Ever since the conception of the Chinese civilization, its core beliefs, values, and structures have been attributed to the philosophy of Confucianism. It is considered one of the most influential systems that have a significant impact on the opinions of the country’s leaders and, subsequently, the economic and social life of the nation. It is important to consider the role of this philosophical framework because it will point to the peculiarities of Chinese society and show the attitudes of people toward each other, the government, and the world in general.
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Confucianism as a Philosophy
The history of Confucianism began in 500 BC at the time when Confucius was alive. Ever since his childhood, he dreamed of becoming a political official. However, this goal was not accomplished because the work did not bring him much fulfillment. Also, Confucius failed to implement the political reforms he developed. Nevertheless, his reputation helped him to stay relevant as he was respected as a social thinker and teacher, whose intellect and participation in political dialogue were considered fundamental. In 497 BC, Confucius left his home to travel across the country to teach people his ideas concerning politics, education, and social affairs. During these teachings, the framework for Confucianism as a philosophy emerged, combining several important features that guided Chinese society.
At the core of Confucianism lied the important feature of humanism. It encouraged people to look at the world by using the logic of humanity. According to the philosopher, the idea of humaneness (Ren) would ultimately lead to virtues and moral disposition (Yi) and create a framework for normative conduct (Li) (Yu, 1998). Thus, the central idea behind Confucianism lies in the cultivation of virtues and the abandonment of bad habits that show people’s lack of respect toward the world and other human beings. Treating others the way one would like to be treated is a simple but true representation of what Confucius was teaching Chinese people.
Self-cultivation of virtues and social ethics are also part of the philosophy. The former refers to the training of people in a psychological way to use their virtues to the fullest extent. The most important virtues, according to Confucius, include humaneness, righteousness, propriety, knowledge (or wisdom), and honesty. In addition to these virtues, the philosopher also called for the exercising of loyalty, kindness, the differentiation between right and wrong, modesty, forgiveness, and other positive qualities that virtuous individuals have. In addition to the mentioned qualities, Confucianism also focused on social ethics. The philosopher was a strong advocate for the establishment of high standards of ethics in social life.
The emphasis was placed on the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, etiquette, the preservation of family values and loyalty in friendship relationships, respect for the elderly, and many others. As mentioned by Shan (2012), Confucius had the concept of a perfect individual who represents a combination of a gentleman, scholar, and saint. In the tradition, the role of heaven and saints is not as relevant as in the Christian faith, for example. Most Chinese scholars that adherent to the philosophy of Confucianism “would take it for granted that Saints with a ready mind just interpreted that heaven had enlightened them rather than contributing by their own originality” (p. 53). This means that in the majority of ways, Confucianism cannot be considered as a religion the way in which Christianity or Islam is.
The concept of meritocracy also emerged from Confucius’ teachings. The idea behind the political philosophy is based on the fact economic goods or power should be vested in people on the basis of their efforts, talent, and achievement instead of such factors as gender, race, age, wealth, or sexuality (“Meritocracy,” n.d.). This means that within the Confucian view, performance matters the most. Adopted by the Han rules, the political system represented the basis of the Chinese system of bureaucracy. For the philosopher, a kind should be a person which an embedded set of positive personal virtues, be full of goodness, and humaneness in his attitudes toward other people.
It must also be mentioned that Confucianism advocated for the acquisition of knowledge through education linked to both political and social spheres of life. The ideal person is seen as the one who is well-educated and exhibits scholarly traits. Because of this, Confucius dedicated his efforts to spreading knowledge among people and enhancing their sense of self-inculcation as important components of social harmony. In the political life of China, the philosophy demands the rules of the country and their officials to have education and knowledge credentials for justifying what they do.
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Influence on Chinese Civilization
The influence of Confucianism on shaping Chinese civilization was significant. Starting from the Han Dynasty, philosophy was used as a key component of the rulers’ political dominion. The doctrine adopted during their rule adopted the Confucian approach to validate social actions. The Dynasty worked on developing a strong system of ruling the country that was led by statesmen that completed their education in the Confucian school and were liked by the society for their sense of patriotism, dedication, and the desire to fulfill their duty. The established feudal structure in the country led to the centralized rule that unified China and improved the administrative system. The cadre of government officials became the main tool for facilitating positive changes that shaped Chine into the country that it is today.
Meritocracy, which was advocated for by Confucius, became the basis of the old-time Mandarin system, went beyond the geographic boundaries, and has become the basis for not only for Chinese but also for other global bureaucratic selection systems. The examples of the greatest military and political leaders who contributed to the shaping of the Chinese civilization draw attention to the incorporation of Confucian principles at both individual and state levels. All foreign religious that are practiced in China have some derivatives from the philosophical system, pointing to its universality when applied to different spheres of human life. For instance, the connections between Buddhism and Confucianism have had a profound impact on Zen and Han Buddhist traditions (Hoffman, 2012). Thus, the principles that Confucius developed for guiding human life continue being at the heart of every Chinese institution or social group regardless of their religious affiliations.
Confucianism shaped Chinese civilization by encouraging persistent intellectual development and the discovery of the most important contributors to human well-being. The ethnic people of the Han civilization considered it as their main life philosophy and thus invested in their personal development, education, and the creation of strong social connections with other people (Li & Moreira, 2007). As China transforming into a communist-dominant country, the top leaders underlined the importance of social harmony, effective governance, and the rationality of decisions. To a great extent, Confucius was the teacher of generations whose influence lasted over two thousand years. While his philosophy also helped in shaping local religious and scholarly directions, the main impact is associated with creating a framework of the Chinese society that values education and positive connections between people.
Confucianism is considered the foundation of Chinese civilization as it provided a system of both ethical and social philosophy that people could use on an everyday basis. The framework was appealing to people because instead of imposing fear through religious belief, Confucianism offered a structure of social values, institutions, and transcendent ideals of the traditional society. In many ways, it was referred to as ‘civil religion’ in which the sense of religious identity was equal to the moral understanding of people should treat each other. Therefore, instead of having a church or priests as symbols of Confucianism, the Chinese society had parents, teachers, and governmental officials who exercised the main principles of the philosophy.
It is important to mention that modern China has abandoned some of the principles of Confucianism since the revolution in public ideology. Nevertheless, the philosophy is seen as the source of hope for the prosperity of the country as well as the core of what it means to be a citizen of China. It is expected that as time goes on, great Confucians, both political and religious leaders, will revive the tradition to renew the range of spiritual, moral, and intellectual components of the philosophy that shaped Chinese civilization.
Hoffman, T. (2012). Buddhism in China: How Confucianism unexpectedly paved the way. Web.
Li, T., & Moreira, G. (2007). The influence of Confucianism and Buddhism on Chinese business: The case of Aveiro, Portugal. Web.
Meritocracy. (n.d.). Web.
Shan, C. (2012). Major aspects of Chinese religion and philosophy: Dao of inner saint and outer king. Beijing, China: Springer.
Yu, J. (1998). Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle. Philosophy East and West, 48(2), 323-347.