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Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–478 BC). 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.

Who is Confucius?

Confucius (551-479 BC) was a thinker, political figure, educator, and founder of the Ru School of Chinese thought. His teachings, preserved in the “Lun Yu” (“Analects”), formed the foundation of much of subsequent Chinese speculation on the education and comportment of the ideal man, how such an individual should live his live and interact with others, and the forms of society and government in which he should participate.

Many of the legends surrounding Confucius were included by the Han dynasty court historian, Sima Qian (145-c.85 BCE), in his well-known and often-quoted “Records of the Grand Historian” (“Shi Ji”) at the end of the 2nd century BC. According to this collection of tales, Confucius' ancestors were members of the Royal State of Song. His great

grandfather, fleeing the turmoil in his native Song, had moved to Lu, somewhere near the present town of Qufu in southeastern Shandong, where the family became impoverished.

Confucius was described, by Sima Qian and other sources, as having endured a poverty-stricken and humiliating youth and been forced, upon reaching manhood, to undertake such petty jobs as accounting and caring for livestock. Sima Qian's account included the tale of how Confucius was born in answer to his parents' prayers at a sacred hill (qiu) called Ni. Confucius' surname Kong (which means literally an utterance of thankfulness when prayers have been answered), his tabooed given name Qiu, and his social name Zhongni, all appeared connected to the miraculous circumstances of his birth.
Nobody knows how Confucius himself was educated, but tradition tells that he studied ritual with the Daoist Master Lao Dan, music with Chang Hong, and the lute with Music-master Xiang. In his middle age Confucius is supposed to have gathered about him a group of disciples. Sima Qian and other sources recorded that there were as many as three thousand of them. He also devoted himself to political matters in Lu. Sima Qian said, “Those who, in their own person, became conversant with the Six Disciplines taught by Confucius, numbered seventy-two.”

At the age of fifty, when Duke Ding of Lu was on the throne, Confucius' talents were recognized and he was appointed as Minister of Public Works and later Minister of Crime. However, Confucius apparently offended members of the Lu nobility who were vying with Duke Ding for power and therefore he was subsequently forced to resign and to go into exile.

In the company of his disciples, Confucius left Lu and traveled in the states of Wei, Song, Chen, Cai, and Chu, purportedly looking for a ruler who might employ him but meeting instead with indifference and, occasionally, severe hardship and danger.

Confucius returned to Lu in 484 BC and spent the remainder of his life

Confucian Classics

teaching, putting in order the “Book of Songs”, the “Book of Documents”, and other ancient classics, as well as editing the “Spring and Autumn Annals”, the court chronicle of Lu. Confucius' traditional association with these works led them and related texts to be revered as the “Confucian Classics” and made Confucius himself the spiritual ancestor of later teachers, historians, moral philosophers, literary scholars, and countless others whose lives and works figure prominently in Chinese intellectual history.

By the 4th century BC, Confucius was recognized as a unique figure. At the end of the 4th century, Mencius said of Confucius: “Ever since man came into this world, there has never been one greater than Confucius.” And in two passages Mencius implied that Confucius was one of the great sage kings who, according to his reckoning, arose every 500 years.

What were the doctrines of Confucianism?

Humanity is core in Confucianism. There is classical Wuchang (五常) consisting of five elements: Ren (仁, Humanity), Yi (义, Righteousness), Li (礼, Ritual), Zhi (智, Knowledge), Xin (信, Integrity), and there is also classical Sizi (四字) with four elements: Zhong (忠, Loyalty), Xiao (孝, Filial piety), Jie (节, Continency), Yi (义, Righteousness). There are still many other elements, such as Cheng (诚, honesty), Shu (恕, kindness and forgiveness), Lian (廉, honesty and cleanness), Chi (恥, shame, judge and sense of right and wrong), Yong (勇, bravery), Wen (温, kind and gentle), Liang (良, good, kindhearted), Gong (恭, respectful, reverent), Jian(俭, frugal), Rang (让 modestly, self-effacing). Among all elements, Ren (Humanity) and Yi (Righteousness) are fundamental. Sometimes morality is interpreted as the phantom of Humanity and Righteousness.


Confucius' concept of humanity (Ren), the core of his doctrine is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the Ethic of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule: “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”
Confucius never stated whether man was born good or evil, noting that “By nature men are similar; by practice men are wide apart”, implying that whether good or bad, Confucius perceived all men to be born with intrinsic similarities, but that man is conditioned and influenced by study and practice.
The “Three Character Classic” begins with "People at birth, are naturally good (kind-hearted)", with root from Mencius' idea. In Mencius' view, all men are born to share goodness such as compassion and good heart, although they may become wicked. Xunzi, a Confucian master in Warring Period held that men originally just want what they instinctively want despite positive or negative results it may bring, so cultivation is needed. All the views eventually lead to recognize the importance of human education and cultivation.
Ren, as the basis of Confucian political theory also had a political dimension. If the ruler lacked Ren, Confucianism held, it would be difficult for his subjects to behave humanely. An inhumane ruler ran the risk of losing the "Mandate of Heaven", the right to rule. A ruler lacking such a mandate needed not be obeyed. But a ruler who reigned humanely and took care of the people was to be obeyed strictly, for the benevolence of his dominion shows that he has been mandated by heaven.

Confucian Classics

"Rite" stands here for a complex set of ideas ranging from politeness and propriety to the understanding of everybody's correct place in society. Externally, Rite is used to distinguish between people. It allows people to know at all times who was the younger and who the elder, who the guest and who the host, etc. Internally, it indicates to people their duty amongst others and what to expect from them.

Rite can be seen as a means to find the balance between opposing qualities that might otherwise led to conflict. Rite divided people into categories and builds hierarchical relationships through protocols and ceremonies, assigning everyone a place in society and a form of behavior.
Obeying rite with sincerity makes rite 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" (Analects). 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.
In the "Li Ji" (“Book of Rites”), the chief ceremonial observances were declared to be six: capping, marriage, mourning rites, sacrifices, feasts, and interviews. It would be enough to treat briefly of the first four.
Capping was a joyous ceremony, wherein the son was honoured on reaching his twentieth year. In the presence of relatives and invited guests, the father conferred on his son a special name and a square cornered cap as distinguishing marks of his mature manhood. It was accompanied with a feast.
The marriage ceremony was of great importance. To marry with the view of having male children was a grave duty on the part of every son. This was necessary to keep up the patriarchal system and to provide for ancestral worship in after years. The rule as laid down in the "Li Ji" was that a young man should marry at the age of thirty and a young woman at twenty. The proposal and acceptance pertained not to the young parties directly interested, but to their parents. The preliminary arrangements were made by a go between after it was ascertained by divination that the signs of the proposed union were auspicious. The parties could not be of the same surname, nor related within the fifth degree of kindred. By taking a sip from each, they signified that they were united in wedlock. The bride thus became a member of the family of her parents-in-law, subject, like her husband, to their authority.
The mourning rites were of supreme importance. Their exposition takes up the greater part of the "Li Ji". They were most elaborate, varying greatly in details and length of observance, according to the rank and relationship of the deceased. After the burial, for which there were minute prescriptions, the son had to wear the mourning sackcloth for twenty-seven months, emaciating his body with scanty food, and living in a rude hut erected for the purpose near the grave.

Another class of rites of supreme importance was the sacrifices. They were repeatedly mentioned in the Confucian texts, where instructions were given for their proper celebration. From the Chinese notion of sacrifice the idea of propitiation through blood was entirely absent. It was nothing more than a food-offering expressing the reverent homage of the worshippers, a solemn


feast to do honour to the spirit guests, who are invited and were thought to enjoy the entertainment. Meat and drink of great variety were provided. There was also vocal and instrumental music, and pantomimic dancing. The officiating ministers were not priests, but heads of families, the feudal lords, and above all, the king.

The worship of the people at large was practically confined to the so-called ancestor-worship. In the days of Confucius, as at present, there was in every family home, from the palace of the king himself down to the humble cabin of the peasant, a chamber or closet called the ancestral shrine, where wooden tablets were reverently kept, inscribed with the names of deceased parents, grandparents, and more remote ancestors. At stated intervals offerings of fruit, wine, and cooked meats were set before these tablets, which the ancestral spirits were fancied to make their temporary resting-place. There was, besides, a public honouring by each local clan of the common ancestors twice a year, in spring and autumn. This was an elaborate banquet with music and solemn dances, to which the dead ancestors were summoned, and in which they were believed to participate along with the living members of the clan. In the Imperial College in Peking there is a shrine where the tablets of Confucius and his principal disciples are preserved. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, the emperor goes there in state and solemnly presents food-offerings with a prayerful address expressing his gratitude and devotion.


Confucius’s political thought was based upon his ethical thought and rooted in his belief that a ruler should learn self-discipline, should govern his subjects by his own example, and should treat them with love and concern. He argued that the best government is one that rules through “rites” (Li) and people's natural morality, rather than by using bribery and coercion.

He said, “If the people are led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.” (“Lun Yu”)
At that time, however, advocates of more legalistic methods were winning a large following among the ruling elite and his ideas about the moral suasion of the ruler were not proving popular. Most troubling to Confucius was his perception that the political institutions of his day had completely broken down. He attributed this collapse to the fact that those who wielded power as well as those who occupied subordinate positions did so by making claim to titles for which they were not worthy. When asked by a ruler of the large state of Qi, Lu's neighbor on the Shandong peninsula, about the principles of good government, Confucius replied: “Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.” (“Lun Yu”)
Confucius' analysis of the lack of connection between actualities and their names and the need to correct such circumstances is usually referred to as Confucius' theory of “Zheng Ming”. For Confucius, “Zheng Ming” did not only refer to the “rectification of names”, but rectifying behavior of people so that it exactly corresponds to the language with which they identify and describe themselves. Confucius believed that this sort of rectification had to begin at the very top of the government, because it was at the top that the discrepancy between names and actualities had originated. If the ruler's behavior was rectified then the people beneath him would follow suit.
While he supported the idea of government by an all-powerful sage, ruling as an Emperor, probably because of the chaotic state of China at his time, his ideas contained a number of elements to limit the power of rulers. “An oppressive government is more feared than a tiger.” In discussing the relationship between a king and his subject (or a father and his son), he underlined the need to give due respect to superiors. This demanded that the inferior must give advice to his superior if the superior was considered to be taking the wrong course of action. This was built upon a century after Confucius's death by his latter day disciple Mencius, who argued that if the king was not acting like a king, he would lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. Therefore, tyrannicide was justified because a tyrant was more a thief than a king.

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A hallmark of Confucius' thought is his emphasis on education and study. He disparaged those who had faith in natural understanding or intuition and argued that the only real understanding of a subject came from long and careful study.

Study, for Confucius, means finding a good teacher and imitating his words


and deeds. A good teacher is someone older who is familiar with the ways of the past and the practices of the ancients. While he sometimes warned against excessive reflection and meditation, Confucius' position appeared to be a middle course between studying and reflecting on what one has learned. “He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.” (Analects)
Confucius was willing to teach anyone, whatever their social standing, as long as they were eager and tireless study’s effort. He taught altogether 3,000 students, though only 72 are said to have truly mastered the arts he cherished. He taught his students morality, proper speech, government, and the refined arts. While he also emphasizes the “Six Arts”, ritual, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy, and computation, he regards morality the most important subject.
Confucius' goal is to create gentlemen who carry themselves with grace, speak correctly, and demonstrate integrity in all things. His strong dislike of the sycophantic “petty men,” whose clever talk and pretentious manner win them an audience, is reflected in numerous Analects passages.
Moral education is important to Confucius. It means one can rectify a situation, restore meaning to language and values to society. Confucius found himself in an age in which values were out of joint. Actions and behavior no longer corresponded to the labels originally attached to them. “Rulers do not rule and subjects do not serve”, which meant that words and titles no longer mean what they once did. He believes that the most important lessons for obtaining such a moral education are to be found in the canonical Book of Songs, because many of its poems are both beautiful and good. Confucius had found in the canonical text valuable lessons on how to cultivate moral qualities in a person as well as how to comport a person humanely and responsibly in public. Thus Confucius places the text first in his curriculum and frequently quotes and explains its lines of verse.

Confucius' pedagogical methods are striking. He never discoursed at length on a subject. Instead he posed questions, cited passages from the classics, or used apt analogies, and waited for his students for the right answers. “I only instruct the eager and enlighten the fervent. If I hold up one corner and a student cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not go on with the lesson.” (Analects)

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