Outstanding among all of China’s philosophers was a great thinker and educator, Kong Qiu (551-479 BCE), better known to the West as Confucius. This Latinised name is derived from Kong Fuzi, meaning Great Master Kong. In Chinese ‘zi’ (or tzu) is an honorific that means ‘master’.
Confucius linked good government with morality, and used the perceived ideals of the past as standards of conduct for the present. He therefore codified Chinese tradition, and said he was only a transmitter of the wisdom of the Zhou dynasty sages: ‘I transmit but do not innovate; I am truthful in what I say and devoted to [Zhou] antiquity’ (Analects, 7.1).
However, his ‘school of scholars’ (rujia) – which we have come to know as ‘Confucianism’ or the Confucian school – became a source of wisdom in its own right. After it was officially adopted under the reign of Emperor Han Wudi (141-86 BCE) the Confucian school remained influential in imperial China, responding to changing circumstances and the introduction of Buddhist ideas. Confucius himself is still revered as the foremost figure in Chinese philosophy and an exemplar in his own right. His emphasis on harmony was revived by the Chinese Communist Party in an effort to ‘humanise’ a society stressed by rapid economic development. This led a policy of pursuing a ‘harmonious society’ domestically and also a desire to contribute to global peace.
Essentially, Confucianism seeks harmony in the socio-political sphere. It emphasises the proper cultivation of relationships at all levels – within the family, among friends and between sovereign and subject – in order for society to function in a manner beneficial to its members. If this happens it is not necessary for a leader to rule with an iron fist, but through example.
As a way of life and a body of thought Confucianism has evolved for two and a half millennia. The vitality of this school of thought, with its emphasis on such key virtues as benevolence, tolerance and reciprocity, has persisted through time and has spread regionally so that Confucianism is not only associated with Chinese culture but also Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.
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