Confucianism is a philosophy and belief system from ancient China, which laid the foundation for much of Chinese culture. Confucius was a philosopher and teacher who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.E. His thoughts on ethics, good behavior, and moral character were written down by his disciples in several books, the most important being the Lunyu. Confucianism believes in ancestor worship and human-centered virtues for living a peaceful life. The golden rule of Confucianism is “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.”

There is debate over if Confucianism is a religion. Confucianism is best understood as an ethical guide to life and living with strong character. Yet, Confucianism also began as a revival of an earlier religious tradition. There are no Confucian gods, and Confucius himself is worshipped as a spirit rather than a god. However, there are temples of Confucianism, which are places where important community and civic rituals happen. This debate remains unresolved and many people refer to Confucianism as both a religion and a philosophy.

The main idea of Confucianism is the importance of having a good moral character, which can then affect the world around that person through the idea of “cosmic harmony.” If the emperor has moral perfection, his rule will be peaceful and benevolent. Natural disasters and conflict are the result of straying from the ancient teachings. This moral character is achieved through the virtue of ren, or “humanity,” which leads to more virtuous behaviours, such as respect, altruism, and humility. Confucius believed in the importance of education in order to create this virtuous character. He thought that people are essentially good yet may have strayed from the appropriate forms of conduct. Rituals in Confucianism were designed to bring about this respectful attitude and create a sense of community within a group.

The idea of “filial piety,” or devotion to family, is key to Confucius thought. This devotion can take the form of ancestor worship, submission to parental authority, or the use of family metaphors, such as “son of heaven,” to describe the emperor and his government. The family was the most important group for Confucian ethics, and devotion to family could only strengthen the society surrounding it.

While Confucius gave his name to Confucianism, he was not the first person to discuss many of the important concepts in Confucianism. Rather, he can be understood as someone concerned with the preservation of traditional Chinese knowledge from earlier thinkers. After Confucius’ death, several of his disciples compiled his wisdom and carried on his work. The most famous of these disciples were Mencius and Xunzi, both of whom developed Confucian thought further.

Confucianism remains one of the most influential philosophies in China. During the Han Dynasty, emperor Wu Di (reigned 141–87 B.C.E.) made Confucianism the official state ideology. During this time, Confucius schools were established to teach Confucian ethics. Confucianism existed alongside Buddhism and Taoism for several centuries as one of the most important Chinese religions. In the Song Dynasty (960–1279 C.E.) the influence from Buddhism and Taoism brought about “Neo-Confucianism,” which combined ideas from all three religions. However, in the Qing dynasty (1644–1912 C.E.), many scholars looked for a return to the older ideas of Confucianism, prompting a Confucian revival.

Confucianism

Confucianism is an ancient Chinese belief system, which focuses on the importance of personal ethics and morality. Whether it is only or a philosophy or also a religion is debated. Mencius (or Meng Ke who lived from 372 to 289 B.C.E.) is the best-known Confucian philosopher after Confucius himself.

altruism
Noun

unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others

civic
Adjective

having to do with citizenship or public service.

Confucianism
Noun

system of philosophical and ethical teachings founded by Confucius.

disciple
Noun

one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another

ethics
Plural Noun

beliefs about what is right and wrong.

filial piety
Noun

devotion to family

humanism
Noun

outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters

morality
Noun

beliefs about what is right or wrong behavior, or the degree to which something is right or wrong.

philosopher
Noun

person who studies knowledge and the way people use it.

ritual
Noun

series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.