For more than 2,500 years, Confucianism has influenced the spiritual and political life of China. This religion, which has an estimated six million followers, is based on the teachings of the philosopher Kong Qiu (551-479 BCE) aka Confucius (孔子).
With regard to the importance of Confucianism, Ray Billington, in his entry on Confucianism in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, writes:
“It is impossible to reflect on any aspect of Chinese history, culture, or philosophy without reference to one of its oldest schools, Confucianism.”
Let us start by placing Confucius in historic context. In the sixth century BCE, China was a feudal system that depended upon everybody keeping his place. If a vassal became too powerful, he could endanger the delicate equilibrium of the state.
While Confucius had been brought up in poverty, by the time he was 40 he had become a learned man. He was not a solitary ascetic: he was a man of the world, who enjoyed a good dinner, fine wine, a song, a joke, and stimulating conversation. He did not lock himself away in an ivory tower, did not practice introspection or meditation, but always developed his insights in conversation with other people.
Putting Confucius into a wider historical context, archaeologist Colin Renfrew, in his book Prehistory: The Making of the Modern Mind, writes:
“The great thinker Confucius lived and died in China shortly before Socrates was born in Greece, and Chinese tradition speaks of a ‘hundred schools’ of philosophy that grew up during the Spring and Autumn period of the Zhou dynasty, and so at about the same time as the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece.”
Confucius did not pontificate; he gave no long lectures or sermons. Karen Armstrong, in her book The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Our Religious Traditions, writes:
“He was convinced that the root cause of the current disorder in China was neglect of the traditional rites that had governed the conduct of the principalities for so long.”
Karen Armstrong also reports:
“Instead of concerning themselves about the afterlife, people must learn to be good here below. His disciples did not study with him in order to acquire esoteric information about the gods and spirits. Their ultimate concern was not Heaven but the Way.”
In his book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Robert Bellah writes:
“There were undoubtedly many teachers of the aristocratic arts and had been for a long time before Confucius. What made him unique, the beginning of a new phase of Chinese culture, is that he was not interested in teaching specific arts, even rites and music that would be so central in the Confucian tradition, but was above all consciously concerned with what we might call the ‘formation’ of his students, their ethical development as persons and their ethical stance in the world. He was also concerned with the sad state of society in his time, and with the loss of traditions that, in his view, had once provided greater stability and greater dignity for all people.”
Confucius wanted people to become fully conscious of what they were doing. He felt that ego was the source of human pettiness and cruelty and thus losing selfishness would transform one’s life. He wanted people to trust in the power of an enhanced humanity instead of coercion. His focus was not on death, the afterlife, or metaphysics: it was, instead, on living in the world. His teachings are a guide to personal morality, interpersonal relations, social responsibility, and good government.
Noting that Confucius was more concerned with ethics than with mysticism, Clifford Bishop, in his book Sex and Spirit, writes:
“He created an elaborate, ceremonial system for regulating society, based on the idea of the well-ordered family—itself based on hsiao (filial piety).”
Confucius was concerned with maintaining the social status quo of hierarchical Chinese society. In his entry on China in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Ray Billington writes:
“Confucius held that society could function harmoniously only if everyone recognized and lived consistently within the confines of his or her station.”
The teachings of Confucius, the Analects, were put together by his disciples long after Confucius’ death. We cannot be sure that all the maxims attributed to him are authentic. There are hundreds of short, unconnected remarks with no attempt to produce a clearly defined vision. Readers are supposed to search for what is not said, to look between the lines for the full meaning and to connect one idea with another. His moral teachings emphasize self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules.
In his book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—And Why Their Differences Matter, Stephen Prothero writes:
“Confucius is almost certainly one of the five most influential people in recorded history.”
In China, there are Three Great Teachings: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. None of these three religions is monotheistic and none of them demands that people select only one religion to follow. It is sometimes said that every Chinese wears a Confucian cap, a Daoist robe, and Buddhist sandals. In other words, people are free to follow and to participate in all three religious traditions simultaneously.
Stephen Prothero writes:
“We probably know less about Confucianism than we do about any of the other great religions, and what we think we know we do not like. Confucianism is old-fashioned and formal. It is about empty rituals, banal aphorisms, antiquated etiquette, and otherwise maintaining the status quo—wives bowing before husbands, workers scraping before bosses, the masses endlessly deferring to governmental authority.”
Stephen Prothero writes:
“Confucianism distinguishes itself from other religions by its lack of interest in the divine. Its adherents do speak of an impersonal force called Heaven that watches over human life and legitimates the authority of rulers, and they have been known to revere the quasi-divine sage emperors of golden ages past. But they pay about as much attention to the creator God as your average atheist, and even less to formal theology.”
Confucianism is about social relations, starting with the family and including government and its relationships to the people. In a well articulated hierarchical society, this means behaving appropriately according to one’s rank. In her section on Chinese traditions in World Religions, Jennifer Oldstone-Moore writes:
“According to Confucius, the primary relationship is between parent and child, specifically between father and son, ideally characterized by the virtue of xiao, filial piety. Through the maintenance of this bond the family, community, state, and ultimately the cosmos would be transformed.”
Filial piety is about the duty, love, and respect that children must accord parents. Following the ancient Chinese traditions of ancestor veneration, the relationship between parent and child does not end with the death of the parent but continues with the child’s obligations to care for the deceased with offerings. While traditional Chinese religion included offering to the spirits of the dead, Confucius suggested a better way of honoring the ancestors. In his entry on Confucius in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Ray Billington explains:
“Confucius argued that the best way to honor one’s ancestors is to honor and respect one’s parents; even after their deaths one can honor them more by seeking to fulfill their aims than offering sacrifices to their spirits.”
Unlike some other religions, such as those of the Abrahamic tradition, Confucianism is more focused on daily life than on any concept of an afterlife. It is concerned with the problems of daily and, in particular, the ethics of the proper management of society.
With regard to government, Jennifer Oldstone-Moore reports:
“Basically, Confucius asserted that government must be founded on virtue, and that all citizens must be attentive to the duties of their position.”
Jennifer Oldstone-Moore also writes:
“Confucian ethics are directed toward the creation of a harmonious society and a virtuous, benevolent state.”
In Confucian education the focus is on learning to be human rather than learning a specific trade. Being human means having relationships with other humans and Confucianism is focused on these relationships, which means a concern for etiquette, morality, propriety, and ritual. Confucianism provides a guide for social responsibility, good government, and interpersonal relations. John Renard, in his The Handy Religion Answer Book, writes:
“Confucian teaching offers a great deal of reflection on the nature of an orderly society and methods of governing.”
Robert Bellah writes:
“Confucianism’s lasting influence in the political realm was its ability to uphold a normative standard with which to judge existing reality, and never to compromise that standard completely.”
Unlike monotheistic religions, there is no formal hierarchy in Confucianism and no official priesthood. Stephen Prothero reports:
“Confucian temples are dedicated to mere mortals. Its canonical texts are not said to be divinely inspired.”
While universalizing religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, seek converts, Confucianism is more like an ethnic religion, such a Judaism and Hinduism, which does not seek converts. John Renard writes:
“Since Confucian tradition has been so deeply identified with Chinese culture, the notion of ‘converting’ into the tradition is virtually meaningless.”
Over a period of several centuries, Confucianism was influenced by China’s other two Great Teachings: Buddhism and Daoism. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) Zhu Xi (朱熹, 1130-1200 CE) proposed a metaphysical system based on Confucian morality. Jennifer Oldstone-Moore writes:
“He posited that all things, including human nature, have an ordering principle, li (not the same word as li meaning ‘ritual’), that shapes the vital material called qi. Humans must ‘investigate things’ to understand their underlying principles, and cultivate themselves so as to base their actions on the appropriate principles of human behavior.”
The focus of Neo-Confucianism (宋明理學) is on the individual and the individual’s use of Confucian values in finding a path of enlightenment and self-development. While critical of both Daoism and Buddhism, the Neo-Confucians view metaphysics as a catalyst for spiritual development.
During the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), Chinese government was based on Confucian principles and the competitive examinations for civil service positions were based on knowledge of these principles. In his book Religions, Philip Wilkinson writes:
“Imperial scholars combined the ideas of Confucius and Xunzi to create a belief system that survived at the heart of Chinese culture for some 1,700 years.”
Xunzi (荀況,active ca. 298-248 BCE; also known as Xun Kuang), was the third great Confucian thinker. Jennifer Oldstone-Moore writes:
“He claimed that humans were originally evil and become good only through strict laws and harsh punishments.”
Xunzi’s vision of Confucianism was much darker than that of the earlier philosophers and he saw penal law as playing an important role in government.
Regarding the current government, Philip Wilkinson writes:
“When China turned to communism, the state was no longer focused on Confucian ideals. However, the Chinese people still valued the virtues of harmony, respect, and balance—some saw them as fundamental to the Chinese character and just as applicable in a communist state as an imperial one.”
Mao Tse-Tung ranked Confucius along with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin as a great and influential person.
Religion 101 is a series exploring various topics related to religion in which the definition of religion is not restricted to Christianity or the other Abrahamic religions. More from this series:
Religion 101: Deism
Religion 101: The Evolution of Morality
Religion 101: Rites of Passage
Religion 101: Religion and Ancient Civilizations
Religion 101: Zoroaster's Vision
Religion 101: Christian Imperialism
Religion 101: Searching for the Earliest Religion