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What is Confucianism?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Confucianism is a set of ethical beliefs, sometimes called a religion, that were developed from the teachings of the scholar Confucius, who lived in the 6th century BCE in China. His theories and philosophy gave rise to laws based on his teachings first in China, and then later in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. All who studied and practiced this philosophy aimed at harmonious relationships that would result in greater peace in their countries. Elements of Confucianism, though it is no longer widely practiced, persist in many Asian cultures.

Like many of the great philosophers and religious leaders, Confucius did not keep records of his own words and deeds. Instead, the texts that make up this philosophy are recordings from his students, and their students. This is a bit complicated because many texts recording Confucian thought were burned during the Qin Dynasty. Dissenters were authorized to burn all materials in reference to it, so the records are fragmented and sometimes contradict themselves or require explanation that is not given.

Nevertheless, during the Han Dynasty, which lasted until about 220 CE, Confucian thought was the inspiration for establishing the rules and laws of China. After the Han fell, the philosophy was widely discarded in favor of Buddhism, but enjoyed a rebirth again in the 7th century. At that time, scholars blended ideas of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucian thought in order to create laws and emphasize the way right relationships can establish peace.

The principal concepts in Confucianism were primarily meant to apply to rulers, nobility, and scholars. It doesn’t aim toward the general populace, as does Buddhism. One of the underlying ideas is that people must be virtuous, especially rulers. Self-virtue, expressed in modesty, truthfulness, loyalty, charity, and learning, were essential requirements for all. The sum total of this social virtue is often referred to as the Jen. It was impossible to expect virtue in the people governed, if the governors (or emperors) did not display the highest virtues and did not promote the education of others to obtain these virtues.

The Golden Rule is also part of this philosophy: What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others. Emphasis is placed on virtuous relationship with others and acting “right” with all. Through virtuous behavior and observance of right relationships, harmony is established in the self and in the kingdom.

Confucianism does include the concept of the divine and is expressed. Men should have three awes, a word that can be translated as respect and veneration of the following:

  • Heaven’s decree
  • Great Men
  • Saints (past thinkers or ancestors)

This philosophy opposes war since it is the antithesis of harmonious relationship. It also opposes enforcement of too many laws, as the ideal is that all people will live in harmony and govern themselves. There are five principal relationships to which man has varying responsibility: husband and wife, parent and child, elder and younger siblings or all younger people’s relationship to elders, ruler and subject, and friend and friend.

Of these, one of the most important relationships is still emphasized today in modern China, Japan, and Korea. The relationship between parent/child is also called filial piety, the idea that children, even adult ones, must respect and obey their parents, and in general, their elders. This relationship is maintained in many households in Asian countries. Word of the parents is the law of the children when this relationship remains harmonious. Care of the parents as they age is another aspect of filial piety.

The principal texts of Confucianism are the following, available in numerous translations:

  • The I Ching
  • The Book of Odes or Shih Ching
  • Book of History or Shu Ching
  • Records of Rites or Li Ching
  • Spring and Autumn Annals or Ch’un Ch’iu

There are other texts that Confucian scholars will undoubtedly study. Of these, perhaps the most valuable in understanding this philosophy is Hsiao Ching, a fundamental work on filial piety.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon152175 — On Feb 13, 2011

Confucianism teaches people to "do to others as you would like done to you". I think this is an important lesson, as many people are rude and inconsiderate and if they took into account these wise words, the world would be a better place to live in.

For example, child labor would be no more nor would mexican slavery exist- these are just two of the problems that occur from people not living by the rule "do to others as you would like don't to you". Any views on this from others?

By GrassyKnoll — On Sep 16, 2010

@bigblind - I have one or two. I think that the idea of the modern world is just too complex to really follow the tenets of Confucianism. Leaders throughout history have never really thought in this way. This is especially the case for fascist types. Of course it would be ideal if all leaders of men could summon this kind of empathy, but it's just plain unrealistic.

As for the idea of filial piety, it too is somewhat unrealistic. Should children of abusive or negligent parents exercise unwavering filial piety? Should couples in deeply unhealthy relationships stay to together no matter what? I don't think so. The emotional health of the individuals in a family ultimately stands to gain by allowing for the possibility of fluidity. I think it is a natural impulse for young adults to challenge their parents' wishes as they come to discover who they are. What I mean is, a little rebellion is probably healthier for a child than complete loyalty. It's necessary for self-growth.

By bigblind — On Sep 16, 2010

I think that the world could learn a thing or two from these texts, especially given that they are geared towards rulers. Far too many rulers could do a lot better job for their people if they acted with a sort of "do to others as you would like done to you" set of principals. I suppose the idea of familial piety is present in many cultures around the world. All and all though, I feel like the family unit has grown less important in many places. Any thoughts on this?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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