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Confucianism is a Chinese religio-ethical tradition founded by Confucius (551-479 B.C.E). It is the leading component of the "Three Teachings," which also include Daoism and Buddhism, for their pervasive influence on the Chinese people's thought and behavior. As the mainstream tradition, it both reflects and reinforces the characteristic Chinese approach to life, emphasizing the relational aspects of human existence, this-worldliness, respect for tradition, self-cultivation through learning, action over doctrine, and harmony. Confucianism's influence lives on not only in China, but also in other East Asian societies.
Confucius lived in a period of social and political turmoil, when vassal states of the weakened Zhou approximately 1110-221 B.C.E.) government vied with each other for supremacy, providing fertile ground for innovative ideas on social order and effective government. Confucianism was one of the so-called "Hundred Schools" that arose in this period. Confucius believed that social order depends on people's ethical qualities, especially the ruler's. He set himself the task of restoring the declining tradition of the ancient sage-kings, and his genius lay in reinvigorating traditional concepts through creative exegesis, a practice often emulated by subsequent generations of Chinese reformers. For example, Confucius used the term junzi, which originally meant "nobleman," to refer to a virtuous person, thereby redefining nobleness as a virtuous achievement rather than a hereditary ascription. His own ambition was to convince the rulers to put his ideas into practice. After repeated frustrations, he settled down in his sixties to concentrate on educational activities. He is considered to be the first teacher in Chinese history to have broken the nobility's monopoly on education.
Posthumous official recognition came when the Han (206 B.C.E-220 C.E.) government of the unified empire declared Confucianism the state ideology. Numerous honors had been conferred on Confucius by emperors through the ages, including the title "Paragon and Master of the Ten Thousand Generations." Temples were dedicated to him, where rituals in his memory were performed. Traditionally, in every schoolroom there was an altar to Confucius, in front of which students would bow. The "Four Books," the core of the Confucian canon, became the syllabus for civil service examinations in the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1370 C.E.). Confucianism's status as state ideology ended only in the early 20th century with the overthrow of the imperial Qing government.
The Four Books are the Analects, a collection of conversations and anecdotes involving Confucius and his disciples; the Book of Mencius, a record of the conversations of Mencius (371-289 B.C.E.), a disciple of Confucius's grandson, and whose contribution to Confucianism's foundation is considered second only to that of Confucius himself; the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean, two chapters singled out from the Book of Rites and grouped together with the other two works by the Song Dynasty neo-Confucian Zhu Xi (1130-1200) so that, with Zhu's own annotations and commentaries, the four provide a systematic introduction to Confucian learning. Zhu's effort is part of neo-Confucianism, the movement from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that systematized and elaborated Confucian teachings and practices under the influences of Daoism and Buddhism.
The cardinal virtue highlighted in the Analects is ren, often translated as "human-heartedness." Etymologically, the character ren consists of two components that mean "two" and "person," reflecting the mutuality of human existence and the requirements that this imposes on one's dealings with others. Confucius advised helping others as one would like them to help one, and against doing to others what one does not wish for oneself, versions of the Golden Rule. Mainstream Confucians, following Mencius, believe in the innate goodness of people. However, for the seed of humanheartedness to flourish, nurture through proper conduct and reflection is required; hence, the importance of self-cultivation through learning. Internal humanheartedness needs to be given appropriate external expression in the form of proper conduct, which in turn provides the necessary scaffolding for the growth of human-heartedness, with each feeding on the other.
Neither human-heartedness nor proper conduct alone suffices. This is an example of the Confucian way of dialectical thinking, which is aimed at a balanced perspective encompassing the two interpenetrating and mutually causative polarities of yin (the negative) and yang (the positive), in this case the internal substance and the external form. This dynamic and holistic way of thinking is most clearly expressed in the Book of Changes, another Confucian classic.
The practice of proper conduct that nurtures human-heartedness includes fulfilling the requirements of one's diverse social roles. Filial relationships provide the archetype for all other kinds of social relationships, because human-heartedness finds its first expression in the home. Rather than beginning with a set of abstract ethical principles, Confucians work with what is initially available-the child, with an innate incipient moral sense, in the family-and gradually extend the child's moral world and moral competence.