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What is Confucianism?

Updated on August 24, 2010

Who was Confucius?

Confucius, or K'ung Fu-tzu (550-479 B.C.) taught that if people would treat each other as they would like to be treated themselves, everybody would be happier. For more than two thousand years, his teaching was the state religion of China.

He founded a school where he taught his beliefs, but what he really wanted to do was become an adviser to a prince, for he believed that with the example of a good ruler, people would themselves become good. When he was made governor of the town of Chung-tu, he put his theory into practice, and people did in fact treat each other with greater courtesy and honesty. Confucius lived to be an old man. He wrote little himself, but he was always surrounded by his pupils, and it is through their writings that we know of his sayings.

Confucianism is the ethical and social system based on the teachings of Confucius and his followers. Its ideals have been central to the culture of China for more than 2,000 years.

Confucianism, like Taoism, developed in reaction to the social disruption caused by civil wars among small feudal states in the Warring States period from the 5th to the 3d century B.C. Also like Taoism, it began as an ethical philosophy seeking peace and harmony but gradually became mixed with older Chinese traditions to form a religion. Both Confucianism and Taoism saw the natural goodness of man as providing the basic cure for the ills of society. Confucianism, however, taught that such goodness should be encouraged by elaborate social etiquette, conscientious fulfillment of official duties within a centralized government, and formal study of the wisdom of the past, in contrast to Taoism's appeal to the emotional and contemplative qualities of the solitary individual.

Confucianism stresses five fundamental relationships between people: (1) ruler and subject; (2) parent and child; (3) husband and wife; (4) brother and brother; and (5) friend and friend. The two most important virtues for properly maintaining these relationships are it, which may be described as propriety or etiquette, and jen, which is love or compassion. In family relationships, for example, li and jen require that parents and children live in an orderly harmony based on mutual courtesy and kindness. Confucianists teach that as long as these virtues are applied in the proper manner in each of the five relationships, a stable and happy society will result. A basic standard of behavior is the Golden Rule of Confucius: "What you would not have done to you, do not do to another."

Confucianists believe that political reform must begin at the top of society, with rulers who set a good example for their people. Confucianists claim that good laws are not sufficient, because unrighteous men will always pervert them to their own advantage.

The most important Confucian writings are the two collections called the Five Classics and the Four Books. In the Five Classics many historical records, rituals, and revered poems of ancient China have been preserved. One of these, the Spring and Autumn Annals, is the only work that most scholars agree was written by Confucius himself. The Four Books set forth the moral and religious doctrines of Confucianism in its early writings. These are believed to have been composed by followers of Confucius.

Confucianism began to gain strength shortly after the death of Confucius in 479 B.C. His greatest follower was Mencius, who lived about a hundred years later. Mencius emphasized the rights of the people in relation to their rulers. He saw the importance of economic advance in the moral improvement of social life and advocated such policies as conservation of natural resources and use of more efficient farming methods.

Under the Han emperor Wu Ti in the 2nd century B.C., Confucianism was adopted by the state as a means of unifying the people. Laws were based on Confucian principles, and candidates for government offices were required to pass state examinations in the Confucian classics. Confucius was worshiped along with Heaven, Earth, the emperor, and ancestors. The Confucian system dominated China until the early 20th century and deeply influenced Korea and Japan.


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