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Confucius - A Moral Philosopher Who Became a God

Updated on December 18, 2016
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Victor writes about diverse topics dealing with history, literature, and technology.

Confucius
Confucius

10 Life Lessons From Confucius

Confucius's Attitude Towards Religion

How did Confucius, Ancient China's great moral philospher and teacher come to be worshipped as a demigod?

Confucius lived from 551 B.C. - 479 B.C., in China. Confucius is the name given to him by Europeans; to the Chinese he is known as Kong Fuzi or Kong Zi or Master Kong. Although Confucius concerned himself mainly with righteous conduct in personal and public affairs, and did not preach any doctrine concerning the divine or the after life, after his death Confucius became venerated and worshiped as a great benefactor of mankind. His doctrines, as collected and expounded by his disciples, especially Mencius, shaped the moral and social code of China. Over the course of time, Confucianism became the state religion of the Chinese empire. Confucius himself became an object of worship and temples were dedicated to him and to his disciples throughout the Empire.

Even today, many people venerate Confucius as a god or demigod. This is paradoxical because Confucius himself never claimed to be divine, nor did he concern himself very much with the supernatural. His teachings acknowledge the existence of a spirit world, but refer to it as distant and unknowable. Confucius said: "Respect the spirits, but keep them at a distance."

Confucius's attitude towards the supernatural is also evident in the historical chronicles of the State of Lu, which Confucius compiled. The chronicles describe the country's history over a considerable period, from B.C. 722 to B.C. 484, but notably there is no mention of any sort of divine intervention in human affairs, even though a variety of natural phenomena are recorded, such as have usually been considered by ancient peoples to be evidence of either divine vengeance or mercy, depending on the circumstances and the views of the priesthood. The word "god" is never used in these history books apart from in association with the word "King," and should be understood as meaning "by the grace of God," and on one occasion the ruler is described by the common and largely formulaic honorific, "the Son of Heaven."


Confucius and His Disciples
Confucius and His Disciples

Superstition in the time of Confucius

Once, when his life was threatened by the people of K'uang, Confucius stated:

"After the death of King Wen, was not wisdom lodged in me? If God were to destroy this wisdom, future generations could not possess it. So long as God does not destroy this wisdom, what can the people of K'uang do to me?"

On another occasion Confucius states

"Alas! there is no one that knows me," and a disciple asked what was meant, he replied, "I do not murmur against God. I do not mumble against man. My studies lie low, and my penetration lies high. But there is God; He knows me."

The fact that Confucius did not attach religious or supernatural meaning to any historical events or phenomena suggests that Confucius himself was free from many of the superstitions that were prevalent in China at the time. For example, during the same period described by Confucius in his history it is recorded by other writers that there was a great drought. The Duke of Lu determined to sacrifice a witch and a man in the last phases of consumption. In accordance with the barbaric beliefs of the time, the witch was to be burned alive (a practice which was also common in Europe as the 1700s) while the consumptive (someone suffering from tuberculosis) was to be exposed to the scorching heat of the sun in he belief that God would have pity and send rain.

In fact, it appears that human sacrifice was fairly common. For example, it became customary to bury the living to accompany the dead in the afterlife. When the "First Emperor" died in B.C. 210, all those among his wives who had not borne children were buried alive along with him.


This is not to say that Confucius himself had no religious beliefs. We know that Confucius fasted, and we know that "he sacrificed to the spirits as though the spirits were present." In fact, there is some indication that Confucius regarded himself as a prophet of God, although Confucius's teachings did not aim to reveal the nature of that god.

Confucianism Becomes a Religion and Confucius Begins to be Worshipped

However, Confucius for the most part focused on being a moral, and not a religious teacher. To Confucius, the spirit world and god existed, but they were not known. He did not preach personal salvation in the afterlife; his aim was to restore social harmony, to save the collective state by ensuring that each person knew his role and function within the hierarchy of society.

Despite the fact that Confucius did not fulfill a religious mission, he came to be worshipped as a god after his death.

Confucius was first worshiped immediately after his death, when the ruler of Confucius' native State of Lu constructed a temple to commemorate Confucius. Sacrifices were offered to Confucius at the four seasons.

This early worship of Confucius did not take root at first and it appears to have mostly died out by the 3rd century B.C.

However the worship of Confucius was revived until 195 B.C. by the first Emperor of the Han dynasty, who sacrificed animals at the grave of Confucius in Shantung. Fifty years later a temple was built to Confucius at his birthplace; and in A.D. 72 his seventy-two disciples also began to be worshiped. From then on, the worship of Confucius became widespread and was accepted by the people in general. We know, by virtue of an imperial decree attempting to forbid the practice, that in 472 A.D. it was customary for women to pray to Confucius for children. By 555 A.D. Confucius and his teachings had become the basis for an imperial religion (which in some ways served the same unifying purpose as Christianity served in the later Roman Empire), the Emperor caused temples to be built in all of the prefectural cities, and later in every significant city and town of the empire.

Thus Confucius passed from being a moral teacher, to being a deity receiving the worship and sacrifice of millions of Chinese. Confucius, in his role as demigod, became inextricably entwined with the culture and ethos of the Chinese people; he did not lose his supremacy until the Communist revolution overthrew the old social order. However even today Confucius remains the centre of an important religion not only within China but in many other countries, particularly Korea and Japan.

Sacrifices Are Offered to Confucius After His Death
Sacrifices Are Offered to Confucius After His Death

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    • davidkaluge profile image

      davidkaluge 5 years ago

      I think you did well to follow the story of Confucius and I understand that the concern here is why people worship him as a God or demigod. Part of Confucius story claimed that at a stage in his life he searched for a king that would implement his teachings but found none so it was after his death that his teachings were well accepted by many. That simply showed that he got what he wanted and worked for when he was alive. He was patient when things did not work out he remained in lower office while his disciples were in higher offices. It means that he reaped what he sowed. It was said that he lived a life worthy to be emulated. He may not had boost to be God, or son of God, or prophet of God or anything like other religious founders claimed but that does not mean that he was nothing. This is because it is known by those that know that some people choose to live a secret and relatively unknown life even when they are the greatest. Consequently, Confucius is not different from other religious founders that people worship simply because they claim to be God or son of God or prophet of God. However, the point still remains that may be wrong for men to worship any man that once lived as a God no matter the claim made by such. However, they can be respected for the attainment and the life they lived. Lastly, people have the right to choose who or what to worship that is why some people worship objects and other idols which man is even higher yet they do it because they belief in it and it works for them that is the most important thing to such people.

    • vrajavala profile image

      vrajavala 6 years ago from Port St. Lucie

      interesting history. Is it possible there might be some difficulties in the translation