Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

Is there a distinctively Confucian interpretation of history?

Confucius refused to think of himself as an innovator. Any individual bent on inventing his own system of thought was doomed to failure, so interdependent are we humans. His task, he believed, was what he called the “renewal of antiquity.” His first step was to translate his knowledge of tradition into clearly articulated principles so that he could intelligently sort out the best of the past. Confucius discerned in the drift of history a serious problem of societal entropy—the tendency to let things unravel.

Looking back to the legendary founders of Chinese society, Confucius believed the first major problem set in when the Xia dynasty (1994-1525 B.C.E.) instituted the principle of hereditary succession. When decline in the quality of the rulers reached a disastrous low, the Shang dynasty (1525-1028 B.C.E.) overthrew the last Xia tyrant. Unfortunately, the Shang rulers retained the hereditary throne, thus virtually sealing their own eventual demise. Sure enough, the Zhou dynasty (1028-222 B.C.E.) was destined to be the instrument of renewal. By the Master’s own time, the Zhou, too, showed signs of serious decay. The Master wondered what power under Heaven might again correct the course of history. Confucius was convinced that it was possible to imitate the eternally true in history, to avoid reliving all of the past by distinguishing the good from the evil in it. True authority arose out of the ability to blend the ancient with the new. And only through learning could a leader assimilate the eternally true to changing needs. Beginning with politics and ethics, Confucius set out to contribute to the renewal of antiquity.


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