Confucius and Jesus: Humanism Took Different Pathways in Chinese and Western History
Click here to return to the homepage:Taoist Philosophy for 21st Century
Click here to read previous essays
By You-Sheng Li
(for the book titled A Nevw Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy)
Chinese government first named Confucianism as its official ideology in the second century BC. Since then Confucianism remained as the mainstream culture to shape society and the way of life for more than two thousand years until the early twenty century when the first republic of China was founded. As the influence of Western culture entered China and it was followed by the subsequent revolutions, the fading out of Confucianism in the Chinese life occurred in a relatively short time between 1840 and 1919. The Roman Emperor Theodoisius made Christianity, based on Jesus’ teaching, the official religion in the late fourth century, and since then Christianity remained the dominant ideology to shape society and the way of life in Europe for more than a thousand years until recently. The fading out of Christianity as the main ideology in the Western society was a gradual process. The underlying reason was the social movement of secularization started by the Renaissance.
If we see a culture and its people as a man, the two giant men firmly stood, one in China and the other in Europe, for thousand years, unmoved by the strong winds of various cultures and ideologies. Their brains were nothing but the teachings of two real men, Confucius and Jesus. Their successes were due to the humanist soul in their teachings, which represent the peak humanism ever reached during ancient time. It is most interesting and revealing to compare the two men, their ideas, and their influence on subsequent history.
1. Definition of Humanism and its History in China and the West
Humanism is the tendency to emphasize man and his status, importance, achievements, and interests. The definition of humanism varies within a broad category of ethical philosophies that support the dignity and worth of all people. Furthermore, humansim can be a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems and is incorporated into several religious schools of thought. Humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth, morality, social justice, and an ideal society through human means.
It is worth noting that humanism here is not in the narrow meaning in contrast to faith in supernatural being, and that humanism in relative terms includes any ideology that directs towards the improvement of human conditions, physically or spiritually. For example, human sacrifice was considered to be running against humanism, but its complete disappearance in China was only witnessed about a hundred years ago. Confucius was so opposed to human sacrifice that he even cursed those who started to use artificial figures to replace real men, as Confucius thought, the dignity of man was buried with those figures that looked so real. Such an idea of Confucius falls in the broad category of humanism as it contributed to the disappearance of human sacrifice in China. For similar considerations, Jesus’ teachings and Christianity fall in too, though it is not a popular topic to write about Jesus’ humanist contribution.
Early Greek people began their thought by studying nature, and those are called the natural philosophers. Since Socrates and other sophists, attention was shifted to social, political, and moral issues. This shift is regarded as the beginning of Western humanism. The next important time in humanist history was when Stoicism appeared as a school of thought. Seneca’s (2 BC- 65 AD) aphorism, “To man, a man is sacred”, remains as a powerful slogan for humanists today.
In spite of the remarkable development of human thought along the line of humanism, the Roman Empire was still built on slavery. Millions of slaves lived inhumane lives. It was the emergence of Christianity and the collapse of the Roman Empire brought an end to the slavery system, and many thought that Christianity contributed to the Roman collapse. Christian teachings reached the bottom of the social stratification, and warmed their hearts when they say that God loves every man on earth. Christian bishops fulminated against the entertainments of the theater and amphitheater, and the baths. The baths were thought to be responsible for sexual depravity. Christian aristocrats gradually redirected their funding money to churches, which were constructed in great numbers in the 400s and 500s. They also funded hospitals, orphanages, homes for the aged, which was for the first time in Roman history.
For a thousand years or so, Christianity remained as the mainstream culture to unite Europe and keep the social order. The Renaissance was a much broader social campaign to stress the value of mankind and the value of a man in front of society and or in front of nature. The Renaissance however denoted a move away from God to man as the centre of interest. The Renaissance encouraged on the ability of man to find about the universe through his own efforts, and more and more to control it. The official separation of governments and religion gradually led the way that Christianity is no longer relevant in many aspects in our society and in our life.
Chinese Humanism developed along a quite different historic pathway. Lao Tzu, Confucius, and other early Chinese thinkers all took the ancient society as the ideal model. Chinese records painted a clear picture of those peaceful yet humanist society. Here I called it the natural humanism in contrast to the later developments of humanism that is one of many creations by man. The natural humanism was a product of the human heart and human nature. As a result, Chinese humanist thought appeared in a much earlier stage of civilization than in the West. Chinese scholars think there was shift of attention from gods, ghosts, and other spiritual beings to man in the early years of the Chou dynasty (1122-256 BC), a few hundred years before any philosophical thinkers were born. Such a shift was due to the careful thinking over why their new dynasty was able to replace the old one, and they concluded that human hearts were behind the change of dynasty. As discussed in Chapter 15.3, the social structure during that time allowed all people to live in primary or quasi-primary society, and human nature remained as the major force to keep the society stable. Such a shift was directed both by observation and by human nature. Rational thinking was present in primary society but was not able to set up a leading ideology other than human nature.
This shift from gods to man covered such changes in ancient China: The impersonal sky or heaven replaced the original personal God (shangdi) as the new super god; divination used eight trigrams to replace oracle bones; a whole set of rituals tuned with music was used to buttress the social ranking system, and make it less inhumane. Humanism as a social movement affecting all levels of the society appeared only during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-222 BC), and with Confucius as its leader. Both Confucius and Jesus were criticized in modern history, but such criticism cannot erase their tremendous contribution in the humanist history.
The Fundamental Difference Between Confucius and Jesus: Jesus was More Like Mo Tzu
The following, though brief, is enough to show the fundamental difference between Confucianism and Christianity :
1). Confucianism relied on the government, but Christianity started as a movement against the governmental authority;
2). Confucius and his followers kept a distance from gods and spirits, but Jesus and his followers relied heavily on miracles and mysterious phenomena to preach;
3). Confucius held that gentlemen should not form parties and should not compete with each other, but Jesus painted his group as a unique one by criticizing others, and struggled to get a larger social space for his Christianity;
4). Christianity had strict organization, going out to preach, but Confucianism remained at the level of academic thought and self-cultivation.
Confucius was from a family of the low level of the ruling class, equal to the intellectuals or scholars who worked in the government in later times. Jesus’ father was a carpenter, and Jesus himself also used to work as a carpenter. Confucius said, “The inferior men were not afraid of heaven as they do not know the decree of heaven; they also take great men lightly, and laugh at the words of the sages.” (Analects 16.8) Jesus was exactly such an inferior man who did not obey the local authority and laughed at their words. Jesus preached his religion, but he was not an official religious staff who was entitled to preach. This eventually led to Jesus’ execution. Thus Jesus was a rebel under the name of God. Christianity was oppressed by the official religious organization, Judaism, and by the government so that they left their country to preach abroad. Since Jesus’ followers were all law-abiding, they were not noticed by the Roman Government for years. But they were still not tolerated by the government, and large numbers of Christians were executed.
Confucius preached his ideology of benevolence and righteousness that was based on loving people, but he did not go to the bottom level of the society to be friends with them. Those uneducated people lacked the rational thinking and believed in miracles and mysterious phenomena. Educated people or people of the ruling class did not care much about those people except for exploiting them. They were particularly vulnerable to Jesus’ preaching.
The Chinese ruling class had long got rid of irrational thinking of miracles and mysterious phenomena from the early years of the Chou dynasty and adapted a rational thinking to manage the national affairs. But this was only limited to the ruling class and educated people. The massive peasants in the rural areas were still in the grip of irrational thinking.
Irrational thinking was partially due to lack of knowledge, but it was based on the intuition. Our born way of thinking is not rational, which is supported by our daydreams and dreams at night. In the primitive primary society, rational thinking was possible only at times such as when they faced a task to be done. Systemic rational thinking on a large scale is part of our civilized culture.
Jesus’ time was after the Axial Age, and without any doubt, the Roman authority in Israel adapted to rational thinking for their administration. According to the New Testament, Jesus’ preaching was full of miracles and mysterious phenomena. Such stories spread rapidly in the people of low classes but raised the suspicion from the authority. Contrary to Jesus, Confucius distanced himself from the low classes and also from miracles and mysterious phenomena. He promoted such attitudes towards gods and spirits: Be respectful to Gods and spirits but keep a distance from them. Confucius had the principle of Four No-Comments in his teaching and counseling practice: He never talked about parapsychology, psychic power, mental distance, and ghosts. More than two thousand years later today, the attitudes towards religion, gods and ghosts are largely the same in the circle of Chinese intellectuals, who can be called the loyal followers of Confucius.
Confucius said, “Gentlemen have nothing to compete for. If they have to, they do it like in an archery match, where they ascend to their positions, bowing in deference toward other people who take part in the match. When done, they descend, and drink the ritual cup. This is the competition of gentlemen.” Thus Confucians do not form any parties and do not usually compete. In the modern Western politics, clerks and other staff in the government offices are often discouraged to join the competitive parties in the parliament system. Most of Confucius’ followers did take positions similar to today’s clerks and other minor officials during Confucius’ time.
From the very beginning, Jesus competed vigorously with the local authority for support of the people. It was well justified for the official religious staff to interpret the contemporary version of the Bible in certain way in order to keep the society stable. Jesus ridiculed their interpretation of the Bible, and preached his own belief. Acting as the representative of God on earth, he sent his love to every body he met. In doing so, I believe, Jesus challenged the authority of the local government, and on behalf of the poor people, he was in a rebellious position against the rich classes. But this rebellion was not one of violence but one of honesty, will, and commitment to social justice and love. Once Jesus suggested to a rich man that he sell his belongings and give to the poor, and doing so, he would have treasure kept in heaven. When the rich man was reluctant to do so, Jesus said to his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24) The early Christians were such well organized groups that they formed more than egalitarian society but literally communist society. Such teachings and organizations had a great appeal to the people of low classes especially when the economy was poorly developed and people lived on meager supplies. It is no wonder why Christianity met such a rapid success in Europe.
Christianity followed Judaism as a monotheist religion. Judaism kept saying that their God was the only God, all other gods were only idols. Such statement kept Israel people from being attracted by gods from the neighbouring cultures. When Christians preached within the Roman Empire, it had the effects to discriminate against other religions and their gods. Romans were typically polytheist believers, and they worshiped any gods which happened to have worked to them, namely, materialized their wishes such as curing an illness. Therefore, there was no another god who was claimed as the only god except for the Christian God. Christian monotheist explanation of God was more philosophical, though the bible describes God only as one god among many others. No competition with Christian monotheist theory was another reason for its rapid success.
Among the various schools of thought in ancient China, only the Mohism was most close to Jesus and his teachings. Mo Tzu (476-390 BC) was also from a handcraft family, and may be a carpenter himself. Mohism represented the voice of the people of low classes. Both Confucianism and Mohism were most popular during the Warring States Period (475-222 BC). Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals says, Mo Tzu had “massive followers, abundant disciples, filling up all areas under heaven.” Like the early Christianity, Mohism had strict organization. Their members were well disciplined, dedicated, frugal, and hard working, so brave that “they all could jump into fire and run on edges of swords and would not look back for a moment until death” (Huainan Tzu: Chapter 20). Once one of their leaders committed suicide for faith, and 183 disciples killed themselves to be buried with him. It is beyond doubt that if there had been a good leadership, they would have been a ever-victorious and unbreakable force in all social conflicts.
Mo Tzu said, “If all people in the world love each other, states do not attack on each other, families do not interfere with each other, no robbers and no thieves, kings and fathers are kind to their court officials and sons while court officials and sons are filial to their kings and fathers, if so, the whole world will be orderly.” Thus Mohists promoted universal love more than two thousand years ago in China. It carries the same message as Jesus’s call for loving your enemies. If Mohism had been put into serious practice, Chinese history would have been different. Mohists would have been able to form a religious organization similar to Christianity functioning as an internal restricting power to the centralized government, and this power like the early Christianity was unbreakable. Since the first centralized government appeared in the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC), only the emperor had the space for free thinking, what the people wished could only be a peace for them to live their lives without interruption, it was no longer possible to harbour the rapid pace of social changes of the Spring Autumn and Warring States Period (770-221 BC).
3. From Confucianism and Christianity to the Chinese and Western Pathways of Humanism
In contrast to Jesus’ Christianity, Confucius fitted his Confucianism into the established frame of “king is a king, minister is a minister, father is a father, and son is a son”(Analects, 12.11), and then set up the standards for the spiritual characters and morals of Confucian scholars. Thus Confucian humanism could only be put into practice inside the established frame of social order. Unfortunately, there was apparently not always an easily operable mechanism to push forward humanist policy within the established frame of order in Chinese history. In the Book of Rites, Confucius says,
Use rituals to decide it is right or wrong, use rituals to determine whether a man was sincere or not, use rituals to point out the mistakes, use rituals to set up good examples of benevolence and morals, use rituals to show the benefits of being modesty and conciliatory, use rituals to show the regulations the people have to follow. If someone does not follow the rituals and regulations, he has to give up his position as a ruler, since people regard him as the cause of disaster. This is called the moderate means.
Here Confucius makes it clear that a ruler has to behave like a ruler, and follow the rituals and regulations. The ideology behind those rituals and regulations is Confucianism or humanism, since there are such words: sincere, benevolence, modesty and conciliatory and so on. As how to have the ruler who runs against Confucian humanist policy removed from his position, there is no easily operable mechanism. From the last sentence “he has to give up his position as a ruler, since people regard him as the cause of disaster”, it is clear that Confucius gave this important yet difficult task to heaven and to the people who did not have their representatives inside the government. If Confucius did not want massive peasant uprisings to serve as a checking system to make sure that the ruler carry on the Confucian humanist policy, those are only beautiful yet hollow words. Contrary to Confucianism, Jesus’ Christianity combined Confucius’ heaven (God) and people to form an unbreakable social force as an internal restricting mechanism to make sure that the government was on the right track of humanism.
Meng Tzu (372-289 BC), a famous Confucian scholar only second to Confucius, developed Confucius’ idea further, and proposed some practical measures in a sequence. What could be done when a ruler refused repeatedly the right advice of humanism by a Confucian minister? Meng Tzu said: 1). The minister had the option to leave; 2). The ruler could be replaced by another one through the ruler’s clan. In cooperation of the royal clan, ministers did sometimes change the emperor in the subsequent history. This first measure in line certainly helped to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy. Such changes of rulers were often violent but usually on small scale in Chinese history.
Meng Tzu further confirmed the actions of vassal states that overthrew the national ruler when the latter departed from the right track of humanist policy in early Chinese history. Thus when a national ruler departed from humanist policy and his court and clan failed to replace him by another one, a local state could replace the unfitted ruler by means of revolution or usurpation. This is the second measure in line to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy. Reminded by this theory of Meng Tzu, Chinese emperors took preemptive action to demolish all vassal states during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC -220 AD) and dismiss all local military governors in the Song dynasty (960-1279). Thus no more local military powers to compete with the central government even when the latter was weakened by its departure from humanist policy.
Meng Tzu did not mention the third measure in line to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy. Confucius and Meng Tzu could not be blamed for the negative effects of the third measure directly, but they were partially responsible. Confucianism did not design an operable mechanism to restrict the emperor’s power. As result, the emperor’s power was expanded so that the second measure in line to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy by usurpation of local military powers was eliminated completely by the emperor from the root. In Chinese history there were plenty of loyal ministers gave up their lives to admonish the emperor. Those ministers were like Christians who gave up their lives for their faith. I think the above quotation from Confucius has the connotation that massive peasant uprisings were the third measure in line to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy.
It was not an easy job for an ordinary peasant to run a county or a province. How could he all of sudden come to run a huge country? This means that it was harder than climbing up the blue sky. This may stop some peasants from trying to rebel. Confucians were often lacking the wish to go to the bottom of the society like Mohists and Christians did. In Chinese history, peasants were often stranded in situations where they were going to die whether they rebelled or not. In most of such cases, the peasants accepted their fate, uttering no sound. But quite a few chose to up-rise against their fate. Chinese peasant uprisings were so often, so massive on scale, like the waves in the Yangtze river one after another. This is the negative effects of less-well-designed Confucian humanism. Another presentation of the same negative effects is the impression on Western historians who study Chinese history: Magnificent imperial culture was well in contrast to the primitive poverty of millions of peasants. One of the protagonists in the classic novel The Scholars raises a proposal to restrict the number of wives one could take in order to improve the situation that too many single men were in the countryside. People say, there were three thousand beautiful women in the palaces surrounding one man the emperor. If the Confucian ministers had had the spirit of rebellion of Christians and Mohists, and had led those women to the countryside to marry those single men, it must have been the unique tale of humanism in Chinese history on everyone’s lips.
Massive uprisings of peasants did climb up the blue sky by bare hands. There were two dynasties that were founded by the commoners in Chinese history, and their dynasties were stamped with the brand of Chinese peasants. These are the Han (206 BC-220 AD) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. In many aspects, they are worse than the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties that were founded by bureaucrats. After all military power was in the hands of the emperor after the Song dynasty, the only power source to overthrow the emperor and its court when they were weakened by departure from humanist policy was either from peasant uprising or foreign invaders, which was exactly what happened in the subsequent history. It is impossible to determine whether Confucius and Meng Tzu considered the foreign powers next door as part of their third measurement to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy, though foreign invaders did indeed enter in Chinese politics along peasant uprising as part of the third measurement. That is the Yuan(1272-1368) and Qing(1644-1911) dynasties, which had the cruel blood shedding of foreign invasion in addition to the much lower cultural level.
One of the reasons for the orderly prosperity during Emperors Literate and Scenery was the present of large vassal states inside their empire, which apparently served as a restricting factor to keep the country and its administration on the track of humanist policy. Both Emperors Literate and Scenery were remarkably modesty and self-refrained to stay away from excess ambitions. During the rebellion of seven vassal states, Emperor Scenery executed his prime minister in the request of those vassal states. The general who led the army to put down the rebellion refused repeatedly the orders from the Emperor who asked the general to rescue his brother , whose capital was attacks by those rebel vassal states. Those two incidents indicate that the Chinese government was far from totalitarianism because of the present of vassal states at that time.
During the reign of King Rigid of Chou (Zhouliwang ?-841 BC), the people of the capital rose to a rebellion. They swamped into the palace with sticks and farm tools in hands. King Rigid ran away and never dared to come back. The lord of a vassal state came to the capital as the temporary king for fourteen years, and then returned the throne to the royal family of Chou. In contrast, it usually took millions of lives to overthrow an unfitted government or to put down a massive peasant rebellion when the totalitarian government was well established later on in China. One of examples was the Taiping rebellion (1850-1864) that also lasted fourteen years, occupied almost half of China, and resulted more than twenty million deaths. From the records, the policies of the Taiping rebellion were much more humanist than the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). They even advocated equal rights of men and women and public ownership of land.
The Two Levels of Society and the Different Pathways of Chinese and Western Humanism
The genetically coded primary Society was the basic social organization of man immediately above families in ancient time. The ideal number of people in this primary society is believed to be around 150. Bands and tribes are regarded as primary societies. Human nature or intuition was the major force to keep primary society stable and functioning. Any social organizations or societies above or far larger than the primary society are secondary society. The introduction of social stratification and other institutions against human nature is often necessary to keep a secondary society stable.
Secondary society is a creation of human culture and has nothing to do with human genetics and human nature. Secondary society has limitless possible types, and each one may have its own evolutionary pathway. Modern secondary societies become similar, but ancient societies were much more diversified. According to Aristotle, ancient Greece had 158 political systems worth description.
Our present secondary society is a strictly rational system that does not tolerate irrational thinking. We need rational thinking if we are aiming at social achievements such as a well paid high position or if we are materializing a goal in the physical world such as building a house. Rational thinking enables us to reach our goals. But if we are relaxing in sofa with our family and are aiming to enjoy ourselves, rational think does not do us any good. Under such circumstances, it is quite okay if we talk nonsense or allow ourselves enter weird daydreams. Only primary society tolerates both irrational and rational thinking. An’ it harm none, do what thou wilt.
Once Jesus’ Christianity entered the centre of secular social power, they too stressed the value of rational thinking. In history, some witches were in a state of irrational thinking and kept saying weird things and bizarre ideas, and many of them were tried and burned to death in so-called witch-hunt of many Christian countries. Nowadays, pastors and priests are graduates of theological schools, and a son of an ordinary carpenter was not allowed to preach unless he has the qualification. In many ways, ancient primary society was more humanist than modern secondary society.
In the West, the first secondary society was city states seen both in the Middle East and in ancient Greece. Primary society was disintegrated to form secondary society of free individuals. Secondary society, as a creation by man, has numerous pathways to take, and each one needs a set of ideology and corresponding social structure, often stratification, to support the ideology. As different individuals had different ideas as what direction the society should go, political instability and violent conflicts were inevitable. In the Middle East, it was documented that the appearance of states was associated with shortened life spans. It was a chaotic nightmare to the people who was used to much more humanist primary society. The only hope they had in mind was God and other superpowers. On the other hand, no ruler could restore order overnight in a population that knew nothing about the discipline and obedience. It was thus inevitable to worship supernatural powers and to put supernatural powers before people. Various magnificent constructions dedicated to gods appeared in the Middle East, Ancient Greece, and in Latin and South America. The master of such secondary society was God, and people were only the servicemen to God. In the service of God, man was easily put up with inhumane living conditions.
After such an unusual start, human civilization is a process in which secondary society is improved to better harbour human nature, emphasis is shifting from God to man, and man further his self realization and self emancipation. In spite of the dramatic changes our secondary society has taken, human nature remains the same. Thus it is also a process in which man lost his way and then looked for his origin, and found back himself.
As mentioned in Chapter 15.2, the last five thousand years of human civilization of war was an upward spiral with an continuing increase in battles and imperial sizes and in social inequality. The increase in battles, social inequality, imperial sizes are all negative factors for humanism, and hindered the social movement of humanism. But the human conditions was improved during the last few thousand years, and shift from God to man did take place over a long time.
The process of Chinese humanism was quite different from the West. Both Lao Tzu and Confucius admired ancient society and regarded it as their ideal society. Lao Tzu says, “Heaven and earth coalesce and it rains sweet dew. The people, no one ordering them, self balance to equality.” “The Tao of nature is to pare back abundance and add to the insufficient.”(Tao Te Ching, Chapters 32, 77). According to Taoist philosophy, the ancient primary society was close to the ideal of humanism, and the following social structure in Chinese early civilization enabled people to remain in primary or quasi-primary society:
The King and his clan + Intellectuals Quasi-primary society
The vassals and their clans + Intellectuals Quasi-primary society
Villages and tribes Primary society
Under such a social structure in their early years of civilization, Chinese people were able to build their social network based on face to face interaction, which was not distorted by external force other than human nature (see Chapter 15.3 for reference). The above social structure covers nearly two thousand years and three dynasties. Ancient records though regard the three dynasties, Hsia, Shang, and Chou, as a continuous cultural tradition but outline the differences among the three dynasties. The following is my translated summary from The Book of Rites comparing the three dynasties:
Hsia (2200-1766 BC): The culture of Hia respects fate, pays respect to gods and ghosts but keeps a distance from them, is close to human nature and loyal, delivers rewards and emoluments before punishment and power, is intimate but no respect. The people are primitive, foolish, proud and wild, simple and ill-posed. The culture of Hsia does not take words lightly, does not require perfection, does not ask a lot from people, its people are not bored with their family and relatives, and its people have little to complain.
Shang (1765-1123 BC): The culture of Shang respects gods, leads its people in service to gods, puts ghosts before rituals, delivers punishments before rewards, and its people are respectful but not close. Its people are boundless and shameless. The culture of Shang does not take rituals lightly, expects a lot from the people.
Chou (1122-256 BC): The culture of Chou respects rituals and charity, pays respect to gods and ghosts but keeps a distance from them, is close to human nature and loyal, rewards and punishes with ranking system. Its people are close but no respects, clever, posed, cheating without shame. The culture of Chou forces people to meet its need, does not take gods lightly, exhausts the system of rewards and punishments.
From the above records, we can see the difference among the three dynasties: Both Hsia and Chou paid due respect to gods and ghosts but kept a distance from them. Shang stressed the service to gods and ghosts while relied heavily on force and punishment. More than a hundred thousand of oracle bones were recovered, and they showed that Shang often waged military attacks on its neighbours, and human sacrifices numbered to more than ten thousands. A notable Chinese historian (Wang 2004) held such view that class polarization first appeared during the Shang dynasty, and Hsia dynasty was therefore a classless primitive society.
With the above social structure, the society was mainly stabilized on human nature. There was no need to rely on forceful gods or ghosts such as those that cost Socrates’ life except for if they had unnatural goals and lacked the social mechanism to motivate the people to reach their goals. During the Shang dynasty, there might be such goals such as attacking peaceful neighbours and the appearance of class stratification for the first time. The Chou dynasty abandoned the Shang’s culture of gods and ghosts but used a more humanist way to stabilize a society of class polarization, the ritual system(see Chapter 6.3 for reference). Here I call the humanist policy in the Hsia dynasty the natural humanism. The shift from gods to man in the early years of the Chou dynasty is comparable to the shift from nature to human society in the ancient Greek thinkers, the beginning of humanist social movement by man.
In the Middle East , paralleled to the huge constructions dedicated to gods, the first centre of social power was concentrated among religious staff, priests and witches. Even when secular kings were separated and had their own social networks to control the population, religious centres remained powerful entities that owned vast areas of land and employed massive numbers of people. In many ways, religious centres shared power with the government. Even the priests and priestesses of the Apollo Temple at Delphi of ancient Greece served as influential consultants to the local kings.
When Israeli people developed their monotheist religion, they had a bible that lists out the major laws and moral norms for the society as dictated by God. The priests (prophets) had the power to interpret and preach those laws and norms, and the government was only responsible to carry out those laws and norms. Thus those religious centres functioned very much like today’s parliaments in the Western democratic governments. This contrasts well to the religious centres in ancient China.
For nearly two thousand years, the dominating religions in Chinese history were Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The function of those religions were at most like the Minister of Culture of the imperial government, and had no power to interfere any laws. The Minister of Culture could of course be dismissed at the emperor’s will. Closing down of temples and ban of religion occurred frequently in Chinese history.
Unlike Taoism and Buddhism, Confucianism was involved in politics. Such involvement was through the employment of Confucian scholars as government officials. Confucianism was never part of the imperial government. Nevertheless, the imperial government had the power to modify Confucianism at will. According to John King Fairbank (1994), it was the emperor (Hanwudi, 140-87 BC) who created the first official version of Confucianism by hybridizing Confucianism with Legalism to suit his needs for a centralized government. Fairbank called it the Imperial Confucianism, which was fundamentally different from the Confucianism founded by Confucius and Meng Tzu. The imperialist system with absolute power was a major setback for humanism in Chines history, though it also kept local lords in check.
With the government pressured by the continuous uprising of the peasants and influenced by Taoism and Confucianism, Humanism did achieve some major progresses in Chinese history against the increased social inequality and the further concentrated power on the emperor and his court. The following is what came to my mind while I was writing:
1). Taoist religion and Buddhism, first appeared during the late Han dynasty(25-220), provided a place of retreat from the inhumane secondary society. Although no place was immune to the imperial power, religious temples were safer shelters to many, who offended the government.
2). Taoist philosophy provided from theory to practical techniques a whole set of tools to treat the mental injuries inflicted by secondary society.
3). Confucianism developed into so called the Idealist Philosophy during the Song and Ming dynasties (960-1644), which further separated the spiritual cultivation of individual people from politics and the reality of secondary society. This provided an easily accessible and largely available spiritual retreat for those in need.
4). Human sacrifices were down significantly since the beginning of the social moment of Humanism, though foot-binding and other customs against women appeared, cruel punishments such as “ten thousand cuts” and “striping the skin off” remained.
5). Shaped and influenced by the ideal egalitarian society of Taoist philosophy, the class polarization in the countryside was much less in comparison with the West.
6). Absolute poverty of lacking food, clothes, shelters and other basic requirements for living was never eliminated in Chinese history, and even worse than the early years of the Chou dynasty. The number of deaths in war increased significantly.
5. Epilogue: The Spiritual Characters of Confucian Scholars
Both Christianity and Confucianism emphasize the spiritual characters of their followers, though Confucianism does not rely on God to consecrate its followers’ spirit. Confucius spoke in such great detail and explained the ideal image of a Confucian gentleman, but was reluctant to name anyone who met the criteria of benevolence. He apparently idealized and consecrated the spiritual characters of a Confucian gentleman. Thus Confucian scholars’ spiritual cultivation became artistic pursuit, and the spiritual characters were like a piece of art that was detached from any social power or godly power. Like the early Christians found joy in poverty while willing to die for their faith, Confucian scholars displayed unmatched courage and spiritual characters in spite of their poverty.
One of those scholars was Square (Fang Xiaoru or Square Filial-Confucianism, 1357-1402), who refused to cooperate with the new emperor in spite of a total of 873 people including himself, his family, his relatives, and his friends were executed. As he kept criticizing and even cursing the emperor to his majesty’s face, his mouth was ripped to the ear on both sides that failed to stop him. He was made to watch his brother’s execution, and tears welling out his eyes. The brother chanted a lofty and heroic poem to condole Square:
My dear brother, you need not wash your face with tears,
Die of benevolence and righteousness, and here’s.
From the royal ornamental column and a thousand years,
We then travel home together, chanting to our ears.
After Square was cut into two at the waist as the execution required, he managed to write ten and a half Chinese characters with his own blood to show his faith.
On the other hand, the new emperor was the uncle who dethroned his nephew. What a difference was there as to which one of their family became the emperor? Was there any need to be so serious? It was at most a ritual issue but far from the issue of Confucian humanist policy. In the above quotation(15.3), Confucius did set up rituals as the criteria to judge a ruler’s behaviour, but he clearly used rituals to promote his humanist policy. In fact, the nephew emperor violated the rituals first trying to undermine his uncle’s vassal state, and Confucian court officials including Square did not stop him. Paradoxically, the nephew’s wish to substantially reduce the power of vassal states was only accomplished by his uncle. To ascend the throne, wasn’t the same whoever drafted the imperial edict? Why did the emperor have to force Square to draft while the latter determined not to? This was the extremity of the development of rational thinking in secondary society that never occurred in primary society. If Square was the lord of a vassal state, how did the emperor dare to ask a rebuff to come to Square for the draft?
Therefore, those 873 deaths are not for such rubbish issue who was the right man for the throne from the same family, and they are to defend the sacred nature of the spiritual characters of Confucian scholars that Confucius and Meng Tzu outlined some two thousand years ago. It is like Pygmalion in the Greek mythology who loves the ivory figurine he has sculptured so that he gives up the happiness of sexual love and family. He thinks his figurine is the most beautiful in the whole world, and he is willing to sacrifice for the beauty he has created. Such sacrifice is radiating with beauty of the spiritual realm, far above the secular pursuit such as the size and power of an empire that increased in the last five thousand years against human nature. Whenever I feel heartache after reading about the dedication of lives of Confucian scholars to their faith, I rely on my above interpretation to make me feel better.
$12.95 per copy
It is a great book, interesting
$12.95 per copy
Chinese edition 401 pages; 中文版﹐401頁﹐書後有文獻與索引
Please leave your comments on this essay, and join the New Epoch Forum