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The Confucian Moral Theory

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Discuss the legacies of Confucianism for modernity and democracy in East Asia

Confucianism, which literally means the school of the scholars, refers to traditional teachings of the most influential Chinese philosopher Confucius. East Asia has been significantly affected by Confucian teachings, which, in their turn, were connected with ethical and philosophical systems that originated from the teachings that existed earlier. Confucianism is a complex system concerned with social, moral, political and religious views that have greatly influenced Chinese civilization history until the 21st century. This philosophical system has been chosen as the state religion in China.

Most of the cultures in East Asia that have been greatly influenced by Confucianism are Japan, China, Korea as well as Vietnam. This philosophical and ethical system played an integral role in such countries as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, and Singapore, where the largest ethnic group are Chinese. The growth of Confucianism is traced through the development of its original principle. The main Confucian texts include the orthodox canon of Confucian words that was formulated by Zhu Xi; it is also called The Four Books and Five Classics. The Four Books consist of such parts as Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Mencius and the Analects of Confucius.

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The Five Classics include the Book of Rites, the Book of Documents, Spring and Autumn Annals and the Book of Changes. There was also the sixth classic text by Confucius called the Classic of Music, but it was lost, probably during the burning of books. There is another canon called the Thirteen Classics. However, there has been a debate about which of the books were written by Confucius himself. This was because it is thought he never wrote the main source of the quotations (the Analects). The main source was taken from spiritual leaders such as Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama, or such ancient philosophers as Socrates. Some of the basic canons, such as the Spring and Autumn Annals, are said to be written by Confucius, although there has been a debate about this.

This factor is made more complicated by the issue of the burning of books and burying of scholars. This massive suppression of intellectuals and their works, attributed to the Qin dynasty Emperor, occurred more than two centuries after the death of Confucius. Qin Shi Huang destroyed valuable literature, including books written by Confucius and by his disciples. Hence, it is evident that despite his further fame and influence, the ideas and teachings of Confucius were not accepted during his lifetime. However, he occasionally bemoaned the idea and fact that he remained unemployed.

The ruling king of the Zhou Dynasty gradually became the main figurehead. During his leadership, leaders of the lower levels began to compete with each other for the sake of political and military dominance. At the same time, Confucius strongly promoted his mission, persuading others about the need for it. He also eagerly promoted the virtues of such cultural heroes as the Duke of Zhou. The philosopher tried to attract the necessary political power in order to begin a new dynasty; he planned to appreciate any invitation in order to “make a Zhou dynasty in the East”.

However, he did not have a chance to apply his views and ideas. He was chased from his state several times, which later made him decide to come back to his homeland where he dedicated the rest of his life to teaching. His Analects were created during this time. According to philosophical texts, there is an argument on how to interpret this collection of sayings. There is a suggestion that the initial occurrences of the Confucian system were formulated by his disciples. Moreover, many schools of thoughts, as well as such philosophers as Xun Zi and Mencius, helped to develop Confucianism. Through these schools of thought, Confucianism was developed into a political and ethical doctrine. These doctrines were aimed to fight the then-existing ideas and gain the confidence of leaders through reasoning and argumentation.

Mencius explained human nature more profoundly, revealing what is needed for good leadership in the government. He also elucidated what morality is, and started his idealist doctrine that stated that human nature is good. The ideas of Mencius were opposed by Xun Zi; therefore, he created a complex system explaining disadvantages of human nature, stating that human beings had to be educated and exposed to the rites to be able to express goodness in their life.

Some disciples of Xun Zi, such as Li Si and Han Feizi, became legalists. In this way, they distanced themselves from virtue-based Confucianism. Thus, they conceived the system of the state, which helped Qin Shi Huang to unite China, strictly controlling activities of ordinary people. Despite the fact that legalism is a school of thought opposed to reliance on virtues and rites supported by Confucius, the culmination of the great philosopher’s dream about peace and unification in China can be said to have resulted from it in light of rebellion. The burning of books and burying of scholars led to the destruction of a number of books, and many Confucian texts, in particular. However, Confucianism survived this horrible suppression, predominantly because some valuable Confucian texts were not burnt. There is an opinion that the scholar hid some of his writings in the wall surrounding his house.

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After the new Han Dynasty Qin approved the Confucian texts and doctrines, they also sponsored and facilitated Confucian scholars, making Confucianism the state philosophy. Confucian classics study became the foundation of the educational curriculum and the examination system of the government. Another important step towards Confucianism revival was the establishment of temples of Confucius throughout China to propagate the philosopher’s state cult. Although there were some emperors who increasingly supported Buddhism or Daoism, there was no attempt to replace Confucianism until the 20th century.

Confucianism was subsequently reformulated into Neo-Confucianism. After its transformation, both Japan and Korea adopted Confucianism and began practicing it as their state philosophy. During the Yi Dynasty, Korea has been defined as a Confucian state. In the 1960s, during the revolution of culture in China, Confucianism was attacked, being considered an obstacle to the modernization of China. Nevertheless, it can be clearly seen that Confucianism greatly influenced Chinese society, even despite a rebellion against it during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Hence, Confucianism is not outdated and its influence is still evident in modern-day China.

Nowadays, there are many signs of Confucianism and its influence on people as well as entire nations. Many sources have referred to Singapore as the modern world’s Confucian state. However, there are certain doubts about the accuracy of this idea since Singapore is a multicultural state in which only the minority of citizens are devoted to Confucian ideals. On the contrary, genuine roots of Confucianism can be traced in South Korea. The debate on Asian values that occurred in the 1990s was predominantly caused by the question of the importance of the social approaches of Confucianism in modern societies, especially in relation to their economic development. Contemporary movements, including New Confucianism, struggle to find new sources of inspiration from the philosophical and ethical system of thought developed by Confucius and his followers.

The rites of Confucianism lead and guide citizens with administrative prosecutions, using penal law, but making them avoid punishments. Confucianism rites excellently lead citizens and put them in place through ritual practices and roles. It makes people develop a sense of shame, but, at the same time, it helps them to order themselves more harmoniously. This explains the difference between ritualism and legalism, identifying the difference between Eastern and Western societies. Confucius asserts that when law authorities offer punishments after unacceptable acts, people behave well without understanding the reason they should act this way.

Rite is a complex combination of ideas that is hard to render in Western languages. For the Chinese, rite had a religious definition of sacrifice. Its Confucian meaning varies from politeness to the understanding and appreciating everyone’s correct place in a particular society. On the one hand, a ritual is used to distinguish between people. On the other hand, rituals explain people their duties among others and what is expected from them.

Internalization is the basic process in ritual. Official behavior becomes increasingly internalized. Desires are directed, and personal development is the basic mark of social correctness. In Confucianism, sincerity is what makes behavior be learned and retained by individuals. Obeying and following a ritual with sincerity is what makes it a powerful way to build one. A ritual may be seen as a way of trying to find the balance between two qualities that may be opposing each other in order for them not to lead to conflict.

One theme that is central to Confucianism concerns relationships, as well as different duties originating from different statuses held by others. People are held to remain continuously at separate levels of relationship with others; for example, as young people in relation to elders and parents, or as senior or elderly in relation to children, students, and younger siblings. According to Confucianism, the young ones should have the strength to undertake duties and services towards the elderly, and seniors should express concern and benevolence towards the juniors. This theme continuously manifests itself in several aspects present in the East Asian culture nowadays, highlighting various filial duties of the juniors (children) towards the elders and parents, as well as a significant concern of parents and elders towards their children.

Filial devolution or filial piety is regarded as one of the greatest virtues that must be practiced towards the dead and the living. The term “filial” means “a child”, which identifies the obedience and respect that a child is required to show to his parents, particularly to his father. This filial relationship was developed into a series of five associations (relationships), which are five cardinal relationships that include the relationship between the ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son, between friends, as well as between elder and younger brother.

Specific roles and duties were prescribed to every participant in each set of relationships; these duties were also extended to the dead, and the living people stood as sons to their respective deceased family. It resulted in the veneration of ancestors. Subsequently, filial piety was built into the legal system of China. A criminal was punished strictly if he had committed the crime against his parents. The knowledge about the importance of filial devotion is obtained from The Book of Filial Piety. Filial devotion has continuously played the central role in Confucian thinking up to the present day.

Loyalty is the equivalence of filial devotion, but it occurs between a minister and a ruler. Loyalty was particularly relevant for the social class that Confucius students belonged to. If a young and ambitious, foresighted scholar wanted to become a part of the Confucian Chinese environment, he had to join the rulers’ civil service. Similar to filial devotion, loyalty was often maintained by the autocratic leadership of China. Confucius advocated for sensitivity to real politics. He stated that a superior, who had received power, which he called the “Mandate from Heaven”, should be obeyed and respected because of his influence, morals, and loyalty. Later, much emphasis was put on the obligations of the followers to the ruler or leader, and less emphasis was made on the leader’s duties to the ruled.

Humaneness is another virtue that Confucius was concerned with. He studied individual development of people and understood that it took place in the context of relationships of human beings. Filial devotion and ritual are the main ways that people should follow, acting towards other people, expressing the attitude of humaneness. The concept of humaneness, according to Confucius, is probably best expressed in his Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you”. Thus, a key concept of Confucianism is to govern by virtue. It defines that to govern other people, one must be able to govern himself first. When developed well, a personal virtue of the king spreads beneficent influence in the kingdom. This point is developed further in the Great Learning and is connected with the Taoist concept.

Different from other political philosophies and philosophers, Confucianism does not employ laws. In a state where relationships are regarded as more important than laws, if there is no power that forces government officers to pay attention to the common desire and interest, then nepotism and corruption will arise. Chinese society has greatly been affected by problems such as nepotism and corruption. Moreover, Confucianism has been seriously criticized because it did not provide a means to reduce and control nepotism and corruption.

Confucianism is tightly connected with the law. It postulates that in law, external authorities offer punishments after unacceptable acts, and also states that people behave well without understanding the reason for their good manners. The teachings of Confucius also define the virtues of a good individual and emphasize the importance of rituals. In Confucianism, behaviors are internalized, showing their influence before actions are taken, which means that people behave well because they fear losing reputation and also due to fear of shame.

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