Resource Page: Confucian Thought

The man, Master K’ ung Fu-Tzu, or Kongzi (551-479 B.C.E.), is probably “the most influential thinker in human history, if influence is determined by the sheer number of people who have lived their lives, and died, in accordance with the thinker’s vision of how people ought to live, and die.”(Ames and Rosemont: 1)  He stands as one of the early great teachers in history.  Though he founded his own school or academy, he claimed that he was more of a transmitter than an innovator (“I do not forge new paths.”), but he changed the way ancient Chinese approached learning and governing, and as the "supreme editor of Chinese culture," he is without peer.

He himself did not bequeath any written materials to us, there are no books authored directly by him, no systematic exposition of his ideas.  But after his death, over the next three centuries, his students and followers compiled several booklets of the things they remembered him saying.  Called theAnalects, the oldest parts (Books 4-8) were probably extant by 150 BCE (some 300 years after his death) and were compiled by the disciples who actually knew and worked closely with Confucius.  Books 9-11 may be the work of the followers of his immediate disciples.

Confucian Teachings: Video

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.

Practicality; here and now shied away from for absolute questions like the Afterlife. "If we don't know about Life, How can we Know about Death?" Meaning we had better concentrate on learning what is at hand, what we can get better at: harmonious relations among people.



Ren 仁 or Goodness/Humanity or "Authoritative conduct"; and Li , Rites/Ritual or "Observing Ritual Propriety"can be seen as the two core principles of the Confucian Teachings: They interact dynamically

--Li requires Discipline, steady but serious practice, attention to detail, correctly following steps in a process, complying with the outward Forms v.

--Ren which is more about manifesting or emanating an vibe, an "authority," an energy or power that is released by the practice of human and humane actions; it is about serving and taking care of others.

Li without Ren would be empty or meaningless; by the same token, Ren that does not emerge from proper conduct of Li would not be true Humaneness so it would lack the Authority which IS Ren; i.e., that which resides at the very Core of Ren.

For more mey terms or vocabulary, see the "Chinese Lexicon" page here.

Ren: (1:12 mins)

and 3rd, Li, Respect for Ritual: (2:37)


Also very important are:

Xiao Filial Piety () and shu Reciprocity ()

Key Confucian Texts: The Six Classicsh


1. Yijing 易經 I-Ching or ("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-jing 書經 ("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. Shi-jing 詩經 ("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 Ji 禮記 ("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. It is said that. "The Book of Rites mainly records and explains the etiquette code of Pre-Qin period .It takes the etiquette and music as the core, involving many aspects, such as politics, laws, morality, philosophy, history, sacrifice, art, daily life, calendars, and geography and so on. Therefore, it is the concentrated display of the politics, philosophies and ethic ideas of the Confucian in Pre-Qin time. The Book of Rites elaborates many profound ideas on study, education, life, metal and physical cultivation which are still inspiring and thought-provoking to the modern people.

Written in prose with concise but vivid language, some articles of The Book of Rites are of high literature value. Some essays adopt short but vivid stories to illustrate truths, some are well-structured; some inscribe profound thoughts into simple narration; some is good at psychological depiction. In addition, the book also collects a great number of incisive and profound philosophic proverbs and apothegms." (

5. Chunqiu 春秋 ("Spring and Autumn Annals")

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

6. 樂經 ("Book of Music") Lost

The Four Books. Xuzi (-A.D. 1130-1200) emphasized the Four Books: DaXue (大學), Zhong Yong (中庸), Lun Yu (論語), and Mengzi. Two chapters, originally from the Li chi, comprise books one and two of the four Books (the Daxue [great learning] and Chung Yung [Doctrine of the Mean].)

The Analects or Lun Yu (論語, Edited Conversations) is known to most Western audiences as the Analects 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 Mengzi by Mencius 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 five terms which designate this heart of the Confucian ethical tradition.

Key Confucian Terms and Concepts:

Ren, Junzi, Li, Zhi and Yi alike are ethical/motivational topics, influential in the folk/Confucian tradition of the family, government bureaucracy, and village life especially.

1. Ren 仁. Is a most central Confucian concept. It occurs over 100 times in the Analects, and in most translations, it is usually rendered as “benevolence, goodness, humanity, humaneness and even human-heartedness,”  but there is a good case made by Ames and Rosement in their translation that "authoriative conduct" is a good way to think of Ren. The character signifying ren is 仁 is a simple one made up, probably, of two other characters: the symbol for person (人) and the character for the number 2 (二) suggesting that one does not become a fully realized being by oneself; one must be in community with others.  To quote Herbert Fingarette, “For Confucius, unless there are at least two human beings, there can be no human beings.” (217)

But another theory is that the 二 is not the number two but a variant of shang, 上, which means "above," implying that the person who achieves 仁 is in the process of becoming a fully realized “authoritative” human being who functions at a high level, well above the norm.  Arriving at 仁 then is not an essential endowed potential, but something that can only be achieved by study and practice.  A person who achieves it embodies the customs and values of tradition going back to 900 BCE and this is what gives them their gravitas or authority.  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. Ren 仁 is not only a humanistic objective, but also a profoundly spiritual goal of Confucian ethics. The “authoritative person” is a road-builder, a participant in “authoring” the culture for an ever-changing time and place. 

2. The other key concept which works dynamically in relationship to ren 仁 is Li 禮 (Ritual Consciousness, Norms of propriety, appropriate (ritual) behavior, ritualized roles and responsibilities, ritual propriety). The ideograph showing an altar and relating to sacrifices to the spirits, suggests a role of properly serving the spirits of one’s ancestors.  So Li 禮 clearly means “observing ritual propriety,” not just formal rituals but in the grammar of everyday social relations: speech, comportment, conduct, a cheerful heart, bounce in one’s step, grace and smoothness of movement, the goodwill with which one carries out one’s responsibilities. It is part of how one realizes and becomes ren 仁. So, if Li finds its origin in religious ceremony and rite, its broader meaning describes the way things are done properly and appropriately. 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.
“Ritual” in English cannot help but be a pejorative word: it suggests things that hollow and meaningless; social conventions that have ossified.  Things that are rigid and confining that we want to break away from!  But in ancient China it was an important Li performative act. In its most basic form, it is how one showed respect to ancenstors asnd spirits; but in doing so, it could be how one displayed one’s refinement and self-cultivation. Yes, it entails discipline, attention to detail, study of the Rituals described in the ancient Book of Li.  It also involved command of oneself in social situations where one appears calm and composed, graceful and refined in one’s personhood.  Perhaps it is the occasion when one is showing the community that one is accomplished and authoritative, a person who has achieved ren  (仁).  It demonstrates the degree to which one has been on the path, the road to self-development, the Dao, and how far one has traversed along this path of personal development. 

Dao, is so often taken as a noun meaning Way but it really contains elements of the verb to lead, to direct a river into its proper channel. To realize the Dao, —a term that occurs some 80 times in the Analects—is to experience, to interpret, and to influence the world in such a way as to reinforce and extend the way of life inherited from one’s cultural predecessors. Constantly returning to li, Confucius says, is the way to achieve ren (to become authoritative, to have consummate virtue). When asked for specifics, he replied, "Do not look in a way which is not li, do not listen in a way that is not li, do not speak in a way that is not li, do not move in a way that is not li" (Analects 12.1). Confucius is suggesting that one should, in all circumstances, act with the attention and care characteristic of the performance of a sacred rite.

3. Li and Ren interact dynamically in a way that makes self-realization possible. One needs both aspects: one must be disciplined, know all the ins and outs of Li, one must have studied hard and learned from the ancients the correct way of doing things, of conducting oneself.  Once one has mastered difficult written materials, and internalized their teachings, one knows how to comport oneself at all times and in all places.  In order to do this, one must study the ancient texts carefully and with great attention, in effect, learning how to compose and center oneself through the act of serious and sober study.  This is how we train ourselves on the inside, how we prepare ourselves mentally, physically and spiritually. 

Ren is what we are able to manifest, to show everyone, and it is the results of our difficult and serious training.  One is now a realized and ‘authoritative” person, often called a junzi 君子, literally the equivalent to a “son-of-an aristocrat or of a Prince or other Noble,” but usually rendered in English translation as a "Noble Person," or a "Superior Person," but we like Exemplary Person, too. etc. This term refers to the mature, cultivated, humane or fully realized person. It is the opposite of a petty person, somone who thinks in money terms all the time, one who thinks about Profit (利) first. This is why the Merchant was not always highly-esteemed in classical China. How could they be? They are, small-minded peeple, literally 小人, someone who is clearly not a serious follower of the Way, the Dao.  A junzi 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?" (6:30)

Long before Confucius’ time, terms like shi 士 were employed which originally designated a knight and is one the Japanese adopted to signify a samurai; but it had come to mean a “scholar apprentice,” someone who was beginning their journey.  The renren 仁人 was the accomplished our authoritative person, while the junzi 君子 was more of an “exemplary person.” The highest category of person to which Confucius alludes is the sage or the shengren 聖人.  These would be very rare; Confucius denied that he was a Sage. The shi 士 strives to become an “exemplary person,” a junzi 君子, but the Sage, the shengren 聖人, is the next level up: he is a virtuoso of communication, of listening, speaking, presenting ideas that define the essence of being human and humane, but also demonstrate cosmic-level authority.  They don’t have to think about it, they just know, feel and act intuitively—they are fully integrated and realized human beings.  They represent the highest to which human beings can aspire.  They have traveled the same road as the shi 士and the junzi 君子—but they have gone farther, longer and deeper, and have overcome greater obstacles.  Perhaps Jesus attained this level of Sagehood.

4. Xiao (孝), or filial piety, is an important component of Confucius' overall vision of societal harmony. Because his main concern was achieving harmony in life at the social and political levels, he focused on proper social relations, as well as the moral cultivation of leaders and governors to achieve this vision. Governors were to be highly cultivated people of jen and li so they were "authoritative persons" who were ritually conscious of appropriateness in all their conduct. Filial piety is the expression of this parental care for those lower in the hierarchy, as well as for the respect those on the lower side pay for those "above" them in the hierarchy. Filial piety was an ancient concept tied to the worship of deceased ancestors that Confucius revived and broadened to apply to fundamental relations in society. In essence, he brought a sense of religious reverence or piety to the relationships of everyday life.

Xiao refers to the important dimension of social relations, and the proper ordering of all relationships in the social hierarchy. Confucius called for the reinstitution of what he called the Five Relations that are central to all society. These relations are:

- ruler and subject
- husband and wife
- father and son
- elder brother and younger brother
- older friend and younger friend

Each of these relations includes a hierarchy in which one submits to the other: people to the ruler, wife to the husband, son to the father and so on. However, also assumed in these relations is the proper moral character of the person to whom the other is submitting - the ruler, husband, father - such that everything they do or ask in relation to the one submitting to them is in the latter's best interest, or in the interest of society as a whole. In other words, rulers demand from the people only what is good for the people and for society as a whole. Parents demand from the children what is good for the children as well as for the family as a whole, which itself is good for society.

5. Yi () Righteousness, Uprightness, appropriate conduct, a sense of appropriateness. Some would even say “morality” but not in a stiff or rigid sense.  Rather it is doing what is appropriate or fitting; it is the Attitude, the Stance one takes; it is how one holds oneself and conducts oneself not only in aesthetic or moral situations, but also in religious and social conduct. It means being true to one’s word or Xin which literally depicts a person “standing by” or making good on one’s words, or speech. 

6. Zhi () Knowledge of what is right and wrong; what is Moral and Fair. To "know" is to follow out a learned system of naming and evaluating, to be guided by a learned process of construing that we are taught when we learn a language.  It is literally to “realize” or to make real that which is known.

7. We should not fail to mention the concept of De often translated as Virtue or Power but it can also be thought of as “efficacy” or “excellence” in terms of becoming one’s own person.  One who accomplishes this exercises an unspoken “charismatic” power over others—they flock to a junzi 君子 or a renren仁人 precisely because they manifest something clear and distinct: a radiance, an energy, a compelling “authoritativeness” that attracts others to them by their example, and by their sheer “presence.” We want to follow and or be like that kind of person.  It is said that Jesus had this capability of looking at the people he selected to follow him and calling them out.  They dropped whatever they were doing and came to him.  The great classical Daoist text, the Daodejing, juxtaposed these two characters:  the Dao and the De pointing to something like a “Pathway to Realizing Excellence and Charismatic Power in One’s Being.”  But nobody calls ii that.  It is usually glossed as something like “The Way and Its Power” though I appreciate Ames and Hall’s rendition: “Making Life Significant” which we will be reading shortly.

8. Reciprocity (shu 恕)--

Zi Gong asked: "Is there any one word that can serve as a principle for the conduct of life?" Confucius said: "Perhaps the word 'reciprocity': Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you." (Analects XV:23)

The importance of reciprocity, and the mutual responsibility of one person for another, is essential to understanding the five basic human relations suggested by Confucius. Very prominent in the Confucian tradition is the idea of the five relationships between, if you take it according to Mencius, parent and child, minister and ruler, husband and wife, older and younger brother, friend and friend. The order of the five relationships is taken from that given by Confucius' most famous follower, the philosopher Mencius (active 372-289 B.C.E.) whose conversations were recorded in the book Mencius.

9. We might add an 8th idea which is important, the notion of Zhi (質) which is the natural or "native substance" of which a person is made, but it is not an innate human attribute. The individual acquires zhi through education (Chong, 2007, p. 1). Despite this definition that Zhi is not innate, it does have to do with character or with one's basic nature which is then improved by education or training. The meaning of zhi, as “native substance” or “basic stuff,” relates to the ‘building of substantial character traits’ the individual is cultivating through learning and practice (p. 18).  Zhi (質)is contrasted in the Analects with "cultural refinement" (文) [6.18] and the suggestion is that one has to have balance, a "perfect mix" between the two in order to create a Gentleman (君子). In 12.8 we see the question posed that if

All the exemplary man, the junzi 君子 needs is to have his substance. Why should he need external refinement?


But the response is that

"Refinement is substance; substance is refinement! OR, "An Exemplary Person ( junzi 君子)'s Cultrual Refinement 'resembles' his native substance, and his native substance resembles his cultural refinement.


Again, suggesting how closely intertwined the two are. Obviously, you cannot refine something that is not there. So the Gentleman must have a character base from which to launch one's self-cultivation program; but without further refinement, how good would this base become? Not nearly what Master Kong would like to see.

10. He or Harmony, celebrated as one of the highest cultural achievements.  The term derives from cooking so is about blending the ingredients for enhanced mutual benefit without losing any of the particular qualities or identities of the foodstuffs.  Integrity of each particular ingredient and effective integration into a harmonized whole: it becomes a metaphor for how the human community should work, which is in turn modeled on how the cosmos work, how the stars and planets all fit into their appropriate spaces and follow their accepted pathways or trajectories. 

Man as Social Being
Confucius builds his theory of society and government on the assumption that man is a social being always interacting with other human beings. Moral obligations to other people, and the imperative of public service, follow from this assumption.

He is never content with what he finds. His conscience impels him to try to rectify what is wrong in the world. And it is a sense of the moral conscience that he's got to be in the company of other men, whatever he is going to make of himself. It has to be in relation to human society. In the Confucian tradition, human relatedness is the primary given. Human beings exist in a social context. They learn from one another, they interact with one another.


The Approach & Teachings of Confucius

Confucius was solely focused on everyday concerns. He was indifferent to the big mysteries of existence such as the origin or the universe, god or the afterlife. His famous answers to this type of question were:

We do not yet know how to serve man, how can we know about serving the spirits?
We don't know yet about life, how can we know about death?

Humanism is the central feature of Confucianism, which revolves almost entirely around issues related to the family, morals, and the role of the good ruler. It stresses the need for benevolent and frugal rulers, the importance of inner moral harmony and its direct connection with harmony in the physical world. Rulers and teachers, according to this view, are important models for society: a good government should rule by virtue and moral example rather than by punishment or force. Filial piety and ancestor worship, which are old traditional Chinese values, are also part of the key components of Confucian doctrine.

Some East West Differences?
The world that most of us in the west  live in today is a world shaped by ancient Greek metaphysical presuppositions melded with Judeo-Christian beliefs in order to create a “God Model” of the universe and how it works.  Behind everything is a superordinate, Absolute principle (God) that determines order and value in the world while remaining aloof from it, thereby making human freedom, autonomy, creativity, and individuality the core of our philosophical interests.  Right? This is what we are all about in the west. We believe in self-determination and the power of humans to transform nature and the environment.  It is a decidedly anthropocentric worldview.  The world is there, and it is intelligible. Modern science tells us that we can look at the world, the universe, examine it, study it, conduct experiments, and through reason and logic, come to understand it and, in a sense, to overcome and dominate it.  In other words, the world is there for us to use; that is why God put it and us there.  And if God created the universe and us, then this is OK because our purposes are God’s as well.  Going all the way back to the Greeks—rough contemporaries of Confucius—back to Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, it was assumed that behind what we could see was some basic solid stuff, some substances, some “real” objects and what we can see are manifestations of these deeply underlying material objects.  But if we study these material objects set before us, we can come to understand what things are made of, where they come from, etc.
The Chinese have always looked at the world a little differently.  Instead of looking for the “One behind the many,” the Chinese see the “ten thousand things,” or wanwu 万物, not just as objects for us to perceive and appropriate, but as a series of interlinked “events,” which make up the world and constitute human experience.  They are at once continuous and related to one another, but also distinct, new and unique as they flow and appear before us one after another.  Change is the main underlying principle of the universe and hence first on Confucius’ list of key canonical texts is the Yijing or Book of Changes.  This was a text that can help one discern the patterns underlying incessant change.  The aim, then, is to correlate all of these unique particulars and perceive the underlying principles which guide their flow, their unfolding.  The universe is a stream, constantly in motion, not something static to be examined.  We are part of that stream and have to figure out where we are and what we can do at any point in the process.  So the Chinese worldview is “processual”; it is all about perceiving the process that is human experience, not the objects in the world that we think are presented to us to find and study.  The Chinese seemed to care less about the “What” and the “Why” of the world—ontological questions—and therefore did not seek transcendental answers to questions about why we are here in the world.  That is why westerners have long said that western philosophy and Chinese philosophy differ because the Chinese “use” it to ascertain how best to conduct oneself in this unfolding flow of experience—so it is about knowledge to help us know how to act and behave appropriately—while western philosophy delves into the “deeper” questions of existence and the meaning of life.  The western worldview is more focused on objects in the world while the Chinese seem to be more interested in humans in the world and how best to survive and prosper.  Confucius and other Chinese teachers seem less interested in conveying to students specific knowledge about the world and more interested in opening up a pathway so that they can learn how to get on in the world.


Additional Background Information:

Kongzi or K'ung Fu Tzu (commonly pronounced Confucius in English) was born in 551 BCE in the state of Lu (modern day Shandong Province). He lived during the Zhou 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 pobably researched and wrote The Spring and Autumn Annals.

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, the 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.

Some Key Passages from Analects:

Book I

[1-1] 子曰。學而時習之、不亦說乎。 有朋自遠方來、不亦樂乎。人不知而不慍、不亦君子乎。

[1:1] The Master said: “Isn't it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn't it also great when friends visit from distant places? If people do not recognize me and it doesn't bother me, am I not a noble man?” OR, "to go unacknowledged by others without harboring frustration--is this not the mark of an exemplary person (junzi, 君子)?"

[Comment] “Noble man” is an English translation for the Chinese term junzi 君子, which originally meant “son of a prince”—thus, someone from the nobility. In the Analects, Confucius imbues the term with a special meaning, hence some prefer to render it "exemplary person"(Ames and Rosemont). Though sometimes used strictly in its original sense, it also refers to a person who has made significant progress in the Way (dao) of self-cultivation, by developing a sense of apprpriate conduct and justice 義, by loving treatment of parents 孝, respect for elders 弟, honesty with friends, standing by one's words 信, etc. Though the junzi is a highly advanced human being, he is still distinguished from the category of sage (shengren 聖人), who is, in the Analects more of a “divine being,” usually a model from great antiquity.

The character of the Exemplary Person, in contrast to the sage, is being taught as a tangible model for all in the here and now. And although many descriptions of the requirements for junzi status seem quite out of our reach, there are many passages where Confucius labels a contemporary, or one of his disciples a “noble man,” intending a complement. Thus, the categorization is not so rigid. One might want to compare the term “noble man” to the Buddhist bodhisattva, in that both are the models for the tradition, both indicate a very high stage of human development as technical terms, yet both may be used colloquially to refer to a “really good person.”

Book II

[2-1] 子曰。爲政以德、譬如北辰居其所而衆星共之。

[2:1] The Master said: “If you govern with the power of your virtue (de, 德), or with "excellence," you will be like the North Star. It just stays in its place while all the other stars position themselves around it.”


"Governing with excellence (de, 德) can be compared to the North Star: the North Star dwells in its place and the multitude of stars pay it tribute" (Ames and Rosemont: 76)

[2-3] 子曰。道之以政、齊之以刑、民免而無恥。道之以德、齊之以禮、有恥且格。

[2:3] The Master said: “If you govern the people legalistically and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves.”


“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord” (Lunyu 2.3; see also 13.6.). It seems apparent that in his own day, however, advocates of more legalistic methods were winning a large following among the ruling elite. Thus Confucius' warning about the ill consequences of promulgating law codes should not be interpreted as an attempt to prevent their adoption but instead as his lament that his ideas about the moral suasion of the ruler were not proving popular.


Book IV

      • 5. Everyone wants wealth and rank, but can only get them in the right way. No one wants poverty and obscurity, but they cannot be avoided if there is no right way to do so. The implication of this passage is that there is only something morally wrong with wealth (or profit, Description: if it is obtained through violations of morality. Later Confucianism tended to regard profit as intrinsically immoral. Wealth through rank (Description:, however, earned through progress up the bureaucracy, was never regarded as improper. This all burdened China with a self-righteous but parasitic bureaucracy, which belittled and obstructed productive merchants and businesses. The ideals were fine, of peace and benevolence, but the results could be the horrors of foreign conquest (as with the Manchus) and of poverty and famine. China should not have been one of the poorest countries in the world in the 19th century, but it was.

      • 11. The "gentleman" or "exemplary person" (junzi, 君子) thinks of virtue, or "excellence" (徳 te) while the "small person" (Description:, or "mean" person), thinks of the "soil," i.e. work, profit (利), or comfort.

      • 15. Important passage. According to James Legge, who translated the Analects in 1893, "This chapter is said to be the most profound in the Lun Yü." "One thread" that runs through Confucius' teaching: chung (Description: and shu (Description: Zhong is translated "loyalty," but this is more the Japanese meaning (chu, blind loyalty). The Confucian meaning is "conscientiousness," i.e. trying to do one's duty and one's best. Shu is regard for others, "consideration" or "reciprocity." Shu is defined at 15:23.

      • 24. Slow in word but prompt in deed. A universal virtue. (From:

Book XII

[12:19]  君子之德風。小人之德草。草上之風必偃。

The nature of the junzi, 君子, "the exemplary man," (or the noble man) is like the wind, the nature of the inferior man is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass, it always bends.”


Later Developments: 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.

Zhuxi (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.) (

******* A Brief Digression: Great Teachers

There are some similarities between two very influential 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. For Jesus there are the Gospels in the New Testament, as well as the Gnostic Gospels; and for Confucius, there is the Analects a book compiled by second and third generation of students, circulating widely only two centuries after Confucius' death. As Wikipedia notes, "Very few reliable sources about Confucius exist. The principal biography available to historians is included in Sima Qian's Shiji; but, because the Shujing contains a large amount of (possibly legendary) material not confirmed by other sources, the biographical material on Confucius found in the Analects makes the Analects arguably the most reliable source of biographical information about Confucius. Confucius viewed himself as a "transmitter" of social and political traditions originating in the early Zhou dynasty (c.1000-800 BC), and claimed not to have originated anything (Analects 7.1)." As far as biographical details about Jesus' life, much the same could be said; and surely, Jesus operated within the framework of his Jewish heritage. However, he might have been pushing for more reforms in Jewish law and theology than Confucius' claimed to be doing for Chinese philosophy. Finally, each belief system associated with these two 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.

It is also intriguing to realize that the three great Greek philosophers, Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.), Plato (429–347 B.C.E.), and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E) all came shortly after Confucius' time while the Buddha was born in India perhaps around 563 B.C.E.. This means that within a period of century and a half or so, some of the world's most important thinkers appeared. Jesus, of course, came along some 400 to 500 years later; and it may also be worth noting that among all of these thinkers, the one with the shortest life span and the fewest years of active teaching and spreading his ideas was Jesus, about whose life we only have a few details covering a brief three year period. It is said he began to teach at about age 30 and he was crucified perhaps 3 years later. All of the rest of these great teachers lived at least six or seven decades. The Buddha may have been about 35 years old when he experienced his moment of "enlightenment" sitting under the Bo Tree, putting him very close to the age of Jesus (33) when he died. How interesting would it have been if Jesus had lived another 30 or 40 years and was able to spell out his teachings more fully?

All we have of his teachings are fragments: Parables, stories and aphorisms and, according the biblical scholars who study his words carefully, probably 82% of the sayings attributed to Jesus were never actually uttered by him. Moreover, some of his more interesting utterances--which make him sound much more like a Daoist or Buddhist sage--were part of the Gnostic Gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas, which may have been older than some of the other gospels, and they were exlcuded from the texts formally accepted by the church. You could say they were suppressed which is too bad. Our own Atkinson Professor of Religious Studies, Stephen Patterson, studies these kinds of materials and he just published a new book called The Lost Way about Jesus' teachings. The book is described in this way: "In this rigorously researched and thoughtful study, a leading Jesus Seminar scholar reveals the dramatic story behind the modern discovery of the earliest gospels, accounts that do not portray Jesus exclusively as a martyr but recover a lost ancient Christian tradition centered on Jesus as a teacher of wisdom.

The church has long advocated the Pauline view of Jesus as deity and martyr, emphasizing his death and resurrection. But another tradition also thrived from Christianity’s beginnings, one that portrayed Jesus as a teacher of wisdom. In The Lost Way, Stephen Patterson, a leading New Testament scholar and former head of the Jesus Seminar, explores this lost ancient tradition and its significance to the faith.

Patterson explains how scholars have uncovered a Gospel that preceded at least three of those in the Bible, which is called Q. He painstakingly demonstrates how historical evidence points to the existence of this common source in addition to Mark—recognized as the earliest Gospel—that both Matthew and Luke used to write their accounts. Q contained a collection of Jesus’s teachings without any narrative content and without accounts of the passion, though being the earliest version shared among his first followers—scripture that embodies a very different orientation to the Christian faith.

Patterson also explores other examples of this wisdom tradition, from the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas; to the emergence of Apollos, a likely teacher of Christian wisdom; to the main authority of the church in Jerusalem, Jesus’s brother James. The Lost Way offers a profound new portrait of Jesus—one who can show us a new way to live." (See the publisher's website:

Patterson has also worked extensively on the Gnostic Gospels, one of which is the Gospel According to Thomas. As one source describes the Gospel of Thomas:

Exploring the Gospel of Thomas, we discover that Jesus believed the self and the divine to be identical and one. Furthermore, the Kingdom of Heaven was not somewhere off in the future but i“right here,” right now, all the time and one only needs to be awakened to this perfection. Is this at all like when Confucius talked about Ren, he replied that if desired it, "I will find that it is already here." (7.30)? Jesus, in this gospel, speaks of enlightenment, the same type that is taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, Shin teachers and Zen Masters. In addition, Thomas does not have a narrative story line but just 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, many of which are akin to Zen koans. Here, Jesus is never presented as Lord or Savior, but rather as a spiritual guide who is equal to his students. In addition, the Gospel of Thomas does not contain a supernatural virgin birth or the doctrine of the Virgin Mary.  It does not teach of original sin.  It does not mention Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection.  It does not  teach Jesus’ death as a payment of debt to “atone” for humanity's sins.  It does not include any supernatural healings or miracles. It does not mention the so-called end-times or the wrath of God.  It does not mention salvation through faith in Christ. It does not exclude women.


Here is a small sample:

These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.

1. And he said, "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death."

2. Jesus said, "Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]"

3. Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.

4. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty."

5. The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us how our end will be.” And Jesus said, “Have you discovered the beginning, then, that you now seek the end?  For where the beginning is, there the end will be. Blessed are those who will stand at the beginning, and they will come to know the end and will not taste death.


Some key figures in Confucianism:
We mentioned Mencius, 372-289 B.C.), or Mengzi, already; he 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, 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.

Kong Decheng (b. 1920-2008), was a direct descendant of Confucius and resident of Taiwan, is a leading spokesperson for Confucian values.

Sunzi. The Sunzi 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.

Some Key Confucian Beliefs 

Confucian ethical teachings include the following values:

Li (禮): "observing ritual priority," includes ritual, propriety, etiquette, etc. 
Xiao (愛): "filial piety," love within the family: love of parents for their children and of children for their parents 
Yi (義): "Appropriate," "Fitting," righteousness 
Xin (信): "making good on one's word," or "standing by one's word," honesty and trustworthiness 
Ren (仁): authoritative conduct, goodness, benevolence, humaneness towards others; the highest Confucian virtue 
Zhong(忠):"doing one's utmost" showing loyalty, etc.

Shu 恕 = "Putting Oneself in the Other's Place"

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 (文) 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)

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

Qi 気 (jee). Based upon the cumulative effect of self-transformation, Qi, 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.)

Some Useful Websites:

Some other Aspects of Confucianism:

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.

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. ("Confucianism," in Our Religions, p. 214.)