Confucian Tradition

Author: Christopher Dawson



In spite of a remarkable growth of interest in China and its civilization among Western peoples during recent years, there has yet been a no less remarkable failure to understand Chinese society, and the history of Chinese culture still remains a sealed book to the West. It is not realized how far the social life of China has been molded by Confucian moral teaching and the influence of Confucian learning. They have so permeated society that they have become a second nature to the Chinese people, a psychic discipline, no longer felt as something external but which molds every thought and feeling from within.

It is true that Confucianism differs from other religions. In fact it is not a religion in the Western sense of the word. It is unintelligible to us by reason of its very rationality, of its absence of supernatural claims and ofany theological teaching. And yet it is stronger in its hold upon society, and upon the daily life of the people than any religion that we know.

In China religion was completely identified with social ends; the religious law is the law of social conduct, and the very word for religion is the same as that for education, and, indeed, culture in general. Thus the only learning was Confucian learning, and the whole literary tradition of Chinese civilization--it is the most ancient and continuous in the world--has been in the hands of the Confucian learned class: outside this there is nothing save the scriptures of Buddhist monks and the musings of Taoist magicians and philosophers.

The result of this is that from the beginning the writing of Chinese history has been inspired by Confucian ideas,and is to a great extent the projection into the past of the themes and ideals that are characteristic of the fully developed Confucian culture.

This is the real explanation of that continuity of culture which has always impressed the Western observer. The civilization of the Mediterranean is as old or even older than that of China; but it has descended collaterally while that of China has preserved uninterrupted the direct line of inheritance. This difference in the civilization of the East and the West is not due to the comparative immunity of China from foreign invasion. On the contrary China has been flooded again and again by barbarian hordes. But though she was vanquished externally she preserved the inner continuity of her culture, thanks to the Confucian scholars who kept alive the tradition of her past civilization. China was saved not by her generals, but by her schoolmasters and men of letters who conquered her conquerors in the same way that the Christian Church subjugated the barbarian peoples who had invaded the Roman Empire.

Thus the civilization of China owes its unique character to the existence of a learned class which acted throughout history as the guardian of the national tradition. In spite of its connection with Confucianism this class does not owe its origin to Confucius. He was himself a member of this class and he prided himself not on his originality but on his fidelity to the traditions of his order. Confucius himself was a teacher in the school of ritual lawyers and canonists of the little state of Lu (between the 5th and the 4th centuries B.C. each of the states of feudal China had its own school), and it is through the tradition of this school almost exclusively that our knowledge not only of the teaching of Confucius but of all the ancient history of China is derived.


These conditions must be borne in mind when we attempt to estimate the work of Confucius. We know him as the founder of a world religion, one whom the Chinese regard as the teacher of mankind, "the Perfect Saint," and the "Equal of God," and are apt to be disillusioned to find in his sayings, instead of profound religious or philosophical doctrines, a number of minute rules of deportment and etiquette, and a collection of moral platitudes such as "the superior man follows the line of duty." "The wise man is slow to speak and quick to act."

In reality the teaching of Confucius was not mere abstract moralizing. Its importance consists not so much in the ethical ideals themselves as in their application to an already existing religious tradition. It is no more possible to understand the ethical teaching of Confucius without the Rites than it would be to separate the Law and the Prophets in the religion of Israel. The common Englishtranslation of the great Confucian virtue Li--"Propriety"--is entirely misleading. It signifies not a conventional correctness of behavior, but an interior conformity of the individual mind to the universal order which governs not only the life of society but the whole course of nature. The Rites are the external manifestation of this eternal order in the lives of men.

The true greatness and originality of Confucius consists in his giving these ritual practices an ethical content. Instead of regarding the rites as magically efficacious or of being satisfied with a purely external form of observance he demands a moral adhesion of the whole man. Confucius deliberately conformed the inner spirit to the outer form. Hence it is said "Carry out perfectly ceremonies and music and give them their outward manifestation and application, and under Heaven nothing difficult to manage will appear."


This combination of exact ceremonial observance and moral idealism is of the essence of Confucianism and lies at the root of the classical civilization of China. It would, however, be a great mistake to regard it as universally accepted by Chinese thinkers. From the very beginning there existed another current of thought which criticized the Confucian ideals as strongly as any representative of modern Western civilization has done. This was the Taoist tradition, which goes back to the half-mythical figure of Lao Tzu-- the old Philosopher--who is said to have been an elder contemporary of Confucius himself. The Taoists placed their ideal of conduct not in the observance of rites and ceremonies and in a painstaking obedience to moral precepts, but in a mystical quietism by which man conformed himself to the divine order of nature. Hence their criticism of the artificial character of Confucian ethics, their hostility to the niceties of ceremonial etiquette, and their ridicule of the Confucian cult of the precedents of antiquity. They compared the efforts of the disciples of Confucius to restore the ancient usages to an attempt to dress up a monkey in the robes of one of the princes of antiquity. Above all, they condemn the futile optimism of the pedants who attempt to restore the golden age by merely external means.

There is no doubt, too, that the mystical profundity of writers like Chuang Tzu, one of the greatest of the early Taoists, their love of nature and, above all, their sense of humor, make a far greater appeal to the ordinary European reader than the formal and prosaic style of Mencius and the Confucian scholars. Nevertheless, in spite of the hostility between the two schools of thought, which become accentuated after the 4th century B.C., they have more in common than we should at first suspect.

They both believed in the existence of a universal orderto which man must conform himself in order to fulfil his true destiny, and both regarded this order as manifested in the course of nature, above all in the stars, and in music, and both agreed in their use of divination by means of the Tortoise shell and the sacred diagrams of the Book of Changes, through which they believed that the Way of Heaven was made known to men. They differed only in the application of this fundamental idea, for while the Confucians strove to conform themselves to cosmic order by an active moral discipline and by the observance of ceremonial rites, the Taoists sought the same end by mystical contemplation and the practice of magic and alchemy.

The Rites of the Confucians were public and social, their morals were a social ethic, their ideal was the perfect citizen, "the superior man," or "gentleman," of Confucius. On the other hand, the rites of the Taoists were secret and magical, their moral teaching was individualistic and mystical, and found their fulfillment in the ideal of the "true man" or superman of the Taoist legends who possessed a magical power over nature and transcended material conditions and even morality itself. Thus the two traditions ultimately took shape in the developed philosophies of classical Confucianism and Taoism, each of which represents one side of the ancient tradition of Chinese culture and one aspect of the Chinese soul.

As one might suppose, Taoism appealed to the more imaginative side of Chinese character, and its legends and ideals have always been the favorite theme of poetry and art. But Taoism exerted an influence also over men of action. Above all, this was the case with that great and sinister personality, Shih Huang Ti, the First Emperor, who broke the power of the feudal states and created the unity of modern China, B.C. 221. Finding that his work was imperilled by the obstinate conservatism of the Confucian scholars who continued to advocate the ideals of the feudal system of the Chow period, he attempted to break their power for ever by the destruction of the Confucian records of the past and by the proscription of all who criticized his work from the standpoint of antiquity. He did this not from any hostility to learning, but to safeguard his work of revolutionary innovation.


The collapse of the new dynasty immediately after the death of the First Emperor was naturally regarded by the Confucians as the nemesis of the impiety and pride of the founder, and when, after an orgy of civil war and mutual slaughter, the Han dynasty succeeded in the restoration of order there was a natural tendency to return to the traditional ideals of Confucianism; that everyone should do his duty in that state of life to which it has pleasedHeaven to call him--a principle which has always commended itself to conservative minds; especially since the duty of the subject is comprised in an unlimited and blind obedience.

It was an essential principle of Confucianism that the Government should possess a kind of religious monopoly. The Emperor offered the great seasonal sacrifices to Heaven on behalf of the whole people. He was the one intermediary between God and man. The common people might sacrifice to the tutelary powers of agriculture and of the hearth, and it was, of course, their duty to maintain the family cult of the ancestral spirits. But if a private individual should attempt to enter into direct communication with the powers above he was no less blameworthy than if he had taken upon himself to carry on diplomatic relations with a foreign power.

This explains the attitude of reserve which Confucius himself adopted with regard to the supernatural. "Treat supernatural beings with respect," he says, "but keep aloof from them." But this does not imply, as modern writers have often supposed, that the sage was sceptical or hostile to supernatural religion. But its manifestations fell outside the regular ceremonial and social order; consequently they were to be avoided by the wise citizen. For if spirits appeared it was because they were not properly fed, in other words, the ancestral sacrifice had been neglected and so their appearance testified to the neglect of duty on the part of the living.

In the course of time, however, the attitude of the scholars towards religion underwent a considerable change, and from the time of Sunn-Tzu in the 3rd century B.C. their teaching grew more and more rationalistic and the belief in the personal character of the Heavenly Sovereign, Shang-Ti, whose over-ruling providence governed all things, gave way to the idea of an impersonal natural force which left little room for religious feelings. The official cult became an empty form, though the sacrifices to Heaven continued to be offered according to the old tradition down to 1912, and the Chinese people turned elsewhere to find satisfaction for their religious instinct.


This was the cause of that extraordinary development of Buddhism in China which reached its apogee in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. The whole of China was covered with Buddhist monasteries and temples, and even the sovereigns of the different states became fervent devotees of the new faith. At the same time Taoism developed under Buddhist influence into a semi-theistic religion with a regular hierarchy, elaborate ceremonies and numerous temples and monasteries. That this movement did not transform the civilization of China completely was due tothe scholars who remained faithful to the Confucian tradition and exercised an intermittent influence on the government even when Buddhism was at its strongest. But they were unable to stamp out Buddhism, and throughout the Middle Ages, as we see from Marco Polo's account, China hardly less than Japan had all the outward appearance of a Buddhist country. Nor was its influence confined, as at the present day, to the uneducated masses, but extended to men of the highest culture, such as Li Po the poet, and was largely responsible for the great development of Chinese mediaeval art.

The tide did not begin to turn until the 12th century when Chu Hsi and other scholars of the Sung period first provided Confucianism with a real system of metaphysics. Henceforward Buddhism gradually declined and there was a revival of strict Confucian orthodoxy, which from the time of the Ming Dynasty became the exclusive religion of the governing classes, and in the last few centuries of Chinese history the Confucian literati enjoyed a complete monopoly in government and education.


It was during this period that Chinese civilization was revealed to the West through the works of the Jesuit missionaries, and for the first time Europe began to realize the existence of a far Eastern culture of immemorial antiquity. In fact, in the first half o the 18th century China exercised a remarkable influence not only on the art of Europe but still more on Western Philosophy and political thought. From the age of Leibnitz to that of Voltaire and Quesnay, China was regarded as the model of that enlightened despotism which was the ideal of the French philosophers and economists of the Enlightenment.

But the Manchu Empire, even at its prime, was not the ideal philosophic order that its European admirers imagined. The Confucian supremacy was accompanied by a blind hostility to foreign influences and a lack of toleration for other opinions, which produced a narrow and rigid conservatism. This intolerance was tempered, for a time, by the favor which the Jesuit missionaries enjoyed at the court of Pekin; a favor due, of course, not to their religious teaching, but to their scientific attainments, and which led to their being put in charge of the Imperial Observatory and entrusted with the reform of the calendar and the cartographic survey of the Empire as well as with the planning and construction of the famous Summer Palace which was destroyed by the allied troops in 1860.


The fall of the Jesuits ended this first period of contact between the Eastern and Western civilization. The traders took the place of the missionaries as the representatives ofthe West with the result that the intellectual contact between the two cultures ceased and the Chinese fell back on a policy of anti-foreign exclusiveness. The story of the relationship between China and the European powers in the 19th century is creditable to neither party, yet it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise if we bear in mind how utterly irreconcilable and mutually unintelligible were the attitudes of the two societies thus brought into contact with one another: --on the one hand the unimaginative commercial individualism of 19th-century England and America and on the other the no less unimaginative formalism of a civilization which was already conservative when Rome was young. Had the government been still in the hands of the great emperors of the 18th century, the new contacts might have been less disastrous for China, but, unfortunately, the dynasty was in decline and the government was continually becoming more corrupt and inefficient.

Thus while the government was attempting to resist the claims of European powers it was faced at the same time with a series of revolutionary movements culminating in the great Tai Ping revolt, which after years of frightful slaughter and devastation was only crushed by the help of European officers and European arms. The old regime inevitably suffered a great loss of prestige from its complete failure to withstand the material power of the Western peoples who had been despised as mere barbarians.

But the Chinese were unable to remain entirely unaffected by Western knowledge and ideas, so that the very men who were the leaders in the campaign for national revival were themselves under the influence of Western culture, and when they were ultimately successful in overthrowing the Manchu power, they overthrew not only the dynasty but he whole traditional order, and introduced Western education and Western parliamentary institutions.

The foundations of the old order have been swept away, and the sacred rites round which the life of China has revolved from immemorial antiquity have ceased. Even the Confucian teachings no longer receive the old unquestioning allegiance, and a new class of students and politicians of Western education have taken the place of the sacred caste of Confucian scholars who were the uncrowned rulers of China for more than 2,000 years.

Yet a people of 400 millions cannot be suddenly uprooted from its past and remolded after the pattern of an alien culture. Whatever solution the future may bring to the problem of China, we may feel sure that it will be a Chinese solution. It is the Confucian tradition that has made China what it is, and it has become so deeply rooted in the Chinese nature that we cannot doubt but that the same immemorial tradition will find a new expression in the China of the future, and will thus still have a contribution to make to world civilization. From China (Magazine), 1942.

Taken from the Spring 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor