Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

What is Chinese Imperial Tradition (CIT) and what are its historical roots?

Long before the time of Confucius, a system of beliefs and practices had developed around the role of the emperor in cosmic affairs. The Chinese had come to regard the emperor as the Son of Heaven. He bore the awesome responsibility of securing the welfare of all his subjects by discerning and executing faithfully the Will (or Mandate) of Heaven. Though the emperor was called Son of Heaven, he was not considered a deity. He was rather one who had the ultimate sanction for exercising authority on Earth, so long as he maintained contact with the heavenly mandate. Whenever a ruler failed to see that his people enjoyed universal justice, the people could justifiably conelude that Heaven’s mandate had passed to a more worthy leader. Revolution was the solution. Chinese Imperial Tradition had its pantheon of deities arranged in several hierarchical levels, so that the earthly royal administration appeared to mirror the heavenly. CIT did not revolve around a saered scripture, nor did it have a separate “ecclesiastical” structure or ordained priesthood. It did, however, have its own equivalent of religious doctrine, elaborate rituals comparable in form and content to those of many major religious traditions, and a hierarchical organization complete with ritual specialists. CIT is an integral part of the religious history of China, since it formed the broad backdrop against which nearly the whole of that history has been played out.


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