In its early form (before the 3d cent. B.C.) Confucianism was primarily a system of ethical precepts for the proper management of society. It envisaged man as essentially a social creature who is bound to his fellows by jen, a term often rendered as "humanity," or "human-kind-ness." Jen is expressed through the five relations—sovereign and subject, parent and child, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend. Of these, the filial relation is usually stressed.
The relations are made to function smoothly by an exact adherence to li, which denotes a combination of etiquette and ritual. In some of these relations a person may be superior to some and inferior to others. If a person in a subordinate status wishes to be properly treated that person must—applying a principle similar to the Golden Rule—treat his or her own inferiors with propriety. Correct conduct, however, proceeds not through compulsion, but through a sense of virtue inculcated by observing suitable models of deportment. The ruler, as the moral exemplar of the whole state, must be irreproachable, but a strong obligation to be virtuous rests upon all.
The early philosophers recognized that the epochal "great commonwealth," the union of mankind under ethical rule, would take a long time to achieve, but believed that it might be constantly advanced by practicing the "rectification of names." This is the critical examination of the degree to which the behavior of a functionary or an institution corresponds to its name; thus, the title of king should not be applied to one who exacts excessive taxes, and the criticism of the undeserving claimant should force him to reform. The practice of offering sacrifices and other veneration to Confucius in special shrines began in the 1st cent. A.D. and continued into the 20th cent.
Confucianism has often had to contend with other religious systems, notably Taoism and Buddhism, and has at times, especially from the 3d to the 7th cent., suffered marked declines. It enjoyed a renaissance in the late T'ang dynasty (618-906), but it was not until the Sung dynasty (960-1279) and the appearance of neo-Confucianism that Confucianism became the dominant philosophy among educated Chinese. Drawing on Taoist and Buddhist ideas, neo-Confucian thinkers formulated a system of metaphysics, which had not been a part of older Confucianism. They were particularly influenced by Ch'an or Zen Buddhism: nevertheless they rejected the Taoist search for immortality and Buddhist monasticism and ethical universalism, upholding instead the hierarchical political and social vision of the early Confucian teachings.
The neo-Confucian eclecticism was unified and established as an orthodoxy by Chu Hsi (1130-1200), and his system dominated subsequent Chinese intellectual life. His metaphysics is based on the concept of li, or principle of form in manifold things, and the totality of these, called the "supreme ultimate" (t'ai chi). During the Ming dynasty, the idealist school of Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) stressed meditation and intuitive knowledge. The overthrow (1911-12) of the monarchy, with which Confucianism had been closely identified, led to the disintegration of Confucian institutions and a decline of Confucian traditions, a process accelerated after the Communist revolution (1949). Elements of Confucianism survived as a part of traditional Chinese religious practice in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao and among Chinese emigrants and have experienced a modest revival in China since the mid-1990s.
See R. Wilhelm, Confucius and Confucianism (tr. 1931, repr. 1970); S. Kaizuka, Confucius (tr. 1956); H. Fingarette, Confucius (1972); The Analects (tr. 1979); W. T. de Bary, Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart (1981); R. Dawson, Confucius (1981); B. I. Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China (1985).
Scholarly tradition and way of life propagated by Confucius in the 6th–5th century BC and followed by the Chinese for more than two millennia. Though not organized as a religion, it has deeply influenced East Asian spiritual and political life in a comparable manner. The core idea is
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Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system originally developed from the teachings of the fifth century B.C.E. Chinese philosopher Confucius (Kong Fuzi/K'ung-fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kung ). It focuses on human morality and right action. Confucianism is a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious thought that has had tremendous influence on the culture and history of East Asia. Some consider it to be the state religion of East Asian countries because of governmental promotion of Confucian values.
Confucius was a man of letters who worried about the troubled times in which he lived. He went from place to place trying to spread his political ideas and influence to the many kings contending for supremacy in China. In the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (772 BCE–221 BCE), the reigning king of the Zhou gradually became a mere figurehead. In this power vacuum, the rulers of small states began to vie with one another for military and political dominance. Deeply persuaded of the need for his mission — "If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no need for me to change its state" Analects XVIII, 6 — Confucius tirelessly promoted the virtues of ancient illustrious sages such as the Duke of Zhou. Confucius tried to amass sufficient political power to found a new dynasty, as when he planned to accept an invitation from a rebel to "make a Zhou dynasty in the East" (Analects XV, 5). As the common saying that Confucius was a "king without a crown" indicates, however, he never gained the opportunity to apply his ideas. He was expelled from states many times and eventually returned to his homeland to spend the last part of his life teaching. The Analects of Confucius, the closest primary source we have for his thoughts, relates his sayings and discussions with rulers and disciples in short passages. There is considerable debate over how to interpret the Analects.
To judge from what has remained, Confucius did not rely on deductive reasoning to convince his listeners. Instead, he used figures of rhetoric such as analogy and aphorism to explain his ideas. Most of the time these techniques were highly contextualized. For these reasons, European and American readers might find his philosophy muddled or unclear. However, Confucius claimed that he sought "a unity all pervading" (Analects XV, 3) and that there was "one single thread binding my way together." ([op. cit. IV, 15]). The first occurrences of a real Confucian system may have been created by his disciples or by their disciples. During the philosophically fertile period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, great early figures of Confucianism such as Mencius and Xun Zi (not to be confused with Sun Zi) developed Confucianism into an ethical and political doctrine. Both had to fight contemporary ideas and gain the ruler's confidence through argumentation and reasoning. Mencius gave Confucianism a fuller explanation of human nature, of what is needed for good government, of what morality is, and founded his idealist doctrine on the claim that human nature is good. Xun Zi opposed many of Mencius' ideas, and built a structured system upon the idea that human nature is bad and had to be educated and exposed to the rites, before being able to express their goodness for the people. Some of Xun Zi's disciples, such as Han Feizi and Li Si, became Legalists (a kind of law-based early totalitarianism, quite distant from virtue-based Confucianism) and conceived the state system that allowed Qin Shi Huang to unify China under the strong state control of every human activity. The culmination of Confucius' dream of unification and peace in China can therefore be argued to have come from Legalism, a school of thought almost diametrically opposed to his reliance on rites and virtue.
Confucianism as passed down to the 19th and 20th centuries derives primarily from the school of the Neo-Confucians, led by Zhu Xi, who gave Confucianism renewed vigor in the Song and later dynasties. Neo-Confucianism combined Taoist and Buddhist ideas with existing Confucian ideas to create a more complete system of metaphysics than had ever existed before. At the same time, many forms of Confucianism have historically declared themselves opposed to the Buddhist and Taoist belief systems. Confucianism was chosen by Han Wudi (141 BCE - 86 BCE) for use as a political system to govern the Chinese state. Despite its loss of influence during the Tang Dynasty, Confucian doctrine remained a mainstream Chinese orthodoxy for two millennia until the 20th century and it was still in most parts of China, when it was attacked by radical Chinese thinkers as a vanguard of a pre-modern system and an obstacle to China's modernization, eventually culminating in its repression during the Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism has been revived in mainland China, and both interest in and debate about Confucianism have surged.
"Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously." (Analects II, 3)The above explains an essential difference between legalism and ritualism and points to a key difference between European / American and East Asian societies, particularly in the realm of an individual's moral compass, when deserving of punishment for breaking penal law.
Of course, as with all translations of literature from ancient sources, excessive literal analysis of one particular translation may lead to unfounded conclusions. An example would be the following passage, the exact same as the one just provided.
"The Master said, 'Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves.
(Analects II, 3)
Varying translations from the 18th to this century have created a large and diverse collection based on the originals. The availability of numerous qualified sources for these translations in the modern age can lead to a true "general consensus" of what message Confucius meant to imply.
Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; where as with ritual, patterns of behavior are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face. In this sense, "rite" is an ideal form of social norm.
The Chinese character for "rites" previously had the religious meaning of "sacrifice." Its Confucian meaning ranges from politeness and propriety to the understanding of each person's correct place in society. Externally, ritual is used to distinguish between people; their usage allows people to know at all times who is the younger and who the elder, who is the guest and who the host and so forth. Internally, they indicate to people their duty amongst others and what to expect from them.
Internalization is the main process in ritual. Formalized behavior becomes progressively internalized, desires are channeled and personal cultivation becomes the mark of social correctness. Though this idea conflicts with the common saying that "the cowl does not make the monk," in Confucianism sincerity is what enables behavior to be absorbed by individuals. Obeying ritual with sincerity makes ritual the most powerful way to cultivate oneself. Thus,
"Respectfulness, without the Rites, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the Rites, become timidity; boldness, without the Rites, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the Rites, becomes rudeness" (Analects VIII, 2).Ritual can be seen as a means to find the balance between opposing qualities that might otherwise lead to conflict.
Ritual divides people into categories and builds hierarchical relationships through protocols and ceremonies, assigning everyone a place in society and a form of behavior. Music that seems to have played a significant role in Confucius' life is given as an exception as it transcends such boundaries, 'unifying the hearts'.
Although the Analects promotes ritual heavily, Confucius himself often behaved otherwise; for example, when he cried at his preferred disciple's death, or when he met a fiendish princess (VI, 28). Later more rigid ritualists forgot that ritual is "more than presents of jade and silk" (XVII, 12) and strayed from their master's position.
"To govern by virtue, let us compare it to the North Star: it stays in its place, while the myriad stars wait upon it." (Analects II, 1)Another key Confucian concept is that in order to govern others one must first govern oneself. When developed sufficiently, the king's personal virtue spreads beneficent influence throughout the kingdom. This idea is developed further in the Great Learning and is tightly linked with the Taoist concept of wu wei (): the less the king does, the more that is done. By being the "calm centre" around which the kingdom turns, the king allows everything to function smoothly and avoids having to tamper with the individual parts of the whole.
This idea may be traced back to early shamanistic beliefs, such as that the king being the axle between the sky, human beings and the Earth. The character itself shows the three levels of the universe, united by a single line. Another complementary view is that this idea may have been used by ministers and counsellors to deter aristocratic whims that would otherwise be to the detriment of the population.
"In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes." (Analects XV, 39)Although Confucius claimed that he never invented anything but was only transmitting ancient knowledge (see Analects VII, 1), he did produce a number of new ideas. Many European and American admirers such as Voltaire and H. G. Creel point to the (then) revolutionary idea of replacing the nobility of blood with one of virtue. Jūnzǐ (君子), which had meant "noble man" before Confucius' work, slowly assumed a new connotation in the course of his writings, rather as "gentleman" did in English. A virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities can be a "gentleman," while a shameless son of the king is only a "small man." That he allowed students of different classes to be his disciples is a clear demonstration that he fought against the feudal structures in Chinese society.
Another new idea, that of meritocracy, led to the introduction of the Imperial examination system in China. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honor to the whole family. The Chinese examination system seems to have been started in 165 BCE, when certain candidates for public office were called to the Chinese capital for examination of their moral excellence by the emperor. Over the following centuries the system grew until finally almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations.
Confucius praised those kings who left their kingdoms to those apparently most qualified rather than to their elder sons. His achievement was the setting up of a school that produced statesmen with a strong sense of state and duty, known as Rujia (). During the Warring States Period and the early Han dynasty, China grew greatly and the need for a solid and centralized corporation of government officers able to read and write administrative papers arose. As a result, Confucianism was promoted and the men it produced became an effective counter to the remaining landowner aristocrats otherwise threatening the unity of the state.
Since then Confucianism has been used as a kind of "state religion," with authoritarianism, legitimism, paternalism, and submission to authority used as political tools to rule China. Most emperors used a mix of legalism and Confucianism as their ruling doctrine, often with the latter embellishing the former.
It is important to note that "ritual" has a different meaning in the context of Confucianism, especially today, from its context in many religions. In Confucianism, the acts that people tend to carry out in every day life are considered ritual. Rituals are not necessarily regimented or arbitrary practices, but the routines that people often undergo knowingly or unknowingly through out their lives. Shaping the rituals in a way that leads to a content and healthy society, and to content and healthy people, is one purpose of Confucian philosophy.
Social harmony -- the great goal of Confucianism -- thus results partly from every individual knowing his or her place in the social 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, tr. Legge).
Specific duties were prescribed to each of the participants in these sets of relationships. Such duties were also extended to the dead, where the living stood as sons to their deceased family. This led to the veneration of ancestors.
In time filial piety was also built into the Chinese legal system: a criminal would be punished more harshly if the culprit had committed the crime against a parent, while fathers often exercised enormous power over their children. Much the same was true of other unequal relationships.
The main source of our knowledge of the importance of filial piety is The Book of Filial Piety, a work attributed to Confucius and his son but almost certainly written in the third century BCE. Filial piety has continued to play a central role in Confucian thinking to the present day.
In later ages, however, emphasis was placed more on the obligations of the ruled to the ruler, and less on the ruler's obligations to the ruled.
Loyalty was also an extension of one's duties to friends, family, and spouse. Loyalty to one's family came first, then to one's spouse, then to one's ruler, and lastly to one's friends. Loyalty was considered one of the greater human virtues.
Rén also has a political dimension. If the ruler lacks rén, Confucianism holds, it will be difficult if not impossible for his subjects to behave humanely. Rén is the basis of Confucian political theory: it presupposes an autocratic ruler, exhorted to refrain from acting inhumanely towards his subjects. An inhumane ruler runs the risk of losing the "Mandate of Heaven," the right to rule. A ruler lacking such a mandate need not be obeyed. But a ruler who reigns humanely and takes care of the people is to be obeyed strictly, for the benevolence of his dominion shows that he has been mandated by heaven. Confucius himself had little to say on the will of the people, but his leading follower Mencius did state on one occasion that the people's opinion on certain weighty matters should be polled.
They were to:
The great exemplar of the perfect gentleman is Confucius himself. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life was that he was never awarded the high official position which he desired, from which he wished to demonstrate the general well-being that would ensue if humane persons ruled and administered the state.
The opposite of the Jūnzǐ was the Xiǎorén (). The character 小 in this context means petty in mind and heart, narrowly self-interested, greedy, superficial, or materialistic.
Zi-lu said, "The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?"
The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify names."
"So! indeed!" said Zi-lu. "You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?"
The Master said, "How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
- If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.
- If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
- When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish.
- When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded.
- When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."
(Analects XIII, 3, tr. Legge)
Xun Zi chapter (22) "On the Rectification of Names" claims the ancient sage kings chose names that directly corresponded with actualities but later generations confused terminology, coined new nomenclature, and thus could no longer distinguish right from wrong.
Another new idea, that of meritocracy, led to the introduction of the Imperial examination system in China. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honor to the whole family.
Its effect on Chinese and other East Asian societies and cultures has been immense and parallels the effects of religious movements, seen in other cultures. Those who follow the teachings of Confucius say that they are comforted by it. It includes a great deal of ritual and, in its Neo-Confucian formulation, gives a comprehensive explanation of the world, of human nature, etc. Moreover, religions in Chinese culture are not mutually exclusive entities — each tradition is free to find its specific niche, its field of specialization. One can practise religions such as Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, the Baha'i Faith, Jainism, Islam, Shinto, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Zoroastrianism and still profess Confucian beliefs.
Although Confucianism may include ancestor worship, sacrifice to ancestral spirits and an abstract celestial deity, and the deification of ancient kings and even Confucius himself, all these features can be traced back to non-Confucian Chinese beliefs established long before Confucius and, in this respect, make it difficult to claim that such rituals make Confucianism a religion.
Generally speaking, Confucianism is not considered a religion by Chinese or other East Asian people. Part of this attitude may be explained by the stigma placed on many "religions" as being superstitious, illogical, or unable to deal with modernity. Many Buddhists state that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy, and this is partially a reaction to negative popular views of religion. Similarly, Confucians maintain that Confucianism is not a religion, but rather a moral code or philosophic world view. Many "religions" practiced in East Asia such as Buddhism and Taoism can be considered as "not religions." There is a much more blurred line between religion and philosophy in non-Western thought. Most of the Western distinction is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon resulting from the Enlightenment period unique to Western Europe. Therefore, much of the confusion is primarily due to the conventional Western definition of religion centered around Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions. Most scholarly, comprehensive definitions of religion account for this cultural difference. Therefore, it could be said that while Confucianism is not a religion by Western standards (even according to Asian adherents), it is a religion in the East Asian sense of the word.
The question of whether Confucianism is a religion, or otherwise, is ultimately a definitional problem. If the definition used is worship of supernatural entities, the answer may be that Confucianism is not a religion. If, on the other hand, a religion is defined as (for example) a belief system that includes moral stances, guides for daily life, systematic views of humanity and its place in the universe, etc., then Confucianism most definitely qualifies. As with many such important concepts, the definition of religion is quite contentious. Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred is a well-known treatment of this issue.
Three of these four use the Chinese character Rú, meaning "scholar." These names do not use the name "Confucius" at all, but instead center on the figure/ideal of the Confucian scholar. However, the suffixes of jiā, jiào, and xué carry different implications as to the nature of Confucianism itself.
Rújiā contains the character jiā, which literally means "house" or "family." In this context, it is more readily construed as meaning "school of thought," since it is also used to construct the names of philosophical schools contemporary to Confucianism: for example, the Chinese names for Legalism and Mohism end in jiā.
Rújiào and Kǒngjiào contain the Chinese character jiào, the noun "teach," used in such as terms as "education" or "educator." The term, however, is notably used to construct the names of religions in Chinese: the terms for Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Shintō and other religions in Chinese all end with jiào.
Rúxué contains xué, meaning literally "study." The term is parallel to "-ology" in English, being used to construct the names of academic fields: the Chinese names of fields such as physic, chemistry, biology, political science, economics, and sociology all end in xué.