To many people, Confucius is no more than the setup to a one-line
joke. Few have heard or read any of his teachings. Yet the
truth and importance of his words resonate today when they
are heard, because Confucius' teachings developed in reaction
to the times in which he lived -- and our times are very much
According to writings of the era, the days in which Confucius
lived were, compared to the past, a time of moral chaos, in
which common values were widely rejected or simply disregarded.
Crime was on the rise, with robbery and theft increasing in
the countryside and murder a serious problem in the cities
and at court; there was a general lack of interest in trying
to reintegrate criminals into society. The gulf between rich
and poor was broad and growing, with the rich living extravagantly
in enormous mansions while an abundance of food somehow failed
to reach the hungry who needed it. Government was routinely
corrupt and distrusted by the people, who didn't fail to observe
the lack of productivity among the rich and powerful: as the
chronicler Shu Xiang noted, "The ministers never go out
to work in the field."
The economy was changing as well. The productive class --
mostly farmers -- was shrinking, while the mercantile sector
was growing. The marketplaces were flooded with goods described
as being costly and of "no real utility." Part of
the growing middle class was a sector of scholars, who had
great difficulty finding employment.
While reformers such as Confucius existed, they were a minority:
society was dominated by pessimists and conservatives. Pessismists
-- perhaps predecessors to today's millennial survivalists,
militiamen and "patriots" -- withdrew from society
in disillusionment, convinced that the social order was irreparably
corrupt and resistant to reform and that the best thing one
could do was to look after one's own. Conservatives were either
ordinary people wrapped up in their own lives and indifferent
to social and political problems or men of society with good
reputations and a vested interest in maintaining things as
they were, determined to block social reform and new ideas
wherever they popped up; although the latters' own private
conduct was generally unimpeachable, in the public sphere
they were fierce defenders of an unpleasant status quo.
Sound familiar? It certainly should. It's worth noting, however,
that even in such apparently barren philosophical ground,
Confucianism not only took root, it flourished, eventually
transforming Chinese society with its values and dominating
it for centuries.
That's why Confucianism is still significant.