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Shrine of Confucius in Thian Hock Keng in Singapore.

Confucianism (Traditional Chinese: 儒學; Simplified Chinese: 儒学; Pinyin: Rúxué; literally means "The School of the Scholars"; see Names for Confucianism for details) is an East Asian ethical and philosophical system originally developed from the teachings of the early Chinese sage Confucius. It is a complex system of moral, social, political, and religious thought which had tremendous influence on the history of Chinese civilization up to the 21st century. Some have considered it to have been the "state religion" of imperial China.

The cultures most strongly influenced by Confucianism include those of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as various territories including Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Singapore, where ethnic Chinese are the majority.

Core Confucian Texts

The development of Confucianism is traced through the development of its canon. It is therefore helpful to first list the main Confucian texts. The orthodox canon of Confucian texts, as eventually formulated by Zhu Xi, is the so-called "Four Books and Five Classics". These are:

The Four Books

The Five Classics

A sixth book, the Classic of Music (Chinese: 樂經; Pinyin: Yùejīng), is referred to but was lost by the time of the Han Dynasty.

There is a further canon known as the Thirteen Classics (Chinese: 十三經; Pinyin: Shísānjīng).

There is considerable debate about which, if any, of these books were directly written by Confucius himself. The main source of his quotations, the Analects, was not written by him. As with many other spiritual leaders such as Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus, or Socrates, our main source of Confucius' thought, the Analects, was written down by his disciples. Some of the core canon is argued to have been written by Confucius himself, such as the Spring and Autumn Annals. There is considerable debate about this, however.
This factor is further complicated by the "Burning of the Books and Burying of the Scholars", a massive suppression of dissenting thought during the Qin Dynasty, more than two centuries after Confucius' death. The emperor Qin Shi Huang destroyed a great number of books, possibly destroying other books written by Confucius or his disciples in the process.
The current canon of Four Books and Five Classics was formulated by Zhu Xi. Many versions contain his extensive commentaries on the books. The fact that his specific version of the Confucian canon became the core canon can be seen as an example of his influence in Confucianism.
Other books are not included in the current canon but once were. The major example is the Xun Zi.

Development of Early Confucianism

Confucius was a famous sage and social philosopher of China whose teachings have deeply influenced East Asia for 2400 years. The relationship between Confucianism and Confucius himself, however, is tenuous. Confucius' ideas were not accepted during his lifetime and he frequently bemoaned the fact that he remained unemployed by any of the feudal lords.

Development by Confucius

Although we do not have direct access to Confucius' beliefs, we can sketch out Confucius' ideas from the fragments that remain. Confucius (551-479 BCE) was a man of letters who worried about the troubled times he lived in. He went from place to place trying to spread his political ideas and influence to the many kings contending for supremacy in China. He was greatly concerned with how successful societies should work, how rulers should rule and how relationships should be maintained.
In the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771-221 BCE), the reigning king of the Zhou gradually became a mere figurehead. In this power vacuum, the rulers of small states began to vie with one another for military and political dominance. Deeply persuaded of the need for his mission- "If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no need for me to change its state" Analects XVIII, 6- Confucius tirelessly promoted the virtues of ancient illustrious sages such as the Duke of Zhou. Confucius tried to amass sufficient political power to found a new dynasty, as when he planned to accept an invitation from a rebel to "make a Zhou dynasty in the East" (Analects XV, 5). As the common saying that Confucius was a "king without a crown" indicates, however, he never gained the opportunity to apply his ideas. He was expelled from states many times and eventually returned to his homeland to spend the last part of his life teaching.
The Analects were composed primarily during this period. As with most religious or philosophical texts, there is considerable debate over how to interpret the Analects.
Unlike most Western philosophers, Confucius did not rely on deductive reasoning to convince his listeners. Instead, he used figures of rhetoric such as analogy and aphorism to explain his ideas. Most of the time these techniques were highly contextualised. For these reasons, Western readers might find his philosophy muddled or unclear. However, Confucius claimed that he sought "a unity all pervading" (Analects XV, 3) and that there was "one single thread binding my way together." (op. cit. IV, 15).

Development After Confucius

The first occurrences of a real Confucian system may have been created by his disciples or by the disciples of his disciples. During the philosophically fertile period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, great early figures of Confucianism such as Mencius and Xun Zi (not to be confused with Sun Zi) developed Confucianism into an ethical and political doctrine. Both had to fight contemporary ideas and gain the rulers' confidence through argumentation and reasoning.
Mencius gave Confucianism a fuller explanation of human nature, of what is needed for good government, of what morality is, and founded his idealist doctrine on the claim that human nature is good (性善). Xun Zi opposed many of Mencius' ideas, and built a structured system upon the idea that human nature is bad (性悪) and had to be educated and exposed to the rites (li) before being able to express goodness.
Some of Xun Zi's disciples, such as Han Feizi and Li Si, became Legalists (a kind of law-based early totalitarianism, quite distant from virtue-based Confucianism) and conceived the state system that allowed Qin Shi Huang to unify China under the strong state control of every human activity. The culmination of Confucius' dream of unification and peace in China can therefore be argued to have come from Legalism, a school of thought almost diametrically opposed to his reliance on rites and virtue.

The Spread of Confucianism

As mentioned above, the Burning of the Books and Burying of the Scholars resulted in the destruction of large numbers of books, and very probably some Confucian texts. Nonetheless, Confucianism survived this suppression, some say because a scholar hid the texts in the walls of his house.
After the Qin, the new Han Dynasty approved of Confucian doctrine and sponsored Confucian scholars, eventually making Confucianism the official state philosophy (see Emperor Wu of Han). Study of the Confucian classics became the basis of the government examination system and the core of the educational curriculum. Temples of Confucius were established throughout the land to propagate the state cult of Confucius. No serious attempt to replace Confucianism arose until the May 4th Movement in the 20th century, although there were Emperors who gave increased favor to Daoism or Buddhism.
Beginning in the Tang Dynasty, but especially during the Song Dynasty, the Neo-Confucians sought to bring renewed vigor to Confucianism. Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming and the other Neo-Confucians gave Confucianism a more thorough system of metaphysics and distilled a more clearly codified value structure from the ideas of Confucius and his early disciples.
After its reformulation as Neo-Confucianism, both Korea and Japan adopted Confucianism as their state philosophies. Korea during the Yi Dynasty has been described as a "Confucian state."
In the 1960s, Confucianism was attacked during the Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China. It was seen as the crux of the old feudal system and an obstacle to China's modernization. It is, however, arguable that Confucianism influenced Chinese society even during the Cultural Revolution, and its influence is still strong in modern-day mainland China. Both interest in and debate about Confucianism have surged.
In the modern world, there are many signs of Confucianism's influence. Many sources, including the Baltimore Sun (U.S.), have called Singapore the modern world's "only Confucian state." However, it is doubtful that Singapore is truly a thoroughgoing Confucian state because Singapore is a multicultural society in which only a portion of the society is committed specifically to Confucian ideals. The actual influence of Confucianism on South Korea, however, is still very great. The Asian values debate of the 1990s stems in large part from the question of the role of Confucian social approaches in modern societies, especially economic development.
Modern movements such as New Confucianism seek to find new inspiration from the thought system of Confucius and his followers.

Core Concepts


Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously. (Analects II, 3)

The above explains an essential difference between legalism and ritualism and points to a key difference between Western and Eastern societies. Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; whereas with ritual, patterns of behavior are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face.

"Rite" (禮; Lǐ) stands here for a complex set of ideas that is difficult to render in Western languages. The Chinese character for "rites" previously had the religious meaning of "sacrifice" (the character 禮 is composed of the character 示, which means "altar", to the left of the character 曲 placed over 豆, representing a vase full of flowers and offered as a sacrifice to the gods; cf. Wenlin). Its Confucian meaning ranges from politeness and propriety to the understanding of everybody's correct place in society. Externally, ritual is used to distinguish between people; their usage allows people to know at all times who is the younger and who the elder, who is the guest and who the host and so forth. Internally, they indicate to people their duty amongst others and what to expect from them.
Internalization is the main process in ritual. Formalized behavior becomes progressively internalized, desires are channeled and personal cultivation becomes the mark of social correctness. Though this idea conflicts with the common saying that "the cowl does not make the monk", in Confucianism sincerity is what enables behavior to be absorbed by individuals. Obeying ritual with sincerity makes ritual the most powerful way to cultivate oneself. Thus "Respectfulness, without the Rites, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the Rites, becomes timidity; boldness, without the Rites, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the Rites, becomes rudeness" (Analects VIII, 2). Ritual can be seen as a means to find the balance between opposing qualities that might otherwise lead to conflict.
Ritual divides people into categories and builds hierarchical relationships through protocols and ceremonies, assigning everyone a place in society and a form of behavior. Music, which seems to have played a significant role in Confucius' life, is given as an exception as it transcends such boundaries, 'unifying the hearts'.
Although the Analects promotes ritual heavily, Confucius himself often behaved otherwise; for example, when he cried at his preferred disciple's death, or when he met a fiendish princess (VI, 28). Later more rigid ritualists who forgot that ritual is "more than presents of jade and silk" (XVII, 12) strayed from their master's position.


One theme central to Confucianism is that of relationships, and the differing duties arising from the different status one held in relation to others. Individuals are held to simultaneously stand in different degrees of relationship with different people, namely, as a junior in relation to their parents and elders, and as a senior in relation to their children, younger siblings, students, and others. While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe strong duties of reverence and service to their seniors, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. This theme consistently manifests itself in many aspects of East Asian culture even to this day, with extensive filial duties on the part of children toward parents and elders, and great concern of parents toward their children.

Filial Piety

Filial piety, filiality, or filial devotion (xiào, 孝) is considered among the greatest of virtues and must be shown towards both the living and the dead. The term "filial", meaning "of a child", denotes the respect and obedience that a child, originally a son, should show to his parents, especially to his father. This relationship was extended by analogy to a series of five relationships or five cardinal relationships (五伦 Wǔlún):

1. ruler and subject (君臣),
2. father and son (父子),
3. husband and wife (夫婦),
4. elder and younger brother (兄弟),
5. between friends (朋友)

Specific duties were prescribed to each of the participants in these sets of relationships. Such duties were also extended to the dead, where the living stood as sons to their deceased family. This led to the veneration of ancestors.
In time, filial piety was also built into the Chinese legal system: a criminal would be punished more harshly if the culprit had committed the crime against a parent, while fathers exercised enormous power over their children. Much the same was true of other unequal relationships.
The main source of our knowledge of the importance of filial piety is The Book of Filial Piety, a work attributed to Confucius but almost certainly written in the third century BC. Filial piety has continued to play a central role in Confucian thinking to the present day.


Loyalty is the equivalent of filial piety on a different plane, between ruler and minister. It was particularly relevant for the social class to which most of Confucius' students belonged, because the only way for an ambitious young scholar to make his way in the Confucian Chinese world was to enter a ruler's civil service. Like filial piety, however, loyalty was often subverted by the autocratic regimes of China. Confucius had advocated a sensitivity to the realpolitik of the class relations that existed in his time; he did not propose that "might makes right", but that a superior who had received the "Mandate of Heaven" should be obeyed because of his moral rectitude.
In later ages, however, emphasis was placed more on the obligations of the ruled to the ruler, and less on the ruler's obligations to the ruled.


Confucius was concerned with people's individual development, which he maintained took place within the context of human relationships. Ritual and filial piety are the ways in which one should act towards others from an underlying attitude of humaneness. Confucius' concept of humaneness (rén, 仁) is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the Golden Rule phrased in the negative: "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you".
Rén also has a political dimension. If the ruler lacks rén, Confucianism holds, it will be difficult if not impossible for his subjects to behave humanely. Rén is the basis of Confucian political theory: it presupposes an autocratic ruler, exhorted to refrain from acting inhumanely towards his subjects. An inhumane ruler runs the risk of losing the "Mandate of Heaven", the right to rule. Such a mandateless ruler need not be obeyed. But a ruler who reigns humanely and takes care of the people is to be obeyed strictly, for the benevolence of his dominion shows that he has been mandated by heaven. Confucius himself had little to say on the will of the people, but his leading follower Mencius did state on one occasion that the people's opinion on certain weighty matters should be polled.

The Perfect Gentleman

The term "Jūnzǐ" (君子) is a term crucial to classical Confucianism. Literally meaning "son of a ruler", "prince", or "noble", the ideal of a "gentleman," "proper man," or "perfect man" is that for which Confucianism exhorts all people to strive. A succinct description of the "perfect man" is one who "combine(s) the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman" (CE). (In modern times, the masculine bias in Confucianism may have weakened, but the same term is still used; the masculine translation in English is also traditional and still frequently used.) A hereditary elitism was bound up with the concept, and gentlemen were expected to act as moral guides to the rest of society. They were to:

The great example of the perfect gentleman is Confucius himself. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life was that he was never awarded the high official position which he desired, from which he wished to demonstrate the general well-being that would ensue if humane persons ruled and administered the state.
The opposite of the Jūnzǐ was the Xiǎorén (小人), literally "small person" or "petty person." Like English "small", the word in this context in Chinese can mean petty in mind and heart, narrowly self-interested, greedy, superficial, and materialistic.


"To govern by virtue, let us compare it to the North Star: it stays in its place, while the myriad stars wait upon it." (Analects II, 1)

Another key Confucian concept is that in order to govern others one must first govern oneself. When developed sufficiently, the king's personal virtue spreads beneficent influence throughout the kingdom. This idea is developed further in the Great Learning and is tightly linked with the Taoist concept of wu wei: the less the king does, the more that is done. By being the "calm center" around which the kingdom turns, the king allows everything to function smoothly and avoids having to tamper with the individual parts of the whole.
This idea may be traced back to early shamanistic beliefs, such as that of the king (wang, 王) being the axle between the sky, human beings and the Earth. (The character itself shows the three levels of the universe, united by a single line.) Another complementary view is that this idea may have been used by ministers and counselors to deter aristocratic whims that would otherwise be to the detriment of the population.


"In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes."
(Analects XV, 39)

Although Confucius claimed that he never invented anything but was only transmitting ancient knowledge, he did produce a number of new ideas. Many western admirers such as Voltaire and H.G. Creel point to the (then) revolutionary idea of replacing the nobility of blood with one of virtue. Jūnzǐ (君子), which had meant "noble man" before Confucius' work, slowly assumed a new connotation in the course of his writings, rather as "gentleman" did in English. A virtuous plebeian who cultivates his qualities can be a "gentleman", while a shameless son of the king is only a "small man". That he allowed students of different classes to be his disciples is a clear demonstration that he fought against the feudal structures in Chinese society.
Another new idea, that of meritocracy, led to the introduction of the Imperial examination system in China. This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honor to the whole family. Though the European enthusiasm toward China died away after 1789, China gave Europe one very important practical legacy: the modern civil service. The Chinese examination system seems to have been started in 165 BCE, when certain candidates for public office were called to the Chinese capital for examination of their moral excellence by the emperor. Over the following centuries the system grew until finally almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations.
Confucius praised those kings who left their kingdoms to those apparently most qualified rather than to their elder sons. His achievement was the setting up of a school that produced statemen with a strong sense of state and duty, known as Rujia 儒家, the 'School of the Literati'. During the Warring States Period and the early Han dynasty China grew greatly and the need for a solid and centralized corporation of government officers able to read and write administrative papers arose. As a result Confucianism was promoted and the corporation of men it produced became an effective counter to the remaining landowner aristocrats otherwise threatening the unity of the state.
Since then Confucianism has been used as a kind of "state religion", with authoritarianism, legitimism, paternalism and submission to authority used as political tools to rule China. In fact most emperors used a mix of legalism and Confucianism as their ruling doctrine, often with the latter embellishing the former. They also often used different varieties of Taoism or Buddhism as their personal philosophy or religion. As with many revered men, Confucius himself would probably have disapproved of much that has been done in his name: the use of ritual is only part of his teachings.


Does Confucianism Promote Corruption?

Different from many other political philosophies, Confucianism is reluctant to employ laws. In a society where relationships are considered more important than the laws themselves, if no other power forces government officers to take the common interest into consideration, corruption and nepotism will arise. As government officers' salary was often far lower than the minimum required to raise a family, Chinese society has frequently been affected by those problems, and still is. Even if some means to control and reduce corruption and nepotism have been successfully used in China, Confucianism is criticized for not providing such a means itself.
One major argument against this criticism is that the so-called Confucian East Asian societies such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and China have exhibited the most extraordinary growth rates in economic history. Singapore has also consistently been noted as one of the most corruption-free states on earth. If Confucianism promotes corruption, how can such rapid growth be possible? Critics point to continuing problems with nepotism and corruption in those countries and slowing economic growth in the past decade, not only in Japan, but also, to a lesser extent, in the others. Furthermore, Singapore may be classed as an example of a Western, Kantian system of rule by law, or perhaps a Legalist system, rather than Confucian.

Was There a Confucianism?

One of the many problems in discussing the history of Confucianism is the question of what Confucianism is. In this article, Confucianism can be understood roughly as largely "the stream of individuals, claiming Master Kong to be the Greatest Master" while it also means "the social group following moral, political, and philosophical doctrine of what was considered, at a given time, as the orthodox understanding of Confucius". In this meaning, this "group" can be identified, during periods of discussions with others doctrines, like Han and Tang dynasty, with a kind of political party. During periods of Confucian hegemony, such as during the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties, it can be identified roughly with the social class of government officials.
But the reality of such a grouping is debated. In his book, Manufacturing Confucianism, Lionel Jensen claims that our modern image of Confucius and Confucianism, which is that of a wise symbol of learning and a state-sponsored quasi-religion, did not exist in China from time immemorial, but was manufactured by European Jesuits, as a "translation" of the ancient indigenous traditions, known as "Ru Jia", in order to portray Chinese society to Europeans. The notion of Confucianism was then borrowed back by the Chinese, who used it for their own purposes.
Therefore, we could define Confucianism as "any system of thinking that has, at its foundations, the works that are regarded as the 'Confucian classics', which was the corpus used in the Imperial examination system". Even this definition runs into problems because this corpus was subject to changes and additions. Neo-Confucianism, for instance, valorized the Great Learning and the Zhong Yong in this corpus, because their themes are close to those of Taoism and Buddhism.

The Script Controversy

The origin of this problem lies with the attempt of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to burn all of the books. After the Qin dynasty was overthrown by the Han, there was the monumental task of recreating all of the knowledge that was destroyed. The method undertaken was to find all of the remaining scholars and have them reconstruct, from memory, the texts that were lost. This produced the "New Script" texts. Afterwards, people began finding fragments of books that had escaped the burning. Piecing those together produced the "Old Script" texts. One problem that has plagued Confucianism, through the ages, is the question of which set of texts is the more authentic; the "Old Script" texts tend to have greater acceptance. In actuality, the verification and comparison for authenticity between the 'old scripts' and 'new scripts' text has remained the works of Confucian scholars for 2000 years up to the twentieth century. Their work also involved interpretation and derivation of meanings from the text under a field of study was known as Jingxue 經學 ("the study of classics").

Is Confucianism a Religion?

It is debatable whether Confucianism should be called a religion. While it prescribes a great deal of ritual, little of it could be construed as worship or meditation in a formal sense. Confucius occasionally made statements about the existence of other-worldly beings that sound distinctly agnostic and humanistic to Western ears. For example, he stated "Show respect to the ghosts and spirits, but keep them at a distance" (Analects, VI 19). He also said, when asked by an impetuous disciple how to serve ghosts and spirits, "Till you have learnt to serve men, how can you serve ghosts?" The disciple (Zilu) then asked about the dead. The Master said, "Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?" (Analects XI. 11. tr. Waley) Thus, Confucianism is often considered an ethical tradition and not a religion.
Its effect on Chinese and other East Asian societies and cultures has been immense and parallels the effects of religious movements, seen in other cultures. Those who follow the teachings of Confucius are comforted by it; it makes their lives more complete and their sufferings bearable. It includes a great deal of ritual and (in its Neo-Confucian formulation) gives a comprehensive explanation of the world, of human nature, etc. Moreover, religions in Chinese culture are not mutually exclusive entities- each tradition is free to find its specific niche, its field of specialization. One can be a Taoist, Christian, Muslim, Shintoist or Buddhist and still profess Confucianist beliefs.
Although Confucianism may include ancestor worship, sacrifice to ancestral spirits and an abstract celestial deity, and the deification of ancient kings and even Confucius himself, all these features can be traced back to non-Confucian Chinese beliefs established long before Confucius and, in this respect, make it difficult to claim that such rituals make Confucianism a religion.
Generally speaking, Confucianism is not considered a religion by Chinese or other East Asian people. Part of this attitude may be explained by the stigma placed on many "religions" as being superstitious, illogical, or unable to deal with modernity. Many Buddhists state that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy, and this is partially a reaction to negative popular views of religion. Similarly, Confucians maintain that Confucianism is not a religion, but rather a moral code or philosophic world view.
The question of whether Confucianism is a religion, or otherwise, is ultimately a definitional problem. If the definition used is worship of supernatural entities, the answer may be that Confucianism is not a religion, but then this definition could also be used to argue that many traditions commonly held to be religious (Buddhism, some forms of Islam, etc.) are also not, in fact, religions. If, on the other hand, a religion is defined as (for example) a belief system that includes moral stances, guides for daily life, systematic views of humanity and its place in the universe, etc., then Confucianism most definitely qualifies. As with many such important concepts, the definition of religion is quite contentious. Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred is a good treatment of this issue.

Names For Confucianism

Several names for Confucianism exist in Chinese.

Three of these four (i.e. Rujia, Rujiao, Ruxue) use the Chinese word Ru, a key Confucian term meaning "scholar," a person who pursues the Confucian ideal of study and self-refinement, often a scholar-official. These names do not directly use the name "Confucius" (Kong Zi) at all, but instead center on the central figure/ideal of the Confucian scholar. Rujia, in addition to "School of the Scholars" also literally means "Scholar house" or "Scholar family."
Rujiao and Kongjiao contain the Chinese term jiao, the noun "teaching", used in such as terms as "education" or "educator", but also, notably, the term most frequently used for constructing the names of religions in Chinese. The Chinese terms for many religions all end with jiao: Fojiao ("The Teaching of the Buddha", i.e., Buddhism), Jidujiao ("The Teaching of Christ", i.e., Christiantity), Youtaijiao ("The Teaching of Judah or Yehuda", i.e., Judaism), etc. Ruxue contains xue, meaning literally "study" or "studies", but parallel to the suffix "-ology" or "-ics", used in the Chinese term for most sciences and academic fields (e.g. Huaxue 化学, "chemistry"; xinlixue 心理学, "psychology").
The different names for Confucianism are often used interchangeably, especially in popular culture, though they do have different connotations. For example, many Confucians object strongly to calling Confucianism Rujiao, because this implies, in their view, that it is a superstitious religion rather than a logical philosophy. See discussion of whether or not Confucianism is a religion.

Confucian Figures


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