Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Are there Confucian or CIT hierarchical structures?

Confucian thought discerns an essential need for hierarchies in all aspects of human society. It is a question of order. Human beings may be identical in essence, but they clearly differ in personal attributes, talents, knowledge, and age, to name only a few distinguishing characteristics. Confucius believed that realism required taking account of those differences. Take the challenge of living an ethical life, for example. Each stage in life has its unique problems. Young people need to conquer sensuality, adults combativeness, and the elderly greed. As for the variety of human capabilities, Confucius saw four levels: those who possess knowledge from birth, those capable of becoming Superior Persons by acquiring knowledge, those who learn only with great effort, and those not at all disposed to learning. Confucian thinking has often been very class conscious. The Master believed that society needed stratification in order to function smoothly. At the top was the scholar, supported by the farmer who produce life’s basic needs, artisans who make practical items, merchants who buy and sell what others produce, and soldiers who, unfortunately, often wreck what others make.

Within the highest echelons of the Confucian hierarchy there were still further distinctions. Until around 1530, those enshrined in Confucian memorial halls were ranked according to titles taken from imperial administration. Confucian greats were honored as king, duke, marquis, or earl, for example. After 1530, Confucians replaced those royal honorifics with the titles sage, correlate, especially learned one, worthy one, and scholar. Over the course of history, some individuals within the Confucian hierarchy have been promoted, others demoted in rank, and still others restored after being demoted. Such hierarchical adjustments have depended a great deal on ideological leanings within various imperial regimes, the last major rearrangement occurring around 1724. CIT was, of course, hierarchical, but with the emperor at the top and a much higher place allotted to the military.


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