Block-print portrait of Dong Zhongshu, the most influential advocate of Confucian thought during the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). Without Confucius (551–479 BCE) there would be no Confucianism; without Dong there would be no Confucianism as it has been known for the past two thousand years. In 1330 a tablet displaying Dong’s name was installed in state-sponsored Confucian temples alongside the tablets of other Confucian exemplars.
Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 was the most influential exponent of Confucian thought during the Han 汉 dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). For almost two millennia, Confucianism was sustained by the textual canon, educational institutions, and spiritual ethos developed by Dong and elaborated upon by his successors.
Dong Zhongshu was the most influential force in proliferating Confucian thought during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and beyond. He created a religious rationale for the authority and structure of the then new imperial Chinese state, thus renewing a tradition of theological justification for dynastic power begun when the Zhou conquered the Shang in the eleventh century BCE. For almost two millennia, Confucianism was sustained by the textual canon, educational institutions, and spiritual ethos developed by Dong and elaborated upon by his successors. Without Confucius (551–479 BCE) there would be no Confucianism; but without Dong there would be no Confucianism as it has been known for the past two thousand years.
Dong was born in what is now Hengshui in modern Hebei Province, a region previously known as the kingdoms of Yan and Zhao. Before the unification of China by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), Yan, Zhao, and other warring states were embroiled in a prolonged struggle for mastery of the empire lost by the Western Zhou dynasty (1045–771 BCE) to “barbarian” invasions. During this time “one hundred schools” (baijia) of thought proliferated, laying the foundation for every major philosophical and religious tradition in China except Buddhism. While baijia thinkers disagreed intensely on nearly everything, they were in agreement on two points: that the lost empire of the Zhou must be reunified under a single regime and that intellectual and spiritual pluralism was a sign of living in ill-fated times. Ironically, it was the profound cultural ferment of this era that later facilitated the emergence of a new imperial order as well as Dong’s accompanying intellectual synthesis.
Later writers credit Dong with phenomenal dedication to learning, citing the example of his having shut his windows for three years to study indoors without distraction. Dong was an assiduous student who absorbed both Confucian and non-Confucian influences.
These included the yinyang school, which claimed that all cosmic processes were deeply interconnected and could be understood in terms of the interplay between dynamic forces of yin (characterized as dark, female, moist, and receptive) and yang (characterized as lucid, male, arid, and active) at all levels of being. Other theories presented a similar cosmology but argued for the interaction of five agents, or elements or phases (wuxing)—fire, water, earth, wood, and metal—as determinative of cosmic processes. Such correlative cosmologies implied that the smallest of human actions could affect cosmic processes and vice versa. Many baijia thinkers used such cosmologies to appeal to rulers, who, they argued, could exploit cosmic forces for the benefit of the state. At the time most Confucians eschewed such thought.
Like his forerunners at the Han court, Lu Jia (?–170 BCE) and Jia Yi (201–168? BCE), Dong won favor with the Han regime not for his Confucian convictions but by writing scathing critiques of the preceding Qin dynasty. At that time Confucianism never had received state support and, in fact, was viewed with suspicion. Like their Qin predecessors, the early Han rulers favored a combination of political philosophy and mystical spirituality known as Huang-Lao (a name taken from Huangdi, the mythical Yellow Emperor, and Laozi 老子, the legendary sage) and thus repressed Confucianism. Nonetheless, during the reign of the sixth Han emperor, Jingdi (reigned 156–141 BCE), Dong received official preferment. Jingdi was enamored of the so-called Daoist text known as the Laozi and thus resistant to Dong’s Confucian agenda. At one point Dong’s writings were interpreted by Jingdi as seditious, and he was imprisoned and sentenced to death but pardoned and released soon afterward.
Revival of Confucianism
Dong found his patron in Jingdi’s successor, Emperor Wudi (reigned 140–87 BCE). Wudi’s predecessors had faced challenges to their power from various rebel movements, and their own dynasty won power by rebelling against the Qin regime. At the same time, Confucians and other baijia thinkers argued that Heaven (Tian) not only brought down the Qin but also elevated previous regimes (particularly that of the Western Zhou) to power. Young, insecure, and new to the throne, Wudi was eager to demonstrate not only that Tian had given its mandate (ming) to the Han but also that Tian’s blessing still guided the dynasty.
Dong responded to this politicoreligious challenge by turning to a text, supposedly authored by Confucius, known as the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), which purports to chronicle events in Confucius’s home state of Lu between 722 and 481 BCE. In the Chunqiu Dong discerned Tian working hand in hand with various human actors (typically virtuous rulers, moral ministers, and other Confucian exemplars) to keep the cosmos in balance by harmonizing its constitutive powers and processes (yinyang, wuxing). In effect, Dong reread pre-Han chronicles through a cosmological lens, such that heavenly norms could be seen interacting with human history, with crucial lessons for his own time. When one reads Dong’s description of the ideal ruler, it is not difficult to understand why Dong’s interpretation won imperial support: “As for the one who appropriates the mean of Tian, Earth, and humankind and takes this as the thread that joins and connects them, if it is not one who acts as a king, then who can be equal to this task?”
Dong’s arguments persuaded Wudi to terminate imperial sponsorship of non-Confucian traditions and appoint Dong to various high offices. Between the 130s and 120s BCE, Dong was able to recommend several pro-Confucian policies, which Wudi promptly implemented: the canonization of ancient texts favored by Confucians as the Five Classics (wujing), the state subsidy of Confucian scholarship, and the establishment of a Grand Academy (taixue) dedicated to the training of Confucian bureaucrats for service in the imperial government. By the end of the first century BCE, approximately three thousand students were enrolled in the academy, and the number exceeded thirty thousand by the end of the dynasty. Both the first-century CE Qian Hanshu (History of the Former Han Dynasty) and the third-to-sixth centuries CE compilation Chunqiu Fanlu (Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals) preserve some of Dong’s most important writings.
Dong’s Surviving Vision
In 1330 a tablet displaying Dong’s name was installed in state-sponsored Confucian temples alongside the tablets of other Confucian exemplars. Texts and tablets both serve to underscore the monumental significance of Dong within Chinese cultural history. His vision of harmony between cosmos, morality, and government lives on today in contemporary Chinese political discourse.
Dong Zhongshu. (2006). An in-depth investigation into names. (M. Csikszentmihalyi, Trans.). In M. Csikszentmihalyi (Ed.), Readings in Han Chinese thought (pp. 7–9). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
Dong Zhongshu. (2006). The meaning of the five phases. (M. Csikszentmihalyi, Trans.). In M. Csikszentmihalyi (Ed.), Readings in Han Chinese thought (pp. 175–179). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
Dong Zhongshu. (1997). Luxuriant gems of the spring and autumn annals. (S. A. Queen, Trans.). In W. de Bary & I. Bloom (Eds.), Sources of Chinese tradition: From earliest times to 1600 (2nd ed., Vol. 1) (pp. 295–310). New York: Columbia University Press.
Loewe, M. (1987). Imperial sovereignty: Dong Zhongshu’s contribution and his predecessors. In S. R. Schram (Ed.), Foundations and limits of state power in China (pp. 33–57). London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Queen, S. A. (1996). From chronicle to canon: The hermeneutics of the spring and autumn, according to Tung Chung-shu. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.
Source: Richey, Jeffrey L. (2009). DONG Zhongshu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 635–637. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
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