Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

What does Confucian tradition teach about the use of violent means?

Confucius grew up in a time of feudal disintegration during which the Zhou dynasty’s imperial capital, Lo Yang, functioned chiefly as a religious center. He shared the fundamental Daoist teaching that natural harmony based on the perfect blend of Yin and Yang was the ideal to be cultivated. His personal experience of political unrest, however, made his view of the human exercise of power somewhat less idealistic than the classic Daoist teaching.

In Confucius’ view, soldiers comprised a high ranking social class—the Superior Person was originally described as a member of the military class, and education included training in warfare. Indeed, he insisted that no one should be allowed to carry weapons without seven years of education in agriculture, ethics, and military tactics. Confucius did not disapprove of military campaigns in principle, but he regarded war as a solution of last resort. He taught that since the emperor’s ability to communicate with Heaven was essential to good order, loss of the Mandate of Heaven was grounds for violent overthrow of an incompetent ruler.

Later Confucian thinkers held various views on the use of violence. Mo Zi (480-390 B.C.E.) was schooled in Confucian teaching but took more utilitarian approach: He generally opposed war but not to the point of pacifism, and emphasized strong defense. Meng Zi (372-298 B.C.E.) reaffirmed Confucian emphasis on virtue as curb to violence. The so-called Legalists (fourth century B.C.E.) reacted to earlier trends toward pacifism by glorifying the role of militarism and emphasized conquest as the sole guarantee for maintaining political power.


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