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Searching for the Way of Heaven-Confucius,Mozi,Mencius,and Xunzi

Updated on January 19, 2015


Confucius (551-479 BC)

Many other men traveled the states of Eastern Zhou offering advice and teaching on the arts of government,ritual,and morality,on man and nature,and sometimes simply on how to survive in an unpredictable and dangerous world.There was great variety to their thought,but they did share some core assumptions:they regarded disunity and chaos as a problem to be solved,they assumed that patriarchal hierarchy is natural for the families and for states,that there is a natural "Way" (dao) of Heaven,and that those who discover and follow that Heavenly Way will be successful.In the long term,the two most significant varieties of teaching were those that scholars during the Han dynasty labeled as "Confucianism" and "Daoism".

Confucius (Kong Fuzi,"Master Kong") or Kong Qiu (551-479 BC) was a man of Lu.Like many other shi of the Eastern Zhou,Confucius traveled among the states,offering his services as a political avisor an official to feudal rulers and taking on students whom he would teach for a fee.Confucius had an unsuccessful career as a petty bureaucrat,but a highly successful one as a teacher.A couple of generations after his death,first- and second-generations students gathered accounts of Confucius teachings together.These anecdotes and records of short conversations o under the English title of the Analects.As seen in the Analects,the basic elements of Confucius` teachings can be summed up as:ritual,filial piety,reciprocity,benevolence,and reactification of names.



Confucius believed that ritual was needed in order in order to moderate the natural human appetites and thus to maintain peace and orderliness in the world.He assumed that humans exist and find their indentity or purpose within relationsships with other people.

The five basic relationships were:

  • ruler-minister
  • father-son
  • husband-wife
  • elder brother-younger brother
  • friend-friend

Four of the five are hierarchical,and there are clear parallels between the hierarchical relations within a family and the hierarchical relationships of ruler to minister,and by extension,subjects to ruler and subjects to the ruler`s officials.

  • Filial piety was an essetial ingridient in making these hierarchical relationships work:children should respect,obey and care for their parents.Inferiors in a political system should likewise show respect,care and obedience toward their superiors.

Clear parallels were drawn between filial sons and loyal subjects.This did not,however mean that fathers,rulers,and other superiors could play the tyrant.There was also the suggestion that superiors should respect the valid opinions of their inferiors.When asked how to serve a ruler,Confucius replied:"You may not deceive him,but you may stand up to him."

How is one to be a good ruler?By ruling people by example,not by threatening them with punitive laws,and by conforming to ritual in one`s daily life:"Through mastering oneself and returning to ritual one becomes humane.If for a single day one can mater oneself and return to ritual,the whole world will return to humaneness."For Confucius,it all came back to ritual.


Mozi and Universal Love
Mozi and Universal Love


Not everyone agreed.Mozi,who lived in the late fifth to early fourth centuries BC,was a vociferous critic of Confucius.

Mozi`s teaching revolved around three themes:

  • untility
  • conformity to the will of superiors
  • concern for everyone (also translated as "universal love")

The Confucians,said Mozi,wasted time and resources on elaborate rituals,music,and dance.In the case of funerals,for example,Mozi asked if the complex rituals and prolonged mourning (three years of mourning for a dead parent) "can really enrich the poor,increase the population,secure the endangered,and order the disorder."

Mozi also criticized the Confucians for encouraging selfishness.Confucius,he said,taught people to be concerned only about the welfare of their own parents and their own families.The result was disagreement and fighting not within families,but among families.

Mozi argued that Heaven showed concern for everyone,not the partial concern for one`s own that the Confucian doctrine taught.The ruler of men and all people should imitate Heaven in its concern for everyone,or "universal love".If all men regarded the families,cities,and states of others with the same concern that they would show for their own,there would be no more bloody wars between the states.The secret of achieving this enviable state of affairs was for the ruler to emulate Heaven`s concern for everyone,and for his ministers and his people to obey and emulate their superiors.

Mozi`s vision of good government was a centralized bureaucracy in which the king raised up men from all levels of society,even farmers and merchants,appointing them to official posts according to their talents.

Mozi and his followers,although opposed to aggressive warfare,were experts at defensive warfare and were often employed bu feudal lords as consultants on defensive operations.


Mencius (385?-312?BC)

Mozi`s ideas were not influential in the long run,but they were powerful enough to elicit a vigorous reply from Mencius.Mencius was a powerful advocate and interpreter of Confucius`ideas.His response to the chaos of the Warring States period was to expand on the ideas in the Analects.Mencius is particularly associated with:

  • his strong belief in the innate goodness of human nature
  • the idea that a loyal minister has the duty to reprimand his own ruler
  • proposing the well-field system as a model for the management of land and population

Unlike Mozi,Mencius` teachings proved to be very influential,particularly from the Song dynasty through the 20th century.

According to Mencius, the ruler was to provide for the welfare of the people in two respects: material conditions for their livelihood and moral and educational guidance for their edification. Mencius had worked out a definite program to attain economic sufficiency for the common people. He also advocated light taxes, free trade, conservation of natural resources, welfare measures for the old and disadvantaged, and more nearly equal sharing of wealth. It was his fundamental belief that “only when the people had a steady livelihood would they have a steady heart.”



Mencius was confident of the innate goodness of human nature and looked back to the Western Zhou for the ideals that would serve as the basis for government and society.Xunzi had a somewhat different interpretation of Confucius` teachings.Xunzi declared that "human nature is evil".People,he observed,are born with a fondness for profit,feelings of envy and hate,and desire for pleasure of all sorts.Left to themselves,people will indulge these tendencies and thus be devoid of any sense of modesty,yielding,loyalty,good faith,rightness,rafinement,and principle.This,Xunzi said,was the reason why ritual is so necessary.Without ritual,the world wpuld fall into chaos.

Xunzi,Mencius,Mozi,and Confucius all used the term "dao",translated as "Way",in their teachings.For them the term meant the way of life,the way of rulership,the way of elite men`s participation in public affairs.The term "dao" is,however,most firmly identified with Zhuangzi an Laozi.

Zhuanzi is said to have lived somewhere around 360-280 BC.The long book that bears his name is a combination of material that represents his own thinking and other writings incorporated by various compilers and editors.The identity of Laozi (the name means "the old master") is a subject of intense debate.The book atributed to him,the Dao de jing (Classic of the Way an its Power)is a compilation reflecting a strain of thought from around 400 BC.

The life of Confucius

Mencius Teachings and the Mandate of Heaven


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