As China rushes toward a materialistic society, it is interesting to reflect on the historical importance of Confucius’ teachings. Obviously China is currently a communist state, and Buddhism and Taoism are the predominant state sponsored religions, but in order to understand the historical aspirations of the populace, their concept of a meaning of life, Confucius is the proper place to start.
There is some similarity between Confucius and his near contemporary, Socrates. Both had a profound influence on their respective societies and subsequent thought; and both were concerned with the meaning of life, specifically how the individual should live his life and interact with others.
Confucius’ teachings were preserved in the Lunyu or Analects, which are a collection of aphorisms. An aphorism is a succinct statement expressing a more general truth. One famous example goes something like this: “When the stables were burnt down, Confucius said, ‘was anyone hurt?’ he did not ask about the horses.”
The point of the aphorism is that human life is of much more value than material things. This may seem obvious to us, but we need to remember that Confucius was not just teaching ordinary men; a lot of his thought and teaching was directed at the rulers of his time, men with a far different sense of the meaning of life than most of us, and for whom the lives of servants would have been held in scant regard.
That being said, I think it fair to say that Confucius was not so much concerned with defining a meaning of life as setting down tenets for allowing life to be navigated successfully. For example, he gave much thought to the forms that society and government should take if they were to be stable and prosperous. He was a firm believer in upholding customs as a fundamental starting point; but he did not believe that adherence should ever be unquestioning. The so-called “superior man” should always be concerned with doing what is right, and if that meant breaking the rules in a particular set of circumstances, then that is what the superior man should do. Confucius’ concept of “right” or righteousness was based on the reciprocal ideal that is expressed in Christian religion, i.e. “Do unto others that which you would have them do unto you.”
Confucius elaborated on this basic tenet by saying that the foundation for a stable society should be the family unit. If, he said, the individual held foremost in his heart the belief in familial loyalty and respect for his elders, then it would naturally follow that the society that consisted of these individuals and family units would be a stable and healthy one.
Another crucial aspect to Confucian thinking was the importance of study and education. Again this is not to be confused with the study of a rigid system; on the contrary, the goal of study was to empower individuals not with a set of rules, but with the ability to think for themselves to enable them to discover for themselves a meaning of life appropriate to their time or circumstances. Nor was it sufficient to rely on intuition: “He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”
In time, this belief in study was formalized by the governments into a system of education, and more specifically, imperial examinations which were used to help the emperor select skilful bureaucrats. This system lasted for centuries and gave even commoners opportunities for social advancement.
Going forward, there is a grave fear that in its rush to embrace materialism China is losing touch with its cultural heritage and as a result will be rudderless. A key test for China will be whether it can achieve its material goals without losing the wisdom of Confucius’ teachings.