(Published in GralsWelt 8/1998)
In East Asia, Christianity, Christian ethics, and Christian thinking are a comparatively new phenomenon. Old, very old, on the other hand, are the "classic attitudes towards life". In our series on “Wisdom of Asia”, Siegfried Hagl deals with the legacy of Confucius.
“In a Confucian society, every individual must strive to prove their loyalty to the society to which they belong. The degree of his loyalty is measured by the degree of his willingness to sacrifice himself ... In such a society the freedom of the individual is often seen as treason or a challenge to society or the majority, and anyone who dares to claim his freedom will probably be completely isolated. "
If you were to ask a Chinese about the religions that have had the greatest influence on the culture of China, he would most likely say: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism.
The Korean scholar Hong man-jong characterized these three doctrines in the 17th century as follows:
“The foundation of Confucianism is love and righteousness. Bliss is obtained by living virtuously and observing the Five Commandments. Taoism strives for purity and with the help of water and fire it leads its believers to a refined level, where the soul sheds its outer shell and only retains its actual substance. Buddhism, however, dwells in silence ... It rejects all feelings and sensory impressions as worthless and nothing is the goal of its striving ... it becomes brighter and clearer in consciousness the more the body decays. "
We Europeans have difficulties with religions without a strict concept of God. Even the current Pope John Paul II made the mistake of calling Buddhism a kind of “atheistic religion” in one of his books, which has earned him some criticism. The followers of monotheistic religions are often intolerant; their only God does not tolerate competitors beside them, and the demand: "One God, one (true) faith, one (legitimate) church" caused many a war, brought a lot of suffering.
Asians tend to be more open about their religious beliefs. They find nothing in making sacrifices and praying in different temples or churches, and they do not always find it easy with the monotheists' strict understanding of God. Europeans have correspondingly difficult access to Asian religious experience.
For example, if you travel through South Korea - a country where Confucianism was the state religion until 1906 - and are interested in the traditional culture of the country, you will find yourself next to the old Imperial Palace in Seoul buddhist temples admire. The most beautiful are away from the big cities, embedded in forests and mountains, and leave magical impressions from an exotic country.
Confucian temple on the other hand it will hardly be found; because Confucian thinking does not show itself to the superficial observer. At most you can come across a small building, comparable to our chapels, for example as "Monument to a conscientious son" reveals Confucian ethics.
Buddhism is widespread in East Asia and has influence and importance; in Korea, for example, “Buddha's birthday” is a public holiday.
Far greater practical significance - across all religions - has another "religion", which according to Western understanding should perhaps better be called "philosophy" or "world view": the teachings of Confucius.
The life of Confucius
Kong fuzu (Master Kong), as the Chinese call him, lived from 552 to 479 BC. He was a wandering philosopher, as there were many in China at that time, moved from court to court, gathered students around himself and tried to find an office at the court of one of the many different sovereigns.
In turbulent, warlike times, Confucius wants to renew the old customs and educate people in goodness, courtesy, righteousness, truthfulness, refined behavior, cultivating the arts and striving for knowledge and wisdom. It builds on the existing traditions, collects the ancient teachings and is apparently the right way to go in a country where the pursuit of order and harmony is paramount.
The four books and five classics
Classical Chinese education, including civil servant education, is based on four books and five classics. This classical Chinese education set the trend for all of East Asia.
The four books:
1. Great Teaching (Daxue): The basis for raising a noble person.
2. Center Right (Zhongyong): The formation of human character through moderation.
3. Analects (Lunyu): collection of words of Confucius. A major source of Confucian thought.
4. Mencius (Mengzi): The writings of Mengzi (371-289 BC), the most important student of Confucius.
The five classics:
1. Book of Songs (Shi-jing): Seals depicting life between 1,000 and 600 BC. Chr., Describe.
2. Book of Records (Shu-jing): Reports from 17 centuries of Chinese history, beginning with the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BC)
3. Book of Changes (Yi-jing): An oracle book that has recently caused a sensation with us under the name I-went.
4. Book of Customs (Li-ji): Collection of ceremonies and rites.
5. Spring and Autumn Annals (Chun-qiü): Chronicle of the state of Lu, the homeland of Confucius, for the period from 722-481 BC. Chr.
According to Fama, he even became a minister in the Duchy of Lu. Under his leadership the country flourishes, freed from injustice and armaments, and arouses the envy of its neighbors. After five years of diligent work to tame human passions, he is said to have been promoted by a typical Chinese stratagem (cf. "China and the Stratagems", here “China I” under “History”) brought down: The Duke of the neighboring country Tsin sends the Duke of Lu eighty seductive dancers and a whole arsenal of battle horses, swords and armor. Henceforth the knights of Lu train again for battle and war; the duke himself has fun dancing and singing with his court and refuses to receive Confucius.
So the wise preacher has to move on without getting a second official post. -
The Quin dynasty (221-206 BC) then united China. This first yellow realm develops into a brutal dictatorship that has no use for philosophical ideals. The burning of all old works is consequently ordered, including those of the Confucian classics. It should be difficult for future generations to reconstruct the classical scripts from the few fragments that have survived.
The early Han dynasty (206 BC - 9 AD) then chose Confucianism as their state ethic. In 124 BC The imperial academy is founded at which anyone who wants to pursue a career as a civil servant can study; in the first century BC This academy had 3,000 students in the late Han period (24-220 AD) as early as 30,000.
China's unique education system, known as Confucian, is one of the longest-lived institutions of all time; it could hold up into the 20th century.
The "5 Relationships" in Confucian Ethics
Confucian ethics represent a strict social order, which is expressed in the "five relationships":
Accordingly, the subject owes obedience to the ruler,
the son to the father,
the wife to her husband,
the younger brother to the older one,
the friend owes loyalty to the friend.
It is the duty of every individual to do their best in the place assigned to them by a strictly hierarchical social order. But this strict loyalty must not be exploited by the better off - he has to be noble, to strive for moral perfection; for it is not birth that determines a person's worth, but his virtue and righteousness.
In summary, the doctrine of Kong fuzu demands that the father is mild and the son reverent, the older brother kind and the younger docile, the husband just and the wife obedient, the elderly benevolent and the youth obedient, the ruler loving and the servant conscientious .
The course of the examinations for the civil service is described as follows:
“Every year up to 30,000 students gathered in the provincial cities, where they spent days and weeks locked in tight cells. They went into the exam building at five o'clock every morning. After they were identified by a teacher they knew or a local official to prevent them from being represented, they were given a number and a cell. As is still the case today, the examination paper bore the student's number. What he wrote down was then copied by a scribe so that certain students could not be identified and favored by their handwriting.
The student's future career and social status, and even the well-being of his family, depended on the outcome of the exam. So the pressure was huge. In order to be able to face the lowest exam, the one at the district level, the student had to study the Confucian classics for at least six years and memorize long texts, because he was expected to be able to quote them precisely. So it is not surprising that, despite great security precautions, some students resorted to the time-honored tradition of cheating. Sometimes the examiners were also bribed and the student used a code word to identify himself. If someone was caught, the consequences were severe; some corrupt officials even lost their heads.
12 stages of a fulfilled life
In a museum for Korean culture in Onyang, about 90 km south of Seoul, you can admire twelve wall panels painted in a classic style. They come from the 18th century, a time when Confucianism was the state religion of Korea and are typical of Confucian thought.
The viewer can be impressed by 12 stages of a fulfilled life that glorifies the ideal type of an optimally lived civil servant life. These 12 stations are:
1. First birthday (in Korea, the day of birth).
2. Study in a Confucian school.
3rd wedding. The bridegroom on horseback picks up the bride (who has not yet left her parents' house) for the wedding ceremony.
4. The state exam is taken. (Our "state examination" in Europe has much older, Chinese role models who were also the inspiration for the exams in Korea)
5. After the first prize has been won, our future model civil servant paraded on the streets of his home town.
6. Admission to the civil service.
7. Appointment as provincial governor.
8. Appointment as Minister.
9. Appointment as Prime Minister.
10. Honorable discharge after reaching retirement age.
11. Celebration of the diamond wedding.
12. Retired retired life at home. Presumably occupation with philosophical writings, painting, maybe also music.
Those who passed the first exam in the circle (xian) had set foot on the lowest step of the ladder to a career as an imperial official. This qualified him for the exam in the district (fu). If this was also passed, the degree of licentiate or Bacchalaureus (jüren) distinguished the candidate who had previously been considered a "blooming talent" (xiucai). Now he belonged to the literary class, and this meant that he was exempt from forced labor and military service, could not be punished with corporal punishment and was entitled to a small state pension. There were two more levels above it. At the highest, the exam was held in the Forbidden City under the Ming and Quing dynasties and was personally supervised by the emperor. After this exam one was a jinshi, an "introduced scholar". From this group the officials who belonged to the provincial and central administrations were selected. They were expected to be as proficient in the law as they are in art, poetry, mathematics, or engineering. These scholar-officials were generalists, men of integrity with common sense that made them good public servants. They were also extremely conservative and considered themselves the guardians of the Confucian ideal of harmonious government.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Jesuit missionaries working in China extoled this Chinese examination system in ardent terms. It was introduced in France and later served as a means of selecting civil servants in England as well. Classical education offered by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the primary intellectual exercise of public servants in the nineteenth century, aimed to produce the same kind of "jack-of-all-trades" as the Chinese scholar-officials were. They should play the same role as judges or officials in the distant areas of the British Empire as they do in the Chinese Empire.
One of the effects of the Chinese examination system was that it cemented a conservative, often narrow-minded, intellectual orthodoxy. Access to the most powerful positions in the state ultimately depended on long years of study for an exam held by officials who, in turn, were the product of the system."(From John Merson" Streets to Xanadu ", Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 1989).
This Chinese examination system was adopted in Korea. The division of civil servants into (originally 6) main groups, recognizable by buttons of different colors on their official hats and embroidery on their robes, dates back to the Quin dynasty. -
Today it is difficult for us Europeans to assess the influence of Confucian thought on East Asia. For millennia, Confucian ethics shaped the people of China and neighboring countries. After five decades of communism, after the terrible cultural revolution, the ancient traditions have not died out in tradition-conscious China and are still alive in the non-communist states of East Asia.
Anyone who is in contact with Asians should also think of Confucius, the 36 stratagems and the importance of tradition, custom and tradition in the Far East. Because in East Asia traditions are more important than in Europe or America.
The Asians also know how to successfully introduce the old Confucian way of thinking into modern industry: Instead of the extended family, there is a company that can expect a loyalty from its employees that we do not know in Europe. Superiors enjoy a level of respect that our managers can only dream of.
Those who join a company after completing their studies usually stay with that company until they retire. Executives receive management positions only after thorough training, then they know their company and the industry; they don't waste time defending their chair or thinking about where to move if their contract is not renewed. In East Asia, decisions are often made by consensus after all facts and risks have been discussed in detail; It is difficult or even impossible for ambitious busybodies to go it alone in the executive chair.
No wonder that Europeans and Americans have problems with the Asian competition!
On the other hand, it can also be seen that the youth in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and China no longer think and act as well-behaved Confucian as the older generation, that “Western bad habits” threaten to break in all of East Asia, which the advantages of classic Confucian idealism for to question the industrial culture. In several, longer stays as a technical consultant in South Korea as an example, I was able to observe this myself.
But this change will take time. We in the West shouldn't hope that our problems with competition from the Far East will be resolved by waiting long enough.