Confucianism has so long dominated the intellectual life of China that western scholars have fallen into the habit of speaking as if there were a sort of preestablished harmony between it and the national mind. As a matter of fact it has had to win its way against vigorous criticism and formidable rivals. The two centuries following Confucius’s death were rife with conflicting theories of ethics. Yan Chu presented a cynical egoism: death ends all; so make the most of life, every man for himself. To this doctrine Mo Ti opposed a radical altruism, with universal love as the cure of misgovernment and social disorders. Lao-tse impugned the Confucian idea of man’s inborn goodness. Man’s nature no more tends to goodness than water tends to run east, or willow wood to take shape in cups and bowls. Against all these contentions the teaching of Confucius was defended and elucidated by the greatest of his followers, Meng-tse (372-289), whose name has been Latinized as Mencius. But Confucianism had to meet systems of thought that carried a more positive religious appeal than it admitted of. Taoism was already in the field, preaching a wise passiveness toward the Way of Heaven, and enlisting in Chuang-tse one of the most brilliant writers that China has produced. His teaching was mystical: “The universe and I came into being together; and I, with all things therein, are One.” The repulse of this doctrine by that of Confucius is perhaps correctly explained by the historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien: “Like a flood its mysteries spread at will: hence no one, from rulers downward, could apply them to any definite use.” But the reticence of Confucius as to the state of departed spirits left an opening for Buddhism, which describes that state with the full detail craved by popular imagination. The pessimistic philosophy of Buddhism was indeed alien to the Chinese temperament, but its missionaries won a ready response to its doctrine of retribution and its offer of salvation. From the fifth century on it was increasingly in conflict with Confucianism, and succumbed only after sharp persecution. Even in its decline it has contributed many ideas and practices to the old animistic religion of the masses. The triumph of Confucianism in its fall, moreover, was not a mere reassertion of the teaching of Confucius and Mencius. Taoism and Buddhism had raised questions of cosmology which could no longer be ignored. The Neo-Confucianism, therefore, that began with Chou Tun-i (1017–1073) built upon the Yi Ching a cosmic philosophy, describing the world in terms of two principles: a primal matter and an immanent intelligence, which give rise on the one hand to the five elements and all sense data, and on the other to all wisdom and moral ideals. The greatest name in Neo-Confucianism is Chu Hsi (1130-1200), whose commentaries on the canonical books are now authoritative, and whose manuals of domestic rites and manners have brought the Confucian code into the homes of the people.

In 1906 Confucius was “deified” by imperial decree. With the rise of republicanism, however, there has appeared a disposition to reject not only such a canonization of the sage, but the whole conservative tradition for which he has stood. The movement has at the present writing called out a reaction, but the future of Confucianism amid the intellectual currents now flooding in from the West, can be only matter of conjecture. One may hope that the ethical code that has made so much of what is best in the national culture both of China and of Japan will keep its vitality under change of forms and formulas. Western critics sometimes talk as if Confucius had held his countrymen’s regard by a sort of infatuation. If so, it has been given to no other man to captivate the imagination of his kind with sheer reasonableness.

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