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Confucianism (儒家 Pinyin: rújiā "The School of the Scholars"), sometimes translated as the School of Literati, is an East Asian ethical, religious and philosophical system originally developed from the teachings of Confucius.

Debated during the Warring States Period and forbidden during the short-lived Qin Dynasty, Confucianism was chosen by Han Wudi and used as a political system and a kind of state religion. Despite loss of influence during the Tang Dynasty, Confucianist doctrine remained mainstream Chinese orthodoxy for two millennia, until the beginning of 20th century, when it was vigorously repressed by Chinese Communism. However, there are recent signs of a revival of Confucianism due to the loosening political control as well as a surge of Chinese nationalism.

Since Confucius' death, many people, mostly in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, have professed Confucianist beliefs and seen in this historical figure the "Greatest Master."

Zhu Xi and other Neo-Confucians gave Confucianism renewed vigor in the Song and later dynasties. Neo-Confucianism combined Taoist and Buddhist ideas with existing Confucian ideas to create a more complete metaphysic than had existed before. Confucianism as it exists today is primarily a creation of Zhu Xi and the other Neo-Confucians.

Table of contents

Development of early Confucianism

The relationship between Confucianism and Confucius himself is tenuous. Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC, birthday traditionally September 8) is often considered “a famous sage and social philosopher of China whose teachings deeply influenced East Asia for twenty centuries ”. However Confucius' ideas were not accepted during his life, and he frequently bemoaned the fact that he remained unemployed by any of the feudal lords.

As with many other historical figures (Buddha, Jesus, etc.), we do not have direct access to Confucius' ideas. Instead, we have the recorded recollections of his disciples and their students. The issue is further complicated by the "Burning of the Books and Burying of the Scholars", the massive suppression of dissenting thought during the Qin Dynasty, more than two centuries after Confucius' death. What we now have of Confucius' writings and thoughts is therefore somewhat unreliable, at best.

However, we can sketch out Confucius' ideas from the fragments that remain. Confucius was a man of letters who worried about the troubled times he lived in. He went from place to place trying to spread his political ideas and influence the many kings contending for supremacy of China. The Zhou Dynasty's disintegration created a power vacuum that was filled with small states contending for power. Deeply persuaded he had a mission on Earth ("If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no use for me to change its state." Analects XVIII. 6.), Confucius tirelessly promoted the ancient virtues of ancient illustrious kings such as the Duke of Zhou. Confucius tried to get sufficient political power and found a new dynasty, as when he planned to accept an invitation from a rebel and "make a Zhou dynasty in the East" (Analects XV. 5). In this respect, his thinking may be said to be political. However, as the common saying that Confucius was a "king without a crown" shows, he never did gain the opportunity to apply his ideas and was expelled much of the time and eventually went back to his homeland to spend the last part of his life teaching.

The Analects of Confucius, the closest thing we have to a primary source for his thoughts, relates discussions with his disciples in short sayings. As this book is a compilation of snatches of conversation, questions and answers, or slices of Confucius' life, there is no description of a coherent system of thought. Instead of using deductive reasoning and the law of non-contradiction, like many Western philosophers, he used tautology and analogy to explain his ideas. For these reasons, Western readers might think that his philosophy was muddled or unclear, or that Confucius had no clear purpose. However, he also said "I seek a unity all pervading" (Analects XV. 3., trad. Legge) and "There is one single thread binding my way together." (IV.15. trad. Lau).

The first drafts of a real system may have been created by disciples or disciples of disciples, but firstly to Zi Si, Confucius' grandson. During the philosophically fertile period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, great early figures of Confucianism like Mencius and Xun Zi (not to be confused with Sun Zi) developed Confucianism into an ethical and political doctrine. Both had to fight contemporary ideas and gain the ruler's confidence through argumentation and reasoning. Mencius in particular gave Confucianism a much fuller explanation of human nature, what is needed for good government, etc. Some of Xun Zi's disciples, like Han Feizi, became Legalists (a kind of law-based totalitarism very far from virtue-based Confucianism) and helped Qin Shi Huang to unify China under a very strong state control of every human activity. So, Confucius' dream of unification and peace in China can be argued to have come from a school of thought, Legalism, that was almost diametrically opposed to his consistent reliance on rites and virtue.

The spread of Confucianism

Confucianism survived its suppression during the Qin Dynasty partly because a trove of Confucian classics was uncovered hidden in the walls of a scholar's house. After the Qin, the new Han Dynasty approved of the doctrine and sponsored Confucian scholars in the court. Eventually, Emperor Wu of Han found great utility in Confucianism's political ideas and made Confucianism the official state philosophy.

Toward this end, study of the Confucian classics became the basis of the government examination system. Confucianism became the very core of the educational curriculum. With Confucianism firmly ensconced in the minds of the Chinese people and their politicians, the philosophy gained political primacy, and no serious attempt to thoroughly replace it came until the advent of Communism in the 20th century.

Under its eventual reformulation as Neo-Confucianism by Zhu Xi, Confucianism became accepted as state philosophies in Korea and Japan.


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, will order themselves harmoniously.—Analects II. 3. tr. J. Legge

This sentence concisely explains an essential difference between legalism and ritualism, and could be seen to point out a key difference between Western and Eastern societies. Confucius explains that with the Law, that punishes after the action and from the outside, people behave well without really understanding (comprising, making it one's) the reason why they should. With the Rite, that works before and from the inside by giving shapes to behaviors and giving self-control on desires, people behave properly because they fear shame and seek honor, as they want not to lose face. A related saying is: "Even if I could try a civil suit as well as anyone, it would be better to bring it about that there were no civil suits." (Analects XII. 13. Tr. A. Waley).

Rite (禮, Lǐ) stands here for a complex set of ideas hard to render in Western languages. Its Chinese character previously had the religious meaning of "sacrifice": 禮 is 示 'altar' on the left of 曲 on 豆 representing a vase full of flowers, offered as a sacrifice to the gods. Its Confucian meaning goes from politeness and propriety to the understanding of everybody's correct place in society. In its external form, Rites are used to distinguish between people, their usage making everyone know at all times who is the younger and who is the elder, who is the guest and who is the host and so forth. In its internal effect, it makes everyone know their duty among others and what one can expect from them.

Internalization is the main process in Rites: behavior formalization becomes progressively internalized into the channelling of desires, and personal cultivation is the inner side of social correctness. This idea goes against the common saying that "The cowl does not make the monk," but in Confucius' mind "sincerity" is used to allow the behaviour to dye the self. Obeying the rites with sincerity makes them 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." (VIII. 2. Trad. Legge mod.) The Rites can be seen as a means to stay between two opposing qualities, that, unbalanced, or "unharmonized," can become a fault.

Linked to protocol and ceremonies, assigning to everyone a defined place in the society and the behaviors related to this place, Rites divide people into categories, building a hierarchical structure of relationships within the group. But this is almost always balanced in Confucius sayings with reference to Music, which has the role of unifying the hearts. (Music seem to have played a great role in Confucius' life.) Even though the Analects heavily promote (ancient) rites, Confucius himself broke them often, for example when he cried too much at his preferred disciple's death, or when he met a fiendish princess (VI. 28.). Those latter rigid ritualists who forgot that the Rites are "more than presents of jade and silk" (XVII. 12.) were going far from their Master.


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

Another key Confucianist concept is that to govern people, one must first govern oneself. The King's personal virtue, when developed enough, is changed into a spreading beneficient influence on the kingdom. This idea is developed further in the Great Learning and is a tight link with the Taoist concept of Wu Wei: the less the King actually does, the more is done because of him. By being the "calm center" around which the kingdom turns, the King allows everything to function smoothly and yet avoids having to tamper with individual parts of the whole.

This idea may be traced back to early shamanistic beliefs, like that of the King (Wang, 王) being the axle between the Sky, the Men and the Earth. (The character itself shows the three levels of the universe, united by a single line.) Sitting at the right place on the throne, facing south, and once a year at the right time promulgating the new calendar, was, in short, the way to shine forth its might all over the world. Another (complementary) view is that this idea may have been used by ministers and counsellors to prevent aristocratic whims having bad effects on the population.


In teaching there should be no distinction of classes. —Analects XV. 39. tr. Legge

Many western admirers of Confucius, like Voltaire or H. G. Creel, have pointed out a very new and quite revolutionary idea of Confucius: He replaced the nobility of blood by one of virtue. Jūnzǐ(君子), which meant "noble man" before him, slowly moved in his sayings to a new sense, a little bit like "gentleman" did in English. A virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities can be a "gentleman", while a shameless son of the King is only a "small man". That he allowed students of many classes to be his disciples (his teachings were intended to train future rulers), is a clear demonstration that he fought against feudal structures in Chinese society.

Although Confucius claimed he never invented anything and was only transmitting ancient knowledge (Analects VII. 1.), he did produce a number of new ideas. The particular idea of "meritocracy" led to the introduction of the Imperial examination system in China. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honour to the whole family. It is noticeable that the Western university system, which is now copied in China, was partly built with an eye on China's system of governmental election.

Confucius wanted to solve the problems of his times and, in his "flat" way to see things, he decided that choosing a minister regarding its own qualities instead of its filiation was the best way. He praised those ancient Kings leaving their kingdom to the most qualified ones, instead of their elder sons. Thus, his direct achievement was set up a school producing statemen with a strong sense of state and duty. This is known as Rujia, the School of the Literati.

As a result, a number of "intellectuals" during the Warring States Period and the early Han dynasty promoted the cause of Confucianism. During this period, China grew a great deal and the need for a solid and centralized corporation of government officers able to read and write administrative papers may explain this choice. This corporation of men chosen on the basis of their knowledge of ancient scriptures and ability to write political essays and poetry was an efficient counter against the remaining landowner aristocracy which was threatening the unity of the state.

Since then, Confucianism has been used as a kind of "state religion", with authoritarianism, legitimism , paternalism and submission to authority as political tools to rule China. Actually, most Emperors used a mix of Legalism and Confucianism as their ruling doctrine, often using the latter as an embellishment for the first. They also quite often used varieties of Taoism or Buddhism as their personal philosophy or religion. As with many other canonised men, Confucius himself would probably have disapproved of much that has been done in his name, and Confucianism, in its hollowly ritualist form, was far from his humanistic teaching.

Some key concepts in Confucian thought

A simple way to appreciate Confucian thought is to consider it as based on varying levels of honesty. The biography of Confucius deals with the origins of this view. In practice, rituals of Confucianism accrued over time and matured into the following form:


Does Confucianism promote corruption?

Different from many other political philsophies, Confucianism is reluctant to employ laws. In a society where rites (i.e. relationships) are considered as more important than the laws themselves, if no other power forces government officers to take the common interest into consideration, corruption and nepotism will arise. As government officers' salary was often far lower than the minimum required to raise a family, Chinese society has frequently been affected by those problems, and still is. Even if some means to control and reduce corruption and nepotism have been successfully used in China, one of the main criticisms against Confucianism is that it offers little help against them.

Was there a Confucianism?

One of the problems in discussing the history of Confucianism is the question of what Confucianism is. In this article, Confucianism can be understood roughly as largely as "the stream of individuals claiming Master Kong was the Greatest Master" while it means also "the social group following moral, political and philosophical doctrine of what was considered at a given time as the orthodox understanding of Confucius". In this meaning, this "group" can be identified, during periods of discussions with others doctrines, like Han and Tang dynasty, with a kind of political party. During periods of confucean hegemony like Song, Ming and Qing dynasties, it can be identified roughly with the social class of government officials.

But the reality of such a group is debated. In his book Manufacturing Confucianism, Lionel Jensen 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," in order to portray Chinese society to Europeans. The notion of Confucianism was then borrowed back by Chinese who used it for their own purposes.

Therefore, we could define Confucianism as any system of thinking that has at its basis the works that are regarded as the "Confucian classics," which was the corpus used in the Imperial examination system. Even this definition runs into problems because this corpus was subject to changes and additions. Neo-Confucianism, for instance, valorized the Great Learning and the Zhong Yong in this corpus, because their themes are close to those of Taoism and Buddhism.

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 that was 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 the question of which set of texts is the more authentic; the "Old Script" texts tend to have greater acceptance.

Is Confucianism a religion?

The Master said, "I have been the whole day without eating, and the whole night without sleeping:—occupied with thinking. It was of no use. The better plan is to learn." —Analects XV. 30. tr. Legge
Zilu [an impetuous disciple of Confucius] asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits. The Master said, "Till you have learnt to serve men, how can you serve ghosts?" Zilu then ventured upon a question about the dead. The Master said, "Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?" —Analect XI. 11. tr. Waley

It is debatable whether Confucianism should be called a religion. While it prescribes a great deal of ritual, little of it could be construed as worship or meditation in a formal sense. Confucius occasionally made statements about the existence of other-worldly beings that sound distinctly agnostic and humanistic to Western ears. Thus, Confucianism is often considered an ethical tradition and not a religion.

However, its effect on Chinese society and culture has been very deep and parallels the effects of religious movements seen in other cultures. Those who follow the teachings of Confucius are comforted by it; it makes their lives more complete and their sufferings bearable. It includes a great deal of ritual and (in its Neo-Confucian formulation) gives a comprehensive explanation of the world, human nature, etc. Moreover, religions in Chinese culture are not mutually exclusive entities — each tradition is free to find its specific niche, its field of specialisation. One can be a Taoist, Christian, Muslim, Shintoist or Buddhist and still profess Confucianist beliefs.

Although Confucianism may include worship of ancestors, sacrifice to chthonian spirits and a celestial deity, the deification of the Emperor and even Confucius himself, all these features can be traced back to non-Confucian Chinese beliefs and, in this respect, make it difficult to claim that such rituals make Confucianism a religion.

The question of Confucianism's status as a religion or not is also a definitional problem. If the definition used is worship of supernatural entities, the answer may be that Confucianism is not a religion, but then this definition could also be used to argue that many traditions commonly held to be religious (Buddhism, some forms of Islam, etc.) are not in fact religions at all. As with many such important concepts, the definition of religion is quite contentious. Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred is a good treatment of this issue.

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