Statuette of Confucius
as a Mandarin
Although many Confucians argue that their beliefs are based on the wisdom of sages that preceded Confucius and Confucius himself gave himself no credit for being an originator or even innovator, historians give him credit for founding Confucianism because he gave the beliefs a structure. Confucius placed more emphasis on the morality and humanness rather than the divine, sensational and legendary found in writings that preceded him. In ancient texts there is a great deal of discussion about great emperors and sages but no one talked much of their wisdom and tried to spell out this wisdom until Confucius came along.

Some of the most important principals of Confucianism were established in the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BC), centuries before Confucius was born. They include the notion of a benevolent supreme being; the mandate given by the supreme being to a ruler to govern; and the justification of overthrow of a dynasty if the ruler double-crosses the supreme being and becomes wicked. Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “In the 5th Century B.C., Europe had Socrates and China had just had Confucius. Both philosophers thought hard about ethics, and the right relationship between the individual and the state. We often think of Confucius as being the foundation stone of Chinese political philosophy, and so do most Chinese. But he was channelling a world view which had been crystallising over centuries. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: In the centuries that followed Confucius’s death, “Confucianism was manipulated and buffeted by politics. In 213 B.C., the first emperor of China sought to put knowledge under government control and ordered the burning of books, including Confucian texts. People who invoked them were executed or sentenced to labor in exile. Confucianism was revived in the subsequent dynasty, the Han, and was China’s state ideology for much of the next two millennia.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]

Yu Dan wrote in his bestseller “Confucius from the Heart”: “The reason why these simple truths have survived down the millennia is that they have helped generation after generation of Chinese to understand the nature and the culture that formed them, and not to lose their heads, even when confronted by immense social change and almost overwhelming choice.”

Good Websites and Sources on Confucianism: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Confucianism religioustolerance.org ; Religion Facts Confucianism Religion Facts ; Confucius .friesian.com ; Confucian Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Cult of Confucius /academics.hamilton.edu ; ; Virtual Temple tour drben.net/ChinaReport; Wikipedia article on Chinese religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de; Qufu Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO

Confucianism after Confucius

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “After Confucius’s death, his disciples continued to spread his teaching by taking on students of their own, and in this way the Confucian School began to perpetuate itself over the generations of the Classical period. Confucian masters spread from the state of Lu into other states, and although Confucian masters and students were never very great in numbers and enjoyed little or no success in altering the political behavior of power.holders in China, they did come to occupy a particular social niche that provided them with some degree of prestige and income. Because of their mastery of Zhou ritual forms, Confucians came to serve as the chief masters of all sorts of ceremonies in Warring States China. If a ruler or warlord wanted to increase his prestige, he might invite a Confucian and his students to settle at his court and supervise ritual ceremony there. If a noble family wanted to provide its children with elaborate ceremonies of marriage, it might hire a Confucian for the occasions. If a wealthy person died, his family marked their respect by asking a Confucian to design a full ritual funeral, with all the trappings. And of course, noble fathers continued to send their sons to Confucian Finishing Schools so that they might acquire polish. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“In this way, the Confucian School, despite a political vision that actually undermined the chaotic power structure of the Warring States era, came to represent a certain type of orthodoxy. This association with established wealth and power spurred a strongly negative reaction among people who were excluded from or who had separated themselves from the aristocracy. /+/

“Philosophically, there were two early manifestations of this reaction against Confucianism: the schools of Daoism and Mohism. The inspirations for these two schools were very different, and they are in many ways opposites of one another, but they share a common origin as rejections of Confucianism and searches for an alternative path to human excellence. We will discuss these schools in subsequent readings, but it is important to note here that an important feature that these schools shared was the fact that they both attacked the Confucian belief in the importance of Ritual and the Confucian portrait of the "junzi" as a sage who discovers the path to ethical righteousness through the mastery of Zhou ritual practices. /+/

“In this way, throughout the remainder of the Classical period, the feature of Confucianism that clearly distinguishes it from all other schools of thought is precisely its stubborn emphasis on Ritual. Since we today tend not to feel that Ritual is a very significant aspect of human life, and since there may be no one on earth who feels that the particular institutions of Zhou ritual are of any value whatever, the Confucian stress on Ritual tends to make early Confucian philosophy seem irrelevant to our world. One of the main ways in which the study of early Confucianism challenges us is its demand that we grasp how the Confucian celebration of Ritual could have somehow made clear sense to Confucius and his followers.” /+/

Early Chinese Political Philosophers

Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong wrote in the New York Times: “Ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius were writing in the pre-Qin period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago — a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage. [Source: Yan Xuetong, New York Times, November 20, 2011. Yan Xuetong, the author of “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power,” is a professor of political science and dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University.]

It was perhaps the greatest period for Chinese thought, and several schools competed for ideological supremacy and political influence. They converged on one crucial insight: The key to international influence was political power, and the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership. Rulers who acted in accordance with moral norms whenever possible tended to win the race for leadership over the long term.

China was unified by the ruthless king of Qin in 221 B.C., but his short-lived rule was not nearly as successful as that of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, who drew on a mixture of legalistic realism and Confucian “soft power” to rule the country for over 50 years, from 140 B.C. until 86 B.C.

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.

Confucianism, Mencius and Xunzi


Confucius (551-479 B.C.), also called Kong Zi, or Master Kong, looked to the early days of Zhou rule for an ideal social and political order. He believed that the only way such a system could be made to work properly was for each person to act according to prescribed relationships. "Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject a subject," he said, but he added that to rule properly a king must be virtuous. To Confucius, the functions of government and social stratification were facts of life to be sustained by ethical values. His ideal was the junzi (ruler's son), which came to mean gentleman in the sense of a cultivated or superior man. [Source: The Library of Congress]

Confucius was largely ignored in his lifetime, but after his death his ideas caught on. Schools based on Confucian thought were set up to train young men for roles in government. After their training was completed, the students took the Chinese Civil Service Exam. In this way Confucianism became the dominant moral code of the bureaucratic class, which effectively governed China for over 2,000 years.

Mencius (372-289 B.C.) and Xunzi (Hsün Tzu) were two important and influential philosophers that followed Confucius. Confucius is sometimes viewed as the Socrates of Chinese philosophy while Mencius and Hsün Tzu are seen as Plato and Aristotle. Hsün Tzu was a realist who claimed that man was inherently evil and that education and moral training were necessary to produce a well ordered society.


Mencius (372-289 B.C.), or Meng Zi, was a Confucian disciple who made major contributions to the humanism of Confucian thought. Mencius declared that man was by nature good. He expostulated the idea that a ruler could not govern without the people's tacit consent and that the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule was the loss of the "mandate of heaven." [Source: The Library of Congress]


Mencius was an idealist who emphasized justice and humanity; proposed the idea of popular rule; and is credited with articulating the famous "Mandate of Heaven" ideology. "Any man can become a Yao or Shun," he said (Yao or Shun were two great mythological kings) and "the people are the most important element in a nation. Therefore to gain the peasantry is to become sovereign."

“The effect of the combined work of Confucius, the codifier and interpreter of a system of relationships based on ethical behavior, and Mencius, the synthesizer and developer of applied Confucian thought, was to provide traditional Chinese society with a comprehensive framework on which to order virtually every aspect of life.

“There were to be accretions to the corpus of Confucian thought, both immediately and over the millennia, and from within and outside the Confucian school. Interpretations made to suit or influence contemporary society made Confucianism dynamic while preserving a fundamental system of model behavior based on ancient texts.

Mozi, Xunzi and the Legalists

Diametrically opposed to Mencius, for example, was the interpretation of Xun Zi (ca. 300-237 B.C.), another Confucian follower. Xun Zi preached that man is innately selfish and evil and that goodness is attainable only through education and conduct befitting one's status. He also argued that the best government is one based on authoritarian control, not ethical or moral persuasion. [Source: The Library of Congress]

Xun Zi's unsentimental and authoritarian inclinations were developed into the doctrine embodied in the School of Law (fa), or Legalism. The doctrine was formulated by Han Fei Zi (d. 233 B.C.) and Li Si (d. 208 B.C.), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish and therefore the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above and to enforce laws strictly. The Legalists exalted the state and sought its prosperity and martial prowess above the welfare of the common people. Legalism became the philosophic basis for the imperial form of government. When the most practical and useful aspects of Confucianism and Legalism were synthesized in the Han period (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), a system of governance came into existence that was to survive largely intact until the late nineteenth century. [Ibid]

Still another school of thought was based on the doctrine of Mo Zi (470-391 B.C.”), or Mo Di. Mo Zi believed that "all men are equal before God" and that mankind should follow heaven by practicing universal love. Advocating that all action must be utilitarian, Mo Zi condemned the Confucian emphasis on ritual and music. He regarded warfare as wasteful and advocated pacificism. Mo Zi also believed that unity of thought and action were necessary to achieve social goals. He maintained that the people should obey their leaders and that the leaders should follow the will of heaven. Although Moism failed to establish itself as a major school of thought, its views are said to be "strongly echoed" in Legalist thought. In general, the teachings of Mo Zi left an indelible impression on the Chinese mind. [Source: The Library of Congress]

Discovery of an Ancient Record of the Classics


Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, In July 2008, “a precious cargo of muddy bamboo strips arrived at the Old Library at Tsinghua University in Beijing, donated by a graduate who had acquired them in the Hong Kong art market. “When we opened the box it had a bad smell. Moldy. Many were broken,” said Li Xueqin, an eminent historian and paleographer at the university. Underneath the hard, impacted mud was something stunning: ancient literary texts, written on the bamboo strips in pure, stable ink. For three months, Mr. Li’s team cleaned the slender strips, a difficult job because the very cells of the bamboo were saturated with water, making them as soft as cooked noodles. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, July 10, 2013 |+|]

“Inscribed with some of the earliest known texts of the Chinese classics and believed to have been illegally excavated from the tomb of a historian who lived in the state of Chu during the Warring States period, around 300 B.C., the bamboo strips are revolutionizing our understanding of ancient thought and raising issues rooted in the past that feel stunningly contemporary: Is there such a thing as fixed meaning? Is what we think of as truth actually true? Exhortations to cleave to orthodoxy — “Love the Communist Party” and “Study the Classics” — are common in China and often linked, but what, in fact, are the classics? |+|

“In a gauge of the excitement in scholarly and cultural circles, Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based Italian journalist and classically trained scholar, compared the discovery of the manuscripts, and two other similar finds here since 1993, to the rediscovery in Europe of the pre-Christian cultures and values of Greece and Rome. It was this embrace of the classical world that prompted “the fire of Enlightenment” and “helped to free European minds from the fetters of dogmatism, justified by a superficial reading of the Bible, and launched Europe on the path to developing the modern world,” Mr. Sisci wrote.|+|

“ It’s simply extraordinary in its implications, said Mr. Li. “It would be like finding the original Bible or the ‘original’ classics,” he said in an interview at Tsinghua, as the inscribed bamboo strips lay in boxes of distilled water in a cool room on a floor above us. “It enables us to look at the classics before they were turned into ‘classics.’ The questions now include, what were they in the beginning, and how did they become what they became?” he asked. It’s important to know that about 100 years after the texts were buried, the first Qin emperor conducted a “literary holocaust” in China...He ordered books burned and banned private libraries, shaping the intellectual tradition for thousands of years by standardizing the written Chinese language. That required all texts to be rewritten, during which unwelcome theories were discarded. |+|

“Could the strips be fakes? The complex way in which the content connects to existing texts, the historical detail and physical condition rule that out, according to experts who include some of China’s leading paleographers and intellectual historians. Mr. Li’s team at Tsinghua carbon-dated them to 305 B.C., plus or minus 30 years. “They were so saturated with water, to 400 percent, when we got them,” said Liu Guozhong, a member of the Tsinghua team. Offering a homely analogy, he said, “It’s like boiling noodles. You can’t make over-boiled noodles without spending the time boiling them.”|+|

Contents of the Tsinghua Texts—the Ancient Record of the Classics

bamboo slips inscribed with the Art of War

The Tsinghua texts — as the discovered classic texts are now called—total about 2,500 bamboo strips, including fragments, which are up to 46 centimeters, or 18 inches, long. Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “The Tsinghua manuscripts and the two other collections, also dated from around 300 B.C. (one excavated from the historical Chu state area of Hubei Province, while the other was bought on the Hong Kong art market), together include: The earliest known copy of the “I Ching,” the ancient book of divination; hitherto unknown poems from “The Book of Songs”; texts attributed to Confucius that are not found in later renditions of “The Analects”; the oldest version of Laozi’s “Dao De Jing,” or “The Taoist Book of the Way” (with many differences from later editions); and previously unknown chapters of “The Book of Documents,” the Confucian history classic of speeches about good governance by model kings, which carried great political significance. This work would become a target for destruction by later rulers. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, July 10, 2013 |+|]

Sarah Allan, a scholar of ancient China at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, told the New York Times the Tsinghua texts challenge Chinese culture as the country seeks to present itself as different from the West. “These manuscripts provide much entirely new information about the formative period of Chinese thought just at a time of renewed interest in what it means to be Chinese,” she wrote. By predating that censorship, the bamboo strips show us the true core of China’s philosophical, literary and historical thought, Ms. Allan said. |+|

“The particular significance of these three groups of manuscripts lies in the date at which they were buried,” she wrote. “300 B.C. was the height of China’s Axial Age, that is, it was in the middle of the period in which the core ideas of the Chinese intellectual tradition took form,” she wrote. “These manuscripts speak directly to the core issues of the Chinese intellectual tradition and were recorded at the height of the formative period.” They include a description of a popular, alternative political system to the dynastic rule that dominated for thousands of years — the “abdication of the good to the good as the best means of political succession,” Ms. Allan wrote. A ruler would retire from office and hand power to a deserving person, who could in theory be anyone. “This idea of abdication as a means of political succession was too threatening to later dynasties to survive,” she wrote.

Rise of Confucianism

Bamboo strips describing Emperor Qin

The Legalist thinking prevailed after Emperor Qin unified China in 211 B.C. Emperor Qin labeled Confucius a “subversive”; ordered that his books be burned; and executed anyone who dared to recite his texts. According to legend, Confucianism endured because some texts were hidden in a well. After Emperor Qin's death, Confucianism made a comeback.

During the Han dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220), a period of great cultural, intellectual and political achievement, Confucianism was established as an essential element of the state. Confucians were first called on to clear up confusion over rites and ceremonies, and later they began educating the children in royal household as well as students at the Imperial University. Under Emperor Wu (140-87 B.C.) Confucianism became the state orthodoxy, cultural philosophy, royal religion and state cult.

After that dynasties and emperors came and went but Confucianism endured. In the A.D. 7th and 8th century, Confucius began being worshiped like a religious figure in some places and temples were built to honor him. A Confucian revival was led by Han Yu (786-824).The invention of block printing during the Song dynasty (A.D. 960 to 1279) helped bring about a revival of Confucianism and popularized it to some degree among the masses as copies of the Analects and other writings were mass produced and found there way into the hands of ordinary people.

The yearning for personal and social perfection evolved into a thoroughly complex collection of ethical ideals that bound the hearts, feet and minds of families, intellectuals and governors from Song through Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1912).

Emperor Qin Shihuang and the Confucians

Emperor Qin Shihuang

Dr. Eno wrote: “ The First Emperor, who seems to have been fond of adopting the customs of the state of Qi (perhaps to escape the taint of his regional origins) established at his court a new ministerial position that the rulers of Qi had employed. This office, the title of which meant “broad-studied “shi”” is usually rendered in English as “Erudite.” The First Emperor recruited seventy erudites for his court. The erudites were a consultative body of men who were supposed to represent a wide range of learned viewpoints. Their function at the Qin court was advisory, and they were assembled at the pleasure of the emperor. Among the erudites whose names and skills are familiar to us, there appear to have been two groups: Confucians and “fangshi”. This lack of diversity is only apparent, however, for the term “fangshi” covers practitioners of a very broad range of pseudo-scientific arts. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The presence of Confucians in this entourage is significant. One of the most basic tenets of Confucian tradition in the Classical period had been that the man truly devoted to the Dao of the ancient sages did not serve at courts of debased rulers, both to protect the Tao from being manipulated for immoral ends (as in the case of Mencius in Qi) and to protect himself and his school against the whims of arbitrary rulers who might retaliate against those who admonished them for their misdeeds. That Confucians were willing to serve the First Emperor is a reflection both of the emperor’s desire to confirm the universality of his rule, and of the Confucian’s recognition that, however unexpected Tian’s long-awaited decision concerning the Mandate may have been, the Mandate had indeed been bestowed and the future had arrived. /+/

In 213 B.C., the presence of Confucians led to a disaster to that school of unprecedented scale. According to the “Shiji”: The First Emperor held a ceremonial banquet at the Xianyang Palace. The seventy erudites all stood before him and pledged him long life. The Master of Archery Zhou Qingchen stepped forth and praised the emperor with these words: “In former times, the lands of Qin did not exceed 1000 “li” square, but through your majesty’s spirit-like intelligence and brilliant sagacity, all within the four seas has been settled in peace and the barbarians of the south and east have been driven away. Wherever the sun and moon shine, all have submitted as subjects of Qin. The patrician domains have been transformed into commanderies and counties and every person finds spontaneous peace and happiness therein, free from distress of war and strife. May this continue for 10,000 generations! From the beginning of time, there has never been one whose awesome virtue equals your majesty’s!” [Source: “Shiji” 6.254 -]

“The First Emperor was pleased. But an erudite from Qi named Chunyu Yue stepped forward and spoke. “I have heard that the kings of the Yin and Zhou Dynasties ruled for a thousand years and more by allocating domains to their younger brothers and sons, and to their meritorious ministers, that they might serve as supports to the throne. Now your majesty possesses all within the seas, but your sons and brothers are mere commoners. If usurpers such as Tian Chang or the former high ministers in Jin were suddenly to appear, you would be without any aid or support – how could anyone save you? I have yet to hear of any ruler who did not take the past as his teacher but was yet able to endure for long. And now Qingchen has spoken like a toady to render the error you are making even graver. He is no loyal subject!”“ -

Emperor Qin Buries Confucian Scholars

An official from the rival Wei state wrote that Qin "has a heart of a tiger or wolf" and "knows nothing about traditional mores, proper relations, and virtuous conduct.” Emperor Qin’s rule was characterized by intolerance and a harsh legal system. People were decapitated for a long list of crimes including the possession of pornography and the failure of a concubine to produce a boy. Lesser crimes were punished with chopped off hands and nose amputations. A man who forced a woman to be his wife had his left foot chopped off. People who committed particularly heinous crimes were slowly chopped in half to prolong their agony.

Under Qin, scholars were executed for "entertaining criticism inside their stomachs." At least 460 Confucian scholars were put to death. Some were buried alive, and others were buried up to their necks and then decapitated with an ax. One man was even sawed in half lengthwise. Emperor Qin did all this in an attempt to wipe out the past and make way for the new order, an idea that was resurrected by Mao during the Cultural Revolution.

Historian Xun Zhou told the BBC: "The scholars were talking behind his back. And of course being a paranoid person, he didn't like that. So he ordered the arrest of over 400 scholars and buried them." "Ideologically speaking, the Qin make the argument, 'We don't want to hear people criticise the present by referring to the past,'" says Peter Bol. "The past is irrelevant. History is irrelevant. And so you have the burning of books, you have the burying of scholars, of scholarly critics." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 15, 2012]

Burning of books and burying of Confucian scholars Under Emperor Qin

Emperor Qin and the Burning of Books

Emperor Qin ordered all books burned except those that praised the emperors (one reason why historical records before the Qin Dynasty are scarce). Among the primary targets of this order were all books associated with the Confucians. Historian Xun Zhou told the BBC: "He got rid of anybody who showed opposition or didn't agree with him. He was paranoid. He was constantly in fear of how he could control this vast new territory with so many cultures and so many different groups of people."

Dr. Eno wrote: “Few events of the Qin are more famous than the emperor’s orders to burn all the books in China and bury alive all the Confucians. The first of these was probably far more limited in scope than the histories suggest. The second may never have occurred, and if it did, was directed against "fangshi" rather than Confucians. Yet the reputations that Li Si and the First Emperor widely share as essentially evil men derives principally from the reports of these two incidents. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

After the observation made by Chunyu Yue (see Emperor Qin and the Confucians), “The emperor referred Chunyu Yue’s views to his high ministers for consideration, and Li Si replied with a blistering memorial. The gist of his response was to defend the abolition of Zhou feudalism (which had initially been his own proposal) and to attack the very notion that imperially sanctioned measures should be subject to evaluation by any but those officers charged with the responsibility of governance. Li said that the views that Chunyu Yue expressed showed no appreciation of a basic tenet of Legalism, that as times change forms of government must change as well. Instead, men like Chunyu Yue, whom Li Si called “adherents of private teachings,” employ the ideas of the past, in which they have a vested interest, to oppose and subvert the necessary policies of the present. “The climax of Li Si’s memorial was the following proposal, intended to eliminate the source of the private teachings that Li viewed as the enemy of progress. /+/

According to the Shiji, Li said: “I request that apart from the annals of Qin all the records kept by scribes be burnt. Any in the empire, other than those who hold the office of Erudite, possessing copies of the “Book of Songs”, “Book of Documents”, or the teachings of any of the Hundred Schools should be required to deliver them to their local wardens or commanders in order that they be burnt. Should any person dare to cite the “Poetry” or “Documents”, he should be executed in the marketplace. Anyone who cites precedents from antiquity to criticize present policies should be executed along with his entire family. Any officer with knowledge of such crimes who fails to report them should suffer a similar punishment. Anyone who fails to submit banned works for burning within thirty days of the promulgation of this order should be tattooed as a criminal and sent off to forced labor. Books concerning medicine, divination, and agriculture are to be exempted. Anyone wishing to study laws and statutes shall hereafter be permitted to do so only with an officer of state as his teacher.” [Source: “Shiji” 6.255]

Eno wrote: This proposal, which was clearly directed principally at Confucian defenders of the Zhou system, was approved by the emperor and made law. This is the great Qin burning of the books. There is no doubt that this policy was implemented. The loss of ancient texts through this event is the single most dramatic fact facing scholars of early China. There has been much recent debate over the scope of enforcement of this edict and the nature of its effects, but whatever the outcome of those discussions, the simple fact is that the First Emperor, together with Li Si, the student of a Confucian, attempted to destroy the fundamental traditions of Confucianism and the memory of the Zhou Dynasty and create a new cultural norm that viewed the past as irrelevant and the authority of the reigning emperor the sole standard of value and action. No action in Chinese history better captured the soul of Legalism. /+/

Did Emperor Qin Really Bury the Confucian Scholars?

Book of Rites, an Confucian classic

Dr. Eno wrote: “While we are assured of the historicity of the Qin book burning, the incident of the burying of the scholars seems quite likely to be an invention by later Confucians, hoping to further blacken the image of the Qin. If the incident did occur, it was an example of the First Emperor’s wrath being directed not against Confucians, but against their competitors, the “fangshi”. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In 212 B.C., the emperor learned that some of his most valued “fangshi”, tired of living in fear of his whims, had fled the court. This incident brought to a head the emperor’s many dissatisfactions with the magicians and immortalists upon whom he had increasingly placed his hopes. He was furious to hear that some among the “fangshi” were speaking ill of him and that others whom he had sent off on missions in search of magic herbs had never returned or sent word. And Xu Fu, still complaining about that fish which shielded the isle of Penglai, was asking for more money! /+/

“In his pique, the emperor is said to have ordered an investigation of all the “fangshi” at court, and apparently each fell all over himself in his rush to slander some other practitioner. Of the several colorful accounts of what next ensued, the following first century B.C. account, which pictures the victims as Confucians, is surely the most imaginative. /+/

According to the “Shiji zhengyi”: “The emperor ordered that melons be planted thick in a damp area of a ditch near Li Hill (where the emperor’s tomb was under construction). When the melons ripened, he summoned his erudites and learned men to explain how they came to grow there. No two explanations were alike, so the scholars were ordered to go to Li Hill to investigate. Now a trap had been set at Li Hill where these scholars and eminent Confucians were led. When they descended into the ditch and began to argue endlessly with one another the trap was sprung. Masses of earth came tumbling down upon them from above and they suffocated one and all until, in the end, not a sound could be heard.” [Source: “Shiji zhengyi” 121 (3117 n.1)]

“By contrast, social forms that tend to be more closely tied to notions of “free association” – councils of elders, neighborhood groups, trade associations, guilds – these did not flourish in traditional China, except as the state sponsored their formation as government-mandated social control instruments. In Europe, organizations of this type were important in building an arena of civil society that individuals encountered outside the family and apart from state sponsorship. One of the problems often identified as an obstacle to the development of a fully modern, democratic China is the relative absence, even now, of a rich social culture of non-familial voluntary associations. /+/

Emergence of “Confucianism” During the Han Dynasty

Dongfang Shuo

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.”

Image Sources: Statuette, All Posters com; Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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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