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Dong Zhongshu — A Remarkable Confucianism Reformer

Dong Zhongshu (179 BC — 104 BC), respected as Dong Zi or Dong Fuzi, was an accomplished philosopher, educator, and politician.

He reformed Confucianism by absorbing ideas from other philosophical schools into an ideology that suited the development of the Han Dynasty

Therefore, Emperor Wu of Han, in the year 134 BC, changed the official ideology from Taoism to Confucianism under the suggestion of Dong Zhongshu. 

This was a turning point in Chinese Philosophy when Confucianism was respected as the dominant ideology for the next 2000 years.

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183)

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183) — National Museum of China (Photo by Ayelie)

Diligent Genius Dong Zhongshu

Born into a noble and wealthy family, Dong Zhongshu read many books and received the best education. 

When he was 30, he was already a famous, knowledgeable intellectual who had attracted many students.

Hence, Dong Zhongshu had been teaching in the imperial academy of the Han Dynasty and was assigned to be the prime minister of some kings. 

As an excellent master, many of his students became influential and accomplished. 

Because of his exceptional knowledge and reputation, he was well respected by almost everyone, from the kings he served to his students. 

Dragon Jade Pendant of the Han Dynasty, Unearthed From Tomb of King of Chu

Dragon Jade Pendant of the Han Dynasty, Unearthed From Tomb of King of Chu — Xuzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Presenting the Reformed Confucianism to the Emperor


In the year 134 BC, when Emperor Wu of Han commanded to collect advanced governance ideologies, Dong Zhongshu was recommended by many officials.

He presented his ideas and suggested nominating his reformed Confucianism as the dominant ideology of the empire, which was highly appreciated and strictly implemented by the emperor. 

Dong Zhongshu was then assigned to other political positions but resigned a few years later. 

During his retirement, the emperor frequently consulted for his opinions on important events and showed him great respect and trust. 

Besides caring about politics, Dong mainly focused on teaching and writing until he passed away old and sick.

Portrait of Great Philosopher Dong Zhongshu of Han Dynasty

Portrait of Great Philosopher Dong Zhongshu

Main Beliefs of Dong Zhongshu

Dong Zhongshu absorbed many ideas from other philosophical schools, such as Taoism, Yin Yang and Five Elements, and Legalism. He developed Confucianism into an ideology more appreciated and suitable for the ruling class of a strong, unified feudal empire.  


  • Great Unity is the foundation of the stability of a vast empire.


That includes a centralized political system, a dominant national ideology, and well-established laws and moral standards.


  • Confucianism is the best ideology for the Han Empire. 


Therefore, the government should establish a national college that only teaches the Six Arts of Confucianism and then select officials among excellent students of this school.

Six Arts (Liu Yi) of Confucianism and Aristocratic Education in Ancient China

Six Arts (Liu Yi) — Etiquette (Li), Music (Yue), Archery (She), Equestrianism (Yu), Calligraphy (Shu), and Mathematics (Shu).

  • Natural phenomena are reflections of humans, especially the monarch’s, behaviors; that is how heaven shows will and judgment. 


Therefore, if emperors failed to do a good job, heaven would alert them through unpleasant natural phenomena. If they didn’t improve and change after seeing those signs, they would lose their crown.


  • The central government should limit powerful clans, so the gap between rich and poor would be decreased. That way, civilians’ well-being could be better protected. 


  • Benevolence cultivation is an essential aspect of a stable society in which law and strict penalties should only serve as supplementary means of governance.

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