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Saturday, November 3, 2007



Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.

No one can define three world religions in a short essay, so I will confine myself to Confucius and the impact of his philosophy. To this day the government and culture of China is defined by Confucius, even if the government has sought to supplant the original philosophy with various substitutes. The underlying culture remains so strong that China remains Confucian in substance, like an old Victorian mansion with many coats of badly chosen paint that hide the earlier work and yet still reveal its fundamental design.

Confucius the Teacher
We know Confucius from his Latinized name. He was born K'ung-fu-tze in 551 BC. He had a distinguished background, but his warrior father died when Confucius was young, forcing the boy to work as a servant. Nevertheless, he had a propensity for study and never neglected learning. He seemed to have a reformer’s zeal and self-confidence, even though his life was mostly full of setbacks and dishonor.

Confucius first set up a school, even as a young man, in a country where age equals wisdom. He attracted students and later became a government minister. When his advice was not heeded by the ruler, Confucius resigned and began a life of wandering teaching. He cultivated his philosophy in many places but he was not well received overall. His life was often threatened. After 13 years of peripatetic teaching he returned to his home province, where he lived five more years until his death at age 74.

Post Mortem Persecution
The teachings of Confucius were persecuted after his death. Confucian scholars were buried alive and texts destroyed in 213 BC. However, the Han dynasty stopped the persecution in 191 AD. Eventually the Confucian texts became established in a way that gave the teacher the ultimate influence over his country. The teachings of Confucius became the standard for serving in the administration of the country. Those who were Confucian scholars advanced in the state exams. The exams were extremely rigorous and allowed only 1% of the initial candidates (who passed!) to take the final step into training. This developed during the Ming dynasty.

By making scholarship in Confucius the hallmark of success in the government, the Chinese imprinted his ideas upon their entire civilization. It is important to realize, too, that Confucius did not see himself as inventing new ideas but as gathering ancient wisdom. Like the editor of folk songs, he is given credit for collecting the wisdom of the past. Nevertheless, his achievement was enormous, especially considering the centuries of opposition that followed his life’s efforts.

The Influence of Confucius
When we look at the recent history of China, the one great characteristic of the country seems to be isolation. The Confucian scholars deliberately isolated their country from the barbarians of the West to keep their culture pure. This led to one of the great episodes of history, lost to human knowledge until recently. The Chinese set out with about 500 sailing ships and traveled across the world, leaving maps used later by Columbus and Magellan. (

The great Chinese naval voyages (1405-1433) ended when the regime changed and Confucian scholars ordered the destruction of the entire fleet, to avoid pollution from trading with foreigners. Therefore, the age of world exploration and trade began with accurate Chinese maps but without Asian participation. The Chinese voyages explain many anomalies of history, such as finding Chinese animals and plants across the world where they did not belong, and the Chinese junk dug up by President George Washington in America.

Modern Confucius
Just as the Chinese of the past advanced through their knowledge of Confucius, the Chinese Marxists prospered according to their ability to follow the thought of Mao. In the 1960’s, The Sayings of Chairman Mao were enormously popular in American colleges, printed with a red cover (a positive color in China) and small enough to be carried easily. While Mao was alive, the cult of Mao seemed very much like the aura surrounding Confucius in the old days.

Discussion Questions

1. What if the Chinese fleet of ships had remained instead of being destroyed? How would that have affected world history and religion for the better or for the worse?
2. Which aspects of Confucian learning seem to persist in Chinese culture today? Compare Buddhism to Confucian thought. How are they similar or different?

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