The key to understanding China is to understand China’s civilization, its evolution, and underlying cultural values.
Most people know that Confucianism represents the core of Chinese culture. Few know that, in addition to Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism also played an instrumental role in its shaping. Fewer still know about other Chinese philosophical schools, such as Mohism and Legalism, the latter of which dominated the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) but failed to leave a major imprint on Chinese culture (outside politics) in the subsequent millennia.
The origin of Chinese culture does not begin with Confucius (551-479 BC) or with Laozi (604-531 BC), the founder of Daoism. Based on written records, the origin of Chinese culture dates back to Zhou Gong, or the Duke of Zhou, who was born in the 11th Century BC. The philosophies of both Confucius and Laozi can be traced back to writings attributed to Zhou Gong, including I Jing (Book of Change) and Shi Jing (Book of Poetry).
Both Laozi and Confucius lived in an era when Chinese society was torn by endless conflicts among small and divided fiefdoms. It was during the latter (declining) half of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BC), a period called “Spring-Autumn” (772-476 BC), which was followed by the “Warring States” period (476-221 BC). While politically and socially in turmoil, this era was known as the golden age of Chinese philosophy when “Contention of Hundred Schools of Thought” flourished. This golden age ended in 221 BC, when Qin Shi Huang unified China and became China’s first Emperor. He imposed Legalism as the sole state philosophy. Other philosophical schools were banned, classics were burned, and some scholars buried alive.
The Qin Dynasty lasted only fifteen years (221-206 BC), followed by the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD). During the reigns of Emperor Wen (180-157 BC) and Emperor Jing (157-141 BC), Daoism prevailed. Starting around 200 AD, philosophical Daoism became institutionalized with texts and rituals heavily influenced by practices of Buddhism that first came from India to China via the Silk Road, two hundred years before Jesus was born. By 68 AD, the first known Buddhist Temple in China was commissioned by the imperial court.
The rise of Confucianism began during the reign of Emperor Wu (141-87 BC) of the Han Dynasty. Under his rule, Confucian classics became the core subject of study for royal academies and imperial examinations, based on which all future government officials were qualified. Consequently, a ruling class of political, social, and economic elites schooled in few other subjects but Confucian classics persisted. For over two thousand years and through changing dynasties, Confucianism played a central role in the upper class of Chinese society dominated by government officials, landed gentry, and scholars schooled in Confucian classics. When Dr. Sun Yat-Sen led the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT for short) in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) in 1911, it spelled an end to the Chinese dynasties, and Confucianism’s near-monopoly thereof.
For the average Chinese, a unique blend of Confucian values fused with Daoist and Buddhist religious practices constituted the essence of Chinese folk culture that combines the worship of ancestors, Chinese historic figures, and multiple deities from both Buddhism and Daoism.
At the end of the First Opium War of 1840, Hong Kong was ceded to Britain. Thereafter, the Qing Dynasty suffered increasingly humiliating defeat after defeat at the hands of Western powers. In 1894, the Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan after losing the first Sino-Japanese War. By this time, many of China’s intellectuals— even some government officials—had concluded that China’s culture with Confucian values at its core was the root cause behind the “sick man of Asia.” Among them was a young man by the name of Mao Zedong, who later initiated and led the (anti-Confucian) Cultural Revolution during the final decade of his life (1966-1976). Ironically, among his contemporary rebels, Mao was one of the most well versed in Chinese classics.
Since the 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has reversed its official stance against Confucianism. Today, under the CCP’s sponsorship, there are nearly 500 Confucian Institutes spread in 120 countries around the globe. Meanwhile, Confucian values remain deeply seated within ethnic Chinese communities, and in the hearts and minds of ethnic Chinese, all over the world.