The Way of Confucianism 139

The Way of Confucianism
The Way of Confucianism
According to Confucian understanding, the world is sustained by, and
structured around, three ultimates (sanji), which are also termed the three
powers of the universe (sancai): tian (heaven), di (earth) and ren (humans).
These three powers work together in an organic cosmos so that ‘Heaven,
Earth and humans are the origin of all things. Heaven generates them,
Earth nourishes them and humans perfect them’ (Chunqiu Fanlu Yizheng,
1992: 168). The Confucian discussion of Heaven lays down a solid
foundation for its metaphysical view of the world, its understanding of
Earth links the present to the past, and its approach to humankind seeks
the full realisation of human potentiality. The three dimensions of the
universe share the same nature, and their relationship is characterised by
harmony rather than opposition or confrontation. The Book of Changes
presents them as three modes of the same Way: the Way of Heaven is
called the yin and yang, the Way of the Earth is called the yielding and the
firm, and the Way of Humans is called humaneness and righteousness
(Chan, 1963a: 268; Zhouyi Dazhuan Jinzhu, 1979: 609). Heaven and
Earth are sometimes combined to refer to the metaphysical and material
world, in which humans live and act, and by which humans organise
their life and guide their behaviour.
The Way (dao) is fundamental to the Confucian view of the world,
concerning the question of the ultimate meaning of human existence
(Roetz, 1993: 101–3). Confucian masters focus on how to apply the principle governing Heaven and Earth to human life and society and on how
to find the Way to maintain or restore the harmony of the world. In this
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process, the original meaning of dao as a road or a path is enriched
to mean the universal Way applicable and existent in every corner of the
universe. The universal Way is understood to originate from Heaven
and Earth and therefore to be the source of the meaning and value of
human life. It is believed to have been manifest in the wisdom of the
ancient sage–kings (xianwang zhi dao, in Lunyu, 1: 12), in the doctrine
of Confucius (fuzi zhi dao, in Lunyu, 4: 15), and in the way of life of
good people (shanren zhi dao, in Lunyu, 12: 20). Understood as such,
the Way is the foundation of a harmonious universe, a peaceful society
and a good life, and without it the transformation of the universe would
break down, human society would fall into chaos, and the state would
weaken and collapse. Although Confucians recognise that whether or
not the Way prevails in the human world is not entirely a matter for
human beings but is more or less predetermined (‘It is the Destiny (ming)
if the Way prevails. It is equally Destiny if the Way falls into disuse’,
Lunyu, 14: 36), they nevertheless believe that within the framework of
human destiny, individuals are endowed with responsibilities to practise
the Way in their own life. Therefore, the Way is not distinct from human
beings and cannot be separated from human life, since it exists in daily
life, in ordinary behaviour and in mundane matters. It is up to humans
to enlarge or belittle it, to manifest or obscure it.
Central to the Confucian Way is the principle of tianren heyi: the
harmonious oneness of Heaven and humanity, ‘a convenient formula for
capturing what is generally perceived as the fundamental characteristic
of Chinese religiousness’ (Hall & Ames, 1987: 241). Although as early
as the Spring and Autumn period rational philosophers and politicians
had realised that ‘The Way of Heaven is distant, while that of man is
near’ (Fung, 1952: 32), the Confucian masters seldom separated them
or discussed them in their opposition. A rationalistic approach to
Heaven as the spiritual Ultimate initiated a humanistic understanding of
the Way of Heaven and the Way of Humans. Through a unity between
metaphysical/naturalistic Heaven and social/moral humanity the Confucian understanding of the organic universe is extended to human
realms, and the perfection of human virtues has acquired a spiritual
nature. Various modern scholars have noted the importance of the unity
for the Confucian tradition and its profound implications for human
spirituality. Tu Wei-ming, for example, elaborates the meaning of the
unity in this way:
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The relationship between Heaven and man is not an antinomic biunity
but an indivisibly single oneness. In this sense, the sage as the most
authentic manifestation of humanity does not coexist with Heaven;
he forms a coincidence with Heaven . . . Despite the possibility of a
conceptual separation between Heaven and man, inwardly, in their
deepest reality, they form an unbreakable organismic continuum.
(Tu, 1976: 84)
Heaven, humans and harmony are three constituent elements of the
Confucian Way. Consequently, the Way of Heaven, the Way of Humans
and the Way of Harmony become the three most essential aspects of the
Confucian doctrine. In one sense, these three dimensions are only the one
Way, not separable from each other. What is meant by the Way of Heaven
is reflected in the Way of Humans and culminates in the Way of Harmony,
and what is pursued as the Way of Humans has its source in the Way
of Heaven and functions in the Way of Harmony. Keeping in mind the
singleness of the three dimensions and the functional overlaps between
them, for theoretical convenience we will divide our discussion of the
Confucian Way into three parts, each dealing with one of these three
The Way of Heaven
Heaven is the source of Confucian spirituality and is identified as its
transcendental power. It is believed that Confucian doctrines are
primarily the result of observing and following the laws of Heaven and
Earth. The commentators of the Book of Changes believed that the
ancient sages looked up to observe the pattern of Heaven, and looked
down to examine the order of Earth, so that they gained the knowledge
about the causes of various aCairs and understood the circle of life and
death (Chan, 1963a: 265).
Important as Heaven is for Confucianism, there seldom seems to be
a consensus concerning what Heaven is. The character for Heaven (tian)
is traditionally defined as the ‘Supreme Ultimate (zhigao wushang)’
(Shuowen Jiezi Zhu, 1981: 1). Modern scholars vary in their renderings
of this Chinese character. Herrlee G. Creel interpreted tian () as ‘one’
() above man ( ); or ( ) as Large or Great Man, hence ‘the rulers
of the past, collectively conceived as living in heaven’. Shima Kunio considered the character in the oracle bones () identifiable with di ()
as Sky-god (Lord on High). Robert Eno hypothesises that tian was the
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destination of the ashes of cremated sacrificial victims, a meaning of
sky ‘linked to the image of death by fire’, and was recreated by early
Confucians as ultimate transcendence (Eno, 1990: 181–9). With so many
diAculties in deciphering the character and so many disagreements in
rendering its meaning, it is impossible to give a clear-cut definition of
what is meant by this character in Chinese philosophical and religious
traditions. Therefore, ‘Heaven’ as we use it throughout the book is only
a convenient but inaccurate translation of the Chinese character tian.
Heaven in Chinese religions as well as in the Confucian tradition
has multidimensional implications and these implications are related to
one another. A Neo-Confucian master, Cheng Yi of the Song Dynasty,
attempted to unify all the dimensions of Heaven:
Spoken of as one, Heaven is the Way. Spoken of in its diCerent aspects,
it is called heaven with respect to its physical body, the Lord (Ti) with
respect to its being master, negative and positive spiritual forces with
respect to its operation, spirit (shen) with respect to its wonderful
functioning, and Ch’ien with respect to its nature and feelings.
(Chan, 1963a: 570)
Among many of its meanings, three are most frequently referred to in
a Confucian context. In its metaphysical and physical connotation,
Heaven, often in conjunction with, and/or in opposition to, the Earth,
refers to the universe, the cosmos, the material world, or simply, Nature.
Applied in the spiritual realm, it signifies an anthropomorphic Lord or a
Supreme Being who presides in Heaven, and rules over or governs directly
the spiritual and material worlds. In a moral context, it is understood to
be the source of ethical principles and the supreme sanction of human
behaviour, and some scholars suggest that its principle can be identified
with Natural Law in modern European philosophy (Eno, 1990: 4). Most
importantly, the Confucian Heaven functions as the Ultimate or Ultimate
Reality, to which human beings are answerable with respect to fulfilling
their destiny. The Way of Heaven predetermines the Way of Humans and
underlies the Way of Harmony. The diverse spiritual, ethical and natural
meanings of Heaven establish the Way of Heaven as the foundation of
Confucian views of the world, the universe, and human society.
heaven and the confucian ultimate
A much-quoted paragraph concerning the character of Confucianism as
a religion comes from Joseph Needham when he put it categorically that
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‘Confucianism was a religion, too, if you define that as something which
involves the sense of the holy, for a quality of the numinous is very present
in Confucian temples (the wen miao); but not if you think of religion
only as the theology of a transcendent creator-deity’ (Needham, 1969: 63).
While in general we agree with Needham regarding the religious nature
of Confucianism and the diCerences in the conception of the transcendental between Confucianism and theistic religions, it does not follow that
there is no theological belief in the transcendental Ultimate or Being within
the Confucian tradition. There is no doubt that Heaven is the focal point
where all Confucian beliefs converge and that Confucians take Heaven
as their ultimate spiritual authority. As the transcendental Being, Heaven
is believed to have the power to determine the course of the natural and
the human world, although the majority of the later Confucians look
askance at an absolute creator or anthropomorphic Lord (di), preferring
the ultimate enforcement of Natural Law. In the mind of Confucians,
Heaven is the transcendental power that guarantees harmony between
the metaphysical and the physical, between the spiritual and the secular,
and between human nature and human destiny.
In the Confucian classics and in imperial religious practices, Heaven is
referred to as a divine being who controls and determines the human
world. The references to Heaven in the Book of Poetry, the Book of History, the Book of Rites, Zuo Zhuan or Zuo’s Commentary on the Spring
and Autumn Annals, and Guo Yu or the Conversations of the States,
‘seem generally to designate the ruling or presiding anthropomorphic
. . . Imperial Heaven Supreme Emperor’ (Fung, 1952: 31). The actual
process of how Heaven became the ‘Ruler’ will probably always be
a matter of dispute. However it is probably reasonable for us to assume
that Heaven as a natural deity (Sky God) of the Zhou tribe was
transformed into the supreme ruler of the Zhou Dynasty, partly in its
association with the anthropomorphic character, Di, or Shangdi, the
Supreme Lord of the Shang Dynasty, which is now believed to have
derived its corporate or generic dimension from an early conception of
the ‘fathers’ of a lineage. Di or Shangdi was continually revered as the
Supreme Lord during the first years of the Zhou Dynasty, until it was
realised that belief in the Lord would be ‘a dangerous antagonist and
potential rallying point for the Shang opposition’ (Franz, 1986: 27).
Political needs accelerated the process of promoting Heaven to the
highest rank in the spiritual world and merging Heaven and the Lord in
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a manner most acceptable to the people. Hence a new title for the spiritual
Supreme Ruler, huangtian shangdi, the August/Imperial Heaven the Lord
on High, became the focus of religious and political practices. Heaven
was depicted as an all-powerful, supreme, purposive administrator or ruler
of the universe, ruling over and judging all the human and natural aCairs
throughout time and space. Many Confucian writings strengthened and
reconfirmed the supremacy of Heaven. The speech supposed to have been
made by the founding father of the Shang Dynasty, Tang, condemned
the last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, and claimed that ‘Heaven has given me
the mandate to destroy him’; and one of his ministers announced that
‘Heaven gives birth to the people’ (see also Legge, 1992, vol. 3: 173–4,
178). Heaven is said not only to possess the divine executioner, but ‘[f]or
each of Heaven’s aCairs there is its proper oAcial’ (Fung, 1952: 30).
The favour or ire of Heaven became the foundation for the extremely
important conception of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming), which
legitimises or disqualifies the taking over of one dynasty by another or
the execution of the royal power to crush rebellions. Heaven would make
known its approval or otherwise of human aCairs by manifesting blessings
or condemnations in the form of, for instance, good harvests or natural
disasters. This was developed into a sophisticated doctrine during the
Han Dynasty that failure to fulfil human duties would annoy Heaven,
and Heaven would first warn and then reprimand him by sending down
the visitations (zai) and prodigies (yi) ‘to warn the human sovereign of
his behaviour, to command him to repent on his wrongdoing and to
cultivate his virtue’ (Baihutong Shuzheng, 1994: 267).
The destiny of a dynasty depended upon the continuing blessings from
Heaven, as elaborated by the Confucian sage, the Duke of Zhou, who is
credited with the completion of this system that was simultaneously
moral, political and religious:
Heaven, without pity, sent down ruin on the Yin Dynasty
(1384–1112 bc). Yin having lost the Mandate of Heaven, we,
the Chou, have received it. But I dare not say with certainty that our
heritage will forever truly remain on the side of fortune. If Heaven
renders sincere help, I do not dare say with certainty that the final
end will result in misfortune. (Chan, 1963a: 6)
Confucians firmly believe that it is essential for any new Dynasty to
have received the Mandate from Heaven, and that the preservation of
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the Mandate is a necessary condition for a dynasty to continue its rule.
Any political change could be justified only if it was recognised as what
had been ‘decreed’ by Heaven, and the replacement of one dynasty by
another was only possible if it had been blessed by Heaven. Many of
Confucius’ references to Heaven point to the supreme being who controls the world and determines the destiny of human aCairs, because
‘Heaven is the greatest in the world’ (Lunyu, 8: 19). The Book of Rites
confirms that sacrifice to Heaven is essential for peace and harmony of
the state. The spirit will return to Heaven upon death. Dong Zhongshu
drew us a picture of Heaven as human ancestor and creator, and in this
sense, Fung Yu-lan’s comments that for Dong ‘Heaven, while possessing
cognition and consciousness, is definitely not an anthropomorphic deity’
(Fung, 1953: 19), probably overlook the spiritual dimension of Heaven
in Dong’s discussion of the Way of Heaven. It is clear that Dong considered Heaven ‘the most spiritual’ and ‘the Lord of all gods’ (Chunqiu
Fanlu Yizheng, 1992: 354, 402); he believed that Heaven was the greatgrandfather of all humans: ‘Humans cannot produce themselves, because
the creator of humans is Heaven. That humans are humans derives from
Heaven. Heaven, indeed, is the great-grandfather of humans (zeng zufu)’
(Chunqiu Fanlu Yizheng, 1992: 318). As the great ancestor of humans,
Heaven is believed to have constructed human life and endowed humans
with their nature. As the ‘creator’ of humans, Heaven is believed to regulate the way of humans and ‘commands humans to practise humaneness
and righteousness, to be ashamed of what is shameful, and not to be
concerned, like the birds and beasts, solely with existence and profit’
(ibid.: 61).
Heaven is not only the creator of life, the supreme governor of the
universe, but also a just administrator of human aCairs. Heaven is revered
not for the deliverance rewarded to those who have prayed for it. Rather,
Heaven is revered and respected with awe in the sense that Heaven is
regarded as the final sanction of human behaviour and social changes.
For a fixed period, human eCorts may succeed or fail, a particular action
may or may not be justified, and the character of an individual may or
may not be recognised. However, with faith in Heaven in which the final
sanction is upheld, the failure of a particular person at a particular time
does not frustrate a Confucian to the extent that he abandons his goals.
Wrongdoing and violation of moral principles which for the time being
cannot be corrected and punished are believed to be eventually corrected
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and punished by Heaven which is closely ‘watching’ and passionately
concerned with the world below. It is therefore regarded as the most
serious crime to oCend Heaven or to violate the Way of Heaven. Confucius made it clear that ‘He who oCends against Heaven has none to whom
he can pray’ (Lunyu, 3: 13). He subsequently believed it to be a devastating fate for an individual to be abandoned by Heaven. This point is illustrated in the following anecdote. Confucius once paid a visit to the
notorious court lady Nanzi, and one of his disciples was not pleased.
Although Confucius felt that there was nothing inappropriate in his
behaviour, he realised that this might be open to serious misinterpretation. In order to clear his name, Confucius invoked Heaven to make a
solemn declaration that ‘If I have done anything wrong, may Heaven
forsake me! May Heaven forsake me!’ (Lunyu, 6: 28). In this way, Confucius again emphasised the supremacy of Heaven as the religious sanction for human integrity, and showed confidence in the justice of Heaven.
Confucianism directed traditional spiritual belief in Heaven into
rational and moral directions. Heaven is not treated merely as a passive
sanction or guardian, but more positively as the initiator of virtues. It is
believed that the Way of Heaven generates the moral power in human
beings. When faced with the danger of being killed, Confucius put his
faith in Heaven and gained freedom from fear: ‘Heaven has begot the
virtue that is in me. What have I to fear from such a man as Huan Dui?’
(Lunyu, 7: 22). A strong sense of mission that issues from Heaven gives
Confucius confidence in the transmission of ancient wisdom and culture.
When asked why people did not understand what he had been teaching,
Confucius emphasised the fulfilling of one’s own mission that was
endowed by Heaven: ‘I do not complain against Heaven nor do I lay the
blame on other people. I study things on the lower level but my understanding penetrates the higher. It is Heaven who knows me’ (Lunyu,
14: 37). This paragraph contains a number of very important Confucian
tenets. Firstly, Confucian confidence in the course of human life and its
optimism about the future are grounded firmly in faith in Heaven. The
Confucian view of the world and human aCairs is inspired by belief
in Heaven’s justice that governs the world and beyond, and by the Confucian belief in personal fate that the courses of life or death, wealth or
poverty, success or failure, depend upon Heaven. For them, whether or
not their eCorts are recognised or praised by others is of little concern.
What matters is whether or not they have done their best to fulfil their
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duties. Secondly, the Way of Heaven can be known through studying
human aCairs (things on the lower level), and the study of human life is
thus the path to understanding the Way of Heaven (principles on the
higher level). Thirdly, Heaven is the final judge of individuals and of their
values and merits. With faith in the Ultimate, individuals would not be
blown oC course by their successes and failures in the world.
As the supreme being with the power to sanction moral behaviour,
Heaven naturally becomes the centre of gravity in Confucian theories
and practices with regard to religion, politics, ethics, history, literature
and the way of life. Confucians are determined to fulfil their mission in
the world for they believe that ‘[t]hose who are obedient to Heaven are
preserved; those who are against Heaven are annihilated’ (Mengzi, 4a: 7).
Thus they devote their life to learning, education and the transmission
of ancient culture because of their belief in the Mandate of Heaven
which can be known through learning, divination and observation
(Lunyu, 7: 22; 14: 36; 12: 5; 2: 4).
heaven and moral principles
The conception of Heaven as the Supreme Being is closely related to the
understanding of Heaven as a set of moral principles (yili zhi tian). As
a matter of fact, these two aspects are the two closely related sides of
Confucian doctrine: Heaven is supreme because it is the embodiment
and source of moral virtues, and Heaven can generate and bring out
illustrious virtues (in humans) because it is the ultimate principle of
transcendence. The close relationship between its moral and its transcendental implications distinguishes Heaven as the Confucian Ultimate
from the God of theistic traditions. The Way of Heaven lies primarily in
the moral path which people lead in their life. Heaven endows humans
with the Mandate, by which the world can be ruled justly. Just rule can
be exercised only if the people are satisfied in a moral way. Endowing
or withdrawing the Mandate is a matter of moral judgement. Thus, in
Confucian politics, the Mandate of Heaven is understood to be the same
as the will of the people, by which the legitimacy of a government is given
and confirmed. Heaven’s generating power is understood as ‘conferring’
on the people their [moral] nature, so that they can follow and develop
the Way from their own nature in a variety of ways. As Heaven embodied
in human nature is identified with the Way, cultivation of the Way
becomes the source of Confucian doctrine and instruction (jiao). It is
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believed that instruction and education of this kind will lead to goodness,
truth and perfection in general, and to personal integrity and sincerity,
family loyalty and responsibility, communal reciprocity and sound commonsense in particular. Having only a short span of life and for most part
living in a chaotic environment, individuals are not always able to be
confident in their destiny. It is the Way of Heaven that gives Confucians
an assurance of attaining the Ultimate. In a sense, the attainment of the
Ultimate in a Confucian context means to attain to secure the infinite
and sacred ideal in a life that is finite, historical, secular and cultural.
Confucians believe that Heaven and its relation to the earth set up
a model for, and lay down the principles of, human moral codes.
For example, just as Heaven is above and the earth below, so too the
sovereign is placed over his ministers and subjects, parents over their
children, and a husband over his wife. It is believed that of all creatures
born from the refined essence of Heaven and Earth, the human race is
the noblest because we alone are able to practise heavenly principles
in our life and behave according to proper relationships either at home
or abroad. Among humans, only those who have cultivated their nature
revere the Mandate of Heaven, while those who lack virtue do not
respect it.
The Way of Heaven signifies morality, and to follow the Way of
Heaven is to lead a virtuous life. Mengzi believes that there are two kinds
of honours, the honours bestowed by Heaven (e.g. humaneness, righteousness, sincerity, etc.), and the honours bestowed by humans (e.g.
positions and ranks in the government). The former should be sought
after first and the latter will follow as a matter of course (Mengzi, 6a:
16), and in this manner, the Way of Heaven would prevail in the world.
Contrary to this, however, the people pursued the mundane honours first,
and therefore lost the honour of Heaven. Neo-Confucians developed the
moral conception of Heaven and applied the Way of Heaven to daily
life. Heaven is sometimes identified with the (moral) principle (li), hence
the Principle of Heaven (tianli) becomes another name for the Way
of Heaven. On other occasions, Heaven is identified with the (innate)
heart/mind, hence the Way of Heaven is nowhere but in the heart/mind.
The principle of Heaven cannot be understood unless the heart/mind has
been extended; and an individual cannot become one body with Heaven
unless he has explored his own nature (Chan, 1963b: 13). In diCerent
ways, Heaven, the Way of Heaven, principle, nature and the heart/mind
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are regarded as being essentially the same, as Cheng Yi put it: ‘What
is received by man and things from Heaven are called destiny. What is
inherent in things is called principle. What is endowed in man is called
nature. And as the master of the body it is called the mind. In reality they
are all one’ (Chan, 1963a: 567). This is what Heaven is and this is how
the Way of Heaven runs its course.
heaven as nature or natural law
Heaven as the anthropomorphic divine ruler and as the embodiment and
generator of supreme virtues is the key to understanding the Confucian
way of Heaven. However, there is also a naturalistic dimension with
respect to the Confucian Ultimate in which Heaven is primarily taken as
Nature, and the Way of Heaven as something similar to Natural Law.
The concept of Nature and Natural Law is an important constituent
element of the Confucian doctrine of Heaven, and is one of the underlying ideas of Confucian rationalism. As we will see in the third section
of this chapter, the concept of Heaven as Nature leads to the harmony
between human beings and their environment.
Although Confucius spoke of Heaven as that which determined
the course of human life and which produced the illustrious virtues in
him himself, he also seems to have indicated that the Way of Heaven is
manifest in natural courses which should be followed. When asked why
he did not speak out, Confucius pointed out that transmission of the
ancient culture did not need speech, as silent Heaven ran its course by its
law rather than by its words: ‘What does Heaven ever say? Yet there are
the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming
into being’ (Lunyu, 17: 19). In Kongzi Jiayu or the School Sayings of
Confucius, compiled in the Later Han Dynasty, Confucius is recorded as
having made the following statements about the Way of Heaven:
As the sun and the moon from East to West succeed each other
without cease, such is the Way of Heaven. To be able to last without
hindrance, that is the Way of Heaven. That without interference all
things are accomplished, that is the Way of Heaven. That, once they
are completed, they are clarified by it, that is the Way of Heaven.
(Kramers, 1950: 215)
The majority of Confucians focus their attention on the Way of
Humans but do not exclude the Way of Nature. The early Daoist philosophers take people as an extension of Nature and call them to return to
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their origins, that is, to be one with nature and to follow the way of
nature. Because these Daoists were preoccupied with the Way of Nature
and had little to say about the distinction of the human way, Xunzi
criticised them by pointing out that Zhuangzi ‘was blinded by Nature
and was insensible to men’ (Xunzi, 21: 4; Knoblock, 1994: 102). Xunzi
nevertheless developed the conception of Heaven as Nature within the
Confucian tradition: ‘The constellations follow their revolutions; the
sun and moon alternately shine; the four seasons present themselves
in succession; the Yin and Yang enlarge and transform; and the wind
and rain spread out everywhere’ (Knoblock, 1994: 15). This opened up
a Confucian trend in which a naturalistic understanding of the world
and of human beings was developed and extended.
Naturalistic Confucians take Heaven as the ultimate source of human
life, i.e., Heaven is the force behind all the diversity and variety resulting
from constant and regular changes. Therefore, Natural Law in a Confucian context is the principle of constant changes, by which all things
are given life and all events run their course. This is what is meant by the
Way of Heaven in the commentaries of the Book of Changes. The greatest
virtue of Heaven and Earth is said to be in its constant production,
because change (yi) is a process of production and reproduction
(shengsheng). Thus the Way is the interaction between the yin and the
yang: ‘The successive movement of yin and yang constitutes the Way’,
and this statement is understood in the later Confucian development
as meaning that ‘The nature [of humans] and the Way of Heaven are but
Change’ (Chan, 1963a: 268, 266, 506). The Way of Heaven is in the
change of the two cosmic forces and the change is the primary power
motivating all changes and developments. Identifying Heaven as the
fundamental principle for human existence and activity, Dong Zhongshu
made good use of the yin–yang doctrine to explain human nature and
destiny, pointing out that humans have within them nature and feelings
because the yin and the yang exist in Heaven (Chunqiu Fanlu Yizheng,
1992: 299). Wang Chong developed this understanding to an extremely
naturalistic view and made it clear that ‘the Way of Heaven is that of
spontaneity’, that is, the yang and yin arise and decline in the four
seasons and things themselves reach maturity. This is the meaning of his
phrase: ‘The Way of Heaven is one of non-activity’ (Fung, 1953: 152–3).
The understanding that the Way of Heaven is the Way of spontaneity
was accepted and further developed in the Mysterious Learning of
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the Wei–Jin Dynasties and in Neo-Confucianism of the Song–Ming
Dynasties. One of the Neo-Confucian masters, Cheng Hao, once
remarked: ‘What is spontaneous in Heaven is called the Way (Tao) of
Heaven. Heaven’s allotment of this to all creatures is called the Decree
(ming, Mandate) of Heaven’ (ibid.: 514).
As the origin of the universe, Heaven is identified with taiji, the
Supreme Ultimate, the fountainhead from which all things come into
being. The Great Commentary (dazhuan) of the Book of Changes first
speculates on the Supreme Ultimate in the system of changes. The
Supreme Ultimate generates the Two Modes, the yin and yang. The Two
Modes generate the Four Forms (the major and minor yin and yang, which
become the four seasons). The Four Forms generate the Eight Trigrams
which represent heaven, earth, mountain, lake, fire, water, thunder and
wind (Wilhelm, 1967: 318). The mutual interaction between the Way
of Heaven and the Way of Earth (gangrou xiangmo) and between the
Eight Trigrams (bagua xiangdang) generates all beings and things (Zhang,
1982: 27). The outline of the cosmic evolution in the Book of Changes
was enriched in Neo-Confucianism, and Zhou Dunyi formulated an
inclusive doctrine of the Way of Heaven based on the conception of
the Supreme Ultimate. The origin of the universe (wuji, the Ultimate of
Non-Existence) manifests itself as the origin of the existence (taiji, the
Supreme Ultimate). The activity and tranquillity of the Supreme Ultimate
generate the yang and the yin, two forms of the cosmic power from which
the Five Elements arise. In the integration of the Supreme Ultimate,
yin–yang and the Five Elements, the Way of Heaven and the Way of
Earth, feminine and masculine forces come into being, and the interaction between these two forces engenders the myriad things. The myriad
things produce and reproduce, resulting in unending transformation
(Chan, 1963a: 463).
Heaven as Nature is closely related to the conception of qi, the vital
material force. In early Confucian writings, the concept is not clearly
defined, as demonstrated in the Mengzi where the night force (yeqi) and
the moral force (haoran zhi qi) are discussed. Only in the works of
the Later Han scholars, He Xiu (129–182), Zheng Xuan and Liu Shao
(182?–245?) was the concept of qi used unambiguously to refer to the
profound and fundamental material force of the universe. He Xiu said
that ‘The origin (yuan) is material force (qi)’, Zheng Xuan interpreted
the Supreme Ultimate as the material force that was in total harmony
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and not yet diversified, and Liu Shao understood that the universe came
from the original One (yuan yi) that is material force (Zhang, 1982: 41).
The Confucian doctrine of material force was completed in the hands
of Zhang Zai. Zhang identified Heaven with the Great Vacuity (tai xu)
that is the original state of material force, the Way of Heaven with the
Great Harmony (tai he) and the Mandate of Heaven with the ceaseless
operation in material force (qi). He stated that
The Great Vacuity (hsü) has no physical form. It is the original
substance of material force . . . As the Great Vacuity, material force
is extensive and vague. Yet it ascends and descends and moves in all
ways without ever ceasing . . . If material force integrates, its visibility
becomes eCective and physical form appears. If material force does
not integrate, its visibility is not eCective and there is no physical form
. . . From the Great Vacuity, there is Heaven. From the transformation
of material force, there is the Way. In the unity of the Great Vacuity
and material force, there is the nature of (man and things). And in the
unity of the nature and consciousness, there is the mind.
(Chan, 1963a: 501, 503, 504)
Zhang also explored the way of material force. Material force changes
according to the law of nature: ‘In the process of production, some (things)
come first and some afterward. This is Heaven’s sequence. In the interrelationship and assumption of shape (by those things), some are small
and some large, some lofty and some lowly. This is Heaven’s orderliness’
(Fung, 1953: 482). Therefore, the cosmic evolution is the process of
integration and disintegration of material force, and this is done in
accordance with Heaven’s sequence (tian xu) and orderliness (tian zhi).
The heavenly order and sequence of material force is the Way of Heaven.
As far as human nature is concerned, heavenly principle and material
force point to two diCerent directions, and human moral characters can
be explained by the diCerence of their material constitution. According
to this interpretation, material force has its gender, the yin and the yang.
The yin and yang powers flow in their ways, so there are the four seasons;
they move in diCerent directions, so there are the Five Elements (wu xing).
In a similar manner Wang Fuzhi maintains that the heart/mind, nature,
Heaven and principle are all based on material force, and without material
force ‘none of them would exist’. Heaven is nothing other than the totality of the yin–yang and the Five Elements, and the Way of Heaven is the
order of material force: ‘Split apart, we call them the yin and yang and
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Five Elements, inasmuch as they consist of two (major) divisions and five
(lesser) parts. But in the totality we call them all Heaven’ (ibid.: 641–2).
Dai Zhen (1723–77) believes that yin–yang and the Five Elements
possess each other, and their mutual transformation is the Way of Heaven:
‘The yin and yang and Five Elements constitute the true substance of
the Tao [Way]’ (ibid.: 653).
The Way of Heaven is that which natural courses follow and by
which all things are done. Therefore, it is equivalent to the Confucian
conception of principle, and Heaven and principle are used together to
indicate the Way of Heaven (tian li). The commentaries in the Book of
Changes identified Principle with Heaven, and the study of Principle with
the attainment of the Mandate of Heaven: ‘By the exhaustive study of
Principle (li) and complete development of the nature, one attains to
(Heavenly) Decree’ (ibid.: 650). In the Book of Rites, the passage that
‘Heaven gives birth to the people’ is reinterpreted as meaning that ‘All
things originate from Heaven, humans originate from their ancestors’ and
the major sacrifices are ‘to express gratitude toward the originators and
recall the beginnings’ (Legge, 1968, vol. 27: 430–1). Either as Nature or
Natural Law, Heaven and the Way of Heaven underlie human life and
are therefore closely related to the Way of Humankind.
The Way of Humans
Confucianism is sometimes described as a kind of secular humanism
on the grounds that it does not pay suAcient attention to the spiritual
dimension. It is indeed the case that Confucianism is first concerned
with life rather than death and with humans rather than with spirits.
However, it does not follow that the Confucian understanding of the
self is totally preoccupied with secularity and temporality. For many
Confucians, the self is endowed with a transcendental ‘spirit’, which if
fully developed would enable one to be a co-ordinator of the world, a
guardian of natural and social processes, and a partner in the creative
transformation of Heaven and Earth. The close relationship between
the metaphysical or transcendental Way and secular human life is
demonstrated in the first paragraph of the Doctrine of the Mean: ‘What
Heaven imparts to humans is called human nature. To follow our nature
is called the Way. Cultivating the Way is called education. The Way
cannot be separated from us for a moment. What can be separated from
us is not the Way’ (Chan, 1963a: 98).
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The Way of Humans is essentially the way of moral life, and that
is why it is said that in human terms the Way is called humaneness
and righteousness. For most Confucian scholars, Heaven is the source
of a meaningful life and has provided human beings with the virtuous
roots or beginnings of humaneness, righteousness, propriety and wisdom.
However, this does not mean that all individuals are predetermined to
follow a good course. Whether or not the roots can grow into the great
tree of humanity and whether or not the beginnings can be fully developed,
depend essentially upon whether or not, and how, humans preserve their
heart/mind and cultivate their character. The Way of Heaven cannot be
fulfilled unless it has been understood as the human way and consciously
carried out by individuals in everyday life. Admitting that Heaven, Earth
and humanity are the three Ultimates of the universe, Confucians believe
that humans must fulfil their duties to qualify for this role: ‘For Heaven
there is the Way of Heaven, for Earth there is the Way of Earth, and for
man there is the way of man. Unless man fully practices the Way of man,
he will not be qualified to coexist with Heaven and Earth’ (Lu Jiuyuan,
in Chan, 1963a: 575). In exploring how the Way of Heaven and the Way
of Humans are related and how the former can be manifest in the latter,
Confucians are not interested in the opposition between this world and
the next, or between salvation and damnation. Rather, they focus on
closing the distance between the human and the non-human, or more
precisely, between those who have been instructed in proper behaviour
and those who have not, and therefore Confucians establish education
and self-cultivation as the centre of the Human Way. The necessity for
self-cultivation follows from the fact that the potentiality within
individuals that enables them to be finally diCerentiated from birds and
beasts is yet to be developed and cultivated as actual qualities of their
character. To cultivate this potential is firstly to preserve it. To preserve
it, that is, to fully develop original moral senses, is to become fully human,
while to abandon or neglect it is to have a deficient character which is
not far from that of an animal.
It is a Confucian belief that Heaven endows human beings with the
sense of, and concern with, the transmission of culture, by which we
search for the ultimate meaning of life. The Way of Heaven must be
cultivated in personal experience and social interchange. The will of
Heaven to preserve this culture (si wen) (Lunyu, 9: 5) animates the moral
tradition and gives it a cosmological significance on the one hand, and
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‘imposes’ a mission on human beings to carry out what is hidden in this
culture on the other hand.
morality as transcendence
Confucianism is not a purely secular tradition. It has a profound sense
of religiosity and spirituality. As a religious humanism, Confucianism
identifies the moral or virtuous with the religious or transcendental. To
discuss the Way of human beings, therefore, we must start with a moral
concept, de (). Although translatable as ‘virtue’, de originally signifies
a political and spiritual quality or ability, which was the ‘power’ or
‘charisma’ by which a king could rule the state without resorting to force
or violence. In this sense, de as virtue is defined as ‘to obtain’ (de, ),
and a virtuous man is one who is able to ‘obtain’ the endorsement of
Heaven and the ancestors, to get the capable ministers to support him
and the people to work for the state. Initially, oCering sacrifices to Heaven
and the ancestors was believed to be of the greatest significance for earning
the legitimacy and ‘power’ to rule. Gradually, out of this practice evolved
the understanding that the ability and power must also be cultivated by
individuals, and thus de became ‘a moral-making property of a person’
that is able to give the person ‘psychic power or influence over others, and
sometimes even over one’s nonhuman surroundings’ (Nivison, 1996: 17).
To illustrate the process of how the meaning of de was extended from
‘power’ to ‘moral virtue’, Norden and Nivison point out that
Humans typically feel gratitude for gifts. However, in some societies,
this feeling becomes magnified, so that my gratitude to you comes to
seem like a force you exert over me. De was originally this ‘force’,
which the Chinese kings acquired through their willingness to make
‘sacrifices’ to the spirits of their ancestors and for their subjects.
However, there is an important diCerence between a gift given sincerely,
and one given with the intention of gaining control over another.
Consequently, de became connected with humility, generosity, and
(in general) the ‘virtues’. (Nivison, 1996: 5–6)
Based on the understanding of the nature and source of the political
power, Confucians believe that a good ruler is the one who cultivates
his character sincerely, performs rituals reverentially, and accumulates
good deeds earnestly. A king who failed to fulfil his duties, for instance
deliberately ignoring or violating the rules of ritual, or abusing the
political or military powers, would be regarded as one who had lost his
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virtue which in turn caused him to lose the power and ability to govern.
In this way, virtue and rituals (li) are closely related and mutually supporting. Further, since the endorsement of Heaven, the ancestors and
the spirits are seen in the harmony, peace and order of the state, community and family, rituals are not only oriented to the other world but
also morally directed and guided. Religious rituals are thus transformed
into rules of behaviour and a sense of propriety in their widest application.
These are needed not only at the time of making sacrifices but also in
daily life, and are considered necessary not only for one’s status as a king
or an oAcial but also for anyone’s destiny as a particular being. In this
way the rules of propriety become what Jaspers calls the ‘imperatives
of conduct’ (1962: 55). The external observance of the rules is further
internalised as a moral quality, and practice outwardly exercised becomes
an inwardly spiritual journey. This is how the moral and the ethical in
the Confucian tradition have gained the significance of the religious and
the transcendental.
Virtue is not only a quality, but also an ability to transform oneself
and a power to transform others. As the wind sways the grass, a person
of virtue is believed to be able to lead the masses in the direction of the
morally good. To be a person of virtue is thus no longer the privilege of
a ruler or a superior minister. It has become a necessary condition for a
personal transition from a crude and uncivilised being to a cultivated
and civilised person, or from a being of sensation to a person of virtue.
This is considered a person’s own responsibility, because whether or
not one would be such a person depends on oneself, not on others. Selfcultivation is thus understood as the fundamental path to the spiritual
transformation of one’s character. By the interaction between the
macrocosm and the microcosm, the transformation of one’s own character is believed to fulfil the transformation of the cosmos and society.
In self-cultivation it is one’s own will that leads. The diAculty in
becoming cultivated and then attaining to the ideal comes firstly from
our natural weaknesses, for example, from preferring sexual enjoyment
to moral transformation, as Confucius observed (Lunyu, 9: 18), or being
less inspired to pursue learning than to seek the satisfaction of physical
desires, as Mengzi warned. Such a diAculty may also result from our
social vulnerability in a bad environment. To guard against corruption,
Confucianism in the main highly values the preservation of our own
nature and the pursuit of righteousness in social interaction. In this respect
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the heart/mind plays an active part in Confucian self-transformation.
It is believed that when the moral and spiritual propensity inherent in
human nature is frustrated by the complex of external causes, the heart/
mind will be corrupted. While it is important to remove these causes (this
is why Confucianism takes it as its first responsibility to participate in
political life and to reform social structure), most Confucians insist that
the social causes of human corruption cannot be completely removed
unless most individuals have cultivated their own nature and made their
own character correct and righteous. For them, it is more urgent to start
working on one’s own nature by engaging in self-cultivation than to blame
others or external circumstances for one’s failure. The Confucian discourses on the self probe at a deeper level into each individual’s moral
psychology. They hold individuals to be responsible for their own future
and encourage them to search in their own heart/mind for the resource
of becoming good, believing that ‘Seek and you will get it; let go and you
will lose it. Thus seeking is of use to getting and what is sought is within
yourself’ (Mengzi, 7a: 3).
The Confucian discussions of human nature and heart/mind are
directly related to their concern about human destiny. This concern is
not about the life in the other world, but about the life fulfilled in this
world, not about the possibility of salvation from without but about the
process of self-transformation or self-transcendence through moral cultivation and social engagement. The question ‘how to become good’ in
the Confucian tradition becomes as resourceful and profound as the
question ‘how to be saved’ in many other religious traditions. In this sense,
the search for the morally perfect is also the search for a ‘transcendental
breakthrough’, breaking through one’s moral limitations as an ordinary
human being. In the process of searching for the breakthrough, the mainstream in the Confucian tradition exhibits its religious idealism in the
following three dimensions.
Firstly, it believes that we have the sources and resources of becoming
good within ourselves. Many Confucians believe that Heaven endows us
with a heart of the Way (daoxin), which is subtle but entangled with our
physical needs. The heart of the Way provides the foundation for us to
be good, and the power and will to search for our own destinies. Within
each individual there is also a ‘human heart (renxin)’, which desires
and seeks the satisfaction of physical needs. This human heart provides
individuals with the materials to be worked on.
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Secondly, it holds that human beings have the ability to know how to
become good. The Way of Heaven manifests itself in nature, society and
individuals. Therefore, there are two methods for us to find out how we
can be in line with the Way of Heaven. One is to observe the principles
by which everything exists and every being lives. For example, through
observing the growing and withering of plants and trees, we can understand the regularity and punctuality of the heavenly principle and understand the importance of abiding by ritual/propriety in human community.
The other way is to contemplate on our own heart/mind. Since all the
people have in their hearts/minds the resources to become good, reflection
and meditation on the internal world will enable us to fully understand
our internal potential and to make maximum use of it.
Thirdly, for the majority of Confucian scholars, observation and
meditation alone cannot fulfil one’s destiny, unless one has fully mastered
the classics and lived by the rules of propriety in daily life, so that in
every intention and in every action there is nothing other than that which
is in full agreement with the Way of Heaven. Such an achievement as this
enables a person to ‘follow whatever his heart desires, but never go beyond
the boundaries [of the Way]’ (Lunyu, 2: 4), to ‘order and adjust the great
relations of mankind, establish the great foundations of humanity and
know the transforming and nourishing operations of Heaven and Earth’
(Chan, 1963a: 112), ‘to know and serve Heaven’ (Mengzi, 7a; 1), and
to ‘regard that which fills the universe as his own body, and consider
that which directs the universe as his own nature’ (Zhang Zai, see Chan,
1963a: 497). This is what is meant by ‘the transcendental’ in the
Confucian tradition.
In the Confucian conception of transcendence there is no call for
an escape from the world, nor to seek an extraordinary style of life.
In the perspective of the possibility of being transformed and cultivated
in everyday life, Confucianism establishes its optimism and confidence in human destiny on a solid ground, and by bringing individuals’
growth in line with cosmic evolution, Confucians locate their concept
of immortality (buxiu). The Confucian view of immortality was greatly
influenced by a conversation which took place in the year 546 bce and
which defined ‘immortality’ as the lasting eCect of virtue, words and
works: ‘The best course is to establish virtue, the next best is to establish
achievement, and still the next best is to establish words. When these are
not abandoned with time, it may be called immortality’ (ibid.: 13). Based
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on this understanding, Confucians identify ‘immortality’ with sagehood.
In the Confucian view, the world is not divided between good and evil,
heaven and hell, but between the civilised and the barbarian, the learned
and the ignorant, the cultivated and the uncultivated. Life as a whole is
a process of development from the latter to the former, the goal of which
is to become a sage.
The Chinese character for sage, sheng (), presents a pictographic
understanding that a person of achievement would ‘listen’ more than
speak. The sage ‘listens’ to the calling from Heaven, ‘listens’ to the
demands of the people, and ‘listens’ to the ‘rhythm’ of the natural world,
so that he can reproduce the Heavenly principles in terms of human codes,
and guide human activities by his wisdom. A sage is believed to have
manifested the greatest virtue which corresponds to Heaven and to have
been given the blessing of Heaven. For example, Shun, the sage–king of
legend, is praised for his great filial piety and virtue, which earned him
not only his position (the Son of Heaven, the King), but also wealth and
a long life:
The admirable, amiable prince displayed conspicuously his excellent
virtue. He put his people and his oAcers in concord. And he received
his emolument from Heaven. It protected him, assisted him, and
appointed him king. And Heaven’s blessing came again and again.
(Chan, 1963a: 102)
A sage is morally perfect and intellectually brilliant, and in carrying
out the Way of Heaven in the human world he ‘extensively confers
benefit on the people and sends relief to all’ (Lunyu, 6: 30). The sage has
made the tradition living and everlasting:
Chung-ni (Confucius) transmitted the ancient traditions of Yao and
Shun, and he modeled after and made brilliant the system of King Wen
and King Wu. He conformed with the natural order governing the
revolution of the seasons in heaven above, and followed the principles
governing land and water below. (Chan, 1963a: 111–12)
He has brought the greatest benefits to the world, established an
immortal influence and bequeathed an admirable model to all people
of all generations. This is borne out by a widely held saying that ‘Had
Heaven not sent Confucius into this world, the history of ten thousand
years would have been in eternal darkness’ (tian busheng Zhongni, wangu
ru changye). A sage as such becomes one of the three powers sustaining
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the whole universe and assisting the transformation of the universe. Being
able to fully develop his own nature, the sage can likewise develop
the nature of all beings and all things; being able to develop the nature
of all things and beings, he can assist the transforming and nourishing
powers of Heaven and Earth; and being able to assist the transforming
and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he can thus ‘form a trinity
with Heaven and Earth’ (Chan, 1963a: 108). In this achievement the sage
is identified completely with Heaven and Earth, and being in the unity
and oneness with Heaven and Earth the sage demonstrates in his own
life their eternal and transcendental nature.
good and evil
Based on the understanding of the Way of Heaven and its relation to
the Way of Humans, Confucians come to deal with the problem of
good and evil. Fundamental to their belief is that the Way of Heaven is
right and violation of the Way is wrong, and that what issues from the
Way is good and what obstructs the prevalence of the Way is bad. Most
Confucians take the view that evil (e ) is not a metaphysical concept,
because ‘what is called evil is not original evil’ (Chan, 1963a: 529). That
is to say, the Confucian conception of evil does not denote a metaphysical
or ontological reality. It is simply a moral concept, designating a kind of
moral situation in which the moral and physical activities of a human
being are conducted in a wrong way.
Good and evil are considered to be a pair of terms for the moral
character of an individual. As all individuals are believed to be able
to become good, a natural question that follows is whether they can be
good because they already have all the potentialities within or they can
become good because they are guided by the rules of propriety and by the
instructions of the sage. The Confucian debate about these two options
was inaugurated by Xunzi in his argument against Mengzi, and these
two options lead to two diCerent theories concerning human nature.
Believing that good is fundamental and evil is the deviation from good,
Mengzi insists that human beings are born with goodness, in goodness
and for goodness, and that this is as clear as the natural tendency of water
to flow downwards and the natural tendency of a tree to grow upwards.
As Mengzi presumes that humans are originally good, then where does
evil come from? Mengzi answered this question by giving three reasons
why a good nature could give way to evil. Firstly, the nature (xing) with
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which we are born has only provided the beginning or potentiality for us
to do good, but not all individuals will develop from the beginning or
can fully realise their potentiality. In other words, the evil that exists in
individuals’ character is due to the non-development or non-completion
of their innate nature. Secondly, the innate goodness is fragile, and being
subject to erosion by external influences, needs to be preserved and cultivated. In his famous metaphor of the Bull Mountain, Mengzi explained
how this could happen: the trees on the mountain were once beautiful.
But being too near to the capital of a great state, they were hewn down
. . . even so, nourished by the rain and dew and with the force of growth
operating day and night, the stumps sent forth fresh sprouts. But soon
cattle and sheep came to browse on them, and in the end the mountain
became completely bare. Seeing it thus, people would now imagine that
it had never been wooded. According to Mengzi, however, the nature of
the mountain was beautifully wooded, and bareness was only the consequence of having being lopped and browsed on. Following the same
logic, he argued that the nature of all human beings contained innate
goodness, and that some of them became bad or evil because they had
been deprived of their ‘natural growth’ (Mengzi, 6a: 8). Thirdly, Mengzi
argued that we are ourselves responsible for most of our failure to become
fully good. Subject to the same influence, some people become good and
even become sages, while others are degenerate. The key lies in whether
they retain their good heart/mind or let it go. Very little distinguishes
a human person from an animal. If one loses that, one will behave like
a beast. As Confucius once remarked: ‘Hold on to it and it will remain;
let go of it and it will disappear’ (quoted in Mengzi, 6a: 8). Therefore, to
regain one’s good heart, one must look after it. Mengzi deplored that
having lost chickens and dogs, people would go after them; but having
lost their good heart, they were not at all concerned. In this sense, he
believed that the Confucian way was nothing but seeking the lost heart
(Mengzi, 6a: 11). He concludes that evil is none other than underdevelopment, deprivation, degradation and non-completion of our original good
nature. Whatever erosion or corruption one may suCer, one’s original
goodness cannot be totally eradicated. Learning and education would
be suAcient to help one seek the lost heart, and by natural growth and
conscious cultivation its original goodness could be restored.
Xunzi challenged Mengzi by maintaining that goodness did not exist
innately in human nature: ‘The nature of man is evil; his goodness is
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the result of his activity’ (Chan, 1963a: 128). The diCerence in their
doctrines of human nature comes from their diCerent understandings of
the nature of Heaven. Following the thesis that Heaven is the source of
virtue and moral sanction of behaviour, Mengzi reasons that humans are
innately oriented towards the good. However, based on the naturalistic
doctrine that Heaven is no more than Nature or Natural Law, Xunzi
argues that human beings are born with natural instincts which, if not
guided and controlled, will cause bad behaviour and jeopardise social
justice and communal interests. For example, human beings love profits
by nature and when they continue this tendency, bitter conflicts and
inordinate greed increases, whereas propriety and righteousness disappears. Human beings are naturally envious and hateful, and when they
follow this tendency, injuries and destruction increase, whereas loyalty
and faithfulness disappear: ‘The strong would injure the weak and rob
them, the many would do violence to the few and shout them down. The
whole world would be in violence and disorder and all would perish in
an instant’ (ibid.: 131–2). Thus, Xunzi believes that we are born with
bad tendencies rather than an inclination to morality. For Xunzi our
so-called ‘inborn nature’ is something that is not acquired by learning
and practice, while moral qualities are what we have to pursue and practise. Propriety and righteousness are not innate in us. Rather, they are
created by sages to restrict human nature: humans naturally desire to eat
when hungry, while propriety requires them to serve their elders first;
humans naturally desire rest when exhausted, while righteousness requires
them to relieve others first: ‘If one follows his natural feeling, he will
have no deference or compliance. Deference and compliance are opposed
to his natural feeling. From this point of view, it is clear that man’s
nature is evil and that his goodness is the result of his activity’ (Chan,
1963a: 129–30).
Xunzi takes the Confucian teaching as a necessary measure to
correct what is wrong in individuals and society. For him, goodness is
what is correct, what is in accordance with natural principle, and what
leads to peace and order; while evil is what is wrong through partiality,
what wickedly contravenes natural principles, what is perverse, what is
rebellious and what will cause disorder. If the former already existed
in human nature, there would be no need for sages, nor would there be
any need for propriety and righteousness. The sages of antiquity saw the
wickedness of humans, and ‘established the authority of rulers to govern
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the people, set forth clearly propriety and righteousness to transform
them, instituted laws and governmental measures to rule them, and made
punishment severe to restrict them’ (Chan, 1963a: 131). In this sense,
virtues are not innate, but are the result of the activities of the sages.
As a potter shapes the clay to create the vessel, or as an artisan carves
a vessel out of a piece of wood, ancient sages created propriety and
righteousness by accumulating their thoughts and ideas, and established
goodness by mastering what had been gained in learning and practice.
Although everybody is born with natural desires, any intelligent person
can see that it is in his own interests to be virtuous, and any person
who lives in society must be under the influence of social conventions.
Through conscious activities and social conventions, the innate nature
is transformed and an acquired nature is formed. Xunzi argues that
what is born with natural life and what is acquired in social life are two
sides of the one process: inborn nature is the raw material and original
constitution to be worked on, while conscious activity is the form and
principle of order, development and completion. If there were no inborn
nature, there would be nothing for conscious action to improve; without
conscious action, inborn nature cannot refine itself. Only when inborn
nature and conscious action are joined, can the concept of the sage be
‘perfected, and the merit of uniting the world brought to fulfillment’
(Knoblock, 1994: 66).
The two doctrines of human nature propagated by Mengzi and Xunzi
were subsequently combined or adapted by later Confucians. Prominent
scholars such as Dong Zhongshu, Wang Chong, Yang Xiong, Han Yu and
Li Ao produced a variety of theories about human nature. For example,
some upheld that human nature contains both good and bad elements,
while others maintained that human nature is good in some people and
bad in others, and others again insisted that human nature is good while
the emotions are bad. Whatever positions they held, their primary task
was to reduce evil and to increase goodness. They believed that this could
be done through internal cultivation at the personal level and through
external instruction at the social level. At the social level, Confucianism
emphasises the importance of education. Dong Zhongshu, for instance,
argues that Heaven has provided human beings with good material but
humans are unable to become wholly good. Thus Heaven establishes
kingship to make us good by way of education (jiao). ‘Following the
will of Heaven, the king takes it as his duty to give completeness to the
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nature of the people’ (Chunqiu Fanlu Yizheng, 1992: 302). This is the
foundation for a complex of Confucian social programmes aimed at transforming society. At the personal level, Dong emphasised the role played
by the heart/mind (xin) in developing goodness and preventing evil in
human nature. For him, although humans are endowed with goodness by
Heaven, the material factors (human feelings) prevent us from becoming
wholly good. It is important to check the feelings, which is the job of the
That which confines the multitude of evil things within and prevents
them from appearing externally, is the heart/mind. Therefore, the
heart/mind is known as the confiner . . . Heaven has its restraints over
the yin and the yang, and the individual has his confiner of feelings and
desires, in this way he is at one with the Way of Heaven.
(Chunqiu Fanlu Yizheng, 1992: 293, 296;
see also Fung, 1953: 35)
Neo-Confucianism established Mengzi as the orthodox transmitter of
the Confucian way and his understanding of the goodness of human
nature as the authentic Confucian doctrine. Based on the belief that
human nature is originally good and that evil is a deviation from the
good, Neo-Confucians consider good and evil to be related concepts. The
relation between good and evil is compared to that of the yang and
the yin, the binary forces of the universe, not in the sense that good is
the yang and evil is the yin, but in that ‘Among all things, there is none
that does not have its opposite. Thus for the yin there is the yang, and for
goodness there is evil. When the yang waxes, the yin wanes, and when
goodness increases, evil diminishes’ (Cheng Hao, quoted in Fung, 1953:
518). In this sense they believe that ‘The goodness and evil of the world
are both equally Heavenly principles. To say that something is evil does
not mean that it is inherently so. It is so merely because it either goes
too far or does not go far enough’ (ibid.). As good and evil are related to
the Mean, it is natural for these scholars to hold that evil is nothing more
than a departure from the Middle Way. Some Neo-Confucians made
use of the clearness and opacity of water to illustrate how good and evil
are related and why evil would come into being. Water is originally clear.
As streams flow to the sea, some become dirty. Some become extremely
muddied while others only slightly so (Zhang Zai, in Chan, 1963a: 528).
Cheng Yi interpreted this to mean that evil is not the essence but a
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manifestation of the heart/mind: ‘The mind is originally good. As it is
aroused and expresses itself in thoughts and ideas, there is good and evil’
(Chan, 1963a: 567). Wang Yangming also argued that there is no distinction between good and evil in the original substance of the mind and
such distinction only appears when the will becomes active. Therefore,
‘The highest good is the original substance of the mind. When one deviates
from this original substance, there is evil. It is not that there is a good
and there is also an evil to oppose it. Therefore good and evil are one
thing’ (ibid.: 684). Although emphasising the unity of good and evil, these
Neo-Confucians did not mean that good and evil are both desirable. For
them, it is important to know what good and evil are, and it is more
important ‘to do good and to remove evil’.
sacred kingship and humane government
It needs not only personal cultivation but also proper supervision by
a good government to do good and remove evil. Therefore, the Way of
Humans inevitably enters the political arena. In the School Sayings of
Confucius, Confucius is supposed to have made the following remarks
about the Way of Humans:
In the way of man, government is greatest. Now government means:
to be correct. In the ancient way of government love of others was
greatest. [Among the ways] to regulate love of others, the rites were
greatest. [Among the means] by which to regulate the rites, reverence
was greatest. [Among the things in which] reverence reached its utmost,
the great marriage [rite] was greatest. (Kramers, 1950: 212)
A logical conclusion follows that ‘love and reverence should be the
roots of government’ (ibid.: 213). If this is what Confucians believe concerning the Way of Humans, then we can see that the Way is fundamentally an ethical system and is sustained by moral virtues. In concrete terms,
the Confucian Way of Humans is composed of three aspects: government,
love of others and rituals. Among these three, government is given priority
because it is both the result of the other two and the necessary condition
for them to be carried out.
Confucian discourse on government is based on its understanding of
the Mandate of Heaven. ‘The Way of Heaven is to bless the good and to
punish the bad’ (Legge, 1992, vol. 3: 186), and how to govern becomes
a kind of competition in terms of moral virtues. Those who have demonstrated good virtues would be trusted with the ruling right, while those
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who have violated the principle of Heaven would consequently lose
the right. Heaven does not ‘favour’ any particular man or tribe. Heaven
endows those with the right to rule, only if they have illustrated and
continue to illustrate the illustrious virtue. A modern Confucian scholar,
Tang Junyi, rephrases this belief in this way: ‘The Mandate of Heaven
following men’s cultivation of virtue, men must be mindful of Heavenly
ming [mandate] and continue to cultivate their virtue even after they have
received ming; the more fully men cultivate their virtue, the more fully
will Heaven confer its mandate on them’ (Tang, 1961: 202).
All the great ancient kings are said to have been virtuous men. Confucius sang eulogies to Yao, Shun, Yu and King Wen, for their great virtues
(Lunyu, 8: 19–21). Believing that ‘he who possesses great virtue will surely
receive the appointment [Mandate] of Heaven’ (Chan, ed. 1963: 102),
the Confucian classics elaborate the belief that the Mandate of Heaven is
a reward for the virtues of the former kings. The reason why the Zhou
Dynasty could be established is said to be due to the splendid virtues of
King Wen:
King Wen . . . was able to illustrate his virtue and be careful in the use
of punishments. He did not dare to show any contempt to the widowers
and widows. He employed the employable and revered the reverend;
he was terrible to those who needed to be awed . . . The fame of him
ascended up to the High God [shangdi], and God approved. Heaven
gave a great charge to King Wen, to exterminate the great dynasty of
Yin, and receive its great appointment, so that the various States
belonging to it and their peoples were brought to an orderly condition.
(Legge, 1992, vol. 3: 383–5)
The Book of Poetry praises the glorious Mandate of Heaven and the
beautiful virtue of King Wen as if they were one thing: ‘The Mandate of
Heaven, How beautiful and unceasing! Oh, how glorious was the purity
of King Wen’s virtue!’ (Chan, 1963a: 6). Confucius glorified King Wu
for his eCorts in manifesting his father’s virtues when King Wu declared
that ‘I may have close relatives, but better for me to have benevolent
men. If the people transgress, let it be on my head alone’ (Lunyu, 20: 1).
Mengzi emphasised that Heaven alone, and nothing else, could bestow
the right to rule the empire: ‘Heaven does not speak but reveals itself by
its acts and deeds’, and the changes of rulers ‘could not be brought by
humans, but by Heaven alone’ (Mengzi, 5a: 5). The virtue of the previous
kings is described, however, as something like a sum of credit that can
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easily be used up. The Mandate of Heaven is not constant. It changes
according to the virtue of the king and the cultivation of virtue by the
king. The Confucian classics repeatedly warn the presiding king that
the Mandate of Heaven is not easily preserved, and can only be kept by
the continual reverence towards Heaven and by conscientiously increasing rather than decreasing the virtue demonstrated in the life of the former
kings. Thus, central to the continuity of the Mandate of Heaven is whether
or not a king maintains his reverence and continues to manifest the
brilliant virtues of his forefathers. To preserve the Mandate of Heaven,
the king is required to conduct rituals and ceremonies correctly, to do
administrative work appropriately, and to pray and oCer sacrifices to
Heaven and the ancestors sincerely. He is also expected to reduce rather
than increase the hardship of the people, to be benevolent rather than
cruel to the people, and to take care of those who are suCering. Failure
to do this will cause the people to complain to Heaven, and Heaven will
in turn withdraw the Mandate. In a number of passages in the Book of
History the last Shang ruler is accused of oCending Heaven and committing immoral sins, which is believed to be the reason why he would lost
the empire: ‘The King of Shang does not reverence Heaven above, and
inflicts calamities on the people below’ (Legge, 1992, vol. 3: 284).
Heaven is believed to act according to certain ethical principles, which
are in turn enforced upon living rulers who, as intermediaries between
the supreme ruler above and humans below, are to model their behaviour
on those of Heaven in the activities of a rational, moral, harmonious and
unified government. The supreme position of the king on earth and the
extensive range of his responsibilities give rise to the concept of sacred
kingship. Morally sacred kingship in the Confucian tradition is closely
related to Confucian religio-politics or ethico-spirituality. In the classics,
a king often addresses himself as ‘One Man’ (yi ren), and is addressed
as ‘the Son of Heaven’ (tianzi). These terms explain not only his unique
authority for ruling the world but also his exclusive responsibility in
carrying out the Mandate of Heaven. Heaven and the human world are
connected by the king who speaks to Heaven above and governs for the
people below. The Han Confucian, Dong Zhongshu, was caught up with
this communion and explained that the character for king, wang (F,
composite of three horizontal lines and one vertical line running through
them at the centre, is in fact a representation of how three realms are
related in the kingship; three horizontal lines representing respectively
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Heaven (above), Earth (below) and humans (in the middle), with the
vertical line referring to the king who connects them. In this sense, Dong
confirmed that ‘The king models himself on Heaven’ and therefore ‘The
Way is the Way of the King, and the King is the beginning of human
[life]’ (Chunqiu Fanlu Yizheng, 1992: 329, 101). Heaven entrusts the
king with the task of ruling the human world, and the king therefore
‘holds a position of life or death (over other men), and shares with Heaven
its transforming power’ (Fung, 1953: 47). On the other hand, Confucians
emphasise that a king is merely the executive manager of the Way of
Heaven on the earth. The ruler must model himself on Heaven and love
the people, because Heaven does not establish the people for kingship
but establishes kingship for the people: ‘Heaven, to protect the people
below, made for them rulers and made for them instructors’ because
‘Heaven compassionates the people. What the people desire, Heaven will
be found to give eCect to’ (Legge, 1992, vol. 3: 286, 288).
Social disruption is largely due to the moral inadequacy of the ruler.
Confucians believe that ‘Heaven sees as the people see and Heaven hears
as the people hear’ (Mengzi, 5a: 5), and they measure the virtue of a
ruler by his conformity to the needs of the people. The ruler who brought
suCering to the people is deemed a tyrant, and the ruler who did not take
advice from Confucians is considered unworthy. A tyrant would be subject to rebellion against him, and an unworthy ruler must be reprimanded.
With the belief in the Mandate of Heaven and the determination to carry
out the Way of Heaven, many a Confucian master took it as his greatest
duty to persuade princes or kings to behave according to ritual/propriety,
to protest persistently against any wrongdoing until it is rectified. This
is frequently done at the risk of the Confucian’s career or even life. What
these Confucians attempted to safeguard is the principle of rule by moral
virtue. Rule by virtue is a governing mechanism that maximises the eCect
of a moral example. Punishment is deemed as an inferior way of government, and maintaining social order by killing those who do not follow
the Way is considered a failure of the ruler himself. When asked whether
it was permitted to execute people for violating the Way, Confucius
absolutely denied its legitimacy and pointed out that there was no justification and need for slaying, because ‘If you desire the good, the people
will be good’ (Lunyu, 12: 19). It is believed that ‘When the ruler treats
the aged as the aged should be treated, then the people will model themselves on him and become filial. When the ruler treats the elders as they
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should be treated, then the people will be stirred to brotherly love. When
the ruler treats the young and the helpless with compassion, then the
common people will not follow the opposite course’ (Daxue, 10, see Chan,
1963a: 92). The only legitimate government is the one based on its consonance with the virtue of Heaven. Consequently, the only righteous ruler
is the one who dedicates himself to the well-being of the people, provides
them with enough food, establishes justice, enlightens the populace by
means of education and rituals, and institutes a meritocracy by which
virtuous and diligent scholars are appointed as officials. In this way, a
relationship of care and trust between the ruler and the people is established and the Way of Humans is made manifest.
Kingship is important for carrying out the Way of Heaven. But the
rationalism and humanism of Confucianism enables Confucian doctrines
to extend the responsibility for the Way of Heaven from the ruling class
to all individuals, or at least to all educated men. An individual is held
responsible not only for his own destiny, but also potentially for the
destiny of human beings as a whole and for the destiny of the world. In
this way, Confucian doctrines become the guidelines for the life of the
people, not merely the statecraft for the ruling class. Because everybody
is held responsible for the Way of Humans, the value of a person is seen
in his/her manifestation of Confucian virtues. Understood as the moral
guidance of life and the principles of human activities, the Way of Humans
is essential for peace and harmony in the world, because it is believed
that violating this guidance and these principles would seriously disrupt
the harmony between Heaven and human society, resulting in disorder
and chaos.
The Way of Harmony
In the Confucian doctrines of the Way, there is no clear line that can
be drawn between Heaven and humanity, thus the Way of Heaven and
the Way of Humans are always related in one form or another. The
terms used for the realm of Heaven such as qi (material force), yin–yang,
tai-ji (the Supreme Ultimate), yuan (the origin) and so forth are all applicable to human beings, while those referring to the human realm such as
xin (the heart/mind), xing ([human] nature), qing (emotions or feelings)
can also be used to designate Heaven. Other terms like de (virtue), li
(principle), dao (way) penetrate the two realms of Heaven and humanity.
This demonstrates that the relationship between Heaven and humanity
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is the foundation of the Confucian world-view, and that the relationship
is primarily one of harmony rather than of confrontation or conflict.
Confucian discourses on Heaven and humanity pave the way for its
conception of harmony, by which the Way of Heaven and the way of
humans are fulfilled in each other and the realisation of each of these
ways supports the other. In this sense, harmony is the culmination of the
Confucian way and marks the point where the Way of Heaven and the
Way of Humans converge. Confucianism took shape in a turbulent time,
both as a reaction against disorder, and as a remedy for correcting chaos.
Central to Confucian solutions of disorder and conflict is the question
of how to rebuild the Grand Unity (datong), which is believed to have
existed in the ancient Golden Age under the rule of the sage–kings and
to have been reclaimed and restored in the time of each generation of the
Confucian followers. This mission-like vision was revealed by Confucius in his propagation of a peaceful and harmonious life guaranteed
by virtue (de) and guided by ritual/propriety (li) in opposition to a cruel
and unjust reality. This vision was also repeatedly claimed and reclaimed
by Mengzi who devoted his life to opposing despotism and tyranny
in favour of a humane ruling by a benevolent king. It is illustrated in
the Book of Rites, especially in its chapters of the Great Learning, the
Doctrine of the Mean and the Evolution of Ritual/Propriety (Li Yun),
which deliberate on how to realise equilibrium and harmony (zhi zhonghe)
in the world and proclaim a utopian society as a social, moral, political
and religious ideal. The Confucians of the Han Dynasty believed that the
unity between Heaven and humanity was not only the natural law but also
human destiny, while the Neo-Confucians of the Song–Ming Dynasties
championed for a harmonious world in which all human beings were
brothers and all things companions.
harmony: the concept and the theme
Harmony (he) is not an invention of Confucius. The Chinese character
() for harmony appears only in bronze inscriptions where it is written
as , composed of a plant and a mouth. But this character is frequently
used to represent an older and more complicated character (), composed of yue () that denotes its meaning and he () that points to its
pronunciation. By analysing this character we can see that the Confucian
understanding of harmony is primarily related to music. In oracle-bone
inscriptions the character yue is a pictograph of a musical instrument,
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probably a short flute or panpipe of two or three holes ( , ). It is in
this sense that the character he () is defined as ‘harmonising multi-tones’
(he zhongsheng) in Shuowen Jiezi Zhu (1981: 85). It was commonly
recognised among the ancients that music and harmony were closely
related, as seen in a statement of the Book of Zhuangzi that ‘The Book
of Music speaks of harmony’ (Watson, 1964: 363). In the section on music
in the Book of Rites, tones are said to rise from the human heart, while
music is related to the principles of human conduct (Liji Jijie, 1989: 928).
In this sense music is believed to reflect harmony as well as create harmony
through touching the human heart and adjusting our conduct. As in
ancient times, music was primarily part of religious and social ceremonies,
ritual and music functioned together to establish harmony: ‘Music unites,
while rituals diCerentiate. Through union the people come to be friendly
toward one another, and through diCerentiation the people come to
learn respect for one another’ (Lin, 1992: 565). Further, ritual and music
are of metaphysical significance, because ‘Music expresses the harmony
of the universe, while rituals express the order of the universe. Through
harmony all things are influenced and through order all things have
a proper place’ (Lin, 1992: 571). Confucius believed that music was
essential for a good character and that music could not only harmonise
human sentiments but also bring order from social chaos. For him as well
as for many other Confucians, there are two kinds of music: harmonious
and peaceful music and seductive or violent music. The former is believed
to be good for improving human character and is conducive to bringing
peace to the state, while the latter encourages bad behaviour and fosters
immoral sentiments.
From music, harmony is extended to mean an orderly combination of
diCerent elements, by which a new unity comes into being. Harmony is
compared to a kind of tasty soup in the Zou’s Commentary on the Spring
and Autumn Annals, where ‘harmonising’ refers to mixing up diCerent
ingredients and flavours according to certain measures (Fung, 1952: 36).
Confucians consciously diCerentiate harmony from identity (tong), and
believe that identification of one thing with another is simply to replicate
what one already has, while to be in harmony with others is to produce
something new. In this sense it is claimed that to be harmonious is to
produce (sheng), to transform (hua) and to enlarge (da).
Manifest in human character, harmony is an inner state in which all
feelings and emotions are properly expressed following the Mean: ‘When
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these feelings are aroused and each and all attain due measure and degree,
it is called harmony’ (Chan, 1963a: 98). Everyone has emotions, but not
all of us can express them properly or in due time. To make our emotions
harmonious, we must cultivate our character. It is believed that cultivating
harmony within, we will become virtuous; while doing the contrary, we
will spoil our character. In this sense, harmony is identified with moral
virtues, and is deemed as the most important of all virtues. Confucius
and his disciples elaborated the meaning and functions of harmony,
and believed that among all those things that can be achieved through
ritual, harmony is most valuable (Lunyu, 1: 12). Dong Zhongshu made
it clear that ‘Centrality is that by which Heaven and Earth start and end,
harmony is that by which Heaven and Earth produce [the myriad things].
Therefore, of all the virtues the highest is harmony’ (Chunqiu Fanlu
Yizheng, 1992: 444).
For Confucians, virtue is of political importance by nature. As the
‘highest virtue’, harmony is said to be necessary for the peaceful life of
individuals, the family and the state. Order and peace must be cultivated
internally and externally. The Book of History holds the people who
have lost harmony in their heart responsible for the disorder in the
world: ‘It is from yourselves that the want of harmony arises:–strive to
be harmonious. In your families there is a want of concord:–strive to
be harmonious’; and it is recorded that when King Cheng of the Zhou
Dynasty declared his last charge, he commanded his subjects ‘to continue
the observance of the lessons, and to take the rule of the empire of Chow,
complying with the great laws and securing the harmony of the empire’
(Legge, 1992, vol. 3: 505, 558).
As Confucians consider politics to be a branch of education, harmony
becomes an important content as well as the primary aim of moral
training. It is recorded that in the Zhou Dynasty the king ‘regulated the
emotions of the people with six kinds of music, and educated them with
harmony’ (Zhouli Zhushu, 1980: 708). To realise harmony within and
without, individuals are required to play an active, creative role in recasting and reshaping their life, to improve their understanding of the world
and to manifest their own nature. Harmony as the highest ideal is thus
closely related to nature, politics, ethics and daily life. In this sense it is
sometimes addressed as the ‘Central Harmony (zhonghe)’. By ‘central
harmony’ Confucians mean that harmony is central to all existence and
all activities and is rooted in the innate centrality and equilibrium.
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The doctrine of harmony propagated by the early Confucian masters
was later developed in Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucians take harmony
not only as a central concept, but also as the spirit animating Confucian
doctrines and as the vitality empowering Confucian practices. They
believe that harmony is the underlying principle of all relationships, and
that harmony is the reason why all virtues can be fully realised.
When moral principles and human destiny are united in harmony, they
will be preserved and abide in principle. When humanity [humaneness]
and wisdom are united in harmony, they will be preserved and abide
in the sage. When activity and tranquillity are united in harmony, they
will be preserved and abide in spirit. When yin and yang are united
in harmony they will be preserved and abide in the Way. And when
the nature of man and the Way of Heaven are united in harmony,
they will be preserved and abide in sincerity.
(Zhang Zai, in Chan, 1963a: 507)
As the central theme, harmony penetrates all levels and dimensions of
Confucian discourses. However, it is addressed primarily in the context
of the relationship between Heaven and human beings. This relationship
is discussed and explored from many diCerent points of view. In terms
of metaphysics, a harmonious relation between Heaven and humans
refers to harmony between spirit and material, between form and matter,
between mind and body, and between the one (the universal) and the
many (the particular). In a religious sense, it indicates a continual process
between this life and the life hereafter, between the divine and the secular,
and between heavenly principles and human behaviour. In the area of
naturalism, it points to the unity between humans and Nature, between
beings (the living) and things (the existent), and between the social and
the natural. From the perspective of politics, it eCects the unity between
the ruled and the ruling, between the government and the mandate to
govern, and inspires the people to correct disorder and chaos in order to
attain to peace and harmony.
The various Confucian schools diCer in their understanding of
what Heaven is, and consequently they hold diCerent opinions about
the harmony between humans and Heaven. Of these opinions, two constitute the mainstream of the Confucian doctrines of harmony; one
locating harmony in the oneness of humans and Heaven, the other finding
harmony in human conformity to Natural Law.
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oneness of heaven and humans
For many Confucians the harmony between Heaven and humans denotes
a moral correspondence between humans and their Ultimate. Mengzi
considered the extension of one’s heart and cultivation of one’s nature to
be the way to know Heaven and to serve Heaven. Influenced by the School
of Yin–Yang and the Five Elements, which ‘contemplated profoundly
the increase and decrease of the yin and yang and wrote . . . on their
permutations’ (Shiji, 1998: 2344), Han Confucians, in the main, understood harmony as a metaphysical oneness, a kind of political/moral
mechanism in which so-called ‘moral co-operation’ is forged between
Heaven as the supreme ruler above and the human ruler below. They
placed the responsibility for social and natural harmony on the shoulders
of the ruler. Harmony is the Mandate of Heaven, but to enjoy harmony,
the ruler must first cultivate his own virtue.
Dong Zhongshu established it as the fundamental principle for Confucianism that ‘humans and Heaven are of one species’ (Chunqiu Fanlu
Yizheng, 1992: 341). The oneness of Heaven and humans was used to
reveal various manifestations of the macrocosmic–microcosmic unity.
Firstly, humans and Heaven are believed to be of the same nature and
can communicate to each other (tianren xiangtong):
Heaven possesses the yin and yang, so do humans. When the yin force
arises in Heaven and Earth, the yin force in humans arises in response.
In turn, when the yin force in humans arises, so does that in Heaven and
Earth. When the yang force in humans arises, the yang force in Heaven
and Earth arises too. Their courses are one.
(Chunqiu Fanlu Yizheng, 1992: 360)
Secondly, humans are believed to correlate with the numerical categories of Heaven (renfu tianshu). According to this theory, humans are
produced on the pattern of Heaven, and the human body, mind and
morality are shaped exactly in accordance with the principles of Heaven.
For example, the human head is round, correlating to Heaven that is
believed to be round; the human foot is rectangular, correlating to the
square Earth; the human body is believed to be composed of 366 pieces
of bone, correlating to the number of days in a year; the four limbs correlate to the four seasons; the five inner organs correspond to the Five
Elements; and the eyes correspond to the sun and moon. Human emotions
are also believed to correspond to the changes of Heaven, sadness and
pleasure corresponding to the yin and the yang (Chunqiu Fanlu Yizheng,
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1992: 354–7). Thirdly, human aCairs would arouse Heaven to respond,
and Heaven does so by rewarding the good and punishing the bad (tianren
gangying). Therefore, ‘the root of natural disasters is in the faults of the
nation’ (ibid.: 259). To restore the original harmony between Heaven
and humans, Heaven ‘commands’ humans to behave morally and ‘guides’
them in their life. The responsive correspondence between heavenly
principles and human aCairs reveals the vital importance of humans following the universal principles. However, the response between Heaven
and humans is not only one-way traAc, in which Heaven gives orders
while humans follow passively. Confucians believe that humans can play
an important role in maintaining harmony, not only between the universe
and ourselves, but also between the fundamental powers of the universe,
the yin and the yang. As early as the Han Dynasty, it was stressed that
governmental politics had a responsibility for the harmony of the world,
and that ‘the duties of the “Three Highest Ministers” included, in addition
to their normal administrative work, that of “harmonizing the yin and
yang”’ (Fung, 1953: 10). For example, it is recorded that a prime minister
of the Former Han Dynasty, Chen Ping (?–179 bce) once described to
his emperor the duties of a prime minister in the following terms: ‘It is
the duty of the prime minister to be an aid to the Son of Heaven above,
to adjust the forces of the yin and yang, and to see that all proceeds in
accordance with the four seasons. At the same time he must strive to
nourish the best in all creatures’ (Watson, 1961, vol. 2: 166).
The causal responses between Heaven and humans have a wide
range of implications, and it is by these that Confucian politics, ethics,
education, literature and so forth are constructed and performed.
humans and nature
As Heaven has a dimension of Nature or Natural Law, harmony between
Heaven and humans is understood to be a co-operative relationship
between humans and their natural environment, in which natural laws
should be followed and the natural environment protected. From this, a
kind of Confucian eco-ethics develops, aiming at establishing a state of
harmony between humans and Nature.
Confucian eco-ethics is based on the perceived agreement between the
Way of Heaven and the way of the humans. The laws operating in the
world at large are also eCected in every human being. The commentaries
on the Book of Changes proclaimed that:
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Heaven is high, the earth is low, and thus ch’ien (Heaven) and k’un
(Earth) are fixed. As high and low are thus made clear, the honorable
and the humble have their places accordingly. As activity and tranquility
have their constancy, the strong and the weak are thus diCerentiated.
Ways come together according to their kind, and things are divided
according to their classes. Hence good fortune and evil emerge.
(Chan, 1963a: 265)
This paragraph illustrates the Confucian understanding of the operations of the cosmos, to which humans ideally adjust themselves. To be in
tune with cosmic principles leads to peace, order and happiness, and to
act against them will result in chaos, disorder and misfortune. Human
conformity to Natural Law does not necessarily mean their oneness, and
harmony can be derived from the separation of human aCairs from natural
courses. The first Confucian who deliberated on this theme was Xunzi,
who insisted that Heaven as Nature stood outside the human realm.
Against those who believed superstitiously that praying to Heaven would
result in blessing and disobeying Heaven in disasters, Xunzi argued that
the natural course of Heaven could not be changed by human aCairs, and
natural laws ran their own course whether humans had behaved morally
or not. Against those who insisted that Heaven was an interfering ruler
and all human fortunes or misfortunes were rewards or punishments from
Heaven, Xunzi maintained that Heaven was none other than Nature and
the harmony between Nature and humans could not possibly be in their
mutual interference. If the people follow the law of Nature and therefore
enjoy peace and happiness, Nature cannot make them unhappy. On the
other hand, if the people neglect their duties and do nothing good with
their life so that they become poor and miserable, Nature cannot reverse
their misfortune.
Since Nature does not have ‘emotions’ and ‘will’, it cannot intentionally create harmony for human beings. To secure harmony between ourselves and nature, we should make use of natural laws for our own ends.
We are the architects of our own fate. For this reason, Xunzi argued
passionately that
Instead of regarding Heaven as great and admiring it,
Why not foster it as a thing and regulate it?
Instead of obeying Heaven and singing praise to it,
Why not control the Mandate of Heaven and use it?
(Chan, 1963a: 122)
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Here the Mandate of Heaven is understood as Natural Law, and
controlling and making use of natural laws implies understanding them,
following them and taking advantage of the knowledge of them. Xunzi
suggested two ways to do this. One is to act in accordance with the course
of Nature. For example, ‘plowing in spring, weeding in summer, harvesting in autumn and storing up in winter’ are in accordance with the natural
order and thus people will have plenty of grain for food. The other is
to protect the natural environment by following the order and law of
nature. For example, the season of spring is the time when all things grow,
so that all kinds of activities against growth must be forbidden in this
season, or in Xunzi’s words, ‘axes and halberds are not permitted in the
mountain forest’ and ‘nets and poisons are not permitted in the marshes’
(Knoblock, 1990: 105).
The understanding that Heaven is Nature, and that harmony comes
from abiding by natural laws was accepted and developed by a number of
naturalistic or rationalistic Confucians, of whom the most prominent are
Wang Chong (27–107), Liu Yuxi (722–843) and Wang Fuzhi (1619–92).
These scholars emphasised that Heaven did not create harmony but
only provided the conditions for humans to be in harmony, and that
a harmonious relationship between humans and their environment is
conducive to their well-being. Against those who believe that Heaven
produces things purposely to feed and clothe humans, Wang Chong argued
that ‘Heaven moves without the desire to produce things and yet things
are produced of themselves’, and that to maintain a harmonious relationship between people and nature, we should behave in the manner
of Heaven, acting only when necessary; otherwise letting things run
their courses (Chan, 1963a: 298). For Liu Yuxi, Heaven and humanity
are diCerent, in terms both of their nature and of their functions, and
harmony is the result of the parallel realisation of the natural and the
human way. ‘Humans cannot do what Heaven can do; neither can Heaven
do all what humans are able to do . . . The Way of Heaven is to produce
and give forth, which is applied to manifest the strong from the weak;
while the way of humans is to establish laws and moral codes, which is
used for distinguishing the right and the wrong’ (Zhang, 1982: 179).
Wang Fuzhi believed that the principle of Heaven was of constant growth
and transformation, and we must understand this principle and expand
the human way to ‘create’ our own destiny (zaoming) rather than waiting for Heaven to do so (Chan, 1963a: 700). These ideas are, of course,
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not what we mean today by eco-ethics, and these scholars can hardly
be counted as environmentalists. However, they do represent another
dimension of Confucian harmony, supplementary to the politicalised and
moralised view of the relationship between humans and Heaven.
social conflicts and their solutions
The Confucian discourses on harmony are not only a theoretical attempt
to search for the secrecy of metaphysical mysteries. They have the strongly
practical function of compromising opposition and solving conflict, so
that order rather than disorder should prevail. Enthusiastically committed
to harmony, Confucians attach a great significance to the resolution of
conflict and opposition. Harmony is not considered a static identity, in
which everything holds to its status quo and nothing is to be changed.
Rather, harmony is regarded as a result of constant changes and reconciliation of conflict. It is the Confucian view that opposition arising from
the fundamental forces of the cosmos will necessarily lead to harmony,
which is classically summarised by Zhang Zai as such: ‘As there are forms
(xiang), there are their opposites (dui). These opposites necessarily stand
in opposition to what they do. Opposition leads to conflict, which will
necessarily be reconciled and resolved’ (Chan, 1963a: 506).
Opposition creates tension, and the accumulation of tension will burst
into conflict. Conflict will then be reconciled and harmony obtained. In
this sense the concept of harmony itself contains conflict and its resolution, and the Confucian Way of Harmony indicates not only the need
for adjustment and refinement, but also the need for overcoming tension.
Metzger observes that the tension between the good and the bad or
between ideal and reality ‘was central to Neo-Confucianism, a point misunderstood by Max Weber and often overlooked by scholars focused on
the theme of “harmony”’ (Metzger, 1977: 108). Admitting the necessity
and unavoidability of tension and opposition, however, does not mean
that Confucians are content with them. The Confucian Way of Harmony
works on the solution and resolution of conflict and search for the eCective
methods to reconcile and resolve various kinds of conflict.
Within the human realm, the Confucian resolution of conflict concentrates on three kinds of relationship. Firstly, it searches for peace
and harmony between the self and others by working on human nature,
calling for cultivating one’s virtues conscientiously. Secondly, it seeks to
harmonise family relationships through cultivating the sense of mutual
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responsibilities between family members. Thirdly, it looks for a way
to diminish the possibility of violent conflict by establishing a humane
government in which virtues overwhelm selfish contention. By these three
methods Confucianism attempts to build up a mechanism that sustains
and maintains a comprehensive social structure in which no conflict goes
unnoticed and no opposition is allowed to exceed certain limits. On
the one hand, these methods were useful in the past and some of them
may still be of value for today. On the other hand, they were designed
within certain historical conditions and created new problems while
solving old ones. Therefore, a careful examination of these three aspects
of Confucian resolution is needed for an overall view of the Confucian
Way of Harmony.
According to Confucianism, conflict first arises from the relation
between oneself and others, and harmony is the result of an appropriate
accommodation of one’s own needs to the requirements of others. Confucianism holds that a human is by nature a social being, who knows
innately, or can be taught to know, how to relate to others and how to
treat others properly. To be a human, therefore, is not merely to look
after one’s own interests and satisfy one’s own desires. The Confucian
solution of the conflict between oneself and others is that one must
start with the personal cultivation of one’s own character, and then be
in harmony with others by extending one’s virtue to others. It believes
that lack of self-cultivation leads to the dominance of self-centredness in
personal relations and to the misunderstanding and mistrust of others,
which, if not dealt with properly, will result in conflict. The diCerence
between a morally superior and a morally deficient person is that the
former has understood what is righteous in one’s own self and then
extends it to others, while the latter has misinterpreted human relations
in order to satisfy one’s own interests. Conflict has its causes in one’s
own heart, and a harmonious relationship with others is only a reflection
of one’s inner peace. ‘Those who are not virtuous cannot abide long either
in a condition of poverty and hardship, or in a condition of enjoyment’,
while those of virtue will still experience enjoyment and be full of
happiness even when living a life in a mean and narrow lane with only ‘a
single bamboo dish of rice and a single gourd of water’ for a meal. It is
believed that when our heart is at peace and our character is harmonious
we will naturally have peaceful relations with others, because it is not
riches nor powers but virtuous manners that ‘constitute the excellence of
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neighbourhood’ (Lunyu, 4: 1, 4: 2, 6: 11). On the contrary, an uncultivated character causes one not only to be discontented and complaining,
but also to have an eye only on profit and benefit for oneself. Mengzi
took this selfish contending for profit to be the source of conflict and
killing. He believed that if everybody chose what was most profitable
as the only guideline for behaviour, then there would be no virtue and
morality in the world, while murder, killing and violence would replace
ethical norms and the human world would become a kingdom of
beasts in which everyone was engaged in the war against everyone else
(Mengzi, 1a: 1).
Virtues or the lack of them can be revealed through self-examination.
Zengzi, a disciple of Confucius famous for his conscientiousness, remarked that he would examine himself many times a day to see whether
or not he had done his best in what he undertook on another person’s
behalf, whether or not he had been faithful in dealing with his friends, and
whether or not he had mastered and practised what he had been taught
(Lunyu, 1: 4). Such an examination is necessary because it can help us to
find out what is wrong in our own character and what is needed in dealing with others. Any failure to have a harmonious relation with others is
said to have its root in our own character, and to find out the cause one
should reflect on our own self. Confucius took archery as an illustration:
‘In archery we have something resembling the Way of the superior man.
When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns around and
seeks for the cause of failure within himself’ (Chan, 1963a: 102). The
same attitude is also held by Mengzi when he proposed that we should
look into our own self whenever we are not in harmony with others:
If one loves others and no responsive attachment is shown to him, one
should turn inward and examine whether or not one has had suAcient
benevolence; if one is trying to rule the state but unsuccessfully, one
should turn inward and examine whether or not one has gained enough
wisdom; if one treats others according to the rules of propriety but is
not responded to with appropriate proprieties, one should turn inward
and examine whether or not one has shown proper respects to others.
(Mengzi, 4a: 4)
Ill-treatment by others should not be taken as a reason for one to
return evil with evil. When we are misunderstood or ill-treated, we should
not blame Heaven nor accuse others, but have firm faith in Heaven, as
instructed by Mengzi that
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One who loves others is constantly loved by them; one who respects
others is constantly respected by them. If one is treated in a perverse
and unreasonable manner, a person of virtues will still turn round upon
himself: ‘I must have been wanting in benevolence; I must have been
wanting in propriety . . . I must have been failing to do my utmost
[in dealing with them].’
(Mengzi, 4b: 28)
The Confucian solution of personal conflicts are first tested and applied
in the family, which, according to Confucianism, is the cornerstone of
order and peace in the world. As the family is the basic unit of human
community, harmonious family relationships are believed to be crucial
for a harmonious society and a peaceful state: ‘If only everyone loved his
parents and treated his elders with deference, the whole world would be
at peace’ (Mengzi, 4a: 11). For those who are of the ruling class, their
virtues in family aCairs are even more significant, because it is believed
that when these people feel profound aCection for their parents, the common people will naturally be humane (Lunyu, 8: 2). It was in this sense
that Confucius put family harmony above all other considerations, and
family responsibilities above all other social duties. In some extreme cases,
Confucius was even prepared to consolidate family relations at the price
of social regulations, because in his view social justice was nothing other
than an extension of family aCection and could not be realised unless
aCectionate family relationships were sustained. His disciples highlighted
the importance of family harmony for the stability of the whole society,
and made use of family virtues to correct disorder (Lunyu, 1: 2).
Family relationships in the Confucian classics are threefold, that is,
between parents and children, between a husband and his wife, and
between elder and younger brothers. Of these three relations the first and
the foremost is that between parents and children, in which the primary
responsibility for family harmony is laid on the children. The tension
between diCerent generations is reduced through the respect, reverence
and service that the younger pays or provides to the elder. It is believed
that the cause of any conflict between parents and children is in the latter’s
inappropriate attitude and behaviour, and whenever a conflict arises, it
is the children’s responsibility to seek reconciliation by apology and selfcriticism. For a long period in history, this solution contributed to a stable
family structure at the price of children, and its prejudice against children
was open to extreme applications. In the later period of imperial China
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it was indeed carried to such an absurd extreme that the meaning and
value of a son’s life could be found only in his absolute obedience to his
father: even if a father ordered his son to die, the son would not be deemed
filial if he was unwilling to die (fu jiao zi wang, zi buwang buxiao).
To some extent, Confucianism was responsible for such an extremely
politicised practice of filial piety. It was not without reason that Confucianism was attacked at the beginning of the twentieth century as a
‘ritual religion’ (lijiao) and was accused of ‘murdering people’ by means
of ritual/propriety (yili sharen). However, as Julia Ching argues that the
ritualism that maintains hierarchically rigid family and social relationships was based on the Confucian vision of social life, but historically
speaking, it ‘was less the product of Confucianism, and more the combined product of Confucian philosophy developed under the influence
of Legalism and its theory of power, and Yin–Yang philosophy with its
arbitrary correlation of cosmic forces and human relations’ (Ching, 1997:
267), it would not do justice to the Confucian Way of Harmony if we
conclude that the Confucian masters did not leave behind them a balanced
view of the parent–child relationship. As a matter of fact, Confucius
opposed that filial piety was simply to obey one’s father. In the Book of
Filial Piety, he was supposed to remark that
[T]he father who had a son that would remonstrate with him would
not sink into the gulf of unrighteous deeds. Therefore when a case
of unrighteous conduct is concerned, a son must by no means keep
from remonstrating with his father, nor a minister from remonstrating
with his ruler. Hence, since remonstrance is required in the case of
unrighteous conduct, how can (simple) obedience to the orders of a
father be accounted filial piety? (Legge, 1968, vol. 3: 484)
Many other early Confucian thinkers insist that both a father and his
son are equally responsible for a harmonious family. While the son must
show filial piety towards his parents, the father is required to be kind and
aCectionate to their children (fuci zixiao). In the parent–child relationship, children’s education, especially their moral training and cultivation
of character, is the first duty of their parents. If a son was not educated
well, it was his father who should be blamed (zi bu jiao, fu zhi guo).
Further, Confucians believe that a harmonious family needs a contribution from both parents and children, and that their contributions must
not be conditional upon each other. Parents’ love or children’s respect
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must be given for its own sake, and the fault of a parent should not be
used as an excuse for his or her children not to fulfil their own duties,
nor should a disobedient child justify the parents giving up their parental
As a traditional doctrine that came into being in a patriarchal society,
Confucianism held a low opinion of women. In the family, the primary
virtues of a young woman were considered to be her filial piety towards
parents and parents-in-law, assistance to her husband and education of
her children (xiangfu jiaozi). Mengzi once described the common practice
of that time in the following terms:
When a girl marries, her mother gives her advice, and accompanies her
to the door with these cautionary words, ‘When you go to your new
home, you must be respectful and circumspect. Do not disobey your
husband.’ This is the way of a wife or concubine to consider obedience
and docility the norm. (Mengzi, 3b: 2)
Under the guidance of such a code, a wife was confined to housework
and family services, and was considered less worthy of respect than
her husband. It was against this social background that Confucius once
put a woman and a morally deficient person on an equal footing: ‘In
one’s household, it is the women and morally inferior men (xiao ren)
that are diAcult to deal with. If you let them get too close, they become
insolent. If you keep them at a distance, they complain’ (Lunyu, 17: 25).
The discrimination against women was further developed in the name of
Confucianism. It became an established norm in traditional Confucian
societies that a virtuous woman was the one who had no political ambition and even had no exceptional abilities (nuzi wucai jiu shi de), and
who would always follow her husband, no matter who and where he
was (jia ji sui ji, jia gou sui gou, which literally means that if married to
a rooster a woman should follow the rooster, and if married to a dog she
should follow the dog).
Confucianism should not be held solely responsible for such discrimination against women in East Asia; for this was characteristic of
almost all the traditional patriarchal societies, and it was only in a later
stage when Confucianism became rigidly dogmatic that all measures
against women were associated with Confucian doctrines. In a Confucian society mother/grandmother enjoyed respect and admiration. The
achievements of many great men were said to come, directly or indirectly,
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from the virtues of their mothers. Thus behind Confucius stood his mother
who supported and educated him to become the greatest sage. The story
that the mother of Mengzi moved her home three times for the sake of a
better educational environment for her child was known to every family
and every schoolchild. Confucianism favoured the labour division
between male and female in the household: a husband was in charge of
external responsibilities while a wife was responsible for internal matters, and considered this to be the principle of the universe: ‘The correct
place of the woman is within; the correct place of the man is without.
That man and woman have their proper places is the greatest concept in
nature’ (Wilhelm, 1967: 570). This division gave senior female members
in a family a clear range of responsibilities so that they could exercise
their wisdom and manifest their feminine virtues. In a sense these
understandings and measures contributed to a stable family structure in
a traditional society, although they are far from the modern concept of
equality between men and women.
Confucians maintain that politics is an extension of family and personal
ethics, and political conflicts must be dealt with according to the same
principles used in a family context. Confucianism developed its solution
of political conflicts by laying down rules for handling internal and
external problems. In a Confucian context, a state (guo) is nothing other
than an enlarged form of family (jia) and the relations between the ruler
and the subjects, and those between those who govern and those who
are governed are equivalent to the relations between parents and children.
However, unlike in the family where children are held primarily responsible for dissolving conflict, in the state the chief responsibility for reducing
tension and solving conflict is laid on those who rule and govern. It is
a Confucian conviction that with a cruel and immoral ruler no state
would be at peace, and only humane and virtuous rulers could bring the
end to conflict and make the state prosperous and harmonious. For the
faithful followers of Confucianism, to take part in politics is to be engaged
primarily in moral cultivation and moral education, sincerely carrying out
the moral principles in government. Only those who have love and aCection in their heart are considered to have the right to rule. With this moral
orientation, Confucianism opposes the policies of ruling simply by legal
or military punishments. Confucius criticised the imposition of the death
penalty on people without properly educating them, and Mengzi condemned a ruler as a tyrant if he killed a single innocent person. For faithful
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Confucians, a good politician must be the one who morally loves and
takes care of all the people and the one who is concerned before anyone
else in the world but enjoys only after everyone else has enjoyed.
Economic considerations often play an important part in political
conflict. Poverty leads to discontent and discontent leads to contention
and conflict. Confucianism has been regarded as a tradition which gives
priority to the moral side. However, there are also teachings within the
tradition which are aimed at harmony between morality and materiality.
When seeing the flourishing of population in a state, Confucius remarked
that the next step was to enrich them, which should then be followed
by ‘educating them’ (Lunyu, 13: 9). Here Confucius gave priority to
developing economic well-being rather than to moral training by listing
‘moral education’ as the last. While proposing that one should die for
righteousness, or should be virtuous rather than rich if these two were in
opposition, Mengzi aArmed that the people must have a decent material
life before being taught with virtue and propriety (Mengzi, 1a: 7).
On the one hand Confucians believe that it is a priority to dissolve
conflict by enriching people and making it possible for them to have a
decent life. On the other hand, they emphasise that moral virtues like
humaneness, righteousness and faithfulness, rather than merely wealth
and riches, are the meaning and goal of life. To rid the state of conflict,
one ‘worries not about poverty but about uneven distribution, not about
underpopulation but about disharmony’ (Lunyu, 16: 1). In other words,
one of the Confucian ways of solving conflict caused by economic concern is to distribute wealth evenly among people, and to decrease the gap
between the rich and the poor. Distribution could not be even and fair
unless the ruler and the ruling class were moral, decent and virtuous,
unless they could ‘reduce their own expenditure and love the people’
(jieyong airen) and unless they put the interests of the people above their
own interests.
However, the two-sided understanding of life was developed in two
directions in later Confucianism. Some Confucians pushed it to the
extreme that morality was all that one should strive for, and thereby
called for ‘preserving the Heavenly Principle and extinguishing human
desires (cun tianli, mie renyu)’ as a way to personal integrity and social
harmony. Other utilitarian-minded Confucian scholars emphasised that
material suAciency is the only foundation on which morality can be built
up: ‘When social results are achieved, there is virtue; when success is
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attained, there is principle’ (Tillman, 1982: 133). Some of them even
reduced the meaning of ethical codes to the satisfaction of material needs:
‘All the ethical codes of human relationship and the principles of aCairs
are about wearing clothes and having meals’ (Fenshu Xufenshu, 1975: 4).
Neither of these two sides reflects the balanced view held by Confucius
who indicated that however much human beings desired wealth and high
ranks, they must acquire these things in a righteous way (Lunyu, 4: 5).
In his view, material well-being and moral virtue can be harmoniously
related, the former being the basis while the latter its guidance. Wealth
and riches do not necessarily contradict the Way as long as they are
acquired in accordance with moral principles.
As in all predemocratic societies, the Confucian solution for political
conflicts faces the problem that it lacks the practical measures to supervise
and monitor the ruling classes. Keen Confucian watchers have noticed this
problem: ‘From the point of view of Western political thought, the most
glaring absence in this highly idealistic picture is that of any legislation through which the benevolence of the ruler and the obedience
of the people could be guaranteed and enforced’ (The Times Literature
Supplement, 19 July, 1998).
For a Confucian, this is a problem of morality rather than of legislation. To solve this problem, Confucianism provided three measures
to bind the ruler to moral principles, although whether or not these
measures could be fully implemented in imperial politics was always an
open question. The first is its doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. Without
the support of the spiritual and metaphysical Ultimate, no government
could be legitimised. It was in the light of the supreme sanction of
Heaven that Mengzi put forward the doctrine of ‘sovereignty in people’.
When weighing the three most important elements for the stability and
prosperity of a country, Mengzi said that ‘The people are of supreme
importance; the altars to the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes
the ruler’ (Mengzi, 7b: 14). Having identified the Mandate of Heaven
with the will of the people, wise Confucian politicians used the waterboat to illustrate the relationship between the people and the ruler. The
people are like water and the ruler is like a boat. As a boat may float in
water or be capsized by water, a good ruler enjoys peace and harmony
supported by the people, while a bad ruler brings in chaos and disaster that
will eventually lead to his being overthrown. The second measure to call
the ruler to his responsibilities is the ancestral tradition. Confucianism
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is a tradition based on the reverence of ancestors and the preservation
of ancient culture. No matter how lofty an emperor was in the world,
he was a descendant of the ancestors, whose blessing, protection and
approval were believed to be essential for his identity and legitimacy.
Loyalty to the ancestors thus became not only a way to link him to his
powerful ancestors but also a means by which the ruler engaged in selfexamination and repentance of his faults in exchange for the ancestors’
continual support. The third measure is the doctrine of removing the
Mandate (geming) from an unworthy ruler. Under an immoral rule
people would complain to Heaven, and Heaven would then ‘withdraw’
its Mandate and give it to those of brilliant virtues. A king or an emperor
who did not possess virtues, who treated his subjects cruelly, and who
exploited the people to an unbearable degree was deemed to have lost his
legitimacy to rule and to govern. The Confucian doctrine of ‘revolution’
is essentially ethico-religious, based on the harmony between humanity
and Heaven, and revolution is believed to be a dynamic process of great
transformation, which recreates harmonious relationships and renews
the human mission to carry out the Mandate of Heaven on earth by
removing the primary source of chaos and disorder from society.
War between states is the most violent conflict and is believed to be
the main cause of miseries and the chief destroyer of social harmony.
The Confucian condemnation of war comes from its deep concern for
people’s life, because in war ‘The people are robbed of their time so that
they cannot plow and weed their fields, in order to support their parents.
Thus their parents suCer from cold and hunger, while brothers, wives,
and children are separated and scattered abroad’ (Mengzi, 1a: 5). To
stop war, Confucian masters explored ways to reduce conflicts of interest between states, and sought to bring peace and harmony to the world
by means of moral influence and the power of virtue. Confucians were
not pacifists in a strict sense. Brutal reality forced them to seek eCective
ways to end war, and the conception of ‘just war’ was upheld. A just war
is the one waged by righteous people, for good causes and for ‘punishing
the tyranny and consoling the people’ (diaomin fazui). However, Confucianism is generally more in favour of influence through virtue than
violence. Confucian masters preferred to bring peace and harmony to the
world by virtue rather than to secure peace by war. Confucius demonstrated this preference in his diCerentiation of Shun who was believed to
have won the empire by his virtue and King Wu (the actual founder of
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An introduction to Confucianism
the Zhou Dynasty) who overcame the Shang Dynasty by war. The music
of the former was said to be both perfectly beautiful and perfectly good,
while that of the latter was said to be only perfectly beautiful but not
perfectly good (Lunyu, 3: 25). For Confucius, the most eAcient way to
defend one’s country against aggression was not to strengthen its arms but
to strengthen its own people’s trust. As far as the security and peace of a
state were concerned, trust from the people was of the first priority, while
food and arms were only the second and the third (Lunyu, 12: 7).
As an old tradition, the Confucian Way of Harmony and its solutions
of conflict are contingent on historical conditions, and they have been
critically examined but not yet replaced by new ones. Confucians
emphasised that harmony could not be achieved unless there is constant
change and adaptation, as stated by Dong Zhongshu, ‘When change
(genghua) is obviously needed [in the state] but is not subsequently made,
the state cannot be governed well even in the hands of great sages’
(Hanshu, 1997: 2505). However, in reality the emphasis on harmony
was frequently used to strengthen hierarchically fixed and rigid human
relationships and to maintain the status quo. Another problem in the
Confucian Way of Harmony is the tension between its highly inspiring
theory and its less practical measures of implementation and this kind of
tension frequently caused more conflicts than the Confucian solution
could solve. As an inspiring ideal, Confucian harmony encourages its
followers to strive devoutly for peace and harmony, for which they
were even prepared to give up their riches, ranks and lives. However, it
relies on self-cultivation to enhance personal virtues to resolve all kinds
of conflicts, this renders the Confucian Way of Harmony quite weak in
creating peace and harmony out of conflict and disorder, nor suAcient
enough to reduce the tension within society and eliminate social causes
of conflict.
The Confucian Way of Harmony has its modern values. Extreme
Maoist Communists in Mainland China followed the Lenin–Stalinist
doctrine of ‘class struggle’ and opposed the traditional Confucian
appreciation of harmony. These people believed that contradiction
rather than harmony was the essence of the world and was the power
pushing a society forward. Therefore, a philosophy of struggle (fendou),
struggling against Heaven, against Earth (Nature) and against humans,
was inaugurated as the guiding ideology and was believed to bring
endless fulfillment to those engaged in the struggles. This resulted in
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The Way of Confucianism
disastrous conflict between the people and the natural environment
and between the people themselves, which culminated in the ten years’
Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Reflecting on history and the ideologies of the twentieth century, many contemporary Confucian or nonConfucian intellectuals of Mainland China endeavour to rediscover and
explore the theme of harmony in the Confucian tradition, focusing
on its significance for Chinese life and its guidance in dealing with
conflict. They argue that harmony must be reinstalled as the centre of
Chinese culture and re-established as the ideological foundation of the
twenty-first century for guiding all the nations in dealing with conflict
between people, between human beings and nature, and between nations
(Zhang, 1996, vols. 1–2).
Questions for discussion
1. How should we understand the importance of ‘Heaven’ for the
Confucian view of the world, society and human destiny?
2. What is the Confucian Way of Humans? How is the human way related
to the Way of Heaven?
3. What is meant by ‘harmony’ in the Confucian tradition? Why is it said
that harmony is the central theme running through Confucian doctrine?
4. Can Confucianism provide a useful resource for a modern eco-ethics?
5. How can we evaluate the Confucian attitudes towards family
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