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Religions of Ancient China
Herbert A. Giles
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Chapter 2. Confucianism
Attitude of Confucius.--Under the influence of Confucius, B.C. 551- 479, the old
order of things began to undergo a change. The Sage's attitude of mind towards
religion was one of a benevolent agnosticism, as summed up in his famous
utterance, "Respect the spirits, but keep them at a distance." That he fully
recognised the existence of a spirit world, though admitting that he knew nothing
about it, is manifest from the following remarks of his:--
"How abundantly do spiritual beings display the powers that belong to them! We
look for, but do not see them; we listen for, but do not hear them; yet they enter
into all things, and there is nothing without them. They cause all the people in the
empire to fast and purify themselves, and array themselves in their richest
dresses, in order to attend at their sacrifices. Then, like overflowing water, they
seem to be over the heads, and on the right and left, of their worshippers."
He believed that he himself was, at any rate to some extent, a prophet of God, as
witness his remarks when in danger from the people of K'uang:--
"After the death of King Wen, was not wisdom lodged in me? If God were to
destroy this wisdom, future generations could not possess it. So long as God
does not destroy this wisdom, what can the people of K'uang do to me?"
Again, when Confucius cried, "Alas! there is no one that knows me," and a
disciple asked what was meant, he replied, "I do not murmur against God. I do
not mumble against man. My studies lie low, and my penetration lies high. But
there is God; He knows me."
We know that Confucius fasted, and we know that "he sacrificed to the spirits as
though the spirits were present;" it is even stated that "when a friend sent him a
present, though it might be a carriage and horses, unless it were flesh which had
been used in sacrifice, he did not bow." He declared that for a person in
mourning food and music were without flavour and charm; and whenever he saw
anyone approaching who was in mourning dress, even though younger than
himself, he would immediately rise from his seat. He believed in destiny; he was
superstitious, changing colour at a squall or at a clap of thunder; and he even
countenanced the ceremonies performed by villagers when driving out evil spirits
from their dwellings. He protested against any attempt to impose on God. He
said that "he who offends against God has none to whom he can pray;" and
when in an hour of sickness a disciple asked to be allowed to pray for him, he
replied, "My praying has been for a long time." Yet he declined to speak to his
disciples of God, of spiritual beings or even of death and a hereafter, holding that
life and its problems were alone sufficient to tax the energies of the human race.
While not altogether ignoring man's duty towards God, he subordinated it in