Confucius (Latin for Kongzi/Kongqiu), the founder of Confucianism, was born around 551 BC during the tumultuous years of the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC). He was born to a noble family in Qufu, the capital of the war-torn and poverty-stricken state of Lu (present-day Shandong). He served as a shi (retainer) in various departments in the state of Lu until its fall in 249 BC when it was invaded by the state of Chu. The influence of the shi faded as the wars continued, so Confucius retired from his government post and immersed himself in scholarly work.
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His wisdom was so sought after that he gained many followers as years passed. Five classic Chinese texts were later credited as his work. These include the:
- Book of Odes (a collection of poetry)
- Book of Documents (another collection of poetry)
- Spring and Autumn Annals (chronicles of the state of Lu)
- Book of Changes (collection of divination texts and treatises)
- Analects (condensed philosophy of Confucius)
In his teachings, Confucius emphasized man’s relationship in society and how he should behave harmoniously within it. He prized nobility in character and emphasized the importance of rituals (such as ancestor worship) in uniting people within a society. For Confucius, respect for others was very important. However, this respect depended on the person’s rank in the family and in the society. Confucianism stressed the importance of filial piety, which was the deepest form of respect especially reserved for emperors, fathers, and older brothers. Filial piety, however, meant that high-ranking persons should act in ways that made them worthy of respect. This ideology only went through an explosive growth after Confucius’ death. It was later adopted as a state cult with the emperor at its head.
Lao-tzu (Laozi) was the name of a semi-legendary figure who founded Taoism in the sixth century. His name means ‘old man’ or ‘old master’. Little was known about his early life except that he worked in a Chinese archive before he (just like Confucius) decided that it was time to retire. According to tradition, he traveled west by riding a water buffalo but failed to pay the toll when he reached the city gates. He decided to pay the gatekeeper by dictating the classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching (The Classic of the Way and its Power). The gatekeeper accepted his wisdom as payment and allowed him as well as his water buffalo to pass. According to legend, Lao-tzu later became immortal.
Apart from Confucianism, Taoism was one of China’s homegrown religions/philosophies. For the Taoists, the heart of everything is the Tao, an indescribable ‘thing’ from which everything came from (the Mother of All Things). Taoism emphasized passivity, and that a person should live in harmony with the Tao. His masterpiece, the book Tao Te Ching, dealt with death, emptiness, knowledge, and the government.
Siddharta Gautama, the man who would later be known as the Buddha, was born in the city of Lumbini in present-day Nepal in 623 BC. He was born premature, and astrologers prophesied that the boy would either conquer the world in the future or completely reject it. His father wanted Siddharta to conquer the world, so he kept the child inside their palace to protect him from evil. Siddharta grew up in opulence and safety, but in all these, he found no satisfaction, so he left the security of his palace at the age of 29.
Outside his gilded cage, Siddharta saw that people suffered from so many things. He resolved to find a solution to these issues. He renounced all kinds of pleasure by starving himself while meditating for five years. He did not want to stop that and decided to try a middle ground, which he found while sitting and meditating under a bodhi tree. He achieved enlightenment when he discovered the principles of karma or rebirth and man’s release from suffering. Enlightened, he became known as the Buddha. He proceeded to wander in his country where he gained many followers. Buddha did not consider himself a god and neither did he endorse one. For him, the ultimate goal was to be enlightened and to be free from suffering that is caused by unfulfilled desires or by ignorance.
Religion in China
During the dominance of the semi-legendary Xia Dynasty (around 2100-1700 BC), the ancient Chinese practiced divination and veneration of deceased ancestors. They believed in an afterlife, so they buried grave goods that ranged from basic to luxurious with their dead ancestors. The Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) continued the ancestor worship practiced by their predecessors and carried out pyroscapulimancy (the burning of ox shoulder bones for divination).
The concept of ‘heaven’ first appeared in China when the Zhou (1046-256 BC) overthrew the Shang. They used the ‘Mandate of Heaven” to justify the removal of the Shang. The chaotic Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 476 BC) saw the rise of China’s native religions: Confucianism and Taoism. But between the two religions, Confucianism had a larger impact on Chinese society and government. Its teachings were adopted by the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) in their administration. Knowledge of Confucian classics were also used to tests the candidates in civil service exams.
Buddhism arrived in China during the first century AD, but it took another 500 years before it was fully embraced by the Chinese. The Tang (618-906 AD) imperial court and many of the common people adopted Buddhism as their religion. However, its dominance in China would be extinguished in 845 during the time of the Great Persecution under Emperor Wuzong of Tang. Other religions, such as Christianity and Zoroastrianism did not escape the persecution. Buddhism itself would never be dominant in China in the years that followed. Confucianism, however, experienced a revival in 1000 AD.
Picture By Unknown – https://archive.org/details/hutchinsonsstory00londuoft, Public Domain, Link
Ellwood, Robert S., and Gregory D. Alles. The Encyclopedia of World Religions. New York: Facts on File, 2007.
Eno, R. “The Analects of Confucius.” 2015. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Analects_of_Confucius_(Eno-2015).pdf.
Lao Tzu. “Tao Te Ching.” Poetry in Translation. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Chinese/TaoTeChing.htm.
Littlejohn, Ronnie. “Daoist Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.iep.utm.edu/daoism/.
Richie, Jeff. “Confucius (551—479 B.C.E.).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.iep.utm.edu/confuciu/.
Velez, Abraham. “Buddha.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.iep.utm.edu/buddha/.
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