For an extended period Confucian thought was the state ideology of China, subscribed to by emperors down through the ages. But Confucianism did not formally emerge as the orthodox system of thought until Emperor Wu of Han accepted Dong Zhongshu’s proposal to “cast down the hundred schools; honor only the Confucians.”
A regime that relies only on military force to maintain itself has a tough road ahead of it. It is important to govern through ideology as well, complementing force with gentleness, so that people will obey gladly and from the heart. By the time of
Emperor Wu’s reign, the government system was already at a mature stage of centralized despotism. At this juncture, under an emperor who wished to do great deeds, the somewhat relativistic quietude of the Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu did not fit the needs of the times. Such were the circumstances that allowed Confucianism to gain preeminence.
Dong Zhongshu proposed to Emperor Wu that he should “cast down the hundred school and honor only the Confucians.” This would be done by giving men an incentive to exalt the Confucian School—that is, only scholars studying the Confucian School would have a chance to be officials. Such a non-coercive means of thought control did not provoke a great deal of resistance. Thenceforth Confucianism assumed a predominant position, becoming the orthodox philosophy of traditional society. Dong Zhongshu laid particular stress on Confucian approaches to maintaining a stable political and social order. At the same time he adapted yin-yang theories of the Cosmologists, relegating to yang the categories of ruler, father and husband, and to yin the categories of subject, son and wife. Arguing from the eternal subordination of yin to yang. he demonstrated a ground of cosmic permanency for the idea that “ruler binds subject, father binds son, and husband binds wife.” In other words subject, son and wife are eternally subjugated to ruler, father and husband. The former exist for the latter. This idea is often spoken of as the “three bonds” of Dong Zhongshu.
Dong Zhongshu drew on the Confucian School to establish a state ideology that would solidify the imperial order. Chinese society has long believed his “three bonds” to be tenets of moral truth.