Confucius and Confucianism

David Hall and Roger Ames [tooltip content= “Chinese philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Routledge, 1998) Source:”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message] While there may be some truth to the claim that in the West, every person is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, it is A.N. Whitehead’s apothegm, ‘All of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato’, that, mutatis mutandis, resonates best with the Chinese context. For indeed, all of Chinese thinking is a series of commentaries on Confucius. In fact, the importance of Confucius in China may be said to outshine that of Plato in the Western tradition on at least two grounds. First, there is effectively no sort of pre-Confucian philosophic tradition to match that of the Presocratics. Confucius is not a synthesizer of past thinkers, but an interpreter and transmitter of past institutions, namely, the idealized Zhou rituals and customs which Confucius thought to be the key to social stability. Second, Confucius’ thinking came to ground the tradition of Chinese culture for practically its entire intellectual tradition, from the early phases of the Han dynasty in the second century bc to at least the beginnings of the Republican period in the early twentieth century, and arguably down to the present day in a decidedly Chinese form of Marxism.

The philosophy of Confucius begins from some basic assumptions, several of which can be derived from the following passage from the Analects:
The Master said:

‘Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, will order themselves harmoniously.’ (Analects 2/3)


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.