Confucianism is the world’s fifth largest religion with nearly 394 million practitioners. It is widely debated whether Confucianism is a religion or an ethical and philosophical system. Confucianism literally means “the school of the scholars” or, less precisely, “the religion of Confucius,” as it is based on the teachings of Kung Fu-Tzu (Confucius), a Chinese philosopher who lived between 551-479 BC.
Some do not believe Confucianism to be a religion because it lacks formal worship or a meditation component. Yet it has a strong focus on ritual and a distinctive worldview that dictates its practitioners’ outlook on life. Regardless of whether Confucianism is a religion, a philosophy, or a melding of both along with other influences, Confucius’s beliefs became the standard in Chinese politics and scholarship. They were eventually recognized as the official Chinese imperial belief system. That system has had immense impact on Chinese and other East Asian societies, including religious movements that have arisen in other cultures.
Perhaps the best-known distinction between Confucianism and other religions is the lack of a central, authoritative god figure. Confucius receives ritual respect from his followers but is not worshiped as a god.
Confucius spent a great deal of his adulthood working in administrative positions within the government. As an intellectual, he worried about the troubled times in which he lived and traveled widely to spread his political ideas and to influence many of the warlords contending for supremacy in China.
Confucius believed in the perfectibility of humanity by the cultivation of the mind. He stressed the importance of pursuing peace and equity, devotion to parents and to rituals, learning, self-control, and socially just activity. His teachings moved from philosophical to religious when people began acting in a “correct” way, following proper protocol, and engaging in ceremonial etiquette.
Confucius introduced the idea of meritocracy, which led to the introduction of the imperial examination system in China in 165 BC. As this system evolved over the following centuries, anyone who wished to become a government official had to prove their worth by passing written examinations. A revolutionary concept at the time, meritocracy became the foundation for modern civil services throughout the world.
Confucius’ establishment of Rujia, the school of the literati, produced public officials with a strong sense of national pride and duty. Confucius said that those kings who left their kingdoms to those most qualified, rather than to their elder sons as tradition dictated, were worthy of praise. The ethics underlying Confucian thought are revealed in the Hundred Schools of Thought, developed by his disciples and their descendants.
Debated during the Warring States Period and outlawed during the Qin Dynasty, Confucianism survived the suppression of these periods partly due to the discovery around 200 BC of a trove of Confucian classic texts hidden in the walls of a scholar’s house.
Confucianism was chosen by Han Wudi as a political system to govern the Chinese imperial state. Despite its loss of influence during the Tang Dynasty, Confucian doctrine remained an anchor of Chinese thought for 2,000 years until it was attacked during the Cultural Revolution of the People’s Republic of China in 1966 AD. Although it was outlawed, Confucianism never left the hearts of the Chinese people and has enjoyed a contemporary renaissance in mainland China.
Outside of China, the societies most strongly influenced by Confucianism include Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau.
The Five Classics (Wu Ching) and the Four Books (Ssu Shu) are 2,000-year-old books that detail Confucian ideas on law, society, government, education, literature, and religion. Although not strictly holy texts, these works became core curriculum in Chinese universities and are still studied today.
The Five Classics
(1) The Book of History was written during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) and describes events dating back to the third millennium BC. This book contains the sayings and rules of wise and wicked rulers of past dynasties. It also details why heaven supported the wise rulers and opposed the wicked ones.
(2) The Book of Songs/Poetry contains more than 300 songs and poems as old as 1000-500 BC.
(3) The Book of Rites details Chinese religious practices from the eighth to the fifth centuries BC.
(4) The Book of Changes contains 64 symbolic hexagrams that followers of Confucius believe offer insight into human behavior, if interpreted correctly. This book dates to around 3000 BC and is considered one of the most popular holy books among Eastern religions.
(5) The Book of Spring and Autumn is a chronology of Confucius’s home state of Lu. He may have dictated this book that was compiled posthumously.
The Four Books
These books served as the basis of Chinese civil service and government until the early twentieth century. They were originally published separately until they were compiled as a single volume in 1190 AD.
(1) The Great Learning is a book of instructions on the correct way to perform rituals. Written between 500-200 BC, its primary theme is the effect of a ruler’s integrity on government.
(2) The Doctrine of the Mean emphasizes “the Way” toward self-realization or the perfectly cultivated self. It is the most mystical of Confucian writings.
(3) The Analects are sayings of Confucius compiled by his disciples more than 70 years after his death in 479 BC. The collection contains the majority of the Four Books and details the basic tenets of Confucian thought, such as perpetuation of culture, respectful conduct of affairs, loyalties to superiors, and keeping promises. It includes vignettes of Confucius’ own life.
(4) The Book of Mencius interprets Confucian thought through the teachings of Mencius, one of the most esteemed Confucian scholars. Mencius asserted that righteousness is more important than life itself. He believed that individuals could achieve the Way only through constant self-refinement.
Unlike most Western philosophers, Confucius did not rely on deductive reasoning to convince his listeners. Instead, he used highly contextualized dictum and aphorism that often frustrate Western readers unfamiliar with Eastern circular thought.
The Analects (Book 1: Hsio R)
1. The Master said, “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?”
2. “Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?”
3. “Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?”
1. “The philosopher Yû said, ‘They are few who, being filial and fraternal, are fond of offending against their superiors. There have been none, who, not liking to offend against their superiors, have been fond of stirring up confusion.’”
2. “The superior man bends his attention to what is radical. That being established, all practical courses naturally grow up. Filial piety and fraternal submission! – are they not the root of all benevolent actions?”
“The Master said, ‘Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.’”
“The philosopher Tsang said, ‘I daily examine myself on three points – whether, in transacting business for others, I may have been not faithful – whether, in intercourse with friends, I may have been not sincere – whether I may have not mastered and practiced the instructions of my teacher.’”
“The Master said, ‘To rule a country of a thousand chariots, there must be reverent attention to business, and sincerity; economy in expenditure, and love for men; and the employment of the people at the proper seasons.’”
“The Master said, ‘A youth, when at home, should be filial, and, abroad, respectful to his elders. He should be earnest and truthful. He should overflow in love to all, and cultivate the friendship of the good. When he has time and opportunity, after the performance of these things, he should employ them in polite studies.’”
“Tsze-hsiâ said, “If a man withdraws his mind from the love of beauty, and applies it as sincerely to the love of the virtuous; if, in serving his parents, he can exert his utmost strength; if, in serving his prince, he can devote his life; if, in his intercourse with his friends, his words are sincere – although men say that he has not learned, I will certainly say that he has.’”
1. “The Master said, ‘If the scholar be not grave, he will not call forth any veneration, and his learning will not be solid.’”
2. “Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.”
3. “Have no friends not equal to yourself.”
4. “When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.”
“The philosopher Tsang said, ‘Let there be a careful attention to perform the funeral rites to parents, and let them be followed when long gone with the ceremonies of sacrifice – then the virtue of the people will resume its proper excellence.’”
1. “Tsze-ch'in asked Tsze-kung, saying, ‘When our master comes to any country, he does not fail to learn all about its government. Does he ask his information? Or is it given to him?’”
2. “Tsze-kung said, ‘Our master is benign, upright, courteous, temperate, and complaisant and thus he gets his information. The master's mode of asking information – is it not different from that of other men?’”
“The Master said, “While a man's father is alive, look at the bent of his will; when his father is dead, look at his conduct. If for three years he does not alter from the way of his father, he may be called filial.’”
Confucius believed he was the purveyor of the wisdom of the ancients. He held that society consisted of five hierarchical relationships: (1) husband and wife; (2) parents and children; (3) older and younger brother (or older and younger people); (4) rulers and subjects; and (5) friend and friend.
Confucian spirituality places strong emphasis on the role of family, calling for respect, piety, and deference in familial interaction. These interactions are part and parcel of teachings on righteousness, ritual wisdom, and faithfulness.
Confucius believed people must juggle their individual good with ultimate good. He thought that people are inherently good, but they need direction. If adhered to, direction leads to deeper virtue. He taught that individuals who put aside virtue for material pleasure make bad choices and follow an inferior path.
Confucius told his followers to have true compassion for their own role and for the people they would encounter. He encouraged every person to live appropriately in his or her relationships. The essence of Confucianism is jen, which literally means “all the good things that happen when people meet,” including hospitality and well-wishing.
Complimenting jen are five practices for good conduct: (1) li, respect for people in authority, whether a god, king or parent; (2) hsiao, familial love that includes distant relatives and even friends; (3) yi, mutual commitment among friends and, more generally, the cultivation of friendships; (4) chung, loyalty to the state; and (5) chun-tzu, an outgoing, generous, liberal presence.
In other faith traditions, “ritual” often means to sacrifice in a religious ceremony. In Confucianism, the term is extended to include secular ceremonial behavior common to everyday life. Etiquette is codified and treated as an all-embracing system of norms. Confucius tried to revive the etiquette of earlier dynasties. After Confucius’s death, his ideas became the standard of ritual behavior.
BRANCHES OF CONFUCIANISM
Confucianism as it exists today is derived primarily from the Neo-Confucian School led by Zhu Xi (1130-1200 AD) of the later Song Dynasty. He gave Confucianism renewed vigor. In later Chinese dynasties, the Neo-Confucian School of thought incorporated Taoist and Buddhist ideas to create a broader system of metaphysicalism.
CONFUCIANISM IN THE MARKETPLACE
Confucianism at work in the marketplace translates as four distinct concepts. First, in order to organize a stable society of interdependent people, preference is given to collective welfare, rather than to an individual’s welfare. From the Confucian perspective, ethical business requires leaders to give thought to the well being of all people. If a company (or an entire country) were to benefit from “dishonesty,” the act easily could be considered ethical because, in theory, the whole community benefits.
Confucianism strongly emphasizes the network of obligations, duties, and relationships binding an individual to the family, the community, and the state. An individual’s ethics must harmonize with that of the larger society in pursuit of a common good. Confucian business ethics combine both the public and the private realms in what is hoped to be a happy social whole.
Second, individuals with a Confucian worldview often avoid candor in the marketplace in order to “save face,” as well as to ensure the avoidance of injury to the “faces” of others around them. This is in contrast, for example, to the Western path of excessive bluntness to gain prompt closure in a negotiation. This Confucian virtue of li is the sense of propriety required of all public and ceremonial action, whether simple or profound.
Third, business structures influenced by Confucianism are extremely hierarchical and bureaucratic. Businesspeople are keenly sensitive to age, seniority, rank, and status within organizations. They are more likely than their Western counterparts to accept the inequality in power and authority that exists in most organizations.
Of Confucianism’s five primary virtues, hsiao underscores the hierarchical authority structures in Confucian-influenced businesses. What outsiders might call an inequality of power is considered not only a matter of relationship, but also of custom or a ritual intrinsic to business decorum.
Fourth, Confucian thought extols varying levels of honesty. Analects 12 teaches, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself,” and Tseng Tzu wrote in Analects 4, “Each day I examine myself in three ways. In doing things for others, have I been disloyal? In my interactions with friends, have I been untrustworthy? Have I not practiced what I have preached?”
In Analects 3 Confucius wrote, “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.”
The Confucian argument is that leaders administer punishments after people engage in anti-social behavior, thereby training them to engage in good behavior, but without helping them understand why they should exhibit “good” behavior to begin with. They believe that these ritual patterns of behavior are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, thus allowing people to behave properly because they want to avoid losing face.
Consequently, corruption and nepotism may arise due to this reliance on training people to act ethically without emphasizing why they should do so, especially in a society where relationships are considered more important than laws. For example, the salaries of government officials in China historically have been far lower than the minimum required to raise a family. The solution has essentially been to resort to bribery, kickbacks, and nepotism to make up the difference. While there have been some practical attempts to control and reduce corruption, many Chinese blame Confucianism for not providing the means for significant reform.
The downfall of Confucianism’s strictly authoritarian social system is its lack of a guidance mechanism to judge whether a person in authority is behaving appropriately and when the line is crossed beyond which the duty of loyalty is no longer owed. In countries that embrace Confucian thought, abuse of power often continues until it becomes intolerable. Then the tyrant is overthrown.
The underlying value in Confucianism is social harmony, based on the assumption that everyone tries their best. If people, especially those in leadership, do not try their best, there are no practical safeguards against negligence or misconduct.