Dong Zhongshu Systematizes Confucianism

China adopted the philosophy of Confucianism developed by Dong Zhongshu and established itself as a great power in East Asia.

Summary of Event

At the time of his death, Dong Zhongshu was already recognized for his philosophical writings. His work reflected the attempt by intellectuals of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.) to create a model that would ensure that China would not suffer from the chaotic and repressive governments that were so representative of its early political history. He combined Confucian ideals with his own philosophy of history to produce an operational model that would create an environment of peace and prosperity for the Chinese people. Dong Zhongshu
Shi Huangdi

Dong extended his historical investigations back to the rise of the Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066-256 b.c.e.) in 1122 b.c.e. China’s new ruler, the duke of Zhou, established the political philosophy known as the mandate of heaven, which stated that an emperor who provided an environment in which his nation and people could prosper would receive divine sanction of his rule. The emperor, who would then be known as the son of heaven, would keep this mandate as long as he maintained a virtuous government. If over time the dynasty became lax and corrupt, another noble had both the right and the duty to overthrow the existing political structure. This philosophical concept was in fact the rationale used by the duke of Zhou to depose the leaders of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1066 b.c.e.).

The rise and inevitable fall of Chinese empires resulting from their inability to maintain their mandate gave rise to the political theory known as the cycle of dynasties, which in time became an accepted historical truth among the intellectual elite of Chinese civilization and had a major influence on the writings of Dong Zhongshu. The Zhou Dynasty’s inability to prevent this historical “inevitability” led to its collapse and ushered in an era of civil war known as the Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.), whose events would also play a major role in the intellectual development of Dong’s philosophical system.

This was a period of unprecedented disruption when leaders of seven regional Chinese kingdoms fought one another in wars of bloody conquest. The Warring States Period also witnessed an intellectual renaissance that produced an explosion of philosophical writing known as the Hundred Schools of Thought, the most prominent being Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism. The great philosophical debates of this golden age would also have a significant impact on the thought and writings of many of China’s great intellectuals, including Dong Zhongshu. Most important, Chinese philosophers saw a cause-and-effect relationship between the intellectual diversity of the period and its political and social chaos. Dong and many others would come to believe that the Hundred Schools of Thought had prevented China from developing a single unified plan to revitalize the empire.

The Warring States Period finally ended when Shi Huangdi unified China and established a repressive regime based on Legalist principles. The Legalist model focused on the belief that people were naturally selfish and rebellious and that a system of harsh laws and penalties had to be implemented to maintain order. Legalism also challenged the mandate of heaven philosophy with the belief that people were to be used for the benefit of the state.

Shi Huangdi’s central bureaucracy also rejected the idea of intellectual diversity. Shortly after obtaining power, the new emperor ordered the burning of all books that did not support Legalist principles. When a number of intellectuals refused to follow the emperor’s command, he had 460 of China’s most respected scholars executed. The reactionary policies of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 b.c.e.) were unable to create a period of peace or prosperity, and the dynasty ended shortly after the death of its first emperor.

In time, China would be pacified under the Han Dynasty and would become one of the greatest empires in world history. It would be under the rule of Wudi that Dong Zhongshu would make his contribution to Chinese history and philosophy. His writings would propose an alternative between the inefficient, decentralized policies of the Zhou and the harsh, totalitarian model of the Qin.

Dong’s new model was based on the principles of Confucianism. Confucius centered his philosophy on the idea that people could be trained to be virtuous and that these “philosophical” individuals could be the foundation of a successful government. Dong also believed that a divine power governed the actions of the universe, and that all the events of the natural world and human society were interrelated. According to Dong, extraordinary natural phenomena, especially astronomical events, were a sign of the approval or disapproval of heaven.

The importance of celestial events, especially an eclipse, had played an important role in Chinese history extending back to the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty. Dong postulated that an unexpected eclipse was a sign that the emperor had lost his mandate from heaven. This is one of the major reasons that the Chinese Astronomical Bureau played such an important role in Chinese society.

The major challenge for Dong was the creation of a model that would ensure a harmonious balance between the natural world and human society. His solution was to create a national university based on the teachings of Confucius that would develop a pool of highly intelligent, virtuous men who would provide a source of candidates for the Chinese bureaucracy. Dong believed a government run by a cadre of “philosophical” bureaucrats would make China the most successful civilization on earth.

Dong also believed his model would end the cycle of dynasties that had plagued Chinese history for so many centuries. His confidence was based on the idea that Confucian scholar bureaucrats would be guided by virtuous philosophical principles and thus would not succumb to the corruption and decadence so prevalent in past dynasties. The Han Dynasty would maintain the mandate of heaven, and peace and prosperity would become the norm.

Dong stated that virtuous habits had to be reinforced on a daily basis in order for his philosophical model to maintain its longevity. As a result, he directed that every aspect of Chinese society had to reflect the basic Confucian principles of the superior/subordinate relationships. He set in motion the development of a “great chain of filial piety” that originated in the basic structure of the family and extended up through the various levels of Chinese bureaucracy. The institutionalization of this Confucian system would be the most important accomplishment of Dong Zhongshu.


The philosophical system developed by Dong Zhongshu established Confucianism as the dominant Chinese philosophical school of thought until the outbreak of the Republican Revolution in 1912. The Han Dynasty benefited greatly from Dong’s system because it created a social and political structure that played a major role in unifying China after generations of conflict and oppression.

Dong’s system would also prove to be a great detriment to Chinese progress. The Confucian model, with its strict set of unchanging superior/subordinate relationships, created a society that was absolutely opposed to change. By the middle of the nineteenth century, this inability to accept new ideas and modes of social behavior placed China out of the international mainstream and was one of the major reasons it fell under the control of the new European colonial powers.

Further Reading

  • Ames, Roger T. The Art of Rulership: A Study of Chinese Political Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. An excellent source of early Chinese political writings. Bibliography and index.
  • DeBary, William Theodore, et al., eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. An excellent source for early Chinese cultural history. Index.
  • Fung, Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953. The most comprehensive guide to the history of Chinese philosophy. Bibliography and index.
  • Hsiao, Kung-chuan. A History of Chinese Political Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. A comprehensive overview of Chinese political philosophy. Especially useful for the thought of Dong Zhongshu.
  • Loewe, Michael, and Edward L. Shaughnessy. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 b.c.e.
    New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A comprehensive overview of the time period. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Major, John S. Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four and Five of the “Huainanzi.” Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. An excellent introduction to the thought of the Han period. Bibliography and index.

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Dong Zhongshu