According to A History of East Asia, “Confucianism is commonly considered to be the mainstream of Chinese, and East Asian, tradition” (Holcombe, p. 35). Confucius, who lived from 551-479 BCE during the Eastern Zhou period in China, influenced a way of thinking and philosophy that lasted more than 2000 years. His philosophies and moral code, also known as Confucianism, have deeply affected East Asian polity and government systems, ideology and philosophy, as well as societal norms and structures. Korea and Japan have also adopted and adapted Confucianist ideals and societal norms throughout history. In this essay, I will discuss in detail how Confucianism has affected polity, ideology, and society in East Asia during the period covered in class so far.
Confucianism has deeply affected the polity of East Asia. Chinese governments were set up as a meritocracy based on Confucian ideals that required a hierarchy and loyalty to the emperor, as well an emphasis on learning and personal virtue. Chinese dynasties built on the Confucian political system such as the Han, Tang, and others were strong, successful, and technologically advanced which influenced neighboring Korea and Japan to adopt and adapt these Confucian oriented political systems. For instance, during the Choson dynasty in Korea, Koreans claimed to be even more Confucian than Chinese; they set up a meritocracy based on officials memorizing the Confucian classics and taking anonymously graded tests. These officials comprised a noble class called the Yangban; the Yangban were supposed to memorize and internalize the virtues found in these works. The Korean scholar Ch‘oe Malli in 1444 CE spoke of Confucianism and Chinese systems saying, “Barbarians are changed only by means of adopting Chinese ways, we have never heard of Chinese being changed by barbarians” (Sources p. 576). From this passage, we can see that Confucian ideals and government were highly respected by other countries in East Asia. Japan also was greatly influenced by Confucianism, especially during the Nara era when it adopted Tang cultural norms and practices. In addition, during the Tokugawa era Japanese society was set in rigid classes, with the Samurai acting in the place of Confucian scholars, and with peasants, artisans and merchants below them. This polity and class system helped to solidify Confucian principles and “justify a rigidly hereditary social hierarchy” (Holcombe, p. 38).
The Mandate of heaven is a Confucian concept that has also affected East Asian polity for centuries. It is a belief that a ruler is granted power from heaven as long as he rules with benevolence and virtue. This way of thinking has influenced dynastic change throughout China, such as the overthrow of the Ming dynasty by Li Zicheng and with the overthrow of every other Chinese dynasty before it, but this concept also had hold in other East Asian countries. When the Mongols took over the largest land mass of any empire in history, the Koreans also “realized that Mongols had the mandate of heaven” (Sources p. 545). In addition, the Japanese warlord Hideyoshi, as seen in his letter to king of Korea in 1590, also believed he had the mandate of heaven when he invaded Korea, saying he had the blessing of the sun goddess and he had never failed in war before (Sources p. 859). The Japanese imperial line also employed the mandate of heaven that they obtained from the sun goddess for thousands of years; they claimed to be descendants from the sun goddess Amaterasu who gave them divine power and authority to rule. Overall, it seems that in general Confucian thought played a major role in political systems throughout East Asia.
Confucianism has also heavily influenced the ideology of East Asia generally. When new religions like Buddhism and Christianity entered into China and East Asia, they were immediately compared to Confucian ideals, and accepted or rejected based on whether or not they were considered compliant to these ideals. For instance, Fanwang Sutra defended Buddhism using Confucian ideals by saying that “filial obedience is the way by which one attains the way” (Sources 235), essentially saying that Buddhism is completely compliant with Confucianism. Yet the Confucian scholar Han Yu condemned Buddhism because it did not place importance filial piety such as on the relationship between father and son (Sources 305). Confucianism has also heavily influenced Daoism; for instance, Zhuangzi used Confucius as a model in his writings to show Daoist ideals. The focus on filial piety and ancestors in Confucianism has also influenced Chinese and Korean ancestor worship and shamanism, which are highly syncretic religions. Overall, Confucianism ideology has had a strong influence on philosophy as well as religious thinking in East Asia.
Perhaps Confucianism has had the most important impact on East Asian society and social structure. The social hierarchy in Confucian thought holds scholars at the top, then farmers, then artisans, and merchants at the bottom; as discussed earlier, Korea and Japan adopted this social hierarchy particularly in the Choson and Tokugawa periods. Confucianism also puts a strong emphasis on one’s family, parents, ancestors, and political superiors. This emphasis had a strong impact on other countries outside of China, especially Korea. According to Song Kan, a Korean scholar, the four main relationships in Confucianism, “ruler and minister, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, friend and friend,” were of the upmost importance, and the basis for a functional society (Sources 578). In China and Korea, it was believed that filial piety was the foundation of a good moral society. Women in society were also taught to live Confucian morals in their daily lives, including being loyal to ones’ husband, but also, as discussed by Bao Zhao in “Admonitions for Women,” women were also encouraged seek learning, the same as Confucian men (Sources 413).
Confucianism has also had a strong influence on the overall moral fiber of East Asian society because of its focus on individuals showing virtue and kindness to one another. In Confucian meritocracy, rulers were supposed to lead by moral example; this was thought to be more effective than ruling by the power of regulations and punishments that would only encourage others to go around the law (Holcombe 37). Confucius taught, “What you would not want for yourself, do not unto others,” (Holcombe 37); this teaching shows moral virtue similar to the golden rule taught by Jesus Christ. In addition, Confucius’ follower Mencius taught that people are naturally good, but without constant effort, they would regress (Holcombe 37). Confucianism was meant to bring peace on earth and internalize virtue through humanness and filial piety, and learning and personal perfection was stressed (Holcombe 36). Confucian thought has also affected social dealings with westerners and barbarians, because Chinese and East Asians believed that their Confucian moral code was superior to the Mongols and westerners, causing social conflict and culture clashes that last even until today.
Overall, Confucianism has been one of the biggest influences of all time on East Asian history, culture, polity, and ideology. Its influence is widespread, and has been a major factor in the organization of Korean and Japanese ideals and political systems. In addition, Confucian thought has had profound impact on East Asian on ideologies toward religion and education. East Asian societal structure has also been highly affected by Confucianism, especially in the eras we have discussed in class such as the Choson, Tang, and the Tokugawa era. Confucianism has played a major impact in numerous aspects of East Asian life and will surely continue to play a crucial role in the future of East Asia.
Hu Shi: “A Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform”
Bary, William Theodore. "The New Culture Movement." In Sources of East Asian Tradition, 706-07. Vol. 2. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
(Taken from Hu, “Wenxue gailiang chuyi,” in Hu Shi wencun collection 1, ch. 1, pp. 5-16; original version in Xin Qingnian 2, no. 5 (January 1917): 1-11; WTC)
The author of this work was the Chinese philosopher, essayist, and diplomat Hu Shi (胡适). Mr. Hu was born in Anhui, China, in 1891. In 1910 he went to the United States to study agriculture at Cornell University. Later, went on to study philosophy at Columbia University and was greatly influenced by his professor John Dewey. After his studied he returned to China and began teaching at Peking University. There he met Chen Duxiu, the author of New Youth journal, in which this particular primary source work was published. He became one of the leading intellectuals in the New Culture Movement in China and was very influential in advocating for the use of vernacular in Chinese literature, as well as advocating for a new Chinese writing system. He was a great and influential intellectual, and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize. Later in life he became the diplomat for the Republic of China to the United States. After the Chinese Civil War, he fled to Taiwan and resided in Taipei, where he then passed away in 1962 at the age of 70.
This primary source is an opinion essay regarding certain aspects of literary reform in China; it is not a personal or historical account. It was originally written in the Xin Qingnian as part of New Culture Movement literature specifically to improve Chinese culture and literature.
Date of Source Creation:
This essay was originally published January 1917 in the Chinese Xin Qingnian (New Youth) journal. In our textbook, Sources, this essay was translated into English by Wing-tsit Chan, who attended Dartmouth College and Colombia University and was a world-renowned translator of Chinese philosophical texts. The manuscript from which this translation comes from is the original and was written by Hu Shi himself. Because this text is taken from the original manuscript and not handed down or copied by others, there is no lapse in time that would impact the interpretation of the source. This was also published only during the New Culture Movement, which lasted from roughly 1915-1921 and was one of the most influential journals in spreading New Culture Movement thought, and likely had a great influence on the May Fourth Movement that culminated in student demonstrations on May Fourth, 1919 in Beijing.
The text comes from the Xin Qingnian journal (New Youth), a New Culture Movement journal, published by Chen Duxiu who was head of the literature department at Peking University in January 1917. Sources authors transcribed this work from the original journal, and we know Hu Shi himself wrote it because it was directly published from his hand into the Xin Qingnian journal, so this publication is very trustworthy and true to the original author.
Hu Shi seems to have been writing this essay to a literate and educated Chinese public audience who had knowledge of ancient texts and literature forms, but more specifically to the Chinese literati and younger authors who were writing and publishing at that time. His audience would have had a background in Confucian literary tradition as well as political measures. This audience affects how the material is presented because Hu Shi dives right into the faults of the Chinese written tradition, assuming that his audience already has a background in the aspects of literature that he talks about. The Xin Qingnian journal would have reached an intellectual audience as well as a younger audience that could change the future of Chinese literary tradition; because Hu Shi wrote this in the Xin Qingnian journal, he most likely assumes that his audience is seeking to improve Chinese culture and literature. He mentions specifically what changes should be made in the writing tradition so that the Chinese writers he is talking writing to can implement these changes. The author is also very candid and clear on what he thinks should be reformed in Chinese literature, so he can reach and effect as many people as possible in order to persuade them to change the current writing and literature norms of the time. It seems that he is also especially appealing to Chinese literati and the government, because only they would have the power to implement the changes in Chinese literature and education that he mentions in the paper.
The author seems to be in an ideal situation to give an opinion on Chinese literary reform because he was schooled in China as well as in universities in the United States, so he has firsthand knowledge of the strengths of western literature and the deficiencies of Chinese literature. Many of the arguments that he makes have to do with incorporating the strengths of western literature into Chinese literature. However received degrees in agriculture and philosophy, so perhaps there would be others more qualified than him to write an opinion paper on this subject, for instance Chinese scholars that had degrees in literature. Hu Shi may not have had the full credentials needed to make a completely informed and comprehensive appeal to reform the Chinese literary system. Although his background of schooling both in China and the U.S. qualifies him to share a unique opinion regarding Chinese literary reform, someone with literature degrees from both China and the west would be more qualified to write such an opinion essay.
In this primary source, it is clear that the author Hu Shi is suggesting ways in which the Chinese literary tradition can improve. He gives 8 theses to reform literature: “(1) write with substance, (2) do not imitate the ancients, (3) emphasize grammar, (4) reject melancholy, (5) eliminate old clichés, (6) do not use allusions, (7) do not use couplets or parallelisms, (8) do not avoid popular expressions or forms of characters.” It is clear that he wants to change Chinese writing through these key points. He makes his points very clear and is very open about his opinions. Also he explains these points thoroughly to make sure his readers know what exactly his theses mean.
This text is meant to persuade Chinese literary scholars as well as the literate public at large that the Chinese literary tradition needs reform. Hu Shi does this by pointing out the deficiencies of Chinese literature using modern and ancient examples of these deficiencies. He says that every dynastic period had its own unique literature and that now Chinese writers should be writing material unique to their time instead of just imitating the ancients. He goes on to argue that the best literature comes from the heart and isn’t just a copy of the past, and this is how literature becomes great. Although he may not be the most appropriate scholar to address these issues, as mentioned above (he did not have a degree in literature), he still makes very clear and logical statements that were supported by the Chinese reformist community and helped to further the cause of the literary renaissance. Publishing the essay in the “New Youth” journal helped to spread these ideas faster and with more power than could otherwise be attained.
Hu Shi did have an agenda when writing this: he was part of the greater New Culture Movement and literary revolution. His colleague Chen Duxiu ran the Xin Qingnian (New Youth) journal, which was supportive of the New Culture Movement and its progressive ideals, and encouraged him to publish this essay in the journal. His goals in writing this essay were to reform the Chinese literary tradition by writing in vernacular, writing unique and new things, and to improve the writing system in general so it would be easier to learn and understand. This included discontinuing the use of ancient Chinese grammar and structure in literature.
Hu Shi assumes his audience is literate and intellectual, and has read ancient classics, literary works, and even had experience written a few of their own works. He also assumes, by publishing his work in Xin Qingnian, that his audience is interested in the New Culture Movement and Chinese cultural reform. The values and issues of the time strongly influenced Hu Shi in writing this essay; the New Culture Movement and the fall of the Qing dynasty were catalysts of reform that tried to push China out of its dark and stagnant intellectual and political situation. Many other intellectuals, such as Chen Duxiu and Lu Xun, stood behind Hu Shi in promoting a literary and cultural renaissance. In addition, the stigma of being seen as the “sick man of Asia” by other Asian countries surely pushed China and its people toward progression. Seeing the technological and social advancements of other nations such as Japan would have surely spurred nationalism and competition within China. Literary reform was an obvious place to start because it was in many ways less efficient than western literature. Overall, this primary source article seems to have been greatly influential and persuasive in pushing the Chinese literary renaissance of the early 20th century.
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