Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
There are far too many 'Confucius Says' jokes for me to pick just one. You see, the name Confucius is not something that most Americans are entirely unfamiliar with. We know he was wise, and we know he was Chinese. But, who was this Confucius guy really?
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and teacher who lived from 551-479 BC. He worked and taught in an era called the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, when China was first unifying culturally and politically as one people and when many of what are now called traditional Chinese practices first began. Confucius had several philosophies on society and government, and he traveled around China teaching them to government leaders. His teachings were collected into a series of books called the Five Classics, and his philosophies became known as Confucianism.
For years, Confucianism was just one of many political and ethical philosophies that were used in government. Then, in the later Han dynasty, between 200 BC and 200 AD, Confucius's teachings suddenly skyrocketed in prominence, and the Han emperors declared it the official moral standard of China. From this point on, Confucianism was an integral part of the Chinese government and society.
Confucianism, as it was originally used, is better described as a philosophy than a religion. It wasn't until much later that the Asian religion Buddhism entered China and fused with Confucian teachings to form a religious doctrine. True Confucianism presents a series of ethical values focused around maintaining a harmonious government and society, in which each member has responsibilities and obligations to everyone else.
While we could devote an entire course to discussing the various points of Confucianism, we are going to focus on the base unit, the central focus by which Confucian standards of ethics are measured: family. Family was the foundation of moral society in Confucianism. Every member of a family had a proper relationship with the others, defined by age, sex and birth order. A minor owed the elders respect, but could also expect protection, and so, everyone was part of this system.
Confucianism also had strict requirements regarding ancestor worship. Ancestors were still family and certainly counted as elders, so they were to be treated with immense respect and veneration. The reciprocal obligations in between family members and the base virtue of respect for parents and ancestors is called filial piety. If everyone obeyed filial piety and respected their elders, obeyed their parents, assisted the elderly, protected children and treated siblings fairly, society would be harmonious and peaceful.
The family was the basis of society for Confucius, and in his teachings, family relationships are used to explain the proper relationships between the government and the people. The most obvious of these is the emperor, who, by no accident, was often compared to the father of all the people. The people have a duty to respect, honor and obey the emperor, just like the children to a parent. However, the emperor also has a responsibility to protect and nurture his subjects, reflecting a parent's relationship with their children.
In Confucianism, there are five essential virtues that a good leader must obey; they are humaneness, righteousness, proper ritual, knowledge and integrity. These virtues are often explained in terms like the example of the emperor and the subjects. For example, Confucius described the virtue of humaneness as exemplified by an adult's protective feelings for a child. Confucianism taught that in order to govern, a leader had to first govern him or herself according to the virtues of filial piety. Only then would they deserve the respect and obedience of the people, and the land would be harmonious, peaceful and prosperous because the personal virtues of the emperor are emulated by the subjects. In other words, his perfection teaches them perfection.
Overall, the Confucian relationships weave all throughout society, forming the five bonds that encapsulate the basis of every social interaction. The five bonds are ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother and friend to friend. Each of these bonds was equated with certain behavior, customs and proper degrees of respect and formed the basis of all Chinese society.
In ancient China, there was a man named Confucius who developed a philosophy about achieving harmonious government and society called Confucianism. His books, the Five Classics, formed the basis of Chinese ethics and were required texts for every government employee, from the local judge to the emperor, to master if they wanted to be a good leader. Confucianism uses the family as the basis of society, and the relationships of the family members define proper social and political behavior. In a family, children respect the elders, ancestors are venerated and adults protect the children.
The reciprocal duties found within the family and the base virtue of respect are called filial piety. This is the foundation for the five virtues of a good leader and exemplify the relationship between the government and its people. Therefore, if the emperor is like the father to his people, they owe him respect, but he also owes them protection. Everyone has a duty to each other member of society. These add up to the five bonds, the five relationships that describe proper social behavior. It was a lot to remember, I'm sure, but for the emperors who could master the Confucian texts the reward was quite appealing: loyalty, prosperity and peace throughout the empire. And all because Confucius says.
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Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons