Tung Chung-shu: Confucianism in the Han Dynasty

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  • 0:01 Tung Chung-shu
  • 0:43 Jen & Moral Code
  • 1:35 Son of Heaven
  • 3:00 Civil Service
  • 3:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the life of Tung Chung-shu. In doing so, it will explain his role in elevating Confucianism to the forefront of the Han Dynasty. It will also explain the concept of Jen and the emperor as Son of Heaven.

Tung Chung-Shu

Although Confucius was born sometime around the year 551 BCE, his teachings remained a rather fringe philosophy until many, many years after his death. In fact, it wasn't until a man named Tung Chung-shu came along that Confucianism became the state religion of China.

Born sometime around 179 BCE, Tung Chung-shu (also sometimes spelled as Dong Zhongshu) was a high-ranking official in China's Han Dynasty. In this position of power, he was very instrumental in helping the Han Dynasty to unify China under one central authority.

Jen & Moral Code

He was also a devout follower of Confucianism, and to use some rather Western phrasing, let's just say he had no problem mixing church with state. In fact, historians tell us he was rather famous for giving the emperor an earful of Confucius' theories on leadership and governance.

To explain, Confucius taught that China would only thrive if its rulers sought peace over power. He asserted that rulers must live by a very strict moral code and hold tightly to the Confucian virtue of Jen. Sometimes spelled as Ren, Jen is translated as desiring the good of others. In short, he believed that in order for a society to succeed, it must be governed righteously, and rulers must hold tightly to humility, loyalty and benevolence.

Son of Heaven

Adding to these beliefs, it's believed that Tung Chung-shu taught that the emperor of China was actually the Son of Heaven and that Heaven, Earth and humans were all connected by the emperor himself. To Tung Chung-shu, the emperor was seen as Heaven's representative on Earth. It was the emperor's obligation to create peace on Earth. It was his job to protect his people and promote harmony. Of course, some scholars argue this is exactly why the emperor was willing to accept Confucianism. Simply put, he liked the idea that he got to be the central authority, sort of the star of the show.

However, there was also a bit of a down side to the whole Son of Heaven idea. To use another common phrase, let's just say with great power came great responsibility. For instance, Tung Chung-shu taught that the heavens would step in and give some not-so-subtle hints if the emperor wasn't doing his job. He believed that Heaven spoke to the emperor through nature, and usually this speaking came in the form of discipline. Natural catastrophes, like storms, floods and droughts, were warnings from Heaven sent to the emperor. If something like a flood hit China's lands, it was Heaven's way of telling the emperor that he was doing something wrong and he better get himself and his people back in line.

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