Xinzhong Yao's Gentle Introduction to Confucianism

Though I’ve been interested in Confucianism for much of my life, I’ve only relatively recently begun seriously working through the Confucian canon, namely the Four Books and Five Classics. Now, working through the canon seems like a logical start to understanding the philosophy, much like working through Scripture to understand Christianity, but there is a drawback. That is, the canon by itself does not tell us how Confucianism was understood and put into practice within China. For me it’s still more-or-less an abstraction, and I fear reading my own ideas into the texts too much and ending up like a Confucian equivalent of SWPL “Buddhists,” who refashion that faith in their own image with no concept of what the religion actually involves.

So on an acquaintance’s recommendation, I picked up Xinzhong Yao’s An Introduction to Confucianism, which Yao wrote primarily as a textbook for a course he teaches on Confucianism. His approach to understanding religion is close to my own, as he says in the preface, “[T]he inquiry into religious phenomena should involve empathy to some degree, and […] an inquirer should be able to enter into the doctrine and practice of a religion almost as an ‘insider’, as well as to step outside as a critical observer.” He also directly addresses my concern with being overly focused on the canon, quoting W. E. Soothill:

A study of a religion which limits itself to the teachings of the early founders, and which ignores the present condition of its development, will give a very imperfect presentation of the religion as a whole. On the other hand, a study which is limited to its expression in practice, without doing justice to the ideals of the founders, equally fails to do justice to the religion as a whole, for the religious ideals of a people, while they may be written on the tablets of their hearts and conscience, often find very imperfect expression in their lives.

Now, Yao covers a lot of ground in this introduction, beginning with a broad overview of what Confucianism is, which is a trickier question than one may assume. Is it a religion? A system of ethics? An official orthodoxy? It’s a bit of all three, but much comes down to how one defines the relevant terms. My takeaway is that it’s not a religion in itself, but is more a philosophical tradition along the lines of Platonism or Aristotelianism. It has traditionally held some cultural and religious assumptions from the context in which it arose, but these assumptions are not necessary to it. Rather, the centre of Confucianism appears to be a system of learning based on the classics, to which Yao devotes a lot of space. He goes so far as to say that “the Confucian classics are, to a great extent, identifiable with Confucianism, and that to be a Confucian is to dedicate oneself to the classics or more precisely, to the values embodied in the classics.” 

What are the values embodied in the classics? Yao, after going over the historical evolution of Confucianism in the second chapter, devotes the entirety of the third to this question. Primarily, the classics deal with social and political concerns, which for the Confucians are almost the same thing. An orderly society relies on the strength of the “Five Relationships,” that is, the relationships between sovereign and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and friend and friend. Significantly, three of these five are family relationships, and the family is seen as the cornerstone of a harmonious state. Yao quotes Mencius, who says, “If only everyone loved his parents and treated his elders with deference, the Empire would be at peace,” and the Analects of Confucius, “When a ruler feels profound affection for his parents, the common people will naturally become humane.” Even a cursory reading of any of the classics will turn up many statements along these lines, and a distinguishing feature of Confucianism is its confidence in the power of the sovereign’s moral example and the importance of self-cultivation, done largely through attending to these relationships. A good ruler is “one who cultivates his character sincerely, performs rituals reverentially, and accumulates good deed earnestly.”

The Five Relationships are also, with one exception, all hierarchical, and this accords with Confucianism’s reputation as an authoritarian philosophy. However, as much as the Confucians emphasise the importance of authority, they do not consider this to be merely blind obedience. The classic Book of Filial Piety attributes a quotation to Confucius that “[W]hen a case of unrighteous conduct is concerned, a son must by no means keep from remonstrating with his father, nor a minister from remonstrating with his ruler. Hence, since remonstrance is required in the case of unrighteous conduct, how can (simple) obedience to the orders of a father be accounted filial piety?”

All of these human relationships, Yao emphasises, involve reciprocal duties, and applying this to the state brings up the famous concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which is, put as simply as possible, the sovereign’s right to rule. Holding the Mandate depends on the ruler practising virtue and, essentially, holding to his duties towards his subjects. If a ruler does not practice virtue, he loses the Mandate and no longer holds his power legitimately. This is the closest that Confucianism gets to a system of checks on governmental power that Western, and especially Liberal, thought takes almost for granted. For Confucianism, though, abuse of power is primarily a problem of morality. How, exactly, one knows when a ruler has lost the Mandate and how he should then be removed, though, is rather vague.

Speaking of Heaven, what exactly do Confucians mean by the term? As Yao explains, different Confucian thinkers had different ideas, in part because Confucius himself didn’t directly address the subject. For Zisi, grandson of Confucius and attributed as the compiler of the classic Doctrine of the Mean, and Mencius, “Heaven provides humans with principles and with supreme moral sanctions which in turn demand respect and service. Secondly, Heaven and human beings establish a responsive relationship, namely, that circumstances in Heaven correspondingly affect how humans lead their lives, and what takes place in human society also elicits responses from Heaven.” This certainly isn’t what we’d call “Divine Providence,” but they clearly understood Heaven to be quite active in human affairs.

On the other hand, Xunzi, another early and important Confucian writer, thinks of Heaven more as something akin to Natural Law. Humans cannot influence Heaven, and Heaven is not “providential” in any way. Xunzi and his followers, Yao says, “emphasised that Heaven did not create harmony but only provided the conditions for humans to be in harmony, and that a harmonious relationship between humans and their environment is conducive to their well-being.”

In the fourth chapter, Yao goes into more detail on Confucian ritual and religious practice, and in the fifth and final section, covers Confucianism and its modern relevance. Though Yao certainly appears sympathetic to Confucianism, he unfortunately carries some Liberal assumptions into this chapter. He writes, “In order to enable Confucianism to be of value in modern politics, it is crucial for it to enhance its democratic elements and to correct its deficiencies in establishing a rational and humanistic political structure.” The “democratic elements” referred to are the idea that every man can and should cultivate himself into a sage, which is true, and the more dubious identification of some scholars of the will of Heaven with the will of the people. Frankly, I see no way to reconcile Confucianism with democracy without doing violence to the texts.

In any case, though Yao does endorse the idea that Confucianism should conform more to democracy, he also argues that democracy should conform more to Confucianism. He refers to it as an “ethic of responsibility,” and writes:

Free choice is the foundation of modern society and is the presupposition of a market economy. However, freedom without responsibility would result in both the collapse of the social network and strife among individuals and between individuals and society, and would lead to the sacrifice of the future in order to satisfy the short-term needs. […] Confucian ethics insists that the self be the centre of relationships, not in order to claim one’s rights but to emphasise one’s responsibilities, that daily behaviour be guided by the rules of propriety, not merely for restricting individuals but more for cultivating the sense of holiness and mission in their hearts, and that knowledge is important for developing a good character, not primarily for conquering what is unknown, but for co-operating with others and for contributing to the harmony of the universe. It is in this kind of ethics that Confucianism finds a new expression of its tradition, something which makes it relevant to modern and post-modern ages.

All that is only a brief sample of what Yao covers. An Introduction to Confucianism suffers the same shortcomings and any such introductory textbook in that it doesn’t go into a lot of depth on any one of these subjects, so while I do highly recommend this as a starting-point for Confucianism, it’s still necessary to read the classics for oneself. As for how one goes about this, I think the recommendation of Zhu Xi, who is principally responsible for establishing the canon as we know it, is worth following, so I’ll end with his advice:

I want men first to read the Great Learning to fix upon the pattern of the Confucian Way; next the Analects to establish its foundations; next the Mencius to observe its development; and next Maintaining Perfect Balance [i.e., The Doctrine of the Mean] to discover the mysteries of the ancients. The Great Learning provides within its covers a series of steps and a precise order in which they should be read first. Although the Analects is concrete, its sayings are scattered about in fragments; on first reading, it is difficult. Mencius contains passages that inspire and arouse men’s minds. Maintaining Perfect Balance, too, is difficult to understand; it should be read only after the other three books.