At the heart of every civilization lies a deep question: “How then, should we live?” In response to the chaos and calamity of the Shang dynasty, one man developed a political philosophy that would set rules of morality and relationships for the next two to three dynasties. Confucianism was born out of the calamity of the Warring States Period in hopes of establishing a system of governance that would bring about socio-political stability in a time of strife.
Debate has gone on for centuries about the soundness of Confucianism as a philosophy that attempts to merge concerns of morality and politics. On one hand, it seems to have effectively promoted values of humanism and a system of checks and balances within the government. On the other hand, its effects seem questionable because of other social, political and cultural ramifications. By discussing both of these factors, we put forward an argument that highlights the limitations of Confucianism as a human philosophy, and points the faults of its ideology toward the improper and imperfect execution of it.
In theory, Confucianism did effectively promote virtue ethics
Some scholars have argued that Asian values and culture typically conflicts with Western humanist values that emphasize inalienable individual freedom and rights (Sim, 2013). But on closer examination, the two seem more compatible than not. The key difference is that Confucianism frames a sense of individual autonomy within a context that focuses more on a response toward social relationships.
The concept of “Li”, for example, guides an individual’s external actions, social norms and expectations according to what Confucius regards to be respectful and dignified in Chinese culture. The other mutually reinforcing concept of “Ren” focuses on cultivating an internal state of compassion and empathy in order to reinforce the practice of mutual respect in relationships. Together, “Li” and “Ren” impart a communal awareness about moral agency and responsibility, and influence a broad spectrum of social customs in traditional Chinese culture – such as tea drinking etiquette, filial piety towards one’s parents and even the imperial traditions of kowtowing (Lai, 2007).
Since “Li” views the relationship between humans, nature and even material objects in a necessarily hierarchical structure, it seems to impose limitations on one’s autonomy. This is perhaps why the dynamics between “superior and inferior” can be stifling, especially to those who might agree with 18th C. Enlightenment thinker Montesquieu on his criticism of “oriental despotism” in Asian culture (Minuiti, 2012). But in light of Confucian’ insistence that all members of society be treated with basic propriety and respect, such criticism cannot be completely valid. Confucius even states in the Analects that if rulers failed to uphold the rule of law through rites that expressed “Li” and “Ren”, they should be considered as uncivilized and unworthy of being in power and authority.
Confucianism hinges on a principle of virtue ethics that defines right relationship with others and the right way of living based on what is understood to be intrinsically and objectively moral. It aims for people to strive for the most moral way of living, and stresses the importance of living according to that understanding even if others do not see the same way.
The Mandate of Heaven, Scholar-bureaucrats “Shi” and Confucian Intellectuals “Junzi” helped to keep governments in check
Though Confucius never really questioned the idea of centralized rule by a single political figurehead because it was already a deep-rooted cultural assumption by Chinese tradition, he did actively challenge the right way to rule (de Bary, 1993). The Mandate of Heaven made it necessary for governments to fulfil their moral obligation to the people in order to keep and maintain religiously legitimized power, because it held that the ruler would be expected to uphold the morals and security of its people in its many forms - and if they didn’t, subsequent instability or failure observed in the state would be perceived as the Mandate being transferred to another more capable ruler (Zhao, 2009).
Keeping the Mandate of Heaven meant the effortful maintenance of social, political, economic and moral stability. The people whom Confucius regarded to be the most important in helping rulers achieve this were the scholar bureaucrats (a.k.a “Shi”) and Confucian intellectuals (a.k.a “Junzi”), who were essentially looked to as the key sources of “the state’s supply for recruiting officials to serve in government”. Since the “intentions of Heaven were represented through the intention of the people”, “the monarch was to view his people as a mirror and grasp the mandate of Heaven through the plights of the people” (Guo, 2013). The most effective way of doing so, according to Confucius, was to ensure that advice and counsel came from ethically enlightened people who could effectively express “informed” opinions about the lives of citizens and be critical of the government's use of power (Sim, 2013).
Some contend a possible gap between the masses and the educated elite because of overly philosophical speculations that neglect practicality, but this seems contrary to Confucian teaching (Sim, 2013). Confucianism always prioritized the “concrete over the speculative”, and even then, aimed to combine “learning and speculation with a focus on the practical”. In this way, Confucianism ensured that imperial power would be challenged by the scholarly community’s strong influence.
The Mandate of Heaven and its Shortcomings
Confucius’ teachings, while laying the groundwork for what it means to have a stable government, was surprisingly vague in defining concepts that left it open to various interpretations and the possibility of being misused to fulfil personal ambitions.
The Mandate of Heaven was initially concocted by the Zhou as a pretext to overthrow the ruling House of Shang (Zhao, 2009), whom they accused of becoming morally corrupt and therefore losing the right to rule. Amidst the strife between the many houses during the Warring States era, Confucius adopted the concept of the Mandate of Heaven into his teachings, and interpreted as a divine contract between the Heavens and the Emperor (later extended to the ruling house) that did not give one “the right to rule, but a duty to fulfil” (Zhao, 2009).
Herein lies at least two inherent problems. Firstly, the criteria determining whether a ruler gains or loses the Mandate has never exactly been specified by Confucius, though it is widely accepted that a disaster or negative event could be a sign of losing the Mandate (Zhou, 2009). A successful rebellion is also considered to be among the surest signs that the ruler has fallen out of favour with the Heavens (de Bary, 1993).
Secondly, the responsibilities of this contract lies on the Emperor alone to fulfil and maintain, unlike a divine contract made between God and his people in Abrahamic faiths, where responsibilities lies with the people as a whole to ensure their overall continuity (Adler, 1993). The vagueness of conditions under which the Mandate is transferred places huge scrutiny on the emperor’s actions, and any circumstance that is perceived to be a misfortune by the people could easily be interpreted as a sign that the Mandate has been lost. This would incite the rebellions among the people against a ruler whom they believe has lost approval of the Heavens (Zhou, 2009).
It was relatively uncommon for various opportunistic factions to interpret the gain or loss of the Mandate to their own benefit, as illustrated in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, where the Song Dynasty sought to legitimize their rule and unify the various Chinese factions by proclaiming that the Mandate had been passed to them. They cited their single rule over large tracts of traditional lands (though the combined lands of their rivals far exceeded their own). Consequently, the Mandate of Heaven suffers from a cyclical problem of subjective interpretation and prevents a fundamental change in the traditional Chinese political system.
Although the initial ideas of Confucianism nobly pursue what it means to live and govern morally, as with all other human philosophies, it was not immune to the immorality of mankind. In the context of ambition and power struggles, people are bound to act in ways that go against their own value system and even motivates the abuse of social constructs that were meant to prevent moral calamity in the first place. Nevertheless, for the most part Confucianism was popular enough to see its philosophies perpetuated through several successive dynasties.
And here's some parting wisdom; thanks for reading and have a great day!