Notes on Confucianism




Alex Tang



Spiritual writing


Nurturing/ Teaching Courses

Engaging Culture

Spiritual Formation Institute

My Notebook

My blogs

Books Recommendation



Medical notes

Medical Students /Paediatric notes




























Notes on Confucianism

'Confucianism' (Chinese: 儒家; pinyin: Rújiā) is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (Kǒng Fūzǐ, or K'ung-fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kung", 551–479 BC). It focuses on human morality and right action. And it is a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious thought that has had tremendous influence on the culture and history of East Asia. It might be considered a state religion of some East Asian countries, because of governmental promotion of Confucian values.

Cultures and countries strongly influenced by Confucianism include China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as various territories settled predominantly by Chinese people, including Singapore and Taiwan.

The basic teachings of Confucianism stress the importance of education for moral development of the individual so that the state can be governed by moral virtue rather than by the use of coercive laws.


Kung Fu-tse and his disciples

The Chinese name of Confucius was Kung. His disciples called him Kung, the master (Kung Fu-tse) which western missionaries Latinized to "Confucius." He was born in 551 B. C. in what was then the feudal state of Lu, now included in the modern province of Shan-tung, of an aristocratic family who had lost their wealth and position. His father, who died before Confucius was three, is said to have been a famous warrior of gigantic size and strength who was seventy years old when Confucius was conceived. Confucius was the youngest of eleven children. He grew up in poverty but received a good education. In his teens he accepted a minor government position, married and fathered a son but the marriage ended in divorce.

In his twenties, following his mother's death, Confucius set himself up as a teacher. He taught the traditional Six Disciplines: history, poetry, government, propriety (ethics), music, and divination. Confucius became one of the great teachers of history but aspired to public office. He had supreme confidence in his ability to reorder society.

Legend has it that at the age of fifty Confucius ascended through the offices of Minister of Public Works and Minister of Justice to Prime Minister. His government was ideal. Enemies, however, conspired against him and he was forced to retire at the age of fifty-five. In reality, scholarly speculation has assumed that contemporary rulers were much too afraid of Confucius' candor and integrity to appoint him to any position involving power.

During the next twelve years Confucius wandered from place to place with a few of his disciples. He was jeered at and even placed in jail. At the age of sixty-seven a position was found for him as an advisor to the Duke of Ai. During the next years he spent his time teaching and compiling some of the classic Chinese texts. He died in the year 478 B.C., in the seventy-fourth year of his age. His lifetime almost exactly coincided with that of Buddha, who died two years earlier at the age of eighty.

The Analects of Confucius, the closest primary source we have for his thoughts, relates his sayings and discussions with rulers and disciples in short passages. 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.

The first real 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 and political doctrine.

Mencius (Meng-tze), was not an immediate disciple of the master. He lived a century later. Mencius enriched Confucianism with a fuller explanation of human nature, of what is needed for good government, and of what morality is. He founded his idealist doctrine on the claim that human nature is essentially good.

Xun Zi opposed many ideas of Mencius, and built a structured system upon the idea that human nature is essentially bad, and therefore needed to be educated and exposed to the rites. Some of Xun Zi's disciples, such as Han Feizi and Li Si, became Legalists (advocates of a kind of law-based extreme statism, quite distant from virtue-based Confucianism); they conceived the state system that allowed Qin Shi Huang to unify China through strong state control of every human activity. The culmination of the Confucian 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.

Confucianism as passed down to the 19th and 20th centuries derives primarily from the school of the Neo-Confucians, led by Zhu Xi, who 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 system of metaphysics.

Confucianism was chosen by Han Wudi (141–86 BC) for use as a political system to govern the Chinese state. Despite its loss of influence during the Tang Dynasty, Confucian doctrine remained a mainstream Chinese orthodoxy for two millennia until the 20th century. It was still dominant in most parts of China until it was attacked by radical Chinese thinkers as the vanguard of a pre-modern system and an obstacle to China's modernization, eventually culminating in its repression during China's Cultural Revolution. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism has been revived in China itself, and both interest in and debate about Confucianism have surged. Also a main part of Confucianism was part of the Han Dynasty, where it was one of the three most common or main religions.


Scriptures and Significant Writings

The six canonical classics of Confucianism are

(1) the Shu King or Canon of History,

(2) the Shi King or Canon of Poetry,

(3) the I King or Canon of Changes,

(4) the Li Ki or Book of Rites,

(5) the Chun Chiu or Spring and Autumn Annals, and

(6) the Hsiao King or Book of Filial Piety.

After Confucius died, his disciples compiled collections of his sayings and teachings known as The Analects of Confucius, the Ta Hsio or Great Learning, and the Chung Yung or Doctrine of the Steadfast Men.

A compilation of the teachings of Mencius is known as the Meng-tze



In Confucianism, symbols are hard to come by. The creation and use of images in worship only came to China with the advent of Buddhism.


Main teachings in Confucian thought

A simple way to appreciate Confucian thought is to consider it as being based on varying levels of honesty. In practice, the elements of Confucianism accumulated over time and matured into the following forms:


(1) Ritual (Chinese: ; pinyin: lǐ)

In Confucianism the term "ritual" (Chinese , pinyin lǐ) was soon extended to include secular ceremonial behavior, and eventually referred also to the propriety or politeness which colors everyday life. Rituals were codified and treated as a comprehensive system of norms. Confucius himself tried to revive the etiquette of earlier dynasties. After his death, people regarded him as a great authority on ritual behaviors.

It is important to note that "ritual" has developed a specialized meaning in Confucianism, as opposed to its usual religious meanings. In Confucianism, the acts of everyday life are considered ritual. Rituals are not necessarily regimented or arbitrary practices, but the routines that people often engage in, knowingly or unknowingly, the normal course of their lives. Shaping the rituals in a way that leads to a content and healthy society, and to content and healthy people, is one purpose of Confucian philosophy.


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 above quotation explains an essential difference between legalism and ritualism, and points to a key difference between European-based and East Asian societies, particularly in the realm of an individual's moral compass and accountability before the law.


The Master said, "Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves." (Analects II, 3)


Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; whereas with ritual, 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 this sense, "rite" (Chinese: ; pinyin: lǐ) is an ideal form of social norm.

The Chinese character for "rites", or "ritual", previously had the religious meaning of "sacrifice". Its Confucian meaning ranges from politeness and propriety to the understanding of each person's correct place in society. Externally, ritual is used to distinguish between people; their usage allows people to know at all times who is the younger and who the elder, who is the guest and who the host and so forth. Internally, rites indicate to people their duty amongst others and what to expect from them.

Internalization is the main process in ritual. 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," in Confucianism sincerity is what enables behavior to be absorbed by individuals. Obeying ritual with sincerity makes ritual the most powerful way to cultivate oneself:


Respectfulness, without the Rites, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the Rites, become 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. It divides people into categories, and builds hierarchical relationships through protocols and ceremonies, assigning everyone a place in society and a proper form of behavior.



(2) Relationships (Chinese: ; pinyin: rén)

Relationships are central to Confucianism. Particular duties arise from one's particular situation in relation to others. The individual stands simultaneously in several different relationships with different people: as a junior in relation to parents and elders, and as a senior in relation to younger siblings, students, and others. While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe their seniors reverence, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors.

Social harmony—the great goal of Confucianism—therefore results in part from every individual knowing his or her place in the social order, and playing his or her part well. When Duke Jing of Qi asked about government, by which he meant proper administration so as to bring social harmony, Confucius replied:


There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son. (Analects XII, 11, trans. Legge)


Confucius was concerned with people's individual development, which he maintained took place within the context of human relationships. Ritual and filial piety are indeed the ways in which one should act towards others, but from an underlying attitude of humaneness. Confucius' concept of humaneness (Chinese: ; pinyin: rén) is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the Ethic of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule: "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."

Confucius believed that man was born good while other eastern philosophies believed man was born with sin.

Rén also has a political dimension. If the ruler lacks rén, Confucianism holds, 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. A ruler lacking such a mandate 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. Confucius himself had little to say on the will of the people, but his leading follower Mencius did state on one occasion that the people's opinion on certain weighty matters should be considered.


(3) Filial piety (Chinese: ; pinyin: xiào)

"Filial piety" (Chinese: ; pinyin: xiào) is considered among the greatest of virtues and must be shown towards both the living and the dead (including even remote ancestors). The term "filial" (meaning "of a child") characterizes the respect that a child, originally a son, should show to his parents. This relationship was extended by analogy to a series of five relationships (Chinese: 五倫; pinyin: wǔlún):

The Five Bonds:

   1. Ruler to Subject

   2. Father to Son

   3. Husband to Wife

   4. Elder Brother to Younger Brother

   5. Friend to Friend (the participants in this relationship being equal to one another)

Specific duties were prescribed to each of the participants in these sets of relationships. Such duties were also extended to the dead, where the living stood as sons to their deceased family. This led to the veneration of ancestors.

In time filial piety was also built into the Chinese legal system: a criminal would be punished more harshly if the culprit had committed the crime against a parent, while fathers often exercised enormous power over their children. Much the same was true of other unequal relationships.

The main source of our knowledge of the importance of filial piety is The Book of Filial Piety, a work attributed to Confucius and his son but almost certainly written in the 3rd century BCE. Filial piety has continued to play a central role in Confucian thinking to the present day.

Filial piety prompted the son to love and respect his parents, contribute to their comfort, bring happiness and honour to their name, by honourable success in life. But at the same time it carried that devotion to a degree that was excessive and faulty. In consequence of the patriarchal system there prevailing, filial piety included the obligation of sons to live after marriage under the same roof with the father and to give him a childlike obedience as long as he lived. The will of the parents was declared to be supreme even to the extent that if the son's wife failed to please them he was obliged to divorce her, though it cut him to the heart. If a dutiful son found himself compelled to admonish a wayward father he was taught to give the correction with the utmost meekness; though the parent might beat him till the blood flowed he was not to show any resentment. The father did not forfeit his right to filial respect, no matter how great his wickedness.


(4) Loyalty (Chinese: ; pinyin: zhōng)

Loyalty (Chinese: ; pinyin: zhōng) is the equivalent of filial piety on a different plane. It is particularly relevant for the social class to which most of Confucius' 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. 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 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.

In later ages, however, emphasis was placed more on the obligations of the ruled to the ruler, and less on the ruler's obligations to the ruled. 

Loyalty was also an extension of one's duties to friends, family, and spouse. Loyalty to one's family came first, then to one's spouse, then to one's ruler, and lastly to one's friends. Loyalty was considered one of the greater human virtues.

Confucius also realized that loyalty and filial piety can potentially conflict.


(5) The Perfect Man (Junzi)

The term jūnzǐ (Chinese: 君子; literally "nobleman") is crucial to classical Confucianism. Confucianism exhorts all people to strive for the ideal of a "gentleman" or "perfect man". A succinct description of the "perfect man" is one who "combines the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman." In modern times the masculine translation in English is also traditional and is still frequently used. Elitism was bound up with the concept, and gentlemen were expected to act as moral guides to the rest of society.

They were to:

    * cultivate themselves morally;

    * show filial piety and loyalty where these are due;

    * cultivate humanity, or benevolence.

The great exemplar of the perfect gentleman is Confucius himself. Perhaps the 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.

The opposite of the Jūnzǐ was the Xiǎorén (Chinese: 小人; pinyin: xiǎorén; literally "small person"). The character in this context means petty in mind and heart, narrowly self-interested, greedy, superficial, or materialistic.


Neo-Confucianism (traditional Chinese: 理學; pinyin: Lǐxué)/(traditional Chinese: 道學; pinyin: Dàoxué)

This is a form of Confucianism that was primarily developed during the Song Dynasty, but which can be traced back to Han Yu and Li Ao (772-841) in the Tang Dynasty. It formed the basis of Confucian orthodoxy in the Qing Dynasty of China. It was a philosophy that attempted to merge certain basic elements of Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist thought. Most important of early Neo-Confucianists was the Chinese thinker Zhu Xi (1130-1200).


Ancestral Worship (拜祖, pinyin: bàizǔ

Ancestral veneration in some cultures (such as Chinese 敬祖, pinyin: jìngzǔ ), also ancestor worship (拜祖, pinyin: bàizǔ), seeks to honor the deeds and memories of the deceased. This is an extension of filial piety for the ancestors, the ultimate homage to the deceased as if they are alive. Instead of prayers, joss-sticks are offered with communications and greetings to the deceased. There are eight qualities of De (八德) for a Chinese to complete his earthly duties, and filial piety () is the top and foremost of those qualities. The importance of paying filial duties to parents (and elders) lies with the fact that all physical bodily aspects of one's being were created by one's parents, who continued to tend to our well being until one is on firm footings. The respect and the homage to parents, i.e. filial piety is to return this gracious deed, to them in life and after, the ultimate homage. In this regard ancestral veneration in China is a fusion of the teachings of Confucius and Laozi rather than a religious ritual.

Sacrifices are sometimes made to altars as food for the deceased. This falls under the modes of communication with the Chinese spiritual world concepts. Some of the veneration includes visiting the deceased at their graves, making offerings to the deceased in the Qingming, Chongyang and Hungry Ghost Festivals. All three are related to paying homage to the spirits. Due to the hardships of the late 19th and 20th century China, when meat and poultry were difficult to come by, sumptuous feasts are still offered in some Asian countries as a practice to the spirits or ancestors. However in the orthodox Taoist and Buddhist rituals, only vegetarian food or fruit would suffice.

For those with deceased in the netherworld or hell elaborate or even creative offerings such as toothbrush, comb, towel, slippers, and water are provided so that the deceased will be able to have these items after they have died. Often paper versions of these objects are burned for the same purpose, even paper cars and plasma TVs. Spirit money (also called Hell Notes) is sometimes burned as an offering to ancestors as well for the afterlife. The living may regard the ancestors as "guardian angels" to them, perhaps in protecting them from serious accidents, or guiding their path in life.

Chongyang is the Double Ninth Festival (Chinese: 重九; pinyin: Chóngjiǔ , also traditional Chinese: 重陽節; pinyin: Chóngyángjié or Chung Yeung Festival in Hong Kong, Vietnamese language: Tết Trùng Cửu), observed on the ninth day of the ninth month in the Chinese calendar (October 7 in 2008), is a traditional Chinese holiday, mentioned in writing since before the East Han period (thus, before AD 25).

According to the I Ching, nine is the yang number; the ninth day of the ninth lunar month (or double nine) has too much yang (a traditional Chinese spiritual concept) and is thus a potentially dangerous date. Hence, the day is also called "Double Yang Festival" (重陽節). To protect against the danger, it is customary to climb a high mountain, drink chrysanthemum wine, and wear the zhuyu (茱萸) plant, Cornus officinalis. (Both chrysanthemum and zhuyu are considered to have cleansing qualities and are used on other occasions to air out houses and cure illnesses.) Also on this holiday, some Chinese also visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects.

In 1966, the Republic of China (Taiwan) rededicated the holiday as "Senior Citizens' Day", underscoring one custom as it is observed in China, where the festival is also an opportunity to care for and appreciate the elderly.

Double Ninth may have originated as a day to drive away danger, but like the Chinese New Year, over time it became a day of celebration. In contemporary times it is an occasion for hiking and chrysanthemum appreciation. Stores sell rice cakes ( "gāo", a synonym for height ) inserted with mini colorful flags to represent zhuyu. Most people drink chrysanthemum tea, while a few strict traditionalists drink homemade chrysanthemum wine. Children in school learn poems about chrysanthemums, and many localities host a chrysanthemum exhibit. Mountain climbing races are also popular; winners get to wear a wreath made of zhuyu.



Confucianism (Wikipedia)

Confucianism (Catholic Encyclopedia) An article by Charles F. Aiken. Reviews the key teachings and history of Confucianism, and its relation to Christianity.


Confucian Texts

The Analects of Confucius in Chinese with English translations of James Legge and D.C. Lau

The Analects and Mencius in Chinese with English translation


"treat, heal, and comfort always"

 "spiritual forming disciples of Jesus Christ with informed minds, hearts on fire and contemplative in actions"  


Website Articles Spiritual Writings Nurture/ Courses Engaging Culture Medical Interests Social















  Creative Commons License

Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is
licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

© 2006-2017 Alex Tang