Academics, Upper School

Students Wrestle with Confucianism

In Northwest School’s East Asian Studies course, seniors recently found themselves thrown into the complex world of Confucianism morals and values. They participated in a simulation of the succession crisis of the Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty 400 years ago.

“The simulation helped you see how Confucianism morals were used in action,” said Rilke G. ‘21. “Combined with the supplemental learning about the Ming Dynasty, having a clear understanding of the conflicting morals helped me really learn why the dynasty did not work out.”

For the simulation, one student played the role of the Wanli Emperor while the other students were imperial advisors. In history, the Wanli Emperor attempted to buck centuries of tradition by disinheriting his eldest son and naming his third son as imperial heir instead. This triggered many years of bitter arguments among his advisors and Confucian scholars who felt Wanli was defying centuries of tradition through his actions.

Teacher Isaac Meyer said the goal of the simulation was to explore Confucianism as a social and political philosophy. The students were specifically guided by the following questions: 1) What, from a Confucian perspective, does a good government look like? 2) In Confucianism, who counts as a good person? 3) Is Confucianism an autocratic ideology or an absolute monarchy? 4) In a Confucian state, where does ultimate authority lie?

Students had to advise the emperor using Confucian precepts on a variety of issues concerning the dynasty. At the same time, they had to determine their own positions regarding the debate on succession. Rilke noted that many of the Analects of Confucious can be contradictory. As an example, he offered two quotations: one referring to protecting oneself from barbarian and Mongol tribes and another that says people should be hospitable to every person they meet.

“You can have two people arguing and each choose a different quotation from the Analects that supports their side,” says Rilke. “That is where I think this simulation was awesome. We didn’t just read Confucianism texts; we had to understand them, see how they are so complex and confusing, and find consistent themes throughout to support whatever our goal was.”

The East Asian Studies is one of many in-depth seminars seniors choose from for their final Humanities credit.