For a long time, the Confucianism has been an integral element of the Chinese society. For millennia, this doctrine has been a backbone of China’s system of government. In its later modifications, it has formed what is commonly called the traditional culture of China. Prior to contact with the Western powers and Western civilization, this country was such one where the Confucian ideology was the dominant one. However, one should consider that Confucius developed his teachings many centuries ago, as well as the fact that it was subject to criticism and rivalry from the side of other ideologies. Therefore, it is possible to state that there were the considerable changes in its principles over the time. Such reforms were aimed at tailoring the ideology to the current needs of the country. As a result, one may doubt its governing role in shaping the culture and way of life of China. Therefore, the following work focuses on the review of significance of Confucianism as a cornerstone of the Chinese national character.
In its original form, Confucianism had been developed during the time of changes, when China was in the state of the internal war between kingdoms. Its creator, Confucius, positioned himself as a man that restored the wise and ancient traditions. Such ones helped increase and maintain the power of the country. Indeed, the majority of ideas he had presented were already known to people. However, there is no need to prove that his timing was impeccable. In this sense, Confucius has done a considerable job of transforming the old institutions and traditions, adapting them to the conditions of a developed society. It means that Confucianism was still an original and creative ideology. Its primary objective was the harmonization of society, people, and the Cosmos. To translate such ideas into reality, Confucius developed a portrait of the so-called noble man. It means a person of high moral standards that put duty, honor, and dignity above everything else, including the personal benefits. Such individuals had a positive impact on the improvement of the country. The most important aspects of achieving this goal were the five values: ritual, humaneness, justice, knowledge, and integrity.
Confucians, many of which dedicated their lives to the teaching profession, devoted a lot of time and efforts processing and interpreting the ancient writings used in a learning process. The basic tendency of their work was to save the most important material and strongly reinforce its edifying emphasis. Thus, they edited the Book of Songs, the books of historical legends, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. It included almost all of the extant information about the most ancient and, therefore, particularly revered the pages of the Chinese history. These works provided the following generations with the knowledge about antiquity. Moreover, their reading and studying contributed to the assimilation of fundamentals of the doctrine, shaping the national character of the Chinese people.
The Confucianism quickly became one of the most popular teachings in China. Such success was largely possible due to the fact that the doctrine had been based on slightly modified ancient traditions, as well as the customary norms of ethics and religion. Appealing to the most subtle and sympathetic strings of the Chinese soul, Confucius won the trust of people by advocating for something being precious to them. These values included the conservative traditionalism, the return to the good old days, when and taxes were lower, the life was better, the officials were fairer, and rulers were wiser.
However, as it has been mentioned before, Confucianism has been subject to change after the death of its creator. In particular, it has been complemented by the teachings of Legalism being not compatible with the views of Confucius. They were based on the doctrine of absolute primacy of the written law, power, and authority. They were to be maintained through discipline and cruel punishments. According to the canons of Legalism, the development of laws is a task of sages. Moreover, their adoption is the work of the Emperor; and the implementation is carried out by the specially selected officials and ministers. In other words, the entire doctrine is based on the powerful administrative-bureaucratic apparatus. Moreover, the homage to law and administration is provided by a special circular bail. It, in turn, is kept in place by penalties even for minor infractions. Punishments are balanced by the reward for loyalty in the form of appropriation of the next rank and the change in the social status. In the teachings of Legalism, there was no place for the Cosmos (one of central components of Confucianism). The rationalism was brought to its most extreme form, sometimes becoming a cynicism. However, the rationality and relationship to the Cosmos were not the primary reasons for the confrontation. The fact is that Confucianism has made a bet on high morals and ancient traditions. Meanwhile legalism put administrative regulations above everything else and required absolute obedience being of utmost importance. Confucianism focused on the past, which was ignored by Legalism in favor of some extreme forms of autocratic despotism.
Naturally, such unappealing system could not have existed for a long time. In the end, the totalitarian doctrine of Legalism, with its contempt for people on behalf of the prosperity of the state proved to be unsustainable. However, in order to preserve the already established imperial structure based on the powerful administrative bureaucracy, the country required the doctrine. It was capable of giving this system a decent and respectable appearance, in other words, Confucianism. The synthesis of the two opposite teachings was not as difficult as one would have imagined. Firstly, despite many differences, both Confucianism and Legalism had much in common. The supporters of both doctrines exercised rational thinking. They perceived the Emperor as the ultimate authority, with the ministers and officials being his main assistants. Both teachings also described the common people as the ignorant mass, which should be led properly for its own good. Secondly, such synthesis was necessary. It means the methods and institutions introduced by Legalism (the centralization of administration, the apparatus of power, etc.) were required to manage the Empire. For the sake of the country, they had to be combined with respect to traditions and patriarchal kinship relations.
Eventually, Confucianism has been altered with the highest contribution to the implementation of the synthesis. It was made by the Emperor Wu of Han, with his minister Dong Zhengshu heavily modifying the nature of the doctrine and transforming it into the official ideology of China. Moreover, after the advent of Buddhism to the country, Confucianism has incorporated several new elements. In particular, the texts of Confucius were canonized by Zhu Xi (a prominent Chinese philosopher). He has developed the religious elements of Confucianism and updated the teachings once again. Zhu Xi was also instrumental in editing of the books of the Confucian Canon. It became the basis of the classical Confucian education during the Ming and Qing eras. As a result, his efforts have also contributed to the further transformation of the doctrine being originally meant to harmonize people, society, and the Cosmos.
Moreover, among the texts of the special social significance to China, it is possible to note the treatise on family rituals. It was composed by Zhu Xi himself (or under his leadership). It describes the code-of-age ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and ancestor worship. The simplified edition of this work became the basis for the subsequent Confucian indoctrination of the Chinese society, contributing to its national character. Among other things, Zhu Xi approved a subordinate position of women in the family (much more strictly than being customary in the Confucian elite). It is expected that they should not enjoy financial autonomy and devote themselves to science and arts, as well as divorce and remarry. Burdensome regulatory obligations were imposed on young people of both sexes. Finally, Confucius himself was perceived as a deity, with the state becoming a supreme institute of religion. As a result, each city had the temples dedicated to him; and the Emperor became a high priest. This form of the teaching, which was named Neo-Confucianism, became the core ideology of China until the 20th century.
In conclusion, it is possible to say that Confucianism has indeed played a significant role in the life of the Chinese society for many centuries. However, Confucius based it on the ideals being already a part of the national character of the country. It means that the ancient traditions and customary norms of ethics and religion were included. On the other hand, prior to becoming the official ideology of China, the teaching has undergone considerable changes, becoming quite different from the philosophy of the creator. The synthesis of Confucianism and Legalism, which contained contradictory principles complemented with the religious status of the doctrine, has resulted in the emergence of the teaching existing for many centuries. Therefore, one should remember that Confucianism in its original form was only one of the components of the ideology ruling almost every aspect of life in the Chinese society.