Confucius laid down a pattern of thinking followed by more people for more generations than any other human being on the face of the earth. No matter what the dominant religion, no matter what the form of government, the Chinese (and most other East Asian civilizations) and their way of thinking can in some way be shown to have Confucian elements about them. Interestingly, Confucius was not a religious leader. Nor did he claim any special divine status (nor do his followers believe him to be a "god"). Unlike most religions, Confucianism is primarily an ethical system to guide daily behavior with additional rituals at important times during one's lifetime. The most important periods recognized in the Confucian tradition are birth, reaching maturity, marriage, and death.

"It is not the failure of others to appreciate your abilities that should trouble you, but rather your own lack of them." wrote the Confucius in the 5th century BCE

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Confucianism is a belief and philosophy rather than religion.

Religion = belief in and worship of a God or gods; a particular system of faith and worship

Philosophy = A belief (or system of beliefs) accepted as authoritative by some group or school; any personal belief about how to live or how to deal with situation

Of course there are some similarities between these ...


History of Confucius

Confucius was a humble man whose ideas only gained power hundreds of years after his death. But like many important people in history, subsequent generations go back and give him mythic status. For example, legends say that when his mother was pregnant with Confucius, she dreamed a unicorn gave her a jade tablet with the inscription that her son would be "like a king."

Confucius was born in 551 BCE in state of Lu, located in Eastern China. His ancestors had been part of the nobility but over time his family had become quite poor. His father died when he was three years old, leaving him to be raised by his mother. Confucius received a good education and proved to be a fast, eager learner.

He lived during the Zhou dynasty in China (1122-221 BCE). This long-lived dynasty was failing during his lifetime and proved unable to protect the society from warlords and civil unrest. Confucius, as a scholar, looked to earlier parts of the Zhou dynasty for examples of better leadership when the people were spared such hardship. He also studied six ancient arts from this early period: rituals, music, how to shoot a bow and arrow, calligraphy, arithmetic and how to drive a chariot. He excelled in them all and became a highly regarded and sought after teacher.

He served in government for the dynasty but despite his hard work and talent, corruption prevented him from attaining success. He began to feel that service was the duty of the educated, that education should be available to all with ability, and that corruption drained energy from the growth of the state.

Confucius may have taught over 3000 people in his lifetime, but his ideas were never adopted during the Zhou dynasty. We have many accounts of his teaching and all his students praise his natural talent for brilliant teaching. These students recorded these teachings which are known as The Analects. The Analects provide the guiding text for Confucian believers. And indeed, over time his teachings dominated the belief system in China. The Confucian method defines Chinese learning to the present day providing the fundamental tenet: the perfectibility of human beings through learning. Here is a reproduction of Confucius teaching.


During the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), the rulers felt that Confucius' teaching of respect and tradition (by this point several hundred years old) would benefit their attempts to consolidate their rule. They adopted it as "orthodoxy." Orthodoxy, literally the "right belief," meant that the government used the teachings of Confucius to unify their realm as they sought control and consolidation of a large realm.

The following are two maps of the Zhou and Han dynasties in China. You can see the dysnatic ambitions as well as the fear of outsiders:

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Confucius was not particularly spiritual and focused on living life well as an end in itself rather than as a means to a better afterlife. For Confucius life and living a life of service should be one's central concern. He once told a student interested in spirituality: "You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?"

To live a grounded, well-directed life, Confucius advocated cultivating the Five Basic Confucian values:


Five Basic Values
  • Benevolence/Humanity (jen)
  • righteousness
  • propriety (li) (rituals/code of behavior)
  • wisdom
  • trustworthiness


Confucius had one overwhelming message: if we are to achieve a state of orderliness and peace, we need to return to traditional values of virtue. These values are based entirely on one concept: jen. Confucius believed that human nature is basically good. However, he also believed that this goodness needs to be nurtured and cultivated and the best way to do so is through education. According to Confucius: "unending strength, resoluteness, simplicity and reticence are close to benevolence" which is attainable through self-cultivation, education and performance of the li or rituals/code of behavior (see above).



Human Harmony <=> Heavenly Harmony

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While Confucius was primarily concerned with the here and now, he also sought to understand the heavens and their relation to man's life. He in fact believed that they reinforced one another. Confucius believed that the human order in some way reflected the divine order, or the patterns of heaven. So achieving harmony in human relationships would mirror the harmony of heaven. Therefore, people should cultivate the 5 virtues and practice them in the 5 relationships.

In all relationships, li (duty, responsibility, propriety) requires duty from the superior to the inferior. And in return, respect and obedience are required from the inferior.

Here are the five basic relationships:
  • parent and child (filial piety)
  • ruler and ruled (mandate of Heaven)
  • husband and wife
  • elder sibling to younger sibling
  • friend to friend

Heavenly Mandate

Palace of Heaven

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The five relationships created a set hierarchy for all human interaction. Confucius grounded these daily activities within an historical pattern. Confucius felt the ancients understood the order and hierarchy of heaven and earth and that present generations should return to this era of learning and refinement. As a result, Confucius established the Chinese past as an infallible model for the present.

For Confucius, every person has a set place in society and each place in society has a set of norms for behavior. Going against these norms creates disorder and chaos.

What is incumbent on individual people is to determine the right pattern to live and govern by. To learn the ancient wisdom, students should examine the sage-kings and their mode of life and government. This examination would illuminate the correct behavior (li) allowing for daily behavior to mimic heavenly relations. Therefore, following rituals scrupulously prescribed for the conduct of everyday life.

These ideas of hierarchy and harmony created political justification for dynastic rule under the Mandate of Heaven.

The Mandate of Heaven creates a circular argument that essentially believes that success and peace arises from heavenly blessing while heavenly blessing grows out of success and peace. (See above Mandate of Heaven)

The Five Classics is a corpus of five ancient Chinese books used by Confucianism as the basis of studies. According to tradition, they were compiled or edited by Confucius himself.
  • The Classic of Changes or I Chi, a manual of divination based on the eight trigrams attributed to the mythical emperor Fu Xi. (By Confucius' time these eight trigrams had been multiplied to sixty-four hexagrams.) The I Ching is still used by adherents of folk religion.
  • The Classic of Poetry or The Book of Odes made up of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs; 74 minor festal songs, traditionally sung at court festivities; 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies; and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house. This book is traditionally credited as a compilation from Confucius.
  • The Classic of Rites social forms and ceremonies (also spelled Liki), a restoration of the original Lijing, lost in the third century B.C., describes ancient rites and court ceremonies.
    The Classic of History is a collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It contains examples of early Chinese prose.
  • The Spring and Autumn Annals is a historical record of the state of Lu, Confucius' native state, from 722 B.C. to 479 B.C. written (or edited) by Confucius, with implied condemnation of usurpations, murder, incest, etc.
  • The Classic of Music was sometime referred to as the sixth classic, but was lost by the time of the Han dynasty.

Chinese Culture: Music and Dance

Neglecting ritual, or doing rituals incorrectly, demonstrated a moral anarchy or disorder of the most egregious kind. These heavenly patterns were also inscribed in the patterns of music and dance, yüeh, so that order in this life could be attained by understanding and practicing the order of traditional and solemn music and dance. Music and dance were central in the Confucian writings. Why? Because in Confucius' eyes, traditional music and dance perfectly embody the humaneness and wisdom of their composers, who understood perfectly the order of the world and heaven; one can create within oneself this wisdom by properly performing this music and dance

Confucius Through the Ages:


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After Confucius' death, Mencius, his student carried on the tradition.


One cannot discuss Confucianism without at least mentioning the man the Chinese call "The Second Sage," Meng Tzu, or, in Latinized form, Mencius (372-289 B.C.) To Confucius' concept of jen, Mencius added the concept of i : "righteousness," or "duty."

Mencius several times throughout Chinese history has been regarded as a potentially "dangerous" author, leading at times to outright banning of his book. This is because Mencius developed a very early form of what was to be called in modern times the "social contract." Mencius, like Confucius, believed that rulers were divinely placed in order to guarantee peace and order among the people they rule. Unlike Confucius, Mencius believed that if a ruler failed to bring peace and order about, then the people could be absolved of all loyalty to that ruler and could, if they felt strongly enough about the matter, revolt.

Mencius' beliefs gave the people an active role in the Heavenly Mandate. They could do Heaven's bidding by deposing a ruler who had neglected his duties thus revolking his Heavenly Mandate.

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Waka Takahashi Brown, "Religions and Philosophies in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism," SPICE (Stanford: 2002)