Formation of the classical Confucian tradition
According to Hanfeizi (d. 233 bce), shortly after Confucius’ death his followers split into eight distinct schools, all claiming to be the legitimate heir to the Confucian legacy. Presumably each school was associated with or inspired by one or more of Confucius’ disciples. Yet the Confucians did not exert much influence in the 5th century bce. Although the reverent Yan Yuan (or Yan Hui), the faithful Zengzi, the talented Zigong, the erudite Zixia, and others may have generated a great deal of enthusiasm among the second generation of Confucius’ students, it was not at all clear at the time that the Confucian tradition was to emerge as the most powerful one in Chinese history.
Mencius (c. 371–c. 289 bce) complained that the world of thought in the early Warring States period (475–221 bce) was dominated by the collectivism of Mozi and the individualism of Yang Zhu (440–c. 360 bce). The historical situation a century after Confucius’ death clearly shows that the Confucian attempt to moralize politics was not working; the disintegration of the Zhou feudal ritual system and the rise of powerful hegemonic states reveal that wealth and power spoke the loudest. The hermits (the early Daoists), who left the world to create a sanctuary in nature in order to lead a contemplative life, and the realists (proto-Legalists), who played the dangerous game of assisting ambitious kings to gain wealth and power so that they could influence the political process, were actually determining the intellectual agenda. The Confucians refused to be identified with the interests of the ruling minority because their social consciousness impelled them to serve as the conscience of the people. They were in a dilemma. Although they wanted to be actively involved in politics, they could not accept the status quo as the legitimate arena in which to exercise authority and power. In short, they were in the world but not of it; they could not leave the world, nor could they effectively change it.
Mencius: The paradigmatic Confucian intellectual
Mencius is known as the self-styled transmitter of the Confucian Way. Educated first by his mother and then allegedly by a student of Confucius’ grandson, Mencius brilliantly performed his role as a social critic, a moral philosopher, and a political activist. He argued that cultivating a class of scholar-officials who would not be directly involved in agriculture, industry, and commerce was vital to the well-being of the state. In his sophisticated argument against the physiocrats (those who advocated the supremacy of agriculture), he intelligently employed the idea of the division of labour to defend those who labour with their minds, observing that service is as important as productivity. To him Confucians served the vital interests of the state as scholars not by becoming bureaucratic functionaries but by assuming the responsibility of teaching the ruling minority humane government (renzheng) and the kingly way (wangdao). In dealing with feudal lords, Mencius conducted himself not merely as a political adviser but also as a teacher of kings. Mencius made it explicit that a true person cannot be corrupted by wealth, subdued by power, or affected by poverty.
To articulate the relationship between Confucian moral idealism and the concrete social and political realities of his time, Mencius began by exposing as impractical the prevailing ideologies of Mozi’s collectivism and Yang Zhu’s individualism. Mozi’s collectivism rested on the advocacy of loving everyone. Mencius contended, however, that the result of the Mohist admonition to treat a stranger as intimately as one’s own father would be to treat one’s own father as indifferently as one would treat a stranger. Yang Zhu, on the other hand, advocated the primacy of the self. Mencius contended, however, that excessive attention to self-interest would lead to political disorder. Indeed, in Mohist collectivism fatherhood becomes a meaningless concept, and so does kingship in Yang Zhu’s individualism.
Mencius’ strategy for social reform was to change the language of profit, self-interest, wealth, and power by making it part of a moral discourse, with emphasis on rightness, public-spiritedness, welfare, and influence. Mencius, however, was not arguing against profit. Rather, he instructed the feudal lords to look beyond the narrow horizon of their palaces and to cultivate a common bond with their ministers, officers, clerks, and the seemingly undifferentiated masses. Only then, Mencius contended, would they be able to preserve their profit, self-interest, wealth, and power. He encouraged them to extend their benevolence and warned them that this was crucial for the protection of their families.
Mencius’ appeal to the common bond among all people as a mechanism of government was predicated on his strong “populist” sense that the people are more important than the state and the state more important than the king and that the ruler who does not act in accordance with the kingly way is unfit to rule. Mencius insisted that an unfit ruler should be criticized, rehabilitated, or, as the last resort, deposed. Since “heaven sees as the people see; heaven hears as the people hear,” revolution, or literally the change of the mandate (geming), in severe cases is not only justifiable but is a moral imperative.
Mencius’ “populist” conception of politics was predicated on his philosophical vision that human beings can perfect themselves through effort and that human nature (xing) is good. While he acknowledged the role of biological and environmental factors in shaping the human condition, he insisted that human beings become moral by willing to be so. According to Mencius, willing entails the transformative moral act insofar as the propensity of humans to be good is activated whenever they decide to bring it to their conscious attention.
Mencius taught that all people have the spiritual resources to deepen their self-awareness and strengthen their bonds with others. Biologic and environmental constraints notwithstanding, people always have the freedom and the ability to refine and enlarge their heaven-endowed nobility (their “great body”). The possibility of continuously refining and enlarging the self is vividly illustrated in Mencius’ description of degrees of excellence:
Those who are admirable are called good (shan). Those who are sincere are called true (xin). Those who are totally genuine are called beautiful (mei). Those who radiate this genuineness are called great (da). Those whose greatness transforms are called sagely (sheng). Those whose sageliness is unfathomable are called spiritual (shen). (VIIB:25)
Furthermore, Mencius asserted that if people fully realize the potential of their hearts, they will understand their nature; by understanding their nature, they will know heaven. Learning to be fully human, in this Mencian perspective, entails the cultivation of human sensitivity to embody the whole cosmos as one’s lived experience:
All myriad things are here in me. There is no greater joy for me than to find, on self-examination, that I am true to myself. Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to humanity. (VIIA:4)
Xunzi: The transmitter of Confucian scholarship
If Mencius brought Confucian moral idealism to fruition, Xunzi (c. 300–c. 230 bce) conscientiously transformed Confucianism into a realistic and systematic inquiry on the human condition, with special reference to ritual and authority. Widely acknowledged as the most eminent of the notable scholars who congregated in Jixia, the capital of the wealthy and powerful Qi state in the mid-3rd century bce, Xunzi distinguished himself in erudition and by the quality of his argumentation. His critique of the so-called 12 philosophers gave an overview of the intellectual life of his time. His penetrating insight into the limitations of virtually all the major currents of thought propounded by his fellow thinkers helped to establish the Confucian school as a dominant political and social force. His principal adversary, however, was Mencius, and he vigorously attacked Mencius’ view that human nature is good as naive moral optimism.
True to the Confucian and, for that matter, Mencian spirit, Xunzi underscored the centrality of self-cultivation. He defined the process of Confucian education, from exemplary person (junzi) to sage, as a ceaseless endeavour to accumulate knowledge, skills, insight, and wisdom. In contrast to Mencius, Xunzi stressed that human nature is evil. Because he saw human beings as prone by nature to pursue the gratification of their passions, he firmly believed in the need for clearly articulated social constraints. Without constraints, social solidarity, the precondition for human well-being, would be undermined. The most serious flaw he perceived in the Mencian commitment to the goodness of human nature was the practical consequence of neglecting the necessity of ritual and authority for the well-being of society. For Xunzi, as for Confucius before him, becoming moral is hard work.
Xunzi singled out the cognitive function of the heart-and-mind (xin), or human rationality, as the basis for morality. People become moral by voluntarily harnessing their desires and passions to act in accordance with society’s norms. Although this is alien to human nature, it is perceived by the heart-and-mind as necessary for both survival and well-being. It is the construction of the moral mind as a human artifact, as a “second nature.” Like Mencius, Xunzi believed in the perfectibility of all human beings through self-cultivation, in humanity and rightness as cardinal virtues, in humane government as the kingly way, in social harmony, and in education. But his view of how these could actually be achieved was diametrically opposed to that of Mencius. The Confucian project, as shaped by Xunzi, defines learning as socialization. The authority of ancient sages and worthies, the classical tradition, conventional norms, teachers, governmental rules and regulations, and political officers are all important for this process. A cultured person is by definition a fully socialized member of the human community, who has successfully sublimated his instinctual demands for the public good.
Xunzi’s tough-minded stance on law, order, authority, and ritual seems precariously close to that of the Legalists, whose policy of social conformism was designed exclusively for the benefit of the ruler. His insistence on objective standards of behaviour may have ideologically contributed to the rise of authoritarianism, which resulted in the dictatorship of the Qin (221–207 bce). As a matter of fact, two of the most influential Legalists, the theoretician Hanfeizi from the state of Han and the Qin minister Li Si (c. 280–208 bce), were his pupils. Yet Xunzi was instrumental in the continuation of Confucianism as a scholarly enterprise. His naturalistic interpretation of heaven, his sophisticated understanding of culture, his insightful observations on the epistemological aspect of the mind and social function of language, his emphasis on moral reasoning and the art of argumentation, his belief in progress, and his interest in political institutions so significantly enriched the Confucian heritage that he was revered by the Confucians as the paradigmatic scholar for more than three centuries.
The Confucianization of politics
The short-lived dictatorship of the Qin marked a brief triumph of Legalism. In the early years of the Western Han (206 bce–25 ce), however, the Legalist practice of absolute power of the emperor, complete subjugation of the peripheral states to the central government, total uniformity of thought, and ruthless enforcement of law were replaced by the Daoist practice of reconciliation and noninterference. This practice is commonly known in history as the Huang-Lao method, referring to the art of rulership attributed to the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) and the mysterious founder of Daoism, Laozi. Although a few Confucian thinkers, such as Lu Jia and Jia Yi, made important policy recommendations, Confucianism before the emergence of Dong Zhongshu (c. 179–c. 104 bce) was not particularly influential. Nonetheless, the gradual Confucianization of Han politics began soon after the founding of the dynasty.
By the reign of Wudi (the Martial Emperor, 141–87 bce), who inherited the task of consolidating power in the central Han court, Confucianism was deeply entrenched in the central bureaucracy. It was manifest in such practices as the clear separation of the court and the government, often under the leadership of a scholarly prime minister, the process of recruiting officials through the dual mechanism of recommendation and selection, the family-centred social structure, the agriculture-based economy, and the educational network. Confucian ideas were also firmly established in the legal system as ritual became increasingly important in governing behaviour, defining social relationships, and adjudicating civil disputes. Yet it was not until the prime minister Gungsun Hong (d. 121 bce) had persuaded Wudi to announce formally that the ru school alone would receive state sponsorship that Confucianism became an officially recognized imperial ideology and state.