The details of Confucius’s life are murky, especially given the chaos surrounding the declining Zhou period in the 490s and 480s BCE. It is important to take into account the impact of interstate conflict on Confucius’s philosophical insights. A commoner who was effectively shut out of power by the three noble clans of Lu, Confucius was eventually driven out and forced to wander among the other states, due to the resentment of this traditional aristocracy. Despite the resistance of warring aristocrats, Confucius advocated a new approach to government, in which respect for the weak, poor, and defenseless would form the basis for civil society.
Victor H. Mair, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin, eds., Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 48–49.
During both the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1556-1046 BCE; 1046-256 BCE) families, both noble and common, worshipped and sacrificed to their ancestors. These sacrifices were of the utmost importance and any neglect would bring about misfortune and calamity, since ancestors had the power to aid or punish their descendants.
The selections that follow are from the Books of Songs (the Shih Jing) the oldest collection of Chinese poems, dating to the 11th century BCE. The Book of Songs was one of the five definitive Confucian classics that formed the backbone of Chinese culture and education for centuries.
From The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, Arthur Waley, trans. (London: Allen/Unwin, 1937).
A later student of Confucian doctrine, Master Meng (ca. 371–289 BCE) spread the teachings of the master, while also making his own distinctive contributions. Having traveled throughout China spreading Confucian ideals, particularly as a basis for governmental practice, Mencius composed a book that was in more of a narrative form than the Analects and was supplemented by stories, parables, and debates. He often used imagery drawn from the natural world and advocated the rulers’ involvement in cultivating a “well-field” system, both literally and metaphorically.
Victor H. Mair, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin, eds., Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 60–61.
When European Christian missionaries first came to Ming China, they made very little progress in converting the Chinese, in large part due to their limited training in Chinese language and culture. When he arrived in China in 1583, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) encouraged his followers to immerse themselves in the language and to become conversant with the rich traditions of Chinese literature. He also came to be respected by, and especially helpful to, the emperor, as he offered his expertise in the sciences and mathematics to the imperial court. With a European Jesuit (Adam Schall von Bell) as the official court astronomer to Kangxi, there were reports that the Emperor himself considered converting to Catholicism. Nevertheless, not every encounter between Chinese and Europeans went so smoothly, as the following anecdote from Ricci’s diary reveals.
Matthew Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century, trans. Louis Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953), 161–– 165.
British Broadcasting Corporation
In May 1989, a protest movement gathered strength in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as students convened and constructed a large statue called the Goddess of Democracy. By the beginning of June, the movement had turned into a generalized protest by workers and ordinary citizens in addition to the students. When they refused to disperse, the government sent in the army on June 4 to crush what, to many in the Communist Party, had become an incipient rebellion. The image of a lone man attempting to face down an approaching tank became the instant icon of the movement, but there are many other arresting narratives of the events that occurred during this protest. On the 15th anniversary of the suppression of these protests, the British Broadcasting Corporation interviewed survivors and eyewitnesses, gathering their testimonies into the report excerpted below.
When Buddhism reached China it encountered an already established civilization with deeply rooted literary and intellectual traditions. In addition, the scholarly elite of China was somewhat hostile to “foreign” influence. On the other hand, in the troubled times that followed the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE, Buddhism’s promise of a better hereafter proved a powerful draw among common people, while some rulers of the regional dynasties that replaced the Han saw in Buddhism a way to buttress their authority. Finally, Chinese intellectuals looked to it as a new source for magical elixirs of longevity or immortality (a path down which Taoism had already traveled by this time) and of metaphysical speculation. Major translation projects were undertaken in the period 200–500 CE, and knowledge of Buddhism spread through these texts and through the building of temples and the founding of Buddhist communities of monks. By the 400s Buddhism had become established widely enough to cause concern among traditionalist Chinese, especially among the Confucian scholarly elite, and to provoke counterattacks in the form of government persecution in the north and of tracts attacking the faith in the south.
The following text, whose author and exact date of composition are unknown, takes the form of a Buddhist answer to some of the common lines of attack contained in such tracts. From that internal evidence, and knowing something about the reaction against Buddhism in China, we can safely assert that it comes from southern China during the fifth century CE. In order to win the Chinese over to Buddhism, the followers of the new faith had to address, among other things, significant aspects of existing Chinese culture—for example, the importance of ancestor worship and of the five relationships of Confucianism. The author pursues one of the logical lines to take when recommending something new to a culture: He argues that the practice of Buddhism is compatible with traditional Chinese values and that the ideas in Buddhist texts are similar to those in the Chinese classics. Buddhism, he asserts, complements and extends Chinese cultural practices rather than contradicting them.
From Mou Tzu in The Disposition of Error by DeBary, et al., Sources of the Chinese Tradition, 274–80. Copyright © 1960 Columbia University Press.
The Lives of Eminent Korean Monks is a compilation of biographies of Buddhist monks from the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (first century BCE through the tenth century CE). It promotes Buddhist piety by stressing the (often supernatural) deeds of these monks, and it is also a valuable source for Korean history. In spite of its importance, the work was long thought lost until portions of it were found at a Buddhist temple in the early twentieth century. This passage of the Lives deals with the introduction of Buddhism as the national faith of the Silla Kingdom in 527 CE, under King Pŏpkong.
“Pŏpkong Declares Buddhism the National Faith,” in Peter H. Lee, ed. Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, vol. 1, From Early Times to the Sixteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 75–77.
By the era of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the prevailing orthodox philosophy was Neo-Confucianism, and its master was Chu Hsi (1130–1200). Neo-Confucianism held that there was an underlying, immaterial principle (li) inherent in all things, which gave all things (including human beings) their essence, form, and meaning. Chu Hsi taught that knowledge of this principle could be achieved through a critical analysis of nature and the classic texts, using the powers of observation, analysis, and reflection. Known as the “School of Principle,” Chu Hsi’s philosophy became the official interpretation of Confucianism in China, and its precepts were a central component on the imperial civil service examinations.
A radically different interpretation of li was proposed by Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529), whose philosophy became known as the “School of the Mind.” Born in the village of Yu-yao in the Chekiang province, Wang Yang-ming shocked his tutor at age eleven by declaring that the purpose of learning was not to pass an exam or to win an official government post but to become a sage. Wang was initially a fervent believer in the teachings of Chu Hsi, but his faith was broken when he attempted to follow Chu’s methods of investigation. According to legend, Wang sat down in a bamboo grove determined to discover the li (essence) of bamboo, but after seven days and nights of observation and thought, he only succeeded in making himself ill through exhaustion. This defeat threw him into a deep spiritual crisis, which continued until he experienced a sudden flash of insight into the cause of his failure. Because the immaterial essence of li is found in humans as well as in all things, it was this essence that united mankind to all of nature. Moreover, Wang realized that this essence was best recognized and understood not from the study of bamboo or other objects in the external world but in one’s awareness of one’s jen (humanness) that resided within each person. An awareness of jen was the ultimate key to understanding the unity of all things, an awareness that created a “clear character” and a code of ethical behavior based on one’s innate knowledge of right and wrong. Consequently, the path to knowledge and self-perfection was attainable by all, for it was based entirely on self-awareness without the need for external study or rational thought. Although Wang Yangming’s teachings never gained official status in China, they were important in the philosophical development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China and Japan.
Wang Yang-ming, “Inquiry on The Great Learning,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, ed. William de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1960): 571–81.
Many foundation myths around the world link a dynasty or nation’s founder to the divine or magical. The foundation myth of Korea is no exception. Korean mythology dates Tangun to the year 2333 B.C.E., when it is said he became the first ruler of Korea, known then as Choson. Chronologically, this was before the peninsula was divided into the “Three Kingdoms” and thus refers to a unified Korean kingdom. Records from Zhou China refer to this state, although Chinese records enable us to date it to only 1000 B.C.E. Because there was at that time (c. 1000 B.C.E.) no written Korean language, historians have to rely on either Korean myths such as this one or on records from neighboring states, particularly China. However, the Chinese sources have inherent problems, as the relationship between China and Korea has often been fraught with tension. The version here is from the thirteenth century.
“Tangun: Founder of Choson,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 4
Buddhism had begun to spread widely within India after the conversion of Asoka in the third century BCE, and his promotion of the religion as part of a syncretic (a combination of elements from different beliefs) emphasis on dharma (sacred duty) as the bond between his government and his subjects. It may have been these efforts at popularizing the religion that gave impetus to tendencies within the religion that eventually carried it in a new direction. By the first century CE, these tendencies had begun to come together into a self-conscious new school of Buddhism, described by its practitioners as Mahayana, or the Greater Vehicle—meaning that this sect promised to carry far more people to salvation than the older version could. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism referred to the older version as Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle. The followers of the older version, though, preferred to refer to their religion as Theravada, or the Teaching of the Elders. This religion continued to exist and itself spread to parts of southeast Asia. It was the Mahayana version of Buddhism that first became widely popular in India and then, during the early centuries CE, spread all over central and East Asia.
In Mahayana belief, the Buddha has become an all-knowing being, somewhere between a divine person—a mortal man who achieves immortality— and a god, to whom even Hindu gods offer respect. His wisdom surpasses that of the other gods, because he recognizes the uncreated and infinite nature of the universe, whereas some of them imagine themselves as creators.
Accompanying the belief in the Buddha’s divinity is a belief in a class of beings known as bodhisattvas, or Wise Beings. Essentially these are people who had reached the edge of nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth, only to compassionately turn back to help others cross over into bliss. Nirvana itself evolved from the somewhat abstract notion of “extinguishment”—of the soul becoming one with the cosmos and escaping the illusion of individuality—to a notion of a heavenly paradise. The image often used to explain the role of the bodhisattva is of a ferryman who repeatedly carries masses of devout worshippers over to salvation on his giant barge, while Theravada Buddhists cross the river one at a time and each one only once.
One of the most popular of the bodhisattvas was Avalokitesvara, or “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds,” who first shows up in a book called The Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest and most influential of the sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra describes the ten cosmic levels of existence, from hell up to nirvana, with bodhisattvas on the ninth level working to remove the suffering of the world and to carry people to the highest level. Avalokitesvara is prominent among the bodhisattvas of The Lotus Sutra, and his cult spread with the dissemination of the text. The work was first translated into Chinese in 255 CE, and a Chinese translation made in 406 is the basis for this English translation. One interesting note about the transmission of Buddhism to China is that in later centuries Avalokitesvara, called Guanyin in China, was transformed into a female. In either form, “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds” illustrates the central characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism’s encounter with the transcendent.
The Lotus Sutra, trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1993): 298–303. Copyright © 1993 Columbia University Press.
Tokugawa Nariaki (1800–1860) was one of the leading Japanese political and military leaders of the nineteenth century. As possessor of the Mito territories, he was one of the most powerful and influential daimyo, or feudal lords, and a member of a collateral branch of the Tokugawa family. Nariaki was a very forceful and polarizing personality. Although a confirmed believer in the superiority of the Japanese way of life and of the imperial tradition, he was not an unreflective or “knee-jerk” conservative. Already in 1841 he had established an academy in his feudal domain for the study of useful Western knowledge, and it was there that the phrase “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” was first used publicly. He was an adviser on maritime defense, and, when Commodore Perry and the Americans demanded change, he penned an aggressive and sharply defined response, which urged resistance.
G. Beasley, trans. and ed., Select Documents on Japanese Foreign Policy, 1853–1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 102–06.
Virtually no records have survived from the period between the unification of China in 221 BCE and the collapse of the Qin Empire 15 years later. Accordingly, historians are forced to rely on documents composed during the Han dynasty for relevant information. Nevertheless, one of the stories passed along, concerning the advice of Li Si to the emperor, is a stark reminder of how fragile learning can be, even in a temporarily successful polity. The Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) is a lengthy history of China compiled by Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 BCE), and the collection also includes a detailed biography of Li Si.
Shih chi 87:6b–7a, in de Bary and Bloom, comps., Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 140–141.
The Nihon Shoki is the first official history of Japan. It draws on numerous sources, including Chinese histories, clan histories, and the accounts of religious authorities. While it parallels the Kojiki in describing the ancient and mythological origins of Japan, it continues the narrative far beyond the Kojiki into the recent past, specifically the reign of the Empress Jitō (686–697). This particular story concerns the eleventh emperor of Japan, Suinin, but it differs from the Kojiki in certain key details, and probably reflects the values of the eighth century rather than its ostensible setting (the first century CE).
“The Empress and Her Brother Prince Sahobiko,” from Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, ed. Haruo Shirane (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 47–49.
Around 500 CE, a wave of immigrants and cultural influence from the Korean kingdom of Paekche entered Japan from the southwest, bringing with it new technology for metal weapons. The influx stimulated the rise of a new Japanese state, the Kingdom of Yamato, centered on modern-day Osaka, and further militarized the aristocratic clans. The key elements of this wave of cultural borrowing were Chinese writing, Confucianism (the first Confucian scholar came to Yamato in 513), and Buddhism. Buddhism arrived in force in 552 when Paekche sent an image of the Buddha, some scriptures, and a Buddhist priest to the Yamato court with which it was allied. All these elements entered at the instigation of the Yamato kings, who sought to use them as tools to strengthen and centralize their rule against the resistance of the clan-based aristocracy.
This process heightened in the reign of the Empress Suiko (r. 592–628) and her regent Prince Shotoku (573–621). Prince Shotoku was a devout Buddhist who consciously imported T’ang Chinese models of government in reaction to the breakdown of the Paekche alliance and growing armed aristocratic resistance. He wrote a constitution for the Japanese government that was largely Confucian in its principles but the second article of which required devotion to Buddhism on the part of Japan’s rulers. Finally, a coup against Shotoku and his Soga clan brought to power Kotoku Tenno, or “The Divine Emperor” Kotoku, in 645. His reforms, sponsored by Confucians and Buddhists at the Imperial Court, represent the true birth of the Japanese imperial government and the incorporation of the clans and their aristocrats into centralized rule.
This history is recounted in the Nihongi, a semiofficial history of Yamato Japan completed in 720. It emphasized both the divine origins of the imperial family and the part of Buddhism in the construction of the imperial system. The establishment of Buddhism in Japan, then, was inseparable from the emergence of centralized, imperial authority, and the following source deals with the twinned processes by which imperial authority and Buddhism were promoted. Moreover, it demonstrates that Buddhism and Shintoism could coexist, each contributing to the authority and legitimacy of the emperor, as Shinto elements appear in the text in the references to gods, plagues, and demons.
W. G. Ashton, “Nihongi: Chronicle of Japan from the Earliest Times to AD 697,” Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, London, supplement i (1896).
The author of this personal essay was Yi Kyu-bo (1168 – 1241), a poet, essayist, and critic in the Koryo kingdom of Korea. He was also a high-ranking civil servant, who passed the civil-service examination required for government service. The life of Yi Kyu-bo reflects the extent to which Koryo modeled itself on Tang / Song China. Yi Kyu-bo studied and wrote in Chinese, worked in a state organized along Confucian principles, and created literary works that were infused with both Confucian and Daoist principles.
Yi Kyu-bo. “On Demolishing the Earthen Chamber,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 61-62.
This source represents an alternative path that Chinese Buddhists took in trying to establish the compatibility of their faith with the existing body of Chinese literature and culture. Instead of arguing that the practice of Buddhism is compatible with ideas in classical Chinese texts, this alternative path was based on the Buddhist emphasis on individual enlightenment by means of meditation. Meditation and contemplation had been important practices in Buddhism since the Buddha himself attained enlightenment by meditating under a bo tree. In addition, a School of Meditation arose as one stream of Mahayana Buddhism, emphasizing meditation as the central path to enlightenment. Known as Ch’an in China and later as Zen in Japan, this school tended to discount the importance of texts in favor of practice and the direct transmission of the Buddhist Law from one master (or patriarch) to another. The foundational text for this school is The Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch. The Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638–713), was the key figure in Ch’an Buddhism’s rise to prominence as one of the most influential Buddhist schools in China. The text appears to be a lecture by Hui-neng recorded by one of his pupils and dates to the early eighth century, around or shortly after Hui-neng’s death.
From The Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch by DeBary, et al., Sources of the Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press (1960): 350–52.
Du Fu; Li Bo
The Tang period (618–960) witnessed a renaissance of poetry, oftentimes compressing vivid natural imagery and poignant emotion into short pieces of only a few verses. The poetry of Li Bo (or Li Bai, 701–762) was particularly influential in the West when his verses on drinking and the pleasures of life were rendered in translation. However, there is also a strong undercurrent of pacifism, drawing on Confucian philosophy, in Tang poetry, and the poems below address war and its consequences. A poem by Du Fu (ca. 721–770), who was also Li Bo’s friend, reflects the same sentiment.
“A Drawing of a Horse by General Cao at Secretary Wei Feng’s House” adapted from http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php?no=60&l=Tangshi Li Bo poem adapted from Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po, ed. and trans. J. P. Seaton (Boston: Shambhala, 2012), 113–115.
Boxers United in Righteousness
The nineteenth century saw an accumulation of disasters for China. In two Opium Wars in the 1840s and 1850s, British invasion forced the trade concessions demanded earlier. These conflicts helped to prompt the immensely destructive Tai-ping Rebellion (1850–1864). Various official reform movements encountered too many internal obstacles to effect much change. China lost a war to Japan in 1894 and was forced to accept a series of “unequal treaties” and agreements that granted “spheres of influence” to European powers. In 1899 internal disorder escalated. This time a portion of the imperial court headed by the Empress Dowager backed the opponents of western domination. The Boxers, drawing recruits from throughout the north China plain, killed western and Chinese Christians and besieged the embassies of foreign powers in Beijing itself. In July 1900 an unprecedented multinational army of British, German, American, Russian, French, Japanese, Austrian, and Italian troops entered Beijing to restore order and rescue the hostages. The International Expeditionary Force smashed the native army, looted Beijing, and, under the watchful eye of the international press, engaged in “punitive picnics” to exterminate opposition in the countryside.
China had a long tradition of secret societies and popular support for “social banditry” to help the poor. The Boxers United in Righteousness, who arose in Shandong province during the famines described earlier, followed ancient forms of aid and famine relief for their recruits. But the Boxers combined their appeals for social justice with calls to “Support the Qing, destroy the Foreign.” Like resistance movements in other parts of the world, they saw their country’s disasters as caused by its toleration of foreigners, especially the Christian missionaries whose numbers were increasing as western control of China became more pronounced. Recruits to the Boxers undoubtedly believed the terrible rumors of bizarre western religious practices requiring mutilation of women and children. They used magical charms and physical exercise rituals to invite the gods to inhabit their bodies, making them invulnerable to the guns and explosives of western armies. As with other resisters, this faith proved illusory. The Boxers were easily dispatched by the soldiers of the West, as were countless Chinese peasants who were innocent of any role in this conflict between cultures.
Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. University of California Press (1987): 299–300.
Faxien (circa 334-415 CE) was a Chinese monk who, with several companions, traveled the Silk Road to India and returned via the Indian Ocean trade route between 399 and 413 CE. Their successful quest to obtain Buddhist scriptures helped to disseminate the religion throughout East Asia. Faxien also recorded his travels, which provide a comprehensive geography of central and south Asia of the time.
Faxien, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Faxien of His Travels in India and Ceylon, trans. by James Legge, 1886.
Followers of Confucius
Traditional versions of the Confucius’s life say that he was born in the sixth century B.C.E., and was an itinerant political advisor. He was, technically speaking, a failure in his lifetime, unable to find permanent employment with any one of the Zhou vassal kingdoms. Confucius is not the author of the Analects; they were gathered from his immediate followers, and read as a collection of profound musings on politics, morality, personal behavior, family, and culture.
The following excerpts give a broad overview of the basic Confucian tenets encapsulated in the Analects, including the Master’s thoughts on filial piety and the junzi, or “superior man.”
Confucius, “Selections from the Analects I,” from The Four Books. James Legge, ed. and trans. (Shanghai: The Chinese Book Company, 1930), 13, 16, 19, 33, 161-162, 245-248.