Tung Chung-shu (ca. 179-104 B.C.) was a Chinese man of letters best known for his work in formulating a mode of thought which was to become known, somewhat loosely, as Confucianism.
Well versed in Chinese literature, Tung Chungshu made his name at court during discussions with the Emperor (Han Wu-ti) and held official posts in the provinces. Tung's writings are preserved in the Standard History of the Western Han dynasty (Han-shu) and in a collection of essays entitled Ch'un-Ch'iu fan-lu, or Luxurious Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals.
Very little of Tung Chung-shu's work was due to original thinking; his importance lies in his synthesis of a number of elements under a single system which could be adopted as the ideological basis for the exercise of imperial authority. He venerated Confucius as one of the earliest of China's teachers, who had clearly linked the exercise of temporal powers with moral standards. Tung's study of the past was directed to clarifying the moral precepts that could be learned and applied for the guidance of mankind; and he commented at length on the lessons to be found in the Spring and Autumn Annals, a text which Confucius was believed to have edited.
Tung Chung-shu accepted the principle that the creation of the universe and its maintenance in correct balance derived from the harmonious relationship of the two forces yin (female, dark) and yang (male, light) and the actions of the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), which possessed both a control of material substances and a moral and symbolic effect. He also accepted the existence of t'ien (heaven) as the final arbiter under whose protection these powers operated. As part of the same regulated system, the son of heaven, the emperor, holds authority that was deputed to him from heaven in order to regulate the affairs of man and to impart to them a balanced and ordered development.
According to Tung Chung-shu, heaven, earth, and man have complementary parts to play within the single system of the universe, and in a well-ordered state of affairs they work together harmoniously. Heaven holds a perpetual interest in the welfare of man; man is endowed with a natural willingness to obey heaven; and the earth lies ready for man's cultivation and nourishment.
So that human beings will cooperate effectively, heaven deputes temporal authority to a select individual, the emperor, who is thereby entitled to command the loyal obedience of the inhabitants of the world. This mandate is never bestowed indiscriminately and can be held properly only by an individual who possesses the characteristics, power, and personality that fit him for the just exercise of his authority; and this must always be designed to benefit humanity, not simply to enrich or strengthen his own position.
Tung Chung-shu lived at a time when the imperial dynasty of Han was being actively consolidated and its grasp of authority purposefully extended. In his knowledge of the past he could look back to earlier periods of Chinese history before the first empire had been formed (221 B.C.) and discern the circumstances in which heaven had bestowed a mandate to rule over small territories and how this had been forfeited by unworthy incumbents.
With the establishment of the hereditary empire of Han (from 202 B.C.) the principle of heaven's mandate and its requirements had to be reconciled with a practical problem that could easily arise should an emperor conduct himself unsuitably, show himself unfit for the responsibilities that had been thrust upon him, and arouse opposition, disobedience, or rebellion. Tung Chung-shu's answer to this problem could satisfy the needs of imperial authorities who were anxious to find support for their measures. He believed that when it is clear that an emperor is abusing his position or failing to conduct the world in a sufficiently harmonious manner, heaven responds by giving an obvious warning so that the emperor can mend his ways and restore a balanced and just dominion on earth. Such warnings take the form of abnormalities or rarities, either in the heavens or on earth, for instance, eclipses, comets, earthquakes, or the birth of freak creatures.
In addition, the phenomena whereby heaven's warnings are manifested are of a symbolic type whose characteristics correspond with those of the improper or offensive activities perpetrated on earth under the dispensation of the emperor. For this reason the purpose of the warning may be determined easily, and appropriate steps may be taken to avert further phenomena. The system is based on a belief in a correspondence between the natural actions of heaven, man, and earth whereby the actions of one order may stimulate a similar reaction from the other two.
Tung Chung-shu linked the successful operation of dynastic rule with the teachings of Confucius, the benevolent dispensation of heaven, and an ordered explanation of the workings of the universe. This system comprised many of Confucius's own teachings regarding social relationships, the importance of education, and the operation of government. Later it was adopted as a state cult throughout China's imperial period, and in the course of those 2,000 years the cult became subject to very considerable changes of emphasis, doctrine, and practice.
For the place of Tung Chung-shu in the development of Chinese thought see Feng Yu-lan, History of Chinese Philosophy, translated by Derk Bodde (2 vols., 1952-1953); Joseph Needham and others, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2 (1956); W. T. de Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition (1960); and Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1963).