) The Classical Texts. In the year 136 B.C. the classical writings touted by Confucian scholars were made the foundation of the official system of education and scholarship, to the exclusion of titles supported by other philosophers. The five classics (or five scriptures, wujing) were the Classic of Poetry (Shijing), Classic of History (Shujing), Classic of Changes (Yijing), Record of Rites (Liji), and Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu) with the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan), most of which had existed prior to the time of Kong Qiu.Although Kong Qiu was commonly believed to have written or edited some of the five classics, his own statements (collected in the Analects [Lunyu]) and the writings of his closest followers were not yet admitted into the canon. [Note: The word jing denotes the warp threads in a piece of cloth. Once adopted as a generic term for the authoritative texts of Han-dynasty Confucianism, it was applied by other traditions to their sacred books. It is translated variously as book, classic, scripture, and sutra.]

“2. State Sponsorship. Kong Qiu’s name was implicated more directly in the second example of the Confucian system, the state-sponsored cult that erected temples in his honor throughout the empire and that provided monetary support for turning his ancestral home into a national shrine. Members of the literate elite visited such temples, paying formalized respect and enacting rituals in front of spirit tablets of the master and his disciples.

“3. Dong Zhongshu’s Cosmological Framework. The third example is the corpus of writing left by the scholar Dong Zhongshu (ca. 179-104 B.C.), who was instrumental in promoting Confucian ideas and books in official circles. Dong was recognized by the government as the leading spokesman for the scholarly elite. His theories provided an overarching cosmological framework for Kong Qiu’s ideals, sometimes adding ideas unknown in Kong Qiu’s time, sometimes making more explicit or providing a particular interpretation of what was already stated in Kong Qiu’s work.

“Dong drew heavily on concepts of earlier thinkers — few of whom were self-avowed Confucians — to explain the workings of the cosmos. He used the concepts of yin and yang to explain how change followed a knowable pattern, and he elaborated on the role of the ruler as one who connected the realms of Heaven, Earth, and humans. The social hierarchy implicit in Kong Qiu’s ideal world was coterminous, thought Dong, with a division of all natural relationships into a superior and inferior member. Dong’s theories proved determinative for the political culture of Confucianism during the Han and later dynasties.

“What in all of the examples above, we need to ask, was Confucian? Or, more precisely, what kind of thing is the “Confucianism” in each of these examples? In the case of the five classics, “Confucianism” amounts to a set of books that were mostly written before Kong Qiu lived but that later tradition associates with his name. It is a curriculum instituted by the emperor for use in the most prestigious institutions of learning. In the case of the state cult, “Confucianism” is a complex ritual apparatus, an empire-wide network of shrines patronized by government authorities. It depends upon the ability of the government to maintain religious institutions throughout the empire and upon the willingness of state officials to engage regularly in worship. In the case of the work of Dong Zhongshu, “Confucianism” is a conceptual scheme, a fluid synthesis of some of Kong Qiu’s ideals and the various cosmologies popular well after Kong Qiu lived. Rather than being an updating of something universally acknowledged as Kong Qiu’s philosophy, it is a conscious systematizing, under the symbol of Kong Qiu, of ideas current in the Han dynasty.”

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

Establishment of Confucianism Under Wu Di

Emperor Wu Di

“The establishment of Confucianism as the state orthodoxy took place under the Han Emperor Wu-di ruled (141–87 B.C.) for political reasons. Dr. Eno wrote: “The rise of Confucianism to state orthodoxy under Wu-di was most likely a direct reaction against the influence of Huang-Lao adherents at court [Huang-Lao was another school of thought]. Wu-di’s father, Jing-di, was dominated by his own mother, Empress Dou. The empress dowager was an active patron of Huang-Lao and a commanding personality. Under Jing-di, Huang-Lao and Legalist ministers enjoyed a near monopoly of power. Jing-di died young and Wu-di came to the throne when he was only about sixteen. His grandmother continued to exert great influence at court, but certain ministers who were not part of her closest group of advisors began to look towards the new emperor as a possible counter-weight to the empress. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“Judging by his later career, Wu-di came to the throne with a deep appreciation of his own magnificence. It must have been difficult for a person so convinced of his own abilities to contemplate the power of his grandmother.* In the initial years of his reign, proposals came from several sources suggesting the wisdom of enlarging the role of Confucian adherents at court, and these probably led Wu-di to ponder how such policies might over time provide him with an entirely new staff of ministers and administrators, beholden to none but the emperor himself. Even before his grandmother’s death he went so far as to order the institutionalization of Confucian appointments among the court erudites (a policy we will discuss further in a subsequent section). After the Empress Dou died in 135, Wu-di acted swiftly. /+/

“The empress had only been dead a few months when Wu-di issued a proclamation that called for the large scale recruitment of new personnel for the government. The procedures developed for this recruitment drive specifically linked the requirements for candidates to virtues praised by Confucians and, more importantly, to training in Confucian classical studies. Shortly thereafter, the emperor adopted a further set of policies which banned from court service all those devoted to the teachings of Huang-Lao or Legalism, and made Confucianism the exclusive ideology of the bureaucracy. In so doing, the emperor completely freed himself from the influence of those whose true loyalties lay with his grandmother and brought to power a group of outsiders who owed their power, prestige, and wealth exclusively to Wu-di.” Thus “the establishment of Confucianism as a state ideology was at the outset most likely tied to the politics of court, rather than to any ethical convictions on the part of Wu-di, or even any belief that Confucianism was, by nature, a well designed tool for governing the state.” /+/


Genealogy of the “Confucian Tradition” and What it Reveals

Emperor Wen, Paragon of Filial Piety

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “If even during the Han dynasty the term “Confucianism” covers so many different sorts of things — books, a ritual apparatus, a conceptual scheme — one might well wonder why we persist in using one single word to cover such a broad range of phenomena. Sorting out the pieces of that puzzle is now one of the most pressing tasks in the study of Chinese history, which is already beginning to replace the wooden division of the Chinese intellectual world into the three teachings — each in turn marked by phases called “proto-,” “neo-,” or “revival of” — with a more critical and nuanced understanding of how traditions are made and sustained. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/]

“It is instructive to observe how the word “Confucianism” came to be applied to all of these things and more.(2) As a word, “Confucianism” is tied to the Latin name, “Confucius,” which originated not with Chinese philosophers but with European missionaries in the sixteenth century. Committed to winning over the top echelons of Chinese society, Jesuits and other Catholic orders subscribed to the version of Chinese religious history supplied to them by the educated elite. The story they told was that their teaching began with Kong Qiu, who was referred to as Kongfuzi, rendered into Latin as “Confucius.” It was elaborated by Mengzi (rendered as “Mencius”) and Xunzi and was given official recognition — as if it had existed as the same entity, unmodified for several hundred years — under the Han dynasty. The teaching changed to the status of an unachieved metaphysical principle during the centuries that Buddhism was believed to have been dominant and was resuscitated — still basically unchanged — only with the teachings of Zhou Dunyi (1017- 1073), Zhang Zai (1020), Cheng Hao (1032-1085), and Cheng Yi (1033- 1107), and the commentaries authored by Zhu Xi (1130-1200). [Source: Note: For further details, see Lionel M. Jensen, “The Invention of ‘Confucius’ and His Chinese Other, ‘Kong Fuzi,’” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 1.2 (Fall 1993): 414-59; and Thomas A. Wilson, Genealogy of the Way: The Construction and Uses of the Confucian Tradition in Late Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).]

“As a genealogy crucial to the self-definition of modern Confucianism, that myth of origins is both misleading and instructive. It lumps together heterogeneous ideas, books that predate Kong Qiu, and a state-supported cult under the same heading. It denies the diversity of names by which members of a supposedly unitary tradition chose to call themselves, including ru (the early meaning of which remains disputed, usually translated as “scholars” or “Confucians”), daoxue (study of the Way), lixue (study of principle), and xinxue (study of the mind). It ignores the long history of contention over interpreting Kong Qiu and overlooks the debt owed by later thinkers like Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming (1472-1529) to Buddhist notions of the mind and practices of meditation and to Daoist ideas of change. And it passes over in silence the role played by non-Chinese regimes in making Confucianism into an orthodoxy, as in the year 1315, when the Mongol government required that the writings of Kong Qiu and his early followers, redacted and interpreted through the commentaries of Zhu Xi, become the basis for the national civil service examination.

“At the same time, Confucianism’s story about itself reveals much. It names the figures, books, and slogans of the past that recent Confucians have found most inspiring. As a string of ideals, it illuminates what its proponents wish it to be. As a lineage, it imagines a line of descent kept pure from the traditions of Daoism and Buddhism. The construction of the latter two teachings involves a similar process. Their histories do not simply move from the past to the present; they are also projected backward from specific presents to significant pasts.”

Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism

Confucius, Lao-tzu and Buddhist Arhat

Taoism (or Daoism in pinyin), the second most important stream of Chinese thought, also developed during the Zhou period. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), said to predate Confucius, and Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.). The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse. [Source: The Library of Congress]

With competition from Taoism and Buddhism — beliefs that promised some kind of life after death —Confucianism became more like a religion under the Neo-Confucian leader Chu Hsi (A.D. 1130-1200). In an effort to win converts from Taoism and Buddhism, Chu developed a more mystical form of Confucianism in which followers were encouraged to seek “all things under heaven beginning with known principals “and strive “to reach the uppermost.” He told his followers, “After sufficient labor...the day will come when all things suddenly become clear and intelligible." Important concepts in Neo-Confucian thought were the idea of “breath “(the material from which all things condensed and dissolved) and yin and yang.

Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time, “A century ago, a broad spectrum of Chinese intellectuals criticized Confucianism for holding China back, and as recently as the 1970s, communist leaders were denouncing Confucius. China, moreover, has never been an exclusively Confucian nation. There have always been other indigenous, competing creeds. Taoism, for example, has provided an antiauthoritarian counterpoint to hierarchical models of politics for millennia. [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]


According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Neo-Confucianism” is a general term used to refer to the renaissance of Confucianism during the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1127) following a long period in which Buddhism and Daoism had dominated the philosophical world of the Chinese and also to the various philosophical schools of thought that developed as a result of that renaissance. Neo-Confucianism had its roots in the late Tang, came to maturity in the Northern and Southern Song periods, and continued to develop in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods. As a whole, Neo-Confucianism can best be understood as an intellectual reaction to the challenges of Buddhist and Daoist philosophy in which avowedly Confucian scholars incorporated Buddhist and Daoist concepts in order to produce a more sophisticated new Confucian metaphysics. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Sima Guang

“With roots in the late Tang dynasty, the Confucian revival flourished in the Northern and Southern Song periods and continued in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties that followed. The revived Confucianism of the Song period (often called Neo-Confucianism) emphasized self-cultivation as a path not only to self-fulfillment but to the formation of a virtuous and harmonious society and state. The revival of Confucianism in Song times was accomplished by teachers and scholar-officials who gave Confucian teachings new relevance. Scholar-officials of the Song such as Fan Zhongyan (989-1052) and Sima Guang (1019-1086) provided compelling examples of the man who put service to the state above his personal interest...The revival of Confucianism during the Chinese Renaissance of the Song dynasty is partly attributed to the printing of Confucian texts which helped spread the word of the philosophy to a greater number of people.

“As Neo-Confucianism developed, two trends of thought emerged out of the Southern Song philosopher and official Zhu Xi’s synthesis of the “learning of Principle” and the “Learning of the Mind and Heart.” Both trends agreed that all the myriad things of the universe are manifestations of a single “Principle” (li) and that this Principle is the essence of morality. By understanding the Principle that underlies the universe (just as Buddhists understood all things in the universe as manifestations of the single Buddha spirit), then, men may understand the moral principles that they must put into practice in order to achieve an ordered family, good government, and peace under heaven. The two trends of thought differed, however, on the way in which human beings are to understand Principle.

Main Neo-Confucianist Figures: Song Dynasty (960-1279) Figures: The “Five Masters” of the Northern Song (960-1127): A) Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), B) Shao Yong (1011-1077), C) Zhang Zai (1020-1077), D) Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and E) Cheng Yi (1033-1107); The “Great Synthesizer” of the Southern Song (1127-1279): Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Figure: The founder of the “School of the Mind”: Wang Yangming (1472-1529).

Confucianism in the Imperial Era

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]

Emperor Yongzheng offering sacrifices

“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. [Ibid]

“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. [Ibid]

“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. [Ibid]

Confucian Examination System

In late imperial China the status of local-level elites was ratified by contact with the central government, which maintained a monopoly on society's most prestigious titles. The examination system and associated methods of recruitment to the central bureaucracy were major mechanisms by which the central government captured and held the loyalty of local-level elites. Their loyalty, in turn, ensured the integration of the Chinese state and countered tendencies toward regional autonomy and the breakup of the centralized system. The examination system distributed its prizes according to provincial and prefectural quotas, which meant that imperial officials were recruited from the whole country, in numbers roughly proportional to a province's population. Elites all over China, even in the disadvantaged peripheral regions, had a chance at succeeding in the examinations and achieving the rewards of officeholding. [Source: Library of Congress]

“The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elite and ambitious would-be elite all across China were being indoctrinated with the same values. Even though only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of those who attempted the examinations passed them and received titles, the study, self-indoctrination, and hope of eventual success on a subsequent examination served to sustain the interest of those who took them. Those who failed to pass (most of the candidates at any single examination) did not lose wealth or local social standing; as dedicated believers in Confucian orthodoxy, they served, without the benefit of state appointments, as teachers, patrons of the arts, and managers of local projects, such as irrigation works, schools, or charitable foundations. [Ibid]

In late traditional China, then, education was valued in part because of its possible payoff in the examination system. The overall result of the examination system and its associated study was cultural uniformity — identification of the educated with national rather than regional goals and values. This self-conscious national identity underlies the nationalism so important in China's politics in the twentieth century. [Ibid]

Rongo Analects

Sacred Edicts of Kangxi

"Heresies" of the Sacred Edicts (A.D. 1670) is attributed to Emperor Kangxi. It offers some insights into what Chinese society was like in the 17th century and what was acceptable and what wasn’t in the confines of Confucianism at that time.
1) Confucianism recognizes no relation to a living god.

2) There is no distinction made between the human soul and the body, nor is there any clear definition of man, either from a physical or from a physiological point of view.
3) There is no explanation given, why it is that some men are born as saints, others as ordinary mortals.
4) All men are said to possess the disposition and strength necessary for the attainment of moral perfection, but the contrast with the actual state remains unexplained.
5) There' is wanting in Confucianism a decided and serious tone in its treatment of the doctrine of sin, for, with the exception of moral retribution in social, life, it mentions no punishment for sin.

6) Confucianism is generally devoid of a. deeper insight into sin and evil
7) Confucianism finds it therefore impossible to explain death.
8) Confucianism knows no mediator, none that could restore original nature in accordance with the ideal which, man finds in himself.
9) Prayer and its ethical power find no place in the system of Confucius.
10) Though confidence (hsin) is indeed frequently insisted, upon, its presupposition, truthfulness in speaking, is never practically urged, but rather the reverse.
11) Polygamy is presupposed and tolerated. ,
12) Polytheism is sanctioned.
13) Fortune-telling, choosing of days, omens, dreams and other illusions (phoenixes, etc.) are believed in.

14) Ethics are confounded with external ceremonies, arid a precise despotic political form. It is impossible for those who are not intimately acquainted with the Chinese to comprehend how much is connoted in the simple expression,
15) The position which Confucius assumed toward ancient institutions is a capricious one.
16) The assertion that certain musical melodies influence the morals of the people is ridiculous.
17) The influence of mere good example is exaggerated, and Confucius himself proves it most of all.
18) In Confucianism the system of social life is tyranny. Women are slaves. Children have no rights in relation to their parents; whilst subjects are placed in the position of children with regard to their superiors.
19) Filial piety is exaggerated into deification of parents.
20) The net result of Confucius' system, as. drawn by hjmself, is the worship of genius, i.e., deification of man.
21) There is with the exception of ancestral worship, which is void of any true ethical value, no clear conception of the dogma of immortality. ,,-.•.
22) All rewards, are expected, in this \yorld, so that egotism is unconsciously fostered, and if not avarice, at least ambition.
23) The whole system of Confucianism offers no comfort to ordinary mortals, either in life or in death.
24) The history of China shows that Confucianism is incapable of effecting for the people a new birth to a higher life and nobler efforts, and Confucianism is now in practical life quite alloyed with Shamanistic and Buddhistic ideas and practices.

Influence of Confucianism on Western Thinkers


Voltaire and his views on enlightenment were influenced by Confucianism. The German mathematician and scholar Gottfried Leibniz wrote that the Chinese should "send missionaries to us to teach us the purpose and use of natural theology in the same way as we send missionaries to instruct them in revealed theology."

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “But the most famous leader of the Enlightenment to fall under the Chinese spell was Voltaire (1694-1778), to whom Confucius was the greatest of all sages. A portrait of Confucius adorned the wall of his library. He regarded China as the one country in the world where the ruler is at the same time a philosopher (Plato's "philosopher-king"). He praised it because it had no priesthood owning 20 percent of the land, and contrasted the religious tolerance of the Chinese, who had never tried to send missionaries to Europe, with the European habit of always forcing their own religious ideas upon other people. "One need not be obsessed with the merits of the Chinese," he wrote in 1764, "to recognize... that their empire is in truth the best that the world has ever seen."[Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 ]

“In 1755 Voltaire produced a play, The Chinese Orphan, which he adapted from an old Chinese play that had been published in French translation in 1735. This play, significantly described by him as "the morals of Confucius in five acts," was written as an answer to the theories of Rousseau (1712-78). Rousseau, as we all know, wanted people to follow a back-to-nature movement, and argued that the arts, sciences, and human institutions generally, are harmful because they corrupt the simple goodness of human nature. Voltaire, to disprove these ideas, deliberately changed the original seventh century B.C. setting of his play, laying it instead in the thirteenth century A.D., when the Mongols, under Chingghis Khan, conquered China. His purpose in so doing was to prove the superiority of human art and culture by showing how Chinese civilization finally triumphed over the warlike barbarism of the Mongols.

“Voltaire died only eleven years before the French Revolution. This world-shaking event, followed by the wars of Napoleon and the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, turned men's minds away from China to things nearer at home. In Europe the enthusiasm for China died. In America, however, there was at least one nineteenth century thinker who, quite independently of the European Enlightenment, fell under the influence of China. He was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), who eagerly read many translations of the Confucian classics. India, to be sure, inspired some of his more important ideas, such as the theory of the Over-Soul, and of the unreality of the world as we see it. But from China he accepted the Confucian concept of the true gentleman, the belief that good government must be based on a sound moral foundation, and the emphasis upon the responsibilities that each individual in society holds toward other individuals. These ideas still have value for us today. We call them American ideas. Few of us realize that they were expressed long ago in China.

Confucianists Who Introduced Western Ideas to China

Professor Yu Ying-shih — an advocate of new Confucianism and professor Emeritus at Princeton Universities, told a symposium in November 2014: In the 19th century “the most fervent admirers of the West’s rule of law and democracy were in fact Confucianists. Take for example Xue Fucheng [4] (1838-1894). Xue considered Great Britain and the United States to be the best societies since China’s “Three Dynasties’ Period.” Likewise, Kang Youwei (,1858-1927,the Qing Confucianist and reformer) also believed that during the Three Dynasties’ Period China had a democratic system. Kang added the term ‘democratic’ to the reigns of legendary emperors Yao (circa 2333-2234 B.C.) and Shun (circa 2233-2184 B.C.) before the Three Dynasties’ Period. During that period, succession to the throne was not hereditar y but rather based on merit: whoever performed his duties the best was selected by the Chinese to be their leader. So we want to be clear about this: the real Confucianists from the outset expressed a great deal of admiration for the modern West’s universal values. For example, [the Qing Confucianist] Wang Tao[6] (1828-1897) held that the fact that British courts were forbidden to use torture to extort a confession or obtain testimony was a political ideal not seen in the world since the Three Dynasties’ Period.[Source: China Change, July 1, 2015 ==]

“In other words, those of us who have a Confucian background, warmly welcome the West’s universal values. Take for example Chen Duxiu (1879-1942). Chen was the founder of communism in China, but when he was in prison in Nanjing, he often said that he admired Confucius’ principle that there should be no class distinctions in education. At the same time, Chen also admired Mencius’ remark[7] that he Mencius “knew of Wu’s execution of the tyrant Zhou, but did not consider that action equivalent to a subordinate assassinating his sovereign.” In other words, executing a tyrant is not the same as assassinating a sovereign; it is rather the execution of an extremely cruel tyrant, and not an assassination. In these remarks of Che n’s, he is telling us that in the works of Confucius and Mencius there is much worthy of our respect. Chen said this in prison and there is a record of his remarks. ==

“There is still another person who strenuously promoted democracy — Hu Shi (1891-1962). Actually, Hu Shi himself was a Confucianist and Hu greatly admired Confucius. These days everybody puts the blame for the slogan “down with Confucius and sons” [popularized during the May Fourth Movement of 1919] on Hu Shi, but in fact Hu did not formulate that slogan. That slogan was the creation of Wu Yu (1872-1949), and Hu merely echoed it. Hu was of course extremely critical of some traditional statements, but if you look carefully at the actions of Hu Shi the person, you will see he was a classic Confucianist. So in that regard we can acknowledge that Confucian values are completely consistent with the universal values observed in the modern West, and Confucian values are most definitely not completely opposed to these western values.” ==

[4] Xue Fucheng, (also spelled as Hsueh Fu-cheng, 1838-1894) was a Chinese diplomat who served as the Qing government’s ambassador to Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy. [5] The Three Dynasties are the Xia (circa 2070-160 B.C.), Shang (circa 1600-1046 B.C.), and Zhou (circa circa 1046-256 B.C.) dynasties. [6] Wang Tao, who died in [sic] 1897, was the famous Chinese thinker who translated China’s ancient Thirteen Classics into English together with the Scottish sinologist James Legge. In an annotation to the written version of the interview, several quotes are given that support Wang Tao’s observations that British courts could not obtain confessions or testimony by duress or torture. These quotes are taken from volume 4, “A Record of the British Government,” from Wang Tao’s The Outer Chapters of the Tao Garden Literary Records, Hong Kong, 1882. ==

Confucianism During the Mao Era

Cultural Revolution book criticizing Confucius

In 1930s Chiang Kai Shek resurrected Confucianism as a guide to proper behavior and morality. After the Communist Party took over China in 1949, Mao Zedong, who was then an advocate for egalitarian values and gained grassroots support for promising equity, lashed out at Confucius for being a champion of the old feudal society and the ruling class. Mao once famously said, according to his nephew Mao Yuanxin, "If the Communist Party has a day when it cannot rule or has met difficulty and needs to invite Confucius back, it means you (note: the Party) are coming to an end."

In the Mao era, Confucianism was labeled backward, counter-revolutionary, reactionary and superstitious. It was linked with feudalism and condemned as a source of evils that plagued traditional China. Confucian temples were made into museums and libraries. Even with ths being the case the Communists borrowed Confucian beliefs such as submission to authority to further their aims. Confucius’s philosophy of harmony and respect of social hierarchies was at odds with Marxist ideology of progress through conflict.

During the Cultural Revolution, which aimed in part to tear down what remained of Chinese “feudal” culture, Mao Zedong vehemently denounced the Confucian belief system. He exhorted Red Guards to “Smash the Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Confucius was denounced for fostering “bad elements, rightists, monsters, and freaks.” The "Analects" was banned, Confucian scholars were tortured and hundreds of temples were destroyed. In Confucius's hometown of Qufu, Red Guards overran Confucian temples, defacing statues of the sage, and chanting "Down with Confucius, down with his wife!" Confucius was branded a class enemy in a “Criticize Confucius “campaign. The graves of the Kong family were trashed and looted. Corpses were once dug up from their graves at the Kong family's cemetery and hung from trees. More than 6,000 artifacts were smashed or burned. Red Guards dug up Confucius' grave to show that it was empty. By the nineteen-eighties, Confucianism was held in such low regard the historian Yu Ying-shih called it a “wandering soul.”

Image Sources: Statuette, All Posters com; 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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