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.
We are US Expats that have extensive experience living, working, and travelling in Taiwan. In our day, we had to learn many things about Taiwan the hard way. But we have come to learn that Taiwan is one of the best places in the world for Foreigners to live. Our blog does not represent the opinions of every foreigner in Taiwan. We are just trying to help others learn more about this beautiful country.