Obviously, the English word “Confucianism” comes from “Confucius”, the name of one of the world-renowned great thinkers in China’s history, but the label “Confucianism” has often been wrongly applied to the later Ru school of thought, which actually deviated from and betrayed the authentic Confucian tradition. Therefore, it is essentially important to make a clear distinction between the two, which is the very purpose of this essay. The following narratives about the two different thought traditions is based on three articles in Chinese authored by Zhai Yuzhong (翟玉忠), general editor of The New Legalist website (in both Chinese and English):
I. Confucius and his Tradition of Learning
Confucius’s contributions to the development of Chinese culture lied in the following areas:
1. Confucius was a great sage with prominent attainments in both internal moral perfection and external kingliness (内圣外王) in running state affairs. He was not only a school teacher, but also a statesman, a military commander, and an outstanding diplomat. What he accomplished in statecraft was more like that of a Legalist and quite distinct from that of scholar-officials of the later-time Ru school, which has been mistakenly labeled as “neo-Confucianism” by Western academia.
Confucius was a man of both political and military ability.
He shared with Legalists the belief that the rule of law boosts moral virtue and when he became a state administrator at age 56, he sentenced Shaozheng Mao (少正卯) to death for “creating political chaos” and brought about a good social order within three months, so good that “no one would pick up lost articles on the street”.
In 484 B.C., his disciple Ran Qiu, as military commander for Lu state, defeated Qi army and, when asked by the state administrator how he had acquired his commanding skills, he answered: “I learned them from Confucius.”
In 497 B.C., when Confucius was minister of justice and acting prime minister of Lu, he had rebellious vassals’ capital cities destroyed, and later led a bunch of soldiers in successfully rescuing Duke Ding the state head from under the siege by resisting vassals.
Another time, When Qi state was about to invade Lu, Confucius sent the right man, his disciple Zigong, on a diplomatic mission to Qi, who managed to have inter-state relations turned in favor of Lu and saved his mother state.
2. He edited the Five Classics (Classic of Poetry 诗经, Book of Documents 尚书, Book of Rites 礼记, I Ching (Book of Changes) 周易, Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋) on the basis of Zhou dynasty royal-official learning (周代王官学) and used them as textbooks for teaching his students. But from what is said above and what follows below, it is obvious that Confucius was essentially different from later Ru scholars in their approach to classics.
3. He opened his private school to all social classes, without discrimination against people of humble birth, thus making government positions accessible to commoners. Out of his pupils there emerged over 70 outstanding disciples.
Confucius also adopted an open-minded approach towards his students with different academic interests and ideological inclinations. Hence, his disciples each had his own special strengths, careers and accomplishments. Sima Qian in his Historical Records divided their specialties into four areas: moral training (德行) represented by Yan Hui (颜渊), Ran Geng (冉伯牛), Ran Rong (仲弓) , etc., state administration (政事) by Ran Qiu (冉有) and Jilu (季路), diplomatic eloquence (serving Warring States strategies,言语) by Zai Yu (宰我) and Zigong (子贡), and classics study (文学) by Ziyou (子游) and Zixia (子夏) . (《史记·仲尼弟子列传》)
Ru scholars before and after Xunzi (荀子) were very much different in their attitude towards other schools of thought: While those during and after Song dynasty rejected other schools as heresies, earlier Ru scholars also instructed their students in the thoughts of other schools. Confucius himself asked in person several times for advice from Laozi the Daoist master and Zichan (子产), a Legalist. His disciple Zixia was another good example. Among his disciples there were: Qinguli (禽滑釐), a Mohist; Wu Qi (吴起), a military strategist; Tian Zifang (田子方), a Daoist; etc. And Li Kui (李悝), a well-known Legalist, was a student of one of his disciples.
Confucian learning in the area of moral training was markedly distinguished from later Ru school in that Confucius’s disciples had the capability to serve in government positions, such as Ran Rong, who, though of humble birth, was considered by Confucius as qualified to serve as a state administrator and thus in a position to start a meritocratic tradition and deal a blow to the hereditary aristocratic system, not like later Ru scholars who were not concerned about practical social affairs, especially ignorant of economic issues, but indulged in empty moral preaching.
Thus, Confucius inherited Western Zhou dynasty’s royal-official learning and, through his school instructions, helped further develop it in the many mutually-complementary-while-contending schools of thought. In view of the continuation of his tradition among his disciples, he should not be regarded only as the grand master of the Ru school, because among his later generations of disciples there appeared Daoists, Legalists, Mohists, diplomatic and military strategists, and what not, such as the above-mentioned Li Kui, Wuqi, Qinguli, Tian Zifang, Zigong, etc.
4. Confucius’s greatest contribution lied in his secular way of moral cultivation. That means that everybody could do it in everyday life through his conscientious and persistent practice of matching all his social acts with the Way of Heaven, instead of having to do it in isolation from the many fields of social affairs or just giving empty talks about human beings’ “mental nature” (心性). This is a major demarcation line between Confucius and later Ru scholars, which also explains their different approaches towards the study of cultural classics mentioned above.
This Confucian tradition, however, has been much distorted in the long past by the later Ru scholars (which have been known in the West as “neo-Confucianists”) and, under the latter’s influence, the general public today still mistake the later Ru school of thought as authentic Confucian learning. Actually, Ru scholars during the Han dynasty, began to tear apart the holistically integrated four areas of Confucian learning and narrow it down to the sole area of classics study, which became the only focus of Ru scholars after that, while claiming themselves to be Confucius’s faithful successors. Then, during Song dynasty, all other areas of learning except pedantic “classics study” and empty moral preaching (a degeneration from the Confucian tradition of moral training) were treated as heresies. Those self-styled sham “Confucianists” debased Confucius, the initiator of the “hundred contending schools of thought”, to be the grand master of Ru school only, thus ushering in a severe setback in the development of Chinese culture and interrupting the continuous flourishing of Chinese civilization.
II. The Ru School: How it Deviated from and Betrayed the Confucian Tradition
Ru (儒), at the earliest time was an official title of an educator (for feudal princes’ children ) in the Western Zhou government, and later the word was used in the broader sense of a “scholar” and also as the name of a school of thought. The Ru school was only one of the many schools of thought in Chinese history and shared with all other ones the same source of origin, i.e., the Six Classics. So, it was preceded by those classics and their compiler Confucius.
The current version of Five Classics (The Book of Music was lost) that we see today was reorganized by Confucius from records of Zhou royal-official learning as textbooks for his students (not to be confused with the six arts of rituals, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and math that the Western Zhou educators taught). These classics were not meant for the Ru school only, but for all schools of thought. Each of these schools drew its basic concept from the same classics but built on its own strengths to realize its potential while, joining together and complementing one another, they formed a complete whole of the Chinese thought system.
With the collapse of Zhou dynasty’s ritual system, its royal-official learning, from which the Five Classics had come from, could hardly adapt itself to the development of the times. Hence the rise of “a hundred schools of thought” and their learning. While Confucius helped promote the above-said four areas of learning, the later Ru school distorted and betrayed his tradition in the following ways:
1. They split the above-said closely interlinked four areas of learning, and belittle and reject studies about state administration and inter-state diplomacy, which they thought had nothing to do with moral training and classics study.
2. By advocating moral cultivation in isolation from social practice, they pitted inner “saintliness” (moral purity) against external “kingliness” (conforming to the Heavenly Dao in administration of intra-state and inter-state affairs).
3. By pitting morality against Dao-abiding social practice, indulging themselves in empty and shallow talks about human’s “mental nature”, and copying the Buddhist approach in transforming one’s consciousness through exclusively mental exercises (心法), they distorted and deviated from the Confucian tradition of moral teaching and practice.
4. During and after Song dynasty, by replacing the Five Classics with the “Four Books” and disparaging all other schools of thought, they gradually succeeded in making the later degenerated Ru system of thought a dominating ideology in China.
5. From its dominant ideological position, by tampering with, marginalizing, demonizing, and sinking into oblivion all other schools’ learning about how to govern and benefit the people, and by collaborating with local hereditary big landlord and merchant families in crippling public power and indulging land annexations, the later Ru school did severe harm to Chinese civilization ranging from culture to political economy, brought about endless disasters to generations after generations of the masses of people, and reduced the once prosperous and powerful China to an ever more frail nation subjected to bullying by foreign aggressors.
Nowadays, many scholars, both in China and abroad, are still mentally trapped in Song Ru ideology. They always talk about the Ru school as representative of Chinese culture. And they do not stop at that -- they talk about Chinese culture from the Western point of view and even advocate wholesale imitation of the failing Western political system and way of life.
Such self-mutilating ideology should not be allowed to dominate our culture any longer. A healthy society depends, besides what Zhou Ru did, i.e., teaching of the Six Arts, also on learning about administrative, legal, diplomatic, military and technological matters. Ru scholarship alone would not be able to blossom out into “external kingliness”. It takes the mutual integration and complementation of the “hundred” schools of thought to build up a new culture fit for the current new era.
III. About Translation of Related Terms
Now back to the issue raised at the very beginning of this essay, that is, the English translation of “儒家”, the name of the school of thought (this author calls “the Ru school”) that had claimed to be successors of Confucius but actually deviated from and betrayed what Confucius really represented. If the word is used to represent what is described in Part I of this essay, then it would be a very appropriate term. But since the term has been often wrongly used in the West for such a long time to refer to what is depicted in Part II of this essay, it would be advisable, and we New Legalists strongly suggest, not to use the term any more so as to avoid confusion and further misunderstanding.
At the same time, this author has tentatively used “the Ru school”, or “the later Ru school” to distinguish its members from pre-Han (dynasty) Ru scholars. Special terms are often established through common practice. So, if some alternative translation should appear someday and be acknowledged by common usage in academic discourse, we would also gladly accept it.
As to what Confucius himself and his faithful disciples advocated and accomplished, a proper name, instead of “Confucianism”, that is not only exact in meaning but also simple in form would also naturally emerge some time in the future through common usage. For the time being, “Confucian tradition of learning”, or just “Confucian learning”, or Kong Xue (孔学), or maybe Kong-ism, or “Kong school of thought”, or whatever, might serve the purpose.
This author hopes the efforts made by us New Legalists at distinguishing between the Confucian tradition and the later Ru school will help promote a better understanding of China’s cultural tradition.
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