What does Confucianism teach?

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What does Confucianism teach about death?

We include this entry because there has been much modern rediscovery and reinterpretation of the teaching of Confucius (552-491BC), that takes into account both its effects on Daoism and Buddhism (which have been influential in some aspects of European culture in recent years) and, perhaps more significantly in the long run, the rapprochement between the official line of the Chinese Communist Party and key elements of Confucian teaching.

Modern scholars are much less inclined today to categorise Confucian teaching as no more than an exemplar of the Golden Rule “Do as you would be done by.” Certainly that is an element of it (though it is more accurate to put it in the negative: “Don’t do to others whatever you would not want them to do to you.”) Much richer and more suggestive is his emphasis on filial piety. The Chinese Communist Party disliked this because they thought it was conservative, feudal and backward. Now, however, I think we are seeing it in a new light. Filial piety is an internal form of restraint on the selfishness, greed and aggressiveness that are all too natural in the young male. And, relevant to our main theme, it should, says Confucius, continue after the death of the parent.

So Confucius puts a lot of emphasis on rituals of death, which must be observed as marks of respect due to the parents in Heaven. A son is enjoined to mourn publicly for three years and in that period to cease his paid employment, forego all carnal pleasures and visit the grave of his parents almost daily. This is not a morbid display of grief, but a chance to reflect constructively on the nature of the good life, on the wisdom of the parents (now raised, after death, to the stature of the Sages), and the need for the son to adjust his behaviours in a way that would commend itself to the Sages.

Thus death and the mourning it engenders has a redemptive power far greater, says Confucius, than rules and regulations. It thus acquires a kind of political power; good statecraft ensures that everyone reflects deeply on the moral quality of their own lives when seen from the perspective of the Sages. This will ensure a healthy polity, delivered from the tiresome fussiness of what we know as the nanny State.

Perhaps we have much to learn from Confucius. So does the Chinese Communist Party!