A Catechism of Confucianism: 命 (Ming) — Mandate, Talent, Fate and Mission

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Source: Huffington Post

When early Catholic and Protestant missionaries came to China in the 16th through the 19th centuries, they found that something called the “Mandate of Heaven” (天命) was frequently mentioned in the early Confucian classics (such as the Book of Documents and the Classic of Odes). Consequently, some of them thought that Confucians believed in the same god as the God of Christianity. It is hardly necessary to say that they made a terrible mistake.

The Chinese character 命 is a combination of 口, mouth and 令, command. The literal meaning of 天命, often translated in English as the “Mandate of Heaven,” is thus premised upon a certain degree of personification of Heaven. After all, if Heaven is not a person, how could it announce any commands to its people? However, as virtually every religious comparativist inevitably tends to be, these early missionaries were biased in their understanding of ‘God.’ They thus tried to grasp Confucianism through a Christian lens, and so it is not surprising that they tried to find a monotheistic element in Confucianism and remained blind to the fact that Confucianism, during the process of its formation, was actually moving away from monotheism to mono-non-theism. This means that ‘Heaven,’ in the mainstream understanding of Confucianism as it was molded by Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi all the way up to the Song-Ming neo-Confucians, is not a person, but an all-encompassing, constantly creative cosmic acting without any actor who is behind the scenes.

One important reason which propelled Confucianism away from a monotheistic type of religiousness was theodicy. The religion of the early Zhou dynasty (approximately 1046-256 B.C.E) was pretty much similar to the Abrahamic religions, especially the stories from the Hebrew Bible. Heaven is Lord, and kings ought to obey moral laws enacted by Him. Obeisance will be awarded and violations will be punished. If an immoral king did not continue to take good care of his people, he would lose his Mandate of Heaven, and his dynasty would then be overthrown. This theology was employed by the Zhou dynasty to explain and vindicate their succession over the prior Shang dynasty. However, this theology is dramatically undermined if, no matter how diligently kings pursue moral self-cultivation, their dynasty still continues to decline. This happened to the Zhou dynasty and its kings after 771 B.C.E, when an ethnic minority invaded and plundered Zhou’s capital, killed King You (幽王), and forced the royal court to relocate in another city far to the East. In this period, which is replete with political turmoil and unattended natural disasters, we find plenty of verses in theClassics of Odes (詩經) expressing individual laments in the face of divine injustice. These are very similar to Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, as, for example, when the text quotes complaints such as, “Since I have not been immoral, why has Heaven punished me?”

There are two solutions to this conundrum of theodicy, and they generally are what demarcate the three Abrahamic religions from Confucianism. The seemingly unjust divine punishment can be conceived to be a temporary ‘test’ of the people’s righteousness and faithfulness: if righteous people cannot be rewarded immediately, they will be rewarded in the afterlife, the final Day of Divine Judgement. Alternately, Heaven was no longer to be conceived as a personal God: Although there are values and attractions in Heaven which are worthy of human worship, the Heavenly creation in this case is not conceived of as having any anthropomorphic sort of plan, purpose or agency. In this case, good and evil are defined primarily from the perspective of human beings and not from the perspective of God. Thus, if human beings themselves do not reward goodness, then good in its reciprocal form will remain unrewarded. By the same token, if humans do not punish evil behavior, then evil will remain unpunished.

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