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A-Z of Thought: Confucius

Alex Monro

It is the Spring and Autumn period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty two-and-a-half thousand years ago. The Zhou have been in power since 1046 BC but their state is crumbling and neighbouring states are a growing threat. A period known as the "Hundred Flowers" is under way, as solutions to the political malaise are proposed and debated.

Confucius himself worked as a cowherd, a bookkeeper and more besides, but his chief interest was in developing a socio-political philosophy that would both ensure loyalty to the ruler and good governance by the ruling class. He taught that the people should remain loyal to their ruler but he expected the ruler to act out of devotion to the people (humaneness) and he argued that the Mandate of Heaven (a little like Europe's divine right of kings) would eventually be withdrawn from a dynasty if it ruled poorly.

Confucius' ideal was to create what he perceived as the golden age of the early Zhou. At the heart of his ideology, therefore, lay a belief in learning from the ancients. Careful to preserve and commentate on a number of ancient texts that have become known as the Confucian canon, he also wrote The Analects, a collection of aphorisms that reflected his use of rhetoric to convince his hearers and readers.

It was only through such learning and self-cultivation - specifically, the development of filial loyalty, ritual devotion and humaneness - that a man could rise to take part in government. This emphasis was also notable for its elevation of accomplishment and learning over martial prowess. The development of a civil service examination in China from the seventh century reflected Confucius' view that officials should be chosen on the basis on merit, not birth. The Confucian balance between a hereditary imperial system and a non-hereditary, expert bureaucracy would hold China together for some two thousand years.

Appearing at a time when the political concept of di (the higher power) was increasingly human rather than divine, its only significant religious teaching concerned the importance of ritual.

It has had two major encounters with Christianity. The first came in the seventh century at latest, with the spread of the Nestorian church (from Persia) through much of the country; the second was a result of western missionaries, from seventeenth century Jesuits to nineteenth-century Anglicans. Today, China's Christian growth is unprecedented.

Confucianism's emphasis on civil service, on social duties (such as respect for one's elders) and on seeking harmony not division in society chime in easily enough with Christian principles.

But its high (even humanist) view of man fits better with that of Marx (and many of the German philosophers of his day). Small wonder, perhaps, that Marx's ideas gained such currency in a country so ill-prepared for them.

Alex Monro