Confucian Sayings- Quote of the Week

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The Nature-Civilisation Relationship 自然与人文关系

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In the West, science and religion are often understood as conceptual systems that developed from Greek science through the Middle Ages to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Russell, 1945; Jardine, 2009). Throughout this period, natural phenomena were described in statements and propositions, creating a system of logic where proof and scientific knowledge was established through the proper, immediate, or true cause for a fact or effect. In Aristotelian terms (yà lǐ shì duō dé zhéxué, 亚里士多德哲学), true knowledge came from principles, definitions, or hypotheses that could explain phenomena, prove conclusions and predict events.

By the second century, as Christianity was spreading over the Roman Empire, religious organisations were trying to find ways to explain the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Even though the search to prove that a God created the physical universe, living beings and Adam within six days continues to be a “scene of historical, literary, theological and scientific battles” (Hummel, 1986, 175b), early theologians chose to borrow from pagan or Aristotelian natural philosophies. As a result, once Christianity became dominant in Western culture, Aristotelian logic and cosmology had been integrated to create a Christianized Aristotelian worldview (jīdū jiàoyì huà xià yà lǐsī duō dé shìjièguān, 基督教义化下亚里斯多德世界观 (Hsu, 2005).


Image: The Christian Aristotelian Cosmos: An Earth-Centred Universe. Retrieved March 24, 2017 from here. The diagram shows how the Earth sits motionless at the centre of the universe, while the outer sphere, the Primum Mobile, is assumed to revolve over a 24-hour period.

For Freya Matthews (2016) however, Western ideas about science and religion that are thought to be the hallmark of civilisation, modernity and progress are actually more problematic that they seem (see also Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature). Unlike hunter gatherer societies that followed context-dependent and relational modes of existence, the principles of logic in Western thought separated life-worlds from nature. The replacement of nature with fixed, built and human-designed environments reinforced a view deeply rooted in some Judeo-Christian teachings*. That is, that humans possess far greater worth and rights than other creatures, and are entitled to consume and exploit nature at the expense of other species (Lundmark, 1998; Kremmerer, 1999; Lo, 2016).

This mind set, which continues to justify the subjugation of nature by civilisation usually for immediate or short-term gain, has become a serious issue for many Chinese writers that have commented on consumerism, overpopulation and environmental degradation in China (see for example Wong, 2006 and Zhang et al., 2010). In his recent paper on science and Confucianism, Professor Hsu Kuang-Tai from the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan states that the potential to look for alternative mind sets that are available in Chinese thought could lead to research agendas that examine how Taoism and Confucianism could be used to replace unsustainable cultures that are contributing to global climate instability.

Confucius & Environ

Image: Confucianism & Environment. Retrieved March 24, 2017 from here. For some scholars such as Li (2003), it would be mistaken to regard Confucian tradition as purely humanistic. Through various interpretations, it could be argued that Confucianism promotes environmental ethics through its inclusiveness of Heaven, Earth and Humanity in the traditional Chinese trinity. Maintaining good relations between the natural world and society is therefore crucial to promoting ultimate harmony.

With a history of inventing paper, gunpowder, the compass, and technologies like iron and steel smelting, some proponents note that Chinese science could offer a solution to global problems. Hsu highlights that this might mean looking to the natural philosophy of qi (氮), where everything, including heaven, earth and all beings are composed of a fundamental substance that constantly moves and constitutes everything that we see. Part of this universal dynamic is ren qi (人氮) or qi issued from human beings. However, whereas “bad qi” (li qi, 诊氝) produced by humans, was thought to bring disasters into the world, there also exist positive relations between politics, ethics and nature.

“Good politics must follow the natural order of the seasons and provide benefits for the people. This is the positive Confucian belief in the intimate relation between politics, ethics, and nature” (Hsu, 2016, 92).

In that case, disputing Levenson’s (1965) claim that modern science cannot develop from a traditional Confucian society, further research needs to determine the extent to which Confucianism could be one of the many frameworks that has the potential to restore the relationship between ecology and society.


*While some Christian institutions contest this claim (see the Vatican’s 2015 Encyclical letter here), the idea that humans are made “in the image of God” and are blessed to “rule over” other species is found in Genesis 1:27-28, according to the New American Standard Bible.

The Mirror and the Mandate 明镜与命运

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For early Chinese rulers, observing and communicating space and the passage of time were considered divine obligations (Guo, 2017), which helps to explain why predicting celestial events was essential for a dynasty’s success. The duty of the ruler was not only to understand these celestial patterns, but to act righteously and know the exact timing for scheduling religious ceremonies (Pankenier, 1998). The ruler’s ability to maintain harmony between Heavenly and Earthly realms showed that he had the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ 天命 (Tianming), which equated with regime legitimacy.

Temple of Heaven

Image: The Temple of Heaven. Retrieved March 18, 2017 from here. According to Wu (2016), the design of the temple reflects the cosmological laws believed to be central to the workings of the universe, where the three-tiered circular roofs and outer staircase represents the interconnection between the sky and earth.

For a short period during the Han dynasty 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), Liu He 劉賀 (93-59 BCE) became emperor until he was dethroned by the Chief General, Huo Guang 霍光, for displaying “licentious and arrogant behaviour” (Katz, 2017). While not much is known about Liu He except for his “inclination to pleasures”, “loose morals” and disregard for the Mandate, for contemporary archaeologists, Liu He has become an increasingly important figure in Chinese history. Recent findings show that Liu’s mausoleum was filled with royal seals, ancient bamboo, jade ornaments, as well as the earliest known image of the great sage philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE).

Confucian Mirror

Image: The Bronze Mirror. Retrieved 18 March, 2017 from China Daily.

Standing almost one meter tall, the image appears on a bronze mirror that is encased in a hand-painted wooden cover showing Confucius dressed as a commoner with two students by his side. Though broken into pieces, alongside the mirror are 2,000 Chinese ink characters that tell stories of Confucius and his pupils that are not found in other documents dating back to the Western Han period.

For some observers, the inclusion of these philosophical teachings could support the claims that Liu was a more complex character than his historical record shows. As Shou Che and Songzhi Pei noted in their book ‘Empresses and Consorts’ (1999), the emperor’s recitation of Confucian teachings could mean that Liu did not fall out of favour for his shameful behaviour, but for being a ‘free spirit’ who threatened the Chief General’s control of the imperial government. Liang Cai (2014) also states that the more likely explanation for Liu’s dethronement “was that the emperor trusted no one but former subordinates and so filled the upper ranks of the bureaucracy with officials from the kingdom he had previously ruled.”

In that case, as well as providing more information about Confucius beyond the Analects 论语, the current authoritative source for Confucian teachings, the writing on the mirror may provide insights into the life of one of China’s shortest ruling emperors. The events surrounding the disposal of Liu He are also significant for understanding the role of the Mandate in the workings of the central government, and the different ways that Chinese rulers maintained power.

To read the original article on the archaeological findings of the earliest known image of Confucius, click here.


Confucian Sayings- Quote of the Week

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Confucian religion in Indonesia- 印尼孔教

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At the beginning of March, a historic meeting between Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo took place where the monarch’s visit was viewed as an opportunity to present Indonesia as a forward-looking and religiously tolerant nation.

President Jokowi invited leaders of the country’s major religious organizations to meet King Salman. In the 30-minute gathering, Jokowi stated that “in this meeting are representatives of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism…This is very important for inter-religion relationships in Indonesia and is a very valuable asset for the Indonesian nation and state in contributing to peace.”

These visits are part of Indonesia’s public diplomacy efforts to promote the country as democratic, multicultural and multi-religious, despite problems of freedom of religion and belief following reports of discriminatory state legislation, physical violence, and stigmatisation of minorities.

For many ethnic Chinese, in addition to terrorism and the status of minorities, another issue that has received less attention internationally has been the recognition of “Confucian religion” (Kongjiao, 孔教) as an official religion in Indonesia.

Ambiguous Status

According to Yang (2005), Chinese traders were active in the lands that now constitute Indonesia as early as the third century BC. As with most migration movements, the introduction of foreign cultures, beliefs, and values was adopted differently throughout the archipelago. In this regard, rather than becoming a well-organised community religion or social movement, anti-Chinese attitudes in some regions meant that Confucianism remained a loose individual belief and practice until the mid-1900s.

Boen_bio,_SurabayaPhoto: Wikimedia Commons. Confucian Temple in Surabaya, Indonesia.

While formally recognised as one of Indonesia’s six official religions by the 1960s, inconsistency in applying religious law has resulted in many Confucians self-identifying as Buddhists. For example, the de-recognition of Confucianism in 1979 meant that Confucians became part of the ‘others’ category on official reports or had to register as Buddhists or Christians. In the 2000s, the national census also did not permit respondents to choose Confucianism as their religion, making the status of Confucianism in Indonesia unclear.

Changing Times

By 2006, Confucianism was again officially recognised as a religion by the Ministry of Religion, when it was announced that discrimination on matters of citizenship, nationality, religious rituals and marriage would cease. Even though many under-50 Indonesian Chinese were unable to speak Chinese, Confucianism retained a strong presence in communities by being passed down through clan structures and family ethics.

Increasing bilateral ties with China also improved the status of Confucianism. Politically, Chinese Indonesians have gained greater representation and participation in Indonesian institutions as Chinese Indonesians are seen as playing a potential cultural and commercial ‘bridging’ role in the relationship (Setijadi, 2016). The introduction of the Confucius Institute in Indonesia was understood as a landmark in the Sino-Indonesian educational cooperation, promoting the exchange in education and culture between the two countries.

As well as reinforcing China’s cultural influence and Indonesia’s role as an open and inclusive state, Confucianism in Indonesia demonstrates the challenges of spreading and adapting Confucian thought to different legal, social, and cultural contexts.

In that case, while King Salman’s visit was focused on Islamic terrorism, the inclusion of Confucianism in meetings and events highlights that times are slowly changing as Confucian thought becomes more accepted internationally.

king-Salman-intrfaith-meet-Indonesia-1Photo: Caravan Daily, 2013. Interfaith Meeting in Jakarta.

Confucianism and Mental Health

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As a distinct and important philosophical thought in Chinese culture, Confucianism remains at the core of China’s traditions and beliefs. From a mental health perspective, traditional thought provides a unique understanding on the nature of human beings, allowing psychotherapists and mental health practitioners to utilize cultural traditions in developing a person’s sense of Self, and healing emotional problems.

Previous studies in Confucian culture have mainly focused on Confucianism in organisational harmony and job performance. For instance, Prof. Patrick Low and Sik-Liong Ang (2013) highlighted how a Confucian emphasis on loyalty, responsibility, and individual moral cultivation could lead to harmonious relationships and successful business management. Hu, Liao, and Xu (2012) also investigated 426 company employees and found that Confucian thinking positively correlated with organizational harmony and employee performance. However, far less attention has been paid to Confucianism and cultural psychology, and in particular mental health.

As a result, a recent study in cross-cultural psychology provides an interesting perspective on the way that Confucianism can be used to improve the practice of psychotherapy. Following previous work by Yan (2008), who stated that Confucian concepts such as Ren-ai (仁爱) or ‘kindheartedness’ is an essential component in developing therapist-patient relationships based on cooperation and care, Yang et al. (2016) argue that Zhong-Yong thinking (中庸) can encourage people to regulate mental distress and maintain subjective well-being.

In the Doctrine of the Mean, which is the title of one of the four books of Confucian philosophy, as well as being a doctrine, it is stated that life should be about experiencing emotion without extremity, “when (emotions) are expressed, manifested in the middle with regulation, they are harmonious”. In that case, regulating emotions and processing information holistically represents the Confucian ideal of perfecting relationships and activities in human life.

Yang et al.’s (2016) study claims that therapists who think holistically and consider the interconnectedness of the mind, body, and spirit could help patients restructure their cognition and behaviour, without ignoring their physical well-being and emotional distress. Accepting the coexistence of positive and negative emotions could also help find flexible behavioural responses to distressing situations, giving patients more self-control to cope with real-life challenges.

While the study was only conducted on a Chinese undergraduate students’ sample and did not investigate the potential negative impact of Zhong-Yong thinking, the findings show that cultural heritage has the potential to play an important role in psychotherapy and mental health, encouraging people to maintain harmony and connection in their day to day lives.


Confucian Sayings- Quote of the Week

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