Confucianism is a comprehensive system of thought and behaviour encompassing religion, philosophy, morality, and political science. Confucianism and its teachings have shaped the political and social development of China for hundreds of years.
Confucianism developed over the course of two thousand years, beginning with the teachings of its founder: the philosopher , or "Master Kong" (551-479 BC), known in the West by the Latinized name of Confucius.
Although Confucius self-deprecatingly claimed that he had discovered nothing new, and that he was merely the transmitter of moral and social truths, in fact Confucius established a system of ritual as well as moral and social teachings which fundamentally shaped the evolution of Chinese society. Confucius taught during a period of profound upheaval known as the Warring States Period, when China was divided into many warring factions, and governments were corrupt. His teachings dealt mainly with personal and political morality - he taught what it meant to be a just ruler and a man of principles and honour. His teachings sought to restore the Mandate of Heaven to the rulers so that peace and prosperity would return to China. His goal was to help the people achieve social and personal perfection and reestablish the ordered society that had supposedly existed before this period of internal warfare.
Although there are many temples dedicated to Confucianism throughout Asia, Confucius did not claim to be a religious teacher and his teachings do not deal with the supernatural or god. However, with the passage of time Confucius came to be somewhat mythologized: his birth and many other incidents in his life were said to have been miraculous. Confucianism also blended with pre-existing Chinese folk religion and adopted the practice of ancestor worship. There is some debate whether Confucianism should be classified as a religion or a philosophy.
Confucius himself was a traditionalist who emphasized justice, sincerity and scholarly study as the way to harmony and perfection. He stated:
When the Superior Man eats he does not try to stuff himself; at rest he does not seek perfect comfort; he is diligent in his work and careful in speech. He avails himself to people of the Tao and thereby corrects himself. This is the kind of person of whom you can say, "he loves learning."
A Confucian Temple. China, 1907
The original thoughts and quotations of Confucius were preserved and collected by his disciples in the Analects, which were written down and collected many years after his death. Subsequent teachers and philosophers added to the system, creating the system of moral philosophy which came to be known as Confucianism. Over the course of centuries, Confucianism became the dominant system of thought in China, surpassing competing systems such as Taoism. Confucianism exerted an influence on many countries neighboring China such as Korea and Japan.
One of the chief tenets of Confucianism was the idea that nobility of virtue was greater than nobility of birth. Thus Confucius said, "In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes." (Analects XV, 39) This idea, novel at the time, led to the idea of advancement in society based on merit and was the foundation for the Imperial Examination System, through which men gained position within the Chinese Imperial bureaucracy based on their knowledge and intelligence, and not their birth.
In the late 1600s the teachings of Confucius were introduced to Europe by Jesuit missionaries such as Matteo Ricci, who translated the Analects into Latin. Confucianism, particularly its emphasis on a meritocracy, gained influential adherents including the French philosopher Voltaire.
A Priest Pays His Respects at a Confucian Altar. China, 1901
The main tenets of Confucianism are as follows:
An Ancestral Tablet in a Traditional Chinese Home, circa 1900. These tablets were used to venerate and worship the family ancestors in accordance with Confucian rites.
Compassion (Benevolence and Humanity) -- Confucius believed in the Golden Rule, which is common to almost all religions: That one should treat others as one would like to be treated. He taught that people should treat each other humanely and that rulers should treat their subjects with justice, or risk losing the Mandate of Heaven to govern. In turn, the people were to obey those rulers who enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven.
Ritual -- the teachings of Confucius emphasized ritual in daily life as a template for the ideal social norm. He stated: "Respectfulness, without the Rites, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the Rites, become timidity; boldness, without the Rites, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the Rites, becomes rudeness." (Analects VIII, 2) Rituals governed how people interacted with each other and prescribed protocols of politeness and behaviour; in some ways Confucius's concept of ritual can be compared to a system of etiquette.
Filial Piety -- According to Confucius, children owed a duty of loyalty and respect to their parents. By analogy this concept was extended to other family and social relationships which were referred to as The Five Bonds. These bonds set out the duties and expectations as between the Ruler and the Ruled (Emperor and Subjects), Father and Son, Husband and Wife, Elder Brother to Younger Brother, Friend to Friend.
Within these relationships or Bonds, each person had specific duties. In all relationships, the elders were highly revered. These duties and relationships extended to the dead, and led to ancestor worship.
Relationships -- interrelated with the concept of filial piety is the concept that one's duties arise from one's relationship to others. Confucius stated: "There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son." (Analects XII, 11) In other words every person in this hierarchy has certain obligations; the social order can only remain strong if each fulfills the role that they have been assigned and acts accordingly in his relations with others.
Being a Gentleman -- Confucius exhorted men (he was apparently gender specific) to be gentlemen, or "perfect men", literally the Lord's Child, and to avoid being a "small person". A gentleman was not petty, greedy, superficial or materialistic - a gentleman acted as a moral guide for society by 1) cultivating himself morally 2) showing filial piety and loyalty where these are due 3) cultivating humanity and benevolence
Rectification of Names -- Confucius believed that the only way to restore and maintain social order was to deal with reality as it truly was. He stated: "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success." Thus it was necessary to use correct terminology in government and social discourse. Circumlocutions, double speak and euphemisms were to be avoided.
Governance -- In order to rule, the king should first master himself and be the calm center around which the kingdom revolves.
Meritocracy -- Confucius's emphasis on scholarly study as the key to self improvement influenced the idea that rulers and bureaucrats should hold their positions based on merit and not birth. This is one of the most influential aspects of Confucianism: by promoting literacy and study, Confucius contributed to the creation of competent Imperial bureaucracy, admission to which was gained only by success in the Imperial Examinations.
In its early history, the ideas of Confucius clashed violently with other religious beliefs in China. For a time Confucianism was suppressed by the Imperial government and Confucian books were burned. Scholars who refused to give up their books were also burned. However under the Emperor Wu, Confucianism came to be accepted as the state religion. The rulers found Confucius's emphasis that the ruled had a duty to obey their rulers to be a useful tool of state control. Thanks to state sponsorship, Confucian thought came to regulate all aspects of Chinese life and was not replaced until the Communist Revolution. Even today there are many adherents of this philosophy/religion.