After the death of Confucius two major schools of Confucian thought emerged: one was represented by Mencius, the other by Hsün-tzu (Hsün K’uang, 300?-235? BC). Mencius continued the ethical teachings of Confucius by stressing the innate goodness of human nature. He believed, however, that original human goodness can become depraved through one’s own destructive effort or through contact with an evil environment. The problem of moral cultivation is therefore to preserve or at least to restore the goodness that is one’s birthright. In political thought, Mencius is sometimes considered one of the early advocates of democracy, for he advanced the idea of the people’s supremacy in the state.
In opposition to Mencius, Hsün-tzu contended that a person is born with an evil nature but that it can be regenerated through moral education. He believed that desires should be guided and restrained by the rules of propriety and that character should be molded by an orderly observance of rites and by the practice of music. This code serves as a powerful influence on character by properly directing emotions and by providing inner harmony. Hsün-tzu was the main exponent of ritualism in Confucianism.
After a brief period of eclipse in the 3rd century BC, Confucianism was revived during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). The Confucian works, copies of which had been destroyed in the preceding period, were restored to favor, canonized, and taught by learned scholars in national academies. The works also formed the basis of later civil service examinations; candidates for responsible government positions received their appointments on the strength of their knowledge of classic literature. As a result, Confucianism secured a firm hold on Chinese intellectual and political life.
The success of Han Confucianism was attributable to Tung Chung-shu, who first recommended a system of education built upon the teachings of Confucius. Tung Chung-shu believed in a close correspondence between human beings and nature; thus a person’s deeds, especially those of the sovereign, are often responsible for unusual phenomena in nature. Because of the sovereign’s authority, he or she is to blame for such phenomena as fire, flood, earthquake, and eclipse. Because these ill omens can descend on earth as a warning to humanity that all is not well in this world, the fear of heavenly punishment proves useful as a curb to the monarch’s absolute power.
In the political chaos that followed the fall of the Han dynasty, Confucianism was overshadowed by the rival philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism, and the philosophy suffered a temporary setback. Nevertheless, the Confucian Classics continued to be the chief source of learning for scholars, and with the restoration of peace and prosperity in the Tang dynasty (618-907), the spread of Confucianism was encouraged. The monopoly of learning by Confucian scholars once again ensured them the highest bureaucratic positions. Confucianism returned as an orthodox state teaching.