The World of Confucius
A Moral Response to Zhou Decline
Confucius writing on bamboo
Chinese character for "Confucianism" (ru)
Map: Western Zhou
From Western Zhou (c. 1045-771 BCE)
to Spring & Autumn (770-481 BCE)
Although the “Zhou dynasty” is remembers as the longest in Chinese history, spanning some eight centuries, it stumbled after its first 300 years, and never quite recovered. In a recurring trope, women got the blame, although it would be fairer to suggest that women were merely the public face of palace intrigues by their male relatives. ... Seven named men are mismanaging the state, but the morose but beautiful Baosi ... gets the blame. It would be enough for most such stories, to say that she was a pretty girl who turned [the king’s] head, but Chinese chronicles insist that she was a foundling child, born of a cursed mother, sired by a lizard that was itself born from the vapors of an exorcism, itself designed to deal with an infection of antique dragon saliva, released into the palace when a former king had opened a forbidden casket. With such a pedigree, it is unsurprising that Baosi should have been a striking beauty — even her name implies that she is a manifestation of an ancient curse, bringing the spirit of the conquered Bao tribespeople back to haunt the Zhou dynasty.
 
King You lights the beacon fires for Baosi
 
Baosi, which is to say, whatever clan or family supported her from her shadows, soon ousted the ruler’s original wife and heir. Her new born son was declared as the new crown prince, while the Zhou king tried desperately to make her smile. A hundred measures of gold were offered to anyone who could manage it, and when there were no takers, the King resorted to massive stunt. He ordered the lighting of the beacon-fires that summoned military aid from surrounding vassals, and Baosi laughed as entire armies rushed to defend the capital against a non-existent enemy. ... [The Marquis of Shen, father of the supplanted queen,] solicited the aid of the Rong nomads to the west, marching on the capital to avenge his daughter’s honor. Guardsmen lit the beacons to warn the palace, but in ancient China’s variant of the “never cry wolf” folktale, allies had become so tired of the Baosi-appeasing games that they failed to show up.
 
Map of the Spring and Autumn Period
 
The Rong sacked the capital in 771 BCE, killing the King and Baosi’s eight-year-old son, and carting away many of the palace treasures. The original heir was crowned as the new ruler, but after two years reigning over the ruins, with increasingly pushy Rong “allies” close at hand, his ministers got his assent to move the Zhou capital downriver. ... The once-proud Zhou people fled 400 kilometers (248.5 miles) east to a new home — 771 BCE marks the division between the Western Zhou, based near what is now Xi’an, and the rump regime of the Eastern Zhou, near what is now Luoyang. No matter how you tried to spin it, a supposedly infallible, inviolable king had allowed himself to be swayed by temptation, and plunged his state into turmoil. The Zhou dynasty had been fatally weakened, and with it the authority of its kings, and the force of its traditions and rituals. (BHC, 56-9)
Chinese character for "Confucianism" (ru)
Confucius: Movie Poster
Kongzi ~ Confucius
551-479 BCE

Confucius was perplexed by the difference between the ancient legends and the miseries of contemporary life. He conceded that there could be some propaganda, lies, and the jealousies of “petty men,” or that some texts might be corrupt or incomplete. But however you explained it, something had gone wrong. ... He wondered what it was that had caused the Shang dynasty to lose the Mandate of Heaven, and although he never quite expressed it in such direct terms, what was causing the evident decline of the Zhou. ... Clearly there were rules of propriety that people needed to stick to, and some of them had been forgotten, so that modern men didn’t even know that they were breaking the law. But if we were able to recreate the perfect religious ceremony, the perfect ritual, the perfect music, manners and modes of living, then the state that followed those lines would itself become perfect. There would be no more wars, because even barbarians on the border would flock to imitate and join the ideal state. There would be no crime, because would-be criminals would not arise. Harmony was not something you lounged into, like a Daoist, it was something that you made yourself, through education and right thinking.
 
Hierarchical roles in early Chinese society
 
Confucius envisaged a rigid social order or respect and obligation, in which everyone knew their place. Children should obey their parents, women should obey men. Good relations within the family should be repeated in the outside world — rulers should behave as rulers; ministers [as] ministers; fathers as fathers and sons as sons. ... The closer a society came to perfect behavior, the easier life would become. The conditions that created unrest, or criminality, or unhappiness, would be removed. People could make their own luck, preparing against misfortune by keeping granaries of emergency food, and by correctly maintaining earthworks and flood measures. State administration would make it easier for a ruler to rule if his ministers were proactive.
 
Map of Cohfucius' Journeys
 
Even in his own time, Confucius was often ridiculed. If the story of his youthful encounter with the aging Laozi is true, the author of the Dao De Jing scolded him for being obsessed with rules and etiquette. Incumbent officials regarded him as na´ve and unrealistic, and he spent much of his later years as a wandering exile, travelling from state to state as a celebrity consultant, offering his services to local potentates and invariably annoying their ministers. (BHC, 65-6)
Chinese character for "Confucianism" (ru)
Confucius illustrating the principles of "ritual" (li) and "humaneness" (ren)
The Teachings of Confucius

Ritual and Humaneness

In the received version of The Analects, Confucius claims that he did not introduce any new ideas, maintaining that he was seeking simply to return the disordered empire to an earlier time. “I transmit but do not innovate; I am truthful in what I say and devoted to antiquity” (7.1). ... Contrary to his claim, Confucius did innovate. ... In his concept of ritual (li), Confucius ... introduced something new. His contemporaries used the term to refer to specific rituals, but Confucius recognized an abstract quality common to them that applied to the forms of all social interactions. If men could learn to employ this quality, he taught, society could be reformed. To Confucius, ritual offered the individual the best opportunity to develop his own humaneness (ren), an essential quality also translated as “benevolence,” “goodness,” “exemplary humanity,” and “manhood-at-its-best.”
 

 
One analyst has suggested the example of a handshake as a rough illustration of Confucius’s concept of ritual in modern life. Although one has to learn under what circumstances to shake hands and when to extend one’s hand, one can use handshaking to express delight, reluctance, or even repugnance on meeting another. The rituals Confucius discussed, many of them deriving from the ancestral worship of the Zhou, had many more steps than a simple handshake; but if they were learned correctly, they too could express one’s innermost humanity. (OE, 70-4)
Handshake
The Power of Ritual
I see you on the street; I smile, walk towards you, put out my hand to shake yours. And behold — without any command, stratagem, force, special tricks or tools, without any effort on my part to make you do so, you spontaneously turn toward me, return my smile, raise your hand toward mine. We shake hands — not by my pulling your hand up and down or your pulling mine but by spontaneous and perfect cooperative action. Normally we do not notice the subtlety and amazing complexity of this coordinated “ritual” act. This subtlety and complexity become very evident, however, if one has had to learn the ceremony only from a book of instructions, or if one is a foreigner from a nonhandshaking culture. (The Secular as Sacred, 9)
 
Confucian Court Music Video
Chinese character for "Confucianism" (ru)
False Advertising
The Rectification of Names
Chinese characters for the "rectification of names" (zhengming)
 
When Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government, he replied, “Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son.” That is, let everyone play his proper role in the traditional order inherited from early Zhou and in the natural order of the family, and all will be well (XII, 11). (MOF, 17)
 
Eight Row Dance at Lu Court
 
The Zhou founders had devised a harmonious social and political hierarchy, its ranks constantly displayed in distinctions of ceremonial display, forms of greeting, even tombs and coffins. Now both these ceremonial orders and the realities they represented were being constantly flouted. In Lu the legitimate dukes had been ciphers under the power of three great ministerial families for all of Confucius’s life, and the most powerful of them, the Ji, used eight rows of dancers at a ceremonial dance in their courtyard, which was a prerogative of the Zhou kings granted to the dukes of Lu because of their descent from the duke of Zhou. “If this can be tolerated,” said Confucius, “what cannot be tolerated?” (III, 1). (MOF, 16-7)
Confucius with Hamburger
The expression junzi itself packs a complex history and set of associations. The characters literally mean son of the prince,” ... and the frequent contrast with the little man” make it clear that this term has a background of class feeling, of contrast between the values and actions appropriate to rulers and those for the ruled, much like the history of gentleman” in English and many other important moral terms.
 
Two "junzi" ritually greeting each other
 
"The noble person (junzi) is concerned with rightness;
the small person is concerned with profit." (Analects 4:16)
 
The "small person" being crushed by a huge tael of gold (money)
 
In early Zhou texts junzi usually simply means the ruler.” It was Confucius’ great achievement to insist that not only those who had a hereditary right to office could aspire to be gentlemen, but anyone who sought education, moral growth, and involvement in governing; his gentleman is a highly appropriate ideal for the rising class of the shi, the lowest aristocracy with no hereditary right to office. (MOF, 25)
 
Confucius illustrating the principles of "ritual" (li) and "humaneness" (ren)
Ritual and Humaneness
Yan Yuan asked about humaneness. The Master said, “To overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety is the way to become humane. If one could overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety for a single day, the whole world would return to humaneness. Does the implementation of humaneness depend on oneself or on others?” Yan Yuan said: “May I ask about the details?” The Master said “If it does not accord with ritual propriety do not look; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not listen; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not speak; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not act.” Yan Yuan said: “Though I am not clever, I will try to put these words into practice. (Analects 12:1, translated by Brian Hoffert)
 
Chinese character for "ritual propriety" (li) Chinese character for "humaneness" (ren)
 
With regard to humaneness: wishing to establish oneself, one helps to establish others; wishing to develop oneself, one helps to develop others. The ability to take what is close (i.e. what one wishes for oneself) as an analogy [for what others would also wish for] — this may be called the method of [cultivating] humaneness. (Analects, 6:30, translated by Brian Hoffert)
 
Taiji with heaven for yang and earth for yin

Can this approach to self-cultivation really transform the world?
 
Giant Confucius by Zhang Huan