20080221-filail piety Ma Hezhi.jpg
Filial piety scene
Confucianism is not a religion, although some have tried to imbue it with rituals and religious qualities, but rather a philosophy and system of ethical conduct that since the fifth century B.C. has guided China's society. Kong Fuzi (Confucius in Latinized form) is honored in China as a great sage of antiquity whose writings promoted peace and harmony and good morals in family life and society in general. Ritualized reverence for one's ancestors, sometimes referred to as ancestor worship, has been a tradition in China since at least the Shang Dynasty (1750---1040 B.C.). [Source: Library of Congress]

Confucianism stresses the importance of avoiding conflict and emphasizes correct behavior. Desire is suppressed and people are expected to live by a elevated moral code. In many cases no justification or reason is given for Confucian beliefs or morality other than “This is how it has always been done” or “This is how it was done in the Golden Age."

The realist, down- to-earth nature of Confucianism is highlighted in a discourse on the shortcomings of Buddhism by the Confucian scholar Hu Yin (1098-1156): “Man is a living thing; the Buddhists speak not of life but of death. Human affairs are all visible; the Buddhists speak not of the manifest but of the hidden. After a man dies he is called a ghost; the Buddhists speak not of men but of ghosts. What man cannot avoid is the conduct or ordinary life; the Buddhists speak not of the ordinary but of the marvelous."

“What determines how we should live an ordinary life is moral principal; the Buddhists speak not of moral principal but of illusoriness and sense-perception," Hu continued. "It is to what follows birth and precedes death that we should devote our minds; the Buddhists speak not of this life but of past and future lives. Seeing and hearing, thought and discussion, are real evidence; the Buddhists do not treat them as real, but speak of what the ear and eye cannot attain, thought and discussion cannot reach."

Confucian and Taoism basically contradict and are in conflict with one another. Confucianism, emphasizes achievement and propriety while Taoism stresses unseen strengths in being humble and in some cases, being perceived as average.

Good Websites and Sources on Confucianism: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Confucianism ; ; Religion Facts Confucianism Religion Facts ; Confucius ; Confucian Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Cult of Confucius / ; Confucian Temple China Vista ; Virtual Temple tour Qufu Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO

Books: There is a classic account of Confucius’s biography by Herrlee Creel: Confucius, The Man and the Myth (New York: 1949, also published as Confucius and the Chinese Way), and a recent book by Annping Chin, The Authentic Confucius: A Life in thought and Politics (New York: 2007). According to Dr. Robert Eno: “Among the many translations of the “Analects” , well crafted versions by Arthur Waley (New York: 1938), D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1987, 1998), and Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: 2003) are among the most accessible published. The “Analects” is a terse work with an exceptionally long and varied commentarial tradition; its richness and multiple levels of meaning make it a living document that reads differently to each generation (as true in China as elsewhere). Responsible interpreters vary in specific choices and overall understanding, and no single translation can be viewed as “definitive.”

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations ; Brooklyn College ; Religion Facts; Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies

Key Ideas of Confucianism

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The teachings of the school that bears Confucius’s name go well beyond the ideas that Confucius himself articulated during his lifetime, but throughout the Classical period they remain well within the spirit of Confucius’s original Dao.” Among the most important ideas is that “People are do not become fully human without effort. We are only truly human.. unique among all living species.. to the degree that we are as sensitive to the needs and human feelings of others as we are to our own needs and feelings. The perfectly human person Confucius called “Humane,” using a word (ren) that was almost identical to the word for “person” in ancient Chinese. To the degree that we are not Humane, we are not fully human; we are still governed by animal dispositions, which Confucians pictured as totally self-regarding (selfish).” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: What emerges “from the earliest layers of the written record is that Kong Qiu [Conficius] sought a revival of the ideas and institutions of a past golden age. Kong Qiu transmitted not only specific rituals and values but also a hierarchical social structure and the weight of the past. Employed in a minor government position as a specialist in the governmental and family rituals of his native state, Kong Qiu hoped to disseminate knowledge of the rites and inspire their universal performance. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/<|>]

“The Ideal Ruler. That kind of broad-scale transformation could take place, he thought, only with the active encouragement of responsible rulers. The ideal ruler, as exemplified by the legendary sage-kings Yao and Shun or the adviser to the Zhou rulers, the Duke of Zhou, exercises ethical suasion, the ability to influence others by the power of his moral example. To the virtues of the ruler correspond values that each individual is supposed to cultivate: 1) benevolence toward others; 2) a general sense of doing what is right; and 3) loyalty and diligence in serving one’s superiors. <|>

“Ritual (Li). Universal moral ideals are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the restoration of civilization. Society also needs what Kong Qiu calls li, roughly translated as “ritual.” Although people are supposed to develop propriety or the ability to act appropriately in any given social situation (another sense of the same word, li), still the specific rituals people are supposed to perform (also li) vary considerably, depending on age, social status, gender, and context. In family ritual, for instance, rites of mourning depend on one’s kinship relation to the deceased. In international affairs, degrees of pomp, as measured by ornateness of dress and opulence of gifts, depend on the rank of the foreign emissary. Offerings to the gods are also highly regulated: the sacrifices of each social class are restricted to specific classes of deities, and a clear hierarchy prevails.” <|>

Basic Tenets of Confucianism

Li-ren and li in Dutch

Confucianism stresses the importance of precedent and universal truths articulated by sages of the past and emphasizes self improvement. The two major doctrines of Confucianism are: 1) zhong, based on the Chinese character that combines "heart” and "middle," meaning fidelity to oneself and humanity within; and 2) shu, meaning cherish the heart as if it were one's owner.

Confucianism is a social code based on morality rather than laws. Confucius said: “If you govern by regulations and keep them in order by punishment, the people will avoid trouble but have no sense of shame. If you govern them by moral influence, and keep them in order by a code of manners, they will have a sense of shame and will come to you of their own accord."

Confucius believed people should look to the past to gain insight into how to behave and said virtuous men should follow the examples of the great ancestors. The Analects outlined the four basic concepts of Confucian thought: 1) benevolence, love of humanity and the virtues of the superior man (jen); 2) moderation in all things (chung yung) and harmony with nature (T'ien): 3) filial propriety, duty and the rules that define good social relationships (li); 4) the "rectification of names" or recognizing the nature of things by giving them their right names (cheng ming).

Unlike Taoism, which emphasizes the natural way, Confucianism emphasizes the social way. It assumes that the natural world — i.e the seasons, day and night and the agriculture cycle — follow the same code as mankind; that all events on earth are the due to the “decree of heaven”; and the natural course of events, whether they be related to society or nature, is a reflection of the “Way of Heaven."

Structure of Confucian Thought


Dr. Eno wrote: “The following ideas are basic to the structure of early Confucianism: 1) People are only fully “human” to the degree that they are as sensitive to others' needs and human feelings as they are to their own. The perfectly human person Confucius called “humane,” using a word, “ren,” which was almost identical to the word for “person.” 2) The patterns of perfect humanity had been embroidered in the past by successive great Sages, inspired by Heaven, of whom the latest were the Zhou Dynasty founders. These heaven-ordained patterns constituted a complex set of social, political, and religious conventions and ceremonies known as “ritual,” or “li.” These rituals of everyday and ceremonial conduct were no longer properly practiced in chaotic Eastern Zhou society..restoring these patterns of Chinese civilization was the practical path back to the ideal society. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“3) Individuals should seek to recapture the patterns of li in their own conduct. The best place to begin was in one's conduct towards one's parents. li were not isolated ceremonies to be practiced alone, but expressed the norms that were meant to govern all human relationships. Of these, the parent.child relationship was most basic; therefore, the first duty of every person was to act towards his or her parents in a perfectly filial manner. /+/

“4) Once a person had mastered the patterns of filial li in the role of the child, he or she would discover that the key to “humanity” (the virtue of ren) was the mastery of all the social roles that the human community needed him or her to play in a lifetime. The most basic of these roles were expressed as a set of Five Relationships: parent/child; elder/younger; ruler/subordinate; husband/wife; 3 friend/friend. Once everyone understood and acted out the proper li for each social role they occupied, the world would be returned to order. /+/

“5) The person who had fully embodied li and ren would represent a superior type of ideal person..the fully human being. Confucius referred to such a person by a special term: junzi. This term originally had meant a “prince,” or man of high birth. For Confucius “princeliness” was a matter of moral skills not of birth, and he pictured his perfected people as a new type of ethical aristocracy. /+/

Analects on Ren

Li and ren are two important concepts in “The Analects”. Ren (or jen) is sort of an idealized view of humanity and sometimes translated as “humanness: or “humanity”). Dr. Eno wrote: The “goal of becoming “humane and good,” qualities represented in Confucianism by a single term, “ren”, was a central pivot of Confucian ethics. Confucius valued the good man over the successful man, although he held that when things were right in the world, the good man would always be successful. The term ren, which Confucius was the first to use to denote ethical perfection, was a constant puzzle to the disciples. What was elusive to them was the fact that for Confucius, humane goodness is not a spontaneous expression of innate sentiment, but the product of extensive “socialization,” a reforming of the person through training in the patterns established by the sage emperors of the past. Only after we have absorbed these patterns so deeply that they feel like our own spontaneous expressions can we truly communicate with others and grasp that they are like us. Then they become as important to us as we are to ourselves. Confucius also believed that for people to appreciate these facts, it was necessary for them to see and be moved by ritualized goodness in action. Society was, in his view, transformed through the actions of an ethical vanguard, men of moral perfection whose conduct so moved the hearts of others that they could not help but respond in kind. Thus the way to be completely good was to appeal to the goodness of others by treating them in a fully ritualized way – with supremely skilled politeness, we could say. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The disciple Zhonggong asked about ren. The Master said, “Whenever you go out your front gate continue to treat all you encounter as if they were great guests in your home. Whenever you direct the actions of others, do so as though you were officiating at a great sacrifice. And never act towards others in a way that you would not wish others to act towards you.” (12.2)

On the virtue of ren, the Analects says: “The Master said, “To dwell amidst ren is the fairest course. If one chooses to dwell elsewhere, how can one become wise?” (4.1) “A person’s failings fall into certain categories. If you observe a person’s failings you may determine the degree to which he is ren.” (4.7) “Resoluteness and a wooden slowness of speech come close to ren.” (13.27) “When one is acting from ren, one does not yield to one’s teacher.” (15.36) “Is ren distant? If I wish to be ren then ren is at hand.” (7.30)

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Another filial piety scene

Five Virtues

Confucianism recognizes five cardinal virtues: 1) benevolence in terms of sympathy for others (jen); 2) duty reflected in the shame felt after doing something wrong (yi); 3) manners, rituals, propriety and feelings of deference (li); 4) wisdom, in terms of discerning right and wrong (chih;) and 5) loyalty and good faith (hsin).

Benevolence is regarded as the most important of the virtues, and some effort is made to define it, with the Golden Rule being only one attempt. Manners are also given a lot of attention and means both the outward actions and inner feelings of respect. The concept embraces not only etiquette but also customs, rituals and conventions of all kinds.

Early Confucian focused a lot of attention on the relationship between morality and human nature and the whole idea that they are dovetailing and conflicting forces. Almost every side and view was taken on the subject. One prevailing idea was that human nature was a mixture of good and bad and the amounts of each could vary a great deal from individual to individual. Another important concept was that human nature was something that was evil Yet another view was that human nature was something that was in tune with the forces of heaven.

In the end the view expressed in The Book of Rites—“That in man which is decreed by heaven is what is meant by “nature”; to follow his nature is meant by the “Way”; cultivation of the Way is what is meant by education---became the prevailing view.

Confucian Beliefs about Social Relationships

Confucius was not interested in individual salvation or individual rights. What he cared about most was the collective well being of society. He promoted virtues such as courtesy, selflessness, obedience, respect, diligence, communal obligation, working for a common good, social harmony, and empathy. The code of behavior he described was based on a system of harmonious, subordinate relationships based on the notions of filial piety, a well-ordered family, a well-ordered-state and a well-ordered world.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Social patterns that express the perspective of true Humanity have been embroidered in the past by successive great Sages, inspired by Heaven, of whom the latest were the founders of the Zhou Dynasty. These Heaven-ordained patterns constituted a complex set of social, political, and religious conventions and ceremonies known as Ritual (in Chinese, li). These rituals, which covered both everyday and ceremonial conduct were no longer properly practiced in the chaotic society of Confucius’s time and after (the Classical era)...Restoring these patterns of Chinese civilization was the practical path back to the ideal society.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Confucians stress that a person's worth is determined by public actions. The concept of li defines a set of social relationships and clearly described how people are supposed to behave towards one another. Fealty in Confucian terms takes five forms: 1) subject to ruler, 2) son to father, 3) younger brother to older brother, 4) wife to husband (woman to man), and 5) younger person to older person. Under the concept the li, the dominate person receives respect and obedience from the subordinate person but is by no means a dictator. He is supposed to reciprocate with love, goodwill, support and affection towards the subordinate person.

The Confucian code of subordinate relationships also extended to professions, with scholars at the top; peasant farmers in the middle; and artisans and merchants at the bottom. Confucian scholars grew their fingernails long to show they didn't do physical labor. Under Confucian leadership, crimes were often dealt with by ostracism and humiliation rather than physical punishment.

Confucianism and Families

Under Confucianism, the oldest male and the father are regarded as the unchallengeable authorities. They set rules, and the "duty and virtue" of everyone else is to follow them. The oldest male and father, in turn, are supposed to reciprocate this reverence by supporting and looking out for the best interest of the people subordinate to them. Love and respect are principals that are practiced in the context of the family. Confucians do not ascribe to the idea of loving all people equally.

Confucius promoted the concept that it was important to worship one's parents while they are still living and old people should be venerated because even though they are weak physically they at the peak of their knowledge and wisdom. This sentiment is best expressed during the "elders first" rite, the central ritual of the Chinese New Year, in which family members kneel and bow on the ground to everyone older than them: first grandparents, then parents, siblings and relatives, even elderly neighbors. In the old days a son was expected to honor his deceased father by occupying a hut by his grave and abstaining from meat, wine and sex for 25 months.

Filial piety is regarded as the most important Confucian duty. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners. Both children and adults are taught to honor their parents no matter what age they are and obey their commands and not do anything that would bring suffering or pain to them.

Sons have traditionally been taught to give whatever money they make to their parents. To do otherwise would incur a loss of face. This unquestioning acquiescence was expected to be maintained regardless of how their parents respond. "In early times," one Chinese man told National Geographic, "even if your parents were not nice to you, you were still responsible to them in their old age."

Sometimes family comes before conventional morality. In The Analects, after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father...and there is honesty in that too."

Confucianism and Sexuality and Love

In sexual matters, Confucianism is quite “puritanic.” A “good” young girl is not only expected to keep her virginity until she gets married and to get married only once in her life, she is not supposed to make herself attractive, even to her own husband. Confucianism does not consider sexual activity as wrong, but love and tenderness are treated with mistrust, and physical displays of them are considered at least questionable. This rule applies not only to showing affection in public, but also to its display in the privacy of the home. As early as in the seventeenth century, male and female poets protested against it. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 ]

Confucianism is based on writings which are attributed to Confucius (551-479 B.C.), the first great educator, philosopher, and statesman of China, and his followers, including Mencius (372-289 B.C.), a political thinker who believed in democracy. Confucianism dominated Chinese sociopolitical life for most of Chinese history. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

Confucius and Mencius themselves expressed rather a positive view of human sexuality. For example. The Master (Confucius) said, “I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves sex” (Confucian Analects Book IX, chapter 17); “Food and drink and the sexual relation between men and women compose the major human desires” (The Book of Rites, one of the major Confucianism classics, chapter 9). In The Works of Mencius, one of the major Confucianism classics (book 6, part 1), we find: “Eating food and having sex are both of human nature.” =

It was not until much later that sexual conservatism became a feature of Neo-Confucian philosophy. The crucial change was initiated by several famous Neo-Confucianists, including Ch’eng I (1033-1107), and Chu Hsi (1130-1200). Ch’eng I summarized the Neo-Confucian viewpoint as “Discard human desires to retain the heavenly principles.” =

When asked whether it was justifiable for a widow to remarry when pressed by poverty and hunger, he replied, “It is a small matter to die as a result of starvation, but a serious evil to lose chastity toward one’s dead husband by remarrying.” Chu Hsi stressed the inferiority of women and the strict separation of the sexes, and forbade any manifestation of heterosexual love outside of wedlock. Chu Hsi laid the foundations of Neo-Confucianism as the sole state religion. It encouraged a puritanical and strictly authoritarian form of government, including the establishment of censorship and thought control. However, the government had difficulty enforcing these views on the lower class or sciao-ren (the non-exemplary class of people). =

Confucianism and Character

Confucianism puts a strong emphasis on following teachers, superiors, family members and elders. Liu Heung-shin, the editor of a Hong Kong magazine, wrote Chinese identity is "connected to Confucianism, built around families and connections. It's something Chinese people can feel, even if the don't describe it in words."

Love and respect are principals that were practiced more in the context of the family than in society and humanity as a whole and equality was not necessarily the goal of a just society. These ideas help explain why nepotism is so rampant, why Chinese are so horrified by the way Westerners treat the elderly and why the Chinese are more likely to mind their own business if they witness a great injustice being inflicted on a stranger.

Confucian values were displaced somewhat by Communism and Maoism. Since Mao's death and the launching of the Deng economic reforms, Confucianism has made a comeback only to be displaced somewhat by materialism, money and superficial success.

Confucianism, Spirituality and Salvation

Confucian temple

The traditional Confucian view on spirituality is that one should perform the necessary rituals and sacrifices to pay one's respect to the spirits and the forces in heaven. And that’s that. There is nothing more that can be done. Attention should be focused on social matters and living in the here and now.

In The Analects Confucius said “Devotion to one’s duties is a subject and respect for the spirits while keeping them at a distance, may be called wisdom.” Mencius said: “The people are the most important; the spirits of the soil and grain come next.”

Confucius was not interested in religious salvation and the afterlife. On the list of things "about which the master never spoke" were "weird things, physical exploits, disorders and spirits." He had little patience for gods. "We do not yet know how to serve man," he said, "how can we know about the spirits?...We don't know yet about life, how can we know about death?" People's problems, he argued, could not be solved by supernatural powers but by rather their own efforts and knowledge learned from the ancestor's experience.

Confucius believed that praying was a waste of time. The "will of Heaven," he said, was not discovered in theology but in "the collective experience of the ancestors." Confucians looked down in the Buddhist view of reward and punishment after death as an attempt to cloak morality as self-interest and viewed the Taoist quest of immortality as selfish and a denial of the natural order of things. Among Confucians there was a preveailing belief that when a person died his spirit simply dispersed.

Heaven was seen as a source of correct conduct and human potential for goodness. Confucius called it the "natural cosmic order that matched the ethical sense in every man." The idea of being a recluse and communing with nature, which are central to Buddhism and Taoism, were fine but only after one performed his social duties first.

Confucian Ideas About Ritual and Humanity

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Heaven-ordained patterns constituted a complex set of social, political, and religious conventions and ceremonies known as Ritual (in Chinese, li). These rituals, which covered both everyday and ceremonial conduct were no longer properly practiced in the chaotic society of Confucius’s time and after (the Classical era)...Restoring these patterns of Chinese civilization was the practical path back to the ideal society. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Individuals should seek to recapture the patterns of Ritual in their own conduct. The best place to begin is in one’s conduct towards one’s own parents. Rituals were not isolated ceremonies to be practiced alone; they expressed the norms that were meant to govern all human relationships. Of these, the parent-child relationship was most basic. Therefore, the first duty of every person was to act towards his or her parents in a perfectly “Filial” (xiao) manner. (“Filial” refers to obedient support of one’s parents.) /+/

“Once a person has mastered the patterns of filial ritual in the role of the child, he or she would discover that the key to Humanity (the virtue of ren) was the mastery of all social roles that the human community needed him or her to play in a lifetime. The most basic of these roles were expressed as a set of Five Relationships: parent/child; elder/younger; ruler/subordinate; husband/wife; friend/friend. While Confucians understood that social life actually included all sorts of roles, they claimed that the patterns of these five relationships could be adapted to all of them. Once everyone understood and acted out the proper ritual forms for each social role they occupied, the world would return to order.” /+/

Confucian Ideas About Junzi

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The person who had fully embodied Ritual and Humanity would represent a superior type of ideal person: the fully human being. Confucius referred to such a person by a special term, borrowed from the vocabulary of the aristocratic feudal order: the True Prince, or junzi (pronounced “joon-dz”). The term originally meant someone who was a prince by birth, but for Confucius, nobility was a matter of moral skills, not birth. By using this term, Confucius pictured his perfected person as a new type of “ethical aristocrat.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“People who have progressed far towards ethical perfection may be characterized as possessing Virtue of Character, which for Confucians meant both an inner strength and an accompanying natural prestige or power among others. It was an article of faith among Confucians that moral self-cultivation would generate a type of behavioral confidence and authority that others could not help but respect and hold in awe. It was this link that led Confucians to believe that the path to perfecting society would begin with the ethical transformation of individuals, who would become natural leaders. /+/

“The personal authority of the junzi was also pictured as the engine that drives orderly government. Because of the powerful prestige of moral self-perfection, people will spontaneously seek to place themselves under the political governance of such leaders. The government of a junzi will be characterized by the qualities that marked the legendary and historical reports of the sages of the distant past. States will be ordered according to an ever evolving network of ritual patterns and roles, and the people of the state will be treated with caring Humanity by rulers. /+/

“Since, in practice, the path to such a utopia must begin with the complexities of present realities and will present unexpected obstacles beyond the control of the politically determined moral person, some practical guidelines for action in an imperfect world are necessary. These guiding moral rules are generally referred to as the Right, or Righteousness. Confucians believed that issues of righteousness arose when people made choices in complex situations. As individuals deepen their ethical self-cultivation, they become increasingly able to identify the way in which selfish and moral motives compete in steering us towards choices. In real practice, the discipline of making righteous action choices out of regard for one’s ethical goals rather than self-interest is the moral compass one needs. /+/

“Most Confucians believed that the junzi, like the sages of the past, would be aided by Heaven in the effort to transform the world into an ethical utopia (the major thinker Xunzi is an exception). They believed that the ritual patterns that the ancient sages had designed for society were inspired by Heaven, and that Heaven guaranteed the eventual triumph of Confucianism (though it “worked in mysterious ways,” and seemed unwilling to impose a Confucian victory outright on an immoral world). /+/

“During the period between the Warring States present and the utopia of the future, the path to social perfection could not be mapped in advance by any set of moral action rules. All formulas for ethical action – all general imperatives of righteousness.. had to be adjusted in light of the context of the times. Only the moral vision of the junzi could perfectly adapt moral rules. For this reason, the junzi might sometimes seem to violate ritual or righteousness from the perspective of ordinary people. This was because real sages always obeyed the dynamically changing imperatives of Timeliness rather than inflexible ethical rules. In the end, the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong is the virtuous perspective of the moral person rather than general rules about right and good. /+/

Interpretations of Confucian Thought

Dr. Eno wrote: “As you can see from these core ideas, Confucian thought pictured the perfection of the individual person in terms of his or her mastery of conventional social conduct. Although this has appeared to generations of Western observers to have been a very constraining, or even robotic, ideal for human conduct and personality, in practice Confucian principles were much more flexible and dynamic, and left plenty of room for creativity. A good analogy would be between the Confucian demand that everyone master the single system of li conduct and most societies' demand that everyone master the grammar of a single national language. While it is certainly very constraining to learn a language perfectly (and often requires that the learner be coerced into mastery at some points), it is also true that being able to communicate through a mastered language feels very liberating, and that it is hard to picture us achieving any goals of “individual self-realization” unless we first learn to abide by the thousands of syntactical and lexical rules that make up our native language. In a similar way, Confucius seems to have viewed the common mastery of a single corpus of li (a type of artistic body-language) as the key to unlocking the deep shared humanity among society's members. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Confucius during his life was only a private tutor in the small feudal state of Lu in eastern China, and his influence was small. Although he attempted to persuade many feudal leaders of his time to adopt his ideas and institute a ritualized form of government and state education, his teachings were largely ignored. Most of Confucius's later life was occupied in training a group of dedicated disciples in the arts of li, which included many dimensions of inherently rewarding aesthetic practice: learning the poetry, music, and dance of the former Sages, as well as the intensely choreographed ceremonies of ancestor worship and other religious rituals. Confucius's students were among the most literate and artistically accomplished men of their time. But to Confucius's great chagrin, none of these great ritual achievements seemed to move China any closer to an escape from the chaos of the feudal age. /+/

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Confucian ancestor worship
“However, Confucius's claim that he had discovered the true Dao (Way) of the former sage kings inspired his students, and their students, to persevere in spreading his ideas for generations. Within a century or two of his death, Confucius's ideas had become well known and influenced the thinking of people all over China. Ultimately, later Chinese governments found it useful to proclaim their loyalty to Confucius's ideas, to sponsor state schools to educate Chinese youth in Confucian values, and to appoint to high office people who had demonstrated mastery of Confucian texts. Such sponsorship gave Confucian ideas prestige beyond all others, and Confucius himself was treated as a kind of demi.god, worshipped at great temples constructed by the Chinese imperial state. /+/

“Still, many would argue that much of this devotion to Confucian ethics was actually a way for Chinese rulers to cover up their special brand of absolute power and institutionalized oppression of the mass of Chinese people. The fact that the current rulers of the communist People's Republic of China, now that the power of communist ideology is virtually exhausted in China, have indicated an excited interest in reviving Confucianism as a new ideology for their “socialist” state suggests that the exploitation of Confucius's ideas by China's leaders is far from over.” /+/

Confucianism and Religion

Although Confucianism is sometimes described as a religion because of it allusions to ancestor worship Confucius himself never endorsed ancestor worship. He stressed devotion to ancestors out of reverence to their wisdom and moral leadership not as a means of worshiping their spirits. Nevertheless, over the years the term Confucianism has come to include ancestor worship, which has been around much longer than Confucianism.

Some scholars even claim that Confucianism is anti-religion because it has no gods, priest, churches or concept of afterlife. But not everyone agrees. Historian Geoffrey Parrinder argued that even though Confucius's principals were largely pragmatic, the power behind them was spiritual and there is a lot of emphasis on rituals.

Confucius's tenants, Parrinder wrote "were not based on moral good and evil" but rather on "the ritual manipulation of powers to ensure good luck and to avert bad luck...By interpreting...archaic language in a contemporary sense, he evolved an ethical and moral system...dominated by magic and [immortality]...It was the genius of Confucius to have converted much of the language of primitive religion into a vocabulary for ethics." ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Confucianism, Education, Government and Administration

Confucian classroom

Confucius is credited with organizing China's first educational system and setting up an efficient administration system, based on the careful selection of a bureaucracy that helped the emperor and other leaders rule. Members of the bureaucracy were trained in special schools and chosen for their jobs based on their the proficiency on a civil service exam that tested their knowledge of Confucian texts. Before Confucius's time the only schools in China were ones that taught archery.

Peter Mattis wrote in China Brief: Although forms of filial piety in state-led Confucianism have been used to justify subordination to the government for hundreds of years, Confucius's emphasis on virtue far outweighs obedience: “in the face of a wrong or unrighteousness, it is the duty of the son to oppose his father, and the duty of the servant to oppose his superior." In an explicitly political context, Confucius was even more clear, pointing out “tyrannical government is more dangerous than man-eating tigers." Mencius combined these ideas into the Mandate of Heaven, which justified rebellion against incompetent or malignant governments. He wrote “when a ruler treats his subjects like grass and dirt, then the subjects should treat him as a bandit and an enemy." Mao, a thorough student of the power of principles, understood this, which is why he sought to destroy Confucianism as a Chinese challenger to the foreign-born Marxist-Leninist ideology he espoused. Due to Chinese disenchantment with foreign rule after the Qing Dynasty, Confucian thought in the hands of nationalists would have been dangerous to the revolution. [Source: Peter Mattis, China Brief (Jamestown Foundation), March 2012]

Confucius regarded government and education as inseparable. Without good education, he reasoned, it was impossible to find leaders who possess the virtues to run a government. "What has one who is not able to govern himself, to do with governing others?" Confucius asked.

The basic principal behind Confucian education is that if you work hard, endure and suffer as a young person you will reap rewards later in life. The strategy of Confucian education, used in China for centuries, is to memorize the moral precepts in the hopes that they will rub off and improve the character of the person who memorizes them and make him or her more moral.

Under Confucianism, teachers and scholars were regarded, like oldest males and fathers, as unquestioned authorities. They have traditionally been held in high esteem and their power and control has been regarded as almost absolute.

I Ching

rightThe I Ching (or "Book of Changes") is a book of divination that first appeared during the Age of Philosophers. It has been attributed to Confucius and is regarded as a Confucian text but in reality it predates Confucius and was incorporated into Confucianism when it became more mystical.

I Ching divinations involve reading 64 hexagrams made of divided lines (yin) and undivided lines (yang) in accordance with sticks thrown by a fortuneteller. The 64 hexagrams are created by combining two groups of trigrams---each composed of eight trigrams, which in turn are each composed of combinations of three divided lines and undivided lines. Each hexagram has a description and symbolic meaning, which are revealed using interpretations written hundreds of years before the Book of Changes appeared.

In the old days the solid lines meant yes and a broken lines meant no. These days the interpretations are not so black and white. Four broken lines over two solid lines can mean "Approach has supreme success. Perseverance further. When the eighth month comes there will further misfortune."

I Ching is also regarded as a major treatise of the Chinese belief that philosophy and aesthetic theory is based on intuitive insight. The translation of I Chingby Princeton University Press is 740 pages.

See Superstitions

Shortcomings of Confucianism

Confucianism was supposed to set up a society that was administered through a system that rewarded virtue, wisdom and merit. But, in practice it created a monopoly of power ruled by a scholar class that was able to pass down power from generation to generation by providing their offspring with the best education in the Confucian classics.

A fair legal system was never set up in China partly because Confucianism frowned upon legal action and supported negotiation. This idea sounded good in theory but in practice it helped foster corruption, nepotism and arbitrary decision-making. What was particularly unfortunate is that this system was not reformed for over 2,000 years.

Confucianism is inherently conservative. Confucians have been taught that it is immoral and bad manners to question the judgment of superiors and elders. Changes and adaptions to changing times were slow.

Boorstin wrote: "The Confucian consulted the past not to learn how institutions could be changed but, rather, to find the ideal to which they should be restored and for models of virtue to imitated." This kind of thought helped hold China together over the centuries but it also encouraged isolationism and retarded China's development during the 19th and 20th century, when it was ruthlessly exploited by foreign powers with superior technology." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Women have been badly neglected.Confucianism encourages a paternal “father knows best” mentality, justifies a gender bias in favor of males.

Confucianism Versus Western Thought

While the Romans and the Western cultures that followed them put their trust in written laws, Confucius and his disciples and Eastern cultures that followed them distrusted written laws and put their trust in people and innate human goodness. The Confusions developed a code of conduct that defined how human beings interacted. This code of conduct was the basis of civil society rather than a written set of laws.

Even today the concept of written laws and written contacts is fairly weak in China and the nations of the East. The 20th-century Chinese historian Hsiao Kung-chuan wrote that if the early Chinese emperors had been exposed to Roman law "the Chinese out of necessity would have undergone an absolutely different course of development in the thousand or more years thereafter."

Asian behavior sometimes strikes Westerners as illogical. One reason for this, some argue, is that Asians have unquestioningly put their trust in Confucianism rules and traditions, some of which date back thousands of years, while Westerners have put their trust in modern science. Confucian societies, some say, adapt to new technology because they tackle problems as a group working together but are less innovative, they say, because Confucianism stifles creativity and reform.

On the importance of practical or applied knowledge in Confucianism, Dr. Eno wrote: “True wisdom – knowledge of the important things in life and the world — was not conceived in terms of learning a great many facts. Facts were important only if they helped inform a proper view of righteousness; for example, knowing about the sages of the past was important, but knowing about the motions of the planets and stars was not. Nor was human excellence pictured in terms of an ability to think creatively, form theories independently, or argue logically. The works of centuries of sages were viewed as tools far more powerful than products of any one individual’s thought could be, and words were seen as slippery devices that could undermine valid teachings when strung together in clever arguments. Rather than gathering many facts and using our powers of thought to search for truths, the Confucians propose that we master the action patterns created by the sages and so cultivate the ethical skills of the junzi, who steers through the complexities of life effortlessly, guided by a fully internalized moral compass. That’s true wisdom. (Note how fundamentally different this picture of the etiology [origin] of knowledge is from Plato’s view.)” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

Confucian Thought and Modern China

Maintaining a tradition that despises money making and encourages adherence to the old practices seems out of place in modern China."China is in a values crisis. Marxism doesn't service as a restraint on the natural pursuit of self-interest, so where else can China turn to for a sense of social responsibility?" said Daniel Bell, a professor of political philosophy at Beijing's Tsinghua University and author of a book about the revival of Confucianism in China. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2011]

But Kong Xinfeng, a Qufu native who lectures in political science at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Governance, believes that the revival of Confucianism will be limited because of its inherent contradictions with communist ideology. "It is true that Confucius teaches about how to be a righteous, responsible and peaceful, but he doesn't speak to how to establish a truly equal society," said Kong, a 76th generation descendant. "Confucianism has a predisposition for an elite class of gentry, scholars and officials." Kong noted that the philosopher's popularity has gone in and out of fashion repeatedly with the changing of the dynasties. "When the dynasty is prosperous," he said, "Confucius is in."

Image Sources: Filial piety scene 1, Ma Hezhi, Columbia University; Filial piety scene 2,Li Kung, Richard Barnhart; Ancestor worship, Columbia University. Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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