1. Introduction to Textual Resources
The acknowledged founder of the Confucian tradition was the sage-teacher K’ung Fu-tzu (551-479 BCE) whose name was latinized by Jesuit missionaries as Confucius. Born into a time of rapid social change, Confucius devoted his life to reestablishing order through rectification of the individual and the state. This involved a program embracing moral, political, and religious components. As a creative transmitter of earlier Chinese traditions, Confucius is said, according to legend, to have compiled the Five Classics, namely, the Book of History, Poetry, Changes, Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals.
The principal teachings of Confucius, as contained in the Analects, emphasize the practice of moral virtues, especially humaneness or love (jen) and filiality (hsiao). These were exemplified by the “noble person” (chun tzu), particularly with the five relations, namely, between parent and child, ruler and minister, husband and wife, older and younger siblings, and friend and friend.
Confucian thought was further developed in the writings of Mencius (372-289 BCE) and Hsun tzu (298-238 BCE). It culminated in a Neo-Confucian revival in the eleventh and twelfth centuries which resulted in a new synthesis of the earlier teachings. Chu Hsi (1130-1200), a major Neo-Confucian thinker, designated four texts as containing the central ideas of Confucian thought: two chapters from the Book of Rites, namely, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean; the Analects, and Mencius. He elevated these texts to a position of prime importance over the Five Classics mentioned earlier. In 1315 these texts, and Chu His’s commentaries on these texts, became the basis of the Chinese civil examination system, a system that endured for nearly six hundred years (1315-1905).
Neo-Confucian thought and practice spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam where it had a profound effect on their respective cultures. Since 1949 the government of the People’s Republic of China has ostensibly repudiated the Confucian heritage. However, the Confucian tradition is currently being reexamined on the mainland, often relying on new publications of European and American scholars.
2. Classic Resources
Tzu Kung asked: “Is there any one word that can serve as a principle for the conduct of life?” Confucius said: “Perhaps the word ‘reciprocity’: Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you” (XV: 23)1
Tzu Chang asked Confucius about humanity. Confucius said: “To be able to practice five virtues everywhere in the world constitutes humanity.” Tzu Chang begged to know what these were. Confucius said: “Courtesy, magnanimity, good faith, diligence, and kindness. He who is courteous is not humiliated, he who is magnanimous wins the multitude, he who is of good faith is trusted by the people, he who is diligent attains his objective, and he who is kind can get service from the people” [XVII:6].2
Ta Hs-eh, The Great Learning from The Book of Ritual [Li Chi]
The Great Learning summarizes the essential role of humans: to cultivate themselves through both their sincere intentions and their clear examination of things. In so doing a person can help to establish order in both the family and the state. The image here is the power of illustrious virtue to spread to others like ripples in a pond.
The ancients who wished clearly to exemplify illustrious virtue throughout the world would first set up good government in their states. Wishing to govern well their states, they would first regulate their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they would first cultivate their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they would first rectify their minds. Wishing to rectify their minds, they would first seek sincerity in their thoughts. Wishing for sincerity in their thoughts, they would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.3
Chung Yung, The Doctrine of the Mean from The Book of Ritual [Li Chi ]
The Doctrine of the Mean describes the power of sincerity which emanates outward from humans to the cosmos itself. When a person cultivates their authentic nature they are said to affect the rejuvenating forces in the natural world. Through the process of realizing one’s authentic self, a person forms a triad with heaven and earth.
Only he who possesses absolute sincerity can give full development to his nature. Able to give full development to his own nature, he can give full development to the nature of other men. Able to give full development to others, they can give full development to the nature of other men. Able to give full development to the nature of men, he can give full development to the nature of all beings. Able to give full development to the nature of all beings, he can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and earth. Capable of assisting the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and earth, he may, with Heaven and earth, form a triad.4
Chang Tsai, Western Inscription
Chang Tsai’s Western Inscription (eleventh century) was inscribed on the western wall of Chang Tsai’s study and was enormously influential in Neo-Confucian thought. Describing the essential kinship of all beings with heaven and earth, it maintains that compassion is the highest expression of kinship.
Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst.
Therefore, that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature.
All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my
companions. . . .
Respect the aged. . . . Show affection toward the orphaned and the weak. . . . The sage identifies his character with that of Heaven and earth, and the virtuous man is the best [among the children of Heaven and earth]. Even those who are tired and infirm, crippled or sick, those who have no brothers or children, wives or husbands, are all my brothers who are in distress and have no one to turn to.5
Chu Tzu wen-chi and Chu Hsi
The most comprehensive virtue in the Confucian tradition is jen or humaneness which is like a vital energy in human beings and in the natural world as well. It is a creative virtue which nourishes the life force in all things.
For jen as constituting the Way (Tao), consists of the fact that the mind of Heaven and Earth to produce things is present in everything (Chu Hsi [twelfth century]).6
Wang Yang-ming, Inquiry on the Great Learning
Wang Yang-ming (sixteenth century) emphasized (as had Mencius) the innate goodness of the human mind-and-heart. He underscored the feeling of commiseration in the human which would naturally flourish in the practice of humaneness (jen) extended to other humans and toward all living and non-living things.
Master Wang said: The great man regards Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. . . . Therefore when he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humanity (jen) forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species. Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling an “inability to bear” their suffering. This shows that his humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings as he is. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones.7
3. Contemporary Resources
Philip Ivanhoe, “Early Confucianism and Environmental Ethics”
We see these same characteristics and more in the Mencius. In one of the most memorable and moving passages in the text, the deforested Ox Mountain serves as one of Mencius’s most important and informative illustrations. The image of the denuded mountain is used to show, among other things, that we cannot infer that human nature is without moral tendencies just because we encounter some who manifest no evidence of such tendencies. Human nature can be ground down and effaced just as Ox Mountain was systematically stripped of its once lush vegetation. The story also illustrates the tenaciousness of both our moral sprouts and the mountain’s vegetation; both continue to put forth new growth - shoot and buds - despite the sustained harsh treatment each receives.8
 Philip J. Ivanhoe. “Early Confucianism and Environmental Ethics.” In Confucianism and Ecology: The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth, and Humans, eds. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Berthrong (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998) 67-68.
Wm. Theodore de Bary, et al., Sources of Chinese Tradition vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960). Excerpts from Sources of Chinese Tradition edited by de Bary, Chan, and Watson Copyright © 1960 Columbia University Press are reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Chu Tzu wen-chi, CTTC, 67:20a, translated by Wing-tsit Chan in Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963). Excerpts from the Source Book in Chinese Philosophy translated by Wing-tsit Chan Copyright © 1963 Princeton University Press is reprinted with the permission of the publisher. You may read and browse this materials at this website. However, no further copying, downloading, or linking is permitted. No part of this material may be further reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For permission requests and to search our online catalog, please see the Princeton University Press website.
Philip J. Ivanhoe. “Early Confucianism and Environmental Ethics.” In Confucianism and Ecology: The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth, and Humans, eds. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Berthrong (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998). Excerpt from “Early Confucianism and Environmental Ethics” by Philip Ivanhoe in Confucianism and Ecology Copyright © Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University is reprinted with the permission of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University.
Copyright © 2001 Forum on Religion and Ecology.