Confucianism is an official religion of China for 2,000 years; Confucianism has deeply influenced Chinese culture. Its precepts, always practical, emphasize man and his society, in contrast to Taoism, which emphasizes nature. Confucianism sees spiritual development in terms of moral conduct in this life; it lacks completely the mysticism and concern with the hereafter found in Buddhism (Burr 2004). However, the Chinese people did not find the three religions contradictory and many of them adhered to all three.
Confucianism teaches the practice of benevolence and love, or Jen, and the harmonious development of things, or the Doctrine of the Mean. Confucius believed that the development of Jen begins with filial piety. His social goals included the harmonious development of family life, a well-ordered state, and the world at peace. Rules of etiquette, propriety, and ceremony serve to order human relations (Gernet 2002); observing them is an expression of reverence.
The Confucian superior man is one who establishes his own character by first helping others to establish their own. He is sincere and shows a harmony of emotion that is without anxiety or fear.
The teachings of Confucius were collected by his disciples and followers after his death. The Chinese sage Mencius, born a century later, did much to make them known. In present-day Communist China, the government attempts to undermine tradition, especially where loyalty to the nation may be challenged by loyalty to family, ancestors, and ancient sages (Burr 2004).
In addition, Confucianism, which was an ethical and political philosophy rather than a religion, had the support of the state for most of the time from the end of the third century B.C. to the coming of the republic. The Confucianist philosophy constituted chief basis of morals and the family. Disestablished under the republic, and its classical writings removed from first to send or third place in the curriculums pf the schools, Confucianism declined in the 20th century.
The 20th century saw the weakening of all religions including Confucianism in China. An antireligious movement in the 1920’s accentuated this trend, and after the Communist took power in 1949 they launched a determined campaign against religion including Confucianism. In other words, religious beliefs are discouraged by China’s Communist rulers, and interest in religion among the Chinese is declining. Nevertheless, religious observances and customs are persisted, especially in rural areas. The religious tradition is a blend of various beliefs and practices. Much of the religious tradition is based on three ethical system—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. As practiced by the Chinese, they are religions in a limited sense, and are confined mainly to teaching a code for righteous living and fair dealing (Bell 2003). Their teachings over the centuries have had a profound influence on Chinese customs and attitudes. The most influential of the traditional systems is Confucianism, which teaches the need for an all-inclusive morality. It most emphasizes respect for one’s parents and love for the family.
The three leading philosophers of this ancient school are Confucius, the founder of the school, Mencius, and Hsun-tzu.
Heaven and Man. Confucius accepts the traditional belief in Heaven as Providence which silently directs the course of the physical world and human life. Since man receives his “nature” from Heaven, to act constantly in accordance with this Heaven-conferred nature, irrespective of times and circumstances, is to act virtuously.
Men drift apart as the result of “practice,” despite the fact that intrinsically and originally they are “nearly alike by nature.” Moreover, Heaven does not endow all men with equal intellectual capacity, and men fall into several categories. In Confucius’ words, “Those who are born with the possession of knowledge are the highest class of men. Those who learn and acquire knowledge are the next. Those who are dull and yet apply themselves to learning are another class nest to these (Jensen 1997). Those who are dull and yet do not learn—they are the lowest of the people.” Thus with the exception of the inborn sage, Heaven leaves mankind short of perfection and permits room for human endeavor. It is the moral duty of the superbly endowed to develop his own moral nature and to instruct, guide, and assist those who are less favored by Heaven (Yao 2000).
“Humaneness” (Love of Fellow Men). The sage who renders service to his fellow men does so entirely out of his innate love for them. By nature a man loves those who are close to him. But, obeying the dictates of his moral nature, he extends his love beyond his own family to cover as wide a sphere as his ability permits, with the whole of mankind as the ultimate limit. In so doing he fulfills the “Humaneness” which is his true nature. However, while his ultimate duty is to serve all men, his immediate duty is to serve his own family (Bell 2003). For Humaneness has its roots in man’s natural affection; to deny the prior claim of one’s own family is to undermine the very foundation of morality.
Men and Society. As man’s highest moral fulfillment consists in love of his fellow men, there is no rigid line of demarcation between ethics and politics. The immediate task of a ruler is to insure an ample livelihood to his subjects; his ultimate task is to help them to become good men. The sage-king governs primarily by moral suasion and influence, but he cannot dispense with laws and institutions.
Men of lesser virtue than the sage-king qualify themselves for the offices of ministers and lower functionaries. The least talented are the common people who till the soil and engage in various trades to make a living and serve their sovereign. Thus personal merit, not family status, is the principle of social organization (Bell 2003). Good order prevails in the realm when each individual occupies a fitting position in society and acts in accordance with the duties and privileges appertaining to that position.
A man enters public service solely to actualize his Humaneness. He remains in service only so long as he can contribute to that end. If the situation becomes hopeless, he may justifiably seek opportunity in another state, or withdraw from political life altogether, in order to remain loyal to his moral nature.
Jainism is a religion of India and an off-shoot of Hinduism. The name is from the Sanskrit jina (“conqueror”) and implies man’s spiritual conquest over his material nature. According to Jainism, salvation, or nirvana, can be attained only after many years of extreme asceticism, which involves abstention from sex for pleasure; renunciation of material wealth; and much fasting. Jains also practice ahimsa, or non-injury to animals, even insects (Dundas 2002).
Because of the rule of ahimsa, Jains are vegetarians and exclude themselves from many occupations, such as farming and metalworking, where the tools used might be injurious to small creatures. Many Jains are monks. Those who are laymen are mainly employed in banking, commerce, and certain possessions such as law. As a result, the Jain laity has grown prosperous and contributes greatly to support of the religion’s monks (Jaini 1999).
Jainism was founded in the sixth century B.C. by Mahavira. The religion has some 3,200,000 adherents and is divided into three mains sects—the Shvetambaras, the Sthanakvasis, and the Digambaras.
Bell, Daniel A. Confucianism for the Modern World. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, England. 2003
Burr, John. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, 7th edition (Macmillan, 2004)
Dundas, Paul. Jains. London: Routledge, 2002. Thorough guidance for the general reader
Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization (Cambridge University, 2002)
Jaini, Padmanabh S. The Jaina Path of Purification. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999
Jensen, Lionel M. Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions & Universal Civilization. Duke University Press. Durham, NC 1997
Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, England. 2000