Confucianism as a Cult of "Mamas' Boys"

Guest post by Brian Griffith.

Brian Griffith is an independent historian, whose previous books are The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History, and Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story. The Fall and Rise of Chinese Goddesses is due to be published in early 2012; the following is an excerpt from it. Brian Griffith lives in Toronto; his email is

Comments and questions are welcome! Brian will reply to them himself.


Confucianism is generally seen as China’s bastion of patriarchal tradition, with a virtually Arabian array of sanctified controls on women. But before it was a state-backed cult of obedience to superiors, Confucianism was a protest movement against warlords, and a defense of ancient village values. In a sense, the first Confucian teachers were men standing up for their mothers’ values. They were mamas’ boys—and I mean this in a good sense.

According to various traditions, Confucius and Mengzi (Mencius) both grew up in single-parent homes, raised by their mothers alone. The same applies to many leading Confucianists of later times, such as Kou Laigong (961–1023), Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072), the Cheng brothers, Cheng Ho and Cheng Yi (ca. 1030s to 1080s), Lü Xizhe (1039–1116), Gu Yanwu (1613–1682), or Wang Tingzhen (1757–1827). Less impressively, it applies to Generalisimo Chiang Kai-shek (or Jiang Jieshi, 1887–1975), who said that his widowed mother was “the personification of Confucian virtues” (Parfitt, 2011, 134–135). These men certainly gave due credit to their mothers, who were the tutors and pillars of their early lives (Hu, 1992, 14). According to Tu Weiming, a recent survey of biographies for major Confucian teachers since the 1300s shows a large majority were trained in childhood by their mothers rather than male teachers. Tu cites a woman in the 1600s who wished for her son: “I would like you to learn from the two fatherless gentlemen in ancient China: one was Confucius, whose father died when he was three, and the other was Mencius [Mengzi]” (1992, 72).

It’s commonly said that Confucianism is the Christianity of China. It started out as a movement of wandering teachers who were ridiculed and rejected by the warlord rulers. For a time the movement suffered serious persecution. But within several centuries Confucianism won impressive popular support, and the emperors co-opted it by making it an official imperial religion. With such patronage it became a religious arm of autocratic governments for almost 2,000 years. Then, like Christianity in the French or Russian revolutions, Confucianism was largely rejected by many Republicans and almost all Communists. Confucianism was then firmly labeled as a feudal ideology, designed for the oppression of common people and women. In recent decades most people considered it a discredited religion, consigned to the garbage dump of history. But after Confucianism was stripped of official patronage, its fate fell to the hands of ordinary people. In that case, maybe most modern children heard little about Confucius, save some stories from their mothers. And the mothers interpreted ancient traditions in their own ways.

Back in Confucius’ time of the 500s BCE, North China was divided between several princely warlords, and Confucius reportedly wandered court to court, hoping some ruler would heed values from the past. While most Daoists would avoid the warlords, Confucius hoped to reform them. Maybe his effort showed a need for approval from the powerful, or maybe it showed courage in the face of tyrants. Some observers ridiculed Confucius for running from one prince to the next, and urged him “to flee from this whole generation of men” (De Bary, 1991, 8). And in terms of any immediate results, his whole effort was futile. The rulers claimed his advice was totally unrealistic. Instead of helping them to maximize their wealth and power, Confucius urged them to “serve” the villagers like parents serving children. Of course that would mean either reducing taxes, or re-investing tax wealth in the villages. And successful rulers needed that income to win the arms race, control the land, and reap its fruits for themselves. To such men, Confucius argued that real power grew from observing ancient virtues. With disturbing loyalty to his mother’s traditions, he explained “I am a transmitter and not a creator. I believe in the past and love it” (Cotterell, 1981, 120). Maybe the words ascribed to him were really said by many people. But if he was only a symbol for many like him, that would make his legend even more authentic.

When Confucius tried to revive the spirit of the pre-military age, he constantly referred to the web of relations, and the quality of relationships between people. Like a good mother’s son, he emphasized that jen (human compassion) started with tenderness between family members. Rejecting any claims that duty to rulers came first, he said that a loyal son would never report his parent’s crimes to the police. Even in relations between family members, jen was a matter of compassion, not blind obedience. As a disciple named Xunzi claimed, “the way of the child” meant doing what was kind, even if it required disobeying a father or ruler (Bauer, 1976, 54). Virtue had to originate in kindness between family members. Only then could it grow outward to others. As Mengzi (Mencius) put it, “A benevolent man extends his love from those he loves to those he does not. A ruthless man extends his ruthlessness from those he does not love to those he loves” (Cotterell, 1981, 123). With mother-like optimism, he claimed that the capacity for compassion was inborn for every child. Anyone could feel this in their natural response to seeing a child in danger. This inborn capacity for compassion could be cultivated, or stunted by abuse and neglect. But if nourished, it could flower to the full potential of the human spirit (Mote, 1971, 56–57). Being his mother’s star pupil, Confucius repeatedly said, “Anybody can be a sage.”

This kind of logic doesn’t sound so unusual for mothers. Maybe it seemed unusually good-hearted only when earnestly preached by their sons. Basically, Confucius taught that without mutual compassion, the web of human relationships would come undone. Calamity would befall first the family, then the whole village, and finally the kingdom. For most village elders and mothers, it was common sense.

(From chapter 12 of The Fall and Rise of Chinese Goddesses, by Brian Griffith)

Works cited in this section are:

Bauer, Wolfgang. 1976. China and the Search for Happiness. Michael Shaw, translator. New York: Seabury Press.

Cotterell, Arthur, 1981. The First Emperor of China. London: MacMillan London Ltd.

De Bary, William Theodore, 1991. The Trouble With Confucianism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hu Shih. 1992. “Woman’s Place in Chinese History.” In Li Yu-ning, editor. Chinese Women Through Chinese Eyes. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

Mote, Frederick M. 1960. “Confucian Eremitism in the Yüan Period.” In Arthur F. Wright, editor. The Confucian Persuasion. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Parfitt, Troy. 2011. Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas. Saint John, NB: Western Hemisphere Press.

Tu Weiming. 1992. “Community and Culture.” In Tu Weiming, Milan Hejtmanek, and Alan Wachman, editors. The Confucian World Observed: A Contemporary Discussion of Confucian Humanism in East Asia. Honolulu, HI: Institute of Culture and Communication, The East–West Center.

39 thoughts on “Confucianism as a Cult of "Mamas' Boys"

  1. I don’t really see any evidence that it was specifically his mother’s values and traditions that Confucius taught, (although perhaps Griffth’s sources attempt to?). Robert Eno has argued that his mother was an outsider to the Zhou traditions (from Zhulou, a Yi state). I wonder if it was the Yi “barbarian” traditions/values the author has in mind.

    Were the fatherless Confucians (incl. Confucius) taught to read and write by their mothers? Did their mothers teach them the Odes, the Documents, the Chunqiu? I don’t think so. Or better, I don’t know of any evidence that they did. (I can’t remember the details about what Mencius’ mother taught him).

    Although some of Confucius’ values came from the past, probably just as many were relatively new. In the Western Zhou period, we don’t find anyone touting compassion (except in the literature written centuries later purporting to be from the Western Zhou).

    I am also puzzled as to what “pre-military age” the author imagines Confucius to have been trying to revive.

  2. I think immediately of Mencius, where he says that “Making obedience one’s standard is merely the Way of a wife or concubine” (3B2, tr. Van Norden)– hardly something the proud child of a single mother could write.

    With regard to Confucius, when he is talking about specific familial relationships, it always seems to be the father-son one, or occasionally that between brothers, that matters to him. Why doesn’t he mention mothers, I wonder?

  3. I’m a little puzzled by the title of the post and have been trying to decide if those are Manyul’s choice of words or if those are Brian’s and in his upcoming book. It does sounds off-putting as there’s a clearly implied demeaning and over-simplification of Confucian doctrines.

    The other thing that puzzles me is that very few people take Confucius at his own attributed words that he was only an observer, student and compiler of old traditions, with the great benefit that the man had also a keen mind to long, opine about, interpret and extoll what he believed was virtuous in said traditions. IMHO, what followed Confucius and his immediate followers, was just exegesis piled upon the man’s own exegesis of the past.

    Now, were the preceding Zhou centuries, particularly what we know as the Western Zhou, which is what Confucius appears to long for, a “Mamas’ Boy” sort of culture? Hardly, IMO.

    Alas, there’s a simple fact that appears to be ignored in what’s implied in the title and is something that is, pretty much, universal: Womenfolk have historically been the repository of those oral traditions that deal with unity and order that were in turn passed on to their children and were, with the seldom exceptions that apply to every rule, the gentle enforcers of those traditions during early childhood. So, yes, in that sense, certain common-sensical traditions, historical and otherwise, come directly from our mothers. Men, otoh, have historically been the interpretive, disciplinarian enforcers of traditions, of the kind that can only come on the back of an imposing greater physical strength. Small wonder then that Chinese use what’s depicted in the character 父 as the word for “father.” I mean, suggesting a dichotomy between what comes down from ‘mothers’ and what comes down from ‘fathers’ doesn’t necessarily succeeds in making it so as they both, in reality, feed from each other.

    • In Brian’s defense, I’d say that I would not be surprised if careful study found that more than other people of the time, it was characteristic at least of Western housewives in the late middle 20th century to think that what the world mainly needs is niceness, and to agree with Rodney King: “Why can’t we all just get along?” An obvious candidate explanation is inexperience with social relations outside the home, societywide relations. I think it also might not be unfair to call this view “Mencian naivete.” But I have no guesses about the views or circumstances of Zhou mothers in the class of 士.

  4. Hi Brian! These are bold interesting ideas: thank you for sharing them with us! I agree with one point you might have in mind: that the Confucian tradition stresses virtue largely at the expense of public rules clearly defining areas of authority, and indeed at the expense of institutional structure in general, with the very prominent exception of hierarchical relations. Offhand it seems to me that you understate that exception, and the predominance in Confucian thought of aspects of virtue other than love, such as respect, loyalty, good faith, and adherence to ritual and justice.

    You mention only a few specific Confucian views. That is where your claims approach areas I know about, and I have worries about a significant portion of those claims.


    You write, “ As a disciple named Xunzi claimed, “the way of the child” meant doing what was kind, even if it required disobeying a father or ruler (Bauer, 1976, 54).”

    Xunzi was not a “disciple” of Confucius.

    You suggest that Xunzi called his way “the way of the child.” But Bauer never says that Xunzi used the phrase. On the page you cite, Bauer first says that on Xunzi’s own view, the authority of the old over the young “is no absolute, but merely a relative value. It derives simply from their greater knowledge and, to exaggerate somewhat, their greater temporal distance from birth and thus also from what is elemental and evil.” Here is what Bauer says about “the way of the child”:

    “A (possibly apocryphal) chapter (added only in the second century B.C.) of the Book Hsün-tzu, entitled, “The Way of the Child” (Tzu-tao), surprisingly contains almost nothing but anecdotes which confirm the right of children to be disobedient. They are introduced by a remark which no longer sounds really Confucian, as that term is commonly understood, but which is revealing for that very reason. It proves that much more was implicit in Confucianism than could later fully develop.
    [Bauer goes on to quote:]
    ‘To observe piety within the house, and brotherly love outside it, that is the small path of man. To show obedience to those above, and sincerity to those below, that is man’s middle path. To follow the “Way,” and not the prince, to follow righteousness and not the father, that is man’s great path. … [and it permits disobeying one’s father in just three kinds of case]: 1. If his parents would incur danger were he to follow their command, but would remain in tranquility if he disobeys. … 2. If his parents were to be disgraced if he obeyed their command, but were to gain fame if he fails to do so. … 3. If his parents were to conduct themselves like animals were he to obey their command, but act in a civilized manner if he fails to do so…’” (54)

    (The bracketed bits are mine.) Bauer thus does not say or suggest that Xunzi advocated disobeying a father whenever that is what it takes to be kind. In fact his quote clearly shows that the “Xunzi” chapter you are referring to strongly opposed such a view (especially for children, given that the great path is out of their reach).


    You write, “When Confucius tried to revive the spirit of the pre-military age, he constantly referred to the web of relations, and the quality of relationships between people.”

    You give no citations. I wonder what would be one example of the remarks Confucius constantly made about the “web of relations.” As for qualities of relationships, I think the main qualities he stresses are respect and good faith.


    You next write, “Like a good mother’s son, he emphasized that jen (human compassion) started with tenderness between family members.”

    You give no citations, and I strongly disagree with your claim about what Confucius “emphasized.” Only one remark in the Analects could seem even to say something like this — 1.2. But:

    (a) The remark in 1.2 is not by Confucius, it is by Youzi. (Youzi probably did not study with Confucius, but rather joined and led the group shortly after Confucius’ death, bringing in some new ideas, as I showed in Philosophy East&West Oct. 2008.)

    (b) The claim emphasized in 1.2 is not that 孝悌 is the origin of仁, though that may be implicit; rather it is that the excellent adult’s ongoing 孝悌 is a condition of his 仁.

    (c) Youzi’s remark speaks of 孝悌, standardly understood to mean respect-and-love for parents and for elder brothers, and primarily respect; not mere “tenderness.” Prima facie, Youzi is thinking mainly of obedience, though I think he means something broader. (In discussing 孝, Confucius stresses obedience and respect: 2.5, 2.7. In the Analects, Confucius never specifically mentions tenderness or love between family members, except that in 17.21 he says that parents embrace and care for their children for at least the first three years of the children’s lives. In 16.13 we are shown that Confucius was distant from his son.)

    (d) Most anglophone scholars would reject “human compassion” as a translation or rough paraphrase of Confucius’ somewhat obscure term 仁, a term his students found puzzling. Some passages in which that translation is noticeably implausible are 5.19, 6.30, 9.29, 12.1f, 13.19, 16.10, 17.6. (In discussing relations with friends and people generally, Confucius lays vastly less stress on kindness or love than on respect, good faith, and loyalty: 5.17, 7.26, 9.25, 12.23, 15.6.)

    In the Analects, of Confucius’ 55 reports of qualities integral or incidental to the 君子or to 仁, only two mention family relations at all (8.2, 17.21). That is not “emphasis” on a certain quality of family relations.


    You next write, “Rejecting any claims that duty to rulers came first, [Confucius] said that a loyal son would never report his parent’s crimes to the police.”

    You give no citations. The passage that might seem to say this is Analects 13.18. But there Confucius does not say that his claim extends to all crimes. For my part I think that Confucius’
    diffident language there suggests that he does not think one should never report a parent. As I’ve said elswhere on this blog without meeting opposition on the point, Confucius’ claim in 13.18 that a son should in general not report a father’s modest pilferings is the mainstream view pretty much everywhere and always. We should also take into account the seriousness of the punishment to be expected in Confucius’ day.

    • Thanks Bill for pointing out the flaws in my interpretations. I’m going to modify the chapter accordingly.

      Concerning Xun Zi, the translation I copied has verse 20:347 explaining that the “Way of the Child” is “to follow the Way and not the prince, to follow righteousness and not the father.” Is that a good rendition?

      If so, doesn’t that understanding follow points made repeatedly by Mengzi and Confucius, that benevolence is more important than obedience to authority? Don’t you feel these Confucian teachers quite consistently put care for immediate relations above obligation to rulers? You point out how these principles were subject to many conditions. But don’t they express a family and nurture-centered sense of morality, which would accord with the sentiments of most mothers?

    • Hi Brian! Good questions.

      Concerning Xun Zi, the translation I copied has verse 20:347 explaining that the “Way of the Child” is “to follow the Way and not the prince, to follow righteousness and not the father.” Is that a good rendition?
      If so, doesn’t that understanding follow points made repeatedly by Mengzi and Confucius, that benevolence is more important than obedience to authority?

      I don’t think so.

      First, “Way of the Child” (子道) is the title of the chapter or collection, not the subject of any sentence that purports to tell us directly what the way of the child is. The phrase does not appear within the chapter or collection at all. (That’s really a criticism of your statement quoting the translation, rather than a criticism of the translation itself.)

      Second, the word translated as “child” (zi, 子) should probably be translated here as “son,” with no suggestion at all that the son is not an adult. In the Chinese tradition, the virtue of filial piety is not a matter particularly for children in the sense of pre-adults; and it is hard to imagine that the section Bauer and I quoted above is addressed to children.

      Third, the terms “way” (dào, 道) and “righteousness” (yì, 義) are different from and in this context more general than rén (仁). Yì tends to suggest something like formal rules or justice, and the phrase rén yì (仁義) is sometimes used to cover the whole of morality, as reflecting its complementary sides. In the present context, though, yì seems to refer to the whole of morality or what is right, hence encompassing rén as a part, though perhaps with more of the flavor of rules. Obedience is encompassed more explicitly as a part, as you can see from the passage Bauer and I quoted above. What is approved or encompassed is not unconditional obedience, but it is a far stricter obedience than is customary in the modern West.

      Fourth, as I mentioned earlier, the passage given in your source clearly implies that mere kindness or benevolence or compassion does not justify disobedience. (I have not read the rest of the chapter or collection.)

      Fifth, I gather you don’t have any basis for thinking that the chapter in question is by Xunzi. Bauer, the source you cite, does not say that it is, and gives reason to think that it isn’t.

      The general suggestion you make here about the views of Mencius and Confucius is a large one, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to get to it soon. I’m sorry! But you might be right that Confucius and Mencius were closer to Lakoff’s standard mother than to Lakoff’s standard father.

      (By the way: with a very few exceptions such as the Analects, systems for numbering passages from ancient Chinese texts tend to differ from one edition to the next.)

    • I should add that so far as I know, there is no reason to think that the titles that have become associated with the parts of the large book/collection called the Xunzi were written by the author(s). Thus the phrase “the way of the son” may never have entered the mind of the author of the passage Bauer quotes.

      I’m not an expert on this matter, though; I could be wrong.

    • Thanks Bill for the great clarification on the supposed words of Xun Zi.

  5. 5.

    Brian, you write, “Being his mother’s star pupil, Confucius repeatedly said, “Anybody can be a sage.”

    Where is there a record of Confucius’ ever having said this? Or did you mean Mengzi?

  6. Thanks so much for all your comments. I guess the section here doesn’t stand alone very well. Too much is implied from things explored earlier in the manuscript. Your comments, corrections, and questions are all very helpful and I’m going to investigate all of them.

    Concerning the notion of values from a “pre-military age,” previous parts of the manuscript discuss the archaeology and mythology of a period before the rise of warlords, which both Daoists and Confucianists described as the Golden Age, and Communists spoke of as the age of “primitive communism.” As I mention in a previous chapter,

    The early Daoist sages like Laozi or Zhuangzi meant to contrast such a past with their own age of rising warlords (in the 500s to 200s BCE). Looking back in nostalgic protest, they recalled an age of autonomous villages, boundless forests, peace, and freedom. If these legends have any historical background, they would best fit the period before 2100 BCE.

    Confucius also spoke repeatedly of the Golden Age, and claimed that the people of that time followed natural virtues of compassion and mutual respect. He reportedly learned of that time from the records of early Zhou dynasty princes, who lived around 1000 BCE. But according to these records, the first Zhou princes claimed to be mere students of yet wiser and more ancient “sage emperors,” who behaved as servants rather than masters of their people. The legends of these “emperors” place them prior to the Xia (Hsia) era, or sometime before 2100 BCE. It seems that both Confucian and Daoist legends of the Golden Age refer to the roughly same period.

    This is roughly what I mean by a pre-military age, or an age before warlords.

    • Thanks for explaining Brian.
      re: “Concerning the notion of values from a “pre-military age,” previous parts of the manuscript discuss the archaeology and mythology of a period before the rise of warlords, which both Daoists and Confucianists described as the Golden Age, and Communists spoke of as the age of “primitive communism.””
      — Mythology, certainly, but what do you mean by archaeology? Neither Zhou bronze inscrptions nor Shang oracle-bone inscriptions support your claims. Xia dynasty is generally believed to mythical, as are legends of the Yellow Emperor, Yao, Shun, etc. Archaeologists have discovered all sort of things prior to the Shang, but no written documents that talk of values. Stories in the Zhuangzi are undoubtedly fictional. But if what you’re saying is that Confucians and Daoists either invented or made use of a mythological golden age to further their aims, then there’s no argument from me. A number of scholars, as I’m sure you know, have thought that the Laozi was influenced by ancient matriarchial values and myths. However, the case for an ancient matriarchical past doesn’t have much evidence to back it up, from what I’ve read. (I imagine you discuss this somewhere in your book.)

    • Thanks Scott, you all have given me a lot to check and it’s really helpful.

      Concerning archaeology, the Communist period saw a vast effort to explore Neolithic remains across China. In introducing this, I write:

      This new archaeology pushed the horizons of history backward, beyond the Shang emperors of ca. 1300 BCE, to early civilizations of the 5000s BCE or older. Many of these primitive communities were almost as old as the settlements Marija Gimbutas was discovering in Eastern Europe. It was gratifying to Chinese national pride. The myths of China’s vast antiquity were partly confirmed, since some civilizations existed in those times. But was this the age of unspoiled nature, and uncorrupted human virtue? Naturally, the bones, buildings, artwork, and pottery gave only hints of cultural history. There were grain crops and storage bins, but it was unclear who did what work, or who got what share of the produce. There were goddess images, but these were also found in historic times, when serious gender inequality prevailed.

      In the Marxist view of ancient history, the dawn of civilization was an age of “primitive communism.” Later, economies based on slavery and feudalism arose, which involved an “historic defeat of the female sex.” Marxists usually dated the fall of women to around 2000 BCE. As Min Jiayin explained, “About 4,000 years ago China turned into a patriarchal society, which can be symbolized as blades in the hands of male warriors, as was the case in Europe. Women’s status suffered a dramatic decline as the patriarchs dominated and oppressed women, and it became an unalterable principle that man was superior to woman” (Min, 1995, 555).

      Sure enough, most excavations of Neolithic settlements revealed clusters of roughly equal-sized homes, suggesting a rough equality of wealth and status. Most graves were also roughly equal, in both size and in value of items buried with the dead. Only later did large “chieftain graves” appear, with their complements of slaves and women buried along with their lords. The Neolithic artifacts included crude farming tools, and often “goddess figurines,” but rarely any signs of war weapons or defensive walls (Min, 1995, 554–555). Some villages had shallow trenches around the parameters, but these would only serve to keep animals in (or out), and probably couldn’t block a military attack. The sites were usually out in the open, fronting on the shorelines of rivers or bays, rather than perched on defensible hilltops. Such remains seem basically similar to those of Old Europe’s pre-militarized cultures, as described by Marija Gimbutas, Merlin Stone, or Riane Eisler.

    • Brian, you write: “Confucius also spoke repeatedly of the Golden Age, and claimed that the people of that time followed natural virtues of compassion and mutual respect. … It seems that both Confucian and Daoist legends of the Golden Age refer to the roughly same period” – i.e., “prior to the Xia (Hsia) era, or sometime before 2100 BCE.”

      You give no citations. It seems to me that although Confucius sometimes generalizes about virtues from long ago, there is no reason to think he is looking back before the supposed Xia. He sometimes discusses particular individuals who were ancient in his day but clearly not pre-Xia, and usually not far pre-Zhou. A number of passages in the Analects strongly suggest that Confucius thinks of the civilized past mainly in terms of what he calls the “Three Dynasties” – the Xia, then the Shang (or Yin), and finally the Zhou. He does not seem to think that the important thing about Zhou records is their reports of better pre-Xia times. On the contrary:

      The Master said, “Zhou had the advantage of viewing the two past dynasties. How complete and elegant is its culture! I follow Zhou.”

      “… 斯民也,三代之所以直道而行也。”
      “… This populace is the basis on which the three dynasties followed the straight path.”

      See also 2.23, 3.9, 15.11.

      Confucius does mention two people from before the Xia dynasty, in five passages: 6.30, 8.18, 8.19, 8.20, 15.5. But these are the two emperors immediately preceding the Xia emperors. Far from claiming that “the people of that time followed natural virtues of compassion and mutual respect,” Confucius’ recorded remarks basically just comment that these two emperors were great. One can perhaps tease out a detail or two from the context, and from the several other passages in the Analects when other people mention one of these emperors or another person of the time, a detail or two about Confucius’ probable view of the virtues of those few almost-Xia individuals.

    • Thanks Bill,

      The Classic of Rites (section 9) mentions a rather prehistoric Golden Age in language much like the Daoists’:

      “When the Great Way was practiced, the world was shared by all alike. The worthy and the able were promoted to office and men practiced good faith and lived in affection. Therefore they did not regard as parents only their own parents, or as sons only their own sons … Therefore all evil plotting was prevented and thieves and rebels did not arise, so that people could leave their outer gates unbolted. This was the age of Grand Unity.” (De Bary and Chan, 1960, vol. I, 176)

      It’s true the Analects speaks only of a few pre-dynastic “emperors,” Yao, Shun, and Yu. But these are crucial figures in the whole popular mythology of perfect servant leaders from the age before warlords. Mengzi records their legends of humble service in far greater detail, rather furiously comparing these with the force-backed taker-rulers of his own time. And of course Joseph Needham saw these tales of servant leaders as emblematic of primitive tribal elders and matrons in the age before empires.

    • Hi Brian, I was just responding to your statement about Confucius in particular.

      By the way, Yu was the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty, and the only reason his immediate predecessors Yao and Shun aren’t counted as members of the same dynasty is that each appointed rather than sired his successor emperor.

      Also I gather the mythology of Yao involves warfare as a leading element; at least that’s true of the mythology of Yao that I’ve encountered by chance in Chinese language textbooks. I agree that these are crucial if rather blank figures in the popular mythology of perfect leaders, sometimes thought of as public servants (a common idea well into later dynasties, I believe).

    • Oops – the warfare I was thinking of is in stories about Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, a mythical predecessor of Yao who is closer to the period you are calling pre-military. I don’t know what mention Confucians may have made of Huang Di, but here is Wikipedia:

    • Hi Bill,
      Xunzi, in chapter 15 argues that the legendary sage kings Yao 堯, Shun 舜, Yu 禹, Tang 湯, Wen 文 and Wu 武 only led “benevolent and righteous armies” (Renyi Zhi Bing 仁義之兵) and that these armies “did not bloody their blades” (Bu Xue Ren 不血刃). I assume that’s hyperboly! Mencius too denied the story about the bloodiness of King Wu’s overthrow of the Shang. (King Wen is recorded as leading his armies in numerous battles and was celebrated for his “martial accomplishments” [Wugong 武功].) I do believe there are stories about Yao and/or Shun conquering some tribes (the Miao?). I wouldn’t say that’s a “leading element” however.

    • Thanks folks,
      That’s true the legends mention wars by the Yellow Emperor and others, and peace in the Neolithic past probably wasn’t all it was later cranked up to be. The archaeology shows some large defensive walls and war weapons from at least the mid-2000s BCE. Still, if we combine the Daoist legends of “the Great Peace” with the Confucian classics, we get a nostalgic, idealized picture of primitive communities and their leaders, who basically had to lead by example. And the protests of Confucius or Mangzi against dominator warlords probably reflect popular feeling based on ancient village standards. These prophets of old family values felt it obvious that a leader was supposed to be like a parent, as in Mengzi’s lines:

      “The ruler of Theng is indeed a worthy prince, but nevertheless he has not heard of the Dao. Real leaders cultivate the ground in common with the people, and so eat. They prepare their own morning and evening meals, carrying on government at the same time. But now the ruler of Theng has his granaries, treasuries and arsenals, which is oppressing the people to nourish himself. How can he be deemed a real leader?” (Mengzi 3A:4; Needham and Wang, 1956, 120–121)

    • Brian, those are lines from a conversation Mengzi is having with someone else. You might want to read the whole passage. Mengzi opposes those views strongly; a few lines later he calls them the views of a “shrike-tongued barbarian of the south, whose doctrines are not those of the ancient kings.”

    • Okay Bill, as I understood it, the Xia dynasty was reportedly founded after Yu tried to pass on his mantle of leadership. Through some traditional tests of ability and virtue, Yu chose a man named Boyi. But unfortunately, Yu’s son, Qi, seized the throne by force. Qi then proclaimed a principle of patrilineal inheritance, which founded a dynasty as we know it.

      In that case, I thought Qi was the actual founder of the first “dynasty.” Did I get the story wrong?

    • That’s not quite what happened as Mengzi tells the story (5A6). I don’t recall any other early versions of the myth, but surely there must be some. Also, the standard or mainstream line is that Yu was the founder of the Xia Dynasty; but from what you say, you must know of another early Chinese view about that.

    • Thanks Justice&Mercy! Is there really only one other version? And I take it you mean about Qi using force. In case you happen to recall – do the Bamboo Annals also say Yu didn’t count as within the Xia?

    • Thanks Bill for pointing out the speaker in the Mengzi passage concerning the ruler of Teng. Mengzi does say that such standards are unworkable for a prince. But I notice the speaker who wanted self-sufficiency in a leader was Xu Xing, who claimed to follow the words of the legendary divine husbandman Shennong. Maybe this Xu Xing was a representative for values far more ancient than the Duke of Zhou.

    • Well, I did read somewhere a theory that most pre-Qin “philosophical schools” had religious elements. The theory goes that Xu Xing was a representative of a school which saw Shennong as its divine founder. Shennong was originally a divine bull symbolising peaceful agriculturalism, before he was superceded by the cultural heroes championed by Confucians. This is why the Confucian Classics didn’t really talk about Shennong that much.

      I’m going to check that book out again to see if my understanding is correct.

    • Or maybe they didn’t talk about him because he hadn’t been invented yet. While not as simple as this, it almost seems that after Confucius held up the Zhou founders as model sages, Mozi trumped him by modelling Yu; then came Yao and Shun, then came Huang Di, then Shennong, then Fuxi and Nüwa, and then the Dao or Taiyi, which preceded everything, (or nameless simple folk who nested in trees – Zhuangzi). It’s impossible to say with much certainty because the texts which discuss them were written millennia afterwards. These stories were certainly drawn from oral traditions, but from where and when we cannot know.

    • Well, I tend to believe that Yao, Shun, Shennong and people existed in the oral tradition long before they were incorporated into the written tradition.

      If they were invented by the Confucians and Mohists, then our understanding of them would be limited to Confucian and Mohist portrayals. This, however, is not the case. To say the least, there are artifacts such as murals and talismans depicting some of them (e.g. Shennong, Fuxi, Nvwa) as spirits. These depictions tend to be consistent, e.g. Shennong always having bovine features.

      What I tend to believe is that for a long time, Confucianism was primarily oral, or at least part oral and part written. Evidences of an oral tradition abound in all pre-Qin texts. For instance, the fact that the name of the same semi-divine hero may be written in different ways. It seems quite clear that the name existed at first as oral tradition, but was later transcribed differently by different people.

    • Yes, Justice&Mercy, one would be foolish to doubt the anteriority of oral tradition to written tradition. But we have no way of knowing how much earlier they began. 100 years is in fact plenty of time for a tradition to get established. As for the “consistent portrayals” of Shennong and others on murals and talismans, are they dated earlier than the Han? It doesn’t seem that Shennong, for example, preceded Houji 后稷, an agricultural hero of the Zhou mentioned in the Shijing.

    • That’s true about Shennong and Houji. I’ve never thought about that before.

  7. Without addressing the main arguments of the article…

    I like how the author pointed out that both Confucius and Mencius were raised by their mothers. I’d never thought about that before.

    In terms of traditional Chinese families rather than Confucianism per se, I think it’s true that traditional Chinese men tend to be mama’s boys. This dynamic is something you don’t see often in North American culture. However, I don’t think one can conclude as a result that they believe in their “mothers’ values”, if “mothers’ values” stand for some kind of pre-modern feminism. The fact is, outstanding women in traditional China believed in Confucian values, or what the author describes as “patriarchal tradition” and “Arabian array of sanctified controls on women”. The more outstanding a woman was, the more likely she believed in and practised Confucian values.

    • Thanks Justice&Mercy,
      I agree that traditionally, the more educated a woman was, the more she tended to support male supremacy. In imperial times, it was as if the most educated women were the most brainwashed. The uneducated village women tended to support cults of local goddesses and be considered “stupid superstitious women.” Still, mothers of all stripes tended prioritize family loyalty and care. The early Confucianists upheld this sense of priorities, which got them in tons of trouble with the warlords, who claimed that loyalty should override all else.

    • Oops, I mean the warlords thought that loyalty to themselves should override all else.

    • Hi Brian,
      re: “mothers of all stripes tended prioritize family loyalty and care”
      — While this sounds plausible and likely, I still wonder about evidence. What evidence do we have for maternal values? It seems your evidence is that because Confucius and Mencius were raised by their mothers, and because they preached familism and benevolence, their mothers obviously taught them this.

    • Thanks Scott. That’s right, I think it’s plausible and likely. According to Tu Weiming, many of the greatest Confucian scholars claimed an enormous debt to their mothers. As for other evidence of women’s values, one source is the recorded folklore of goddess cults. For example, how does this account of Xi Wang Mu compare with Mengzi’s denunciations of rulers:

      According to popular legend, the Queen Mother of the West came to the court of Han Emperor Wu in 110 BCE to deliver her judgment against him. This emperor had launched victorious wars against the barbarians, building the might of China to rival that of Rome. He had adopted an official version of Confucianism as the state religion, in which the main moral obligation was for subjects to serve their superiors. In his political and spiritual roles, Emperor Wu would be roughly equivalent to the combined figures of Roman emperors Augustus and Constantine. And to this great figure, the goddess reportedly said, “You were born licentious, extravagant, and violent; and you live in the midst of blood and force–no matter how many Daoists you invite here in hopes of immortality, you will only wear yourself out” (Cleary, 1989, 3–4).

  8. For the purpose of his book, I also recommend that the author (if he has not done so already) read the various versions of 四郎探母.

    四郎探母 is very revealing with regard to certain persisting dynamics of Chinese society.

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