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Confucian Ethics and Authority in Chinese History

The Chinese history can be traced back to several thousand years. It is known to have been entwined among various dynasties that contributed differently to the development of the Chinese political, social and cultural standards. It is during this period of ruling by the different dynasties, that there emerged a philosopher by the name Kongzi but popularly known as Confucius in Latin. Confucius was more concerned with the fields of ethics, politics and morality both in the government and the society. He, therefore, brought about what was known as the Confucianism theory or Confucian ethics. Confucianism was more concerned with humanity and their peaceful existence. In the sense that people would agree willingly to follow the rules of the society. However there was an opposing side of legalism. As the word is, it is from the word legal. That means that there has to be the existence of the law. Legalism had a number of philosophers in its bringing up: Shang Yang was the founder; Han Fei was its theoretician and Li Si was its proponent and practitioner. Legalism therefore was concerned with imposing harsh rules that the society had to follow to the letter or face harsh consequences. During this transition stage of the Chinese, various dynasties were involved and had various contributions It is hereby very clear that Confucianism and legalism were totally different, but they still contributed to the shaping of the Chinese history. The Chinese history did therefore undergo various phases that these various dynasties, had various contributions too. According to our study, these stages can be divided into three, Neo Confucianism, New Confucianism and Legalism.

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During the Neo Confucian period, there was the existence of the Zhou dynasty that had a profound effect on the social moral standard. It is believed that the Chinese civilization expanded during the existence of the Zhou dynasty. This happened in a way that, the Zhou dynasty was very large for the present leaders to govern it properly. The dynasty was therefore split to various kingdoms. However due to this division, there was war that resulted to formation of another dynasty which was stronger than the previous one. This called for a transition in china and it’s when a philosopher by the name Confucius emerged. He believed that the previous governance of the dynasty was in accordance with his teaching of humanness. He therefore started forming a class of rulers who would rule with humanity in them. By then the Chinese had moved to the iron period when they would later advance in agriculture thus making their economy very strong. But despite Confucius effort, legalism later took over. Legalists believed that in order to avoid a similar event of anarchy running in china, they had to impose their way of governance with rules and consequence. The hierarchical governance of the Zhou dynasty depicted their religious practices. However, the norm was altered with the rise of Confucius whose mandate would be to establish a people lying high in the society social strata so that they would assume the top positions in the hierarchy and govern the people by example.

The writings of Confucius were known as analects. They were also a contribution of his disciples that he had left behind after his death. One of his disciples was Mencius. He was known as the second greatest Confucius. Mencius who was present during the reign of the Zhou dynasty had an empowering effect on the ruling of the dynasty, the development in the expansion of the Confucian’s ethics and the moral argument of human goodness. This is evident in the case that for one to be a ruler, one had to have the approval of the gods. This was known as the “mandate of heaven” The mandate of heaven was first used in the Zhou dynasty. Mencius himself was the one who had invoked the mandate of heaven. The mandate of heaven stated that for one to rule one had to be selected by the gods and so one to appease them first. It was based o four leading ideas and that one had to meet them all. How this mandate was implied in the Zhou dynasty was the time it took over the ruling from the Shang dynasty. However, it was to pull down the dynasty. As it encouraged human goodness, people came from various countries and intermarried. As the people intermarried they gained new cultures. They then absorbed them and mixed them with theirs. The population increased thus making the dynasty difficult. It was therefore decided to divide it so as to remain with one centralized government. Menecius sought to inspire the hierarchal form of social order. This is evident when the dynasty splits to enhance better and simpler ruling.

After the Zhou dynasty came to the Shang dynasty which had overruled it. Knowing that the Shang dynasty founded legalism they used it to establish the Qin dynasties. They did not encourage human goodness but instead believed that the law was supreme and no one was above it even the rulers. According to Shangs writing ‘weakening the people’. It stated that for a state to be strong the people had to be weak this is how the Qin dynasty was implemented. Legalism was embraced as a social and political philosophy by the first emperor. Legalism is a term referring to the strict adherence to formal rules and laws. Its foundation is the view of human nature as selfish and antisocial moreover, it dictates that people exist to serve the state and not the other way round as humans behave according to their selfish desires, thus helping to avoid what is not beneficial. It’s further stated that a leader should guide his subjects following a system that grants rewards where it’s obtained and punishment in case of wrongdoing. Lord Shang, better known as the founder of legalism enforced law courts to specify the punishments and rewards thus the subjects knew what behavior would lead to punishments or rather better rewards. Lord Shang was the prime minister of the king until he died in 338BCE, he reformed the dynasty. By making all the subjects with farmlands pay tax, and arranging them into community surveillance units he established centralized bureaucratic management. A new emperor by the start of 221BCE established stern Qin dynasty laws all over China. This helped in shaping the society of China into ways that stand to date. Han Fei Tsu also contributed to the shaping of the king dynasty by reducing the tax rate and lessening the strictness of the former Qin laws while still retaining its initial ways of governance all the dynasties that came later used much of Qin,s governance methods which have become the norm of the Chinese political roots to date. The population rose rapidly and numbers increased following the establishment of this dynasty. The economy also gave a sharp increase following the same. Compared to the Qin rulers the strictness of the laws could not be compromised or underestimated. According to Li Si’s quintessential essay, the ruler of Qin made it illegal the study and philosophical ways of its people. They were not able to read or write as the ruler authorized that all books be burnt in Qin. There was an exception of the official dynasty archives and books written about basic activities like farming and business management. Almost all books were burnt and this was to wipe away the sources that could contain ideas on rival powers against the dynasty. Minister LI Si gave a proposal to the emperor that in the times back then when woes, chaos, rivalries and disorder arose the people used the happenings of the past to judge the present. Therefore due to this, he directed that the records and books of Qin be burnt and that no one should hide any of the ancient books songs or older literature. Those who talked of that literature that was banned in the Qin dynasty were executed in the eyes of all the public. Everyone using the older administration manuals to go against the then-current rulers had all their family members killed and also those police officers that knew but never gave a report of such cases faced the like punishment. This proposal was embraced by the emperor and he directed the burial of more than 400 scholars in line with their ancestral accounts. Forced labor increased as a method of punishment. There were also other different ways of punishment which included the cutting of the front part of the nose, branding being boiled in giant boilers and the chopping of the feet and hands. After about a decade, a rebellion occurred and the Han dynasty was established.

To conclude Confucius taught more about; over for others as a political and moral factor, to obey your elders to do what was considered morally upright rather than what is beneficial to oneself. He further stated that a ruler who had to reserve had already failed as a ruler because his work is not to eliminate the subject rather is to lead the people to more comfortable and contented lives. As stated in several books Confucius’ idea does take into consideration the modern government where he strictly specifies that a government can’t rule by punishment but rather virtue and considered good manners. It is the wind that directs the branches on which side to blow or lie and not vice versa according to him. Through his moral teaching and acts successful dynasties emerged one after the other i.e. Qin dynasty, Han dynasty and many more and all the dynasties were ruled by strong able leaders who ruled using Confucius’s rules. China’s modern government uses some of Confucius’s ideas to rule and govern the state and not only in China but all over the world. Love and respect were his main theme of the way of governance that to date bring China together as one dynasty governed by morals rather than malice disguised as punishments.


Volume one Sources of East Asian Tradition by Wm. Theodore De Bary

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