The millennia-old Confucianism, dating back to the teachings of Confucius during the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., split into eight schools after his death. Because Confucianism is not an organized religion the way Catholicism or Judaism is, using the word "sect" to describe the divisions of Confucianism is not as appropriate as using the word "school."
In the fourth century B.C., Mencius, a student of Confucius, used Confucian ideals to teach that human nature is essentially good. Also advocating the benefits of divisions of labor to exercise the mind as well as the body, he believed that if a person truly lived in the mold of Confucius, he could not be corrupted by riches, conquered by power, or affected by poverty. Because of his influence and esteem, Mencius' teachings have lasted through the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as into today.
After Muncius, Xunzi (third century B.C.) was the next great Confucian thinker for whom a school of thought is named. He took the opposite stance of Muncius when he taught that human nature is essentially evil and drew followers with his polarizing opposite choice. Xunzi, like Mencius and Confucius, believed that education and self-cultivation were important, but differed from them by placing importance on the need for authority, social structure and intense scholastic work to stop the evilness of human nature from spreading too widely.
Like all serious students of Confucius, Dong (179-104 B.C.) was extremely dedicated to scholarly pursuits. He differed from the previous two students of Confucius in that he took a neutral stance on human nature, stating only that a person’s actions have consequences in the universe. Dong used the five natural elements -- fire, wood, metal, earth and water -- to form his version of Confucian cosmological theory, although his view was not as widely shared as the more earthly, rational take shared by Han Confucians.
Song Confucianism (960-1279) did not consist of any one scholar teaching Confucian ideals, but a collection of them. The men in this school of thought brought Confucian teachings back to what they thought were truer representations of Confucius, and preached living a life of self-cultivation and balance between humanity and the cosmos. Their themes of balance and synthesis were so popular that Song Confucianism extended beyond China and into Korea and Japan. Confucianism during the Song Dynasty was focused more on education, politics, literature and history than on promoting militaristic powers. Several philosophers rose to the top, among them, Zhou Dunyi, a metaphysical scholar, investigated nature, cosmology and the existence of being with its relationship to human moral development. Another, Zhang Zai, also focused on metaphysics, but emphasized the intangible "vital energy" -- qi -- that he believed resided in everyone.
In China, the next notable Confucian school of thought was started during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Scholars in this era focused on uniting a person’s mind with his actions and how they related to the earth instead of the heavens. Moral idealism, as originally taught by Mencius, was heavily promoted as Ming Confucians preached balancing Confucianism with everyday life. In spite of constant scuffling with the Mongols, which deflected attention away from Confucianism, several scholars rose to prominence. Xu Heng, in an effort to build bridges between the Mongols and Chinese, taught Confucianism to the former by starting with the sons of Mongolian nobility. Because of his and others' work, Wang Yangming advocated using greater thought and meditation in a person's personal and vocational life.
Confucianism had long since spread to neighboring Korea, and one scholar stands out: Yi T’oegye (1501-1570). Yi took an intellectual approach to Confucianism by incorporating Mencius’ ideas of basic feelings and emotions in his treatise, "Discourse on the Ten Sagely Diagrams," written to educate the king. Yi discussed how a person enters into a relationship with himself and others using Mencius' concepts of the four emotions -- commiseration, shame, modesty and integrity -- and seven feelings -- pleasure, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hatred and desire.
By the mid-17th century, Confucianism in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in China was starting to become associated with politics instead of remaining a spiritual and philosophical school of thought. One of the most significant consequences of this was the imposition of literary inquisitions that forced Confucian scholars to find a way to spread Confucius' teachings without arousing emperors' anger and jealousy. Books and treatises were still published but with the absence of overt political messages. Confucian philosophers like Dai Zhen gave the impression of spearheading scholarship in the humanities -- the classics, philosophy and literature.
In neighboring Japan, the successful spread of Confucianism was in no small part due to scholar Ogyu Sorai, a devotee to social and political reform. He used four Confucian texts published in 1190, collectively called Sishu, to convert people to the ancient Confucian ideals and was so influential that by the late 1600s, most educated Japanese citizens had had some degree of education from them.
Religious and political ideologies in the West began to have a large impact on the East at the start of the 19th century, and Confucianism was one of the victims. The first movement that overshadowed Confucianism in China was Marxism-Leninism, followed by the economic rise of power in Japan after World War II. Young Chinese intellectuals attacked traditional Confucianism and embraced democracy and science. The call for reform came to a head with the May Fourth Movement in 1919, a student-led revolution protesting the government's reaction to the Versailles Treaty, which would have transferred the Shandong Province to Japan. Bowing to protest pressure, which spread and became violent, the Chinese did not sign the treaty and focused on building a strong national identity.
However, Confucianism, having been so deeply bred in Chinese culture for thousands of years, did not disappear; modern scholars wove Confucian themes of loyalty and cooperation into personal and bureaucratic life. One effect was a revitalization of education by more rigorous teaching and exams. Another was that the government limited individual autonomy. The concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts carried over in promoting strong family units. In modern Confucian China, working together as a collective unit was favored over individual effort.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Mencius
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Confucianism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Xunzi
- Columbia University: The Song Dynasty in China
- Journal of the American Oriental Society; The Victory of Han Confucianism
- The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Tʻoegye and Yi Yulgok: A Reappraisal of the "Four-Seven Thesis" and Its Practical Implications for Self-cultivation; Edward Y.J. Chong
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: May Fourth Movement (Chinese history)
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