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The development of Confucianism until its official recognition

The main disciples of the master are called the Twelve Philosophers and revered in Confucian temples. When Confucianism becomes official doctrine for the recruitment of civil servants under the previous Han, we can already distinguish different currents. Thereafter, two thousand years of interpretations, outside influences and back to basics continued to complicate the picture. Nevertheless, according to the 20th century philosophers Xu Fuguan (徐復觀) and Mou Zongsan (牟宗三), the different currents have always kept as constant the importance of the social and ethical dimension of their thought. These two scholars believe that a Confucianist does not look at things with a detached attitude, but always concerned.

We can distinguish six periods in the history of Confucianism:

  • Classical period of formation until the Qin dynasty (221 BC)
  • Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220): reconstruction of the lost texts and writing of comments which will themselves become the object of philosophical studies; appearance of State Confucianism.
  • From the 2nd to the 8th century: appearance of the Xuanxue linked to Taoism, but some authors consider themselves to be Confucians; development of a Chinese Buddhist philosophy that will influence Confucianism.
  • From the 9th century until the end of the Ming dynasty (mid-17th century): appearance of thinkers and currents influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, while seeking to distinguish themselves from them, which constitute Neo-Confucianism; this current became the official version of Confucianism under the Yuan when its four main books became the benchmark program for imperial examinations. Neo-Confucianism spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam, where it acquired great importance, notably with its temples of Literature.
  • Qing Dynasty, from the end of the 17th century: development of the Hanxue current (漢学), “Han studies”, which criticizes the philosophers of previous centuries for having strayed too far from the original Confucianism and advocates a return to the texts of the Han era.
  • From the beginning of the 20th century: development of the new Confucianism under the influence of Western philosophy (three important generations: 1921-1949, representatives are Xiong Shili and Ma Yifu; then 1950-1979, Fang Dongmei and Tang Junyi; finally 1980 -2013, Cheng Zhongying).


Confucius(The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685–758, Tang dynasty.)

The relationship between Confucianism and Confucius himself is tenuous. Confucianism deeply influenced East Asia for twenty centuries, nevertheless, Confucius’ ideas were not accepted during his lifetime and he often lamented the fact that he could not find a master to serve. As for many other major historical figures (Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, etc.), we do not have direct traces of his ideas; only words and thoughts collected by his disciples have come down to us in a single work: The Analects or Analects of Confucius. Confucianism developed from the interpretation made by his successors of the themes of the Analects, but also from other texts, called Four Books and Five Classics, whose writing, compilation or commentary were wrongly attributed to him: Shijing, Shujing, Yijing, Lijing, Chunqiu. The problem is compounded by the wave of eradication of discordant ideas during the Qin Dynasty, more than two centuries after Confucius’ death. What has come from his thought to us is therefore limited.

However, it is possible to sketch Confucius’ ideas through the fragments that remain. Confucius was a man of letters, who cared about the troubled times he lived through and went from place to place trying to spread his political ideas and influence the many kingdoms fighting for domination of China. The weakening of the Zhou Dynasty had created a vacuum, filled by small states struggling for power. Firmly convinced that he had a mission, Confucius tirelessly promoted the virtues of ancient kings and illustrious politicians, such as the Duke of Zhou (周公), and endeavored to play a political role, even occasionally accepting the invitation of rulers of dubious reputation like Duke Ling of Wei. Nevertheless, although he was called a “king without a crown,” he never had the opportunity to apply his ideas, was expelled many times and eventually returned to his native lands to spend the last part of his life to teach.

The Analects of Confucius, the work closest to the source of his thoughts, records discussions with his disciples. This book is a compilation of conversations, questions and answers or biographies, and not the exposition of a coherent system of thought. A very famous quote from this work is “If two people walk together with me, there is at least one who can serve as my teacher”. Not using deductive reasoning and the law of non-contradiction unlike many Western philosophers, he resorts to tautologies and analogies to explain his ideas. Because of this, Western readers might think that his philosophy is confused, or that Confucius does not have a clear goal. However, he also said “I am looking for an all-infiltrating unit”. Chuang Tzu, who himself wrote a large part of the Chinese proverbs known in the West, will also use metaphors extensively.

Before the empire

The first drafts of a true system were made by disciples or followers of disciples. The first of them is Zi Si (子思), grandson of Confucius, to whom is attributed the Zhong Yong which discusses the notion of invariable environment: for a society and a harmonious State, it is necessary that each one is faithful to his own nature linked to the social position (zhicheng 致 誠 “to be faithful to his nature”). This fidelity brings about a state of serenity, from which one should only deviate by feelings in accordance with the circumstances (zhonghe 中 和 “to be in harmony with the circumstances”). This text will become important especially from the ninth century to promote social conformity and moderation.

During the philosophically fertile period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, the most important figures of Confucianism are Mencius (孟子), possibly a disciple of Zi Si, and Xun Zi (荀子) (not to be confused with Sun Zi 孫子), who developed the ethical and political aspects of Confucianism, fighting against competing ideas to gain the confidence of leaders through argument and reasoning. They paid particular attention to the theme of human nature (renxing 人性). It is an essential theme for Mencius, who considers it to be fundamentally good. He does not seem to have achieved much immediate success, but a millennium later became the principal author of the Neo-Confucianists, the theory of good human nature being an essential part of their metaphysical system. Xun Zi’s view of human nature is opposed to that of Mencius; he regards it as fundamentally wrong, but agrees with him on the crucial role of education and rituals, which can correct it.

Some of his followers, like Han Fei Zi (韩非 子), enjoyed great political success, but under the legal banner, having rallied to the idea that a very severe penal system, and not the moral teaching advocated by the Confucianism, made society work. They helped Qin Shi Huang to unify China under very strict control of human activities. Thus, Confucius’ dream of a unified and peaceful China was realized under a school of thought diametrically opposed to his ideas. Nevertheless, this legalistic posterity of Xun Zi can also be seen as an indication that the opposition between the different schools of thought is not absolute.

Official recognition under the Han

Confucianism survived the ordeals of the Qin dynasty – burning of non-technical texts and ban on teaching Shijing and Shujing – thanks to scholars who memorized the texts and to rediscoveries, the most notorious of which is that of the hidden treasure of Classics. within the walls of the ancestral home of Confucius. Although the earliest emperors of the Han Dynasty seem to have been more proponents of the Taoist huanglao (黄老), Confucian scholars were not badly in court. Perhaps to break with the Huanglao clique dominated by his grandmother the Dowager Empress Dou, perhaps influenced by scholars such as Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒), Han Wudi (漢 武帝) (156 ~ 87 BC) he made from Confucianism the official philosophy of State by establishing in -136 imperial chairs for the “doctors” of the Five Confucian Classics to the exclusion of any other corpus. A school was created in 124 BC in Chang’an for the training of talents recruited for the service of the State. However, these measures were not sufficient for certain scholars who, disappointed, supported the usurpation of Wang Mang (王莽) (45 BC ~ 23) who promised to return to the golden age of the first Zhou praised by Confucius.

In any case, the study of the Confucian Classics became the basis for recruitment or certification exams for civil servants, making Confucianism the core of the Chinese education system – although the full regime of the Mandarin competitions did not begin until then. in the 7th century under the Sui. Inculcated deeply in the thought system of the Chinese and their politicians, this philosophy became an important political current and the dominant social ideology, particularly from the ninth century, but not without constantly being enriched by the contributions of other currents.

Because the Confucianism which seduced the Han power, of which the writings of Dong Zhongshu give an example, integrated elements from other schools (yin-yang, qi, five elements), and accommodated the legal structures preserved by the emperors. He was not limited to propositions of moral perfection for the betterment of society, but proposed a metaphysics in which Heaven, Earth and human society were linked. Heaven, to which imperial worship was rendered, reacts positively or negatively to the actions of the emperor and emits signs readable by the wise. Confucius was in this almost deified system as the absolute sage who had known how to read the signs and transmit this knowledge in the writings attributed to him, in particular the Gongyangzhuan version of Chunqiu. The Five Classics written and commented on by him contained hidden messages and omens that were to be found by scholars, who made them explicit in oracular texts called chenwei (讖 緯). Wang Mang made great use of it to justify his usurpation. This Han Confucianism with esoteric-magical aspects is called “School of the new text” because, appearing at the start of the dynasty, it was based on recently reconstructed texts.

Opponents of this supernatural vision, for their part, gathered around texts discovered in the second half of the second century BC in the ancestral home of Confucius, and constitute the “School of the ancient text”. They saw Confucius only as a model man without a supernatural aspect and advocated a more rational exegesis of the classics. Liu Xin and Yang Xiong are two representative examples. They attempted to impose their version, but the New Text retained its ascendancy over official Confucian studies. The arguments of the two parties are known thanks to the report of the debate (58 AD) from the room of the White Tiger written by Ban Gu. Towards the end of the dynasty, Zheng Xuan (郑玄) attempted the synthesis of the two currents.

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