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Updated on October 5, 2015

Is Confucianism a religion?

Confucianism is a way of life based on the life and sayings of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, who was born about 551 B.C.E. in North China. From the first century BCE up until the beginnings of this century, Confucianism was the most significant influence in Chinese life. Education, government and attitudes about correct behavior and one's duty to society all were affected by Confucianism.

Some would not consider Confucianism a religion, since there is no structured institution or clerical system. There is no worship of a god nor any teaching about a life after death. It could be argued that more correctly it is a guide to morality and good government.

Who is Confucius?

Confucius (K'ung-Fu-tzu) was born in the small State of Lu to a minor aristocratic family. His father died when he was three and he was brought up by his mother. He was fortunate to receive an education something reserved for the elite.

He lived in a time of great conflict and continual civil wars. He believed that a peaceful solution to the turmoil could come through the practice of veneration of one's ancestors and respect for one's elders. Education was seen as a means of producing virtuous and trustworthy people able to govern for the good of all.

Confucius believed that a good ruler was one who was correct, sincere and humane and saw that public rites and ceremonies were carried out properly. This would be a way of instilling right behaviour and loyal service in others. Through such good ruling people would come to emulate the virtues they saw in those governing them.

After his studies Confucius came back to this home city of Qufu in the state of Lu and took up a job as a teacher. Later he worked as a judge and then as the chief minister of the State of Lu.

When he was nineteen years of age he married a woman of similar background to his own. Not much else is known about her. They apparently had a son and a daughter.

Confucius did not much like the way the Duke of Lu was running the affairs in his town. So he left his job and his town at the age of 50 and during the 13 years Confucius went from town to town with a few students advising the rulers how to be a better at their jobs.

He returned to the State of Lu later and die at the age of 73.

Confucian beliefs

Confucius believed that the way to live a better life was to respect other people and honour the memory of your ancestors. He taught five virtues which people should follow: kindness, righteousness, sobriety, wisdom and trustworthiness.

Confucians also believe in Jen which is the principle showing courtesy and loyalty to other people at all times. This is because Confucius taught that a person's own well-being depended directly on the well-being of others. His teaching influenced Chinese society so much that right up to the beginning of this century.

The Four Books of Confucianism

  • The Great Learning : a chapter in the Classic Rites and an introduction to Confucianism.
  • The Doctrine of the Mean; a chapter in the Classic of Rites supposedly written by Kong Ji, the grandson of Confucius.
  • The Analects of Confucius: a book of sayings by Confucius said to be recorded by his followers.
  • The Mencius: a book of discussion between the famous Confucian, Mencius and the kings of his time.

The ideas of Confucius were not accepted during his lifetime. In fact Confucianism did not find many followers until the Han dynasty. Even then, followers did not have direct access to his ideas, as most of his books were destroyed during the Book burning movement of the Qin Dynasty.

Shi Huangdi, the founder of the Qin dynasty ordered the burning of books so that his people would not have enough knowledge to question his rule.

The Analects of Confucius is the only existing document that contains the actual words spoken by the great philosopher. Everything else is an interpretation by later followers.

Confucian Literature

The most important Confucian literature comprises of two sets of books. The major one is the Five Classics. While Confucius may not have personally write them he certainly was associated with them. The five classics contain five visions:

  • I Ching (Classic of Changes)
  • Shu Ching (Classic of History)
  • Shih Ching (Classic of Poetry)
  • LiChi (Collection of Rituals)
  • Ch'un-ch'iu (Spring and Autumn -Annals)

Chinese civil service exams were based on the thoughts of Confucius. Chinese students studying for civil service examinations between 1313 and 1905, they were required to study the Five classics.

In the 11th century there was a revival of Confucianism, known as Neo-Confucianism. Its aim was to strengthen the civil service. A sensible and effective system of administering the huge empire was put intopractice. Confucianism became the official religion and again had much influence on the education and government systems.

The opening of China to the West in the 19th century was to weaken the influence of Confucianism had on the people especially the young, as a result Confucianism was abandoned. The years that followed were torn by civil wars with Communism eventually taking over.

Rituals worship and customs

As Confucianism does not have all the elements of a religion and is primarily an ethical movement, it lacks sacraments and liturgy.

However the rituals that occur at important times in a person's life became part of the movement. Confucianism recognizes and regulates four life pasages: birth, reaching maturity, marriage and death.

The root is the ritual of respect, a person must exhibit respect to gain respect. Confucians consider the family and family values to be very important. Children are taught to respect their parents and elders and to obey their wishes. Confucians worship their ancestors in temples or at altars in their homes.

After Confucius death in 479 BCE his followers built temples in his honor.

Confucius is remebered for his wise sayings, he became interested in finding the best way to behave and live in this world.

Here is a collection of quotes that will guide, encourage and help us in our daily life from a wise man


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    • profile image

      Cali_Girl 6 years ago

      Hey thanks! this helped greatly for my assignment.

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      rowelie 6 years ago

      .s0 very interesting!!

    • profile image

      RAWR 7 years ago

      I needed information for a project and this was REALLY helpful. Especially when u said "Confucians". I was trying to figure out if the followers had a name! THANKS!

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      aika 7 years ago

      very interesting.. i need this to my assignment, and thanks for that info. :)

    • Haute Coco profile image

      Haute Coco 8 years ago from Georgia, USA

      great hub! it really helped me to finish my daughter's school project. very informative!

    • profile image

      lily420 8 years ago

      i wanted to know, what "confucius was born into family of minor _______? and grew to be a respectful son."

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      chibi tang 9 years ago

      thnxs for the info i needed it f0r a project that was due!

    • Moon Daisy profile image

      Moon Daisy 9 years ago from London

      A very interesting hub.  I love learning about different religions and beliefs and I enjoyed reading this.


    • Woody Marx profile image

      Woody Marx 10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This was very informative!

    • LisaG profile image

      Lisakg 10 years ago from Caribbean

      Very Interesting. You know I did not know the correct pronounciation of his name? You live and learn. Thanks MM Del Rosario.