Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

Has Confucianism ever been intimately identified with specific political regimes?

Confucian teaching offers a great deal of reflection on the nature of an orderly society and methods of governing. It is therefore not surprising that a number of political regimes have chosen the Confucian system as their official ideology. Emperor Wu Di (r. 140-87 B.C.E.) of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) was the first to do so, paving the way for a long and complex association between Confucian teaching and Chinese government. In Korea, Confucianism became the official religion of Korea by decree of the Yi (1392-1910) dynasty in 1392, to Buddhism’s detriment. Leaders condemned Buddhism’s view of this world as illusory and argued for the more humanistic approach of Confucian tradition. Perhaps the most far-reaching result was that education toppled from its elite pedestal and became available to a wide public. Confucianism took somewhat longer to forge its links to the Japanese imperial government. During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), after the capital had moved to Tokyo, Confucian tradition enjoyed its closest association with Japanese imperial rule. Particularly in the realm of international relations, the legacy of Confucian political thought stood out. Confucians played an important role in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which involved a restructuring of imperial administration. As the Japanese grew to regard Confucianism as an unwelcome import, the tradition’s official influence in governmental circles diminished steadily.


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