From New World Encyclopedia
Statue of Confucius on Chongming Island in Shanghai

Confucianism (Chinese: 儒家, Pinyin: rújiā, literally "The School of the Scholars"; or, less accurately, 孔教 kŏng jiào, "The Religion of Kong") is an East Asian school of ethical, philosophical, and (more contentiously) religious thought originally developed from the teachings of the early Chinese sage Confucius (551 - 479 B.C.E.). As a school of thought, it is primarily focused on morality, interpersonal ethics and the cultivation of the civility, which is understood to contribute to the establishment of a harmonious and well-ordered society. Those who argue for the school's religious dimensions, a group that seems to represent an ever-increasing percentage of scholars and Sinologists,[1] argue that the seemingly secular focus of Confucian thought simply reflects the notion of an "antropocentric cosmos," wherein the Mandate of Heaven (Tian) and the avenues to transcendence are utterly immanent realities.

Debated during the Warring States Period and forbidden during the short-lived Qin Dynasty, Confucianism was chosen by Han Wudi for use as a political system to govern the Chinese state. Despite its loss of influence during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), it gradually regained influence and reasserted its role as the mainstay of Chinese intellectual orthodoxy through the efforts of a body of syncretistic scholars known as the Neo-Confucians, who broadened Confucian doctrine through the use of Daoist and Buddhist metaphysics. Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200), the most famous of these scholars, provided new editions of the Five Classics and Four Books that served as the core curriculum for the imperial examination system for over seven hundred years. However, the school's position of prominence came under intense scrutiny at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was denounced as a backwards ideology during the May Fourth Movement and vigorously repressed by under Mao Zedong's vision of Chinese Communism. However, there are recent signs of a revival of Confucianism in mainland China, with the Chinese authorities beginning to acknowledge the tremendous (and largely positive) role that Confucian teachings played in the development of China's history and culture.

The prevalence and orthodoxy of Confucianism (especially in its Song Neo-Confucian form) in Chinese culture led to its eventual dissemination throughout the East Asian cultural sphere. In particular, the school extensively influenced the cultures of Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam, as well as various other territories settled predominantly by Chinese people. In each of these territories, Confucian ethics and social mores became utterly enmeshed with indigenous beliefs and practices, to the extent that many describe the entire East Asian sphere as possessing a "Confucian culture."


Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) was a sage and social philosopher of China whose teachings have deeply influenced East Asia for over two millennia. The relationship between Confucianism and Confucius himself, however, is tenuous. In fact, during his own lifetime Confucius likely saw himself as something of a failure, given that his ideas remained relatively marginal — as attested to by his frequently complaints that the feudal lords of the day refused to heed his instructions. This issue is further complicated by the fact that all surviving knowledge of the great teacher is preserved in the Analects, a compendium of sayings recorded in the decades after his death by his loyal students. Regardless, we can sketch out Confucius' ideas from the fragments that remain.


In the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (772-221 B.C.E.), the reigning king of the Zhou gradually became a mere figurehead. In this power vacuum, the rulers of small states began to vie with one another for military and political dominance. Deeply persuaded of the need for his mission—"If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no need for me to change its state" Analects XVIII, 6—Confucius tirelessly promoted the virtues of ancient illustrious sages such as the Duke of Zhou. Confucius tried to amass sufficient political power to found a new dynasty, as when he planned to accept an invitation from a rebel to "make a Zhou dynasty in the East." (Analects XV, 5) As the common saying that Confucius was an "uncrowned king" indicates, however, he never gained the opportunity to apply his ideas. He was expelled from states many times and eventually returned to his homeland to spend the last part of his life teaching.[2]

Unlike most European and American philosophers, Confucius did not rely on deductive reasoning to convince his listeners. Instead, he used other rhetorical techniques, such as analogy and aphorism, to explain his ideas. Most of the time these techniques were highly contextualized. However, Confucius claimed that he sought "a unity all pervading" (Analects XV, 3) and that there was "one single thread binding my way together." (Analects IV, 15) Regardless of these claims, the first occurrences of a unified, philosophically-rigorous Confucian system may have been created by his disciples or by their disciples. During the philosophically fertile period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, great early figures of Confucianism such as Mencius and Xun Zi developed Confucianism into an ethical, political, and (arguably) religious doctrine. Mencius gave expanded existing Confucian paradigms by providing a more full explanation of human nature, of what is needed for good government, of what defines morality, and by creating a unified idealist doctrine based on the claim that human nature is good. Xun Zi opposed many of Mencius' ideas and built a structured system upon the idea that human nature is lacks an inherent morality, suggesting instead that individuals needed to be educated and exposed to the rites (li), before being able to truly manifest their humanity. Some of Xunzi's disciples, such as Han Feizi and Li Si, became Legalists (a utilitarian philosophy of leadership based the rule of law, quite distant from virtue-based Confucianism) and conceived the state system that allowed Qin Shi Huang to unify China under the strong state control of every human activity. The culmination of Confucius' dream of unification and peace in China can therefore be argued to have come from Legalism, a school of thought almost diametrically opposed to his reliance on rites and virtue.

State Sanction and later development

Confucius, illustrated in Myths & Legends of China, by E. T. C. Werner (1922)
See also: Han Wu Di  and Neo-Confucianism

Confucianism survived its suppression during the Qin Dynasty partly thanks to the actions of several brave (yet unnamed) scholars who concealed the school's texts at great personal peril. After the Qin, the new Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) approved of Confucian doctrine and sponsored Confucian scholars, eventually making Confucianism the official state philosophy (see Emperor Wu of Han). Study of the Confucian classics became the basis of the government examination system and the core of the educational curriculum. After several centuries of prominence, however, this imperial sanction came to be something of a blight, as the school was seen as utterly contiguous with the failing dynasty (ca. 200 C.E.). This led to its gradual dismissal by many of the intellectual elites, which caused it to be eclipsed by other religio-philosophical systems (most namely, Buddhism and Daoism) for a number of centuries.[3]

This process of gradual decline (among elites) was dramatically reversed with the advent of Neo-Confucianism — a heterodox and multivalent school of thinkers who were united by their desire to extend Confucian thought through a process of syncreticistic dialogue with the reigning Buddhist and Daoist ideologies. In particular, the movement's vanguard, which included such thinkers as Shao Yong, Tang Junyi, Zhang Zai, and the Cheng Brothers (Yi and Hao) (all of whom lived circa 1000 C.E.), utilized the traditional paradigm of Confucian classicism but adapted it to address the cosmological and metaphysical perspectives provided by the other (more overtly "religious") traditions. This movement reached its apex in the writings of Zhu Xi (1130–1200), who successfully synthesized the contributions of all previous Neo-Confucians into a cohesive, philosophically-compelling system. More importantly, in 1310, his critical editions of the Four Books (which included redaction and commentaries) became the official textbooks for the Imperial examination system. As a result, the learning of all Chinese scholars and bureaucrats, from 1313 C.E. to the collapse of the imperial bureaucracy in the early twentieth century, was, to a very large extent, shaped by Zhu Xi's own perspectives.[4] Though Zhu Xi's thought, in many ways, provided the capstone to the Neo-Confucian tradition, other scholars (most namely Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529)) provided alternative perspectives, lending the movement a considerable philosophical breadth.[5][6]

No serious attempt to utterly replace Confucianism arose until the twentieth century, when the collapse of the imperial government (coupled with China's subjugation by foreign powers) caused it to be scapegoated as the "backward ideology" responsible for the country's political and social ills. As such, Confucian teachings were removed from school curricula by the government after the Republic of China was founded in 1912. This climate of denunciation reached an apex during the May Fourth Movement (1919) and was explicitly adopted by the Chinese Communist Party, who caricaturized Confucius as the ultimate source of China's "failed feudal ideology."

In recent years, however, Confucianism is experiencing a period of renewed fluorescence through the efforts of a new generation of scholars, both in China and abroad. As Tu Wei-ming, in his essay "Toward a Third Epoch of Confucian Humanism," suggests, the conversations between these scholars (and, more broadly, between the tradition and the modern world) represent the future of the Confucian project:

Interregional communication among Confucian scholars in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore may lead to a genuine intellectual exchange with scholars in the People's Republic of China. The internal dynamics of China in the post-Cultural Revolutionary era are likely to generate unprecedented creativity in Confucian studies. Confucian scholars in North America and Europe can take an active role in bringing all these dialogues into a continuing conversation. Such conversation may bring about a communal critical self-consciousness among concerned Confucian intellectuals throughout the world. Original thinking from Confucian roots, the kind that Levenson felt was no longer possible, may very well re-emerge to stimulate and inspire productive scholarship.[7]

In the 20+ years since those words were written, they have proved utterly prescient, with the most surprising development being the official rehabilitation of Confucius by the government of China, who now acknowledge his role as a paragon of Chinese culture and as a profound teacher of civic morality.[8][9][10]

Confucianism in East Asia

After its reformulation as Neo-Confucianism by Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming and the other Neo-Confucians, Confucianism also became accepted as the state philosophy of Korea and Japan, and exerting tremendous cultural influence on the remainder of Southeast Asia.


Due to its proximity to China, Korea has long been heavily influenced by its neighbor's cultural institutions. In particular, the Goguryeo Kingdom introduced Chinese culture and Confucianism, but initially maintained its own customs and traditions. The Baekje Kingdom, on the other hand, thoroughly adopted Confucianism. This shaped the administrative system and the culture and arts. Silla, the last of the three kingdoms, also accepted the Confucian way of life at the highest levels of administration. This broad level of acceptance was furthered by Gwangjong and Seongjong of the Goryeo dynasty, who ordered the construction of a Confucian academy and the establishment of a centrally-administered exam for hiring scholar officials (modeled on the Chinese system). Under Joseon Neo-Confucianism, or seongnihak, there was even greater encouragement of Confucian ideas and ideals such as chung or loyalty; hyo or filial piety; in or benevolence; and sin or trust. In fact, during the Joseon Dynasty, from 1392 on, Confucianism was the primary system of belief amongst the scholarly yangban classes and generals.

Confucianism in Joseon Korea flourished most notably in the sixteenth century, under the guidance of the country's two most prominent Confucian scholars, Yi Hwang (“Toegye”) (1501–1570) and Yi I (“Yulgok”) (1536–1584), whoare commemorated today on South Korea's 1000- and 5000-Won notes respectively, and in the names of major thoroughfares in central Seoul.

As the Joseon dynasty lasted more than five centuries, a rough division of the progression of Korean Confucianism could be outlined as follows:

  • First century: Governmental administration Confucianised
  • Second century: Golden age of Confucian philosophers
  • Third century: Development of patrilineal lineage system based on power wielded by the eldest son
  • Fourth century: Confucian mysticism and seeking of sage-like qualities in ruling classes
  • Fifth century: Confucian system breaks down when faced with western encounters, collapse of Qing Dynasty, and Japanese invasions; Confucianism goes underground, to await a revival in the sixth century republican period.

Today, the landscape of Confucian schools, temples, places of ancestral worship, and scholarship have been minimized, if not put to the side as historical artifacts worthy only of tourists, scholars, or historians. Regardless, prevalent elements of Confucian thought still exist in day-to-day administrative and organizational hierarchies, as well as in the "folk psychology" of the Korean people. This continued (albeit muted) prevalence of the tradition has led to a renewed interest in the tradition among Korean scholars in the late 1990s.[11][12][13]


Confucianism, although not typically practiced as a religion, has deeply influenced Japanese thought, particularly in the sphere of social ethics and interpersonal etiquette. Neo-Confucianism, introduced to Japan in the twelfth century, is an interpretation of nature and society based on metaphysical principles and is influenced by Buddhist and Taoist ideas. In Japan, where it is known as Shushigaku (Shushi School, after the Chinese Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi – "Shushi" in Japanese), it brought the idea that family stability and social responsibility are human obligations. The school used various metaphysical concepts to explain the natural and social order. Shushigaku, in turn, influenced the kokutai (national polity) theory, which emphasized the special national characteristics of Japan.

This being said, Japanese Confucianism presents a much different character than its other East Asian counterpart, due in large part to its singular emphasis on interpersonal ethics:

Unlike the case of Korea, where leading Confucian scholars such as Yi Hwang and Yi I indulged in metaphysical and philosophical debates, Japanese Confucians had much less enthusiasm for cosmologicalism, traditionalism and philosophical universalism. Their primary interest was in how to apply Confucian values, ideas and precepts to social and political life. Therefore, the history of Confucianism in Japan is marked by a series of transformations and syncretism which deliberately ignored some aspects of Neo-Confucianism while highlighting and developing others. ... The Japanese pragmatic attitude toward Confucian Learning greatly affects the way in which the Confucian tradition develops and explains the unique image and functions that Confucianism has had in modern Japan. For most of the twentieth century they majority of the Chinese and Koreans see Confucianism as politically conservative and culturally backward, while in Japan, Confucianism is largely considered to have played an important part in the Meiji Reformation and aided the acceleration of Japanese industrialization and modernization.[14]


Under the domination of the Chinese empire, Vietnam gradually incorporated various elements of Chinese culture into its own, including its scientific advances, writing system and religious traditions (Buddhism, Daoism, and, to a lesser extent, Confucianism). After the liberation of Vietnam from China (in 939 C.E.), these cultural ties allowed the two nations to remain closely aligned, with the Vietnamese leadership actively promulgating the Confucian principles of obedience, respect for education and authority. In a similar manner, Confucianism profoundly influenced the family structure and created a tightly defined social hierarchy. In Hanoi in 1070, the establishment of the Van Mieu, a temple of learning dedicated to Confucius, marked the emergence of Confucianism as a cult.

Due to the needs of constructing a unified nation with a centralized administration, Confucianism took the place of Buddhism to become the state philosophy under Lê Thánh Tông (r. 1460-1497), who instituted a bureaucratic system based on the Chinese model (complete with examinations based on the Confucian classics). After this time, Confucianism took root in the social and political structure, as the ideals of Confucian meritocratic scholarship came to gradually dominate social and moral life.[15][16]

Key Concepts in Confucian thought

Rites (, 禮)

Main article: Li (rites)

Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously. (Analects II, 3)

The term here translated as "rites" (禮; lǐ) has a considerably broader array of meanings than its corresponding term in English, as it simultaneously denotes "ritual," "(religious) sacrifice," and even "social etiquette." While the Chinese character for "rites" previously had the religious meaning of "sacrifice" (the character 禮 is composed of the character 示, which means "altar," to the left of the character 曲 placed over 豆, representing a vase full of flowers and offered as a sacrifice to the gods; cf. Wenlin), Confucian thought broadened it to include all forms of social and spiritual propriety, many of which were codified and treated as an all-embracing system of norms. Confucius himself tried to revive the etiquette of earlier dynasties, but following his death he himself became regarded as the great authority on ritual behavior.[17] Indeed, its Confucian meaning ranges from politeness and etiquette to proper sacrificial practices, with the emphasis on performance. In this way, the li has prominent role in the creation of social mores, as they inform people about their duties to others and also of their reasonable expectations of them. This perspective is echoed in the writings of Xunzi (c. 310–237 B.C.E.), a later disciple of Confucius, who argued for the necessity of li in conditioning human behavior and constructing a harmonious society:

Hence, any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal. Therefore, man must first be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual principles (li), and only then will he be able to observe the dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the forms and rules of society, and achieve order.[18]

The above explains an essential difference between legalism and ritualism, and points to a key (albeit stereotypical) difference between Western and Eastern societies. Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; whereas a ritual system inculcates patterns of behavior are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face. In general, this process of internalization is the primary element of the li framework. Formalized behavior becomes progressively internalized, desires are channeled and personal cultivation becomes the mark of social correctness. Though this idea conflicts with the common saying that "the cowl does not make the monk," Confucianism avoids the charge of hypocrisy by asserting that sincerity is what enables ritualized behaviors to be internalized by individuals. Obeying ritual with sincerity makes ritual the most powerful way to cultivate oneself. Thus, "respectfulness, without the Rites, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the Rites, becomes timidity; boldness, without the Rites, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the Rites, becomes rudeness." (Analects VIII, 2) Ritual can be seen as a means to find the balance between opposing qualities that might otherwise lead to conflict.[19][20]

Humaneness (Rén, 仁)

Confucius was concerned with people's individual development, which he maintained took place within the context of human relationships. Ritual and filial piety are the ways in which one should act towards others from an underlying attitude of humaneness. Confucius's concept of humaneness is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the Golden Rule phrased in the negative: "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you". (Analects 15.24)

In general, this ethic of reciprocal "humankindness" is eloquently summed up in Ames and Rosemont's translation of the Analects:

Ren, translated herein as "authoritative conduct," "to act authoritatively," or "authoritative person," is the foremost project taken up by Confucius, and occurs over one hundred times in the text. It is a fairly simple graph, and according to the Shuowen lexicon, is made up of the elements ren 人 "person," and er 二, the number "two." This etymological analysis underscores the Confucian assumption that one cannot be a person by oneself — we are, from our inchoate beginnings, irreducibly social. Herbert Fingarette has stated the matter concisely: "For Confucius, unless there are at least two human beings, there can be no human beings."[21][22]

Rén also has a political dimension. If the ruler lacks rén, surely it will be difficult if not impossible for his subjects to behave humanely. Rén is the basis of Confucian political theory: it presupposes an autocratic ruler, exhorted to refrain from acting inhumanely towards his subjects. An inhumane ruler runs the risk of losing the "Mandate of Heaven," the right to rule. Such a mandateless ruler need not be obeyed. But a ruler who reigns humanely and takes care of the people is to be obeyed strictly, for the benevolence of his dominion shows that he has been mandated by heaven.[23]

The Perfect Gentleman / Exemplary Person

The term Jūnzǐ (君子) is a term crucial to classical Confucianism. Literally meaning "son of a ruler," "prince," or "noble," the ideal of a "gentleman" (or, less gender-specifically, "exemplary person") is the ideal which Confucianism exhorts all people to strive. A hereditary elitism was bound up in the concept and gentlemen were expected to act as moral guides to the rest of society. They were to:

  • cultivate themselves morally;
  • participate in the correct performance of ritual;
  • show filial piety and loyalty where these are due; and
  • cultivate humaneness.

The great exemplar of the gentleman is Confucius himself. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life was that he was never awarded the high official position which he desired, from which he wished to demonstrate the general well-being that would ensue if humane persons ruled and administered the state.[24]

The opposite of the Jūnzǐ was the Xiǎorén (小人), literally "small person" or "petty person." Like English "small," the word in this context in Chinese can mean petty in mind and heart, narrowly self-interested, greedy, superficial, and materialistic.

Proper governance

"To govern by virtue, let us compare it to the North Star: it stays in its place, while the myriad stars wait upon it." (Analects II, 1)

Another key Confucian concept is the notion that proper governance begins with personal morality. When the king is sufficiently moral (i.e., possesses sufficient De), his virtue spreads outward concentrically, yielding beneficial results throughout the kingdom. This idea is developed further in the Great Learning and is tightly linked with the Daoist concept of Wu-wei: the less the king does, the more that is done. By being the "calm center" around which the kingdom turns, the king allows everything to function smoothly and avoids having to tamper with the individual parts of the whole. A logical corollary of this point, which is expressed most forcefully in the writings of Mencius, is that non-benevolent leadership produces an environment where personal moral cultivation was impossible, meaning that the moral failings of the populace are the responsibility of the monarch. He was so committed to this proposition that he argued that it was acceptable for the populace to depose a tyrant who ignored the people's needs.

King Xuan of Qi asked, "Is it the case that Tang banished Jie, and that Wu struck down Zhou?"
Mengzi responded, saying, "There are such accounts in the historical records."
The King said, "Is it acceptable for subjects to kill their rulers?"
Mengzi said, "One who violates benevolence [ren] should be called a 'thief.' One who violates righteousness [yi] is called a 'mutilator.' A mutilator and thief is called a mere 'fellow.' I have heard of the execution of a mere fellow called 'Zhou,' but I have not heard of the killing of one's ruler" (Mencius 1B8).

More broadly, this idea of "government by virtue" may be traced back to early shamanic beliefs, such as the notion that the king (wang, 王) as "Son of Heaven" (天子, Tianzi) serves as an intermediary between Heaven (Tian), Earth (Di), and humanity. This "concentric" notion of government was coupled with the understanding of li described above in the imperial cult, whereby the king (or later, the emperor) performed various rituals and sacrifices in order to ensure the proper operation of the cosmos.[25]


"In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes." (Analects XV, 39)

Although Confucius claimed that he was "simply a transmitter, not an inventor" (Analects VII, 1) it is undeniable that he produced a number of innovative ideas.

One of these notions, which received the posthumous plaudits of Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers, was the (then-)revolutionary idea of replacing the "nobility of blood" with one of virtue. This development is most visible in his redefinition of the term jūnzǐ (君子), which had previously referred to hereditary nobles, but came to describe individuals of exemplary morals and cultivation. In this framework, a virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities can be a "gentleman" (jūnzǐ), while a shameless son of the king is only a "small man" (小人, xiao ren). That he allowed students of different classes to become his disciples — going so far as to encourage a good-hearted but impoverished youth to marry his daughter — is a clear demonstration that he fought against the feudal structures in Chinese society.

Confucius praised those kings, such as the mythic monarchs Yao and Shun, who left their kingdoms to the most qualified candidates rather than to their elder sons. In a like manner, his achievement was the setting up of a school that produced statesmen with a strong sense of state and duty, known as Rujia (儒家), the 'School of the Literati'. During the Warring States Period and the early Han dynasty China grew greatly and the need for a solid and centralized corporation of government officers able to read and write administrative papers arose. As a result Confucianism was promoted and the corporation of men it produced became an effective counter to the remaining landowner aristocrats otherwise threatening the unity of the state.

This broad understanding of virtue (or aptitude) also led to the institution of a meritocratic examination system for selecting the imperial government's bureaucrats. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honor to the whole family. The Chinese examination system seems to have been started in 165 B.C.E., when certain candidates for public office were called to the Chinese capital for examination of their moral excellence by the emperor. Over the following centuries the system grew until finally almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations based upon the Confucian "canon" (the Five Classics and Four Books).[26][27][28][29][30]

Filial Piety (Xiào, 孝)

This was considered among the greatest of virtues and had to be shown towards both the living and the dead. The term "filial," meaning "of a son," denotes the respect and obedience that a son should show to his parents, especially to his father. This relationship was extended by analogy to a series of five relationships: those between father and son, ruler and subject, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and between friends. Each of these roles was comprised of a series of specific duties and responsibilities (li) that were seen as appropriate for individuals in those interpersonal categories. The main source of our knowledge of the importance of filial piety is The Book of Filial Piety, a work attributed to Confucius but almost certainly written in the third century B.C.E.

Ames and Rosemont provide an excellent summary of the Confucian perspective on this central virtue:

Given the central place of the family for the Confucian way, appropriate feelings are that resource from which a pathway through life emerges. It is important to note that in promoting the family as the pervasive model of order, the Confucian worldview does not accept that hierarchical social institutions are necessarily pernicious, or that simple egalitarianism should be an uncritical value. Having said this, an obstacle to understanding xiao can arise from a simplistic equation between filial responsibility and obedience. At times being truly filial within the family, like being a loyal minister within the court, requires remonstrance rather than automatic compliance, yet such responsibility to question authority has its limits, and is not a warrant to pit one's own opinions against one's elders.[31]

Loyalty (Zhōng, 忠)

This was the equivalent of filial piety on a different plane, between ruler and minister. It was particularly relevant for the social class to which most of Confucius's students belonged, because the only way for an ambitious young scholar to make his way in the Confucian Chinese world was to enter a ruler's civil service. This notion is eloquently summarized by Qingjie James Wang:

The Chinese term zhong is often interpreted and translated as "loyalty" in English. It is a virtue that defines one's moral commitments to one's surrounding social, cultural, and historical community as a whole. This community, according to the Confucian ideal, is not simply an aggregation of atomic individuals but an organic unit with which each person forms a unique identity and within which each is an irreplaceable member. There are two characteristics of the Confucian concept of zhong that may not be fully covered by the English word "loyalty." First, although zhong often manifests itself through one's fulfillment of assigned duties or through services to one's superiors (e.g., to the ruler of one's country), it does not necessarily manifest itself in this way. It is primarily a commitment to one's community as a whole rather than to any specific person or assigned duty. In ancient times the ruler of a country was often regarded as an object of devotion because the ruler was taken as the symbol of the community. Second, zhong is not an external moral commandment imposed from some outside transcendent or divine authority. It is culturally and historically rooted within, or has grown from, the "hearts/minds" of all individual members of the community. This second characteristic of zhong can be seen in the etymology of the word, which is composed of two other words, zhong 中 (center) and xin 心 (heart/mind).[32]

Like filial piety, however, loyalty was often subverted by the autocratic regimes of China. Confucius had advocated a sensitivity to the realpolitik of the class relations that existed in his time; he did not propose that "might makes right," but that a superior who had received the "Mandate of Heaven" should be obeyed because of his moral rectitude. This, however, was soon reinterpreted and became a doctrine which demanded blind, unquestioning obedience to the ruler from the ruled.[33]

In a similar manner, the Japanese iteration of the Confucian teachings also elevated loyalty to the position of "highest moral value."[34]

Rectification of names

Confucius believed that social disorder stemmed from failure to perceive, understand, and deal with reality. Fundamentally, then, social disorder stems from the failure to call things by their proper names, and his solution was "Rectification of Names/Terms" (zhèngmíng 正名). He gave an explanation of zhengming to one of his disciples.

Tsze-lu said, "The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?" The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify names." "So! indeed!" said Tsze-lu. "You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?" The Master said, "How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."[35]

Xun Zi (c.310 – 237 B.C.E.) chapter (22) "On the Rectification of Names" claims the ancient sage kings chose names (ming 名 "name; appellation; term") that directly corresponded with actualities (shi 實 "fact; real; true; actual"), but later generations confused terminology, coined new nomenclature, and thus could no longer distinguish right from wrong.


Does Confucianism promote corruption?

Unlike many other political philosophies, Confucianism privileges virtue over law as a means of ordering a state. While this emphasis has allowed for the development of an ethical system based on reciprocal obligations and interpersonal responsibilities, a potential "danger" (especially for individuals accustomed to a Western-style "rule of law") is that corruption and nepotism will arise. Even though means of controlling and reducing corruption have been successfully implemented in China, Confucianism is occasionally criticized for not providing such a means itself.[36] This being said, it can also be argued that the privileging of personal relationships over contractual obligation is simply a different orientation to business and politics, rather than a problem to be addressed:

In a bureaucratic system which calls for impersonality, to develop personal relations and then use them for private gains is a corrupt practice. But for ordinary people, including both the client and the official, it is a natural consequence of what is morally approved and promoted — i.e., the particularism. Such a practice is very often regarded as a socially legitimate—though legally illegitimate—means to achieve personal goals. The client uses it in dealing with the official, as does the official in dealing with his superior in the bureaucracy. A Chinese proverb states that "whoever near an official gets honor; whoever near the kitchen gets food." The individual who is not involved in the "corrupt" deal may not be happy with it. Nevertheless, he tends to tolerate, and even accept it, because it is, after all, a normal way of doing things in the community. Should he suffer from the deal, he tends to blame nobody but himself, as he fails to develop or utilize the kind of personal relations he needs.[37]

Was there a Confucianism?

One of the problems in discussing the history of Confucianism is the question of semantics: in other words, the issue of determining the referent of the term itself. In the above exposition, "Confucianism" was imprecisely used as a reference to those scholars and schools who claim to inherit their characteristic elements from Confucius and/or the Confucian Classics, and those religio-cultural entities for whom a similar provenance can be traced. This being said, the "reality" of such a grouping (at least from an indigenous perspective) is debatable. For instance, Lionel Jensen, in his book Manufacturing Confucianism, claims that our modern image of Confucius and Confucianism, which is that of a wise symbol of learning and a state-sponsored quasi-religion, did not exist in China from time immemorial, but was manufactured by European Jesuits as a "translation" of the ancient indigenous traditions, known as "Ru Jia" (more literally the "School of the Scholars"), into the reified European understanding of religion. Such claims have a certain level of validity, but it does not prevent "Confucianism" as a term from being discussed and utilized on a practical level. What it does mean, however, is that virtually every scholar of Chinese culture and religion will demarcate the boundaries of the term differently, leading to potential confusion.[38][39][40]

The Script controversy

The origin of this problem lies with the attempt of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to burn all of the books. After the Qin dynasty was overthrown by the Han, there was the monumental task of recreating all of the knowledge that was destroyed. The method undertaken was to find all of the remaining scholars and have them reconstruct, from memory, the texts that were lost. This produced the "New Script" texts. Afterwards, people began finding fragments of books that had escaped the burning. Piecing those together produced the "Old Script" texts. One problem that has plagued Confucianism, through the ages, is the question of which set of texts is the more authentic; the "Old Script" texts tend to have greater acceptance. In actuality, the verification and comparison for authenticity between the 'old scripts' and 'new scripts' text has remained the works of Confucian scholars for 2000 years up to the twentieth century. Their work also involved interpretation and derivation of meanings from the text under a field of study was known as Jingxue 經學 ("the study of classics").

Is Confucianism a religion?

It is debatable whether Confucianism should correctly be termed a "religion." While it prescribes a great deal of ritual, only a subset of it could be construed as worship or meditation in a formal sense. Also, Confucius occasionally made statements about the existence of other-worldly beings that sound distinctly agnostic (or at least humanistic) to Western ears.[41]

This being said, exploring the question of the religiosity of Confucianism is entirely a matter of borders and demarcations, as the answer depends entirely upon which phenomena are included under the "Confucian" rubric. For instance, Confucian texts provide instruction on proper forms of ancestor worship, describe the veneration of an abstract celestial deity (Tian), and support the (at least partial) deification of ancient kings. Further, the veneration of Confucius himself, at imperially-sponsored temples throughout the country, was a relatively popular cult for a considerable portion of China's history. If these (or a subset of these) phenomena are included, arguing for the "secularity" of the tradition becomes substantially more problematic. Thomas Wilson, in the introduction to a collection of essays about the temple cult of Confucius, addresses this issue:

To many Western observers in China over the past several centuries, the temple cult has proved difficult to reconcile with the dominant image of Confucius as the consummate ethical humanist, who, the Analects tells us, urged his followers to keep spirits at a distance. The tendency of not confronting the messy ramifications of the worship of a philosopher began at least as early as the seventeenth century.[42]

Likewise, Frederick Mote, a critic of the thesis that Confucianism is a religion, admits in his foreword to Tu Weiming’s Way, Learning and Politics that:

The ancients, as also the majority of Confucians well into the present time, probably were less attracted to the narrowly rational mentality than are most twentieth century intellectuals…. Our all too easy modern assumption that the thinkers of more than two thousand years ago probably defined ‘the rational’ as we would define it today is no doubt an anachronistic, culturally parochial, unexamined assumption of analogy, however appealing to moderns.[43]

Even if these overtly religious elements are excluded, some scholars argue that the basic Confucian project relies upon religious assumptions about the nature and function of the universe.[44] To this end, Tu Wei-ming offers the following argument:

Confucius was not at all preoccupied with the secular world; nor did he simply treat the secular as sacred. In his perception of the Way, as shown in the great tradition of the cultural heroes of his dynasty, exemplified by the Duke of Chou, the paradigmatic living example is not a mere creature but in a fact a co-creator of the world in which we live, a guardian of the natural process, and a participant in the creative transformation of heaven and earth. The question of the ultimate meaning of human existence, in light of the agelong belief that "it is man that can make the Way great and not the Way that can make man great," is thus an anthropocosmic question. … To Confucius, what had already been created, notable the "ritual and music" of the human community, was not merely of humans, it was also sanctioned and sponsored by the mandate of heaven (Tian).[45]


  1. See, for example, the excellent two-volume set, Confucian Spirituality, edited by Tu Weiming and Mary Evelyn Tucker, (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003. ISBN 0824521110.)
  2. Eric Henry, "The Motif of Recongnition in Early China," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 47(1) (June 1987):5-30. 21-22.
  3. see Arthur Wright. Buddhism in Chinese History. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1971), for an overview of this process of disenchantment, (28-29)
  4. Wing-tsit Chan. Chu Hsi: New Studies. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989); Berthrong (1998).
  5. John H. Berthrong. Transformations of the Confucian Way. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998).
  6. Xinzhong Yao. An Introduction to Confucianism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 96-114
  7. Tu Wei-ming, "Towards a Third Epoch of Confucian Humanism: A Background Understanding," in Confucianism: The Dynamics of Tradition. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986), 21. ISBN 0029087805.
  8. See, for example, "DeBary: Confucius Joins Modern Chinese Hierarchy" ,
  9. Maureen Fan, Tuesday, July 24, 2007, Confucius Making a Comeback In Money-Driven Modern China.Washington Post. Retrieved November 13, 2008.
  10. You Nuo, July 2006, Modern China needs some old thinkingchinadaily. Retrieved November 13, 2008., for some examples of the revitalization of Confucius in current print media.
  11. Yao, 115-124
  12. Gregory Henderson, "An Outline History of Korean Confucianism: Part I: The Early Period and Yi Factionalism," The Journal of Asian Studies 18(1) (November 1958): 81-101
  13. Gregory Henderson, "An Outline History of Korean Confucianism: Part II: The Schools of Yi Confucianism," The Journal of Asian Studies 18(2) (February 1959): 259-276; James B. Palais, "Confucianism and The Aristocratic/Bureaucratic Balance in Korea," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44(2) (December 1984): 427-468.
  14. Yao, 125-126.
  15. See Alexander Woodside's article on "Vietnam and Confucianism" in Religions and Religious Movements: Confucianism, edited by Adriane Ruggiero. (Farmington Hills, MI; Thomson Gale, 2006). ISBN 0737725672.
  16. Religions of Vietnam: Confucianism. DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY — NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER Retrieved November 13, 2008., [1].
  17. In an intriguing parallel, Zhu Xi (the great Neo-Confucian) was perhaps best known for his own ritual manual (Master Zhu's Family Rituals), which remains in print to this day as a guide to weathering the minutia of social interaction. See Patricia Buckley Ebrey's translation of Chu Hsi's Family Rituals: A Twelfth-Century Chinese Manual for the Performance of Cappings, Weddings, Funerals, and Ancestral Rites. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. ISBN 0691031495.)
  18. Xunzi, Section 23: Burton Watson. Xunzi: Basic Writings. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 157.
  19. See the following for a discussion of li: Berthrong (1998); Tu (1993)
  20. Robert M. Gimello, "The Civil Status of Li in Classical Confucianism," Philosophy East and West 22(2) "On Dharma and Li," (April 1972): 203-211.
  21. Ames and Rosemont, 48. See also: Jiyuan Yu, "Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle," Philosophy East and West' 48(2) (April 1998): 323-347
  22. Homer H. Dubs, "The Development of Altruism in Confucianism," Philosophy East and West 1(1) (April 1951): 48-55.
  23. See Benjamin Schwartz's article on "Li and Jen [Ren]" in Religions and Religious Movements: Confucianism, (Farmington Hills, MI; Thomson Gale, 2006). ISBN 0737725672.
  24. Ames and Rosemont, 60-65; See also Xinzhong Yao's article on "Learning to Become Good" in Religions and Religious Movements: Confucianism. (Farmington Hills, MI; Thomson Gale, 2006). ISBN 0737725672.
  25. For an excellent exploration of this theme, see Julia Ching. Mysticism and Kingship in China: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom. (Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0521462932.)
  26. Yao, 96.
  27. Michael Nylan, "Confucian Piety and Individualism in Han China," Journal of the American Oriental Society 116(1) (January - March 1996): 1-27
  28. Rupert H. Wilkinson, "The Gentleman Ideal and the Maintenance of a Political Elite: Two Case Studies: Confucian Education in the Tang, Sung, Ming and Ching Dynasties; and the Late Victorian Public Schools (1870-1914)," Sociology of Education 37(1) (Autumn 1963): 9-26
  29. James T. C. Liu, "How Did a Neo-Confucian School Become the State Orthodoxy?" Philosophy East and West 23(4) (October 1973): 483-505
  30. Ruth E. S. Hayhoe, "China's Higher Curricular Reform in Historical Perspective," The China Quarterly 110 (June 1987): 196-230.
  31. Ames and Rosemont, 58-59; Yao, 202-203. See also Tseng Tzu's article on "Filial Piety" in Religions and Religious Movements: Confucianism, (Farmington Hills, MI; Thomson Gale, 2006). ISBN 0737725672.
  32. Qingjie James Wang, "The Golden Rule and Interpersonal Care: From a Confucian Perspective," Philosophy East and West 49:4 (October 1999), 415-438. 420.
  33. See Ames and Rosemont (59) for a brief overview of this notion.
  34. Herman Ooms; Kurozumi Makoto, "Introduction to 'The Nature of Early Tokugawa Confucianism,'" Journal of Japanese Studies 20:2 (Summer, 1994), 331-335+337-375.
  35. Analects XIII, 3 (as translated by Legge). Accessed online at: [2] Retrieved November 13, 2008.
  36. See, for example, Gilbert Rozman, "Can Confucianism Survive in an Age of Universalism and Globalization?" Pacific Affairs 75(1) (Spring 2002): 11-37. 23-28.
  37. Rance P. L. Lee, "The Folklore of Corruption in Hong Kong," Asian Survey 21(3) (March 1981): 355-368. 359.
  38. Lionel Jensen. Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions & Universal Civilization. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997. ISBN 0822320479)
  39. David E. Mungello, "Sinological Torque: The Influence of Cultural Preoccupations on Seventeenth-Century Missionary Interpretations of Confucianism," Philosophy East and West 28(2) (April 1978): 123-141.
  40. Berthrong, 1998
  41. For instance, the claim that he "sacrificed to the dead, as if they were present. He sacrificed to the spirits, as if the spirits were present." Analects 3:12 (emphasis added). However, the fact that Confucius concentrated more on the here-and-now than on otherworldly elements is in no way a de facto proof that these elements were unimportant to him: “Confucius may have insisted on the importance of focusing our attention on life rather than death and on humans rather than gods, but to argue, accordingly, that Confucius was exclusively concerned with the living person here and now in the manner of secular humanism is a gross mistake” (Tu, 1).
  42. Thomas A. Wilson, “Introduction: Culture, Society, Politics, and the Cult of Confucius” in On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius, Thomas A. Wilson, ed., (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 1-40. 3.
  43. Frederick W. Mote, “Foreword” to Way, Learning and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual. by Tu Wei-ming. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993). xiii-xix. xv.
  44. Yao (41-47) provides a cogent summary of the arguments of many prominent scholars concerning the propriety of characterizing Confucianism as a "religious" tradition.
  45. Tu, 1-2.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, Translated and with an introduction by Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
  • Ames, Roger T. The Art of Rulership: A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983. ISBN 0824808258.
  • Berthrong, John H. Transformations of the Confucian Way. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. ISBN 0813328047
  • Chan, Wing-tsit. Chu Hsi: New Studies. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.
  • Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
  • Ching, Julia. Mysticism and Kingship in China: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0521462932.
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, translator, Chu Hsi's Family Rituals: A Twelfth-Century Chinese Manual for the Performance of Cappings, Weddings, Funerals, and Ancestral Rites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. ISBN 0691031495.
  • Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York, Harper & Row, 1972. ISBN 1577660102.
  • Fitzgerald, C. P. China: A Short Cultural History. London: The Cresset Library, 1986. ISBN 0091687519.
  • Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1993. ISBN 0812690877.
  • Henderson, Gregoty, "An Outline History of Korean Confucianism: Part II: The Schools of Yi Confucianism," The Journal of Asian Studies 18(2) (February 1959): 259-276.
  • Henry, Eric, "The Motif of Recongnition in Early China," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 47(1) (June 1987): 5-30. 21-22.
  • Jensen, Lionel. Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions & Universal Civilization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997. ISBN ISBN 0822320479.
  • "Mencius." With Introduction and Translation by Bryan W. van Norden. Included in Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2001. ISBN 1889119091.
  • Mote, Fredrick W., “Forword” to Tu Wei-ming. Way, Learning and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • Mungello, David E., "Sinological Torque: The Influence of Cultural Preoccupations on Seventeenth-Century Missionary Interpretations of Confucianism," Philosophy East and West 28(2) (April 1978): 123-141.
  • Qianfan Zhang. “The Idea of Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy: A Reconstruction of Confucianism.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 27:3 (September 2000): 299-330.
  • Rozman, Gilbert, "Can Confucianism Survive in an Age of Universalism and Globalization?" Pacific Affairs 75(1) (Spring 2002): 11-37. 23-28.
  • Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985. ISBN 0674961900.
  • Tu Wei-ming, "Towards a Third Epoch of Confucian Humanism: A Background Understanding," in Confucianism: The Dynamics of Tradition. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986. ISBN 0029087805.
  • Tu Wei-ming. Way, Learning and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993. ISBN 0791417551.
  • Tu Weiming and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds. Confucian Spirituality. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003. ISBN 0824521110.
  • Watson, Burton. Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1967.
  • Watson, Burton. Xunzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 0231129653.
  • Wilson, Thomas A. “Introduction: Culture, Society, Politics, and the Cult of Confucius” in On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius, Edited by Thomas A. Wilson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. 1-40. ISBN 0674009614.
  • Wright, Arthur. Buddhism in Chinese History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1971. (28-29). ISBN 0804705488
  • Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0521644305.


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