The Age of the Classics
Confucianism & Daoism


 
 
King Cheng was the second of the Western Zhou dynasty rulers; he reigned from 1043 to 1021 B.C.E., not long after his father, King Wu, conquered the last Shang king. King Cheng was a child when he came to power; his father's younger brother — Dan, the powerful duke of Zhou — assumed the regency for seven years until Cheng was old enough to assume the Mandate of Heaven (or tianming), the religious power that entitled him to rule. In the last year of his regency, as a new city, Luoyang, was being built, the duke made this speech, the Shao Announcement, describing the mandate received by a virtuous king and his heirs as long as they ruled with wisdom and benevolence. When a dynasty crumbled, possibly from corruption or cruelty, and the family was dethroned, it was said they had lost the mandate that entitled them to govern by divine right. (Shao Announcement)
 
Ah! August Heaven, High God [Shangdi; a.k.a. the Lord on High], has changed his principal son and has revoked the Mandate of this great state of Yin [a.k.a. Shang]. When a king receives the Mandate, without limit is the grace thereof, but also without limit is the anxiety of it. Ah! How can he fail to be reverently careful! Heaven has rejected and ended the Mandate of this great state of Yin. Thus, although Yin has many former wise kings in Heaven, when their successor kings and successor people undertook their Mandate, in the end wise and good men lived in misery. Knowing that they must care for and sustain their wives and children, they then called out in anguish to Heaven and fled to places where they could not be caught. Ah! Heaven too grieved for the people of all the lands, wanting, with affection, in giving its Mandate to employ those who are deeply committed. The king should have reverent care for his virtue [de 德]. ... Let the king reverently function in his position; he cannot but be reverently careful of his virtue. We cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Xia [an earlier dynasty]; also we cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Yin. ... We must not presume to suppose that the Yin received the Mandate of Heaven for a fixed period of years; we must not presume to suppose that it was not going to continue. It was because they did not reverently care for their virtue that they early let their Mandate fall. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 36; cf. HEA, 34-5)
 
 

Confucius (551-479 BCE)
Laying the Foundation for East Asian Civilization
“Confucius” is the Latinized (i.e., European) version of the Chinese title Kong Fuzi (or more simply, Kongzi). His proper name was Kong Qiu, and he was born in the northeastern state of Lu, in what is now Shangdong Province. ... Confucius’s central message was one of leadership by moral example. He believed that any attempt to govern through regulations and punishments would only encourage people to find clever ways to evade the law, but that if you led through proper ritual (li) and moral force de) ( the people would spontaneously correct themselves. ... Ritual was a legacy from the dawn of Chinese civilization, when bronze ritual vessels were cast for offerings to the spirits. For Confucius, however, the religious belifs underlying this ancient ritual were no longer the crucial point; ritual had become merely a standard of proper behavior and a tool for self-discipline. “Through mastering oneself and returning to ritual one becomes humane,” said Confucius. (HEA, 38)
 
There are five core Confucian Classics: [The Book of Documents (Shujing), The Book of Odes (Shijing), The Book of Changes (Yijing), The Rites (Li), and The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu)]. ... From the time they first achieved canonical status in the late second century BCE until the early twentieth century CE, these texts remained at the heart of formal education in China (and to a large extent all of East Asia). ... The Confucian Classics spread, together with literacy itself, to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, where they gained increasing influence over time. In Japan, the heyday of Confucianism did not come until the early modern Tokugawa period (1603-1868 CE). ... In Korea, the peak period of Confucian influence also coincided with the last premodern dynasty, Choson (1392-1910). ... East Asia can, to a large extent, even be defined in terms of this shared Confucianism, which coincided also with a shared use of the Chinese writing system and classical written language. This common literary language enabled educated premodern Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese to read the Confucian Classics in their original words rather than in translation. ... In general, the classics were regarded as being no more uniquely Chinese than the Old Testament of the Bible is uniquely Jewish, the Koran uniquely Arab, or the Buddhist scriptures uniquely Indian. The appeal was, instead, to supposedly universal truth. (HEA, 36-7)


According to one tradition, the man known as Laozi (from whom the book derived its title) was an older contemporary of Confucius who served as an archivist at the Zhou capital, and who once allegedly even instructed Confucius himself. Laozi merely means “Old Master,” however, and both the identity of hte author of the book Laozi and its date of composition — which may, or may not, have been as late as the third century BCE — are uncertain. The language of the Laozi is simple, poetic, and enigmatic in the extreme.
       Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang, whose full name was Zhuang Zhou, ca. 369-ca. 286 BCE), by contrast, is thought to have been a real historical figure. The book that bears his name is a delightful, though often linguistically and conceptually challenging, collection of parables and tall tales. A fine example of Zhuangzi
’s style is his story concerning Cook Ding ... (HEA, 41)
 
The Secret of Caring for Life
Zhuangzi, Chapter 3
Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou music.
       “Ah, this is marvelous! said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
       Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And nownow I go at it by spirit (shen) and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
       A good cook changes his knife once a yearbecause he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
       “However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
       “Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to care for life!” [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 104]