Resource Page: Confucian Thought

K’ ung Fu-Tzu, AKA Kongzi. Leadership of the Confucian school centers around its foremost teacher, K'ung Fu-Tzu (kuhng foo-dzuh, 551-479 B.C.). Though not the founder per se, as the transmitter and true embodiment of the Confucian Way, "Kung the Master," the "supreme editor of Chinese culture," is without peer.

There are some similarities between two very influnetial teachers in history, Jesus of Nazareth and Confucius although Confucius preceded Jesus by almost 5 centuries. Both were founders of belief systems that endured for millenia and continue to influence millions today. Moreover, neither man left behind a definitive, self-composed narrative explication of their teachings that lays out their beliefs in a systematic fashion. Instead, all we have are texts, compiled decades, even centuries after their lives were over, which contain statements and ideas they were purported to have articulated. Finally, each belief system associated with these individuals grew to have substantial institutional manfestations--the Confucian bureaucracy and the Catholic and later Protestant churches--that shaped and influenced Chinese and Western culture respectively. If comparisons between these two powerful thinkers and teachers is a subject that interests you, look here, here and here.

Confucius believed that the integrity of a person and their perseverance in answer to a call set the example for followers to emulate. His vision centered on respect children show to their parents (filial piety); the high regard given elders and lawful authority figures (loyalty); and an appreciation for learning, protocol(li or ritual) and ceremony. Confucian practice became the characteristic world view and practice of the Chinese people for over 2,000 years.

Some key figures:
Mencius. Mencius (MEN-shee-uhs, 372-289 B.C.), or Mengzi, systematized Confucius's teaching. Believing in the innate goodness of all people, he popularized the 'five relationships' (father-son, ruler-minister, husband-wife, old-young, friend-friend) concept.

Hsun-Tzu. Hsun-tzu (shuhn-dyuh, 298-238 B.C.), or Xunzi, was another early leader in Confucian philosophy. Thinking all individuals were essentially evil, he promoted the cultivation of ritual as antidote to humankind's depravity. Two of his disciples, Han Fei and Li Ssu, became very prominent scholars in the School of Legalism and the latter the Premier of the Qin/Ch'in dynasty (221-207 BCE) . However, the association of Xunzi's pupils with the Qin dynasty proved in the long term to be disastrous for the place of Xunzi in Confucian history, for the Ch'in dynasty was a dictatorship which suppressed Confucianism and burn its books. During the Sung dynasty Xunzi's thought was declared heterodox, and has since that time been outside of the mainstream Confucian tradition.

Kung te Cheng. Today, Kung te Cheng (b. 1920), a direct descendant of Confucius and resident of Taiwan, is a leading spokesperson for Confucian values.

Sun-tzu (SWUN dyuh). The Sun-tzu is a Chinese classic on military tactics and strategy. It dates from the era 400-320 B.C. The Sun-tzu shows how superior mental attitudes can effect military/political change. Emphasis is on unsettling the enemy’s mind and upsetting his plans.

Confucian Beliesf 
" The fundamental concern of the Confucian tradition is learning to be human."
Reference:: The Sikh Philosophy Network

--Tu Wei-ming (in Our Religions, p. 141).

Three dimensions of the human condition--the self, community, and tradition--are expressed in Confucian spirituality.

Self-cultivation. A healthy body, mind-and-heart alert, pure soul and brilliant spirit, are seen as good for their own sake. This self-transformation draws resources from cultural tradition, a sympathetic society, the energy of nature and power of heaven. Confucius sought dignity for all humankind, a sense of respect for oneself and understanding of the humanity found in all. (See the Lonely Planet Survival Kit--China, p. 64.)

Tu Wei-ming, Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy at Harvard University, identifies three characteristics of the "human rootedness" of Confucian thought.

Cheng 誠 (juhng) designates the state of absolute quiet and inactivity, being sincere, authentic, real. One can be genuinely human without engaging in a flurry of activities.

Shen 神 (shen) signifies spirituality. Crucial Shen concerns are the "heavenly aspect of the soul" and its development.

Chi 気 (jee). Based upon the cumulative effect of self-transformation, Chi, an "originating power, an inward spring of activit, a critical point at which one's direction toward good or evil is set" can be identified and used to further 'flourish the soul.' (Tu Wei-ming in Our Religions, pp. 169-170.)

Community. The community is necessary for this self-transformation to occur. It broadens and deepens the self, expressing the fundamental integration of all segments of our world. Once rooted, the soul contributes to the four visions that identify the classic Confucian vision of the world. The four visions are:

1. ability to respond to the world in a poetic sense

2. social sense of ritual as means for verbal and non-verbal communication within the "human community"

3. historical ability to relate to the collective memory

4. politics as responsive and responsible to the whole community

(See Tu Wei-ming, in Our Religions, p. 195.)

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Tradition. Throughout their shared history spanning millenniums, the people of China valued harmony and mutual consensus rather than conflict and individual exertion. But during Confucius’ life, societal conflict, rather than harmony, was the norm. Believing there had been an earlier period of prosperity and peace in China Confucius advocated a return to the traditions and values of that earlier time. Or, at least, he held up a Golden Age in the past as a model for contemporaries to look to and emulate. "I Follow Zhou," he used to say, a reference to a model ruler known as the Duke of Zhou. These traditions--which maintained peace and social order--became the focus of Confucian thought.

Professor Samuel Huntington describes China’s reliance upon her traditional (Confucian) culture even today. Since the late 1970s, Chinese leadership

"chose a new version of Ti-Yong[Western technology, Eastern values or philosophy]: capitalism and involvement in the world economy, on the one hand, combined with political authoritarianism and recommitment to traditional Chinese culture, on the other." At the end of the superpower competition, China "set two goals: (1) to become the champion of Chinese culture.and (2) to resume its historical position, which it lost in the nineteenth century, as the [supreme] power in East Asia."
(Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, pp. 105, 168.)

Key Confucian Texts
The Five Classics:

1. I-ching (ee-jing-- "Book of Changes")

The complementary and conflicting interactions of Yin and Yang energies describe the universe. Hidden interpretation, technique based on the study of members and ethical insights are all described. Constant self-exertion, inspired by the harmony and creativity of the universe, is necessary for wise persons.

2. Shu-ching (shoo-jing--"Book of History/Documents")

This text compiles historical documents of the ninth to sixth centuries, B.C. It describes the political vision of Confucian thought, outlining an ethical foundation for humane government.

3. Shih-ching (shuhr-jing--"Book of Poetry/Songs")

Common human feelings, expressed in some 300 poems and religious hymns from the early Chou Dynasty (1027-402 B.C.), comprise the Shih-ching.

4. Li chi (lee-jee--"Book of Rites")

Consciousness of duty pervades the ceremonial rituals collected in Li chi. A cooperative society, organized by four principle occupations--scholar, farmer, artisan, merchant--is the ideal.

5. Ch’ un-ch’ iu (chuhn chyoh--"Spring and Autumn Annals")

This text emphasizes history and the significance of the collective memory in individual and societal identification.

The Four Books. Chu Hsi (joo-shee--A.D. 1130-1200) emphasized the Four Books: Ta-hsueh, Chung Yung, Lun Yu, and Meng Tzu. Two chapters, originally from the Li chi, comprise books one and two of the four Books (the Ta-hsueh [great learning] and Chung Yung [Doctrine of the Mean].)

The Lun Yu (luhn yoo--Discussed Sayings) is known to most Western audiences as the Analects (AN ehlekts) or recorded actions and saying of Confucius. Most of the twenty Analects books describe Confucius as he answers questions, discusses issues and lives his beliefs.

The Meng Tzu (mung dzuh) by Mencius (MEN shee ahs) systematized Confucian teaching, advocating study of the Classics, practicing moral disciplines and developing natural ying/yang energies.

Confucian Ethics 
The question, "What is the character of the social life Confucian education should engender?", addresses the ethical center of Confucianism. Historian of world religions, Huston Smith, specifies the following four terms which designate this heart of the Confucian ethical tradition.

Jen (ruhn), chun-tzu (juhn-dyuh), li (lee) and wen alike are ethical/motivational topics, influential in the folk/Confucian tradition of the family, government bureaucracy, and village life especially.

1. Jen 仁 (ruhn). This basic virtue, as outlined in the Analects, signifies benevolence, humaneness and human-heartedness. Cultivating courtesy and unselfishness promotes the dignity of human life wherever it appears. Public displays focus upon diligence, steadfastness, and a magnanimity of heart which pursues a mission, that of redeeming the world through human effort. This sense of mission makes the world safer and more livable, improves the quality of life, and transforms society into a moral community. Jen is not only a humanistic objective, but also a profoundly spiritual goal of Confucian ethics.

2. Chun-tzu 君子 (juhn-dyuh). This term refers to the mature, cultivated, humane person. It is the opposite of petty, mean-spirited individuals. A chun-tzu person aims to live by the highest of ethical standards. He/she seeks to answer, by action and attitude, the question "what can I do to accommodate others?"

3. Li 禮 (lee--ritual, mores, ceremony). Li finds its origin in religious ceremony and rite. Its broader meaning describes the way things are done. Attitude becomes as important as correct conduct. Manners, an order to behavior and family relations, honoring elders, and the concept of the golden mean, all describe Li. The family, still the single most important social institution in imparting ways of learning to be human, is the framework for establishing graceful interactions with others. It is the glue for social solidarity.

4. Filial piety 孝--relations encompassing not only children to their parents but generations to each other--is the underpinning for all other interactions. Cultivation of genuine feelings for parents and siblings--rather than estrangement and alienation between them--is the principle. This family/communal orientation also plays itself out in salvation schemes. Individualistic approaches are frowned upon. Family, society, country or the whole world must be included in such appeals. We see the depths of family devotion in death and grieving practices. After a parent dies, the child (son) may retire from public affairs, simplify living arrangements and devote himself to grieving for as long as three years. Li further expresses itself through the five relationships.




Older and Younger Brothers, and


Kongzi or K'ung Fu Tzu (commonly pronounced Confucius in English) was born in 551 BCE in the state of Lu (modern day Shantung Province). He lived during the Chou dynasty, and era known for its moral laxity. Later in life, he wandered through many states of China, giving advice to their rulers. He accumulated a small band of students during this time. The last years of his life were spent back in Lu, where he devoted himself to teaching.

His writings deal primarily with individual morality and ethics, and the proper exercise of political power by the rulers.

The Analects is a short collection of his discussions with disciples, compiled posthumously. These contain an overview of his teachings. Confucius presents himself as a transmitter who invented nothing and his greatest emphasis may be on study, the Chinese character that opens the book. In this respect, he is seen by Chinese people as the Greatest Master. Far from trying to build a systematic theory of life and society, he wanted his disciples to think deeply for themselves and relentlessly study the outside world. For almost two thousand years, Analects had also been the fundamental course of study for any Chinese scholar, for a man was not considered morally upright or enlightened if he did not study Confucius' works.

In China, and some other areas in Asia, the social ethics and moral teachings of Confucius are blended with the Taoist communion with nature and Buddhist concepts of the afterlife, to form a set of complementary, peacefully co-existent and ecumenical religions.

There are approximately 6 million Confucians in the world. About 26,000 live in North America; almost all of the remainder are found throughout China and the rest of Asia.

Confucian ethical teachings include the following values:

Li (禮): includes ritual, propriety, etiquette, etc. 
Hsiao (愛): love within the family: love of parents for their children and of children for their parents 
Yi (義): righteousness 
Xin (信): honesty and trustworthiness 
Jen (仁): benevolence, humaneness towards others; the highest Confucian virtue 
Chung(忠): loyalty to the state, etc.

These bonds and practices are not only critical to a well-ordered society but provide a training ground for the effective development of a humane, flourishing soul. Critics sometimes describe the "three bonds"-- ruler over minister, father over son and husband over wife--as promoting despotic, autocratic, patriarchal, and male-chauvinistic practice. A Confucian response sees these bonds not as confining or limiting practices. Rather, when seen from a broader perspective, the patterns of social stability, maintenance of the social order, and a world at peace overcome particular frustrations of such hierarchical relations.

Wen refers to the "arts of peace"--music, art, poetry, the aesthetic and spiritual aptitudes. The mark of a cultured person is the knowledge and appreciation of culture, breeding, and grace. The Analects record:

"By poetry the mind is aroused; from music the finish is received. The odes stimulate the mind. They induce self-contemplation. They teach the art of sensibility. They help to restrain resentment. They bring home the duty of serving one's parents and one's prince." (XVIII:9)

Neo-Confucian Practice
The neo-Confucian movement, developed in response to Buddhism, was dominant in East Asia from the twelfth to early twentieth century. It honed and perfected early Confucian thought.

Zhu Xi or Chu Hsi (joo shee, 1130-1200), with his School of Principle, saw a pattern running through all material. By practicing asceticism or moral discipline, followers could ascertain this inner design.

Wang Yang-ming (wahng yahng-ming, 1472-1529), another major neo-Confucianist, established the School of Mind. Innate knowledge, found within the mind, is the basis on which to view humanity, rather than pursuing external patterns.

A Third Wave Confucian movement seeks to explain the current economic revival in East Asia in terms of application of Confucian principles to the post-modern world. This school of thought seeks to outmaneuver competitors, based on superior self-knowledge and knowledge of others.

Harvard professor Tu Wei-ming discusses the impact of Confucian thought on the East Asian economy. After describing the economic growth taking place in East Asia, Dr. Wei-ming discusses the human factor involved in the process:

"What they [East Asian] have shown is that culture matters, that values people cherish or unconsciously uphold provide guidance for their actions, that the motivational structure of people is not only relevant but also crucial to their economic ethics, and that the life-orientation of a society makes a difference in the economic behavior of its people." ("Confucianism," pp. 216, 219, Our Religions.)

The Confucian Tradition. "Traditional Chinese society was male-centered. Sons were preferred to daughters, women were expected to be subordinate to fathers, husbands, and sons. A young woman had little voice in the decision of her marriage partner (neither did a young man). When married, it was she who left her natal family and community and went to live in a family and community of strangers where she was subordinate to her mother-in-law. Far fewer women were educated than men, and sketchy but consistent demographic evidence would seem to show that female infants and children had higher death rates and less chance of surviving to adulthood than males. In extreme cases, female infants were the victims of infanticide, and daughters were sold, as chattels, to brothels or to wealthy families. Bound feet, which were customary even for peasant women, symbolized the painful constraints of the female role." (L. of C. Country Studies: China.).

Author John Hersey, in his novel The Call, elaborates on the practice of foot binding.

"A binder had come on her monthly visit to wash and rebind the feet of a little girl of about eight. The binder unwound wide bandages and finally the ‘golden lilies’ were uncovered.The toes had been relentlessly curled back under the soles.sometimes bones were broken, but they mended while bound. The little girl had been given to believe that she was a person of great importance, to be inspected in this way. She never whimpered, but when the work was done, she sat holding her feet in her hands.When she was fully grown, the binder said, her feet would be very beautiful.she would walk like a willow, the binder said, with seductive mincing as to cause great excitement among all the young men!" (p. 189)

Confucian practice concerning women--delegating their position to that of subservience to men--stems in part from the following nature of its thought.

Yin/yang. Yin and Yang interact harmoniously. As part of this balance, traditionally men were associated with "yang," women with "yin." Yin displays qualities of darkness, cold, death , ghosts, graves and fear--often traits acquiring a negative status. The linkage of the feminine with "yin" seems to color women in this negative light as well. Over the centuries, such thought influenced practice towards them.

Family Filial piety--the relations guiding children with their parents and past generations-- delegated responsibilities and importance to eldest sons. Two of the five relationships--father/son and husband/wife--promote social mores of male superiority. The woman’s status becomes one where she obeys and serves her parents, her husband and husband’s parents, and produces a male heir.

The ideal woman becomes someone who is retiring, silent and fertile. She possesses inner strength and is known for her forbearance and patient sense of restraint. In South Korea, the cumulative effect of the Confucian tradition led Harvard professor Tu Wei-ming to write, the "blatant insensitivity in deprecating gender equality reflects an East Asian mentality with deep Confucian roots." ("Confucianism," in Our Religions, p. 214.)