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FOUNDED: c. 1050–256 b.c.e.


The term Confucianism is derived from Confucius, the conventional name for Master Kong, the most revered sage of this religious tradition. Although Master Kong (551–479 b.c.e.) is the putative founder of the tradition, its practitioners, including the master himself, venerated sages who predated Kong by hundreds of years, and most modern scholars view the tradition as having evolved only after Kong's death. Historically, Confucianism was not an organized religion that spread across continents in the manner of, say, Buddhism or Christianity. To borrow the terminology of scholar C.K. Yang, Confucianism, rather than being an "institutionalized" religion, was a "diffused" one that permeated existing social entities, such as the family and the state. This diffusion happened first in China and later in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, as Chinese familial and governmental practices spread to those countries, along with Chinese philosophy, language, and art.

Because Confucianism permeated so many areas of East Asian life, there have been controversies over how to define it. Is it religion or philosophy, ritual or ethics, family custom or bureaucratic protocol? In different contexts it has been all of these and more. Above all, it has been a value system that has penetrated almost all aspects of East Asian societies. For this reason its modern critics—as well as its modern supporters—have considered it synonymous with East Asian culture, sometimes overlooking the contributions of Buddhism, Taoism, and other traditions. Ironically, in the first half of the twentieth century, many blamed Confucianism for the failure of national efforts to modernize, while more recently others have praised it for facilitating the rapid economic development of East Asian nations.

Without exaggerating its impact, it is best to approach Confucianism primarily as the source of moral values and ritual practices that have influenced personal development, family life, social relations, and political behavior in East Asia. Its main moral values have included filiality (obedience and respect toward elders, especially parents), loyalty, humaneness, just action, mutual trust, reciprocity, and moral courage. Its ritual practices, derived from Chinese texts more than 2,000 years old, have influenced East Asian weddings, banquets, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and official protocols into the twenty-first century. Moreover, as indicated by this list of activities, Confucian rituals have often concerned human interrelations rather than relations between humans and divine beings.

Of course, Confucianism has been more than a system of social values and public rituals. In particular it has served as a path of spiritual cultivation for individuals. It has also been a philosophical tradition within which different schools of thought have pursued competing interpretations of the Confucian heritage. The latter remains especially vibrant today, with various new interpretations of the Confucian heritage having been inspired by the challenge of Western thought.


The history of a religious tradition begins when it becomes conscious of itself as a tradition and when it seeks to preserve and develop the teachings of its founder(s). In the case of the Confucian tradition, historians see this happening in the century after the death of Master Kong. It should nonetheless be noted that followers of the tradition have often stressed a sacred history that traces its origins to ancient sage rulers, such as the legendary emperors Yao and Shun (supposedly prior to 2000 b.c.e.), and to early rulers of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1050–256 b.c.e.): King Wu, King Wen, and the Duke of Zhou.

In the centuries following his death, during the late Zhou and early Han (206 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) dynasties, the followers of Master Kong produced collections of sayings attributed to him and progressively enhanced his reputation from teacher to sage and, at least for some, from sage to deity. During the same period, the Confucians established themselves as custodians of ancient China's ritual, political, and historical traditions. In addition to Master Kong's sayings (known as the Analects), they preserved records of teachings attributed to other early sages, such as Master Meng (also Mencius; c. 391–308 b.c.e.) and Master Xun (also Hsün Tzu; c. 298–235 b.c.e.), as well as various ritual, political, and historical records that would later become authoritative Confucian sacred books. This process of formulating sacred books neared culmination during the Han period, just as the tradition was becoming a major social and political force in China.

At the start of the Han period the Confucian tradition's imminent success was not self-evident to its proponents. Rulers of the preceding Qin Dynasty (221–206 b.c.e.) had burned Confucian texts because of their support for the Zhou Dynasty. Han literati debated which texts to accept as well as what the texts meant. Nevertheless, they agreed that Master Kong was a great sage. They considered him not only the source of the famous Analects but also the author or editor of the texts that would come to be known as the Five Scriptures (also Five Classics). These books grew in importance to the point that, in 175 c.e., the emperor Han Xiaoling issued an edict to have stone stelae (pillars) inscribed with the sacred texts erected outside the national university. The Confucians also benefited from becoming the custodians of ancient rituals. Chinese rulers knew that magnificent ceremonies held an air of majesty, and in their way of thinking, the ritual dimension of statecraft was as important as its practical aspects. In the case of sacrificial offerings, it kept a ruler in good standing with his royal ancestors and the forces of nature (such as Heaven, Earth, Sun, and Moon). In the case of audience rites (ceremonial meetings a ruler grants to persons who wish to encounter him), it also brought order to a ruler's relations with his government officials and foreign neighbors.


The Chinese character ru, meaning "scholar" or "literatus," is a common symbol of Confucianism. It is from this character that Confucianism gets its Chinese name, ru-jiao ("tradition of scholars").

Among the earliest Confucians to gain imperial favor was Dong Zhongshu (c. 176–104 b.c.e.), who served under the Han emperor Wudi. On Dong's advice the emperor established positions for the study of Confucian scriptures as well as the national university in front of which Han Xiaoling would later erect his famous stelae. In developing an examination for aspiring imperial scholars, Dong established the basis for the state examinations that later East Asian governments used to recruit government officials. Dong was himself an expert on the sacred book Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), and his famous commentary on it, Chunqiu fanlu (Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals), indicates key trends in Han Confucian thought. In his view Master Kong—the Annal's reputed author—was a great sage and uncrowned king. This portrayal matched ongoing efforts to deify Kong and develop the practice of performing sacrificial rites at his tomb and in Master Kong temples and government schools. Synthesizing yin-yang thought of the late Zhou era with Confucian ideas, Dong also established numerological and cosmological correspondences between Heaven (Tian) and humanity within a microcosm-macrocosm theory (a microcosm is a miniature model of the larger universe, or macrocosm). Yin-yang thought was based on the idea of pairs of complementary opposites in the world, including (in yin-yang order) dark and light, cold and hot, wet and dry, female and male, winter and summer, night and day, and the sun and the moon. Exemplifying the microcosm-macrocosm theory, a balance of yin and yang made for a healthy person (a microcosm) as well as for a harmonious universe (the macrocosm).

Dong also further developed the old idea of a Mandate of Heaven (tianming), according to which Heaven granted the right to rule to a line of rulers and expressed its evaluation of them through natural phenomena or other omens. This corresponded to a fundamental Confucian belief that social order must follow cosmic order in the harmonious relations between its parts and in the hierarchical structuring of its high and low parts (for example, Heaven and Earth, yang and yin). To maintain harmony with Heaven, people must observe the doctrine of the Three Bonds: subject to ruler, son to father, and wife to husband. Many Han Confucians followed Dong's cosmological ideas, which implicitly supported autocratic rule. (Some Han emperors supported Confucian thought but ruled in the autocratic fashion of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who had burned Confucian texts.) Later, Confucian scholars would play a dual role, supporting the emperor as a "Son of Heaven" yet reminding him that Heaven wanted its "Son" to practice benevolence and justice (ren and yi).

In later history political and social trends favored the spread of authoritarian tendencies in the Confucian tradition rather than the flowering of its moral ideals. In the name of Master Kong leaders stressed views of harmony and filiality that held that people should subordinate themselves to social units (family, clan, and state) and remain subservient to those who ranked higher in generation, age, or gender. Han scholars defined women's roles in various ways: Stories of selfsacrificing women were collected in the Lienü zhuan (Biographies of Exemplary Women) by Liu Xiang (79–8 b.c.e.), and the virtues of ideal womanhood were presented in the Lessons for Women (Nüjie) by Ban Zhao (died in 116 c.e.), a female scholar from an elite family. Biographies of Exemplary Women presented women in their role as upholders of social morality but also included negative examples of women whose selfish, sensual demands destroyed social morality, their husbands, and even dynasties. Ideal figures were mothers who reared their sons well and gave their husbands moral guidance. On the one hand, Lessons for Women contained strong statements against spousal abuse and stressed male respect for women. On the other hand, it painted a picture of the ideal (marriageable) girl as a model of obedience who possesses the "four virtues": "womanly virtue" itself, which involves being chaste and demure; "womanly words," which are always polite and never quarrelsome; "womanly bearing," which is ever erect and clean, never slovenly or dirty; and "womanly work," which is domestic and industrious.

Available evidence indicates that, by the time of the Han Dynasty texts just mentioned, families already preferred newborn boys to girls, clans expected wives to be completely obedient to their husbands and in-laws, and social leaders excluded women from positions of power. In the centuries that followed, Confucian scholars did little to challenge these social values. Some later wrote to condemn the most egregious abuses against women, such as wife beating and foot binding. In late imperial history there were rare individuals, such as Li Zhi (1527–1602) and Tang Zhen (1630–1704), who advocated that women have educational and life opportunities similar to those afforded men. Mainstream Confucian scholars, however, mainly reinforced the patriarchal values of traditional society in China (and, later, in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan).

Typically, the Confucian Way for a man meant a life of public service, informed by the study of Confucian scriptures and the practice of inner cultivation. For a woman the Confucian Way involved a search for personal fulfillment through a life of service to the men in her life. Excluded from the path of formal study that led to government service, most women took this prescribed path. If a woman wanted a less domestic spiritual life, she had to seek it on another path, such as that of a Buddhist nun or Taoist priestess. For families, ritual traditions based on Confucian scriptures spread among social elites before ultimately reaching society's lower levels. Having a Confucian-style marriage for one's daughter, coming-of-age ceremony for one's son, or funeral for one's deceased parent marked upward social movement.

Over time the Confucian tradition came under the influence of Taoism and Buddhism, the latter having gained strength in post-Han China. By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618–906 c.e.), most literati were content to share the stage with Buddhism and Taoism, the other two of China's "three teachings" (san jiao). Some felt the true Confucian Way had been lost, however. By the time of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), this view became more widely held, and a major Confucian renaissance movement began. The movement had so many new elements that modern scholars came to call it Neo-Confucianism. Despite the Neo-Confucian's avowed opposition to Buddhism and Taoism, the new elements can be traced mainly to those religions. Of special importance was the fact that Neo-Confucians adopted the originally Indian idea that ascetic self-denial should play a necessary role in spiritual development. This development tended to undermine certain salutary elements of early Confucian thought, with its positive evaluation of human emotions, the human body, and the natural world. It affected the behavioral ideals promoted by Confucians for women as well as men. While Song literati did not themselves advocate foot binding or seclusion for women, the ascetic turn in their thinking had subtle links to the development and spread of such practices.

Looking beyond China, these later developments played a key role in determining which Confucian beliefs and practices would be adopted in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan and thus had a momentous effect on the lives of men and women throughout East Asia. For example, Zhu Xi (1130–1200), the leading Song Confucian thinker, presented the tension between the ideal of heavenly principle (tianli) and the actuality of human desires (renyu) as the basic problem of philosophical understanding and moral cultivation. Moreover, when Confucian teachings were transmitted to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan from China's Song, Yuan (1279–1368), and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, Zhu Xi's new orthodoxy held a central place in both its social and philosophical aspects. Indeed, Zhu Xi was known throughout East Asia as much for the book Zhuzi jiali (Master Zhu's Family Rituals) as for his philosophical writings.

The Confucian tradition first arrived in Vietnam long before China's Song era, for the area was frequently under Chinese control. Chinese writing was introduced to Vietnam as early as the Han period. Later, Vietnamese scholars competed in state examinations and became officials of the Chinese government. Nonetheless, as in Korea and Japan, the extensive Confucian penetration of Vietnam occurred later, during the Ly (1010–1225), Tran (1226–1400), the second Le (1428–1789), and Nguyen (1802–1945) dynasties. Despite the fact that the country's society was originally less patriarchal than that of China, Vietnamese leaders encouraged adoption of the rituals and values in Confucian scriptures as interpreted by Zhu Xi and other Chinese Neo-Confucians. State ceremonies, like state administrative practice, followed Chinese models. Vietnamese leaders idealized the hierarchical pairings in father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject, and, in addition, teacher-student relationships.

Korea's history reveals a situation similar to that in Vietnam. Following earlier exposure to isolated elements of the Confucian tradition, Korean leaders would ultimately adopt Neo-Confucian ideals in attempting a full-fledged transformation of their state and society. They introduced examinations for the recruitment of officials, rules to establish honesty in government, ceremonies to add civility to public life, and the ideal of benevolent rule. At the same time Korean Confucian loyalists sought conformity to social norms that deprived women of established social privileges in the areas of inheritance, freedom of movement outside the home, relations with their natal families, and status within their marriages. This effort began during the Koryo Dynasty (918–1392) and continued during the Yi (Chosôn) Dynasty (1392–1910), which became aligned with the Confucian tradition to the extent that it even suppressed Korean Buddhism.

Chinese Confucian influence in Japan also predated the Song period. During the seventh and eighth centuries Japan adopted various social norms, administrative practices, and intellectual trends of China's Tang Dynasty. Confucian governmental traditions borrowed directly from the Tang Dynasty state codes were particularly important in Japan's first attempts at centralized rule. Nonetheless, it was later Confucian influence (in the post-Song era) that led to the creation of lasting philosophical schools and that had widespread social effects in Japan.

During the Kamakura (1185–1333) and Muromachi (1392–1568) periods in Japan, Zen Buddhists helped spread new Confucian ideas and practices. The meditative practices of Buddhist zazen and Confucian seiza (quiet sitting; from the Chinese jingzuo) became popular, along with the synthesis of other Buddhist and Confucian personal development practices. Against this background, Bushido (Way of the Warrior) later developed as the way of the feudal knights known as Samurai.

The Samurai ascended to power under Tokugawa rule (1600–1868), and their rise was accompanied by Tokugawa support for Confucian scholars who followed Zhu Xi's Neo-Confucian orthodoxy. Yamaga SokM (1622–85), admired for formulating the Bushido code, was once banished from the capital (Edo) for ten years (1666–75) for advocating that Confucians overlook Zhu Xi in favor of the "ancient learning" (kogaku) of early Confucian sages. Japanese political conservatives usually preferred Zhu Xi's orthodoxy, while progressives adopted the activist and intuitionist alternative associated with the scholar Wang Yangming (1472–1529) of China's Ming Dynasty. Progressive Confucians were among those who brought about the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which marked the beginning of Japan's era of modernization.

Confucian teachings thus affected Japan's male world of warriors and statecraft. At the same time, they also had an impact on women in Tokugawa Japan that mirrored their effects under pro-Confucian regimes in Korea and Vietnam. It seems, however, that the Japanese emphasis on the emotional and sensual dimensions of life kept the puritanical features of the Neo-Confucian value system from penetrating Japanese society as deeply as it had other East Asian societies. Nonetheless, since Japanese society was the most explicitly feudal of premodern societies in East Asia, Confucian views on loyalty, filiality, and female subservience also reinforced the Tokugawa social structure.

Lacking distinct institutional forms of its own, Confucianism relied on existing social institutions, such as the family and the state, to preserve and transmit its teachings. As these institutions changed in each of the East Asian societies where it traditionally held sway, Confucianism also changed. Moreover, in each of these societies intellectuals promoting modernization attacked the tradition as a conservative obstacle to change. As a result, the Confucian tradition eventually entered a crisis comparable to an identity crisis in an individual.


virtue; potential goodness conferred on a person by Tian (Heaven)
Five Scriptures
Wujing; Confucianism's most sacred texts
Four Books
Sishu; central texts of Confucian philosophy and education
love of (moral) learning
"quiet sitting"; meditation
cosmic ordering principle
norms for the interaction of humans with each other and with higher forces (a different Chinese character from the other li, meaning "principle," above)
innate moral knowledge
"study of principle"; Neo-Confucian philosophical movement
neisheng waiwang
"sage within and king without"; phrase used to describe one who is both a spiritual seeker and a social leader
matter-energy; life force pervading the cosmos
humaneness; benevolence
humane government
human desires
tao (also dao)
"the way"; the Confucian life path
Three Bonds
obedience of subject to ruler, child to parent, and wife to husband
"Heaven"; entity believed to represent cosmic and moral order
ultimate, Heaven-rooted cosmic ordering principle permeating all phenomena
Mandate of Heaven
heart-mind; human organ of moral evaluation
inner human nature
"study of mind"; Neo-Confucian philosophical movement
rightness; to act justly

This is best seen in the case of China, where Confucianism was born. Indeed, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), telltale trends against Confucianism emerged in the first decade of the new Chinese republic. In 1915 a group of intellectuals led by Chen Duxiu (1879–1942) of Beijing University founded the journal New Youth and initiated a movement that produced mass student demonstrations on 4 May 1919. Known as the May Fourth Movement, it made Confucianism a key target of its attack on traditional culture. As indicated by the articles and short stories published in New Youth, the movement saw Confucianism as the main obstacle to achieving what it defined as China's key goals: male-female equality, scientific thinking, economic development, and democracy. The journal came to epitomize the spirit of the era and was followed by similar journals, including some dedicated specifically to women's rights, such as The New Woman and The Woman'sBell. Chen, who later founded the Chinese Communist Party, was joined by literary figures—such as Lu Xun (1881–1936), the period's greatest short-story writer—and political essayists, including Hu Shi (1891–1962). Hu and other proponents of the Western liberal tradition disagreed with Chen and other Communists about many things, but both groups of social reformers agreed on the need to criticize Confucianism.

One needed a great deal of courage to defend Confucianism in this milieu. There were those, however, who not only defended the tradition but also insisted that a Confucian revival was just what would lead China out of its national crisis and into a bright future. Building on the work of such turn-of-the-century thinkers as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929), Liang Shuming (1893–1988) was the first of Confucianism's post–May Fourth defenders. In 1922 he published Dongxi wenhua ji qi zhexue (Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies), a work in comparative thought and culture that argued Chinese culture was supreme and that true Confucianism was China's salvation. For Liang, as for other modern Confucians, true Confucianism transcended the imperial system with which it had once been identified and was, in fact, compatible with science and democracy. Xiong Shili (1885–1968), another scholar of Liang's generation, trained many students who continued to revive and redefine the Confucian tradition. These students included a famous group of four self-styled New Confucians: Mou Zongsan (1909–95), Tang Junyi (1909–78), Xu Fuguan (1903–82), and Zhang Junmai (1886–1969).

Due to its apologetic tone, the foursome's attempt at Confucian revival has been termed Fundamentalism. Yet, these scholars and their living students, notably Shu-hsien Liu (born in 1934) and Wei-ming Tu (born in 1940), have seen themselves as modernizers of their tradition, seeking to find a place for it in contemporary theology and philosophy. Until recently these Confucian apologists were alone in their defense of the tradition. Since the economic success of Japan and the "Four Little Dragons" (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), however, a new breed of Confucian apologists has emerged. These defenders are social scientists armed with data on rapid economic development as well as surveys demonstrating the perseverance of such socalled Confucian values as diligence, thrift, loyalty to authority, and conformity to social norms. They claim Confucianism facilitates, rather than obstructs, economic modernization.

Despite this new assessment of Confucianism's economic role, many remain less sanguine about its role in social and political modernization. The tradition's key representatives, all of whom are men, have not dealt extensively with its patriarchal norms and sexist historical record. Socially, while other religious traditions—Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, for example—have striven to take into account feminist movements, Confucianism has yet to see such a movement emerge within its ranks. While other traditions have given rise to progressive movements that are socially and politically active, like Engaged Buddhism and "Social Gospel" Christianity, the Confucian tradition has not produced any social activists. Its modern political champions, such as Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) and Lee Kuan Yew (born in 1923), have been authoritarian rulers rather than social activists. This has hurt its chances for developing what William Theodore de Bary, for example, has called the "liberal tradition" in Confucianism.


Through its doctrines every religious tradition seeks to answer three questions. In their simplest form these are: (1) What's wrong with people (as individuals or as a group); (2) what ideal state should people seek (salvation, enlightenment, moral perfection, or the perfect society); and (3) what means should people use to transform themselves from their present (flawed) state to the ideal state? Frederick J. Streng, a scholar of comparative religious studies, has explained that each religion is "a means of ultimate transformation" because, in answering the third question, it tells people they can change—or be changed by divine will or grace—to become ultimately different from the sinful, selfish, ignorant, or morally lax persons they are now.

While Master Kong and other early Confucian thinkers never presented people as evil or ignorant by nature, they were completely dissatisfied with people's behavior and with the state of human society. They argued that people behaved in a selfish and morally lax manner because the world lacked true moral leadership of the kind once provided by ancient sage rulers. Master Kong is quoted as saying that "the world is without the Way (of moral behavior)." For Kong the Way (dao; also, tao) came from a cosmic and moral entity called Tian (Heaven). It was a spiritual path inherent in existence and accessible to human understanding. Confucians believed the Way could be found in the behavior of exemplary sages, including Master Kong, as well as in themselves.

People can find the Way in themselves in the sense that they possess a moral potential that has been conferred on them. Depending on the context, Confucians have called this potential de (virtue) as well as xing (inner nature). When this potential is developed, a person exists in an ideal moral-spiritual state that enables him or her to have a powerful positive influence over others. This realized moral potential has been called ming de (brightly shining virtue). Another way of saying humans are born with a powerful moral potential is to argue, as have most Confucians since Master Meng, that "a person's inner nature is originally good" ("renxing ben shan"). In other scriptures the two concepts were merged in such phrases as zun dexing (honoring virtuous nature), which comes from the text Zhongyong 27:6 (Centrality and Commonality).

This account would be incomplete without mention of the "heart-mind" (xin), a special human capacity for moral feeling and thinking. Using this reflective capacity, a person is able to distinguish between good and bad behavior as well as to discern the part of the self that tends toward goodness and that should be developed in order to restore the Way in the world.

Over the centuries Master Kong and his followers, in declaring "the world is without the Way," blamed social leaders for setting poor examples for the masses. By indulging their selfish desires, they had grown out of touch with the suffering of the masses, as well as with their own potential for goodness. If leaders would practice moral-spiritual cultivation, they could not only transform themselves but also have a transforming effect on the common people, according to the Confucians. In Master Kong's words: "As grasses bend with the wind, so will the masses bend [toward goodness] under the sway of a true moral gentleman" (Analects 12:19). Because such gentlemen were not in power, every kind of moral outrage existed. Leaders ignored the welfare of the common people and used them as cannon fodder in their wars; ministers set bad examples in their own behavior yet punished others for minor infractions of strict laws; sons attacked their own fathers; and ministers rebelled against their rulers. Master Kong exclaimed, "Fathers should be true fathers, sons should be true sons, rulers should be true rulers, ministers should be true ministers" (Analects 12:11). This suggests that, in an ideal society, each person fulfills his or her role, setting an example for those over whom he or she has influence. While this would seem to favor the development of a rigid social structure, in Confucian doctrine the harmonious society was considered one in which each person would have a chance to flourish individually while making a contribution to social harmony. Thus, the goal of the Confucian individual is to become the kind of sage who can be a social leader, not the kind who leaves society or seeks to transcend the material world. Confucians have used the phrase "sage within and king without" (neisheng waiwang) to describe an ideal person who has the characteristics of both a spiritual seeker and a social leader. It is easy to see how this individual ideal is linked to the collective goal of a peaceful, harmonious, and just society. Like Master Kong and Master Meng, later Confucians argued that personal development should be pursued for the sake of improving society. The standard passage describing personal development as the basis for social service is chapter one of Daxue (Great Learning), which states: "The ancients who wished to manifest brightly shining virtue throughout the empire, first brought order to their own states. Wishing to order their own states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their heart-minds. Wishing to rectify their heart-minds, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things … From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people; all must consider cultivation of the person as the root."

This passage is essential not only for understanding the nature of the Confucian goal but even more so for understanding the characteristic Confucian path. Confucians have identified eight principles, or eight stages, of personal cultivation in chapter one of the Great Learning. The first four are interpreted as aspects of inner cultivation, concluding with "rectifying the heart-mind" by making it fully present but not under the influence of negative feelings. The explanation of this in chapter seven of Daxue reads: "If one is under the influence of passion, one will be incorrect in one's conduct. One will be the same if one is under the influence of fear, or under the influence of fond regard, or under that of sorrow. When the mind is inattentive, we look and do not see, we hear and do not understand, we eat and do not know the taste of our food." With the heart-mind rectified, a person can perfect outward behavior; and, with the "brightly shining virtue" stressed in Daxue, he or she can assume a role of leadership in the family, the local state, and, then, the world.

In practice the Confucian path not only involved efforts to develop one's inner moral potential, it also involved adherence to the complex rules of propriety (li) that governed the gentleman's life in ancient China. Indeed, over time these ritual norms came to govern the behavior of almost all Chinese. Although an ancient saying proclaimed that "the li do not reach down to the common people" ("li bu xia shu"), Confucians ultimately encouraged their observance on all of the important occasions in people's lives—birth, puberty, marriage, and ancestor worship, for example.

The doctrine of li, however, has involved more than prescribing correct ritual behavior for social occasions. It is a doctrine that has encapsulated the Confucian perspective on life at all levels: the individual, the family, society, and the cosmos. Believing the li were grounded in nature, Confucians saw adherence to these ritual norms as a way to maintain harmony between people in society as well as between human society and the natural world. As in the case of the need for inner moral cultivation, this was true "from the Son of Heaven down to the common people." Whether it was the imperial sacrifices to Heaven, Earth, Sun, and Moon or a common person's observation of ancestral rites, the ultimate motivation for the observance of li lay in the search for harmony.

As has already been discussed, the transformation of individuals was linked with the transformation of society, which was seen as leading to an era of great peace and harmony for all. Of course, while each individual could be transformed, it was particularly important for society's leaders to become sages. Indeed, the entire process of social transformation began with the ruler who held the Mandate of Heaven. According to this central Confucian religio-political doctrine, the man who held the mandate not only gained political legitimacy, he also inherited a deep moral obligation; and, if he did not fulfill this obligation, he would lose the mandate. The doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven specified that Heaven was a model for the king (who was sometimes called the Son of Heaven), and the king a model for all his subjects. In ritual behavior he had to act in accordance with Heaven's seasonal cycle, and in political behavior he had to lead his subjects, above all, by exemplifying the development of human moral potential. As a moral sage, he could rule with benevolence and justice (ren and yi) as well as engage in the transformative instruction (jiaohua) of his subjects. These two activities went hand-in-hand, for a just and benevolent ruler provided the material conditions within which people could morally educate themselves and, at the same time, gave them a model to emulate.

An ideal Confucian king who fulfilled this dual role was himself emulating Heaven, which was not only the source of all natural and social goods but also a just and compassionate guide for the ruler. Whenever the ruler strayed from the true Kingly Way (wangdao), Heaven sent forth signs of displeasure—strange natural phenomena, for example, or even natural disasters. A ruler who failed to heed such warnings would not last long. In theory, at least, the doctrine of Heaven's Mandate thus assumed that a ruler would take seriously his obligations to perform the rituals required to maintain harmony within society as well as between human society and the cosmos; to establish laws that would deter his subjects from following their selfish instincts into misbehavior; and to provide moral guidance that would help his subjects develop the better part of themselves (the good nature endowed by Heaven). Success in all these areas would be enough to usher in an era of great peace and harmony, the ultimate goal of Confucian personal and social development.


Identifying a basic code of conduct, such as the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity or the five precepts of Buddhism, is not possible in Confucianism because of its nature as a diffused, rather than institutional, religion. Confucianbased moral codes that affected people's behavior were found, for example, within Chinese law, imperial edicts issued to improve social morality, and clan rules that governed family behavior. The Liji (Book of Rites) and other ancient texts about li are the most important sources for these Confucian moral codes. Other texts with an emphasis on practical morality, such as the Scripture of Filiality, Instructions for Women, and Master Zhu's Family Rituals, were also influential.

Ethics concerning social relations is at the heart of Confucian morality, from the basic moral principles established by the masters Kong and Meng to the specific codes of conduct found in clan rules and imperial edicts. The most consistently important example of this was a list of five principles governing social relations found in Mengzi (Master Meng) 4A:12. The principal of loyalty governs the relationship between a ruler and his officials; filiality, that between a father and his son; proper order, that between an elder and a younger brother; separation of duties, that between a husband and his wife; and mutual trust, that between friends.

How these principles and other aspects of Confucian ethics affected moral codes can be seen in Chinese law, clan rules, and imperial edicts. It must be noted that the basis of Chinese imperial law was not originally Confucianism but rather Legalism, to use the name frequently given to an early rival of the Confucian school. The School of Law (Fa Jia) saw its legal traditions adopted by the Qin Dynasty (221–206 b.c.e.), the first dynasty to unite China under a central bureaucracy, and, with revisions, all later dynasties in China. According to Legalist thought, laws should be created so as to apply universally to all subjects of the empire, and laws should be enforced with equal strictness in all situations. In contrast, in Confucian thought, the li were created to reinforce social distinctions and to prescribe different behavior in different situations. What scholars have called the "Confucianization of law" was the process whereby the spirit and many of the details of the Confucian teachings penetrated the Chinese legal system.

For example, penalties prescribed for crimes against others were adjusted according to the social status of the perpetrator and the victim. A heavy penalty was prescribed for a commoner harming an official (or a child offending a parent), but a light penalty was prescribed in reverse circumstances. Confucian relational principles, such as filiality and loyalty, also affected the legal system, reinforcing the idea that persons in subordinate social roles—such as children, commoners, or wives—committed an especially grave offense when they harmed one of their superiors. Even more indicative of the influence of Confucian on Legalist ideology was the priority of filiality over loyalty when the two principles came into conflict, pitching one's need to serve parents against the needs of the state. For example, throughout imperial history people were allowed to conceal the crimes of close relatives in accordance with Master Kong's strong disapproval of a son who had reported his father's theft of a sheep to the authorities (Analects 13:18). Another example is the law that allowed judges to repeal the sentences of criminals who were the sole supporters of aged relatives or even the sole male descendants of deceased parents in need of the customary ancestral offerings. By lessening the punishment meted out to a sole surviving son, the judge allowed the son to fulfill the requirements of the principle of filiality.

Such cases raised the related issue of efforts to enshrine into law the Confucian principle of "humane government" (renzheng). Providing for the support of elderly parents by commuting the sentences of their son was an example of this, but only one among many. When judges meted out death sentences, higher courts and the emperor reviewed these sentences, often prescribing lesser punishments in order to make a show of their support for the Confucian principle of humane government. Imperial amnesties were frequently announced for the same reason, allowing those imprisoned to return to their families. In some cases the young, the elderly, the handicapped, and women were judged less harshly than other subjects of the state. All such cases were largely the result of efforts to have a code of behavior that accorded with the principle of humaneness (ren) and the various ritual norms (li) found in Confucian scriptures.

Clan codes represented even more explicit efforts to "Confucianize" the rules by which people were supposed to live. Indeed, among all Chinese social institutions, the family clan, or zu (lineage), came closest to being a Confucian moral church. A clan was established to honor its founding patriarch and other clan ancestors, which often involved the construction of an ancestral temple in which to worship their spirits. The clan's raison d'être was the pursuit of achievements that would glorify those ancestors. Toward this end, clan rules prescribed filial behavior for all situations in which children related to parents and older siblings, wives related to husbands and parents-in-law, and living clan members related to dead ancestors. The rules also emphasized honesty and hard work as the means to succeed in life and to glorify one's ancestors. Finally, the rules prescribed charitable behavior toward less fortunate clan members and the building of schools for clan youths in order to honor the Confucian principles of humanity (ren) and the love of learning (haoxue), respectively.

Many of the principles of the clan codes are also evident in "sacred edicts" (sheng yu), which represented the emperor's efforts to provide guidelines for moral behavior. In fact, clan rules often quoted passages from these edicts. The best known among them was the sacred edict of the Kangxi emperor, issued in 1670, with its famous Sixteen Instructions. The first six demonstrate how the instructions enshrined the principles of filiality, harmony, diligence, and love of learning: (1) In order to honor proper human relations, maintain filial and brotherly duties. (2) In order to manifest cordial behavior, be sincere in familial relationships. (3) In order to prevent discord and lawsuits, promote harmony in your village and neighborhood. (4) In order to provide adequate food and clothing, honor farming and silk production. (5) In order to be efficient in expenditures, esteem thrift and frugality. (6) In order to establish scholarly practices, support building schools. Next to the family clan, the traditional Chinese state was the most important surrogate Confucian church, with the emperor and his officials committed, at least in word, to the moral principles set forth by Master Kong and his followers. It was, therefore, appropriate that the state enshrined Confucian morality not only in its legal system but also in its efforts at moral suasion. After all, according to Confucian teachings, rulership that employs moral suasion and personal example is better than rulership that depends on legal statutes and punishments.


For the past 1,000 years, Confucians have considered 13 books to be their jing (scriptures). These books include the earlier and more basic Wujing (Five Scriptures) as well as the later, but more frequently used, Sishu (Four Books). The 13 are the Yijing (Book of Changes), Shujing (Book of Documents), Shijing (Book of Odes), Liji (Book of Rites), Zhouli (Rites of Zhou), Yili (Book of Etiquette and Ritual), Lun yu (Analects), Xiaojing (Scripture of Filiality), the Chinese dictionary Erya, Mengzi (Master Meng), and Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), which is included three times, in each instance accompanied by a different commentary. The Four Books were drawn from the Thirteen Scriptures and include the Analects, Master Meng, Daxue (Great Learning), and Zhongyong (Centrality and Commonality), the last two being chapters of the Book of Rites. The Four Books became popular as a basic catechism for young boys being introduced to classical Chinese thought as well as the standard set of texts whose meanings were explored in essays by candidates taking state examinations. For 800 years they have been part of the curriculum recommended by educators throughout East Asia, with rare exceptions, such as the educators who were followers of the Communist leader Mao Zedong.


Today, the most recognizable symbol of the Confucian tradition is an image of Master Kong. Historically such images, whether paintings or sculptures, were also common symbols. For hundreds of years, however, the correct representation of the master in Master Kong temples was his ancestral tablet engraved with the words "supreme sage and ancient teacher."

Master Kong temples, found in major cities throughout East Asia, are themselves powerful symbols of the tradition. Traditionally the officials who performed ceremonies in Master Kong temples dressed in mandarin robes that also symbolized the tradition, especially for the common folk, who saw them as emblems of sacred authority.

Within Master Kong temples, placards were found upon which were written famous Confucian phrases in the hand of a leading scholar, state official, or even an emperor. Because of the importance of calligraphy in East Asia, as well as the importance of sacred words, these placards have also been regarded as sacred symbols of the tradition. Finally, sacred texts have been important symbols of the tradition, revered by the literate and illiterate alike because they contain the words of holy sages.


The ancestral cult of Master Kong has always been led by a Kong clan patriarch who is a descendent of the master. The current clan patriarch, Kong Decheng (born in 1920), has lived in exile in Taiwan in recent decades. Historically there have been several instances when descendants of the master became more than just patriarchs of the clan, such as when Kong Anguo (died in 74 b.c.e.) and Kong Yingda (574–648 c.e.) became leading Confucian intellectuals in the Han and Tang eras, respectively.

But neither the Kong clan patriarch nor any other figure could have been considered the religious leader of all Chinese Confucians, let alone of those in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. In fact, the problem is not only that it is hard to identify a leader but also that it is hard to locate his flock, given that Confucianism is a diffused rather than an institutional religion.

Since Confucianism was diffused throughout the state system, the reigning monarch of an East Asian state that promoted Confucian ritual and ideology was by default a Confucian leader. He performed the state ceremonies prescribed by Confucian ritual tradition, was ultimately responsible for recruiting Confucian-educated officials, and, as in the case of China's Kangxi emperor, led efforts to cause the populace to embrace Confucian morality. High-ranking Confucian officials were also leaders responsible for providing moral and political guidance for the literati in general. These leaders could galvanize others to engage in collective action, some-times in opposition to their reigning monarch.

In serving as the political ideology for the premodern states of East Asia, Confucianism played a dual role. It supported monarchies, yet, at the same time, preserved conventions of protest according to which a loyal official could remonstrate against a corrupt monarch. Even the Scripture of Filiality quotes Master Kong as saying that, when confronted with what is unrighteous, a son must remonstrate against his father, and the minister against his ruler. In China this ideal manifested itself in an institution, the Censorate, as well as in the actions of courageous individuals. The Censorate was a product of the merger of Confucian and Legalistic ideology, for it combined the function of surveillance on behalf of the monarch with that of remonstrance against a monarch's misdeeds. One famous case of the latter was the protest of officials against the Tianqi emperor (reigned 1620–27) and his powerful palace eunuch, Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627). According to the imperial censor Zuo Guangdou and his colleagues, palace eunuchs preferred taxing the people to lessening expenditures on palace luxuries and coddling the emperor to telling him the truth about the poor condition of national defense and popular welfare. Most important of all, Confucian officials accused Wei Zhongxian, perhaps the most powerful eunuch in all of Chinese history, of usurping the emperor's unique right to rule.

In 1624 Wei convinced the Tianqi emperor to have hundreds of Wei's opponents rounded up and punished. Some lost only their jobs, but others, including Zuo Guangdou, lost their lives (Zuo died under torture in 1625). In a world where power politics could trump Confucian ideals, Zuo could not be saved, despite decades of service under two imperial ancestors, the father and grandfather of the reigning emperor. This fact exposes a key irony of Confucian political life: Adherence to Confucian ideals in the service of the ruler could easily engender imperial wrath rather than imperial gratitude.

While some Confucians thus became famous for their political activities, the best-known Confucian leaders in history earned their reputations as intellectuals and teachers. They became famous for their individual philosophical contributions and for establishing Confucian academies (xueyuan). In some cases these academies were the training ground for Confucian scholars who would lead future philosophical, social, or political movements. Thus, serving as a teacher could make one a Confucian leader, since a Confucian scholar's reputation was furthered above all through teaching a body of dedicated disciples.

In fact, one way of enhancing Master Kong's reputation was through building legends about the large number of disciples he taught. By the first half of the Han Dynasty, when Sima Qian wrote the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), China's first comprehensive history, the author reported that Kong had 3,000 disciples, of whom 72 could be named. As in other lists of major disciples, usually numbering about 70, the author includes the names of 25 disciples who appear in the Analects. Although the evidence from the Analects and preHan sources gives little credence to later legends, it verifies that a group of Master Kong's immediate disciples began an intellectual lineage that still survives. By the time Master Meng taught, a century-and-a-half later than Master Kong, the idea of an intellectual lineage was so strong that Meng considered Kong the sage and uncrowned king (suwang) whose teachings had to be spread to save the empire. Meng's effort to spread these teachings was recorded in turn by Meng's disciples in the book Mengzi (Master Meng).

At every major stage in the later history of the Confucian intellectual lineage, there were moral-spiritual leaders who are remembered for their contributions to education as well as to philosophical and political life. The great Han Dynasty Confucian Dong Zhongshu convinced the emperor Wudi to establish a state college for the study of Confucian scriptures, which initiated trends that would ultimately give China a Confucianbased civil service examination system. During the Song era Zhu Xi developed the renowned White Deer Grotto Academy and other schools. Wang Yangming, the famous Ming era adversary of Zhu Xi, took up the life of a teacher at Kuiyang Academy after being banished to outlying Guizhou Province for writing a defense of a Confucian official who had been arrested by the powerful eunuch Lin Jin. As explained below in MAJOR THEOLOGIANS AND AUTHORS, these same men were also philosophical luminaries in Confucian intellectual history.

As in China, leading Confucians in other East Asian countries often had political as well as intellectual influence. Nevertheless, some scholars in, for example, Vietnam and Japan showed surprising resistance to Neo-Confucianism centuries after its rise to prominence in their countries. This occurred in part because resistance to Chinese influence as such was expressed through resistance to current Chinese ideologies and in part because the Vietnamese and Japanese scholars in question were reformers who drew their ideas from Confucianism's earliest sources, bypassing more recent interpretations that were, in their minds, of lesser value.

When the Tâyson rebellion in late-eighteenth-century Vietnam overthrew the Le Dynasty, the country was ripe for intellectual as well as institutional change. Ngo Thi Nham (1746–1803), already a leading Confucian, took the opportunity to provide for the new Tâyson emperor a suitable ideology, the influence of which extended well into the succeeding Nguyen Dynasty. Nham shunned the scholasticism that characterized the Neo-Confucianism of his day, criticizing the method of rote memorization favored by many of his Vietnamese contemporaries. He stressed direct parallels between the political situation in Vietnam and the travails of the ancient Zhou Dynasty during its Spring and Autumn era (722–481 b.c.e.), as recorded in the scriptural Spring and Autumn Annals. Although the Annals described a world that predated by more than two millennia Nham's Vietnam, it captured the latter country's need of leadership to "save the age" (tê thê). By challenging his contemporaries to abandon the relative security of the scholastic method for the direct experience of a world in crisis, with the chronicle of the ancient Zhou experience as a guide, Nham reinvigorated the Confucian tradition in Vietnam.

Confucianism's traditional influence in Japan regained strength during the Meiji period (1868–1912). Although the Meiji period is best known for its connection with Japanese modernization, it is also known for efforts to revive certain Confucian teachings. Motoda Nagazane (1818–91), the Meiji emperor's tutor and advisor, was the Confucian leader most responsible for these efforts. While the government promoted the Westernization of Japan's economy, society, and culture, Motoda argued for the revival of Confucianism as a countervailing force. As a Confucian lecturer in the Imperial Household Ministry and the primary author of the famous 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, which gave renewed emphasis to Confucian and Shinto values, he was able to achieve a certain success.

Is Confucianism a Religion?

Many have asked, is Confucianism a religion, a philosophy of life, or a system of ethics? This is a misleading question, as all three are correct. Confucianism has a religious aspect along with its philosophical, moral, and other dimensions. In some cases its religious dimension is obvious, such as when China's emperors made sacrificial offerings to Heaven, Earth, Sun, or Moon in accordance with instructions from Confucian scriptures, such as the Book of Rites. In other contexts, such as the behavior of a person on the path toward sagehood, the religious dimension is manifested in more subtle ways—for example, in a person's efforts to understand the transcendent aspect of inner human nature (xing), which other traditions may refer to more explicitly as a quest for "the God within." In various ways, obvious and subtle, a religious dimension is apparent in Confucianism that is parallel to that of other major Asian traditions, including Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. While lacking the personal God of various Western monotheistic faiths, these traditions construct temples and other sacred structures, have collections of holy scriptures, advocate spiritual paths toward perfection, and perform rituals that involve human as well as trans-human forces. Confucianism is no exception.

In particular, Motoda advocated an enhanced role for Confucian ethics in modern Japanese education. Modern knowledge, he argued, must be ethically based, built on Confucianism's Four Virtues of benevolence, righteousness, loyalty, and filiality. Like other traditionalists in late-nineteenth-century Japan, he supported movements to establish private schools and societies for Confucian learning and himself authored an ethics textbook, which was widely distributed in 1882 under the auspices of the emperor. By the time of the Imperial Rescript on Education, which assured the role of Confucian ethics in the standard curriculum for Japanese schools, Confucianism had been merged with Imperial Shinto as the basis for Japanese nationalism. Thus, as perhaps unintended consequences of Motoda's leadership, the Japanese government promoted Confucianism for two main reasons: (1) to reinforce people's feelings of loyalty and filiality toward the emperor and (2) to establish Confucianism as the common cultural heritage in the areas of East Asia that Japan was beginning to conquer.


Prior to today, the most innovative Confucian thinkers emerged during the time of classical Confucianism (fifth through third centuries b.c.e.) and during the era of so-called Neo-Confucianism, more than a thousand years later. The leading figures of the classical era were the masters Kong, Meng, and Xun. In the development of Neo-Confucianism, two figures stood out: Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming. In the twentieth century a group of thinkers called New Confucians initiated efforts to revive Confucian thought.

Much has already been said about the role of Kong and Meng in Confucian history. Master Xun was a brilliant thinker who influenced Legalists as well as early Confucians. He was not fully appreciated by later Confucians, however, perhaps because he disagreed with Master Meng's view on the goodness of human nature, which became a mainstay of Confucian orthodoxy. Nonetheless, Master Xun's views on li (ritual norms) did influence later Confucianism. These views were actually linked to his position on human nature, which held that the latter tended toward selfish behavior and, therefore, was needful of the social training provided by li. In an argument suggestive of the theories of modern sociology, he asserted that ritual behavior functions to create social harmony as well as to have a civilizing effect on the acts and feelings of individuals.

Early Confucians focused on the outward behavior—both political and ritual—that was needed for a person's moral development. The Neo-Confucians, responding to Buddhism and Taoism, took up a stronger interest in the inner life. They produced two main schools of moral and mental cultivation, one known as Lixue (learning to understand li [meaning, in this case, fundamental principle, not ritual norms]) and the other as Xinxue (learning of the heart-mind). Lixue was championed by Zhu Xi, while Wang Yangming promoted Xinxue. Master Zhu held that the mental practice of being attentive to principle as it was manifested in each thing could lead to the realization of the fundamental principle permeating all phenomena, which he called heavenly principle (tianli).

The other two linchpins of the Neo-Confucian perspective on humanity and nature were heart-mind (xin) and matter-energy (qi). While the principle manifested in things was held to be ultimately unified, the dynamic nature of matter-energy was thought to account for the unceasing change in the cosmos as well as for the differences among its myriad phenomena. Like all other cosmic entities, humans embody the dynamic interaction of li and qi, principle and matter-energy. Indeed, Zhu conceived each person as having a heart-mind that, ideally, could unify li and qi as manifested in the inner nature endowed by Heaven, on the one hand, and human feelings rooted in physicality, on the other. This perspective on humanity and nature was the basis for Zhu's follower's seeking to attain the goal in which "Heaven and human become one" (tian ren heyi). They began their quest with an effort to understand li (principle) as it is manifested in the myriad phenomena of the cosmos. From this starting point, Zhu asserted, a person could ultimately awaken to the unifying tianli permeating all phenomena, human and nonhuman.

Three centuries later Wang Yangming would disagree with Zhu, asserting that the quest for Confucian awakening should begin with the heart-mind itself. While this version of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation seemed close to Buddhism—to the Chan (Zen) school in particular—Wang's followers distinguished themselves from the so-called mind-emptying, society-fleeing monks and nuns of Buddhism. One sees justification for their position when one looks at the political as well as philosophical career of Master Wang. Banished to a remote area following a youthful confrontation with the powerful eunuch Liu Jin, Wang was restored to favor following Liu's execution in 1510, at which point he began a remarkable career as a civil administrator and military commander. His reputation was so great that, in 1527, he was asked to come out of retirement to govern two southern provinces of China that were plagued by insurgents. He succeeded in his final assignment and died on his way back home in 1529.

How could this socially involved official be identified, especially by critics, as someone responsible for a Buddhist turn in Neo-Confucian thought? Biographers trace his philosophical shift to a spiritual experience he had during his banishment in Guizhou. As a result of this experience he realized that his inner nature was itself sufficient for attaining sagehood and that he could find li (principle) within his own heart-mind. In fact, in Wang's view, Zhu Xi had made a crucial error in separating li from heart-mind, thus leading followers to believe they could find li in things outside the self. Because Wang believed heavenly principle is inherent in the human heart-mind, he said it should be sought there through inner contemplation. Quiet sitting (jingzuo), the Confucian equivalent of Buddhist meditation, was thus even more central for Wang's followers than for those of Zhu Xi. Moreover, the former also embraced the idea that moral practice could gain greater guidance from a person's inner knowledge of the good (liangzhi) than through more outward moral learning. Wang's approach toward moral and spiritual matters would become the inspiration for the New Confucians of the late twentieth century.

After Neo-Confucian thought spread to Korea and Japan, Zhu Xi orthodoxy achieved prominence in those countries. In both countries, however, there were efforts to revise, and even to oppose, Zhu Xi's thought. Yi T'oegye (1501–70) played a central role in reinforcing the status of Zhu Xi's thought in Korea, yet his revision of Master Zhu's ideas also gave him a reputation as one of Korea's most original thinkers. Ogyu Sorai (1666–1728), a major figure in the so-called Ancient Learning (kogaku) movement in Japan, took the even more radical step of committing himself to the study of early Confucian scriptures, ignoring the commentary of Zhu Xi and deriving fresh ideas of his own.

Yi T'oegye earned his place in Korean intellectual history by advancing the Confucian conceptualization of how principle (li) relates to matter-energy (qi). Zhu Xi had made this relationship central to Confucian thought but had left it somewhat unclear. For Zhu, although principle had a certain priority—by virtue of its relation to tao (and coequally heaven) and inner human nature (xing)—over physical things and human emotions, the precise character of this priority remained ambiguous. In his work on ethics and psychology, T'oegye, uncomfortable with this ambiguity, clearly described the way in which principle had priority. For him, in the ideal order, principle manifests itself first, and matter-energy second. This order results in goodness. By contrast, if matter-energy becomes manifest first and veils principle, evil can result. On this basis he explained the origin of evil tendencies in human behavior and provided guidance for people on how to prevent evil from arising in their behavior.

In T'oegye's view, since principle is always good, the moral status of something depends on the quality of its matter-energy. For humans a return to the inner nature, which is aligned with principle, establishes the basis for developing good tendencies at the level of matter-energy. This return can be accomplished by cultivating the moral aspect of one's mind, or the mind of tao, as opposed to the merely human mind. More concretely, this means that the "seeds," as Master Meng had called them, of the Four Virtues issue from principle and are grasped by the mind of tao, whereas the emotions issue from the human mind. In this way T'oegye established the priority of the mind of tao over the ordinary human mind in parallel with the priority of principle over matter-energy. During his life and for centuries afterward, debate continued over his solution to perceived problems in orthodox Zhu Xi thought. Nonetheless, he had done more than any other Korean thinker to frame the context of the debate.

In Japan debate focused not on a correct interpretation of Chinese Neo-Confucianism but, rather, on the possible need for a radical alternative to it. For thinkers in the Ancient Learning movement, this alternative was found by returning directly to early Confucian texts. They believed the metaphysical and psychological theories that fascinated T'oegye and other Neo-Confucians were distractions from the correct Confucian path. Ogyu Sorai, the best known among these thinkers, founded the Kobunjigaku (School of Ancient Words and Phrases) and made good use of his skills as a scholar of ancient Chinese texts to identify concrete Confucian moral, ritual, and governmental practices. In his attack on the thought of Zhu Xi and other Neo-Confucians, he argued for the importance of actual rites and institutions created by the ancient kings, as recorded in ancient texts. According to Ogyu, reverence for heaven expressed through prescribed ceremonies and the adoption of correct ritual norms in daily life would transform individuals and society, whereas acting upon the belief that the inner nature linked persons to heavenly principle would only lead to arrogance. Just as an earlier proponent of Ancient Learning, Yamaga SokM, had advocated the adoption of early Confucian models for personal behavior in developing Bushido, or the Way of the Warrior, Sorai furthered an abiding interest in ancient Chinese li (ritual norms) within Japanese civilization. Although he did not deter other Japanese thinkers from continuing with Neo-Confucian philosophical speculation, his contribution to the richness of Japanese ritual thought and practice lasted into modern times.

In the twentieth century many East Asian intellectuals opposed Confucianism. Their opposition was grounded in the view that Confucian traditions were responsible for their society's difficulties with modernization. Nonetheless, some intellectuals remained loyal to Confucian thought and, moreover, strove to show its relevance to the modern world. One clear example of this has been the work of the New Confucians.

On 4 May 1919 demonstrations occurred throughout China that became symbolic of the antitraditionalist efforts of Chinese intellectuals. The first well-known traditionalist response was the book Dongxi wenhua ji qi zhexue (Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies), by Liang Shuming (1893–1988). Two of his like-minded contemporaries, Zhang Junmai (Carson Chang; 1886–1969) and Xiong Shili (1885–1968), inspired and taught a second generation of modern Confucians who were labeled New Confucians. Three of them—Tang Junyi (1909–78), Xu Fuguan (1903–82), and Mou Zongsan (1909–95)—left China proper and were instrumental in educating a third generation of New Confucians in Hong Kong and Taiwan. These three scholars, along with Zhang Junmai, produced and signed a manifesto introducing their teachings in 1958. Zhang was living in the United States at the time and was the first to suggest the idea of a manifesto that would provide other scholars with a more positive assessment of Chinese thought and a more optimistic view of its contribution to world thought.

Although the manifesto of 1958 was addressed, in key respects, to Western scholars, the English translation appeared four years later in an abbreviated version that had little impact at the time. Published in Chia-sên Chang's The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought (1962), the translation was titled "A Manifesto for a Reappraisal of Sinology and a Reconstruction of Chinese Culture." The four authors were disappointed with prevailing studies of traditional Chinese culture because such studies treated it as a dead object and failed to understand its spiritual essence. They believed that a correct understanding of Chinese culture would improve the prospects for healthy future developments in China and throughout the world. Correctly understood, they argued, the essence of Chinese culture lies in moral and metaphysical teachings that have universal value rather than a value limited to their being aspects of Chinese history or modern Chinese nationalism. These teachings originated in Confucianism and are far more spiritual in nature than others are willing to admit. While others consider Confucianism important and identify xin (heart-mind) and xing (inner nature) among its key concepts, they fail to see its spiritual value. Too influenced by modern, Western views of mind and human nature, they misunderstand xin and xing. Xin designates a person's transcendental moral mind, and xing designates the sense of moral reason that is conferred on a person by Heaven. By following the learning of moral mind and moral reason (xinxing zhi xue), one can attain a state of conformity in virtue (de) with Heaven (Tian).

According to the 1958 manifesto, Confucian moral metaphysics, unlike Western moral metaphysics, does not need to posit God's existence. Instead, it grounds itself in the experience of the limitless nature of the transcendental moral mind possessed by every person. While moral practice can emerge from consciousness of moral mind and moral reason, such consciousness grows only through regular moral practice. Thus, Confucian philosophy is never merely theoretical, as is so often true in the West. It is always practical and close to everyday living. Therefore, although Western philosophy produced the kind of abstract theory and rigorous logic that helped modern science to develop, it can still learn much from Asian thought. In particular, there are five areas in which the West can learn from the East. In its relentless pursuit of progress the West betrays an underlying insecurity that makes its societies keep driving ahead. With experience of the transcendental moral mind as the basis of all temporal value, people can appreciate resting in contentment as a counterbalance to the will to drive ahead. Proceeding from abstract truths to their application in concrete situations, the modern West is not only exceedingly oriented toward progress, it is also quite inflexible in its manner of observing and handling specific situations. All must conform to supposedly universal legal, scientific, or religious principles. By appreciating that the human mind must stay in contact with immediate reality, an Asian perspective can lead us to a more dynamic and flexible approach to world problems. The West can also learn from the East in regards to the practice of compassion. The love and enthusiasm for helping others that is grounded in Western religions carry the danger of distortion and allow selfish tendencies to play a role. To prevent these tendencies from emerging, a person must remove them at their roots by experiencing what Buddhists call "great compassion." A person can then love and respect every other person as one in whom God (Heaven, great compassion) also dwells. Westerners should also learn from the East how to perpetuate their culture. In its pursuit of progress and world mastery, the West not only lacks a sense of contentment but also a sense of historical consciousness that incorporates human as well as cosmic roots. Westerners need to have a sense of filial gratitude toward their roots as the basis for prolonging the culture and history of their ancestors. Finally, with their traditional beliefs in original sin and a salvation that is limited to members of a particular religion, Westerners need to develop a greater sense of "one world, one family." Holding that each person is originally good and having no requirement of church membership, Confucianism can lead the way toward people's acceptance of all others as brothers.

Students of the New Confucian thinkers who wrote the 1958 manifesto continue to be active, developing their ideas and seeking new ways to respond to Western religions and philosophies. Perhaps the best known among them is Wei-ming Tu, a Chinese-American scholar at Harvard University. In his optimistic assessment, contemporary Confucians are beginning a Third Epoch in the history of Confucian thought as they respond to Western ideas. During the First Epoch (Han period), according to Tu, Confucians successfully faced the challenge of competing Chinese schools of thought. In the Second Epoch (Song period) they reformulated their tradition in response to Indian Buddhism. In the Third Epoch they will match their earlier intellectual accomplishments in facing the challenge of the West.


Confucianism's organizational structure was typically the same as that of existing social institutions, such as the family and the state. Those who led and preserved the tradition over the centuries were clan patriarchs and state officials. Other organizations that served as Confucianism's "carriers," to use the concept of the sociologist Max Weber, included the Confucian academies aligned with certain philosophical schools and the syncretic religious groups that promoted Confucian teachings along with Buddhist, Taoist, and other teachings.

With the demise of East Asian monarchies and with clan organizations existing only as shadows of their former selves, the successors of the Confucian academies and syncretic religions remain as the primary carriers of Confucian teachings and practices. Such groups as the New Confucian school of philosophers continue to serve the function of Confucian academies, and some religious organizations, such as Yiguan Dao (Way of Unity) and Falun Gong, preserve Confucian teachings as part of a syncretic mixture.


The most sacred place for Confucians is Qufu, Shandong Province, China. The town contains the gravesite of Master Kong (in a Kong family graveyard) and the homes of many living descendants of the Kong family. In addition, Qufu is the site of the oldest and largest Master Kong temple. Throughout East Asia are similar temples, where official rites for Master Kong were traditionally performed. Only a few such temples continue to have these rites and do so partly to keep the tradition alive and partly to serve the tourist industry.

One can also include the ancestral halls and grave-sites of East Asian families other than the Kong family as places of Confucian worship. Traditionally, at these two sites, family members performed Confucian-style ceremonies in commemoration of their ancestors. This practice has continued but on a reduced scale, though there has been a revival of these ceremonies in China since the death of Mao Zedong.


In his book Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (1972), the scholar Herbert Fingarette presented the view that people should find sacredness in the ordinary activities of human interaction. According to this view, what Confucians consider sacred is fully within the natural and social worlds in which people live. In the natural world Tian (Heaven) and key representations of the yin and yang forces, such as Moon and Sun, are sacred. In the social world each human being is sacred and potentially a sage, yet a person's own elders and ancestors are to be most revered. Even the tradition's main deity—to the extent that Master Kong is treated as one—has only rarely been associated with anything miraculous or supernatural. Like other revered sages of Confucianism, he is sacred because he was able to maximize human virtue and wisdom.


The most specifically Confucian holiday is 28 September, the celebration of Master Kong's birthday, which for some East Asians is also Teacher's Day. It is celebrated in many ways, with various kinds of East Asian cultural performances, including traditional sacrificial rites at Master Kong temples. During premodern times these were biannual rites performed on spring and fall festival days.

In a strict sense there are no other Confucian festival days. Most people, however, acknowledge the strongly Confucian nature of ancestral festivals, when family members ritually express their filial gratitude toward ancestors. These festivals include days for visiting gravesites, such as the Chinese Qing Ming festival (5 April), as well as days when family members present offerings to ancestors on the family altar at home, such as New Year's Day.


Contemporary Confucians, even leaders, have no specific mode of dress. The only exception occurs on Master Kong's birthday, when dignitaries wear robes similar to those worn by traditional Confucian officials. In premodern times the mandarin robes that were the daily attire of officials enhanced the reverence in which they were held by the common people. The robes worn on ritual occasions were quite ornate, featuring images of birds and other animals that indicated the type (civil or military) and rank (grades one through nine) of an official's position. When a large number of officials wearing these robes stood in ceremonial formations, both color and cosmic significance were added to the rites being performed.


The Confucian scriptures and related traditions had much to say about eating in general but not about dietary restrictions or prohibited foods. These sources, especially the ones about li (ritual), covered good table manners, seasonal observances, and proper awareness of the social hierarchy in the serving of food. For example, the Book of Rites prescribes the following: Do not make noise in eating; do not snatch food; do not use chopsticks for millet porridge; do not gulp soup; do not keep picking the teeth; and, if a guest asks for condiments, the (insulted) host will apologize for not making a better soup. While modern East Asians may not know the source, most will certainly recognize the table manners it recommends.

Seasonal and hierarchical aspects of eating also had religious and social significance. The discussion of seasonal observances in Confucian ritual texts included information about what to eat so as to be in harmony with a given time of year. For example, the "Monthly Ordinances" chapter of the Book of Rites prescribes wheat and mutton for a ruler's spring meals; beans and fowl for his summer meals; hemp seeds and dog's flesh for his autumn meals; and millet and pork for his winter meals. As with other aspects of the ruler's behavior—such as the color of his robe and the type of carriage or shape of vessel used—the food he ate had to harmonize with the elemental agent of each season: wood for spring, fire for summer, metal for autumn, and water for winter.

Reflecting a broader enforcement of social hierarchy through symbolic acts, ritual procedures for serving food revealed the same penchant for careful differentiation by age, gender, and social status that are found in Confucian ritual procedures for other areas of life, from court protocol to funeral ceremonies. An especially interesting passage from the part of the Book of Rites covering table manners tells about the five ways to serve a melon based on the social status of the person who will eat it. For the Son of Heaven (the emperor), the melon must be in eight parts and covered with fine linen; for the ruler of a state, it should be in four parts and covered with a course napkin; for a great officer, it should be in four parts but left uncovered; for a lesser officer, it should simply be served with the stalk cut off; and, for the common man, no preparation is needed, since he "will deal with it with his teeth."


As discussed above, li (ritual norms, propriety) have played a central role in Confucianism, and throughout East Asia, ritual norms for important ceremonies, such as marriages and funerals, originated in ancient Confucian scriptures. In addition, a whole range of state rituals were performed in accordance with the requirements of the Confucian scriptures, such as the Book of Rites, from each ruler's worship of his own ancestors to the imperial sacrifices to Heaven that Chinese emperors performed at the Altar to Heaven on the day of the winter solstice. In a general sense, all of these events were Confucian rituals. The rites performed for Master Kong at Confucian temples, however, were historically the ones most closely identified with Confucianism, and today this is even truer because they are virtually the only (formerly state) rituals that continue to be performed.

Temple rites for Master Kong began as a Kong family affair. Over time, however, they became a national tradition in China and other East Asian countries. Centuries after Master Kong's death, during the Han Dynasty, the Chinese emperor first made offerings at Master Kong's ancestral temple in the hometown of the Kong family. Later the system of official rites for Master Kong expanded greatly. A major temple for Master Kong was constructed in the national capital, and lesser temples were built at all local administrative centers. At the main altar in each temple the master was worshiped under his official title, "supreme sage and ancient teacher," and, at various secondary altars, lesser Confucian sages were revered. Similarly, ordinary families built clan ancestral temples for the worship of male ancestors, who were represented by tablets showing their names and official titles.

Since the fall of the premodern states in China, Korea, and Vietnam, only a shadow of the former system of Confucian temple rites has been maintained. Cultural conservatives and foreign tourists in contemporary East Asia are periodically able to enjoy ceremonies performed for Master Kong. But these ceremonies no longer serve a central role in a state religion. Like other aspects of the modern Confucian tradition, they have an uncertain future.


Three major rites of passage in East Asia developed under Confucian influence: coming-of-age, marriage, and funeral ceremonies. Confucian mourning and ancestral rites can be viewed as extensions of the practices of Confucian funeral ceremonies. The Book of Rites was the original source for most information on how to perform these rites of passage. Since the twelfth century, however, Zhu Xi's Family Rituals has been the immediate source of information for most families. In addition to carrying the commentary and imprimatur of Master Zhu, it briefly covers each of the key rites of passage: capping and pinning, weddings, funerals, and sacrificial rites for ancestral and seasonal events.

While the existence of the capping and pinning ceremonies for boys and girls suggests ritual parity between males and females, in actuality only the capping ceremony for boys was a major event. Girls were "pinned" (given a cap, a jacket, and an adult name) as part of the betrothal process, sometimes just prior to their marriage. The capping ceremony, by contrast, was a major event in the lives of boys from upper-class families who had reached the age of 14 (15 in Chinese reckoning). The process began three days before the actual capping with an announcement at the family offering hall by an elder (usually the boy's father or grandfather). The capping ceremony itself occupied a day of ritual activities that culminated in a meal for the sponsor (an important friend or associate of the elder) and the introduction of the boy to his father's friends and other local elders.

Confucian influences on marriages extend from the details of the rituals as such to the patriarchal values underlying them. Even today many traditional marriages conform to the pattern of "six rites" that is described in Confucian ritual texts. First, the groom's family hires a go-between to inquire about the prospective bride. Second, the go-between makes another visit to request the prospective bride's astrological information. Third, if the bride's family provides this information, then an astrologer will be asked to compare the astrological information of the young woman and the man to assure that their marriage will be a match made in heaven. Fourth, there is a formal engagement involving the exchange of gifts between the families. The most important gifts go from the groom's to the bride's family in the form of a "bride's price," which compensates the girl's family for giving away their daughter to become another family's helpmate as well as its hope for continuing the family line. The fifth rite sets an auspicious date on which the wedding ceremony will take place. The sixth rite, the wedding ceremony itself, has several parts: The bride departs her home amid acts marking her impending separation from her natal family; she arrives at the groom's home to witness rituals that celebrate her arrival but also express the subordinate position she will have in her new home; and the bride joins the groom as a guest of honor at the wedding banquet, with its various acts and foods symbolizing key values, including prosperity and posterity, above all.

The only other family rituals that match marriage ceremonies in importance are those that follow death: funerals, mourning, and the veneration of ancestors. A Confucian funeral is, above all, a final opportunity for sons and daughters to express the depth of their filial gratitude. Although Master Kong advised against lavish funerals, most people express filial gratitude to their cherished ancestors by spending heavily on funerals, often hiring Taoist priests or Buddhist clerics to perform additional rites for the sake of the deceased person's soul. As a Confucian ritual, the event is a family affair, with sons of the deceased, rather than religious professionals, performing key ritual roles. As death becomes imminent, the elder is moved to the main hall of the home, where the altar to the ancestors is located. After death family members wash the corpse and place it in a coffin, which is then ritually sealed. Following filial rites in the main hall of the home, participants in the funeral procession carry the coffin to its burial site. After the burial the ancestral tablet carried by a son at the head of the procession is returned to the home and ritually installed on the ancestral altar.

Mourning rites offer opportunities to continue to express filial gratitude to one's deceased ancestors. Mourning responsibilities are divided into five grades (wu fu) defined by the Book of Rites. These range from first-grade mourning, which is observed by the wife and children of a deceased man, to fifth-grade mourning, which is observed by his distant relatives. The higher, or stricter, kinds of mourning last longer (up to 27 months), involve severe restrictions on behavior, and require the wearing of coarse attire as an expression of respect and sadness. In addition to mourning activities, ancestral rites were the final obligations required of family members. These will be covered below in connection with Confucian state rituals.

The main official rituals in Confucian states consisted of sacrifices to three kinds of entities: cosmic forces, royal ancestors, and Confucian sages. State sacrifices to cosmic forces were considered an important part of government because they maintained harmony between human society and the universe. The timing, location, and content of these sacrificial offerings were key aspects of maintaining this harmony. For example, the Chinese emperor, as the Son of Heaven, worshiped Heaven on the day of the winter solstice (when the heavenly yang principle begins to grow) at the Altar to Heaven, south of the capital city (that is, the yang direction). Because the sacrifice to Heaven was a "Great Sacrifice," it involved offering all three main sacrificial animals: an ox, a sheep, and a pig. The emperor offered a sacrifice to Earth at the time of the summer solstice at an altar to the north of the capital, while he revered the Sun and Moon in the east and west, respectively, at times that were also fixed in accordance with the yin-yang cosmology. As the representative of human society, the emperor acted according to the principles of the yin-yang cosmology specifically in order to maintain harmony between humanity and the natural world.

In the world of Chinese state ritual, the Son of Heaven's royal ancestors were second in importance only to Heaven. In fact, throughout East Asia, monarchs worshiped their ancestors in accordance with the Confucian principle of filial gratitude. In China ritual offerings were made at the imperial ancestral temple near the imperial palace and also at the imperial tombs outside the capital. Families throughout the empire conducted these practices on a smaller scale. They made offerings to their own ancestors at altars in the main halls of their homes as well as at their ancestor's gravesites. These rituals celebrated the accomplishments of the ancestors, the continuity of the family line, and the anticipated achievements of future generations. While contemporary East Asian leaders honor their forebears in private ancestral rites, just as ordinary citizens do, public commemorative rites for deceased national leaders and heroes are also common.


Has Confucianism been a universal religion—that is, one that spreads a message for all humanity from one area to others in the manner of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam? Or has it been a cultural religion, one that maintains itself primarily among one ethnic or national group, as has been the case with Judaism and Hinduism? Confucianism seems to fall between these two types of religion. On the one hand, it evolved and long remained within Chinese society. On the other hand, Confucianism ultimately spread from China to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam along with various features of Chinese culture. Because Confucian doctrines had a strong appeal to certain leaders in those countries, they promoted these doctrines with missionary zeal. But this does not mean that Confucianism is an evangelistic tradition. Rather, it has moved with societal, governmental, and intellectual traditions as they spread throughout East Asia and beyond. Even outside East Asia, immigrants—not missionaries—brought Confucian teachings and practices into new areas. Nonetheless, modern followers of Master Kong, such as the New Confucians, argue that people everywhere can embrace Confucian teachings on being filial, humane, trustworthy, and morally courageous. More than ever, Confucianism is a universal tradition but not an evangelizing one.


There is no question that contemporary Confucians are content to accept their tradition as one among several world religions that should respect one another. In fact, several leading Confucian scholars are simultaneously interested in Confucianism and Buddhism or Taoism, while yet others are practicing Christians. In addition, they have been willing to participate in interreligious conferences, which are the modern world's best examples of mutual tolerance among religions. In particular, in the late twentieth century there were four major Confucian-Christian conferences—in Hong Kong (1988), Berkeley (1991), Boston (1994), and Vancouver (1997).

In premodern times the Confucian record with regard to religious tolerance was more mixed. Confucian states in China, Korea, and Vietnam were generally more tolerant of different religion's beliefs than their Christian counterparts in Europe. Periodically, however, there were persecutions of Buddhists by Confucian states as well as the infamous long-term suppression of Buddhism under Korea's Yi dynasty. Moreover, Confucian states often betrayed a suspicion of popular syncretic religious groups, which had roots in Buddhism, claiming that they had subversive tendencies. If deemed necessary, they used military force to control, or even eliminate, these sects.


During most of its history Confucianism has been aligned with established powers in society rather than with social justice movements that challenged these powers. As modern Confucians have argued, however, the tradition has a "prophetic" (social justice) dimension that they can develop, since Confucianism is now separated from the premodern monarchies that once supported and defined it. This dimension emerged during China's Warring States period (480–221 b.c.e.), when Master Meng, in particular, was one of few voices calling for peace, social welfare, and popular protest against inhumane monarchs. At that time Confucians, who considered themselves an ignored minority preaching humaneness and justice, lacked social and political influence.

Some modern scholars have found populist, and even democratic, tendencies in Master Meng's thought. They have pointed to occasions on which he approvingly quoted proto-democratic sayings, such as "Heaven sees as the people see; Heaven hears as the people hear" (Mengzi 5A:5). They also have argued that he believed in popular rebellion when it was justified. For example, in conversation with the king of the state of Qi, he told the king that the people will treat a ruler who abuses them as a robber and an enemy. A bit incredulous, the king asked, "May a subject assassinate his sovereign?" Master Meng explained, "He who mutilates humaneness is just a mutilator; he who cripples justice is a mere crippler." He added that this kind of behavior turns a king into an "outcast," so that his murder would not count as the assassination of a sovereign (Mengzi 1B:8). As for conducting wars, Master Meng considered this to be one of the great crimes monarchs committed against their peoples. Although those skilled at war were highly valued in his time, he said "death is too light a punishment for such men." He stated his justification for this view as follows: "In wars to capture territory, the dead fill the plains; in wars to capture cities, dead bodies litter the urban landscape" (Mengzi 4A:14). Thus, the Confucian tradition has the intellectual resources to support social justice movements, although historically it has a weak record in using them.

Education is one area in which Confucianism has a strong historical record. With its positive assessment of human potential, Confucianism has made education central to its views on social as well as individual development. This trend began in the time of the masters Kong and Meng with the idea that social leaders should be those who have themselves learned about government, ritual, and virtue, not simply those born the sons of aristocrats. It later developed into East Asia's most important social program to counteract aristocratic privilege: the state examination system. With roots going back as far as the Han period, the system of state examinations evolved first in China and was later adopted in other areas of East Asia and, ultimately, the world. Confucian leaders sought to develop state-run examinations that would become the path by which the sons of any family could enter key government positions.

While the examination system excluded women and was not completely successful in replacing aristocracies with meritocracies, it established education as a path to success and stressed selection by merit as a cure for the widespread social ills of nepotism and favoritism. In contemporary East Asia, the battle between these social ills and the meritocratic ideal has continued, with young women as well as young men placing their fate in the hands of examination systems that determine access to educational as well as career opportunities.


The family has always been the central social institution in Confucian thought. In fact, the second institution stressed by Confucians, the government, was in key ways modeled on the family, with the monarch filling the role of patriarch. Traditionally, the family and the state in Confucian societies were both hierarchically ordered. More recently, there have been efforts to change this by promoting equality between husbands and wives and by promoting democracy as the best system for forming governments.

Representatives of Confucianism hold conservative views on the value of the family, viewing it as preferable to other social arrangements, from communes to unmarried couples. Many, however, would like to see democratization in family relationships as well as in political ones. One recommendation has been to rearrange the famous Five Relationships, described above in MORAL CONDUCT, so that the central one would be a balanced husband-wife relationship instead of the hierarchical father-son relationship, the latter relationship also becoming more equable. Such an arrangement represents two fundamental shifts in social values. First, women are valued as much as men and are believed to have the same right to pursue careers. Second, no one in the family is stuck perpetually in a powerless, subordinate role. The wife is freed from a life of subordination to her mate. Children are given the space to develop as independent individuals, although they still must learn to express filial gratitude to the mother and father who have sacrificed to help them develop.


Many issues on which modern Confucians have taken a stand concern the nature of the Confucian tradition itself. Focused on saving Confucianism and, in many cases, traditional culture as such, they have rarely commented on the issues that dominate much religious debate—abortion, birth control, divorce, and homosexuality, for example. In fact, they have expended most of their intellectual capital defending the tradition against the attacks of its critics. In the process they have had to respond to the following key questions: (1) Is Confucianism so attached to the past that it is unable to contribute to a brighter future in East Asia; (2) do Confucian values run counter to the economic needs of modernizing societies; (3) is Confucianism relevant to East Asia's quest for democracy; and (4) can Confucianism find roles for and enhance the status of women within the tradition as well as in society as a whole?

Contemporary Confucians are admittedly conservative in the sense that they find much of value in traditional culture. Most claim, however, that they are willing to abandon useless elements of traditional culture while preserving useful elements and combining them with the best contributions from the West. The need to preserve the past while moving forward to keep pace with the West has dominated the thinking of East Asian intellectuals since at least the mid-nineteenth century, when the Confucian scholar Zhang Zhidong (1837–1909) coined the slogan "Chinese learning as foundation, Western learning as application." The polarity between ti (foundation, substance) and yong (application, function) had been important in Confucian thought prior to the nineteenth century, but Zhang placed it at the center of a controversy that has lasted for well over a century.

Confucians have generally believed that Western learning provides useful tools for developing East Asian nations but that Asian thought (Confucianism, in particular) continues to provide the basic values by which these nations should be developed. They have admired certain Western contributions, such as science for technological development and democracy for political development, but they have rejected "wholesale Westernization." They do not want Western materialistic and utilitarian values to replace Confucianism's spiritual humanism and its commitment to forms of social harmony that mitigate competition between individuals.

In the mid-twentieth century Western social scientists all seemed to agree that elements of the Confucian social harmony model—familism, deference to authority, suppression of assertive individualism—would stand in the way of economic development. By the 1980s, however, social scientists in East Asia as well as the West found themselves having to explain the economic success of Japan and the four "mini-dragons": Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Contemporary explanations attribute economic success in these areas to the presence of the East Asian social harmony model as well as to such other "Confucian" elements as frugality, diligence, and delayed gratification. This has emboldened Confucians to claim that, indeed, there is a way to remain culturally Confucian while using Western tools to modernize, at least economically. The jury is still out on the issue of democratization in East Asia, however. Despite the region's economic modernization, it is still possible to argue that, as long as the political culture of East Asian countries remains subtly but essentially Confucian, they will continue to have trouble with political modernization.

Some modern Confucians have claimed that ancient Confucian political thought was not authoritarian—that, in fact, it contained democratic tendencies. Nonetheless, controversy has continued to rage over whether or not Confucianism can contribute positively to the process of democratization in East Asia. Even the New Confucian thinker Mou Zongsan has acknowledged that the Confucian political tradition lacked the means for practicing democracy, even though it supported philosophically the idea of government by and for the people. Others have been even less sanguine, wondering whether Confucianism can do anything at all to help democratization except stay out of the way as the process occurs. Moreover, Confucians have had trouble convincing people that their tradition is friendly to democracy, because a number of modern authoritarian regimes have promoted Confucian values, such as loyalty and filiality, to cultivate people's obedience. The governments of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan (1949–75), Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore (1959–90), and, more recently, Jiang Zemin in China (1993–2003) have made use of the Confucian tradition to secure people's compliance. Philosophically oriented Confucians have tried to distance themselves from this trend, but it clearly has led people to view claims about the compatibility of Confucianism and democracy with skepticism.

Confucians confront an equally difficult situation in making the case that their tradition is in a good position to champion women's rights. They face an uphill battle in reinterpreting their tradition in a way that establishes gender-neutral respect for human dignity. Scriptural discussions of the human potential for virtue and wisdom seem always to assume a gendered male subject, and the historical record on the treatment of women in Confucian societies is abysmal. It is therefore not surprising that no prominent feminist intellectuals in East Asia have identified themselves with Confucianism. All prominent representatives of Confucianism are men. For the most part these men have been willing to repudiate the attitudes toward women found in Confucian scriptures and in premodern Confucian societies. Nonetheless, they have not been affected as much by the global women's movement as have men in other world religions, primarily because women have been mostly unable or unwilling to join their ranks. Whether deserved or not, their tradition has an extremely poor reputation with feminists.


As the teachings of Master Kong and his successors spread over East Asia, something called "Confucianization" occurred in the affected parts of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. This process extended from the previously discussed areas of moral, spiritual, and political life to the arts, including architecture, literature, and painting.

In the case of architecture, public buildings, especially the residences and audience halls of rulers, were built to conform to sacred principles laid down in Confucian scriptures. These included the principle of northsouth axiality, according to which building entrances faced south—the beneficent yang direction—with their backs to the north. The related principle of directionality determined what ritual structures could be built to the east, west, north, or south of the main hall or residence. Finally, the principle of concentricity assured that the most sacred building, such as the primary audience hall or royal residence, was at the center of the whole complex of walls and buildings. Lesser structures were built on the periphery in locations determined by the principles of directionality and north-south axiality. Even the structures of other traditions, such as Buddhist monastery complexes in East Asia, were built according to these principles.

While Confucianism's influence on music and dance was less pervasive than its influence on architecture, it had a special impact on the performance of public rituals that featured music and dance. Intoned ritual commands mixed with the sounds of drums and bronze bells came to characterize public rituals throughout East Asia. Moreover, the positions of participants in the ritual reflected originally Confucian conceptions of social hierarchy, with the highest-ranking participant (perhaps the ruler himself) marking the center of power, and those of lesser and lesser ranks standing in locations farther and farther away from this central figure.

Turning to the realm of literature, it is clear that Confucian officials wrote more than ritual commands and the texts of memorials to their kings. Indeed, the Book of Odes was not only one of Confucianism's original Five Scriptures but also the primary source of examples and inspiration for East Asian poets. Moreover, Confucian officials were always found among the ranks of poets, and learning to write poetry was always part of a good Confucian education. For better or worse, poetry writing required skills possessed only by members of the educated elite. Poet's verses had to conform to strict rules about rhyming, line length, and so forth. Poets also needed the erudition that would allow them to create, as well as to recognize, literary allusions to the contents of earlier poetic works, including the Book of Odes.

In fact, the topics and themes of poetry, going back to the Book of Odes, often reflected Confucian values and a Confucian lifestyle. Such topics and themes included descriptions of being in harmony with the seasonal changes of the cosmos, praise for good rulers and their loyal ministers, subtle condemnation of corrupt rulers through portrayals of social abuses, and expressions of the nostalgia for one's native place that was felt by officials who were stationed far from home. Finally, the events celebrated in occasional verse were often connected with the public and private lives of Confucian officials, including such occasions as a parting from home to take up a new official position, a private gathering of the literati, or even a visit to a friend.

Confucianism also exerted an influence on painting. In fact, a movement called "literati painting" emerged in China that, ultimately, had an impact in other areas of East Asia as well. Literati painters were self-professed "amateurs" in their lives away from court. They self-consciously avoided the professionalism of those who painted court portraits or realistic scenes from upperclass life. One of the results of their effort to avoid professional realism was the somewhat expressionist look for which literati landscape paintings are now so well known and adored. They offer personal expressions of the beauty and mystery of nature rather than photographic reproductions of it.

Confucian Civil Religion

Scholars most often use the concept "civil religion" when discussing beliefs and rituals that are connected to a nation rather than to any particular organized religion. The term is also useful, however, for understanding the role of Confucianism in premodern China, Korea, and Vietnam, especially since Confucianism usually lacked the organizational forms (churches or religious groups, for example) found in other world religions. Like modern civil religion in the United States and elsewhere, Confucianism provided the religious dimension of the state through the beliefs that its representatives promoted and the rituals that they performed.

This situation is well exemplified by Korea's Yi Dynasty (1392–1910), which aligned itself with Confucianism to perhaps the greatest extent of any East Asian state in history. Following the Koryo Dynasty (918–1392), in which Buddhism expanded its influence in Korean life, the Yi Dynasty promoted Confucianism over both foreign Buddhism and indigenous Korean shamanism. The dynasty's first king, T'aejo (reigned 1392–98), began construction of a Confucian school and temple complex called Sǒng gyun' gwan (Hall of Perfection and Equalization), which still exists in modern Seoul at its original location. He and many of his royal successors identified closely with Master Kong, whose descendants lived in the neighboring Shandong Province of China and migrated to Korea in significant numbers. Ultimately, the national Master Kong Temple at Soňg gyun' gwan housed the spirit tablets of Korean Confucian sages as well as those of Master Kong and his famous Chinese disciples.

Korean royalty performed rites of commemoration for Master Kong twice each year at this temple, thereby exhibiting their commitment to Confucian virtues. The master was revered as a human sage, not as a divine being, although elaborate sacrificial offerings were prepared to honor his spirit. This civil religious rite thus reinforced preferred social beliefs and served as a ritual model of a harmonious social hierarchy. In parallel with this and related Confucian civil rituals, the Korean state promoted Confucian civil beliefs regarding, for example, the loyalty of subject to ruler, the subservience of wife to husband, and the filial obedience of younger to older family members. These beliefs mainly concerned human relations, not the relationships between humans and divine beings. They were promoted, however, with the enthusiasm characteristic of religious missionaries. Within several generations of the Yi royal family's adoption of various Confucian beliefs and rituals, most of the Korean populace had embraced this "civil religion." Without actual missionaries, faith in the will of God, or even a church, a population was converted to a sacred tradition of foreign origin. The Confucian civil religion was celebrated by the Yi Dynasty until its end in 1910, and it continues to exert an influence in the lives of all Koreans, including those who swear allegiance to Protestant denominations or Buddhist revival movements.

This discussion of Confucianism's impact on cultural developments in East Asia would be incomplete without mentioning calligraphy and the carving of seals. These two art forms had a special connection with East Asia's Confucian elite, who viewed their handwriting and signature seals as expressions of human character on paper. All educated people studied the art of using a brush to write traditional Chinese characters. In premodern times a calligraphic scroll written by a great brush master or a famous historical figure had more value than most paintings. Perhaps even more surprising to students of East Asia, the carving of seals was often considered a major art form there, of no less importance than painting or calligraphy. After all, stamping one's seal on a document in East Asia continues to serve the same function as signing a document elsewhere in the world. Who else but Confucians would create an art form out of an important tool of the bureaucracy: the seal used to guarantee the authenticity of a state document?

This discussion demonstrates that, as the Confucian tradition spread over East Asia, it brought with it various cultural forms rooted in the private and public lives of Confucian scholars. The impact of these cultural forms has been as deep and abiding as the influence of the philosophical ideas and governmental practices for which Confucianism is better known.

Christian Jochim


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The word Confucianism implies the existence of a philosophy, a religion, or a worldview that goes by the name. "Confucian" ideas or attributes are assumed to have roots in ancient China, to be part of the common heritage of people of Chinese ancestry in other parts of the world, and to be shared by the peoples of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, who have been heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Confucianism has been used to identify an ideology of benevolent kingship used by empires to legitimize themselves in various parts of eastern Asia. It is often applied to the practice of ancestor worship or simple respect for family elders. Yet, although there was an ancient Chinese word for "scholar" (ru ), referring to those who studied ancient texts, the term Confucianism has no precise equivalent in Chinese. In order to understand why so many different phenomena have gotten lumped together in this fashion, we had better start with Confucius, or "the master," whose name was Kong (551479 b.c.e.).


The master speaks to us in the Lunyu (Analects), which contains brief, disconnected sayings attributed to him, conversations he had with disciples, and additional sayings or comments by some of those disciples. The text portrays Confucius as mentor and patron to a group of younger men who sought to serve in the government of a small state called Lu between 510 and 479 b.c.e. It is from their questions and answers that the notion of Confucian "learning" derives. Confucius describes himself simply as one who loves to learn and as a transmitter of wisdom from the ancient past. That he also learns from his students demonstrates that learning, knowing, and holding to the truth were considered parts of a continuous process, which was at once intellectual, practical, and spiritual. Learning was essential to knowing, knowing was essential to doing, doing was essential to spiritual fulfillment, and spiritual fulfillment was essential to learning. This process was held up as a standard against which the corrupting influences of wealth and power could be measured. After his death, it was the learning of Confucius that his disciples sought to emulate, and the standards he set were what students in later times struggled to achieve.

The concepts the learners used were appropriated from the pre-Confucian discourse of a broad class of warriors across the North China Plain. In this discourse power and virtue ideally were one (de ). The worlds of men and of spirits (gui or shen ) were separate but communication between the two was possible, and so was mutual intervention. Shamans and oracles were the agents of communication, while the warriors' sacrificial rites (li ) were intended to mollify the spirits and to prevent their capricious intervention in the affairs of men. Five hundred years before the time of Confucius, astrologers in the service of a particular coalition of warrior clans called Zhou had interpreted the movements of stars and planets as signs of the movement of spiritual forces in an ordered cosmos. From this they had extrapolated the overarching idea of a Mandate of Heaven (Tian Ming ), which legitimated the Zhou claim to order the world under heaven (tianxia ) with a clarification of the ritual duties of all the warrior clans, in accordance with their rank. At the apex of this ritual hierarchy was the head of the house of Zhou, who alone among men bore the title of king (wang ), but who by the time of Confucius no longer had any real political power.

The wisdom that Confucius sought to transmit was expressed in the language of Zhou texts and embodied in the performance of the rites as codified by the original Zhou patriarchs. But in the absence of Zhou power, the wisdom of the ancients with respect to bringing peace and order to the world could only be validated by the conscience, or benevolence (ren ), of especially virtuous "gentlemen" (junzi ) who rejoiced in the prospect of placing duty, or righteousness (yi ), above personal gain. Resisting the temptation to validate the Mandate of Heaven by appealing to revealed truth, the early Confucians held that human virtue, without reference to spiritual intervention, was both necessary and sufficient for bringing order to a world fraught with conflicts over wealth and power.

Warring States Confucianism

Until the time of Mencius (Mengzi; c. 371c. 289 b.c.e.) the principal proponents of Confucian learning resided in Lu, where they studied and taught the ancient texts and proper performance of the rites. The text that bears the name Mencius confirms historians' judgments that this era, the height of the Warring States period, witnessed a rapid change in the ethos of the ruling class. The rulers of the larger states all appropriated the title of king for themselves. They accelerated the development of institutions of direct taxation and conscription within their borders and belligerently applied new technologies in their efforts to expand beyond these borders. They actively sought advice on how to develop, defend, and expand their states, inviting scholars from throughout the known world to participate. Two opposing tendencies appear to have defined a new discourse involving a "Hundred Schools of Thought." On the one side were ideas that reflected and further encouraged the standardization of institutions and laws, the simplification and clarification of administrative methods, and the realistic pursuit of political goals. On the other side were ideas that reflected and further encouraged belief in divine retribution, spiritual intervention, and the Mandate of Heaven. Mencius revived the early Confucians' concepts of conscience, duty, ritual performance, and wisdom within this discourse.

The Confucius of the Analects answered a question about the meaning of wisdom by advising the questioner to "revere the spirits but keep them at a distance." He had very little to say about heaven. The Warring States discourse defines the domain of man as the space between heaven and earth. In this domain there is a Way (dao ) a set of principles and/or activitiesthat parallels, follows, approximates, resonates with, or reflects the "Way of Heaven and Earth." In Mencius the "Way of Man" is moral and the "gentleman" is its agent. The Warring States discourse also anticipates a reappearance of the spiritual forces that were manifest in the Zhou Mandate of Heaven. In Mencius the Mandate of Heaven appears at two levels. At one level Mencius advises kings and lesser rulers as to how they must act if they expect to receive the mandate and become a "true" king. At another level the text defines the "gentleman" as one who is able to grasp and hold onto the original moral "mind," or "heart" (xin ), which was heaven's mandate to each individual human, and thereby to "transform the environment through which he passes and invest with spirituality (shen ) the place in which he resides." At both levels, the idea of the Mandate of Heaven is inseparable from the idea that in the mind of every person originally there are the seeds both of benevolence and of the duty to spread it in the domain of humanity.

In political thinking the idea of a world ordered by ritual was being displaced by the idea of a world ordered by law, or rewards and punishments. Yet proper performance of the rites remained important to the ruling elite, who still sought to legitimize their status by showing respect for their dead parents and ancestors as well as reverence for the gods of local communities over which they ruled. Mencius included the rites among the four virtues that were seeded by heaven in the human mind, but the Legaliststhose who would reform the world by enforcing new lawsdismissed them as artifacts of a world that was no more, while the Daoists, for whom the Way was not moral but natural, regarded them as the last means of moral suasion before a ruler resorted to force. In the middle of the next century, as the powerful state of Qin mounted its conquest of the world, Xunzi (c. 298c. 230 b.c.e.)the last of the great Warring States scholars to apply the early Confucians' conceptsrevived the concept of ritual with a stunning attack on the Legalists, the Daoists, and Mencius alike.

Xunzi argued that in the absence of benevolent rulers, it was the principles inherent in the performance of the rites that preserved the wisdom of the ancients and provided the means by which the "gentleman" could transform the world. The Daoists were right about heaven; it was neither moral nor responsive to human pleas for help. But, in addition, it was the origin of all life, and it provided man with a mind capable of learning by observing nature and by moderating the natural drive toward self-gratification. Human nature could not be distinguished from animal nature by its goodness, as Mencius had argued. Humans could understand the meaning of the word "good" because humans had invented it to contrast with the natural urge to gratify their desires. This natural urge was enhanced by emotions that, if allowed to prevail, led to ever increasing conflict and ultimate self-destruction. Social order, in short, was invented by the sages, and the rites were their means of channeling the emotions between the extremes that would destroy that order. For Xunzi, ordinary men find benevolence unattractive because they are naturally inclined to pursue pleasure and profit, leaving benevolence to the sages, but everyone benefits from a social order that keeps our angry and acquisitive urges at bay.

Xunzi replaces the moral mind of Mencius with a mind that is "empty, unified, and still." Like the Daoists, Xunzi argues that reasoningmoving the mind, filling it with things, and analyzing themforces us to make distinctions that lead us away from first principles and into petty disputes. Because the "gentleman" understands the principles behind the rites, an understanding that guides him to the middle ground between keeping to form and releasing the feelings, he finds comfort in carrying them out. Officials only maintain them, while ordinary people perform them because they are customary and believe they have something to do with spirits. As for laws and regulations, or rewards and punishments, these are necessary but not sufficient tools for governing. "Although there can be disorder where the laws are good, I have never heard of a case of disorder where the ruler was a 'gentleman.'"

Han Confucianism

With the successful completion of the Qin conquest (221 b.c.e.) and gradual development of imperial rule under the Han by the time of the emperor Wudi (14186 b.c.e.) came another shift in political and cosmological discourse within the ruling class. The unique title of the emperor (august lord; huangdi ) placed him above the warriors, scholars, magistrates, and economic managers who ran the state, and also above the complex array of magicians, shamans, and religious cults that made up the spiritual landscape. The ruler now occupied the position of cosmic pivot. The cosmos was explained as constantly changing, its primordial energy, or the psychophysical stuff of which all things are made (qi ), being differentiated by the complementary interaction of bipolar valences (yin and yang). Every part of the cosmos resonated with the changes occurring in the others. Small changes in climate, ecology, production, and administrative policy were related to a larger process that moved in grand cycles through five phases. Scholars gathered at the imperial academy and many lesser academies across the realm to improve their understanding of heaven, earth, and human sciences based on this cosmology. Dong Zhongshu (c. 179c. 104) is credited with the revival of early Confucian textual studies and the Mencian idea of "moral mind" within this context.

What modern scholars have called "Han Confucianism" comprised a broad spectrum of beliefs, social practices, and textual scholarship. The Five Classics on which imperial academy scholars based their interpretations were the Changes, Documents, Odes, and Rites all purported to be Zhou classicsand Spring and Autumn Annals of Lu, an extremely spare text attributed to Confucius. Dong Zhongshu used the Spring and Autumn Annals as a prophetic text, giving it more power in imperial academic discussions. One commentary on this text, the Gongyang zhuan, imagined in it cryptic references to a past and future age of "great peace," which readily fit into the discussions of continuous cycles of change and cosmic resonance. Dong advocated studying the past to prepare for the future. He interpreted specific natural disasters that damaged symbolic imperial structures as warnings to the emperor that corruption and dishonesty at court were moving the human world away from the "great peace" and toward cosmic disorder. Although contemporary scholars increasingly conclude that this version of "Han Confucianism" never subsumed the larger cosmology of which these moral arguments were a part, the image of Confucius as a sage continued and the idea of a Confucian vision of a utopian future reappeared in the nineteenth century. The radical reformer Kang Youwei (18581927) applied it to the modern world.

As the male educated elite of the Later Han period (25220 c.e.) found themselves dependent more on large landed estates, inherited titles, and marriage ties than on official positions with the Han state, they found other uses for the texts. The families of the titled elite used the Rites as their guide to social relations. Confucius had become something like a patron saint of scholars (ru ), and education in the classics had become a necessary part of elite status. An early Han text called Filial Piety preached devotion to parents and ancestors. If education for men had carried with it the obligation to serve both one's parents and the public good, education for women entailed the obligation to serve both the family of one's birth and the family of one's marriage in their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers. The rituals of ancestor worship distinguished elite male lines of descent, while the rituals of marriage and childbirth defined the passage of women from one line to another. Ban Zhao (c. 48c. 119), an educated woman of the highest status during this period, has been celebrated for her literary talents and exemplary role in further propagating these family values in her essays Admonitions to Women. With this text also begins a discussion of gender using Confucian concepts, as the author reminds her male readers that if a "gentleman" owes his status not to conditions of birth but to "Confucian" learning, then the same must be true of the exemplary woman.


For nearly a thousand years after the disintegration of the Han empire, the maintenance of elite family rituals and repeated invocation of filial duty were the only distinctively "Confucian" markers of the political elite in China. The classics, now labeled "New Texts," were replaced by more recently discovered "Old Texts," which joined Buddhist scriptures and imperial institutions as the eclectic markers of civilization. This was the civilization that spread to the Korean Peninsula and the Yamato Plain of Japan. The great Tang state of the seventh century left the elite families and their self-defined hierarchy in place. The Tang model resonated with the interests of great families in Korea and Japan. But not until the eleventh century, in an East Asian world that was divided among shifting imperial states but increasingly integrated by an expanding commercial economy, did another new ethos invite the recasting of early Confucian ideas.

The recasting, which has led Western scholars to coin the term "Neo-Confucianism" in an effort to define it, developed at the intersection of three social-intellectual trends. First, in the great Song empire of the eleventh century an emergent scholar-official elite, in their discussions of statecraft, tended to support their arguments on all sides with appeals to "native" precedents and values, in contrast to "imported" religious values and the imputed values of a rising commercial class. This nativist trend produced "moral learning" (daoxue ), which centered on early Confucian ideas of the Way and self-cultivation. Second, with the development of woodblock printing, the growth of unprecedentedly large commercial urban centers, and the appearance of private academies, there emerged a new metaphysical discussion that subsumed Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. This metaphysical trend was labeled "principle learning" (lixue ). Third, as an increasing number of scholar-official families relocated in rural areas in central, eastern, and southern China where they could invest in land and form strategic alliances with other locally prominent families, they began to appropriate the genealogical rules, forms of record keeping, contracts for incorporating property, and family rituals of the old hereditary elite as part of their localist social strategies. This localist trend led to the reinvention of the rites to suit their needs, while raising new problems for those scholar-officials who were engaged in "moral learning."

Zhu Xi (11301200), the great master of Song "principle learning," brought these three trends together in his copious writings on learning, statecraft, family rituals, cosmology, and the sciences. Philosophers of the previous century, especially Cheng Yi (10331107), had challenged the Buddhist view that prior to something (i.e., prior to the mind's effort to distinguish one thing from another) there is nothing (wu ). They turned to the cosmology of the Changes, according to which all things come into being with the movement of the complementary valences of yin and yang. Their movement is limited only by the finite amount of qi in the cosmos, and this limit (ji ) is called the "great ultimate" (taiji ). In other words, they argued, prior to something there is a principle (li ), which is best understood as both the ultimate limit and that which has no limit (wuji ). The mind's awareness of principles in things is not, as the Buddhists argued, something that it invents and confuses with reality but, rather, the completion of the process by which something simultaneously comes to exist and becomes knowable as principle. In the words of Zhu Xi, the "investigation of things," which, according to one ancient text, the Great Learning, was the first step in the process of learning that led to self-cultivation and world peace, meant the "exhaustive comprehension of principle." Drawing on this and another ancient text called the Doctrine of the Mean, he also argued that the unity of principle and mind was a manifestation of the Mandate of Heaven, which could only be understood as good, thereby merging the moralist with the metaphysical trend. He wrote commentaries on these two texts along with the Analects and Mencius, supplementing the commentaries by Cheng Yi, and advocated their study as a unit called the Four Books.

The moralist trend intersected the localist trend as the rites of upwardly mobile families began to change and the value of women in marriage arrangements began to rise. In the commercial world, especially in the households of urban and geographically mobile small traders and shopkeepers, a woman's value could easily depend more on the talents and abilities she brought to the trade than on her conformity to Ban Zhao's model. For a landowning scholar-official family, on the other hand, a woman's value was determined primarily by the family's rank, wealth, and local status. As daughters tended to marry upward on the social scale, dowries rose to a level that moralists regarded as grotesque. Concurrently, scholar-official families began to perform ceremonies at gravesites and to include in their ancestral rites greater generational depth. To further enhance their pedigrees, they began compiling genealogical records, which then became the currency of social relations locally, regionally, and empire-wide as time went on. When appeals to moral principles proved insufficient to counter these trends, scholars adapted the ancient texts and traditions to the setting of official standards for the new practices. Zhu Xi himself wrote copiously on issues of the family rituals that were the tools, or the cultural capital, of this class. Marriages, deaths, burials, ancestral rites, genealogical record keeping, and patterns of descent group formation were all contributing to a new discussion, the vocabulary of which derived from ancient ritual texts and concurrent discussions of learning and morality among the scholar-official elite.

After the Mongol expansion and domination of Asia, the texts and commentaries of Song "Neo-Confucianism" emerged as the orthodoxy on which success in the examination system of the Ming and Qing imperial civil service depended. A broadening stratum of educated elites in rural and urban communities throughout China drew on this tradition of learning to construct the nexus of power between the imperial state and local society. At the same time, the tradition's dual focus on self-cultivation and public duty defined a new debate on the role of individuals quite apart from the state. By the mid-sixteenth century a newly vibrant urban culture, based in part on global trade and silver flows, challenged the scholar-officials' nexus of power. An alternative reading of the ancient texts proposed by Wang Yangming (14721529) produced an array of new traditions that differed from the Song moralist trend. Wang argued that the "exhaustive comprehension of principle" could not occur in the first stage of learning because knowledge of principles was inseparable from the act of knowing. Learning entailed the "unity of knowledge and action," so that only when the mind actively applied itself to something could the principle be

According to Confucius, the point of "learning" was to attain confidence in one's own understanding of the Way, which also entailed the duty to restore virtue to power through benevolence and the use of ritual. One who understood this was called a "gentleman," to be distinguished from a "petty man," who did not. The core of this teaching can be found in a few pithy quotations from book 4 of the Analects:

The benevolent man is attracted to benevolence because he feels at home in it; the wise man is attracted to benevolence because he finds it to his advantage (4:2).

There is no point in seeking the counsel of an officer who sets his mind on the Way, if he is ashamed of poor food and poor clothes (4:9).

The gentleman cherishes virtue in power; the petty man cherishes his native land. The gentleman cherishes justice; the petty man cherishes mercy (4:11).

The gentleman understands what is right; the petty man understands what is profitable (4:16).

When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self (4:17).

If one is able to run the state with rites and deference, then what is the difficulty? If one is unable to run the state with rites and deference, then what good are the rites? (4:13).

Mencius believed that humans were inclined to goodness by nature and that this original goodness could be found by looking into one's heart (or mind), which heaven had made sensitive to the suffering of others: "Suppose one were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. One would certainly be moved to compassion. The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence; the heart of shame is the germ of duty; the heart of deference is the germ of the rites; the heart of right and wrong is the germ of wisdom. Having these four germs is like having four limbs. To say that one cannot use them is to cripple oneself; to say that one's ruler cannot use them is to cripple one's ruler."

Mencius also counseled rulers of states on how to recover and apply the compassion that was in their hearts. The key was to "take this very heart here and apply it to what is over there. Why is it that your bounty is sufficient to reach animals yet the benefits of your government fail to reach the people? The people will not have constant hearts if they are without constant means. Lacking constant hearts, they will go astray and fall into excesses, stopping at nothing. To punish them after they have fallen foul of the law is to set a trap for the people. How can a benevolent man in authority allow himself to set a trap for the people?"

Xunzi believed that humans were inclined to selfishness and that goodness was the result of the conscious activity of the mind (or heart). Neither "goodness" nor the rites were mandated by heaven; both were created by men who understood that ritual and deference were necessary for social order and the collective good. "The former kings looked up and took their model from Heaven, looked down and took their model from the earth, looked about and took their rules from mankind. Such rules represent the ultimate principle of community harmony and unity. Hence the sacrificial rites originate in the emotions of remembrance and longing, express the highest degree of loyalty, love, and reverence, and embody what is finest in ritual conduct and formal bearing." Man shares energy, life, and intelligence with the animals; why is man superior? "Because he is able to organize himself in society and they are not. Why is he able to organize himself in society? Because he sets up hierarchical divisions. And how is he able to set up hierarchical divisions? Because he has a sense of duty."

Zhu Xi believed that one could be said to have learned something only when the principle in a text had revealed to one the principle that was buried in one's mind: "When one's original mind has been submerged for a long time, and the moral principle in it hasn't been fully penetrated, it's best to read books and probe principle without any interruption; then the mind of human desire will naturally be incapable of winning out, and the moral principle in the original mind will naturally become safe and secure. In reading, we cannot seek moral principle solely from the text. We must turn the process around and look for it in ourselves. We have yet to discover for ourselves what the sages previously explained in their textsonly through their words will we find it in ourselves."

Wang Yangming believed that "learning" required both knowing and acting, and it was not necessarily aided by reading books. "In all the world, nothing can be considered learning that does not involve action. Thus the very beginning of learning is already action. To be earnest in practice means to be genuine and sincere. This is already action." "In the basic structure of mind there is neither good nor evil; when the mind moves purposively, then there is good and evil; knowing good and evil is what is meant by 'moral knowledge'; doing good and destroying evil is what is meant by 'the investigation of things.'"

known. By the same token, insofar as the substance of mind was empty and still, it was neither good nor evil, but a clarified mind in action "naturally" or "intuitively" conformed to what was "good." This, he argued, is what Mencius had meant by "moral knowledge" (liang zhi ). Some of the new traditions developed closer affinities with Buddhist and Daoist enlightenment. Some gave a much higher priority to individual enlightenment than to educational status. Some made it a duty to convert wealth into charity or to spread the enlightenment attained through self-cultivation to women and to social classes that were outside the nexus of power. Some even pointed out the ways in which the structures of family, lineage, and state impeded the learning process for men and women alike.

Ming challenges to Song Neo-Confucian orthodoxy continued to influence the personal moral choices of educated Chinese during the Ming decline and Qing conquest in the seventeenth century, but they did not displace that orthodoxy in the examination system. Nor did they prevent the Qing from using Confucian state ideology, demanding loyalty and compliance with prescribed norms in regular readings of the emperor's "Sacred Edict," or providing official support for patriarchal lineage institutions throughout the empire. On the other hand, a new trend of "evidential scholarship" (kaozheng ) emerged to challenge the antiquity of the pre-Han texts on which the orthodox commentaries depended. By the mid-eighteenth century, philological studies of ancient texts had developed into a science known as "Han learning" that complemented the learning imported by Jesuits into the Qing court's bureau of astronomy, weakening the cosmological underpinnings of the imperial state without challenging its political dominance. As Han learning gradually eroded the validity of the "Old Texts" of the Confucian tradition, new champions of the early Han "New Texts" also appeared. When alternative cosmologies and political philosophies arrived along with British gunboats and opium in the early nineteenth century, Chinese scholars and reformers responded not simply by reinforcing imperial Confucian ideology, but by drawing on current evidential scholarship and renewed debates over ethics that were strikingly relevant to the modern age.

In Korea the Chosŏn dynasty officially implemented Confucian rituals for local control using texts propagated by Zhu Xi, whose commentaries also remained orthodoxy in imperial examinations. By the eighteenth century Chosŏn state power had declined but a thoroughly ensconced local elite maintained a strict social hierarchy using Confucian family and community rituals, prescribed by law. In Tokugawa Japan, on the other hand, Confucian scholars found it difficult to reconcile Neo-Confucian ideas with bakufu military governance, as distinct from imperial authority, and the strict social distinction between a samurai class and common folks. Ogyū Sorai (16661728) and his successors in "Ancient studies" (kogaku ) challenged the Neo-Confucian worldview with observations akin to Xunzi's about the need to implement rites that are appropriate in time and place. A school of "National learning" (kokugaku ) arose and went even further, blaming Chinese learning in general for corrupting the native traditions of Shinto and the idea of imperial power. In response, Japanese "Han learning" promoted the study of the literary products of Chinese civilization as a valuable tradition in its own right. In the nineteenth century the Mito school devised a new formula, according to which the Chinese sages, as understood by the Duke of Zhou and Confucius, had formulated for China a philosophy whose principles were intrinsic in the Japanese imperial cult and original Shinto practice. Holding to the idea that Chinese civilization reflected universally true ideas, they concluded that the Way of the sages and the Way of the gods (Shinto) were actually one.

Modern Confucianism

After 1868 the Meiji leaders of Japan reinvented Shinto as a state religion in the effort to create a Japanese nation that could compete in a world dominated by modern imperialist powers. In its new imperial discourse it would also claim righteousness and demand loyalty of Korean and Chinese subjects in Confucian terms. In China, moderate reformers tried to combine Confucian traditions of education, political unity, and social order with modern technology and institutional reforms to enable the Qing empire to compete as well. With its capture of Taiwan in 1895 the Japanese empire emerged as both the greatest threat to China and the most obvious model for inventing a Chinese nation. Kang Youwei, a visionary who captured the imagination of a younger generation of reformers, drew on the "New Text" tradition to reinvent the image of Confucius himself as a radical reformer who envisioned an egalitarian world without political or cultural borders. The eras of "great peace" and, eventually, "great unity" would be China's contribution to a world that would eventually emerge from this era of imperialist expansion. At the same time, Kang and the other radical reformers hoped to place the young Guangxu emperor in a position analogous to that of the Meiji emperor in Japan, as the symbolic head of an empire strong enough to resist demolition at the hands of foreign powers.

In the revolutionary tide that engulfed China over the century after the failure of the Qing reforms, Kang's vision was dismissed as an artifact of a world swept away by modern change. But the very way in which it was dismissed demonstrates the role Confucianism has played in revolutionary discourse. The reformers' adaptation of ideals of self-cultivation, family loyalty, and Confucian education to a modern national identity galvanized support for the effort to save China among overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, contributing to a culturally specific style of engaging the modern world that is still thriving. As educated Japanese increasingly distanced themselves from the "backward" cultures of East Asia, blaming the failures of Neo-Confucian idealism in large part, educated Chinese increasingly identified themselves with humanistic Confucian traditions to combat the rampant "superstition" of popular religious culture and the "backwardness" of the imperial state. Liang Qichao (18731929), who was the most influential of Kang Youwei's followers, forced into exile in 1898 after the failed reform effort, tried to meld Xunzi's realistic concepts of a social order based on group obligations with German authoritarian notions of law in order to overcome both the impractical idealism of the Song tradition and the disintegrative effects that a more liberal political philosophy would likely have had on China. By the 1920s he was urging politically dispossessed students to learn from Wang Yangming's philosophy of liang zhi and the unity of knowledge and action. The Communist revolutionary leader Liu Shaoqi, on the other hand, urged the educated cadre to apply the unflagging selflessness of Confucian learning to the socialist cause. To combat Communism, the Nationalist regime appropriated the image of Confucius as authoritative teacher, lover of tradition, and counselor of respect for parents, elders, and rulersthe very opposite of the radical, visionary Confucius imagined by Kang Youwei.

More recently Confucian cultural norms have been credited for the Asian "economic miracle," the political stability and unprecedented economic development of China since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the educational success of East Asians in general. The same norms have been shamelessly invoked by dictators and blamed for the relative weakness of opposition politics, cronyism, and persistent gender inequality. Samuel Huntington has claimed that "Confucian civilization" provides a set of norms and symbols that opponents of the progressive ideas and institutions of "Western civilization" can use to maintain power in their own countries. Such a view represents a powerful position on the geopolitical struggles of the postCold War world, but it does not reflect the complex history or diversity of the ideas and practices associated with the Confucian tradition.

Other scholars have tried to understand the ways in which new traditions of Confucian learning appeared over time as economic and social conditions changed. Much postwar Japanese scholarship on Confucianism has focused on the libertarian and communitarian tendencies in China and Japan since the time of Wang Yangming. The same tendencies have led others to focus on tensions related to social mobility, increasing literacy, and shifting gender roles. Tu Wei-ming has argued that Chinese on the intellectual and geographic periphery have been the most creative in adapting Confucian learning to modern change. He believes that others will benefit from the lessons learned by those on the periphery and continue to develop new modern identities while renewing their Confucian roots. Chinese scholars of Confucianism in Hong Kong, Singapore, and more recently Taiwan and China have turned their focus to arguments about the balance between human rights and political authority, pressing politicians and entrepreneurs to attend to grievances, provide for education and welfare, value the law, and share the wealth. In a postcolonial, postrevolutionary world, the future of Confucian learning can hardly be predicted, but it seems unlikely that it will cease.

See also Chinese Thought ; Daoism ; Education: China ; Legalism, Ancient China .



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De Bary, William Theodore, and John W. Chaffee, eds. Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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Elman, Benjamin A., John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms, eds. Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

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Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Jerry Dennerline


views updated Jun 11 2018


Confucianism is most simply defined as a philosophy of life based on the teachings of the Chinese scholar Confucius (c. 551–c. 479 bce). A philosophy is an approach to understanding the values and reality of existence. The religion emphasizes love for humanity, the value of learning, and devotion to family, including ancestors. Confucianism teaches that there is a natural order to society, which relies on proper relationships. If these proper relationships are maintained through traditional rituals and etiquette, or li (good manners), society will also be well ordered. Another important aspect of Confucianism is the concept of ren (also spelled jen), or social virtue and empathy, the ability to feel for and sympathize with others.

In its early development Confucianism was primarily an ethical system, describing how to lead a good, moral life. After his death Confucius's sayings were written down by his followers. His teachings increased in popularity until the time of the Han Dynasty, when Confucianism became China's official state religion. (A Chinese dynasty is the period of reign by a ruling family, in this case the Han family [206 bce–220 ce]). Although Confucius himself spoke little about spiritual matters, focusing instead on how to live a proper, moral life, later scholars added more mystical, or spiritual, concepts during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 ce). They borrowed from such Chinese religions as Daoism and Chan, or Zen, Buddhism. The religion remained the basis for ethical behavior in China for more than two thousand years. It also gained followers in Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan.

Scholars still differ on whether or not to call Confucianism a religion or a philosophy. Many followers of Confucius's teachings refer to their practices as a moral code or world view and avoid labeling it a religion. Although many followers of Confucianism practice rituals such as veneration (a form of worship) of ancestors, belief in a god, and sacrifice to spirits, these practices date from before the time of Confucius and by themselves do not make Confucianism a religion. In a broader sense, however, Confucianism has much in common with religions: it is a belief system that promotes morality (a code of behavior), that has a specific view of humanity's place in the universe, and that guides believers in their everyday lives.


The tendency to do good and to be kind to others.
The official, sacred texts of a religion.
Political power that is the result of a ruler's virtue and honesty.
A sequence of rulers from the same family.
The study of moral values and rules or a guide to such values and rules.
Proper behavior; good manners.
filial piety:
The respect and devotion a child shows his or her parents.
Five Classics:
The original texts used by Confucius in his practices and teachings: Liji, Shijing, Shujing, Chunqui, and Yijing.
Four Books:
The most prominent of Confucian sacred texts, established by Zhu Xi: the Analects, the Mencius, Da Xue (Great Learning), and Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean).
A gentleman or superior man.
The rules of behavior a person must follow to reach the Confucian ideal of correct living.
Having to do with the philosophical study of the nature of reality and existence.
The study of morals and reality by logical reasoning to gain a greater understanding of the world.
Empathy, the ability to feel for and sympathize with others; the highest Confucian ideal.
Heaven, or the principle of ordering the universe.
The arts of music, poetry, and painting.

In the early twenty-first century there were a reported 5.6 million followers in China alone. Because Confucianism is not an organized religion, however, it is difficult to count its followers. (An organized religion is one with a formal structure of authority and membership.) Confucian ideas have entered all aspects of Chinese society, and most Chinese recognize and practice some of the aspects of the system, including its emphasis on family and respect for elders. In that respect, much of the 1.3 billion people of mainland China still follow the fundamentals of Confucianism.

History and development

Confucius is the most famous philosopher in Chinese history. He was born Kong Qiu (or Kong Chiu; the family name is Kong) in about 551 bce. (There are several other variations on his name, but he is most commonly known by the Latinized version, Confucius.) His parents were Shuliang-He and Yan-Zhensai and his birthplace was the city of Qufu in modern-day Shandong province. His father died before he was three, and Confucius was raised by his mother. Although he was poor, Confucius determined by the time he was fifteen that he would become a scholar, or a person who devotes his or her life to learning and study. As a young man he held various minor offices, such as keeping accounts of sheep and cattle. He also married early, to Qiguan-shi, and had, by some accounts, both a son and a daughter. His daughter later married one of Confucius's closest disciples, or followers.

He focused his scholarly studies on the ancient Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 bce). Confucius lived during a time of great social disorder and uncertainty. He wanted to restore order to Chinese society and saw the Shang Dynasty, with its well-defined social classes, court and family etiquette (proper behavior) and rituals, and orderly government, as an ideal model. His studies of the past led him to believe that the problems of society had much to do with the quality of leadership, or lack of leadership, in government. Confucius was also disturbed by the new sense of individualism that was gaining popularity in Chinese culture. (Individualism focuses on the needs of the individual rather than the good of the community.) As a remedy to the social problems of his time Confucius began to define a set of principles based on traditional Chinese culture and its heavy reliance on the family as the foundation of a well-ordered society.

Confucius hoped to put into practice his new theories about the family. He also wanted to teach rulers to be informed and virtuous. In order to spread his teachings Confucius opened a school to help young men to learn ethical leadership skills. After the age of fifty, he traveled widely for thirteen years, along with a small group of disciples, teaching his doctrines (set of beliefs) of proper etiquette and ritual to maintain a correct life. He pleaded with rulers to follow his principles, but received little response. He escaped assassins and near-starvation. When he returned to his home state of Lu, he continued to teach his followers, who came from all social and economic classes, until his death in 479 bce.

China during time of Confucius

Confucius set out to reform government so that it could better look after the people. His philosophy was practical; he wanted to develop a system of ethics, of daily good behavior, by which people could regulate their lives. Confucius differed from other thinkers of the time, the Legalist, or Realist School, who wanted to organize society from the top down. Legalists believed in controlling society through threats and strict punishment. For them, laws were the organizing force of a society. People were at heart ignorant and had to be controlled by a complex set of rules and regulations.

Confucius, however, wanted to reform society from the bottom up, beginning with the family. He reasoned that if people learned respect for one another and love, trust, and loyalty within the family, then these relationships would extend beyond the family to society as a whole. Thus he placed great emphasis on five primary relationships that reach throughout society: those between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder and younger brother, between friends, and between ruler and subject. All these relationships were ruled by the idea of respect that a son must give to a parent, or what is called filial piety (xiao), and the loyalty (zhong) that a subject gives to his or her ruler. Women consistently ranked below men in the model hierarchy, or ladder of authority: A wife owed respect to her husband, sons (and daughters) to their mothers as well as their fathers, and so on down to the wives of the sons, who owed respect to everyone. The ideal ruler, for Confucius, should be the model gentleman, who rules by de, or political power achieved through virtue and honesty.

The ideas for Confucianism grew out of a troubled time in China. The centralized power of the emperor was breaking down, and society in general was suffering because of it. Confucius was born during a period known as the Zhou Dynasty. This dynasty lasted from the eleventh century bce to the third century bce. In 771 bce, however, under pressure from invading tribes from Central Asia, the Zhou kings had to move their seat of government eastward to what is modern Loyang. The next several hundred years, 771–401 bce, are known as the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history. Although the power of the central government was failing, this period was very rich in terms of philosophy and political theory (the organization and structure of government). In addition to Confucius, these years also saw the rise of the teachings of Laozi (b. c. 604 bce; also known as Lao Tzu), the founder of Daoism in around the seventh century bce.

All through this period China was divided into warring states. The Zhou emperors never became strong enough to unite the country or to control the warring feudal lords (members of prominent families who made their living from plots of land, called fiefs, assigned to them by the emperor). Invasions came from the west and south, and small kingdoms banded together for a time for mutual protection and then broke apart. It was a dangerous and lawless time, and Confucius, as well as other philosophers, looked for a way to make society better and more stable.

The period after the time of Confucius is called the Warring States Period (401–256 bce) because of the violence and disruption of the time. The work of the philosopher Mengzi (also spelled Meng Tzu), known in the West as Mencius (c. 371–c. 289 bce), further developed Confucianism. Mengzi comes from the Warring States Period. Because so many philosophers were at work, the period from 551 to 233 bce is also referred to as the Period of the One Hundred Schools, or systems of thought.

The slow spread of Confucianism

Confucius formed a school and had followers, teaching mainly through a question-and-answer technique and by providing stories from real life that had larger meanings. When Confucius died, his followers wrote down his sayings and teachings in the Lun Yu, also known as the Analects. Confucianism did not gain a large following very quickly. One reason for this is that Confucius took principles from an older age of Chinese civilization, when family ties, etiquette, and ritual regulated society. Because such traditions and rituals were breaking down in his time, Confucius became something of an anthropologist (a scientist who studies human behavior) of Chinese culture and studied the ancient ways. He then brought them back into Chinese life as a system for good behavior. This was a difficult task, for such traditions are hard to learn. Confucius's attempts to reintroduce these beliefs were tasks that took longer than his lifetime.

Another reason Confucianism was slow to grow is that the generations following Confucius had to deal with the Warring States Period, a bloody era when little kingdoms battled one another for land and power. Following the death of Confucius, his school split into eight different schools, each of which claimed to be the authentic, official Confucian school. Confucianism also had competitors in the thoughts of such philosophers as Mozi (also spelled Mo Tzu and Micius; c. 470–391 bce) and Yang Zhu (440–c. 360 bce). For Mozi, the problem with society was that people loved too selectively rather than giving their love universally, meaning to love everyone. Yang Zhu, meanwhile, preached a form of individualism and the promotion of self-interest.

Becomes state religion under Emperor Wu

In 206 bce the Han Dynasty began. By this time Confucianism already played a major role in the political life of the nation. The emperor Wu, who lived from 156 to 87 bce, made Confucianism the official state religion. In 136 bce Emperor Wu established what became the Imperial University, solely for the study of Confucian Classics, or the Five Classics. These are texts mostly from before the time of Confucius that were adapted to Confucianism in five different subject areas: metaphysical or spiritual, political, poetic, social, and historical. In less than seventy-five years enrollment at the university had grown to three thousand students.

It was also under Emperor Wu that Confucian books became the basic texts for all levels of education and that they were used for examinations for the civil service, once the reserve of privilege and family connections. Confucianism changed all that, basing entry into the bureaucracy, or government services, on merit (performance) rather than birth. By the midpoint of the Han Dynasty, in the year 58 ce, Confucianism had made such inroads into the state that government schools were required to make sacrifices to Confucius. The Five Classics were later inscribed on stone tablets for all to see.

About Confucianism

  • Belief. Confucians believe that humankind is basically good and perfectible. They also believe that by observing ritual and courtesy in daily life and through education, a person can lead a right life and also create a well-ordered and peaceful society.
  • Followers. Confucianism has 5.6 million followers, mostly in East Asia.
  • Name of God. Tian, which means Heaven, or the ordering principle in the universe, represents God.
  • Symbols. The yin and yang symbol is sometimes used to represent the balance found in Confucian ideals.
  • Worship. There is no regular religious service for Confucians, though there are temples built in Confucius's honor at which offerings are sometimes made.
  • Dress. Confucians do not wear a standard type of dress, but they do remove their shoes when entering a Confucian temple.
  • Texts. The Analects, the collected sayings of Confucius, is the primary Confucian text.
  • Sites. The Temple of Confucius at Qufu, Shandong province, in China, is the main Confucian pilgrimage site.
  • Observances. The birthday of Confucius, celebrated in late September or early October, is the major Confucian festival.
  • Phrases. There are no commonly used phrases that unite all Confucians, though some of the sayings of Confucius from the Analects are universally recognized as Confucian.

Spiritual aspect develops

Further development of Confucian principles came with the work of Dong Zhongshu (also called Tung Zhong-shu; c. 179–c. 104 bce), who introduced more spiritual elements into Confucianism. For Dong, human actions have results not only in the physical world but also in the spiritual world. He merged theories of spiritual forces from many different schools of thought, including native religions ranging from shamanism (belief in powerful nature spirits that a shaman, or holy man, can reach) to Daoism into his explanation of the Confucian way, emphasizing a love of the natural or cosmic order. In so doing, he further justified the role of the emperor as the living link between Tian and Earth, or the Son of Heaven.

Not all Confucians agreed with the direction taken in Dong's philosophy, but the belief system continued to wield great power throughout the Han period. Soon all public schools in China were offering regular sacrifices to Confucius; the Imperial University enrolled thirty thousand students, and temples in honor of Confucius were built throughout the land. Together with the emperor and the godlike personages of Heaven and Earth, Confucius was fast becoming one of the most respected symbols of power and authority in China. Later, in 492 ce, he was made a saint; by the eleventh century he was raised to the rank of an emperor; and in the early twentieth century he was made a god.

Although spiritual matters in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 ce) were left largely to Buddhism and Daoism, Confucianism coexisted well with them. In part this was because Confucianism deals primarily with how a person reaches personal perfection in this lifetime. By the time of the Song Dynasty (960–1279 ce), Confucianism had become central to Chinese tradition, just as Confucius had planned, but it had still another major leader to come. Zhu Xi (also spelled Chu Hsi; 1130–1200) helped Confucianism become a religion with not only an ethical program but also a metaphysical, or spiritual, one.

What came out of this work was a philosophy known as neo-Confucianism. Zhu Xi added four more sacred texts to the Confucian canon, or group of accepted scriptures, including the Analects, Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean, and the Great Learning. These Four Books then became the central texts studied in school and in preparation for civil service examinations. Neo-Confucianism gained a higher status than both Buddhism and Daoism in Chinese society. It analyzed and interpreted the great works of the Confucian tradition. Although neo-Confucianism did build up the spiritual side of Confucianism, Zhu Xi also emphasized the rational and practical side of the religion. This encouraged future scholars to focus on law, politics, and economics.

Spreads throughout Asia

Following the development of neo-Confucianism, Confucianism spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and eventually became the dominant intellectual force throughout East Asia. The royal court of Korea accepted Confucianism by the fifteenth century, and by the seventeenth century the philosophy had entered Japan. Confucianism has continued to grow and be reworked by new scholars in new eras. For many, Confucianism reached its height in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). Qing rulers described themselves as great examples of Confucian kingship and also used the belief system as a form of control.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries China became increasingly open to Western influence, or influence from the nations of Europe and the Americas. As foreign powers invaded China, seeking influence and increased trade, Western ways and ideas also crept into Chinese society, making many people begin to question the age-old Confucian tradition of the importance of the group over the individual. Christian missionaries, people who preached Christianity among non-Christian people, also increased their presence during this period. Indeed, Roman Catholic Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century first spread the words of Confucius to the West. These same missionaries gave the Chinese philosopher and wise man the name by which he is known in the West, Confucius.

Western ideas, including Leninism and Marxism (forms of communism, an economic and political system that emphasizes communal ownership of property and political power rooted in the working classes), took root in China. In 1949 the communist People's Republic of China was created. The leaders of this movement, including Mao Zedong (also known as Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976), suppressed Confucianism as much as they could, arguing that it was a belief system that held the people in chains. For the communists, Confucianism, with its emphasis on tradition and ritual, was an artifact of the past that would not work in the ideal communist future. Confucianism, however, has survived and remains a central tradition at all levels of Chinese society.


More than one hundred years after the death of Confucius, the second most influential figure of the religion was born. Mencius (372–289 bce preached a philosophy of benevolence, or kindness and caring, towards others. For Mencius, human nature is essentially good0 and perfectible. He also argued for introducing a class of scholar-officials, which ultimately led to the Chinese civil service, a class of employees who served the emperor in administering the empire, the longest-established human institution on record.

Mencius criticized the philosophy of Mozi and the Mohists for their indiscriminate (random or without limits) love for all people. For him, it was not right that a stranger should be entitled to the same degree of love as a parent. Equally, he found that the individualism of Yang Zhu led to political disorder. Instead, Mencius felt that the beliefs of Confucius could be used to train the common people and the ruling class. He taught that kindness was the most effective way for rulers to maintain their power.

Mencius also taught that by fully understanding one's own heart and nature, a person can come to know Tian, or Heaven, a Chinese concept that there is a power or moral law that drives the universe. Mencius helped develop moral Confucianism to its highest form. His teachings were written down in a text called the Mengzi, also known as the Mencius.

Another follower of Confucius, Xun Zi (also spelled Hsun Tzu; c. 300-230 bce) further developed Confucianism by emphasizing, in opposition to Mencius, his theory that human nature is not necessarily good and that citizens must be socialized by education and a continual quest for knowledge and wisdom. For Xun Zi, the real nobleman was one who keeps his instincts and desires in check for the public good.

Sects and schisms

There were eight distinct schools of thought that developed shortly after the death of Confucius. His most prominent follower, Mencius, worked from the same fundamental belief in the natural goodness of the human spirit. However, after Mencius, Xun Zi disagreed with this position, arguing that human nature was evil and that a human's desires and passions had to be held in check by a strong state. The work of Xun Zi helped develop the Legalist school of thought, which was an offshoot of Confucianism. This school believed that laws are the only things that keep society from breaking down into chaos.

When Confucianism became the official state religion during the Han Dynasty, Scholastic Confucianism became the main branch of the religion. This school was based on the study of classic texts. But because there were different versions of such texts, Scholastic Confucianism soon divided into the New Text School and the Old Text School. The New Text School had a more spiritual and religious interpretation of Confucianism than did the more realistic, human-oriented Old Text School.

The next major Confucian school was neo-Confucianism, as developed by Zhu Xi during the Song Dynasty. This school incorporated bits of Buddhism and Daoism and also added new sacred texts to the religious canon, shifting the emphasis from classics of Chinese literature to more contemporary writings. A further reformed type of Confucianism appeared in China in the nineteenth century. It attempted to raise Confucius to the status of a divine being, like Jesus Christ (c. 6 bce–c. 33 ce) in the Christian tradition. In the twentieth century, Confucianism lost its place as the official state religion and no longer formed the core of the educational program. Still, new schools of thought were developing, including New Confucianism, which led, in turn, to Modern Neo-Idealistic Confucianism and Modern Neo-Rationalistic Confucianism.

Outside China, there have also been distinct schools of Confucianism. In Korea the tradition is known as Yi Confucianism, and was built on the work of Zhu Xi. In Japan, Zhu Xi's form of neo-Confucianism was introduced in the seventeenth century. There its followers reworked many of the principles of the Japanese religion Shinto in Confucian terms. The Japanese warrior class, known as the samurai class, adopted elements of Confucianism for their own code of conduct, called bushido.

Basic beliefs

Confucianism is a deliberate tradition based on five main principles. The first and most important principle is ren This highest of virtues is similar to what the Western traditional calls empathy, or being able to feel what others feel. Ren involves being able to feel love for another and realizing the dignity of human life. Ren also leads to the concept of reciprocity, or consideration for others. Confucius states in the Analects, "What you do not want yourself, do not do to others," an idea that was later echoed in the Christian saying "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The second major principle of Confucianism is junzi (also spelled chun-tze), which translates as the "son of a ruler." This concept characterizes the superior man, or the perfect gentleman. Such a person displays generosity of spirit, confidence (without arrogance or pride), openness, and honesty. The superior man is a moral guide to the rest of society. Furthermore, the junzi is the ideal partner in any relationship.

The third principle of Confucius's tradition is li, or ritual and right conduct. This includes the idea of propriety, or the way in which things should be done. But li is not simply a ritual-like sacrifice to the spirits of nature and ancestors. Ritual in this sense is used to mean a whole set of morally binding social customs, or rules of decent and polite behavior, in a wide variety of circumstances. Here tradition determines just what is right and wrong in a particular social interaction. In addition, Confucius taught the Rectification of Names principle, which means that a father should behave like a father, a son like a son, and a ruler like a ruler. This means that people must know what both the words and these social roles imply, in order to act within proper bounds. Li also is important in the Doctrine of the Mean, which teaches that life should be a balance between extremes.

Li is also important to the Five Relationships, which Confucius defined as father and son, older brother and younger brother, husband and wife, older friend and younger friend, and ruler and subject (and, by extension, teacher and student and many other similar relationships). These relationships are strictly defined in Confucianism, with age (and gender) determining respect. With a husband and wife, the wife should be supportive. When a ruler is kind, the subject should be loyal. Similar conditions are placed on friendships and sibling relationships. Three of these five relationships deal with family, the most important element in society for Confucius and for Chinese society over thousands of years. Thus, li also includes filial piety, the idea that children should respect and honor their parents.

The fourth principle of Confucianism is de (also spelled te), political power that is the result of a ruler's virtue (goodness) and honesty. For Confucius, physical might was not the proper way to rule. Rather, a ruler should gain the support and loyalty of the people through his own virtuous behavior. The state depends on three things, Confucius said: a strong military, economic well-being, and the faith and trust of the people. The last was the most important. Without the confidence of the people, the state would fall. Leadership without virtue and honesty, Confucius said, is not true leadership. Rulers and kings need to control themselves first; they must rule their own passions before they can rule their people. They should be devoted to the public welfare.

The fifth Confucian principle is wen, which deals with the artistic side of a culture. These include art, poetry, and music, activities highly valued in Confucian thinking. Confucius believed that art is an excellent instrument for moral education and inspiration. The arts enrich not only a person but also the state, by making others want to follow the example.

The five principles of ren, junzi, li, de, and wen were the central points of Confucius's program to reintroduce tradition to China. He taught that by following proper behavior, people would learn self-restraint, which would make for a peaceful and well-ordered world. The Confucian idea of ritual was not the empty performance of tired tradition, but an acceptance of the importance of ceremony in one's life. By performing such rituals and behaving properly, one's life becomes ordered. Such good manners would then extend beyond one's family and friends and into the larger world.

Importance of education

Confucius also emphasized the need for education. Real understanding, he believed, comes only through careful study. For Confucius, even those born in a low social class can rise through education and hard work. One of the new ideas introduced in Confucian thought was that of meritocracy, or social position based on performance rather than birthright. Through education in morality, government, and the arts, humans could improve themselves. Confucius, as a teacher, also emphasized the Six Arts: ritual, music, archery, chariot riding, calligraphy, and computation, or mathematics. For him, however, the highest form of education was a moral education.

During his lifetime Confucius gathered together the core elements of the Confucian system. Confucius always claimed to be a transmitter, or spreader of news, rather than a creator. He was presenting many concepts and principles that had long been valued in Chinese society but had fallen out of favor over the years of social disorder and lawlessness. Collecting and utilizing traditions such as filial devotion, loyalty, respect for tradition and ritual, and an emphasis on knowing one's role in the world, he transformed past ideas into a new system. His emphasis on the Five Virtues of benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom, and sincerity were blended into guidelines for right living. For Confucius and his followers, right doing became right being. This was as true for the common person as it was for emperors. Confucius thought that by educating rulers in the Confucian way, all would be well with society. He sums up his bottom-up philosophy in this saying from the Analects:

   If there be righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.
   If there be beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home.
   If there be harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation.
   If there be order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.

Sacred writings

There are three different groups of books that form the Confucian canon of sacred texts. Among these three groups there are overlaps, with certain texts being included on all three lists. The most prominent books in the official Confucian sacred texts are the Four Books, which were established as the primary texts of Confucianism in the eleventh century by the scholar Zhu Xi. They have remained the most important Confucian texts into the modern era. Zhu Xi's texts include the Lun Yu, or Analects, sayings and teachings of Confucius written down by his disciples beginning about seventy years after his death; the Mencius, the teachings of Mencius; the Da Xue (also spelled Ta Hsueh), or Great Learning, written between 500 and 200 bce; and the Zhongyong (also spelled Chung Yung), or Doctrine of the Mean, which is more mystical in its themes than the other books. The last two texts were adapted from chapters in an earlier book, the Liji (also spelled Li-chi), or Record of Rites, a description of religious practices from the eighth to the fifth century bce.

The Liji and four other texts form what is known as the Five Classics, the original texts used by Confucius in his practices and teaching. In addition to the Liji, the Five Classics include the Shijing (also spelled Shih-ching), or Classic of Odes, a compilation of 305 songs from the Chou Dynasty; the Shujing (also spelled Shu-ching), or the Classic of Documents, a historical record dating back to the third millennium bce; the Chunqiu (also spelled Ch'un-ch'iu), or Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the political and diplomatic doings of the Lu state during the time of Confucius and most probably writing by Confucius himself during his final years; and the Yijing, or Classic of Changes (sometimes referred to as the Book of Changes), the famous book of prophesy that uses sixty-four hexagrams, or patterns of six lines, that are interpreted as omens of coming events.

The texts that compile the Thirteen Classics were developed during the Tang and Song dynasties, after the introduction of the Five Classics and before the adoption of the Four Books. They are made up of the Five Classics as well as the Analects and the Mencius. In addition, these texts include three commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals and five other texts, including the Xiaojing (also spelled Hsiao-ching), or Classic of Filial Piety, and the Erh Ya, or Near to Correctness.

Perhaps the most important single Confucian text is the Analects. The book is filled with quotations from Confucius, including "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"; "I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I do, I understand"; and "Choose a job that you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." The Analects also provides important biographical information about Confucius, for he uses himself as an example in stories of everyday living.

Sacred symbols

Symbolism in Confucianism is rich and varied. In the religion's early days the Five Classics themselves were taken as symbols for the followers of Confucius. Since Confucian texts are written in Chinese characters, many of the characters or words themselves have become important symbols of Confucianism for the Chinese faithful. For example, the Chinese character for ren, the idea of benevolence and empathy, is perhaps the most important single principle of Confucianism. It is made up of two other characters: that for "person" and that for

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"two." The combined character symbolizes the relationship between two individuals, a principle at the heart of the Confucian belief system. Another important symbol for harmony and righteousness comes from a stylized version of the Chinese word for "happiness," written twice and connected by a line.

Confucianism also shares the Yin-Yang symbol with Daoism. This symbol represents the connectedness of opposing forces in the universe. It is a circle divided into two equal and curving parts, one black and one white, with a black dot in the white section and a white dot in the black section. This represents the two types of forces in the universe, the male or sunlike yang force and the female or receptive moon force of the yin. The symbol shows these two forces in balance and harmony.


Confucianism has no clergy and no traditional houses of worship. Instead, it is incorporated into every aspect of a person's life. In the modern world perhaps the idea of ancestor worship or respect comes closest to a form of Confucian worship. Many Chinese and other believers have shrines to dead relatives in their homes. At these home shrines and altars, tablets listing all the ancestors' names, as well as pictures of deceased relatives are kept. At special times throughout the year, and for some families on a daily basis, special food and drink are offered to the pictures of these departed ones by the father or oldest male of the family. This is done as a way to honor the deceased, as well as a way to remember those who have died. The neo-Confucian book Family Rituals was the primary source for how to conduct such family rites. It governed the rituals of filial piety toward ancestors from the thirteenth to the twentieth century not only in China, but also in Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea.

More public rituals sometimes occur at the Confucian temples built throughout China and East Asia. Although many of these temples have been converted into museums, offerings are still sometimes made in the spring and fall. Most prominent among these temples are the Temple of Confucius in his hometown of Qufu and the Temple of Confucius at Beijing. Outside of China, the ancient rites and traditions of Confucianism are still maintained at places such as the Confucian Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam; Chongmo, or the Royal Ancestral Shrine in South Korea; and the Confucian shrine at the National Confucian Academy in Seoul, South Korea. For example, at Chongmo on the first Sunday in May, people make offerings of wine, food, and incense to the royal spirits. This ceremony, carried out according to the Record of Rites, also involves dance and music. The Confucian shrine in Seoul and those around the countryside of South Korea are sites for honoring Confucius on his birthday, celebrated in late September or early October.

Confucian temples were once the sites of many offering ceremonies. Sometimes these were led by the emperor himself. For example, the emperor would perform the winter solstice (the shortest day of winter) ceremony in Beijing to celebrate the return of positive yang energy, wearing blue robes embroidered with dragons. At the Confucian temple, he would light a pile of sticks set onto the circular-shaped altar, signifying the shape of heaven. The rising smoke from this fire summoned the god Shangdi, the Supreme Lord, to the ceremony. The meat from a young bull would be served as an offering, all accompanied to the music of gongs, flutes, and stones beaten like drums. The emperor would also lead the ceremony at the Temple of Agriculture at the beginning of the planting season, plowing a furrow in a sacred field.

Confucians also practice a form of meditation known as "quiet sitting," which is described in the book Great Learning. Quiet sitting is much like meditation in religions such as Buddhism and Daoism and like them involves a clearing of the mind. Confucians may meditate on a moral lesson or simply focus on their breathing. Unlike meditation in Daoism and Buddhism, though, quiet sitting is not an attempt at reaching harmony with a greater reality. Instead, it is considered a preparation for learning and understanding.

Observances and pilgrimages

The primary festival for Confucians is the birthday of Confucius, celebrated on the twenty-seventh day of the eighth lunar month, which usually places the day in late September or early October. In some traditions, September 28 is set aside as the official date. Traditional followers of Confucianism make offerings to Confucius and visit temples. At his birthplace in Qufu, the locals have created the International Confucian Festival to celebrate the occasion. People dress in costumes typical of the time of Confucius. Performances of some of the more traditional rituals are given as well as readings from the Analects. The celebration attracts many tourists. In Taiwan Confucius's birthday is celebrated as Teachers' Day, a national holiday honoring all teachers who carry on the work of Confucius, who is considered the first great teacher.

Another Confucian festival is Ching Ming, on April 4 or 5, when families visit the graves of their ancestors. Families make offerings, including incense and paper likenesses of ancestors, and cook special foods, including chicken and pork, to eat afterward. The Chung Yeung Festival, or Autumn Remembering, is also a time to remember ancestors. Special offerings of rice cakes and wine are made at family shrines and altars, and the family visits the graves of their ancestors. This festival takes place in September or October.

Confucians also celebrate the Chinese New Year, usually in February. This several-day-long festival involves dance, costumes, and feasts. It is a highlight of the Confucian year. The dragon dance is held on the first day of the year, and represents the return of light, or of positive yang energy. Dragon dances can be performed on a stage or as part of a procession

Is Confucianism a Religion?

Confucius had little to say about gods or spirituality. In the Analects, Confucius, responding to a question about how one should serve the dead and the gods, said, "You are not able to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?" Asked about death, he responded, "You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?" Confucius wanted to deal with relationships among the living, not between the living and God. His goal was the perfection of the living person and the existing society.

Confucianism has no clergy (priesthood), no organized body of followers, and no real discussion of what happens after death. There are Confucian temples, but many have been turned into museums to the life of Confucius and are not places of worship in the traditional sense. Confucius himself never claimed divine, or godlike, status. For these reasons, many people argue that Confucianism is not a religion at all, but rather an ethical and philosophical system.

Others say that Confucianism is a religion because it deals with the most important matters in life: how to live life well and fully, and how to heal the wounds of society. If religion is understood in its broadest terms, as a belief system that sets moral standards, talks about the appropriate place of humans in the universe, and answers questions about how to lead a good daily life, then Confucianism is a religion. Confucianism does have some things to say about the spiritual realm and Tian, the godlike principle by which the universe is ordered. Confucius, describing the passage of his life, explains in the Analects, "At fifty I understood the decree of Heaven." In other words, he felt that he had been appointed to his task by a spiritual power above his understanding.

Confucius also told his followers never to neglect the offerings due to Heaven. In fact, such rituals were part of the tradition he was attempting to preserve. The Chinese had for millennia made offerings and sacrifices to dead ancestors, to Heaven, and to the many and various gods of nature. Chinese folk religion (traditional beliefs) had a long tradition of two-way communication with the spirit world. People regularly made offerings to spirits: food and drink were presented at altars, incense burned, and prayers said. The spirits, for their part, communicated with the living by means of omens, or signs of things that are about to happen.

Confucianism is a belief system completely in harmony with such rituals. In fact, one of the classic Confucian texts is the Yijing (also spelled I Ching), an ancient text used to interpret omens. Confucius also says in the Analects, "He who offends against Heaven has none to whom he can pray." Throughout the Analects, Confucius advises his followers to respect the spirits and to make offerings and sacrifices to them with care, thought, and sincerity.

In addition, the work of Confucius helped uphold the claim of rulers of the Zhou Dynasty that they had been put into power by the Mandate of Heaven, or by holy decree. When it became a state religion during the Han Dynasty, Confucianism helped the emperor legitimize the status of the rulers as decreed by Heaven. The scholars, or ru, those who had mastered the classic tradition and knew all the rituals, were in charge of state ritual offerings and sacrifices to various gods. For the people who believe in and practice Confucianism, this path is generally considered a philosophical and scholarly tradition, very much like religions such as Buddhism and Daoism.

The main pilgrimage site for Confucians is to the birthplace of Confucius in Shandong province. His hometown, Qufu, is the site of a temple complex, built in 478 bce and reconstructed many times since. Extending over almost fifty acres, this complex contains several hundred halls and pavilions, each containing statues of prominent Confucians and pillars that have the sayings of Confucius carved into them. The center of this complex is the Dacheng Dia, the Great Hall of Confucius, set in a grove of trees. Its two roofs are supported by ten marble columns, each with intricate dragon carvings on them. More dragons appear, painted in gold, on the blue roof beams. Inside the hall are statues of Confucius and the four men who followed him during his thirteen years of wandering. Qufu is also the site of his grave and the graves of thousands of descendants (offspring). The Kung Family Mansion, where the descendants of Confucius lived, is a pilgrimage site in the same town. It consists of 152 buildings and was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Qufu is now a protected United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

Everyday living

Confucianism is a system for living that deals with the major relationships in a person's life, and includes a code of conduct to accompany each situation. Thus, it deeply affects the daily lives of those who follow Confucian teachings. Li, or propriety and correct behavior, is a major principle in Confucianism. Some Confucian values are so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture that people are not consciously aware that they are behaving in a manner taught by Confucius. While such social rules are found worldwide, they are an especially strong and vital part of the etiquette system of East Asia. There is no official type of clothing that believers or followers of Confucianism wear, yet there is always the message of li to be appropriate and to act with moderation. Neither are there special food restrictions for followers, but here, too, the idea of moderation and appropriateness comes into play.

Rites of passage

Since the days of the Han Dynasty there have been four major rites of passage, or markings of stages in life, in Confucian tradition. Though the full rituals for these rites of passage are seldom followed in the modern world, bits and pieces of them are still found throughout East Asia. The first rite of passage is birth. Special ceremonies accompany a child's birth, and a special diet as well as a month of rest is recommended for the mother. The first-, fourth-, and twelfth-month anniversaries of the baby's birth are also celebrated.

A second major rite of passage takes place when a child reaches maturity. This occurs at age twenty for sons and, for daughters, upon her wedding engagement. This rite is sometimes referred to as the "capping" ceremony, because fathers, through a sponsor, present their sons with a square-cornered cap that represents maturity and give their sons a special name. The extended family gathers, and the young man is served chicken. For girls this coming-of-age ceremony happens when she is engaged to be married, usually between fourteen and twenty. A pin is placed in the girl's hair by a sponsor chosen by the mother, and an adult's cap is placed over this. The girl then puts on adult clothing and receives a new name. This rite, however, is no longer very common.

A third rite comes at marriage. Confucian ritual controls various aspects of this ceremony: the proposal (and its appropriateness in terms of social class and standing); engagement; the dowry, or presents to the groom's family from the bride's family; the date of the wedding, the organization of the wedding ceremony and reception; and even the ceremony on the morning after the wedding, when the bride serves breakfast to the groom's parents. This represents the changing of loyalties for the bride, from her own family to her in-laws. The third day after the wedding, the bride pays a visit to her birth family, but is no longer considered part of that family. She has become part of the groom's family.

Death is the final Confucian rite of passage. Although the actual burial may be performed by a Buddhist, Taoist, or even Christian religious person, the rituals come from Confucian tradition. Tradition dictates the sorts of clothes to wear while grieving, as well as what will be said on special anniversaries after the death. White is the funeral color in China.

Zhu Xi established strict rules for every step of the mourning process and funeral, even the demonstration of grief or sadness. For example, if news of the death reached a person when he or she was away from home, that person was to cry when first learning of the death. Traveling home, the person could cry again whenever he or she felt sadness. Upon reaching the border of the home province, then of the hometown, and finally the door of the home, the person was required to wail and cry.

After the death, mourners put rice in the mouth of the deceased. Then the body was washed and dressed and sealed in a coffin, along with food, clothing, and gifts. The coffin would remain in the home for three months before burial. A "soul" seat and cloth were set next to the coffin, and food and drink were offered there for the next three months, as it was believed that the soul would remain in the house for that period of time.

For Confucians, there is no real concept of an afterlife. The soul or spirit might live on, but death was the end of bodily existence. After three months the body was finally buried and further offerings of food and wine were made to the Tu Di Gong, the Earth God, one of the huge number of gods in the Chinese pantheon, or group of gods. The deceased's name was added to the family list of ancestors on the ancestor tablet. If the deceased happened to be the head of the family, that name was not simply added to the list of ancestors. Instead, it became the first generation of ancestor to be worshipped, and the preceding generations were adjusted accordingly. Confucians were required to worship only five generations, so as ancestors reached the sixth generation, they would be taken off the reverence list.

Such strict funeral traditions are rarely followed in modern times, particularly after the People's Republic of China was established and Confucian traditions were suppressed. Such religious suppression, however, has decreased and the old ancestor altars and tablets are making a comeback. Other modern changes have required some adaptation of these Confucian rites. For example, tradition holds that a male member of the family lead the ancestral rites. In modern times China faced an overpopulation problem, that is, there were too many people being born than the nation could support. As a result Chinese law now allows only one child per family, so it is often now a female who must lead the ancestral rites.

Confucianism's influences

Confucian tradition has become so deeply rooted in Chinese society that it affects people's everyday lives, whether they realize it or not. It also has influenced society in such nations as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. The family rituals and respect for age and authority in Confucianism were especially appealing to Koreans, for family connections had long been an important part of Korean culture. Korean Confucianism also had an influence on the role of women in society. Before the arrival of Confucianism, Korean women had inheritance rights and also were not necessarily expected to leave their families to live with their in-laws. This all changed, however, when Confucianism, with its male-dominated philosophy, became dominant in Korea.

Japanese Confucianism deviated even more from the traditional Chinese version. In Japan the idea of filial piety and devotion was replaced by the concept of loyalty to the ruler as the most important of the Five Relationships. Most Japanese also held on to some Shinto beliefs, the native religion of Japan. The most important of these was the belief that the emperor was divine, or godlike. This was another deviation from Chinese Confucianism, which holds that a ruler will be removed from power by Heaven if he does not act morally. Another difference was that the samurai (warrior) class was considered the highest class instead of the scholar-bureaucrat of Chinese Confucianism. All these changes had profound consequences over centuries of Japanese cultural development.

Confucianism had a strong influence on the code of the samurai. The samurai combined Confucian ethics in their study of military arts and redefined themselves as Confucian junzi warriors, noble and just. One of the greatest samurais of the period, Yamaga Soko (1622–1685), wrote down the code of the warrior, called bushido. He used numerous Confucian elements in the description of bushido, such as self-discipline, loyalty, filial piety, and belief in ritual and tradition. Yamaga's work taught many samurai the code of the warrior. Among these was the leader of the legendary forty-seven ronin, or masterless samurai. These ronin were known for their selfless dedication and loyalty. They, in turn, have inspired numerous stories, plays, and movies in Japan.

In Vietnam, Confucianism appears to have had less of an influence than in Korea and Japan. The Vietnamese people did not take Confucianism as a whole; rather, they chose those aspects that fit with their culture. For example, the male-dominated aspects of Confucianism were not adopted in Vietnam. As a result, women continued to work alongside their husbands in the field or in shops. If widowed, a woman could remarry.

The Arts and education

Further influences can be seen in the arts and scholarship. Confucian emphasis on wen, or the arts, has given a high social status to artists, while military people are usually ranked toward the bottom of the social scale. Many officials of the Chinese state through history have spent their spare hours as poets. A famous example of this is Wang Wei (701–761), a respected Tang scholar-official, who became famous for his nature poetry. For Confucius, knowledge of poetry was a requirement for being a gentleman. Confucius had his students memorize the several hundred verses in the Classic of Odes, and he also used the poems in his teaching because he thought that if one did not know poetry, one did not know how to speak. Poetry, for Confucius and his followers, was a means to help a person understand the truth, promote unity between people, and promote a better understanding of nature. Confucius also had a special love of music and dance, and both of these were incorporated into the life of the noble gentleman.

Moreover, Chinese landscape painting was influenced by Confucian ideals of harmony and balance. Chinese landscape painting paid special attention to tradition and li, or propriety. In painting li was demonstrated by a faithfulness to nature as well as conventionalized symbols for representation of rocks, vegetation, bark, water, and other aspects of the natural world. Li also governed the way a picture was put together: the size of the artwork, for example, or the type of brushes and style of stroke. Chinese painters of the tenth and eleventh centuries were interpreters of li, and landscape became the principal subject for their pictures. Korean art was also greatly influenced by neo-Confucian principles. Artist Chong Son (1676–1759) took from neo-Confucianism the need to depict not an imaginary Korean landscape but an actual one, creating a unique Korean tradition in landscape painting. This emphasis on art in Confucianism influenced the spread of artistic expressions for centuries thereafter.

Confucian ideals not only inspired art, they also became the subject matter of literature. Perhaps the most famous and greatest Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber from the eighteenth century, is filled with the ideas of Confucianism. Following the events in the lives of the Jia family, the novel shows the son dominated by the father; the mother, a powerless woman; and the grandmother, commanding deep respect as the oldest in the family. The son is also busy studying Confucianism for the civil service exam and marries a woman his grandmother and father choose for him.

Finally, Confucianism has had a strong impact on education and scholarship throughout East Asia. The scholar-bureaucrat was a Confucian ideal, and knowledge is deeply valued in Confucian societies. Such an influence has lasted through the centuries, making the attainment of higher education a primary goal for young people in Asia. With its emphasis on this world and not the next, Confucianism encourages a person to attain the highest level of success he or she is able. The role of the scholar remains a respected one, and these scholars continue to build on the Confucian tradition.

The New Confucians, a group of East Asian thinkers, have worked since the 1920s reforming Confucianism to adapt it to life in the modern world. However, many aspects need no adapting. For example, democratic principles can be found in the Confucian belief, as stated by Mencius, that people have the right to rebel against an unjust ruler. Furthermore, these scholars agree that the Confucian ideals of education and self-cultivation are as meaningful now as they were in the time of Confucius.

For More Information


Bethrong, John H., and Evelyn Nagai Bethrong. Confucianism: A Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publishers, 2000.

Confucius. Confucian Analects, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. Edited by James Legge. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1971.

Confucius. Confucius: The Analects. Translated by D. C. Lau. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.

Creel, H. G. Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-Tung. New York: New American Library, 1960.

Freedman, Russell. Confucius: The Golden Rule. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2002.

Hobbler, Thomas, and Dorothy Hobbler. Confucianism: World Religions. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1993.

Mencius. The Works of Mencius. Translated by James Legge. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990.

Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer. Confucianism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Slavicek, Louis Chipley. Confucianism. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2002.

Smith, Huston. The Religions of Man. New York: Harper/Colophon Books, 1958.

Tracy, Kathleen. The Life and Times of Confucius. Hockessin, DE: Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2004.

Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.


Bordewich, Fergus M. "The Way of Confucius." Smithsonian (November 2001): 104-112.


Aiken, Charles F. "Confucianism." Catholic Encyclopedia Online. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

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views updated May 23 2018


Confucius is the Latinized honorific name for K'ung Ch'iu (551–479 bce), acknowledged founder of the tradition. His goal was to produce junzi (noble sons), morally perfected and ritually sophisticated gentlemen who would give their lives to the service of the state. Chinese women of the time did not hold public positions of political power, and thus Confucius had no female students. Indeed, tradition maintains that the master had little to say about women at all. In the Lunyu, the brief collection of Confucius's teachings known in English as the Analects, women are described merely as difficult to deal with.

The prominent early Confucian interpreter Mencius, or Mengzi, (371–289 bce) accepted the notion that women were socially subordinate. He also made clear that the worst form of unfiliality was to have no sons, thereby lending implicit support for a system of secondary wives and concubinage that valued women solely for their reproductive capacity. Yet Mencius never suggested that women were intellectually inferior or in greater need of moral education than men. Women, like men, were understood to possess innately the seeds of justice, propriety, wisdom, and humaneness that, if nurtured properly, would grow into true humanity. Nothing in the earliest texts of the tradition denied women the capacity or possibility of becoming a gentleman despite the gendered terminology.

After centuries of interstate warfare, the Han dynasty (second century bce through the second century ce) ushered in a time of relative peace and stability. A Confucian academy was founded, and its tenets were established as state orthodoxy. The ritual texts compiled during this time, such as the Liji [Book of rites], dictated that the sexes be differentiated and kept distinct and distant from the age of seven onward. Men and women were to be separated within the home, even to the degree that their clothes should not be hung on the same peg. Although few beyond the wealthy upper class ever followed the myriad sex-segregation rules laid out in the ritual texts, a general notion of maintaining distinctions and distance between males and females was widely observed.

The Han Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (179–104 bce) is credited with melding indigenous cosmologies, in particular the yin and yang theory, with Confucian political and moral ideologies to demonstrate the centrality of the ruler in upholding cosmic order. He constructed a comprehensive model of rulership that associated the ruler with yang (characterized by strength, growth, light, and the promotion of life) and asserted the primacy of yang over yin (characterized by passivity, weakness, darkness, and destructive tendencies). This correlation of the ruler with yang and the ruled with yin confirmed the necessary dominance of yang. All people manifest yang and yin qualities, and as people fulfill different sides of their core relationships, they shift between yang and yin status. However, the binary hierarchy of Han cosmology fueled the tendency to diminish the estimation of yin-associated individuals, which included eunuchs and homosexuals as well as women. Woman was essentially the embodiment of yin, and a growing ambivalence toward them ensued.

Despite this growing ambivalence, a new literary genre—biographies of virtuous women—appeared in the Han. Archivist Liu Xiang (77–6 bce) compiled the Lienü zhuan [Biographies of exemplary women], sketching the lives of notable women, including those whom he found wise and able in reasoning. These traits were not praised independently but were valorized insofar as they were manifest in the service of family or state needs. Maternal virtue was prized most highly, and the most famous exemplar was Mencius's widowed mother. She moved their residence three times in search of an environment conducive to her son's moral upbringing, and she once shocked her son by destroying her weaving—their source of income—in response to his lack of diligence in his studies. Thoughtful, wise, and bold in her initiatives, she illustrates the Han acceptance of womanly virtue in still-surprising and public ways.

The second gendered literary genre to emerge during this time was books of instruction for women, the first of which was written by Ban Zhao (d. 116 ce), an educated woman associated with the imperial court. Her work, the first explicitly didactic text for women, Nüjie [Instructions for women], clearly illustrates both the emergent ambivalence toward women during the Han and the Confucian tradition's privileging of the male gaze. She was a champion of girls' education—but only so that they might better fulfill their ritual responsibilities, support their husbands, and educate their own children. Drawing on images found in newly canonized texts such as the Shijing [Odes] and Liji, Ban Zhao promoted the subordination of women by urging them to cultivate humility and the four virtues of chaste and demure conduct, upright bearing, propriety in speech, and efficiency in work.

Ban Zhao's work proved singularly influential. It was copied and imitated over the centuries, but with each new generation of instructional texts, the estimation of female abilities diminished. The realm of female influence was increasingly limited to the domestic sphere: men go out, women stay in. For women of the upper classes, this ultimately meant virtual confinement to the nonpublic rooms and courtyards of the home; for women of lower economic classes, the need for their labor in the fields, in the market, with the herds, in the production of silk, or in the manufacturing of household items meant that such notions were often given little more than lip service in the face of practical necessity.

All women, however, were governed by the doctrine of thrice following. The original context for thrice following in the Liji was that females were to follow the social rank of the male head of their household (in style of dress or ritual processional order); later reinterpretations incorporated a sense of submission to authority so that the term came to be understood as the three obediences. In this way women labored under a considerable burden: In addition to their economic contributions, they were expected to be good wives and virtuous mothers whose universal vocation was to establish a harmonious domestic environment so that the men who dominated their lives could more successfully pursue their public endeavors.

Legal protections for women were few but significant. A woman's property, including her dowry, was her own, even after marriage. And although a man could divorce his wife for any of seven conditions (failure to produce a son or to serve his parents, or for promiscuity, theft, disease, loquacity, or jealousy), a woman had three possible lines of defense. First, if her husband's parents had died and she had mourned them, she was understood to be linked to the family permanently and could not be cut off. Second, if divorcing a woman would render her homeless and destitute, she could not be abandoned. The third condition is both poignant and telling: If the woman had been the wife of youth and poverty, enabling the man to rise to his current status, she could not be dismissed. A woman could divorce her husband for a variety of reasons, but she risked poverty, social isolation, forced remarriage, and the certain loss of any minor children to the father's family. A woman of the upper economic echelons might be taken back into her natal family and supported, but for the overwhelming majority of women, remaining with one's husband, however bad or brutal, might well be the better choice.

Confucian sex and gender ideals were not confined to China. Beyond its shifting borders, the historical interplay between native identity and Chinese influence dramatically affected gender identities and the range of acceptable social roles for men and women. Both Korea and Vietnam were subordinated to Chinese rule for centuries. As outpost colonies, or commanderies, their native elite populations often embraced Confucianism for its principles of orderly government and for the literacy and literary culture that accompanied it.

Korea's peninsular location formed a natural bridge between China and Japan, and merchants, missionaries, and travelers traversed its territory; cultural imports competed with indigenous traditions. However, although Korea's political, educational, and aesthetic sensibilities were influenced greatly by China, the country was far from major Chinese cultural centers and thus could maintain a degree of cultural autonomy. The preservation of Korean cultural identity was aided by its language, an Altaic tongue closer to Japanese than Chinese, and by a strong female shamanic tradition focused on maintenance of close ties with ancestral and spirit worlds.

By the fourth century China's hold on its far-flung colonies weakened. Korea's disparate clans united into three kingdoms, all of which embraced Mahayana Buddhism. Historical works suggest that even in the northernmost kingdom of Koguryo, relations between the sexes were quite free. Chinese observers noted with discomfort that companionate marriages were valued in every social stratum and remarriage was widely accepted. Liberal relations between the sexes continued from the late seventh through the tenth centuries under the Silla dynasty. In the succeeding Koryo period (918–1392), despite the increasing influence of a revitalizing Confucianism from Song dynasty China (960–1279), men and women continued to enjoy a great degree of freedom in public as well as private matters. Women could be acknowledged heads of households and had equal inheritance rights with men. Shocked Chinese ambassadors sent reports of nude bathers of both sexes swimming together. Gradually, however, the ideals of gender segregation and silence, submission, and chastity for women gained currency once Confucianism was adopted as state ideology in the early Choson dynasty (1392–1910).

With the development of Neo-Confucian schools during the Song dynasty, ambivalence toward women was unprecedented, as women were identified as the locus of male distraction—an attitude that led not only to increased regulation of women but served also to deepen their erotic attraction. Silk and textile production was increasingly commercialized and offered the possibility of significant wealth for women, who still retained personal property rights. The booming economy, however, produced conditions in which the commodification of women and the trade in them increased; as an emergent merchant class grew, a lively market developed for concubines, courtesans, prostitutes, maidservants, and slaves. Footbinding, initially a practice of the courtesan class, spread beyond that social group and was practiced, to varying degrees, by women of all but the lowest socio-economic groups, for whom the crippling of half the labor force could not be tolerated.

During the Song dynasty, manuals of family instruction proliferated. In them, appreciation for womanly talents in the domestic realm vie with the advocacy of confining concepts, such as chastity for both the unmarried and the widowed. The Confucian scholar Yuan Cai (late twelfth century) made note of wise and worthy women with stupid, unworthy, or inept husbands who nonetheless somehow managed the family on their own, keeping the accounts and not allowing others to take advantage of them. Similarly, the great architect of Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi (1130–1200), emphasized functional distinctions between men and women but affirmed that unless a woman was educated and cultivated, she could not perform her crucial function within the home.

The conflation of sex and gender, the reduction of women's roles to that of wife and mother, and the resultant tight controls over women's sexuality and autonomy, reached their apex when Neo-Confucianism was established as state orthodoxy in the later Yuan (1280–1368) and Ming dynasties (1368–1644). Functional literacy rates were rising and the printing of cheap illustrated morality books produced a shared culture in which the Neo-Confucian obsessions with chastity for women and filiality for men predominated. The lives of upper-class men were dominated by the drive for public success, whether through education and advancement in the civil service examination system or through commercial endeavors. Upper-class women, again confined to the upper quarters, might be educated and cultivated, but their social value was derivative; by the Ming-Qing dynastic transition (mid-seventeenth century), the ideal wife was described as one who complemented her husband like a shadow or an echo.

Not all Confucian scholars held such diminished views of women; records indicate many over the centuries, acquiescing to their daughters' pleas to be educated or not to have their feet bound or not to be married to a man of lesser abilities. Famously, K'ang Yuwei (1858–1927) persuaded the emperor to institute what was later called the Hundred Days' Reform. K'ang's Confucian vision radically advocated peace and equality for all people, including women. He felt that men and women should be free to choose their marriage partners and to move equally in the public sphere. His reform program, as its name indicates, was short-lived, undone by the empress dowager.

In Korea, Neo-Confucianism was promoted by the founders of the Yi and Choson dynasty (1392–1910) to justify their control and to better regulate their state. Following the Chinese system, examination in Confucian texts now determined the selection of officials, who—heavily influenced by Neo-Confucian's suspicion of women and by the yin and yang theory—inaugurated a process that gradually eroded women's rights and privileges. Ancient practices of matrilocality were abandoned in favor of patrilocal residence and orientation; also, the legal status of wives and mothers was reduced, inheritance laws changed from equal distribution among all siblings to sole inheritance by the eldest son, and widow chastity was strictly enforced. Exemplary biographies of virtuous women, didactic texts for women, and books of family instruction proliferated and promoted the most restrictive Confucian vision of women—a vision that could have severe consequences for men as well. Even the most accomplished man might find his upward mobility within the yangban system (stratified civil bureaucracy) stymied by the discovery of an unchaste woman in his family line. It is arguable that Korean implementation of Confucian sex and gender rules surpassed even the most rigid laws in China. By the early twentieth century Confucianism permeated every aspect of Korean society and its ideals of quiet, obedient, chaste, and industrious women who were completely nativized.

Unlike Korea and Vietnam, Japan never suffered occupation by the Chinese. Geographic and social isolation fostered a strong consciousness of native identity, fostered by an indigenous religious tradition, Shinto, that imbued the land and its people with a distinctive sacredness. Chinese influences were consequently slower in coming and were adopted selectively. Nonetheless, Confucian influence gradually increased during the mid- to late Heian era (ninth to twelfth centuries), and women in the upper classes were increasingly relegated to the domestic realm and to auxiliary ritual roles. Some turned to literary pursuits, as the development of the kana syllabaries facilitated literacy; Heian court ladies wrote volumes of elegant literary works (in contrast to their male contemporaries, whose Chinese-language works are less distinguished). Women in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) still commanded a degree of respect, evidenced by the retention of historical rights to inherit property and titles. In a new appreciation of the concept of thrice following, women of the samurai and upper classes were expected to manifest the same ideals of courage, loyalty, sacrifice, and stoicism as their fathers, husbands, and sons.

Once the Tokugawa rulers (1603–1868) espoused Neo-Confucianism as the ideological basis for their rule, male domination became the norm; the estimation of women as little more than heir providers gradually filtered down through Japanese society. The Meiji Restoration (1868) did little to restore women's earlier status. Men were awarded rights and privileges but women were accorded duties and obligations. When rights for women were granted, as in the 1872 mandate for women's education, the rationale provided was in complete accord with Confucian norms: Women should be educated so that they might become ryusai kembo, or good wives and mothers.

In Vietnam Confucian influence was as varied over time as it was geographically, waxing and waning with the rise and fall of the Ly and Tran (1054–1400) and Le and Nguyen (1428–1802) dynasties. In general, Confucian social values and mores were espoused more than enforced, and their adoption was often a byproduct of a desire to take on attitudes and rituals conducive to maintaining a close and supportive family network. For this reason Zhu Xi's Jiali [Family instructions] was as honored as any classic Confucian philosophical work. However, as in China, textile production afforded women their own means of livelihood and a modicum of social power, as did opportunities to avoid or abandon restrictive family obligations by renouncing the world and entering a Buddhist nunnery.

Throughout the Confucian-influenced cultures of East and Southeast Asia, the twentieth century witnessed the collapse of dynastic systems of rule, followed by successive waves of republicanism, communism, and capitalism. In China early twentieth-century social reformers called for the abolition of feudal Confucian attitudes and practices typified by the subordination of women and manifest in high rates of female infanticide and low rates of literacy, earnings, and autonomy. The early Chinese Communist Party institutionalized the vilification of Confucianism and declared that as women hold up half the sky, they should be put to equal use in building the new society. In practice female Communist Party members have been employed typically in supporting organizational roles or in bureaus that focus on domestic or women's affairs.

Marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws have redressed certain historical wrongs, but changes have been slow in coming. The People's Republic of China (PRC) altered its marriage laws in 1950, but popular resistance proved widespread, with the greatest resistance often coming from women who feared the loss of what authority they had as mothers and mothers-in-law. The PRC government also attempted to alter traditional norms out of a desperate need to curb rampant population growth. In the early 1970s a draconian one-child policy was imposed. Despite a campaign in 1974 (as part of an anti-Confucius campaign) to encourage the valuing of girls, a shift to matrilocal marriage, and a reinvention of filiality to encompass care for both parents and parents-in-law, the identification of heir with son remained little changed. Moreover, the traditional view that women are responsible for reproduction is largely unchallenged. Male contraceptive use is generally low and thus women have borne the brunt of coercion (forced intrauterine device insertion, abortion, and sterilization) for failures to comply with the policy, regardless of familial pressure for additional pregnancies in hopes of having a son. One consequence of the one-child policy has been a rise in female infanticide; a second has been the commodification of abandoned female babies for the foreign adoption market.

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, reappraisals of Confucian tradition have been ongoing. Concern over a perceived moral decline that has accompanied the rise of capitalism has been one cause; another is the appreciation of Confucianism's role in the success of other East Asian economies. The result is a shifting mix of resurgent traditional values complicated by rapid economic change. In urban areas and among the more educated, sex roles are more flexible than ever before, but in general, as women move out of the domestic sphere and take up outside employment, they tend to shoulder a double burden. Men go out and women may now also go out, but the latter also spend long hours staying in. Domestic chores and child-rearing responsibilities continue to fall disproportionately on women. Under the multiple stresses of tradition and modernity, it is not surprising, therefore, that as many as 25 percent of all rural women attempt suicide, according to one recent estimate.

Technological advances have combined with continuing son-preference to a devastating effect on the sex ratio of male to female babies. A normal ratio would be 105 to 106 boys born for every 100, reflecting a natural imbalance that compensates for higher male mortality rates. In 2000, the ratio was 110 to 100, and in 2005, 118 to 100. In that same year in the southern province of Hainan, the ratio reached as high as 135 to 100. As alarming as these figures may be, it is worth noting that the modern imbalance is charted at birth and is attributed to sex-selective abortions following ultrasound scanning. Prior to these technologies female infanticide was widely practiced and extant census records indicate similar sex ratio imbalances among the adult general population in certain rural provinces in the nineteenth century. Worrisome consequences of the present phenomenon of lost girls are its future effect on both men and women: It is estimated that by 2020, there will be a surplus of 30 million men of marriageable age in China, the majority of them seeking heterosexual partners. Already in some rural areas, girls and women are once again being sold into marriage and realize few, if any, of the rights the law affords them.

In the other Confucian cultures of East Asia, the postwar years of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed the dismantling of aspects of the Confucian sex-gender system, albeit slowly and sometimes fitfully. In the Republic of China (Taiwan) the nationalist government eagerly employed factory women in the 1950s and 1960s as part of a plan to build a powerful economy; once economic success was assured in the 1970s, women were urged to retreat to traditional roles as wives, mothers, and part-time volunteers. By the early twenty-first century, under the influence of feminist and gay-rights movements, traditional relationships and gender roles are challenged daily. So-called New Confucian thinkers such as Tu Weiming (b. 1940), along with scholars from both Confucian and non-Confucian backgrounds, seek to recover a more balanced view of historical roles for women and men and to question assumptions about the gendered division of labor within Confucianism's five relationships. Sociologist Li Kuo-Ting (b. 1910) has called for a new sixth relationship (of an individual to a group) to reflect the needs of a modern civil society.

In Japan the Confucian legacy is also clear yet complex. Parliament in 1986 passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Law for Men and Women, which, despite its name, did not prohibit the differential treatment of women in the workplace; the law requires only that employers endeavor to prevent discrimination. Women are expected to leave their job or career in favor of marriage and motherhood, although resistance is observable in that the average marriage age for women has been rising steadily since the 1980s. A well-publicized example of the conflict between career and marriage was played out in 2006 when Crown Princess Masako (b. 1963), a former career diplomat whose marriage to the crown prince had only produced a daughter, came under intense public scrutiny for her failure to produce an heir. Although the biological facts of fetal sex-determination were well understood, there was significant public sentiment that the princess had simply waited too long to marry and begin having children and thus had put the line of succession in jeopardy. The feared crisis was averted when Princess Kiko (b. 1966), wife of the emperor's younger son and widely perceived as a traditional Japanese woman, bore her third child—a son.

That a Japanese woman's career is secondary to her reproductive function is evidenced in the understanding of women's earnings being seen as supplemental rather than essential to their family's maintenance. The majority of women continue to earn far less than their male counterparts and are typically bypassed for promotions in favor of their male counterparts. Secondary status in the workplace, however, should not be interpreted as entirely negative for women. Reluctant to interrupt their career, however slowly it may progress, or to leave the outside world permanently, increasing numbers of women are delaying marriage significantly or deciding to forego it altogether; others are returning to the casual workforce after their children are grown. The numbers of single women who continue to live in their natal home and amass significant personal savings, and the increasing numbers of middle-aged women with both money and leisure time, has translated into an adult female population with greater autonomy than ever before—and with varied means of exercising it through consumerism, continuing education, and travel. Conversely, the burden of familial (and filial) responsibility continues to weigh on men, often trapping them in lifelong corporate careers that offer little mobility or challenge.

In the Republic of Korea the 1948 constitution mandated equality for men and women, but it was not until 1987 that laws were strengthened by the revised constitution and not until 1991 that new family laws abolished differential inheritance for sons and daughters. Women labor under the familiar dual burden of working outside the home only to return and assume domestic responsibilities as well. Although Korean women, as with women in Japan, are often highly educated, they remain barred from the highest levels of the corporate and academic worlds; most Korean women labor in low-wage production jobs. Child care facilities remain inadequate to the demand, forcing women out of the workplace for years at a time.

Throughout Confucian Asia the early twenty-first century is bringing moves to reevaluate tradition as these cultures struggle to combine economic success with the challenges of becoming modern industrial and technologically sophisticated societies. For Confucians new social configurations form the greatest challenge to the vitality of the tradition. Confucians now debate the role of same-sex partnerships; homosexuality was historically tolerated if it did not interfere with the marital bond (i.e., the requirement to produce a legitimate heir), but can such partnerships be construed as families in any traditional sense? Likewise, the increasing shift from patrilocality to neolocal patterns of residence for young adult couples has altered the meaning and practice of filial responsibilities for sons as well as daughters, as has the sex-ratio imbalance resulting from population limitation measures. Indigenous feminist movements continue to challenge Confucian patriarchal structures and in the process to change conditions of education, employment, and social relations for men and women alike.

These same reevaluations are occurring in diasporic communities in Europe and North America. Statistically underreported as a worldwide religious tradition, Confucianism beyond East Asia is a somewhat invisible but deeply rooted cultural system that continues to direct the lives of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese emigrants. How Confucian emphases on familial responsibilities (including parental participation in choice of marriage partners and pressure to produce an heir), filial obligations (particularly heavy on sons in terms of educational attainment and marriage expectation), and the gendered nature of labor will alter in the global environment of the twenty-first century remains to be seen, but given the longevity and tenacity of the tradition, it is a sure bet that it will be a lively struggle.


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                                         Vivian-Lee Nyitray


views updated Jun 11 2018


Confucianism is a philosophy with a religious function. It is named after Confucius, whose teachings on ethical behavior have been adopted as a national development model in Chinese history. Currently, Confucianism has a strong influence in China, Korea, Taiwan, and the countries of Southeast Asia, as well as influencing people of Far Eastern descent living around the world. An increasing number of Western people are able to appreciate Confucianism through international contacts and literature.

Confucianism consists of some elements of traditional Chinese religion, such as reverence toward Heaven and the worship of ancestors. It does not assert the existence of a deity, although it recognizes and promotes synchronization with Tien (Heaven, Ultimate, Tao) in harmonious relationships with others and environments. Most Chinese view Confucianism as a philosophy or a practical way to reach an ideal world rather than as a religion.

History of Confucianism

Confucius (551–479 b.c.e.) is renowned as a philosopher and educator, but little attention is given to his roles as researcher, statesman, change agent, social planner, social innovator, enabler, and spiritual advocate. He is said to have spent nearly thirty years touring various states in China, advising local rulers of social reforms but receiving no real opportunities to actualize his political and social vision. It is widely believed that during his old age, Confucius edited several ancient works that later formed the basic canon of Chinese scholarship, such as The Book of Odes (Shi-Ching). The method that he developed offers a means to transform individuals, families, communities, and nations into a harmonious universal society.

Since the second-century b.c.e., Confucianism has strongly influenced Chinese political, and ultimately social and intellectual, behaviors. When the Chinese came into contact with Indian Buddhism around the first century c.e., the programmatic side of Confucianism responded, and they developed a spiritual discipline called Ch'an (meditation), which Japan adopted around 1200 c.e. as Zen. Zen is thus a unique blend of the philosophies and idiosyncrasies of four different cultures: the typical way of Japanese life, Buddhism of India, the Taoists' love of nature, and the pragmatism of the Confucian mentality.

Since the eleventh century, Buddhism and Taoism have been better known for their increasingly religious content rather than as schools of philosophies. They forced Confucians to find metaphysical and epistemological foundations for their ethics. Chinese scholars have incorporated Western concepts and methods into their studies. The Western and Eastern cultures have been integrated and resulted in some eclectic new systems of thought. This integration led to three major eclectic schools in modern Chinese philosophy. The first is the school of comprehensive synthesis, which takes any philosophical view it finds useful and profound, and offers insights into cosmic existence and human nature. The second is the school of contemporary neo-Confucian synthesis, which emphasizes the idealist school of inquiry into the "mind." The third is the Chinese scholastic synthesis school, the principal concept of which is benevolence, through which a person is capable of endless development.

The different strands of thought within Confucianism notwithstanding, the overall vision is to revitalize the human virtue of Te (an ethical code of loving and caring). Confucianism seeks to enable people to assume responsibilities to carry out the dual aim of cultivating the individual self and contributing to the attainment of an ideal, harmonious society.

Confucian Worldview

Confucians believe that Tai Chi is the Ultimate, an integrated energy of Yin and Yang, which is evolved from Wu Chi (void energy) and can be transformed into various forms. The ultimate source of all energy and knowledge is called Tao, which is a continuum without boundaries in time and space, infinite, formless, and luminous (I-Ching).

In Confucian philosophy, the system of Yin and Yang was conceived as a way of explaining the universe. It is a purely relativist system; any one thing is either Yin or Yang in relation to some other object or phenomena, and all things can be described only in relation to each other. The Yin and Yang are the negative and positive principles of universal force and are pictorially represented by the symbol of Tai Chi. The Yin and Yang together constitute the Tao, the eternal principle of heaven and earth, the origin of all things human and divine. The Tao produced the Chi (Qi, energy or life force). Human nature was good; however, negative and endless human desires may lead to systems become unbalanced, which can produce problematic situations.

In contemporary terms, the Yin-Yang theoretical worldview can be defined as a school of transformation that is research-oriented and employs an approach that is multidimensional, cross-cultural, multilevel, multimodal, multisystemic, and comprehensive. It is a way of life or an art of living that aims to synchronize the systems of the universe to achieve both individual and collective fulfillment.

Four major principles describe changes in the interrelationships within environmental systems. These principles of change historically are used to empower the individual and family:

  1. Change is easy because the Tao as its source exists in everything and every moment in daily life;
  2. Change is a transforming process due to the dynamics of Yin and Yang. Any change in part of Yin or Yang will lead to a change in the system and its related systems;
  3. Change has the notion of constancy—the change itself is unchanging. Thus, one should constantly search for the truth and engage in lifelong transformation;
  4. The best transformations are those that promote growth and development of the individual and the whole at the same time.

In summary, any systems' solution to conflict and goals for development aim to integrate love (Jen), justice, freedom, and faithfulness (the image of Tao) in the dynamics. It is a situational approach to fulfill human needs (love). Justice is seen as perfectly equal treatment. Freedom is practiced by participation in negotiation and compromise with flexibility of new patterns and behavior. The stability, repeatability, and accountability of leadership revealed by the natural laws reach faithfulness. The core image of the Tao is integrated in the dynamics of conflict resolution. Role equity and role change, therefore, are the core implication of the Yin-Yang theory. Reaching Yin-Yang balance, family well-being, and an ideal world commonwealth are all aspects of Confucius practice.

Confucian Meditation and Family Integration

The Confucian transformation model (Chung 1992a, 2001) starts with individual meditation; goes through personal enhancement, self-discipline, personality integrity, family integration, and state governance; and reaches the excellence of universal commonwealth. Individual meditation starts with learning to rest the energy (chu chu), in order to be stabilized (ting), be still and calm (ching), reach peace (an), and be mindful (li). A mindful energy is ready to learn the truth and reveal the virtue (te) (Confucius 1971; Liu, K. 1985). An example of Confucian meditative qigong is sitting still to free the ego and get in touch with the real self. It aims to internalize and calm the energy (qi) to calm the mind, body, and spirit. It aims to reach a peaceful state so that the practitioner becomes a thoughtful person towards the self and others. It is a process of mind, body, and spiritual training with the aim of regaining control of the self/mind and preparing for further training and development for Tien jen unification (micro and macro self-unification).

Confucians called this meditation Chou Won. Chou means sit. Won means to forget (the self). It is a process of synthesizing with Tao by "letting go and allowing God to work," similar to Christian concepts. It is an essential means of detaching the ego and reaching mental freedom. It is important because it teaches self-awareness, self-enhancement, self-discipline, and self-actualization, as well as how to find the truth and create social change. This is a cornerstone of Confucian transformation technology.

These mental processes aim to revitalize the internal virtue (te—moral consciousness through mindfulness or Tao's image) that leads to the insight of real self and awareness of universal energy interconnection. This meditation is training the individual to become a highly self-disciplined sage who integrates various social developmental strategies for large-scale social applications. This simple meditation method aims to integrate mind, body, and spirit for holistic healing with three main functional goals: disease prevention, healing, and human capacity development. Historically, it serves as an empowerment tool for the Confucians and their family members by teaching them stress management, personal enhancement, family integration, and career development.

Confucian Family Teaching

Many forms of wisdom have been developed after years of practice. The following are some examples of family teaching derived from Confucian classics.

Family life: "When a parent behaves like a parent, a child like a child, an elder like an elder, a youth like a youth, a husband like a husband, and a wife like a wife, then the conduct of the household is correct. Make the home correct, and the country will be stable" (I-Ching, People in the home).

Good deeds of family: "Family with good deeds will enjoy abundance" (I-Ching, Earth).

Holistic life: "Let the will be set on the path of duty. Let every attainment in what is good be firmly grasped. Let perfect virtue be accorded with. Let relaxation and enjoyment be found in the polite arts" (Confucian Analects, Confucius 1971 [500 b.c.e.]).

Modeling: "When I walk along with two others, they may serve as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them" (Confucian Analects, Confucius 1971 [500 b.c.e.]).

The Great Learning: "What the Great Learning teaches, is—to illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence" (The Great Learning).

Stages and Rituals of Life Transformation

Confucius considered life as a process of transformation that moves through different developmental stages, with each stage having its own task and process. Confucius reviewed his own life journey and suggested the following stages of life (Confucian Analects, Confucius 1971 [500 b.c.e.]; Cheng, Y. 1988). Confucians created various rituals of Li (a proper behavior in a certain situation) that demands certain behaviors to fulfill the expected performance. Li ranges from a bow to an elder, taking off shoes before entering the house, being silent and respectful to elders, bringing a gift to the host, and writing thank-you notes to a helper. Society considers a serious violation of Li as a violation of the law (Confucian Analects, Confucius 1971 [500 b.c.e.]). The original purpose of Li is to help the individual to express proper ways of building and maintaining caring relationships.

Birth as a creative life form. Confucianism considers the individual as a link in the chain of existence from the past to the future. Everyone should have descendents to continue the family tree. To have no children is considered the most unforgivable thing in life. Having a child, particularly a boy, is very important to carry on the family name.

Therefore, when a new life is born to the family, by the end of one month, the family will give a party for the extended family and friends to announce and celebrate the arrival of the new family member. It is the family's responsibility to take care of the mother's needs to reward her production and contribution to the family. Her family status will be increased accordingly. In the future, the person is given a birthday party anywhere from every year to every ten years, according to the extended family's desire. Egg is served as a symbol of life, and the noodle serves as a symbol of longevity, thus, the longer the better. Many parents also offer different gifts to the child during the party to test his or her talents or areas of interest with reference to future education.

At home, children are taught to honor the ethical code (Li), such as honoring parents, loving brothers and sisters, respecting elders, trusting friends, and retaining loyalty to the family and the nation. It means that life is a creative force because it is connected with the Ultimate. Based on virtue, children are taught to make friends by studying with others who are interested in learning similar subjects. Parents are encouraged to appreciate the strengths of a less favored child and look at the weaknesses of the favored one to avoid any prejudice.

Young adulthood. At fifteen years of age, a child reaches young adulthood and starts to dress differently (Adulthood Li). The social symbols of adulthood are given with expectation that the individuals will perform their roles adequately with the help of family members and others. They participate in social activities and assume related responsibilities, which extend the ethical code of obedience to society. Self-searching, self-awareness, self-acceptance, identity development, acceptance of others, and systematic synchronicity with the environment are expected to take place.

Age of independence. At age thirty, with life established, a person should become an independent professional and have his or her own family and career established. A journey of self-searching is done between the ages of sixteen and thirty. During this stage, it is important to outwardly express one's inner qualities to understand and develop the self.

A wedding ceremony (Wedding Li) is given by both families to announce the establishment of the new couple. During the wedding ceremony, both bride and groom have to pay their honor to Heaven, Earth, their ancestors (at the symbolic shrine in the family hall), and their parents, with family and friends as witnesses. The third day after the wedding, another wedding party is held with the bride's family.

Age of mental maturity. At age forty, a person should have matured and acquired a defined self, no longer struggling in a trial-and-error fashion. As Confucius says, "When a person at forty is the object of dislike, he will always continue what he is" (Confucian Analects, Confucius 1971 [500 b.c.e.]).

Age of spiritual maturity. At age fifty, a person should be spiritually reconnected with the Ultimate and be synchronized with it. A matured person should know the answers to the questions: "Where did I come from?" "What is the purpose of my life?" and "Who am I?" During this stage, a person should be synchronizing life energies with the systems' needs according to mission and vision. Real life is only beginning, not ending.

Age of acceptance. At age sixty, a person is ready to take a spiritual journey that is the only way that he or she may actualize the self spiritually. Spiritual maturity will facilitate the acceptance of diversity and differences within the family or community and guide the community in leadership.

Age of unification. After the age of seventy, one can purify his or her mind and free the self from negative thoughts. The real self becomes outwardly apparent after it reconnects with the Ultimate and accepts the self and others. During this stage, retirement and detachment from worldly situations may be beneficial.

Funeral service. Confucians respect the end of the life by giving a sincere funeral service (Funeral Li/rite) to honor the dead and promote the social morality (Confucian Analects, Confucius 1971 [500 b.c.e.]). The name of the dead will be added to the shrine of the family hall as a part of the dead (Yin) family.

Honor the ancestors. Confucians promote ancestor worship by burning paper money and offering food to respect the lives of the dead on April fifth. This ritual respects ancestors and educates younger generations. It becomes a community asset of honoring the self as well as the family.

Teacher's day. This is an elaborate ceremony to honor Confucius at Taipei's Confucian Temple on Confucius's birthday, September 28. His birthday has been dedicated to honor all teachers as a teachers' day, which is a national holiday in Taiwan. Confucian music and dance are performed to honor Confucius and all teachers. The best gift to the teacher or helper may be a successful outcome of one's project, or letters of appreciation.

Family life and structural relations. The Confucian role approach (Chung 1993b, 1994) is based on the assumption that lawlessness and social problems are due to uncultivated individuals, a lack of morals in the social structure, and lack of adequate relationships. Confucius defined five social relationships on which Chinese and other Asian social structures and relationships are based. Various Asians still feel, profoundly, his influence in these areas in their daily life.

In societies that have been influenced by Confucius, the traditional social structure is based on five fundamental interpersonal relationships: superior-subordinate, parent-child, husband-wife, brothers, and friends (Chung 1992b). These relationships are arranged in a hierarchy based on the members' respective position and status. For example, the first superior-subordinate relationship requires loyalty to the government or one's superior on the job. In return, the employer takes care of the employees' needs. Second, the parent-child relationship requires filial piety; children should obey, honor, and respect their parents, and parents should love their children. The husband-wife relationship prescribes that the wife submit to the husband and the husband love the wife. Young brothers should respect the older brother, while the elders should love the young ones. Among friends, righteousness and trust are the rule.

Confucianism prescribes family relationships and indicates the degree of intimacy and obligations. Anyone who is within this network is considered part of the family. Otherwise, he or she is an outsider. As a member of the family, one enjoys membership privileges such as trust, intimacy, and sharing. Confucians promote universal brotherhood and sisterhood by respecting others and observing propriety (Confucian Analects, Confucius 1971 [500 b.c.e.]).

Concept of Religion and Spirituality

According to Confucians, spiritual development comes after physical, emotional, and mental development. One must first learn to know oneself and to respect and honor oneself as one goes about daily business. As Confucius said, "If you don't know how to live as a person, how can you serve the spirit?" (Confucian Analects, Confucius 1971 [500 b.c.e.]). Confucius avoided talking about extraordinary things, feats of strength (violence), disorder, and religious gods (Confucian Analects, Confucius 1971 [500 b.c.e.]). Confucianism stresses being spiritual, but not religious.

Concept of Jen as loving relationship. Jen is a proper relationship between two parties, a loving and caring relationship to reach humanity. Meditation is considered a cornerstone to search for self, find truth, and achieve individual and collective goals.

Concept of harmony. A central feature of Confucianism is harmony between people and their environment, Nature, or Tao. The Tao Chi (Yin-Yang diagram) is an example of the value of harmony with the environment. It is also applied to the concept of health for energy (qi/chi), balance for disease prevention, healing, and the development of human potential. Meditation is a way of managing energy that is applied to reach physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual harmony for individual holistic health.

This core value of Confucianism has had positive and negative effects on Chinese history; it became quite detrimental to women and children. Contemporary Confucians prescribe family conflict resolution to remedy this. The younger generations are not allowed to express their opinions before their elders. According to social standards, women and children who were abused are still expected to be submissive. Social workers and helping professionals must understand the hidden cultural dynamics to deal with the root philosophies and beliefs as they try to help people.

Family conflict resolution. Based on the Yin Yang theory from the Tai Chi diagram, contemporary Confucians such as Douglas K. Chung (1993a) prescribe the family conflict resolution model. It is an example of innovation of Confucianism in redefining the image of Tao through daily practice. In the model, any systems' solutions to conflict resolutions and goals for development aim to integrate love ( Jen), justice, freedom, and fidelity (the image of Tao) in the dynamics. The approach aims to fulfill human needs (love). Justice is seen by the end of the cycle under perfectly equal treatment. Freedom is practiced by volunteer choice and participation in negotiation and compromise—the flexibility of mean line and possibility of forming new systems. Faithfulness is reached by the stability, repeatability, and accountability of leadership and/or revealed by the natural laws. Role equity and role change, therefore, are the core implication of the Yin-Yang Theory.


The Confucian life model includes seven developmental stages. Theories, values, and skills derive from Taology, the Confucian worldview. Rituals and practices show that Confucianism's cultural roots still affect daily family life. The Confucian healing and developmental model, part of the ecological-systems perspective for a global generalist practice, outlines healing and developmental concepts in a comprehensive and holistic approach to achieve a great vision of commonwealth of the world (Chung 2001).

See also:Ancestor Worship; Asian-American Families; China; Japan; Korea; Religion; Vietnam


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douglas k. chung

Chinese Religions, Confucianism and Science in China

views updated May 29 2018

Chinese Religions, Confucianism and Science in China

The term of Confucianism is ambiguous. It refers to the ideology developed by a man named Confucius (522479 b.c.e.), but Chinese scholars prefer to use the term Rujia, which means the school or teachings of the scholars. Ru was originally used to refer to dispossessed aristocrats of antiquity who were no longer warriors, but lived according to their knowledge of rituals, history, music, arithmetic, and archery. The term eventually became a designation of honor. The "school of ru " eventually came to encompass the ethical wisdom of the past that Confucius transmitted to later ages, as well as the entire development of the tradition after his time. In this sense, it constitutes the "religion" of the Chinese because it provides a system of beliefs and values that calls for faith and acceptance from adherents. It also qualifies as a religion in that it provides a way of life for adherents to follow, rather than a body of knowledge for them to master. In this regard, Confucianism is more comparable to Western religions than it is to Western philosophies. However, Confucianism is not a religion in the Western sense because it has no transcendental God, no eschatology or teaching beyond this life, and no organizational structure. It is only a teaching, and it teaches people how to live a noble life in a particular social context.

The teaching of Confucianism

The main teaching of Confucius is jen, which literally means "two persons." Jen is concerned with human relationships and with the virtue of the superior or noble person. Jen is associated with loyalty (zhong ), referring basically to loyalty to one's own heart and conscience, rather than to a narrower political loyalty. Jen also refers to affection and love. The great Confucian thinker Mencius (371289 b.c.e.) said, "The human being of jen loves others." However, jen should be guided by yi (righteousness), and a superior person must know how to love others and when not to love others. The Confucian interpretation of jen as universal love differs from that of Mo-tzu (fifth century b.c.e.), who advocated a love for all without distinction. The followers of Confucius emphasize the need of discernment, of making distinctions, and they reserve for parents and kin a special love. Familial relations provide a model for social behavior by which people should respect their own elders, as well as other's elders, and be kind to their own children and juniors, as well as those of others. This is the reason for the strong sense of solidarity not only in the Chinese family, but also in Confucian social organizations among overseas Chinese communities.

Ritual is an important part of Confucius's teachings as well, and Confucianism is also known as the ritual religion (li-jiao ). Confucian teachings have helped keep alive an older cult of veneration for ancestors and the worship of heaven. This was a formal cult practiced by China's imperial rulers, who regarded themselves as the keepers of "Heaven's Mandate" of government, and were considered to be "High Priests," mediators between the human order and the divine order.

Before the twentieth century, the calendar of official sacrifices was determined by the Board of Astronomy according to established divinatory procedures and was published well in advance by the Ministry of Rites (li-Pu ). During the last dynasty (Q'ing, 16441912), the Ministry of Rites performed the same functions as they did during the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.220 c.e.). The Ministry's most important responsibilities were educational, but it also kept records of all ceremonies the emperor attended, of the descendants of Confucius, and of Buddhist, Daoist, medical, and astronomical officials. All cases of filial piety, righteousness, and loyalty were reported to the emperor for rewards.


Neo-Confucianism develops the meaning of jen through the School of Mind. Wang Yang-ming (14721529) understood that the hsin (mind and heart) was the root of jen, according to which hsin -in-itself is the highest good. It exists beyond good and evil to distinguish what is good and evil. This is the substance of morality. Yang-ming called it liang-chih (inborn capacity to know the good) and liang-neng, which enables one to act according to one's originally good nature. When the mind is in good condition, for example, no human desire occupies it and the mind is clear and intelligent. If one has a clear and intelligent mind, one knows how to apply moral principle to daily life. It does not matter if one is versed in technical knowledge or knows how to complete a task. As Yang-ming puts it, if a person knows what filial piety is, that person will know how to treat his parents well.

Yang-ming does not distinguish between moral knowledge and cognitive knowledge, with the result that in Confucianism, moral knowledge suppresses cognitive knowledge. Contemporary neo-Confucianists understand this, and have revised Yang-ming's theory by stressing cognitive knowledge so as to open the door to modern science and democracy.

Confucianism and science

Traditional Confucianism valued science mainly for its practical applications. Astronomy and mathematics, for example, were valuable for divination and agricultural purposes. Both of them were also needed in making calendars, which were important for the agricultural economy. In addition, Chinese medicine was an early scientific tradition with many practical applications related to the surival of human beings.

Astronomers were active during the East Chou period (722222 b.c.e.) in China. Almost all Chinese astronomers were also astrologers. They believed that the stars and celestial bodies affected the governmental bureaucracy, but seldom affected individuals or the population in general. The Shiji (Records of the historian), written by Sima Qian in 90 b.c.e. during the Han dynasty, includes a systematic chapter on astronomy. The chapter reviews the stars and constellations of the five "Palaces" (circumpolar, east, south, west, and north) and includes an elaborate discussion about planetary movements, including retrogradations, followed by the astrological association of the lunar mansions with specific terrestrial regions, and the interpretation of unusual appearances of the sun and moon, comets and meteors, clouds and vapors, earthquakes, and various harvest signs. The author also warns the emperor to pay attention to astronomy because it can help him learn how to govern the empire.

The most important early writing on mathematics is Jiuzhang suanshu (Nine chapters on the mathematical arts), written in 260 c.e. by Liu Hui. This work provides the first Chinese geometrical proofs in connection with finding the areas of a trapezium (a quadrilateral formed by two isosceles triangles) and other figures. The first chapter of Jiuzhang suanshu is a "Land Survey" that gives the correct rules for finding the areas of rectangles, trapeziums, triangles, circles, and arcs of circles and annuli. The second chapter, "Millet and Rice," deals with percentages and proportions, and reflects the management and production of various types of grains in Han China. The sixth chapter, "Impartial Taxation," deals with problems of pursuit and alligation, especially in connection with the time required for people to carry their grain contributions from their native towns to the capital.

Nearly one thousand Chinese mathematical treatises from the second century c.e. onward survive. The great majority have to do with the kinds of practical matters that government officials, their clerks, and landowners would encounter, such as surveying land and calculating exchange rates and taxes payable in money and commodities. The predominantly practical orientation of Chinese mathematics makes it neither inferior nor superior to the Western tradition. Its lack of development at the abstract geometric level was balanced by its strength in numerical problem solving.

Another important function of mathematics in premodern China was divination (shu ) and astrology (suan ), both of which included numerology. Some divination techniques also identify regularities underlying the flux of natural phenomena.

In general, Confucianism is mainly concerned with ethics, morality, and political theory rather than science and technology. Although Confucianism essentially functioned as the state religion, it was conspicuously un-religious. Confucian scholars who lived during the long period (approx. two thousand years) of unity of Chinese society always set the social agenda concerning how to "cultivate their persons, regulate their families, govern well their states and finally exemplify illustrious virtue throughout the world" (c. fifth to first century, Great Learning ). The purpose of science and technology in a Confucian society is to help a person to be a good politician and sage. Thus, moral teachings are more important than natural scientific findings, and scientific discourse in Chinese culture tends to be full of speculations and metaphors, rather than accurate factual information.

Confucian tradition has not been concerned with scientific theory, so traditional Chinese sciences have focused on practical applications in medicine, agriculture, arithmetic, and astronomy. Traditional Chinese sciences have also stressed the political and moral implications of science and technology. Nonetheless, Chinese scientists are credited with some important inventions, including paper, the compass, the art of printing, and the production of gunpowder. Although the compass was invented in China around 2700 b.c.e., there was no further scientific theory of the compass. The Chinese people used compasses mostly for determining Feng Shui (wind and water), a folk superstition by which people set up a comfortable living environment. Although it can not be denied that technical investigations were fruitful in Chinese history and resulted in many inventions, scientific theorization remained on the level of factual description and empirical interpretation. For example, traditional Chinese medicine involves a great deal of speculation that is not supported by clinical experimentation; it remains on the level of abstract thinking and intuitive observation. Arithmetic was also mainly used for practical calculation that did not require abstract thinking, so no mathematical theory or formal logical system was developed.

Under the ideology of Confucianism, science and technology had to deal with daily issues of human society, and Confucian scholars made little effort to engage in scientific and technological research. Science and technology were generally regarded as merely a means for human beings, with no ultimate value in helping someone become a sage. This may be one of the main drawbacks of the Confucian value system and worldview: It has served as a drag on Chinese scientific and technological development.

See also Chinese Religions and Science; Chinese Religions, History of Science and Religion in China; Mathematics


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hing kau yeung


views updated May 14 2018


There is as great a debate about the religious dimension of Confucianism as there is about when Confucians first arrived in America. Many modern Confucians accept Confucianism as a religion, and others simply state that Confucianism is a philosophy and not a religion. The reason for this debate is that both sides are correct. Confucianism combines what Western intellectuals categorize as both philosophic and religious interests. Confucianism is most certainly a way of life for those who follow the teachings of the ancient sages.

The great contemporary New Confucian, Mou Zongsan (1909–1995), declared that if we demand that Confucianism resemble either the Christian churches or post-Enlightenment Western philosophy as a prototype, then we will find neither religion or philosophy in the Confucian tradition. However, if we define philosophy and religion as the perennial human quest for the ultimate significance of life, then Confucianism is both profoundly philosophic and religious. Confucianism cultivates the self in order to obtain the Way as the manifestation of the Mandate of Heaven and to serve others by creating a just, peaceful, and harmonious society. Following Paul Tillich's famous definition of religion, Confucianism represents a form of ultimate concern that has endured historically in East Asia and now in North America for over two thousand five hundred years.

Confucianism is a modern Western term used to describe an ancient Chinese "way" or practice. The name is a Latin version of Kong Fuzi (551–479 b.c.e.), the founder of the tradition. Confucius would have thought the founding of a new religion or philosophy odd if not unfilial. He lived at a time in classical China when the old Zhou dynasty was in a perilous state of decline. He believed that what was needed was a restoration of classical culture through the proper teaching of the way of the ancient sages. In short, Confucius wanted to inculcate in the young scholars of his day the teachings of the former worthies so that they could restore the world to harmony. His teachings included both the study of texts, later known as the Confucian classics, and the cultivation of virtue. Although Confucius was frustrated in achieving his hope for the reformation of China, he was venerated as the Teacher of the Ten Thousand Generations.

It is also important to recognize that Confucianism is an international movement. It rapidly spread from China to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. It has now crossed the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and is finding new homes in Europe and North America.

There have been three major eras in the development of the Confucian Way. The first is that of Confucius, followed by Mencius (371–289 b.c.e.) and Xunzi (fl. 298–210 b.c.e.). This is the classical period. The second great age came with the revival of the tradition in the Northern and Southern Song dynasties (960–1279 c.e.) and its later flowering in the Ming (1279–1644) and Qing (1644–1911). This is the Neo-Confucian era, so called in order to distinguish it from the classical period.

The third era overlaps with the second and begins with the arrival of the Western imperial powers in East Asia in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is a period of both great decline and rebirth. By 1911, when the last dynasty fell in China, Confucianism was no longer the basis for Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Vietnamese culture. Some people thought that Confucianism would disappear as the people of East Asia modernized their countries through contact with the Western powers. However, by the 1920s, a small group of committed public intellectuals had begun the reformation of the Confucian Way; this group became known as the New Confucians.

Mou Zongsan, acknowledged as the premier philosopher among the New Confucians, accepted and defined the religious dimension of Confucianism as a profound way of life based on the insights recorded in the classical texts. It is a tradition of study and practice and therefore has always been associated with the scholarly elites of East Asia. As the modern New Confucian Du Weiming states, commitment to the Confucian Way means engaging in the lifelong task of becoming human by means of an inclusive humanism that accepts the religious or spiritual dimension of the Confucian Way.

Mou Zongsan stipulates that any religious tradition must accomplish at least two fundamental movements of the human spirit. First, it must establish a vertical link between a human being and the divine reality, defined as ceaseless creativity. Second, it cultivates forms of ethical virtues and action between and among people. It must develop habits of the heart sufficient to sustain civilized human life and culture. According to Mou, what makes Confucius the great founder of the classical Confucian tradition is that Confucius was able to accomplish these two tasks through his reflections on the virtue of ren, or humaneness. Only a person who could abide in ren was on the true path of virtue. All the other virtues of civilized human life flowed from the cultivation of true humaneness. If a person could actually embody humaneness, she or he would become what Du, in a more modern idiom, calls a profound person.

The entire Confucian project of becoming human revolves around the cultivation of five prime virtues. Furthermore, each virtue is then symbolically correlated to a specific primordial social relationship:

  • Ren: humanity or humaneness—father and son.
  • Yi: righteousness or justice—ruler and minister.
  • Li: ritual or civility (distinctions)—husband and wife.
  • Zhi: wisdom or discernment—older and younger brother.
  • Hsin: faithfulness—friend and friend.

Modern New Confucians have recognized that these basic relationships must be recast into less hierarchical and patriarchal modes. For instance, the father-son relationship now becomes parent-child, justice becomes the relationship of government and citizens, husband and wife remain but without the subordination of the distinct roles of women to men, older and younger brothers become siblings, and friend to friend no longer depends on deference based on age but resides in mutual respect and deference.

How does one move towards an inclusive humanism? To begin, one must study in order to become a humane person. However, true Confucian study is more than merely academic excellence. Memory or even wit is not enough. As the later Neo-Confucians taught, you have to taste the real teachings of the sages so that they become part of your living person. True learning then becomes the most profound form of self-cultivation. As the most religious of the Confucian classics, The Doctrine of the Mean, teaches, a person who is able to cultivate the mind-heart can become a cocreator of the world along with Heaven and Earth.

Americans first became aware of Confucianism in the early nineteenth century through the writings of scholarly Christian missionaries. The first major contact began with Chinese immigration into California during the gold rush of 1849. However, there was soon a reaction against any continuing immigration from Asia as well as concerted attacks on anything Chinese. Although knowledge of Confucianism grew during the next century, the decisive turning point came with the new Immigration Act of 1965, which finally did away with the race-based restrictions on entry of East and South Asians into the United States.

The growth of Confucianism in North America can be divided into two parts. The first derives from the dramatic influx of East Asian immigrants after 1965. They imported their culture of strong family ties along with their modern education and skills. The second part arose from growing scholarly interest in Confucianism in East Asia and in North America. Many younger Chinese intellectuals are reprising the ancient tradition, winnowing it for material to contribute to the ecumenical new world order. The future of Confucianism depends on how the tradition is presented to the larger world beyond the academy by the New Confucians. While the future is not yet known, it is clear that Confucianism will have a future.

One of the most interesting questions is whether or not Confucianism will flourish outside of East Asia. Although Confucianism is an international tradition that includes Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese, it has yet to be truly transferred beyond the world of East Asia. Some scholars wonder if you can really be a Confucian without having recourse to the classical Chinese canon. However, there is a broad recognition that the tradition is moving out of East Asia via the Asian diaspora into Europe and North America. There is now a great deal of interaction between scholars of Confucianism in the West and in Asia. Confucianism is beginning to play a major role in Western cultural circles for the first time since people of the Enlightenment became fascinated with all things Chinese.

In Hong Kong in 1957 a group of Chinese intellectuals published a manifesto defending Chinese culture and Confucianism as worthy of study by all interested scholars. The New Confucians argued that Confucianism was not dead and that it had a major contribution to make to the emerging new global world culture. It was also at this time that North Americans began the intense study of all aspects of the Confucian tradition.

Because Confucianism had always respected the role of the scholar, it is not surprising that the renewed interest in Confucianism in North America was patronized by academicians. There was been a renaissance of Confucian studies in America over the last fifty years. Along with a fresh look at Confucianism as a living philosophic and spiritual movement, the Asian economic miracle focused new attention on the social dimensions of Confucianism. Du Weiming has made the point that even if many modern Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese do not know a great deal about the history of their Confucian culture, Confucianism functions as deep form of cultural DNA within modern Asian societies and their diasporas.

Confucianism now plays a diffuse role in North America. It has become an object of study not only by students of Chinese culture but also by professionals in government, business, technology, and medicine concerned with understanding classical China in order to better engage modern China. Many Chinese at home and overseas are also pondering the fate of the tradition. To repeat, no one knows what the future will bring, though there is a growing consensus that Confucianism will reform and renew itself as it has done over and over again for more two thousand five hundred years.

See alsoChinese-American Religions; Feng Shui; I Ching.


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John Berthrong


views updated Jun 27 2018

Confucianism A philosophy for living that contains elements of religious practice, founded by Confucius in the sixth to fifth centuries BCE. Its influence in China was paramount, but it has also been significant in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, as a source of learning and an ethical code.

Confucius (551–479 BCE) taught the necessary actions for harmony and order during a time of political violence and social disorder. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220CE) his teachings (compiled by his disciples in the Analects) became state orthodoxy in China and remained so until 1911. Confucianism taught that nobility was not to be attained through inheritance but by following the correct rituals and acts of filial piety, reciprocity, and righteousness. In particular, juniors (such as subjects or sons) should show loyalty to seniors (rulers, fathers), while seniors should show benevolence to juniors. This idea was extended by Mencius (c. 371–289BCE), the ‘second sage of Confucianism’, to suggest that humans were essentially good (the idea of original virtue), and that it was appropriate for subjects to rebel against unjust rulers. Significantly, the latter idea was never introduced into Japan, where loyalty to the Emperor was made paramount.

Although today practised actively as a religion only in South Korea, the influence of Confucianism on the ethical, legal, political, and educational systems of the above-named countries remains considerable. Robert Bellah (Tokugawa Religion, 1957) has argued that Confucianism may have had a similar role in the development of modern Japan as did the protestant ethic in Northern Europe (an interpretation which is at odds with that of Max Weber in The Religion of China, 1916). Others have argued that Confucianism's emphasis on harmony, respect for authority, loyalty, benevolence, meritocracy, literacy, and scholarship, lies behind the recent economic growth of Japan and the newly industrializing countries (NICs) of East Asia.


views updated May 23 2018

Confucianism (Chin. equivalent, ju-chia, ju-chiao, kung chiao: School of Scholars or of Confucius). The school and teaching of Confucius, which formed the mainstream in Chinese philosophy during most of the past 2,000 years. While Confucius' teachings are best found in the Analects, Confucianism regards as its special texts the Confucian Classics, for which see above. Confucian philosophy became dominant in Han China (206 BCE–220 CE) only after much uncertainty, and by losing some of its doctrinal purity and integrity. Confucianism became eclectic, accepting many elements from Legalism. In Chinese terms, Confucianism is a religion (chiao, literally, ‘doctrine’) as well as a philosophy (chia, literally, ‘a school of transmission’). But it is different from those W. religions which emphasize revealed doctrines and belief in God. While Confucius appears to have believed in a supreme deity, he preferred to teach a doctrine of humanism open to the transcendent. (For developments, see NEO-CONFUCIANISM).


views updated Jun 11 2018

Confucianism Philosophy that dominated China until the early 20th century and still has many followers, mainly in Asia. It is based on the Analects, sayings attributed to Confucius. Strictly an ethical system to ensure a smooth-running society, it gradually acquired quasi-religious characteristics. Confucianism views man as potentially the most perfect form of li, the ultimate embodiment of good. It stresses the responsibility of sovereign to subject, of family members to one other, and of friend to friend. Politically, it helped to preserve the existing order, upholding the status of the Mandarins. When the monarchy was overthrown (1911–12), Confucian institutions ended, but after the Communist Revolution (1949), Maoism incorporated many Confucian elements.

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