Pre-Confucian Classics

Of all the schools of thought in China, after the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the Confucian school was canonized as the state ethic.  Writings recognized by the Confucian school were treated as classics for the whole China.  Most of the classics, however, were pre-Confucian, and dated back to either early Zhou/Chou Dynasty or earlier.  This lecture is to introduce what is called the Five Classics, a collective term for five pre-Confucian texts that include:

External moral examples versus inner moral cultivation:

Although the first two books and the Book of Zhou Rites were sometimes attributed to Confucius as either the compiler or the editor, de Bary discredits that Confucius was the author of any of them.  All five, however, shared the characteristic of establishing external moral standards for people to emulate and learn from, rather than focusing on introspective moral cultivation, as Confucius and Mencius emphasized.  They use external examples (e.g. history) and external signs (e.g. trigrams and hexagrams) to indicate the correct moral path.  As such, they spelled out an explicit moral standard that accorded with the general teachings or spirit of Confucius.

Eventually, however, this focus on external moral standards met a backlash in the 12th and 13th centuries in the Song Dynasty when Zhu Xi (Chu  Hsi) established the "Four Books:" The Great Learning, the Golden Mean, the Analects, and the Mencius, as supplements to the five classics and that eventually overshadowed the classics.  These four books focused more on the Confucian and Mencian emphasis on inner cultivation and were used to battle against the Buddhist influence in Chinese culture.

Illustrious virtuous men of the golden ages:

Chinese mythology (and traditional history) trace China's historical origins to The Three Emperors and Five Kings.  Two especially extolled kings of the golden age were king Yao (c.2300 BC) and king Shun (c.2250 BC).  The personal virtues of these rulers made them eternal sages by Confucius and their age of rule the golden age all later Chinese dynasties were to emulate, the Chinese equivalent to the "kingdom of heaven," except that the latter was to be reached in the future, and the former had already happened in the past, was later lost, and had to be recaptured.

A. Virtuous rule started from the family; and virtuous succession meant picking ability not one's kin.

In the discussion of King Yao in The Classic of Documents, (de Bary, 29) note that his rule extended from his family to his clan, and finally to the world's myriad states, a pattern Confucius was to adopt later.  (the numbers cited here, nine, and hundred, like four and eight, in Chinese mostly meant "all" instead of the actual number) The emphasis on governance first by pacifying the families was mentioned in various other places in the same book, including in the example of King Yu (de Bary, 31).  King Yao was a virtuous ruler not only because of his personal virtue, but also because of his succession: instead of picking his son, he passed the throne on to a virtuous man, Yu, of humble origin.

B. Loyalty to one's ruler versus absolute loyalty to virtue

Those early legends often embodied virtues that were sometimes self-contradictory, a trait that one would later find in Confucius as well.  On the one hand, virtue was sometimes celebrated as the end in itself.  Therefore, when another legendary king, Yu, whose father Gun, failed to build navigation properly, respect for seniority was not in the way when God (di) replaced him with his son Yu as the new ruler.  On the other hand, when the Zhou/Chou Dynasty overthrew the Shang Dynasty, the Viscount of Ji's unconditional loyalty to his Shang rulers, even though he was imprisoned by them, was celebrated as virtuous behavior in The Classic of Documents, so much so that, the ruler of the Zhou Dynasty, King Wu, was going to award him with land in Korea (under Chinese governance then) to honor his loyalty to his ruler (note the year indicated in the document on de Bary, p.31, was the 13th year of King Wu's reign). 

Another story that illustrates the conflict was the story of the duke of Zhou (de Bary, pp.32-35): through divination he knew heaven approved of his rule when his ruler King Wu was ill.  But when succession came to King Wu's young son instead of him, he obeyed his new ruler and locked the divination documents in a metal bound coffer.

C. Virtue, nature, and the mandate of heaven

Virtue was connected to nature and the mandate of heaven.  King Gun's lack of virtue came from his mismanagement of the navigation project, throwing "into disorder the arrangement of the Five Phases" (de Bary, 31)-- as the Chinese believed transition from yin to yang (or vice versa) formed the five basic elements of the world: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.  Any one who disobeyed the phases of nature would displease god (again, we are talking of an amorphous god, an abstract idea, who was often conflated with "heaven," or the unknown beyond).  Authority to rule came from the mandate from heaven.  Thus, harmonious coexistence with nature became continuous with personal virtue.  The human world and natural world were not separate, a characteristic that would be further expounded on by the Confucians. 

Heaven's intervention was also often in the form of natural phenomenon: such as a natural disaster, when King Wu's son came to the throne without having the duke of Zhou/Chou assisting him.

D. The importance of human initiatives in maintaining the mandate of heaven.

From very early on, as seen from the Classic of Documents, the Chinese emphasized a proactive attitude to natural forces, including the mandate of heaven.  As seen from the duke of Zhou/Chou's announcement upon founding a new capital for the dynasty (de Bary, 35-37) maintaining the mandate of heaven first meant the king had to be virtuous and use his virtue to influence the people.