Confucianism in the Sung & Mongol Periods

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  • 0:01 Confucianism in China
  • 0:34 Confucianism in the…
  • 2:41 Confucianism in Mongol China
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the influence of the Chinese philosophy Confucianism on two very different, but very important periods in Chinese history. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Confucianism in China

Confucius says. It always sounds like something from a fortune cookie. But it's much, much more than that.

Confucianism is a Chinese philosophy for moral behavior in government, business, and family life, named after the ancient teacher Confucius. Along with Buddhism and Daoism, it is one of the three cornerstones of Chinese ethical philosophy and the only one that was originally founded in China. Confucianism has been one of the most influential practices in Chinese history that guided the decisions of peasants and emperors alike.

Confucianism in the Sung Dynasty

Although Confucianism was dominant in ancient China, it faded into the background for several years until being revived in the Tang Dynasty around the 9th century. During this time, Buddhism was widely popular in China, and Chinese intellectuals found ways to mix Buddhist principles into Confucian teachings, creating the religion/philosophy Neo-Confucianism.

The foundations of Neo-Confucianism were set during the Tang Dynasty but came to fruition in the Sung Dynasty, which lasted from 960-1279. Under the Sung, Neo-Confucianism became the dominant philosophy that influenced Chinese politics. By the year 1241, the Four Books of the Neo-Confucian founding thinker Zhu Xi were standard textbooks for students to master who were interested in government work. The rise of Neo-Confucianism revived an ancient Chinese idea that had been largely ignored for centuries: that qualified people should run the government. This seems somewhat obvious, but in practice, it's not. What this means is that in a world where fathers passed down their titles to their sons, in China, nobody could earn a spot in government based solely on who they knew. It should be noted that the emperor is an obvious exception to this rule; the son of the emperor became the next emperor, although during this time he was expected to master the Confucian texts.

The idea of merit, earning something based on your qualifications, is very important to Confucianism. To ensure that all government officials, from clerks to judges to governors, were fit for office, Sung China instituted civil service exams. These tests were rigorous, extremely difficult, and required complete knowledge of the Confucian teachings and modern political theory in order to pass. This change went hand-in-hand with new Sung technologies, like movable type printing, which allowed for books to be printed, rather than copied by hand, leading to the mass production of textbooks. This meant that more people could afford to study for the exams. Since the exams were based solely on qualifications and not on birth, they were the best way for people in Sung China to improve their social class. Theoretically, any peasant could study hard and earn a highly-respected position in government and move their family into the upper class.

Confucianism in Mongol China

The Sung Dynasty was strong but not strong enough to withstand the powerful force in Asia that rose in the early 13th century: the Mongol Empire. Led by the great Genghis Khan, the empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean almost to the Mediterranean, the largest land-based empire in history. A grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, finally defeated China and became the emperor of a new, Mongol era called the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan Dynasty lasted from 1271-1368 as China was controlled by the Mongols.

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