Confucius has recently made a comeback in China. If you scan this month’s headlines alone you’ll see that a 72 meter tall statue has recently been completed in Shandong province, 168 pupils in Nanjing dressed up as the sage to celebrate the start of the new school year, and that a new Confucius institute has opened in Angola (there are now over 480 Confucius institutes in dozens of countries worldwide).
But who was Confucius, and what was his philosophy?
Who was Confucius?
Confucius was born approximately 2,500 years ago in what is now Shandong Province, China. During his lifetime, he was a teacher, politician and philosopher. His thoughts had an enormous influence on Chinese and Asian culture, many of which still identify as Confucian today.
His philosophy emphasises justice, integrity and social harmony. It often focuses on the achievement of the latter through good ethical conduct, which is cultivated through continuous self-development.
‘He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place when all the stars are rotating about it,’ Confucius said. And according to him, ethical and fair governance are essential to creating an environment where society can flourish.
Another theme which Confucius came back to again and again was the importance of ‘benevolence’. This is the highest state of moral character one can strive for, a state which he claimed he himself had not achieved. At its core, Confucius said it can be understood with one sentence: ‘Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.’
Confucius and Confucians
Confucius was unknown in the West until the late sixteenth century, when Jesuit missionaries began sharing knowledge of his works outside Asia. But even today, though many in the West have heard his name, what his work is about is often not clearly understood.
This isn’t a new problem. One of the difficulties those early Jesuits faced was how to distinguish between Confucianism and Confucius’ thought itself. A good example of this is the negative attitude some Ming dynasty Confucians had towards trade and making money, which didn’t reflect the thoughts of Confucius himself.
In fact, “Confucius was not against the making of money,” China historian Jonathan Spence said during his 2008 Reith lecture on the sage, “he was interested in the rules that should go with making money…”
Spence also highlighted how Confucius saw making money and working in the commercial world as a “good way of sharpening the wits and getting you to understand others’ points of view.” However, The Analects state that he was against ‘wealth and rank gained through immoral means’, and said more than once that ‘a man [must remember] what is right at the sight of profit.’
The point about the disparity between Confucianism and Confucius’ teaching is an important one. As with many ideologies, Confucianism can mean different things to different people. It also exists in Asian cultures as varied as Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, and at any given time in history can be interpreted in very different ways. At its worst it is seen by its critics as a justification for slavish obedience to authority. However, it is more generally associated with a respect and obedience towards elders and tradition, and the upholding of good ethics.
Since the Chinese Economic Reform, Confucius has gone from being reviled to revered again in China. It appears that his resurgent popularity is closely linked to his being a symbol of Chinese history’s heritage and his influence over Asian culture (hence China’s choice to name its cultural institutes after him). Whatever form or forms 21st century Confucianism in China eventually takes, it is not unreasonable to hope that, with modern literacy and publishing, it will be one close to what the sage intended.