Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confuscianism

Episode 7: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confucianism

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

The last 500 years of civil war under the Zhou Dynasty gave rise to more than 100 schools of philosophy as scholars searched for ways to end war. The three most important were Confucianism, Legalism and Daoism. According to Benjamin, the first millennium BC was one of extreme unrest in all civilized societies. He feels it’s no coincidence that most of humanity’s religious and philosophical foundations (including the Hebrew scriptures, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and the philosophy of Socrates) were laid down during this period (which some historians refer to as the Axial Age*).

Confucius (551 – 479 BC) spent most of his life visiting the courts of warring Chinese states seeking a job (as political advisor). To support himself, he accepted a number of disciples. Following his death, his disciples published his teachings in a book (The Analects). His philosophical teachings stressed the importance of ethical leadership and moral authority in rulers and the acceptance of one’s role in society. He taught that the primary obligation of all leaders was to dedicate themselves to the people they served and that they should be selected  based on knowledge and morality, rather than family background.

Confucius prescribed study five books as a prerequisite for wise and moral rule: the I-Ching (see The Mandate of Heaven and the Right to Overthrow Morally Unfit Rulers/), the Book of Odes, the Book of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals. These would serve as the basic texts of eastern philosophy for 2,500 years.

Confucianism identifies four important qualities of an effective government official:

  1. Benevolence and a deep understanding of the plight of humanity.
  2. Wisdom and courage.
  3. Sense of propriety and respect for superiors
  4. Filial piety – respect for parents and commitment to look after them in old age and after death.

*The ‘Axial Age’ (500–300 BCE) refers to the period during which most of the main religious and spiritual traditions emerged in Eurasian societies.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

4 thoughts on “Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confuscianism

  1. “The longest ruling dynasty (1046-256 BC), the Zhou also introduced China’s longstanding “Mandate of Heaven.” Under the Mandate of Heaven, rebel leaders asserted the god-given right to seize power from leaders who became morally unfit to rule.”

    Confucius prescribed study five books, it seems to me, our Western leader could learn from the study of these books! How about this right to overthrow morally unfit rulers?

    These books served Eastern philosophy for ‘only’ 2,500 years! 🙂


  2. The US revolution leaders Benjamin Franklin and Tom Paine were great fans of Confucianism:
    “Chinese thought did figure prominently in the thinking of Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine. Franklin had published many writings on Confucius from 1737-1757, which shaped many points of wisdom in the Poor Richards Almanac. Writing to a friend in 1747, Franklin stated “Confucius was my example. I followed Confucius”. As Professor David Wang points out, many of his insights into civil administration and law derived from his studies of China.”


  3. Pingback: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Later Confuscianism | The Most Revolutionary Act

  4. Pingback: Great Ideas of the Zhou – Legalism | The Most Revolutionary Act

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