What is Confucianism?


Confucianism, sometimes viewed as a religion and sometimes as a philosophy, traces back to the sayings and biographical fragments attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BCE) recorded in the Analects. The Analects is the primary text historians have used for information about the life of Confucius and his teachings.

Many scholars note the difficulty in defining Confucianism and there is no consensus on whether or not it is a religion. Scholar Yong Chen explains that “The question of whether Confucianism is a religion is probably one of the most controversial issues in both Confucian scholarship and the discipline of religious studies” (1). Likewise, Engler and Grieve say that “There have been, and are still, those scholars who have understood Confucianism as a religion; others have argued that Confucianism is not a religion but something else, often, a philosophy” (2).

Confucianism traces itself to the teachings on education, politics, and ethics by Confucius and his followers in the fifth and sixth centuries BCE. Confucius was an influential thinker who gained a following (both in his lifetime and for the following 2500 or so years), and his teachings emphasized justice and morality, particularly in the governmental and relational realms. Confucius was an early thinker in line of those who explored the notion of goodness and whether moral superiority was a divine privilege or a thing that was inherent within human beings of which could be cultivated. Confucius lived at a time when the Zhou Dynasty (ruling from 1046 to 256 BCE) and its leaders believed that they were given authority directly from the gods under what is known as the Mandate of Heaven.

Confucianism does not purport to be an organized religion although it does outline guidelines for followers looking to live their lives in a way that emphasizes self-discipline, conformity to rituals, love for humanity, worship of ancestors, and a respect for elders. Although Confucius himself saw heaven as the source of moral order, he did not believe that moral precepts were derived from the gods, and thus rendered Confucianism humanistic in that it is primarily human (as opposed to supernaturally or transcendentally) orientated: it emphasizes justice and harmony in family, community, and social relations (as in “The Five Constant Relationships”), and assumes that human beings are by their nature fundamentally good (which distinguishes Confucianism from other schools of Chinese philosophy such as the Legalists. See The Golden Age of Chinese Philosophy). It therefore holds that human beings can be improved in the moral sense and that they can learn to do good as well as uphold righteousness. This could be done through exercising seriousness, sincerity, generosity, diligence, and kindness, which would uphold the will of heaven.

Confucianism has certainly had a great influence on the social life and political philosophy of China. Confucius’ political and moral philosophy was further developed by the philosopher-sage Mencius (c. 372-289 BCE) and Xun Zi (third century BCE), and was promoted to state ideology during the reign of Emperor Wu (156-87 BCE) during the Han Dynasty (r. 206 BCE – 220 CE). It became the accepted social ethic of Chinese society, and Confucius was soon viewed as a saint as opposed to just an ordinary man. The Han Dynasty in 136 BCE, for example, introduced examinations for imperial civil service based upon Confucius’s meritocratic ideals. The emperors of the Song (r. 960-1279 CE) and Ming (r. 1368-1644 CE) dynasties saw how Confucian ideals maintained social order, and also made it the state religion. What is known as Neo-Confucianism can be traced to the scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE) who incorporated elements of Buddhism and Daoism into Confucianism.

Confucius is certainly one of the most influential teachers in Chinese history and the philosophy/religion he founded is embraced by some five to six million people today. His ideas have also influenced the spiritual and political lives of people in numerous Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and others. Confucianism did, however, come up against strong opposition during China’s Cultural Revolution of the twentieth century when it was blamed for the country’s weaknesses. In more recent years New Confucianism has emerged in China which combines Confucian ideals with both Chinese and western thinking and philosophy.

References and Recommended Readings

1. Chen, Y. 2012. Confucianism as Religion: Controversies and Consequences. p. 1.

2. Engler, S. & Grieve, P. G. 2005. Historicizing “Tradition” in the Study of Religion. p. 232.

Ambalu, S. Et al. 2013. The Religions Book. p. 74-77



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