The importance of Confucius to the development of China and its society cannot be overstated. For over 2000 years the teachings of Confucius were the bedrock of Chinese society and political thought. Even now, despite the upheavals of the Communist revolution, they continue to exert a strong influence.
Confucius was a practical philosopher and political reformer of the first rank. His thoughts on the ideal government and ruler shaped the policies and ideas of Chinese political life. Even when rulers and government officials did not live up to Confucian ideals, an attempt was always made to justify policies and actions by reference to Confucius and his teachings. Confucian political philosophy had a stabilizing, though at the same time also somewhat stagnating, influence on the way China was administered and remained preeminent up until the communist revolution.
Ironically, Confucius was unable to implement any of the political reforms or political philosophy which he advocated. Although he held a number of relatively minor government posts during his lifetime his efforts to get any ruler to adopt his advice met with repeated failure and he spent much of his later life wandering through China without a home and exiled from his home state.
There is a telling anecdote about his failed efforts to convert the ruler to his political philosophy. At one point he was in the service of the Marquis of Lu. Confucius was attempting to reduce the power of the barons by dismantling their fortresses so that they could not challenge the Marquis. The Marquis of the neighbouring state of Tsi feared that Confucius might be successful in this endeavour and thereby make the Marquis of Lu more powerful than the Marquis of Tsi. The Marquis of Tsi therefore came up with an interesting stratagem. He sent his neighbour a troop of dancing girls and fine horses. The weak-minded Marquis of Lu gave into sensual pleasure and was quickly distracted away from the plans put forth by Confucius. In the marketplace of ideas, great philosophers cannot compete with dancing girls.
Feeling underappreciated Confucius left the state of Lu and began an itinerant life teaching his growing band of devoted disciples.
It be acknowledged that it is difficult to separate what Confucius actually taught from what later commentators and philosophers attributed to him. Confucius did not leave any significant writings and most of his teachings are recorded and interpreted by his disciples. Even the main text of Confucian thought, the Analects, is a random collection of the sage's utterances and opinions on various subjects as recorded by his disciples after his death, in much the same way as the apostles recorded words of Jesus or the Hadith records the actions and sayings of the Prophet. It is almost certain that in the case of Confucius some things were attributed to him after the fact and he was credited with the idea or saying as a way of lending it legitimacy and authority.
Part of the difficulty in understanding Confucius's views on politics and the philosophy of government is that he did not leave a comprehensive text on the subject. His teachings must be deduced by careful examination of scattered quotes and commentaries. Reference must also be made to the writings of Mencius, who wrote many years after Confucius had died but framed his teachings as an explanation of the Masters's teachings rather than original material of his own creation.
Discerning Confucius's teachings is made even harder by the persecution of his disciples and attempts to suppress his teachings which followed his death. His books were destroyed and his followers burnt alive by rulers who found Confucius's political teachings and reforms to be a threat to their exercise of absolute despotic power. Later dynasties sought to restore Confucius and rehabilitate his teachings, but much had been lost and so much of what we attribute to Confucius is the result of a reconstruction, and perhaps reinvention of the sage's teachings several hundred years after his death.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Confucius's teachings were revolutionary and reformist in nature. The fact that there was a backlash against his teachings by the ruling class suggested what he had to say was both different and threatening to them.
Confucius's political teachings on the ideal administration of the state and the ideal ruler contained many ideas that were progressive and far in advance of their time. In fact, modern rulers could learn much from his teachings. However, Confucius never claimed to be the originator or a new political philosophy. He referenced past philosophers and hisorical examples, framing his advice as a return to the ideal past rather than a change for the better. Therefore, despite his progressive views, Confucius saw himself as a traditionalist and espoused stability and adherence to precedent and ritual. It is not clear whether Confucius believed that his political philosophy was in fact merely a return to the golden ideals of the past, or whether he merely described it this way to give it a veneer of antiquity and authority. Certainly the philosopher Mencius depicted his own fairly revolutionary political ideas as being merely a gloss on Confucian thought, thus imbuing his own ideas with the aura of wisdom surrounding Confucian thought.
By looking at the Analects and other sources, including Mencius, we find that Confucius believed that a government had an obligation to provide for its people, to set an example of moral virtue for them, and to rule by consent rather than by force. In short, he proposed a benign government dedicated to the welfare of its people.
An anecdote, which is probably a parable rather than based on fact, illustrates Confucius's views on the subject. According to the story, Confucius and his disciples were travelling when they came upon a woman weeping by a stream. Inquiring as to why she was in such despair the woman revealed that her father-in-law, her husband, and now her son had all been eaten by a tiger one after the other. When asked why she did not leave such a terrible place the woman replied that here at least the government was not despotic. At this, Confucius remarked to his disciples: 'Remember this, my little children. Oppressive government is more terrible than tigers.'" (Bk. ii., sect. ii., pt. iii., 10.)
Indeed, throughout his writings Confucius advocates for a benign and enlightened dictatorship which will provide for the spiritual and material needs of its subjects. Although the concept of democracy is never part of Confucius's political thought, he repeatedly indicates that the good ruler wins the people over by his virtuous behaviour and concern for their welfare rather than by force. In his view, governent is for the people, although not by the people. Confucius goes so far as to say that a ruler who is cruel and rapacious is no better than a robber and deserves to be killed by his subjects just like a common criminal.