Confucianism: An Overview

Confucius (or Kongzi) was a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 6th century BCE and whose thoughts, expressed in the philosophy of Confucianism , have influenced Chinese culture right up to the present day. Confucius has become a larger than life figure and it is difficult to separate the reality from the myth. He is considered the first teacher and his teachings are usually expressed in short phrases, which are open to various interpretations. Chief among his philosophical ideas is the importance of a virtuous life, filial piety and ancestor worship. Also emphasized is the necessity for benevolent and frugal rulers, the importance of inner moral harmony and its direct connection with harmony in the physical world and that rulers and teachers are important role models for wider society.

Life of Confucius

Confucius is believed to have lived from c. 551 to c. 479 BCE in the state of Lu (now Shandong or Shantung). However, the earliest written record of him dates from some four hundred years after his death in the Historical Records of Sima Qian (or Si-ma Ts‘ien). Raised in the city of Qufu (or K‘u-fou), Confucius worked for the Prince of Lu in various capacities, notably as the Director of Public Works in 503 BCE and then the Director of the Justice Department in 501 BCE. Later, he travelled widely in China and met with several minor adventures, including imprisonment for five days due to a case of mistaken identity. Confucius met the incident with typical restraint and was said to have calmly played his lute until the error was discovered. Eventually, Confucius returned to his hometown where he established his own school in order to provide students with the teachings of the ancients. Confucius did not consider himself a ‘creator’ but rather a ‘transmitter’ of these ancient moral traditions. Confucius’ school was also open to all classes, rich and poor.

It was whilst he was teaching in his school that Confucius started to write. Two collections of poetry were the Book of Odes (Shijing or Shi king) and the Book of Documents (Shujing or Shu king). The Spring and Autumn Annals (Lin Jing or Lin King), which told the history of Lu, and the Book of Changes (Yi Jing or Yi king) was a collection of treatises on divination.

Unfortunately for posterity, none of these works outlined Confucius’ philosophy. Confucianism, therefore, had to be created from second-hand accounts and the most reliable documentation of the ideas of Confucius is considered to be theAnalects , although even here there is no absolute evidence that the sayings and short stories were actually said by him and often the lack of context and clarity leave many of his teachings open to individual interpretation.

The other three major sources of Confucian thought are Mencius Great Learning , and Mean . With Analects , these works constitute the Four Books of Confucianism , otherwise referred to as, the Confucian Classics . Through these texts, Confucianism became the official state religion of China from the second century BCE. (26)

Confucian Philosophy

The Confucian system looks less like a religion than a philosophy or way of life. This may be because it focuses on earthly relationships and duty and not on deities or the divine. Confucianism teaches that the gentleman-scholar is the highest calling. Confucius believed that the gentleman, or junzi , is a role model and the highest calling for a person. The gentleman holds fast to high principles regardless of life’s hardships. The gentleman does not remove himself from the world but fulfills his capacity for goodness. He does so by a commitment to virtue developed through moral formation.

Though ritual is quite important, there is not much concern with an afterlife or eschatology. Whereas a religion like Hinduism devotes much of its doctrine to accomplishing spiritual fulfillment, Confucianism is concerned with social fulfillment. Unlike Buddhism, there are no monks. There are no priests or religious leaders. It does not have many of the conventions of a religion.

Confucius did not give his followers a god or gods to be worshipped. Confucianism is not against worship, but teaches that social duties are more important. The focus is on ethical behavior and good government and social responsibility. (26)


Relationships are important in Confucianism. Order begins with the family. Children are to respect their parents. A son ought to study his father’s wishes as long as the father lives; and after the father is dead, he should study his life, and respect his memory (Confucius 102).

A person needs to respect the position that s/he has in all relationships. Due honor must be given to those people above and below oneself. This makes for good social order. The respect is typified through the idea of Li . Li is the term used to describe Chinese proprietary rites and good manners. These include ritual, etiquette, and other facets that support good social order. The belief is that when Li is observed, everything runs smoothly and is in its right place.

Relationships are important for a healthy social order and harmony. The relationships in Li are

  • Father over son
  • Older brother over younger
  • Husband over wife
  • Ruler over subject
  • Friend is equal to Friend

Each of these relationships is important for balance in a person’s life. There are five main relationship principles hsiao ,chung yi xin , and jen .

  • Hsiao is love within the family. Examples include love of parents for their children and of children for their parents. Respect in the family is demonstrated through Li and Hsiao.
  • Chung is loyalty to the state. This element is closely tied to the five relationships of Li. Chung is also basic to the Confucian political philosophy. An important note is that Confucius thought that the political institutions of his day were broken. He attributed this to unworthy people being in positions of power. He believed rulers were expected to learn self-discipline and lead through example.
  • Yi is righteousness or duty in an ordered society. It is an element of social relationships in Confucianism. Yi can be thought of as internalized Li.
  • Xin is honesty and trustworthiness. It is part of the Confucian social philosophy. Confucius believed that people were responsible for their actions and treatment of other people. Jen and Xin are closely connected.
  • Jen is benevolence and humaneness towards others. It is the highest Confucian virtue and can also be translated as love. This is the goal for which individuals should strive.

Together, these principles balance people and society. A balanced, harmonious life requires attention to one’s social position.

For Confucius, correct relationships establish a well-ordered hierarchy in which each individual fulfills her/his duty. (1)

Confucian Rituals

Birth rituals center on T’ai-shen or the spirit of the fetus. These rituals are designed to protect an expectant mother. A special procedure is prescribed for disposal of placenta. The mother is given a special diet and is allowed rest for a month after delivery. The mother’s family supplies all the items required by the baby on the first, fourth and twelfth monthly anniversaries of the birth. Maturity is no longer being celebrated, except in traditional families. A ceremony in which a group meal is served celebrates a young adult who is coming of age; s/he is served chicken.

Marriage rituals are very important. They are conducted in six stages. At the proposal stage, the couple exchanges eight Chinese characters. These characters are the year, month, day, and hour of each of their births. If anything unfavorable happens within the bride-to-be’s family during the next three days, the proposal is considered to have been rejected. The engagement stage occurs after the wedding day is selected. The bride may announce the wedding with invitations and a gift of cookies made in the shape of the moon. This is the formal announcement. The dowry is the third stage. The bride’s family carries it to the groom’s home in a procession. The bride-price is then sent to the bride by the groom’s parents. Gifts by the groom to the bride, equal in value to the dowry, are sent to her. Procession is the fourth stage. It is brief but important. The groom visits the bride’s home and brings her back to his house. The procession is accompanied by a great deal of singing and drum beating. The marriage ceremony and reception is the stage in which the couple recite their vows, toast each other with wine, and then take center stage at a banquet. The morning after the ceremony is the final stage. The bride serves breakfast to the groom’s parents, who then reciprocate. This completes the marriage.

Death rituals seem elaborate to many Westerners. At the time of death, the relatives cry loudly. This is a way of informing the neighbors. The family begins mourning. They dress in clothes made of rough material. The corpse is washed and placed in a coffin. Mourners bring incense and money to offset the cost of the funeral. Food and significant objects of the deceased are placed in the coffin. A Buddhist, Christian, or Taoist priest performs the burial ceremony. Liturgies are performed on the seventh, ninth, and forty-ninth days after the burial. On the first and third anniversaries of the death, friends, and family follow the coffin to the cemetery. They carry a willow branch which symbolizes the soul of the person who has died. The branch is carried back to the family altar where it is used to “install” the spirit of the deceased.


Following his death in 479 BCE, Confucius was buried in his family’s tomb in Qufu (in Shandong) and, over the following centuries, his stature grew so that he became the subject of worship in schools during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and temples were established in his name at all administrative capitals during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). Throughout the imperial period an extensive knowledge of the fundamental texts of Confucianism was a necessity in order to pass the civil service selection examinations. Educated people often had a tablet of Confucius’ writings prominently displayed in their houses and sometimes also statues, most often seated and dressed in imperial costume to symbolize his status as ‘the king without a throne’. Portrait prints were also popular, especially those taken from the lost original attributed to Wu Daozi (or Wu Taoutsi) and made in the 8th century CE. Unfortunately, no contemporary portrait of Confucius survives but he is most often portrayed as a wise old man with long grey hair and moustaches, sometimes carrying scrolls.

The teachings of Confucius and his followers have, then, been an integral part of Chinese education for centuries and the influence of Confucianism is still visible today in contemporary Chinese culture with its continued emphasis on family relationships and respect, the importance of rituals, the value given to restraint and ceremonies, and the strong belief in the power and benefits of education. (26)