Confucianism's Lack of "Magic" Made it Endure

Confucius (B.C. 551-479) must be reckoned, as regards his social influence, with the founders of religions. His effect on institutions and on men's thoughts has been of the same kind of magnitude as that of Buddha, Christ, or Mahomet, but curiously different in its nature. Unlike Buddha and Christ, he is a completely historical character, about whose life a great deal is known, and with whom legend and myth have been less busy than with most men of his kind. What most distinguishes him from other founders is that he inculcated a strict code of ethics, which has been respected ever since, but associated it with very little religious dogma, which gave place to complete theological scepticism in the countless generations of Chinese literati who revered his memory and administered the Empire.

Confucius himself belongs rather to the type of Lycurgus and Solon than to that of the great founders of religions. He was a practical statesman, concerned with the administration of the State; the virtues he sought to inculcate were not those of personal holiness, or designed to secure salvation in a future life, but rather those which lead to a peaceful and prosperous community here on earth. His outlook was essentially conservative, and aimed at preserving the virtues of former ages. He accepted the existing religion—a rather unemphatic monotheism, combined with belief that the spirits of the dead preserved a shadowy existence, which it was the duty of their descendants to render as comfortable as possible. He did not, however, lay any stress upon supernatural matters. In answer to a question, he gave the following definition of wisdom: "To cultivate earnestly our duty towards our neighbour, and to reverence spiritual beings while maintaining always a due reserve."[16] But reverence for spiritual beings was not an active part of Confucianism, except in the form of ancestor-worship, which was part of filial piety, and thus merged in duty towards one's neighbour. Filial piety included obedience to the Emperor, except when he was so wicked as to forfeit his divine right—for the Chinese, unlike the Japanese, have always held that resistance to the Emperor was justified if he governed very badly. The following passage from Professor Giles[17] illustrates this point:—

The Emperor has been uniformly regarded as the son of God by adoption only, and liable to be displaced from that position as a punishment for the offence of misrule.... If the ruler failed in his duties, the obligation of the people was at an end, and his divine right disappeared simultaneously. Of this we have an example in a portion of the Canon to be examined by and by. Under the year 558 B.C. we find the following narrative. One of the feudal princes asked an official, saying, "Have not the people of the Wei State done very wrong in expelling their ruler?" "Perhaps the ruler himself," was the reply, "may have done very wrong.... If the life of the people is impoverished, and if the spirits are deprived of their sacrifices, of what use is the ruler, and what can the people do but get rid of him?"

This very sensible doctrine has been accepted at all times throughout Chinese history, and has made rebellions only too frequent.


Confucianism was, in practice, mainly a code of civilized behaviour, degenerating at times into an etiquette book. It taught self-restraint, moderation, and above all courtesy. Its moral code was not, like those of Buddhism and Christianity, so severe that only a few saints could hope to live up to it, or so much concerned with personal salvation as to be incompatible with political institutions. It was not difficult for a man of the world to live up to the more imperative parts of the Confucian teaching. But in order to do this he must exercise at all times a certain kind of self-control—an extension of the kind which children learn when they are taught to "behave." He must not break into violent passions; he must not be arrogant; he must "save face," and never inflict humiliations upon defeated adversaries; he must be moderate in all things, never carried away by excessive love or hate; in a word, he must keep calm reason always in control of all his actions. This attitude existed in Europe in the eighteenth century, but perished in the French Revolution: romanticism, Rousseau, and the guillotine put an end to it. In China, though wars and revolutions have occurred constantly, Confucian calm has survived them all, making them less terrible for the participants, and making all who were not immediately involved hold aloof. It is bad manners in China to attack your adversary in wet weather. Wu-Pei-Fu, I am told, once did it, and won a victory; the beaten general complained of the breach of etiquette; so Wu-Pei-Fu went back to the position he held before the battle, and fought all over again on a fine day. (It should be said that battles in China are seldom bloody.) In such a country, militarism is not the scourge it is with us; and the difference is due to the Confucian ethics.


It was a code of morals by human beings for human beings, with no supernatural elements to make them unrealistic. As a result, it made life in China more pleasant for thousands of years.

Folksonomies: history philosophy civilization sinology confucianism

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Confucius (0.970472): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Confucianism (0.794493): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Han Dynasty (0.724677): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Mencius (0.606722): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Ethics (0.586488): dbpedia | freebase
Filial piety (0.563951): dbpedia | freebase
Piety (0.540288): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Xiao Jing (0.501385): dbpedia | yago

 The Problem of China
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Russell , Bertrand (2007-12-01), The Problem of China, Cosimo, Inc., Retrieved on 2013-10-11
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: history


    07 AUG 2012


    Studies in Chinese classical literature and philosophy.