Confucian Piety and Individualism in Han China

By Nylan, Michael | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 1996 | Go to article overview

Confucian Piety and Individualism in Han China


Nylan, Michael, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men's conduct. Yet very frequently ... "ideas" have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.

Max Weber, The Social Psychology of World Religions

When historians discuss the collapse of Eastern Han rule, they typically analyze it in negative terms that closely mirror the arguments found in the Chinese dynastic histories for the period. They speak of a "failure of Confucian ethics," arguing that the decline of Han occurred when too many political elites (specifically, the wai-ch'i, the eunuchs, and the military) came to have little or no interest in maintaining the Confucian form of government promoted by the scholar-officials. But when the historians (often the same historians) turn to the following Wei-Chin period (A.D. 220-420), a time of political disunion, they tend to characterize it in positive terms that imply a comparison with the early modern European and American experience. Writing of the "growth of individualism," they seem to envision a dramatic liberation from the most restrictive aspects of Confucian hierarchy and ritual prevailing in the Han.

Both historical assessments may well be flawed. First, the collapse of Eastern Han government may just as plausibly be ascribed to the overwhelming success of the Confucian ethic, rather than to its failure. Specifically, a steady expansion in the parameters of meaning for the two key virtue-words pertaining to political life (hsiao, 'filial piety' and jang 'abdication' or 'renunciation') had, by the middle of the Eastern Han period, so confused definitions of social duty as to threaten both social conventions and the bureaucratic machinery of state. While this confusion in social duties inevitably opened a greater variety of choices to individual members of the shih elite, the language of "individualism" is inappropriate to describe the situation, for community membership, political participation, and the experience of personal identity were mutually defining terms in early China.(1) Available evidence suggests that certain aspects of Wei-Chin behavior that seem to "ape" individualistic expression served, in fact, as extremely conventionalized class markers for an elite steeped in Confucian values. Furthermore, most of the behavioral "styles" associated with Wei-Chin "individualism" began long before the end of Eastern Han and continued through the succeeding period of disunion. An examination of patron-client relations for the period supports the foregoing observations.

The discussion of Han Confucianism, which occupies the bulk of this paper, addresses four principal topics: (1) the government promotion of the two Confucian political virtues of hsiao and jang; (2) the expanded definition of the term hsiao, by which the father-son relation became paradigm for a wide variety of superior-inferior relations, especially (but not exclusively) in bureaucratic circles; (3) the expanded definition of the term jang, which opened the door to all manner of excessive behavior (kuo-li), often of an exhibitionistic or eccentric type; and (4) the resultant confusion among members of the political elite. Proof of the negative consequences attending the remarkable success of the Confucian ethic, however, necessarily entails a brief sketch of pre-Han philosophy designed to establish the direct association of hsiao and jang with the legendary sage-kings Shun and Yao, who figured as the chief paragons for the "political way" of the Ju.(2)

Evidence for the Han and the pre-Han sections of this paper comes from many sources, but the best source for late Han elite values is the Feng-su t'ung-yi (FSTY) of Ying Shao (ca. A.D. 203). The received text of the FSTY, with ten chapters remaining out of an original thirty-one, devotes no fewer than four of the ten chapters (nos. 3, 4, 5, and 7) to a consideration of conflicting Confucian priorities as they pertain to the question of patronage. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Confucian Piety and Individualism in Han China
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.