Confucius and Confucianism


BY CchattyArticleChinese Culture
Release time:2018-04-18
Tag: Religions in China
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Confucius is a remarkable man, whose wisdom is more powerful than any mighty sword, Confucianism has influenced China for thousands of years.
part 1

Confucius and Confucianism

Confucius and Confucianism

In the 5th century B. C. in Athens, the cradle of western civilization, a great thinker described an ideal human society in a book, “In a society governed by philosophers, men live harmoniously, and each person does his duty. The society runs by harmony and orders.” This great Greek philosopher, Plato, wrote his most famous doctrine in The Republic. However, about 100 years before Plato, a cultural giant in the Orient also endeavored to create a state full of love and order. This great Chinese sage was Confucius.

Who is Confucius?  Is he a god, or a Chinese Buddha? No, he is a wise sage, being as important and influential as Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad in history. Confucius’ wisdom has had a profound impact on the culture of the East just as the Bible on that of the West. More people follow Confucius for more generations. Confucius is a philosopher, a thinker, a transmitter of tradition, a great educator, an ideologist and the creator of Confucianism. Confucius and his teachings continue to exert a broad influence on society even in modern China today. As the preview of the Hong Kong film, Confucius, said, “Confucius is a remarkable man, whose wisdom is more powerful than any mighty sword”.

Confucianism, founded by Confucius, is a leading Chinese ethical and philosophical system. It gives us a real insight into the human nature and Chinese culture. The image of the great sage receives adoration every day by people from East Asia in the Confucian Temples, just like what happens every day in the Buddhist temples. Confucianism is not a religion. Instead, it is a doctrine more than a belief. His principles inspire all who came in contact with them which assume the framework of traditional Chinese religion. For example, this author follows several of Confucius wisdom, the favorite of which is finding teachers in others. Confucius even said, “Whenever I walk with two other men, I can always find teachers in them. I can learn from their good qualities, and correct those faults in me which are like theirs.”

Confucius, the venerable sage, is enjoying a 21st-century revival. Confucianism is shaping China’s future and should become the national spiritual choice again. The Chinese government has approved its emphasis on harmony and self-discipline.

The former Chinese President Hu Jintao endorsed the Great Masters wise saying in a speech delivered to the National Congress in February 2005. “Confucius said, Harmony is something to be cherished.  ” President Hu explained later that China should promote such values as honesty and unity, as well as forging a closer relationship between the people and the government. Since the former President’s speech, the terms “harmonious society” and “harmonious world” have become the basis of Chinese domestic and foreign policies. Confucians favor rules by moral examples and oppose the use of force to promote morality. 

For sports, during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the world was greeted by a wise saying of the sage. It’s a great pleasure to have friends come to visit from afar. ” After this greeting, three thousand performers dressed as Confucius disciples paraded through the Birds Nest Stadium. For education, students in elementary schools, middle schools and universities begin to learn Confucian classics and memorize passages of The Analects. Abroad, the Chinese government has been promoting Confucianism via branches of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and culture center as a way of improving China’s cultural image.

In this chapter, we will first sketch out Confucius’ historical and political turmoil that explains some remarkable aspects of his unusual early life. Next, this chapter will detail the nature of the societal turbulence Confucius experienced and provide the relevant analysis for understanding Confucianism in a more significant historical context. Finally, an examination of Confucius as the great Chinese sage to grasp the essential features of his teachings will be discussed. In this way, one will discover how they impacted the followers and the rest of the world. In other words, this chapter explores the factors that contributed to his greatness.


part 2

Confucius’ Life: Wandering and Teaching

Confucius’ Life Wandering and Teaching

Confucius, or Kong Fuzi, or “Master Kong”, was born in the State of Lu (551 B. C.), Zhou Dynasty (1046 B. C. - 256 B. C.). He was a poor descendant of a declining aristocratic family. To carry the family name on, Confucius’ sixty-four-year-old father married his sixteen-year-old mother as his second concubine and had a son. Three years after Confucius was born, his father died to leave the family in great poverty, so Confucius decided to teach himself and became a well-educated man. 

As a child, he often played the role of imitating the temple rituals which were popular and well-preserved in the State of Lu. At the age of 20, Confucius worked as a manager of a granary. He also held a minor managerial position at a ranch. Later, he assumed the office of Minister of Public Construction. As a young adult, he quickly earned a reputation for fairness, politeness, and love of learning. He even told others, “I was of the humble station when young. That is why I am skilled in many menial things. ’’ Briefly, this was Confucius’ way of saying that he accepted many lowly jobs in his youth. After his mother died, the twenty-three-year-old Confucius spent three years mourning his mother’s passing away as the Chinese tradition, filial piety, held.

However, Confucius experienced failure as a politician. His wisdom and premise of recovering ancient morality both individually and governmentally were misunderstood and rejected at every turn. After the King of Lu banished him from the State of Lu, he began his nearly 30-year nomadic life to travel to different states. Consequently, he came to believe that the only remedy for the chaotic state was to convert people back to the principles and precepts of the sages of antiquity. This understanding then set him on the way to teach and spread his doctrines on the ancient classics to more ordinary people. He accepted and instructed all people as his disciples regardless of the social classes they were from. He believed that there should be an education for everyone without distinction. Before Confucius, only the children from noble family could get educated. 

Therefore, “Confucius” ordinary people education brought about significant change in Chinese education. It has been estimated that he had taught about 3,000 students altogether in his life, 72 of whom became notable people in the country. That is the reason why people from ancient times to now address him as China’s first and most significant educator. Confucius’ free education also led him to an unimaginably harsh life. Along the way, he taught his disciples to escape the battles and chaos. They also faced natural disasters, diseases, poverty, panic, and even hunger. Once, they were surrounded by the soldiers from two different states. They ran out of food for seven days. But nothing could make him abandon his ideals. His insistence on the reverence for Chinese tradition and customs soon spread throughout different states.

At 51, Confucius had an opportunity to be appointed as the mayor of the capital of the State Lu. In one year, he made the city become the most prosperous one in the country. He was promoted to several higher positions and became the Minister of Justice eventually. His policies led the state into the most glorious period with people living happily and the society running stably. However, the neighboring state, Qi, viewed the prosperity of Lu as a significant threat, so the King of Qi sent an invitation to have a meeting with the King of Lu. This became known as Jiagu Summit of Qi & Lu in history. At the meeting, the King of Qi always wanted to force the King of Lu into submission. Confucius eventually foiled Qi's plot with traditional cultural practices. Moreover, the King of Qi returned the three captured cities of Lu under the pressure of Confucius’ insistent requirements.

At a time when Socrates’ ethical philosophies were sparkling in the Western world, Confucius was sowing seeds of ethical humanism that would have a significant influence on the social, political, and philosophical structure of China for many years. Pearl S. Buck, an American writer, remarked that Confucius was just like Jesus, who also “traveled around and looked for his followers everywhere. He is poor. He is blocked and mocked by the arrogant and the powerful. But he never yields or alters his faith.”


part 3

The Development of Confucianism: Peaks and Troughs

The Development of Confucianism Peaks and Troughs

Confucius lived in China's Spring and Autumn Warring States Period, a time of social and political anarchy, a time of collapsing central government, a time of various calamities, and time of constant war. This resulted ultimately in the kingdom being broken up into many independent states. Confucius called it the time of“the collapse of etiquette”. Deception, intrigue and immoral habits were epidemics. The established political system could not meet the demand for development as the ruling classes of China experienced the transition from slavery to a feudal society.

This tumultuous Warring States Period was also known as the Period of One Hundred Schools of Thought, a time of battles of thoughts, of heroes, of new ideas, and of splendor and glory for China. Many intellectual debates were focused on the future mode of society. They tried to find a philosophical way to deal with the social turmoil. The great question of the day was: “What’s the best way to rule society and government? The most important contentions of the one hundred schools of thought are Legalism, Taoism, and many others. They sprang up all over feudal China in the times of immense political or cultural ferment. This is often regarded as the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy in Chinese history as no single doctrine predominated over the others. Confucianism was just one of the many voices in this debate.

Confucius, in this time, deplored the co-occurring disorder and lack of moral standards. He came to realize that he needed to convert people to the values and guidelines for living a good life. He proposed to discipline people and to revive the ancient ethics. Therefore, he gradually brought forward a series of norms, which ultimately developed into Confucianism.

Confucianism originated as an “ethical-sociopolitical teaching” during the Warring States Period. In Qin Dynasty (221 B. C. - 206 B. C.), the China’s first imperial dynasty, whose emperor, Qin Shihuang, was the first emperor of a unified China, Confucianism was persecuted. Although Qin Shihuang made countless significant contributions to the development of ancient China, including building the grand Great Wall of China, he viewed the booming philosophies and flourishing intellectuals as threats to his authority. So he ordered the burning of all the books not related to his reign and the live burial of the Confucians.

From then on, legalism was the only approved thought for following the emperor’s laws. After Qin Dynasty, with the decline of legalism, Confucianism was further developed by Mencius (372 B. C. -289 B. C.) by taking in the metaphysical doctrines of Yin (the female principle) and Yang (the male principle) as well as the natural elements. In Han Dynasty (206 B. C. – 220 B.C.), a golden age in Chinese history as the majority of the Chinese population is from Han People, and the Chinese words are known as Han Characters, Confucianism returned and became the official state ideology of China. In fact, Emperor Wu, the most significant emperor of Han Dynasty, rejected a hundred other philosophical schools in favor of Confucianism. 

After Han Dynasty, Confucianism fell into a philosophically dormant state for nearly 600 years. In the Tang Dynasty (618 -907), the most prosperous and populous one in Chinese civilization known for innovations and its flourishing Chinese poetry, Confucianism coexisted with Buddhism and Taoism, and the struggle for dominance between the three philosophies became heated. In Song Dynasty (960 -1279),  Neo Confucianism, an interpretation of the classical Confucian doctrine that addressed Buddhist and Taoist issues, came into being. Zhao Pu, the first Prime Minister of the Song Dynasty, even boasted: “With just half a book of the Analects you can rule a country well.”

After the disastrous conflicts with Western military technology at the dawn of the 20th century, Chinese intellectuals blamed Confucianism for blocking the scientific and political development of China. Advocating science and democracy, the New Cultural Movement in 1915 attacked the feudal system violently, including its core ideological system of Confucianism. During the “Great Cultural Revolution” from 1966 to 1976, which is now generally considered as 10-year havoc, Confucianism was once again paralyzed. The Red Guards destroyed temples, statues, historical landmarks, and texts associated with Confucianism. Now, the construction of a Harmonious Society with its desire for the overall societal balance and harmony in modern China resembles the characteristics of a New-Confucianism.


part 4

The Key Doctrines of Confucianism

The Key Doctrines of Confucianism

Confucius contributed significantly to the development of traditional Chinese culture. All his wisdom is embodied in “The Four Books”: Analects, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Great Learning, Meng-Tza Mencius); “The Five Classics”: The Classic of Poetry, The Book of Document, The Book of Rites, The Classic of Changes, The Spring and Autumn Annals: and “The Six Arts”: Rites, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Calligraphy, Mathematics.

The philosophical principles of Confucianism are grounded in Chinese traditions and beliefs from the time of Confucius, including loyalty to family, respect for elders, and ancestor worship. Confucianism stresses the duty of moral integrity for individuals, families, and governments, while also focusing on doctrines of justice, virtue, correctness, relationship, sincerity, and community. At this point, it would not be practical to discuss all of Confucius’ works. The following are excerpts taken from his vast body of philosophical teaching. The remainder of this chapter will consider the Analects, one of “The Four Books”, and the Five Virtues and Five Basic Relationships.

1  Analects

The Republic purports to be a collection of Socrates, discussion and, in reality, is the original material from his disciple Plato, whereas the Analects of Confucius is considered as a collection of the master’s aphorisms, conversations, and anecdotes by Confucius’ disciples after his death. It covers a wide variety of subjects, ranging from politics, philosophy, literature, and art to education and moral cultivation. It is the representative work of Confucianism and continues today to have the tremendous influence on Chinese and East Asian thoughts and values. It teaches the basic Confucian values including social and ritual propriety, righteousness, loyalty, and filial piety. These, all revolve around the core thought of Confucius - that of humanity and the “Superior Man” or “gentleman.”

 2. The Five Virtues

Li includes the practice of ritual, propriety, cultural practices and manners. It is the way how things should be done. People doing things should be with proper reverence or proper conduct. The universal harmony is the rites, ceremonies, proper behavior, and good manner performed in good faith, with everyone keeping to his or her proper role. There is no need for physical sanctions, laws, or punishment. For example, Chinese people are renowned for their hospitality, especially for foreigners, big dinners, expensive gifts, companionship, and tourist resorts with sightseeing. This parallels Confucius’ wise saying that “It’s a great pleasure to have friends come to visit from afar”.

Xiao promotes the filial piety. The love within the family means parents’ love for their children and children’s love for their parents. Respect your elders! One can observe this characteristic in ancestor reverence, a fundamental practice throughout Chinese history in which the dead are treated as still existent and significant in everyday life. In modern China, a present is given to the elder when you visit Chinese friends. At a banquet, the guests, the elders, or the people with high position usually order the dishes first. Children will demonstrate devotion and dedication to their parents in both thoughts and actions. Parents must care for their children and show “benevolence”. Xiao regarding family ethics also resonates in modern Chinese society. Filial piety, for example, is still widely endorsed and practiced: Adult children have a legal obligation to care for their elderly parents.

Xin involves faithfulness and keeping one’s word. For Confucianism, loyalty is the basis of interpersonal communication and state administration. Confucius used a story to relate the meaning of real loyalty to his disciples. During the Spring and Autumn Period, there was a prince of the State of Wu named Ji Zha. He was brilliant and virtuous. He once visited the State of Xu as an envoy. When the king of Xu happened to see Ji Zha’s sword, he showed a great interest in it. Having understood the king’s intentions, Ji Zha said nothing and went on his envoy mission to the other states. After Ji Zha finished his trip and returned to Xu, the king had passed away. He put his sword in the king’s tomb. Other people felt puzzled and asked him, you never made an oral promise to the king of Xu, and now he is dead, why you still do that?” Ji Zha replied, “ I didn’t promise the sword to the king at that time just because I hadn’t accomplished my mission and the envoy should wear a ritual sword to show the respect to the king he visits. But I had decided to do that in my heart. I should live up to my promise no matter he is dead or not. ”

Yi stresses righteousness. The following story will show you that “The Gentleman knows what is right” Wu Xun, a beggar in Qing Dynasty, worked and begged for thirty years and used all his money to establish three free charity schools for the poor children successively. He never married and never studied in his whole life. But he enabled hundreds of poor children like him to fulfill the dream of studying and to know how to behave properly. Moreover, many people in business used Yi as the motto of running a business. Sakichi Toyota and Kiichiro Toyota, founders of the Japanese Toyota Motor Corp., also love reading Analects. Their motto was “If one is upright and sets a good example, others will take action without his instructions”. The famous Chinese entrepreneur Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of Lenovo, the second largest computer maker in the world, set the same quotation on his table as his reminder.

Ren refers to benevolence, the humaneness towards others. Confucius established benevolence and rites as the core of his theory. Confucius’ disciples asked him on various occasions, “What is ‘細’? He replied, “It is to love all men,” It is the ideal way for one to carry oneself through life. Confucius also thought that rulers should carry out benevolent governance to their people and impose less physical sanctions and penalties only if necessary. One day, Confucius passed a grave where he saw a woman weeping at a gravestone. She told Confucius that a tiger killed her husband, father, and son. When Confucius asked her why she didn’t leave such a sad place, she answered that there was no oppressive government here. Confucius said to his disciples, “Remember this. An oppressive government is fiercer and more feared than a tiger.”  Confucius meant that a bad government was more feared than a hungry tiger.

Golden Rule is one aspect of Ren. “What you do not want to be done to yourself, do not do to others”, which is five centuries before Jesus taught the Golden Rule with similar words. The concept describes a “reciprocal” or “two-way” relationship between one’s self and others. One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. There is a similar golden rule in both the eastern and western cultures. The Indian epic Mahabharata reads, “ This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you. “ Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, it says “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. “

Jun-Zi (the gentleman), another aspect of Ren, describes the ideal of the superior (self-actualized, virtuous, perfect) person: ”A man of perfect virtue wishing to be accomplished himself, he also seeks to accomplish others.” Undoubtedly, Wu Xun, the begger mentioned before, is a gentleman although he never had a chance to go to school and get educated because he knew how he should act appropriately.

The combination of these two aspects is regarded as the essence of “Ren”, or called “the doctrine of loyalty and forbearance”. If Ren is how a person should be, then Jun-Zi is how a person should act. Confucius gave his self-description in the Analects: “At fifteen, I set my heart on learning (to become a sage). At thirty, I became firm. At forty, I had no more doubts. At fifty, I understood Heaven’s will. At sixty, my ears were attuned (to it). At seventy, I could follow my heart’s desires, without overstepping the line.”

3. The Five Basic Relationships to Keep Order and Harmony

Confucius once lived in the State of Wei. He found that Wei had an apparent lack of basic orders, rituals, and ethics. The king of Wei lusted for pretty women and neglected his duty. As a result, the state was thrown into disorder. His wife, Nan Zi, was a very charming and flirtatious woman. Even her son, Kuai Kui felt deeply ashamed of his licentious mother and wanted to kill her. But he failed and was banished from Wei. Upon the death of the king, the grandson of the king and also the son of Kuai Kui, Kuai Zhe, refused to let his father return Wei and was crowned the king himself. 

Confucius thought the father and the son, the husband and the wife, the ruler and the subject didn’t behave correctly. So he gave a proper order to all people in the human society, as he thought that each person had a specific place in society and specific roles to fulfill. If every person knew what was expected of them and took the responsibilities, they would behave correctly. Through it, peace and harmony could be achieved. Therefore, he set up five essential relationships in which most people are involved. These relationships were:

(1)  ruler and subject;

(2)  father and son;

(3)  elder brother and younger brother;

(4)  husband and wife;

(5)  friend and friend.

All, except the last, involve the authority of one person over another. Power and the right to rule belong to superiors over subordinates; that is, to older people over younger people, or to men over women. Each person has to give obedience and respect to “superiors”: the subject to his ruler, the wife to her husband, the son to his parents, and the younger brother to the elder brother. The “superior”, however, owes a loving response to the inferior. People have to warrant the respect and power that comes with their positions in life. Authority and respect are not given; they must be earned. Confucius believed that if everyone followed the five rules, the effect would be widely spread. He taught that even if just one person followed these rules, the result would increase through that person’s family, community, nation, and the world.


part 5

Closing Remarks

Confucius and Confucianism Closing Remarks

In a nutshell, Confucianism is a complex system of social and political ethics based on filial piety, loyalty, and righteousness. Confucius had simple moral and political teachings: to love others, to honor one’s parents, to do what is right instead of what is advantageous, to practice “reciprocity” and to rule by moral example instead of by force and violence.

Personally, as a young girl growing up in a Chinese home, I lived with Confucius’ teaching. I remember my grandfather saying, “Men are similar to each other by nature, but learning and practice make them different”. I also remember my mother saying, “Making straight, loyal and well-informed friends because they are beneficial. Steering well clear of flattering, two-faced and big-talking friends because they will lead you down the wrong road”. I never understood the meaning of these phrases as a small child, but I knew they were very important in my life. Today, I recognize as a parent the role Confucius still plays in my life, and I now want to pass along his teachings to my daughter.