Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

Are there mythic elements in Confucian tradition or CIT?

Confucius looked to history for lessons about life. The stories he found to have the greatest educative value were those about human beings, the truly great and the mean-spirited alike, who had shaped life in the Middle Kingdom for good or ill. The high examplars were themselves people, the rulers and sages of old. Like his Indian contemporary the Buddha, Confucius preferred not to commit his time and energy to discrediting the stories of the gods and superhuman heroes of his culture. He was simply convinced that, whatever their powers and prerogatives, the subjects of China’s myths could not relieve human beings of their most fundamental responsibilities. The ultimate divine favor, Confucius believed, was a climate in which people could turn their full attention to the everyday realities of family, livelihood, and the betterment of society. Still, under pressure from Daoism and Buddhism, later Confucians cloaked the birth and life of the Master in wondrous tales. A unicorn presaged Confucius’ birth by presenting his mother with a tablet of announcement, a pair of dragons and five ancient men symbolizing the five directions appeared in the heavens on the day he was born, and a celestial musical ensemble provided accompaniment for his birth. CIT likewise did not revolve around mythic narratives as such. Divinely sanctioned representatives of the people under Heaven had more pressing concerns. But the emperor had the power to elevate individual heroes and gods from local to universal stature. As a result he was, ironically perhaps, China’s most important myth-maker.


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