The Basics of Confucianism

Temple of Confucius of JiangyinWuxiJiangsu

Confucius’ life

Confucius, or “Master Kung” as he became known, was born in the city of Lu (now known as Qufu) in the Northeast of China in 551 BCE and he died in 479 BCE.

According to legend, his father died at the age of 70 and he was raised by his mother. Women in the Confucian system of political philosophy are important in childhood education, as Confucius’ mother is thought to have been in his own upbringing. Besides studying history and music, as a child, he learned hunting, fishing, and archery. Confucius exemplified in his own life the rather broad set of competencies and broad minded interests that come to be thought befitting of a well-developed gentleman within the Confucian system of education. He married but divorced.

Confucius spent a part of his early life as a civil servant for the Duke of Lu. According to legend he had great success in that position, but his job was compromised due to the jealousy of others. After leaving that position, he spent his life as a scholar and educator. He developed the system of political philosophy that would come to dominate Chinese society for more than 2000 years. As a scholar, he traveled from town to town, with students who followed him. He sought throughout his life to again find work as a political advisor, as he thought that having the opportunity to positively influence political institutions was key to creating the conditions for the self-development of individuals. He found such work again at the age of 67 as an advisor for the Duke of Ai.

The texts of Confucius 

For most of Chinese history, Confucius was thought to have edited (or written) five books which became known as the Confucian Classics. These books covered areas thought integral for the well-rounded education of civil servants. These included:

  • The Classic of Poetry — a book of 305 poems and songs, performed at court ceremonies
  • The Book of Documents — a book of documents and speeches attributed to leaders of the Chao period
  • The Book of Rites — a description of ancient rites and ceremonies
  • I Ching — a book of divination
  • Spring and Autumn Annals — a historical record of the region of Lu from which Confucius came

Besides these texts, the Analects is the collection of sayings of Confucius, early compiled by his students. It consists largely of proverbs, thematically related in sections. From this text, in particular, we cull some of the basic ideas of Confucius.

The warring state period

Confucius, like Laozi, lived in a period of political disarray in China, known as the warring states period. The time was one of political dissolution in which the unity of the Chou dynasty was eroded and small state conflict was dominant. Various philosophical and political systems were developed at this time with the aim of helping to reestablish a better functioning political order.

Besides Confucianism and Taoism, in political thought the period gives rise to legalism, which sought strong centralist policies for the empire, and Mohism, which argued for the need to rule in accord with “the will of heaven,” but offered a utilitarian standard of considering the greatest benefit (li) for the people. While Taoism argued for a return to largely self-government, or even anarchism, with the small village unit as a model, Confucianism argued for reestablishing the feudal ideal identified with the earlier Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Confucius as a model

Like Socrates’ in Ancient Greece, Confucius’ life is thought of as exemplary. Though Confucius did not think of himself as a sage, in Chinese history he has come to serve in particular as an example of a normal individual who is able, through his own efforts, to become a sage. He is not a prophet with a divinely inspired message. He is not a mystic. He is a scholar who strives to live virtuously. In fact, Confucius sees himself not as the founder of a school but as one individual in a long line of scholars (Ju chia) which extends back to the era of the Shang dynasty, circa 1100 BCE.

Views of religion

Though Confucianism was intricately tied into the state religion in China, Confucius did not teach much about the gods. His is not primarily a religious philosophy but a political philosophy. As noted in the Analects, “The Master did not talk about marvels, feats of strength, irregularities, gods” (7/21).

We often find Confucius expressing hesitancy to discuss questions of traditional religion. The following is indicative: “Chi-lu asked about serving the ghosts and gods. The Master said, ‘Until you can serve men how can you the ghosts.’ ‘Permit me to ask about death.’ ‘Until you know about life how can you know about death?’” (11/12)

Similarly, it is noted: “The Master said, ‘To work for the things the common people have a right to and to keep one‘s distance from the gods and spirits while showing them reverence can be called wisdom.’” (6/22)

That said, Confucius did emphasize the importance of ritual for a virtuous life. And the civic religious functions played an important role in this. Still, we might say that he sees religion more in the service of a good life than man in the service of religion.

Self Development

The focus on Confucius is on self-development. In the Confucian worldview this not means that one lives with a focus on narrow self-interest, but with an understanding of how one’s life and well-being is tied into that of others. One becomes self-developed through cultivating virtues and fulfilling one’s social role.

Jen and Li 

Of special importance for self-development are the virtues of Jen and Li.  Jen is a virtue entailing conscientiousness, empathy, and altruism (that is, action done for the benefit of others, not ourselves). Li is translated as rites, ceremonies, or customs. Here religion clearly played role, but Li extends beyond the religious rights tot he cultivation of custom. All of this is to play a part in helping us develop Jen. In fact, the everyday rituals and customs can serve to wake us to the special character of the everyday world we are immersed in. It can foster our empathy and serve to undergird the social order.

Interlinked connections

While both Taoism and Confucianism underline the need for self-development in harmony with the Tao, their understandings of what this entails differ from each other. The Taoists have a much greater focus on individualism and spirituality as traditionally understood. Confucianism, by contrast, sees our harmony with the Tao and our self-development as taking place always against the backdrop of our existing social relationships. We fulfill ourselves and live in harmony with the Tao by fulfilling our roles as sons or daughters, fathers, and mothers, within the family, or by fulfilling our roles as civil servants within the state.

The well-ordered society is key to well-ordered individuals. And developing ourselves requires contributing to our society in its various social systems. Human life is characterized fundamentally by a network of relationships of interlinked systems. The self finds itself interlinked with a family, within a city, within a regional government, within an empire, within the world. The Tao is aligned when each of these system levels is aligned.

Education

The study of the earlier mentioned five classics was thought integral to the education of civil servants throughout most of Chinese history. The works cover various domains of human life, and the study of them was to instill in them the importance of artistic expression, social processes and social systems, rituals, and considerations of metaphysics. These were tracked formally to the poetic vision, political vision, social vision, metaphysical vision, and historical vision. Each of these domains is key to our own self-development. They are domains of human expression that shape us. A wise civil servant shapes our social and political institutions with a view to the importance of each of these domains of human life, in service of the goal of virtue.

The Mandate of Heaven

Confucius emphasized that an emperor had a great responsibility to lead by virtuous example. As stated in the Analects: “Direct the people with moral force and regulate them with ritual, and they will possess shame, and moreover, they will be righteous.” (2.3)

The leader should be a well-rounded developed individual, who lives virtuously and properly embodies the empire’s customs and conscientiousness. Such an exemplary leader governs not for himself but to meet the needs of those in the kingdom. Seeing this, the people will follow his example. This is key to aligning the earth with heaven, for aligning action with the Tao. Under the best circumstances, this occurs, and the emperor is owed allegiance.

However, if an emperor fails to fulfill his role, then Confucianism came to accept that an empire could rightfully be overturned and a new imperial order could be instituted that did fulfill its correct purpose. The old empire — failing to fulfill its purpose — would lose the mandate of heaven. A new dynasty could then ascend and gain it. The kind of regime change that was imagined here would, of course, be extremely rare.

The rectification of names

The Confucian system developed a quite rigid set of roles for individuals within the imperial system. As very concisely expressed in the Analects:

“Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son” (12.11).

Confucianism became quite focused on obligations associated with the roles one had in society. These roles also paid respect to and solidified a set of “natural hierarchies”: The subject owed the emperor obedience.  The son owed the father allegiance. The wife owed the husband obedience. The friend owed the friend respect.

The obligation to retain that allegiance in each case was that the father, husband, friend, etc. fulfilled their own obligation. If they did not, then there were not considered an emperor, father, friend and so on in the true sense of the word and the obligation was not complete.

In the example, we have discussed, the emperor had a set of attributes and rituals that he was to really be an emperor. Conscientiousness about fulfilling that role was essential to retain the mandate of heaven. In the case of the other various roles, conscientiousness of the obligations of the role was also vital. When individuals lived up to the name of their role (lived up to the obligations of being a good father, son, wife, friend, minister, etc.) then heaven was thought to be unified with earth.

Criticisms 

Many Chinese, especially in the twentieth century, came to be critical of the Confucian system of government in different ways, but mainly for what we can see as its conservatism. Its emphasis of traditions and rituals meant it was somewhat backward looking. Though the Chinese had made many technological and scientific developments, the focus of the Confucian education system was on disciplines that are hermeneutic rather than scientific. The focus of education was all too often on interpreting what great men of the past had said rather than examining the world with modern science.

Other issues of contention included the rather hierarchical social order of the Confucian ethical system. In alignment with the Confucian system, children were to obey their parents, wives to obey their husbands, citizens to obey their political leaders. Individuals increasingly felt that this often lead to the unjust treatment of many. And it simply came to be thought that these characterization of natural roles (of women, for example) were simply incorrect.

Further after years of international subjugation of China to Western powers, various Chinese wondered if Confucianism was partially responsible because of its focus on obedience to those in power.

The Confucian dynasty system was finally ended in 1912. Under Mao and modernization, much has changed. Nonetheless, various elements of Confucianism are still present in Chinese culture, much like Christianity is in a now largely secular Europe …

9 thoughts on “The Basics of Confucianism

  1. Gone are the days when one learned to hunt and fish and live with nature and developed the jack of all trades lifestyle. It’s been killed off on purpose IMO. Think about what an effect that has had on modern man and his effectiveness for changing things who can basically do only one or two things. Go to work, drive home, watch someone else show physical skills on TV. Oh yeah serf the net and often for porn if the stats be true.
    “The focus on Confucius is on self-development.” This sounds very good as stated and even Conservatism can sound good when the country is morally and physically healthy. There is no county like that in modern times IMO. So in this case Conservatism is just another evil to be contended with. Same with the part of self development where one fits into a community and an integral part. When the population is almost fully corrupted it is better to isolate IMO to preserve one’s own nature. No good work can be undertaken successfully in any society in modern times IMO. Science, being amoral is IMO again just another evil to be contended with when it’s potential was to create a really fun type of society with amazingly healthy distractions and benefits to our health and wellbeing rather than amazing military hardware and ways to spy on and control the total population etc.
    I guess what I’m saying and continue to say is that things are a painful mess if one is honest. All the religions political and social structures of the past have brought us here and so what value are they? They are not realistic. The problem will always be the people and not really the leaders who are always going to be corrupted by power. It’s the people who are fearfully or greedily hypnotized by these leaders into following wherever they lead.

    I honestly don’t know what system of the past could benefit us now. It might take instead and 6 mile across asteroid (or is it meteor) or a 12 degree jump in global temperatures. I haven’t heard a better idea , that is feasible, to deal with a human population that has basically covered the globe to the point of looking like a serious infestation and no criteria for who should be able to breed. How often do people ask themselves “what is the point or benefit to my life”?

    So as a stand alone mode of living Confucius didn’t really understand human nature enough to realize what he was proposing wouldn’t work IMO. (Yeah I’m really saying that I understand more than he did in some areas)

    For myself I always end up back at Taoism which is just really for the few and not the many. Or that’s how I see it even if there is advice for how to reign in the herd to everyones advantage.

  2. “So in this case Conservatism is just another evil to be contended with. Same with the part of self development where one fits into a community and an integral part. When the population is almost fully corrupted it is better to isolate IMO to preserve one’s own nature. No good work can be undertaken successfully in any society in modern times IMO. Science, being amoral is IMO again just another evil to be contended with when it’s potential was to create a really fun type of society with amazingly healthy distractions and benefits to our health and wellbeing rather than amazing military hardware and ways to spy on and control the total population etc.
    I guess what I’m saying and continue to say is that things are a painful mess if one is honest. All the religions political and social structures of the past have brought us here and so what value are they? They are not realistic. The problem will always be the people and not really the leaders who are always going to be corrupted by power. It’s the people who are fearfully or greedily hypnotized by these leaders into following wherever they lead.”

    All true. The very common mistake that was always made concerning science was thinking it could be used for good… and now anyone can see that the 21st century is no more about goodness than the 6th century BCE was.
    There is one conservative (small case ‘c’) meme that partially succeeds and must do so: keeping anyone from gaining excessive power. All our politics are about just that.
    Think of the ‘end’ of the Cold War, and 9-11. The Cold War never actually ended; after a decade, Gorbachev was merely replaced by Putin. And a decade after the non-end of the Cold War, we traded it for wars against power seekers centered in the Mideast.

    Life is not totally hopeless, however the morality preached from all quarters is empty. I cringe every time a religious person talks regarding how God will save us– did it ever occur to them how by their own faith, their God would ignore them for the way they trash the world? God wouldn’t need to punish– they can punish themselves and others quite well enough, without any help from the deity.

  3. Should post once more on this, Confucius was a fascinating man and deserves comment. Can only repeat over ‘n over that the ‘modern’ world was made by abandoning Confucian-type ideals. It is not hopeless at all, yet hope for the future derives from moving away from traditions. I feel increasingly sad about it, especially as social distortion increases. Nevertheless, youth do not possess such baggage.

    “Confucius emphasized that an emperor had a great responsibility to lead by virtuous example. As stated in the Analects: ‘Direct the people with moral force and regulate them with ritual, and they will possess shame, and moreover, they will be righteous.’ ”

    Traditions have always been for better and worse; the modern world is for better and worse– and the future will be so. Since the Enlightenment we’ve been at war with both nature and traditions. Today it is catching up with us, the bill has become due, we have to accept big trade-offs. Something few are prepared to do. Not that Confucius was wrong, but neither was Jesus in preaching “…I have come to fulfill the Law.”
    How many people since the Renaissance have embodied the virtues of Confucius/Jesus? We advance by shedding traditional virtues. We do gain the world and lose our traditional souls: something modernists are in denial about.

  4. J. Miller and Alan: Thanks for the thoughtful comments. J., I like your reflections on how conservatism of the Confucian sort could be valuable in a morally and psychologically healthy county. You’re right, though, the problem is, what to do is the society is not healthy. And social health is difficult to determine. Probably all past “healthy” societies (at least civilizations) have been based on some forms of oppression that have been unhealthy — and then they have traditionally been justified in relationship to some system of metaphysics, as Alan points out. Think of the dominance of men over women in the Confucian world, the dominance of the Han people over the other peoples of China throughout much of Chinese history. Throughout it’s history Confucians rejected much of the peripheral culture of China as barbarian. This was tied to a politics of cultural suppression. They defined social health as supporting the dominant peoples and dominant culture. So Confucianism, like other great philosophies of world civilizations, emerged within societies with some harsh forms of domination and went on, among other things, to serve as a tool of domination.

    There has been reason enough to question the status quo — whether in China, India, the West. J., I like the reference to Taoism. I think it often served as a counter force and tool of social critique. The Taoist negative view toward education was meant to question the dominant ideological function of Confucian education. When the ideas that one learns are fundamentally linked to forms of social control, then some “unlearning” may be the best tool.

    Still, I think that a reflection on Confucian philosophy can be valuable for more than an understanding of Chinese history. Alan, I’m less skeptical than you that the ideas can still serve us in some way. That said, I may be left some pretty vague principles that are drawn from the school of thought, since I agree that a lot of the concrete ideas of Confucianism will have to be thrown out.

    What might be left is perhaps a “Confucianism” that Confucius wouldn’t be able to identify as such. Without an effort at compiling a complete list, I guess I’d say that some of the general ideas I find of value are:
    1) We are interdependent.
    2) We are linked in a network of relationships, from the family to our community to the state to the nation, the globe, the cosmos.
    3) Our own individual well-being is often served when we serve others in society, if we take care of our families, our local communities, our state, our nation, our global commons.
    4) A well-rounded education such as the Confucians aimed at would serve us well — if it could be as freed as possible from forms of cultural oppression. We are influenced by our history, our social systems, political systems. We should appreciate poetics and music. It’s good to cultivate an understanding of how our views of these systems fit with a metaphysical vision of some sort (to try to think systemically of how these things fit together). Of course, I think our education needs further components of science missing from Confucius’ worldview.

    Is this Confucian at all? Like I said, maybe Confucius wouldn’t recognize it as such. But some of the general ideas are structurally similar to ideas of Confucianism. I think there is a value in reconstructing ideas of the past to fit with present social understandings.

  5. “What might be left is perhaps a ‘Confucianism’ that Confucius wouldn’t be able to identify as such.”

    In say a more primitive enclave such as the Amish live in, Confucian-type memes are entirely valid. Or used to be. Things change so quickly now perhaps the Amish are high tech.
    Do not grasp at all how high tech and Confucianism could coexist without being completely superficial; take the Catholic Church as an example. A very large church that modernizes by evolving away from itself– the Church remains but its tenets are steadily discarded one by one. Same would go for Confucianism… the Confucian baby would be thrown out but the bathwater would be retained. Confucius would eventually become as outmoded as Mao himself.
    My ongoing point [obsession] is: science is eroding ideals, and idealists do not address the erosion because it is too unpleasant to think about– let alone discuss. If one attended a house of worship meeting and stated “your faith is being dissolved by science”, such would be provocative and futile.
    And not to pick on religion. Telling Libertarians (high case ‘L’) and Marxist-oriented leftists (‘progressives’ is too vague a designation) the same sort of thing doesn’t succeed, either. Like attempting to convince Hindus to be carnivorous. Thus:

    “…Is this Confucian at all?”

    Yes, but possibly no more than Pope Francis’ ideals are Catholic. What does ‘Catholic’ mean? Traditional. So the Pope’s de novo Catholicism is oxymoronic. Permissible yet perhaps absolutely self-defeating in a spiritual sense. As ‘spiritual’ is at this time defined. Confucius was more secular, so his legacy is not as problematic.

    “2) We are linked in a network of relationships, from the family to our community to the state to the nation, the globe, the cosmos. 3) Our own individual well-being is often served when we serve others in society, if we take care of our families, our local communities, our state, our nation, our global commons.”

    Difficulty is the globe/global commons. What to do about the biosphere? Don’t have the foggiest notion.

    “Like I said, maybe Confucius wouldn’t recognize it as such.”

    No maybe about it– Confucius would not recognize it.

    “But some of the general ideas are structurally similar to ideas of Confucianism.”

    Would have to think about this for a long long time.

    “Alan, I’m less skeptical than you that the ideas can still serve us in some way.”

    The ideas can merely for starters educate a West quite ignorant of China and Asia. (Does Asia even think of us as Westerners and they as Easterners? Or are we ‘long-noses’ to Asia?)

    “That said, I may be left some pretty vague principles that are drawn from the school of thought, since I agree that a lot of the concrete ideas of Confucianism will have to be thrown out.”

    Or retained as window-dressing. That is exactly what I think of today’s Abrahamic faiths: ideals not thrown out, but, rather, kept as decoration. We may be agreeing but in different words.

    “Still, I think that a reflection on Confucian philosophy can be valuable for more than an understanding of Chinese history.”

    Agree.
    History + philosophy + religious studies+ Asian psychology + you-name-it.

    “But what about the biosphere?” is maybe the first question Confucius would ask. Confucius might be shocked into a heart attack by the industrialism of 2019. High tech would utterly confuse Confucius; IMO he would go insane trying to wrap his mind around it. If you explained AI to him, he’d run out of the room…

  6. Hope? It naturally depends on a definition of hope. Today anyone can be hopeful about living some sort of decent material life. They know that if they lose their jobs, they can turn to someone or some agency; unless they are unwell, they do with reason hope to live the Good Life materially.
    But ethically and aesthetically? Would have to be a professional philosopher to address the question adequately. What was hope during Confucius’ time is not hope today.
    What was hope 100 years ago is not defined as hope today.
    Or 50 years ago.
    And the hope of even 5 years ago is not the hope of today.
    Sic transit gloria mundi.
    If hopeful people 100 years were transported into our time, they would be sickened merely by what they saw on TV. They would recoil from the violent movies and news broadcasts. Gay TV programs would give them the heaves.
    The outside world might send them into psychoses.
    Fifty years ago, dropping out was a common hope. Today the inverse is more common: drop in and step aboard the gravy train.
    Five years ago? You needn’t be told; you remember the hope back then. But, then, it also depends on age. A young person might consider what unsettles us nowadays to be wonderful– to be taken in stride.

  7. Hi Alan: Sorry that I don’t have time to respond to everything you’ve said.

    But I would say that any living system of thought always undergoes transformation. It continually reconstructs itself. So while I said that Confucius may not recognize my reconstruction as Confucian, I’m not sure he wouldn’t. There are family resemblances, however general.

    But Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Communism, etc. — they all only continue to exist with transformation. The conservatives within the various schools of thought continually find themselves fighting losing battles. And most generally, they are not fighting the original battles. They entrench themselves in a pre understanding about their tradition is that is itself the result of earlier historical developments or that is an imaginative recreation of what the system of thought earlier was.

    Veering from Confucianism to Catholicism, which you mention: the progressive pope could in some respects be a conservative in disguise. If there is any progressive movement on the question of marriage in the priesthood, for example, it would be an approximation of a stance of the early church.

    In any case, if these systems of thought don’t reform themselves and reconstruct themselves in light of new understandings of the world, they can just die — completely. Where they do live on as some useful resource for teaching, especially in light of modern science, they clearly will have to view many of the original stories that were accepted literally to be meaningful narratives to be read metaphorically or for the underlying moral or spiritual teaching.

  8. “So while I said that Confucius may not recognize my reconstruction as Confucian, I’m not sure he wouldn’t. There are family resemblances, however general.”

    Without thinking about it much, a first thought is Confucius would say that humans ought to go extinct, rather than ruin the biosphere. The new mandate from heaven could conceivably be animals and plants inheriting the Earth. Thus in such an admittedly far fetched scheme humanity would die, not heaven. I always keep in mind how though people were physically the same 25 centuries ago, their thinking was quite different, not really translatable to modern interpretations.

    “Hi Alan: Sorry that I don’t have time to respond to everything you’ve said.”

    Understood. When I write a comment, don’t want to think about it for more than a few seconds– otherwise it would take half an hour to write one. Can only write off-the-wall illustrations. Here’s another: Confucius would view a motor vehicle as a monstrosity; belching exhaust, getting into countless accidents: “How could anyone ride in those noisy fiery metal killing machines? You foolish, destructive people deserve to die in them.”

    We moderns think autos are very convenient whereas an ancient might think the opposite. Again, don’t want to project any modern thoughts onto a Chinese man who lived when the majority of humans thought ghosts roamed the Earth. To veer yet again:

    “If there is any progressive movement on the question of marriage in the priesthood, for example, it would be an approximation of a stance of the early church.”

    Fully agree. There could have been female priests in the early church as well.

  9. One more to ‘wrap’ it up. You needn’t reply as there’s little to say about it that has not been said here. We could go on albeit nine comments will suffice.
    Confucianism in and of itself is not outmoded at all. IMO no pre-modern faiths and ideologies are outdated. In a brief comment, can only write how virtue is that which is outdated.
    Teaching Confucianism is valid because China is Confucian. What has changed in China is technologies. For one example, nuclear weapons. Apparently China invented gunpowder– well, now they’ve got a much bigger bang for their renminbi.

    The man in China is loyal to the president (modern emperor);
    the woman is loyal to the man;
    the child is loyal to parents and other elders.
    Not, naturally, as in bygone centuries– yet still loyal. You’ve written all this, in different words. China is Confucian with the 21st century layered on top, as America is its 1789 Constitution with a 21st century veneer on it, as icing is on a cake.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.