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Confucianism, also known as Ruism, is a system of philosophical and "ethical-sociopolitical teachings" sometimes described as a religion. Confucianism developed during the Spring and Autumn Period from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), who considered himself a retransmitter of Zhou values. Its metaphysical and cosmological elements developed in the Han Dynasty following the replacement of its contemporary, the more Taoistic Huang-Lao, as the official ideology. More privately, Chinese emperors would still make use of the historical Realpolitik of the Chinese, termed Legalism. The disintegration of the Han in the second century CE opened the way for the soteriological doctrines of Buddhism and Taoism to dominate intellectual life at that time. A Confucian revival began during the Tang dynasty. In the late Tang, Confucianism developed in response to Buddhism and Taoism and was reformulated as Neo-Confucianism.


This reinvigorated form was adopted as the basis of the imperial exams and the core philosophy of the scholar official class in the Song dynasty. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 marked the end of official Confucianism. The New Culture intellectuals of the early twentieth century blamed Confucianism for China's weaknesses. They searched for new doctrines to replace Confucian teachings; some of these new ideologies include the "Three Principles of the People" with the establishment of the Republic of China, and then Maoism under the People's Republic of China. In the late twentieth century, some people credited Confucianism with the rise of the East Asian economy and it enjoyed a rise in popularity both in China and abroad. With particular emphasis on the importance of the family and social harmony, rather than on an otherworldly soteriology, the core of Confucianism is humanistic. According to the Herbert Fingarette's concept of "the secular as sacred", Confucianism regards the ordinary activities of human life — and especially in human relationships as a manifestation of the sacred, because they are the expression of our moral nature (xing 性), which has a transcendent anchorage in Heaven (tian 天) and a proper respect of the gods (shen). While Heaven (tian) has some characteristics that overlap the category of deity, it is primarily an impersonal absolute, like dao and Brahman. Confucian liturgy (that is called 儒 rú, or sometimes 正统 zhèngtǒng, meaning "orthoprax" ritual style) led by Confucian priests or ritual masters (礼生 lǐshēng) to worship the gods in public and ancestral Chinese temples, is preferred in special occasions over Taoist or popular ritual. The this-worldly concern of Confucianism rests on the belief that human beings are fundamentally good, and teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucian thought focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics. Some of the basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices include rén, yì, and lǐ, and zhì. Ren ("humaneness") is the essence of the human being which manifests as compassion, it is the virtue-form of Heaven. Yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good. Li is a system of ritual norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act in everyday life according to the law of Heaven. Zhi is the ability to see what is right and fair, or the converse, in the behaviors exhibited by others. Confucianism holds one in contempt, either passively or actively, for failure to uphold the cardinal moral values of ren and yi. Historically, cultures and countries strongly influenced by Confucianism include mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, as well as various territories settled predominantly by Chinese people, such as Singapore. In the 20th century, Confucianism’s influence was greatly reduced. More recently, there have been talks of a "Confucian Revival" in the academia and the scholarly community and there has been a grassroots proliferation of various types of Confucian churches.

The Five Classics (Wujing) and the Confucian vision

Traditionally, Confucius was thought to be the author or editor of the Five Classics which were the basic texts of Confucianism. The scholar Yao Xinzhong allows that there are good reasons to believe that Confucian classics took shape in the hands of Confucius, but that “nothing can be taken for granted in the matter of the early versions of the classics.” Yao reports that perhaps most scholars today hold the “pragmatic” view that Confucius and his followers, although they did not intend to create a system of classics, “contributed to their formation.” In any case, it is undisputed that for most of the last 2,000 years, Confucius was believed to have either written or edited these texts.

The scholar Tu Weiming explains these classics as embodying “five visions" which underlie the development of Confucianism:

  • I Ching or Classic of Change or Book of Changes, generally held to be the earliest of the classics, shows a metaphysical vision which combines divinatory art with numerological technique and ethical insight; philosophy of change sees cosmos as interaction between the two energies yin and yang, universe always shows organismic unity and dynamism.

  • Classic of Poetry or Book of Songs is the earliest anthology of Chinese poems and songs. It shows the poetic vision in the belief that poetry and music convey common human feelings and mutual responsiveness.
  • Book of Documents or Book of History Compilation of speeches of major figures and records of events in ancient times embodies the political vision and addresses the kingly way in terms of the ethical foundation for humane government. The documents show the sagacity, filial piety, and work ethic of Yao, Shun, and Yu. They established a political culture which was based on responsibility and trust. Their virtue formed a covenant of social harmony which did not depend on punishment or coercion.
  • Book of Rites describes the social forms, administration, and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty. This social vision defined society not as an adversarial system based on contractual relations but as a community of trust based on social responsibility. The four functional occupations are cooperative (farmer, scholar, artisan, merchant).
  • Spring and Autumn Annals chronicles the period to which it gives its name, Spring and Autumn Period (771–476 BCE) and these events emphasize the significance of collective memory for communal self-identification, for reanimating the old is the best way to attain the new.


By the words of Tu Weiming and other Confucian scholars, who recover the work of Kang Youwei, Confucianism revolves around the pursuit of the unity of the self and Tian (Heaven, or the God of the Universe in European terminology, although in a nontheistic sense), and the relationship of humankind to the Heaven. The principle of Heaven (Tian li or Tao), is the order of the creation and divine authority, monistic in its structure. Individuals can realise their humanity and become one with Heaven through the contemplation of this order. This transformation of the self can be extended to the family and society to create a harmonious fiduciary community.

The moral-spiritual ideal of Confucianism conciles both the inner and outer polarities of self-cultivation and world redemption, synthesised in the ideal of "sageliness within and kingliness without". Ren, translated as "humaneness" or the essence proper of a human being, is the character of compassionate mind; it is the virtue endowed by Heaven and at the same time what allows man to achieve oneness with Heaven—in the Datong shu it is defined as "to form one body with all things" and "when the self and others are not separated ... compassion is aroused".

Tian and the gods


Tian (天), commonly translated as "Heaven" or "Sky", but philologically meaning the "Great One", "Great Whole", is a key concept in Confucianism. It denotes the source of reality, the cosmos, and nature in Chinese religions and philosophies. The Confucians mean by Tian and li (order) what the Taoists mean by Tao. The Tian can also be compared to the Brahman of Hindu and Vedic traditions.

In Analects 9.5 Confucius says that a person can know the movement of the Tian, and speaks about his own sense of having a special place in the universe. In 7.19 he says that he is able to understand the order of Tian.

Zigong, a disciple of Confucius, said that Tian had set the master on the path to become a wise man (Analects 9.6). In Analects 7.23 Confucius says that he has no doubt left that the Tian gave him life, and from it he had developed the virtue (de).[26] In Analects 8.19 he says that the lives of the sages and their communion with Tian are interwoven.

Regarding personal gods (shen, energies who emanate from and reproduce the Tian) enliving nature, in Analects 6.22 Confucius says that it is appropriate (yi) for people to worship (jing) them, though through proper rites (li), implying respect of positions and discretion. Confucius himself was a ritual and sacrificial master. In Analects 3.12 he explains that religious rituals produce meaningful experiences. Rites and sacrifices to the gods have an ethical importance: they generate good life, because taking part in them leads to the overcoming of the self. Analects 10.11 tells that Confucius always took a small part of his food and placed it on the sacrificial bowls as an offering to his ancestors.

In original Confucianism the concept of Tian expresses a form of pantheism. Other philosophical currents, like Mohism, developed a more theistic idea of the Tian.


Confucian ethics are described as humanistic. This ethical philosophy can be practiced by all the members of a society. Confucian ethics is characterized by the promotion of virtues, encompassed by the Five Constants, or the Wuchang (五常), extrapolated by Confucian scholars during the Han Dynasty. The Five Constants are:

Rén (仁, humaneness);
Yì (義, righteousness or justice);
Lǐ (禮, proper rite);
Zhì (智, knowledge);
Xìn (信, integrity).
These are accompanied by the classical Sìzì (四字), that singles out four virtues, one of which is included among the Five Constants:

Zhōng (忠, loyalty);
Xiào (孝, filial piety);
Jié (節, continency);
Yì (義, righteousness).
There are still many other elements, such as chéng (誠, honesty), shù (恕, kindness and forgiveness), lián (廉, honesty and cleanness), chǐ (恥, shame, judge and sense of right and wrong),yǒng (勇, bravery), wēn (溫, kind and gentle), liáng (良, good, kindhearted), gōng (恭, respectful, reverent), jiǎn (儉, frugal), ràng (讓, modestly, self-effacing).


Ren (Chinese: 仁, rén) is the Confucian virtue denoting the good feeling a virtuous human experiences when being altruistic. It is exemplified by a normal adult's protective feelings for children. It is considered the essence of the human being, endowed by heaven, and at the same time the mean by which man can act according to the principle of Heaven (li) and become one with it.

Yan Hui, Confucius's most outstanding student, once asked his master to describe the rules of ren and Confucius replied, "one should see nothing improper, hear nothing improper, say nothing improper, do nothing improper". Confucius also defined ren in the following way: "wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others".

Another meaning of ren is "not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself". Confucius also said, "ren is not far off; he who seeks it has already found it". Ren is close to man and never leaves him.

Rite, right

Li (禮) is a classical Chinese word which finds its most extensive use in Confucian and post-Confucian Chinese philosophy. Li is variously translated as "rite" or "reason", "ratio" in the pure sense of Vedic ṛta ("right", "order") when referring to the cosmic law, but when referring to its realisation in the context of human individual and social behavior it has also been translated as "custom", "mores", and "rules", among other terms.

Li embodies the entire web of interaction between humanity, human objects, and nature. Confucius includes in his discussions of li such diverse topics as learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance. Xunzi cites "songs and laughter, weeping and lamentation... rice and millet, fish and meat... the wearing of ceremonial caps, embroidered robes, and patterned silks, or of fasting clothes and mourning clothes... spacious rooms and secluded halls, soft mats, couches and benches" as vital parts of the fabric of li.

Confucius envisioned proper government being guided by the principles of li. Some Confucians proposed the perfectibility of all human beings with learning li as an important part of that process. Overall, Confucians believed governments should place more emphasis on li and rely much less on penal punishment when they govern.


Loyalty (Chinese: 忠, zhōng) is particularly relevant for the social class to which most of Confucius' students belonged, because the most important way for an ambitious young scholar to become a prominent official was to enter a ruler's civil service.

Confucius himself did not propose that "might makes right", but rather that a superior should be obeyed because of his moral rectitude. In addition, loyalty does not mean subservience to authority. This is because reciprocity is demanded from the superior as well. As Confucius stated "a prince should employ his minister according to the rules of propriety; ministers should serve their prince with faithfulness (loyalty)".

Similarly, Mencius also said that "when the prince regards his ministers as his hands and feet, his ministers regard their prince as their belly and heart; when he regards them as his dogs and horses, they regard him as another man; when he regards them as the ground or as grass, they regard him as a robber and an enemy". Moreover, Mencius indicated that if the ruler is incompetent, he should be replaced. If the ruler is evil, then the people have the right to overthrow him.[40] A good Confucian is also expected to remonstrate with his superiors when necessary. At the same time, a proper Confucian ruler should also accept his ministers' advice, as this will help him govern the realm better.

In later ages, however, emphasis was often placed more on the obligations of the ruled to the ruler, and less on the ruler's obligations to the ruled. Like filial piety, loyalty was often subverted by the autocratic regimes in China. Nonetheless, throughout the ages, many Confucians continued to fight against unrighteous superiors and rulers. Many of these Confucians suffered and sometimes died because of their conviction and action. During the Ming-Qing era, prominent Confucians such as Wang Yangming promoted individuality and independent thinking as a counterweight to subservience to authority. The famous thinker Huang Zongxi also strongly criticized the autocratic nature of the imperial system and wanted to keep imperial power in check.

Many Confucians also realized that loyalty and filial piety have the potential of coming into conflict with one another. This can be true especially in times of social chaos, such as during the period of the Ming-Qing transition.

Filial piety

In Confucian philosophy, filial piety (Chinese: 孝, xiào) is a virtue of respect for one's parents and ancestors. The Confucian classic Xiao Jing or Classic of Xiào, thought to be written around the Qin-Han period, has historically been the authoritative source on the Confucian tenet of xiào / "filial piety". The book, a conversation between Confucius and his student Zeng Shen (曾參, also known as Zengzi 曾子), is about how to set up a good society using the principle of xiào (filial piety). The term can also be applied to general obedience, and is used in religious titles in Christian Churches, like "filial priest" or "filial vicar" for a cleric whose church is subordinate to a larger parish. Filial piety is central to Confucian role ethics.

In more general terms, filial piety means to be good to one's parents; to take care of one's parents; to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one's parents and ancestors; to perform the duties of one's job well so as to obtain the material means to support parents as well as carry out sacrifices to the ancestors; not be rebellious; show love, respect and support; display courtesy; ensure male heirs, uphold fraternity among brothers; wisely advise one's parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness, for blindly following the parents' wishes is not considered to be xiao; display sorrow for their sickness and death; and carry out sacrifices after their death.

Filial piety is considered a key virtue in Chinese culture, and it is the main concern of a large number of stories. One of the most famous collections of such stories is The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars (Ershi-si xiao 二十四孝). These stories depict how children exercised their filial piety in the past. While China has always had a diversity of religious beliefs, filial piety has been common to almost all of them; historian Hugh D.R. Baker calls respect for the family the only element common to almost all Chinese believers.

Social harmony results in part from every individual knowing his or her place in the natural order, and playing his or her part well. When Duke Jing of Qi asked about government, by which he meant proper administration so as to bring social harmony, Confucius replied:

"There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son." (Analects XII, 11, trans. Legge)

Particular duties arise from one's particular situation in relation to others. The individual stands simultaneously in several different relationships with different people: as a junior in relation to parents and elders, and as a senior in relation to younger siblings, students, and others. While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe their seniors reverence, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. The same is true with the husband and wife relationship where the husband needs to show benevolence towards his wife and the wife needs to respect the husband in return. This theme of mutuality still exists in East Asian cultures even to this day.

The Five Bonds are: ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend. Specific duties were prescribed to each of the participants in these sets of relationships. Such duties are also extended to the dead, where the living stand as sons to their deceased family. The only relationship where respect for elders isn't stressed was the friend to friend relationship, where mutual equal respect is emphasized instead. In all other relationships, high reverence is usually held for elders.


Main article: Junzi
The junzi (Chinese: 君子, jūnzǐ, "lord's son") is a Chinese philosophical term often translated as "gentleman" or "superior person"[48] and employed by Confucius in his works to describe the ideal man. In the I Ching it is used by the Duke of Wen.

In Confucianism, the sage or wise is the ideal personality; however, it is very hard to become one of them. Confucius created the model of junzi, gentleman, which can be achieved by any individual. Later, Zhu Xi defined junzi as second only to the sage. There are many characteristics of the junzi: he can live in poverty, he does more and speaks less, he is loyal, obedient and knowledgeable. The junzi disciplines himself. Ren is fundamental to become a junzi.[49]

As the potential leader of a nation, a son of the ruler is raised to have a superior ethical and moral position while gaining inner peace through his virtue. To Confucius, the junzi sustained the functions of government and social stratification through his ethical values. Despite its literal meaning, any righteous man willing to improve himself can become a junzi.

On the contrary, the xiaoren (小人, xiăorén, "small or petty person") does not grasp the value of virtues and seeks only immediate gains. The petty person is egotistic and does not consider the consequences of his action in the overall scheme of things. Should the ruler be surrounded by xiaoren as opposed to junzi, his governance and his people will suffer due to their small-mindness. Examples of such xiaoren individuals can range from those who continually indulge in sensual and emotional pleasures all day to the politician who is interested merely in power and fame; neither sincerely aims for the long-term benefit of others.

The junzi enforces his rule over his subjects by acting virtuously himself. It is thought that his pure virtue would lead others to follow his example. The ultimate goal is that the government behaves much like a family, the junzi being a beacon of filial piety.