Confucius Says . . .
Confucius's tremendous impact on Chinese society was not felt during his lifetime. Born Kong Qiu (also Kong Zhongni) to a minor noble family, Confucius (551-479 B.C.) spent most of his life wandering the country as a teacher after the various feudal lords with whom he sought positions all rejected him. Confucius himself never wrote his teachings down. It was only later, over the course of several generations, when his disciples like Zengzi and Mengzi collected and compiled his teachings in The Analects (Lun Yu), that Confucianism began to take a firm hold.
A philosophical tradition that has come to underpin much of Chinese society, Confucianism is a series of moral and ethical precepts about the role and conduct of an individual in society. Essentially conservative, Confucius was concerned about the breakdown in human, social, and political affairs he observed in the world around him during the Spring and Autumn Period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 B.C.). Expounding on the traditional rites and rituals set forth during the previous Western Zhou dynasty (1100-771 B.C.), Confucius formulated a code of conduct governing what he saw as the five basic hierarchical relationships in society: between father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brothers, ruler and subject, and friend and friend. At its crux was the supreme virtue of benevolence (ren), and the ideal relationship was one in which the dominant figure (always the male) would rule benevolently over the subordinate, who would in turn practice obedience and piety (xiao) toward the authority figure. This concept of xiao, which so permeates Chinese familial relations (from parents to in-laws to siblings), is the glue that holds much of Chinese society together.
After an inauspicious beginning when the Qin dynasty Shi Huangdi emperor (China's first) rejected all things Confucian and implemented a book-burning campaign in 213 B.C., Confucianism became the official state philosophy from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) until the fall of the Qing in 1911, with different rulers seizing on different aspects of Confucius's teachings to justify their rules and methods. Over the years, Confucianism underwent many changes, but Confucian temples (wen miao) continued to proliferate and the stature of the Kong family continued to rise; by the Qing dynasty, the Kong family had attained a status equal to that of the imperial family. To be sure, there were many detractors throughout the years, too, none more so than during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when, encouraged to reject tradition and authority, children openly criticized and humiliated their parents and teachers. The bonds of xiao were broken.
Today, Confucianism struggles to remain relevant. Some younger people scoff at it for being rigid and outdated, while a smaller group lays at its feet the onus of over 2,000 years of Chinese patriarchy. Indeed, where once the concept of zhongnan qingnu (the value of males over females), an extension of Confucius's emphasis on the importance of male heirs to continue the family lineage, was held absolute and paramount, today that practice is being very slowly, if not surely, challenged. Yet those fearing the imminent demise of Confucianism need only take a closer look at the family flying a kite in the park, at the crowds who show up to sweep the graves of their ancestors, at the teeming masses who burden the Chinese transportation system in the days leading up to the Spring Festival (Chun Jie) so they can all rush home to celebrate the Chinese New Year with their family, at the peasant woman who is allowed to have a second child if her first one is a girl. For good or ill, tradition is alive and well, and the family is still the strongest and most important social unit in Chinese society.