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Confucius may well be one of the most influential philosophers in history. Born as K'ung Fu Tzu in 551 BCE during the Chou dynasty, Confucius, as he was later known, taught through the power of example and by acts of benevolence.
The following interview was conducted with a noted Confucian scholar who asked that his name be withheld. He indicated that although Confucian scholars do not consider their beliefs as a religion, Confucianism remains "a significant code of ethical behavior for approximately six-million Confucians worldwide."
Q: Confucius is credited as the founder of Confucianism. What were the basics of his teachings?
A: Confucius was a philosopher, moralist, statesman, and educationist, but no religionist. He wandered throughout China, giving advice to prominent rulers. His writings dealt primarily with individual morality and ethics, and the proper exercise of political power by the rulers. The last years of his life were spent in the Province of Lu, where he devoted himself to teaching.
A few misunderstandings about Confucianism are common in the West. One is that Confucius wrote the Confucian classics. Although Chinese tradition once held that Confucius wrote, or at least edited, the classics, both Chinese and American scholars have long agreed that if Confucius wrote anything, it has not survived. Most of the "Confucian classics" had already been written before his time.
Q: Other than the famous I Ching, what ancient writings are connected to Confucianism?
A: The principles of Confucianism are contained in nine ancient Chinese works. These writings can be divided into two groups: the Five Classics and the Four Books. The Wu Ching (Five Classics), which originated before the time of Confucius, consist of the I Ching (Book of Changes), Shu Ching (Book of History), Shih Ching (Book of Poetry), Li Chi (Book of Rites), and Ch'un Ch'iu (Spring and Autumn Annals).
Q: I have heard that the "Great Learning" is considered to be a philosophy that Confucius taught. Can you explain this?
A: In what is called the Great Learning, Confucianism reveals the process by which self-development is attained and how it flows over into serving and blessing humankind: investigation of phenomena, learning, sincerity, rectitude of purpose, self-development, family discipline, local self-government, and universal self-government.
The famous "eight steps" in the Great Learning provide a glimpse of this. For those ancients who wished their "illuminating virtue" to shine forth, it was necessary for them to first govern their states. But wishing to govern their states, they first had to regulate their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their personal lives. Wishing to cultivate their personal lives, they first rectified their hearts and minds. Wishing to rectify their hearts and minds, they first authenticated their intentions. Wishing to authenticate their intentions, they first refined their knowledge.
The refinement of knowledge lies in the study of things. Only when things are studied is knowledge refined; only when knowledge is refined are intentions authentic; only when intentions are authentic are hearts and minds rectified; only when hearts and minds are rectified are personal lives cultivated; only when personal lives are cultivated are families regulated; only when families are regulated are states governed; only when states are governed is there peace under Heaven.
Therefore, from the Son of Heaven to the common people, all, without exception, must take self-cultivation as the root.
So the Confucian worldview, rooted in earth, body, family, and community, is not about adjusting to the world, submitting to the status quo, or passively accepting the physical, biological, social, and political constraints of the human condition. Rather, it is an ethical responsibility informed by a transcendent vision. We do not become "spiritual" by departing from or transcending above earth, body, family, and community, but by working through them.
Q: What was the core philosophy of Confucianism? Can it be summed up in a few words to simplify this teaching?
A: The keynote of Confucianism is called jen the virtues that represent human qualities at their very best: peace, benevolence, charity, magnanimity, sincerity, respectfulness, altruism, diligence, loving kindness, goodness, and social harmony.
The Confucian golden rule "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself" is echoed throughout all the great teachings that have stood the test of time.
Q: You mentioned in a prior conversation that Confucianism is really more of an intellectual pursuit than an actual religion.
A: That's so. Confucianism never became an actual religion with churches or priesthoods. It was considered a philosophy and an essential code of human conduct. Chinese scholars honored Confucius as a great teacher and sage, but did not worship him as a personal god, nor did Confucius himself ever claim divinity.
In modern times, Confucianism is still a significant code of ethical behavior for approximately six-million Confucians worldwide. As with other ancient philosophies, there have been changes and modifications to the original teachings to accommodate the ever-changing needs of an evolving humanity.
William Theodore de Bary of Think Globally, Act Locally, observed: "Chinese and Confucian culture, traditionally, was about settled communities living on the land, nourishing themselves and the land. It is this natural, organic process that Confucian self-cultivation draws upon for all its analogies and metaphors."
Q: Has Confucianism always remained the primary code of conduct for China?
A: Prior to the impact of the modern West, Confucian humanism was the defining characteristic of political ideology, social ethics, and family values in all of East Asia.
Then a radical rethinking of Confucian humanism occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when China was engulfed in social disintegration as the result of foreign invasion and domestic dissension.
In the late 20th century, this reformation continued in the New Confucian movement, led by concerned intellectuals, some of whom left Mainland China when Communism was established as the ruling ideology in the People's Republic in 1949.
Q: What characterizes the New Confucianism?
In the last twenty-five years, three leading New Confucian thinkers in Taiwan, Mainland China, and Hong Kong independently concluded that the most significant contribution Confucianism can offer the global community is the idea of the "unity of Heaven and Humanity."
By identifying the unity of Heaven, Earth, and humanity, these three key figures in New Confucian thought signal the movement toward both a revival and a new application of Confucian thought.
I have described this vision as a new worldview, where the human is embedded in the cosmic order rather than being alienated, either by choice or by default, from the natural world. In other words, Heaven and Humanity are seen as One.
Since all three of these men articulated their final positions toward the end of their lives, the unity of Heaven, Earth, and humanity symbolizes the wisdom of elders. I would like to suggest that this marks an ecological turn in contemporary New Confucianism that is profoundly meaningful for China and the world.
Under Mao, the intellectuals' total denial of the Confucian tradition and their thorough commitment to the well-being of China as a civilization-state compelled them to find a new cultural identity and to reject the stream of thought that had for centuries defined Chinese society.
As a result, Confucianism lost much of its persuasive power. The courage to transcend the "feudal past" was considered imperative if China was to emerge as an independent nation.
The viciousness with which Chinese intellectuals, including the New Confucians, deconstructed the Confucian heritage was unprecedented in Chinese intellectual history, perhaps unprecedented in world history.
Q: What was the next stage of growth for New Confucianism?
A: At the height of China's obsession with Westernization as modernization, some of the most original-minded New Confucians had already begun to question the individualistic worldview and utilitarian ethics. Their views are profoundly meaningful for the Confucian ecological turn.
Two key examples are Xiong Shili, who articulated a compelling naturalistic vitalism, and Liang Shuming, who called for restraint and moderation in using natural resources.
Xiong Shili insisted that the Confucian idea of the "great transformation" is based on the participation of the human in the cosmic process, rather than the imposition of human will upon nature.
He further observed that, as a continuously evolving species, human beings are not created apart from nature but emerge as an integral part of the primordial. The vitality that engenders human creativity is the same energy that gives rise to mountains, rivers, and the great Earth. There is a close relationship between ourselves and Heaven, Earth, and all living things.
This ecological turn has great significance for China's spiritual self-definition, for it urges China to return to her home base and rediscover her own soul. It also has profound implications for the sustainable future of the global community.
Q: Thank you so very much for taking the time to share your work with us. Is there anything more you would like us to know?
A: The human is an active participant in the cosmic process with the responsibility of care for the environment. An environmental perspective is clearly indicated in core Confucian texts.
In the Doctrine of the Mean by Zyhongyong, a statement succinctly captures the essence of this cosmological thinking:
Only those who are the most sincere, authentic, true, and real can fully realize their own nature. If they can fully realize their own nature, they can fully realize human nature. If they can fully realize human nature, they can fully realize the nature of things. If they can fully realize the nature of things, they can take part in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can take part in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they will have trinity: a unity of humanity, Heaven and Earth.