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Confucianism (kənfyo͞oˈshənĭzəm), moral and religious system of China. Its origins go back to the Analects (see Chinese literature), the sayings attributed to Confucius, and to ancient commentaries, including that of Mencius.

Early History and Precepts

In its early form (before the 3d cent. B.C.) Confucianism was primarily a system of ethical precepts for the proper management of society. It envisaged man as essentially a social creature who is bound to his fellows by jen, a term often rendered as “humanity,” or “human-kind-ness.” Jen is expressed through the five relations—sovereign and subject, parent and child, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend. Of these, the filial relation is usually stressed.

The relations are made to function smoothly by an exact adherence to li, which denotes a combination of etiquette and ritual. In some of these relations a person may be superior to some and inferior to others. If a person in a subordinate status wishes to be properly treated that person must—applying a principle similar to the Golden Rule—treat his or her own inferiors with propriety. Correct conduct, however, proceeds not through compulsion, but through a sense of virtue inculcated by observing suitable models of deportment. The ruler, as the moral exemplar of the whole state, must be irreproachable, but a strong obligation to be virtuous rests upon all.

The early philosophers recognized that the epochal “great commonwealth,” the union of mankind under ethical rule, would take a long time to achieve, but believed that it might be constantly advanced by practicing the “rectification of names.” This is the critical examination of the degree to which the behavior of a functionary or an institution corresponds to its name; thus, the title of king should not be applied to one who exacts excessive taxes, and the criticism of the undeserving claimant should force him to reform. The practice of offering sacrifices and other veneration to Confucius in special shrines began in the 1st cent. A.D. and continued into the 20th cent.

Renaissance and Decline

Confucianism has often had to contend with other religious systems, notably Taoism and Buddhism, and has at times, especially from the 3d to the 7th cent., suffered marked declines. It enjoyed a renaissance in the late T'ang dynasty (618–906), but it was not until the Sung dynasty (960–1279) and the appearance of neo-Confucianism that Confucianism became the dominant philosophy among educated Chinese. Drawing on Taoist and Buddhist ideas, neo-Confucian thinkers formulated a system of metaphysics, which had not been a part of older Confucianism. They were particularly influenced by Ch'an or Zen Buddhism: nevertheless they rejected the Taoist search for immortality and Buddhist monasticism and ethical universalism, upholding instead the hierarchical political and social vision of the early Confucian teachings.

The neo-Confucian eclecticism was unified and established as an orthodoxy by Chu Hsi (1130–1200), and his system dominated subsequent Chinese intellectual life. His metaphysics is based on the concept of li, or principle of form in manifold things, and the totality of these, called the “supreme ultimate” (t'ai chi). During the Ming dynasty, the idealist school of Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529) stressed meditation and intuitive knowledge. The overthrow (1911–12) of the monarchy, with which Confucianism had been closely identified, led to the disintegration of Confucian institutions and a decline of Confucian traditions, a process accelerated after the Communist revolution (1949). Elements of Confucianism survived as a part of traditional Chinese religious practice in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau and among Chinese emigrants. Since the mid-1990s Confucianism has experienced a modest revival in China, where the Communist party has increasingly promoted aspects of the Confucian tradition to counter liberal Western political and social influences.


See R. Wilhelm, Confucius and Confucianism (tr. 1931, repr. 1970); S. Kaizuka, Confucius (tr. 1956); H. Fingarette, Confucius (1972); The Analects (tr. 1979); W. T. de Bary, Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart (1981); R. Dawson, Confucius (1981); B. I. Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China (1985).

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an ethical religion, rather than a religion founded on belief in god(s), which arose in the 6th century BC in China and was based on the teachings of Confucius, who was a teacher rather than a PROPHET. The goal of Confucians is to achieve harmony with the world and nature, a gentlemanly ideal. For many centuries Confucianism was the religion of the Chinese bureaucratic class – the mandarins or literati - whose administrative posts were gained through competitive examinations in classical knowledge. Confucianism is often regarded as playing a decisive role in the legitimation of Chinese society and in providing a unified CULTURE over many centuries, overcoming even the conquest of China by ‘barbarian’ outsiders.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

From 403 to 221 BCE China was torn apart by a period of war and political struggle for power. All of society was affected. Inevitably, the innocent suffered the most. Even then, Eastern philosophical spirituality revolved around the balance of yin and yang, the two contrasting but all-encompassing principles of the Dao. People began to wonder what had gone wrong, what they had done to destroy the harmony of daily existence.

The times might be compared to the destructive, intergenerational conflicts experienced during the 1960s in America. Race and politics, even gender, were examined anew, traditional values were questioned, and liberal and conservative traditions developed.

The conservative response centered on the teachings of K'ung Ch'iu, or Confucius. His philosophy was not to change existing society, but to do it better. Be a better son, a better farmer, a better politician. He taught that people must become what, in fact, they really were, even though their actions often failed to demonstrate it.

His writings revolved around the concept of ren (virtue) and li (the potential to rise above the animal). He taught that if you go through the motions enough, whether you feel like it or not, you will acquire the habit of doing what is right.

Confucius personified the yang side of Chinese reality. He was rational, thoughtful, left-brained, and part of the establishment. His object was to reform existing institutions.

Laozi, or Lao Tzu (the name simply means "the old man"), is considered to be the architect of Daoism (or Taoism). He was a contemporary of Confucius, and some traditions claim they met. Confucius was said to have remarked, "Of birds, I know they have wings to fly with, of fish, that they have fins to swim with, of wild beasts, that they have feet to run with. For feet, there are traps, for fins, nets, for wings, arrows. But who knows how dragons surmount wind and cloud into heaven? This day I have seen Laozi and he is a dragon."

Lao Tzu was yin to Confucius's yang, the liberal to his conservative, the hippie to his establishment. He was romantic, intuitive, feelings-oriented, and right-brained. His thinking was that reason and society were not answers to the problem but had become the problem itself.

Tradition even casts him as the first "drop out." We are told that at the ripe old age of eighty (some legends say he was 160), he became disgusted with the hypocrisy and striving of the world. Mounting his water buffalo, he rode west to Tibet, pausing at the border only long enough to write the Tao Te Ching before disappearing into history.

In truth, most Chinese were so steeped in balance that they prudently adopted both approaches to their social problems. Confucianism spoke to their social and family needs. Siddhartha's Buddhism answered questions about life and death, and Lao Tzu's Daoism spoke to their inner nature. It came to be said that Chinese officials were Buddhist by religion, Confucian at work, and Daoist in retirement. (Perhaps the equivalent can be seen in a man who goes to church, synagogue, or mosque on the weekend, wears a suit to a weekday business meeting, and rides off on a Harley during his vacation.)

But in essence, what for Confucius was the sum total of the ideal society— order and material gain, structure and formal learning—was, for Lao Tzu, the epitome of death and decay.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



ethical and political teachings that arose in ancient China and exercised an enormous influence on the development of culture, political life, and social structure in China for more than 2,000 years.

The foundations of Confucianism were established in the sixth century B.C. by Confucius and further developed by Mencius (Meng-tzu), Hsiin-tzu, and other disciples.

From its inception Confucianism expressed the interests of part of the ruling class (the hereditary aristocracy) and played an active role in sociopolitical struggles. It called for the strengthening of the social order and of forms of state administration through strict observance of ancient traditions, idealized by the Confucians, and through set forms of interrelations among people in families and society. Confucians believed that the existence of exploiters and exploited (in Confucian terminology, men doing mental labor and men doing physical labor) was a universal law of justice, natural and legitimate: the former were to rule, and the latter to submit to and to support the former through their labor. Struggles among various schools of thought in ancient China reflected the sharp social and political battles waged between social forces of that time. Consequently, there were contradictory interpretations by Confucianist thinkers of China’s fundamental problems, such as the concept of heaven and its role, the nature of man, and the relationship between ethical principles and the law.

Ethics, morality, and state rule were the fundamental concerns of Confucianism. The concept of jen (“humaneness”) as the highest law of interrelations between people in society and in the family is the fundamental principle of Confucianist ethics. Jen is achieved by moral self-improvement through observance of li (“decorum”)—norms of behavior, based on deference and respect for elders and superiors, respect for parents, devotion to the sovereign, and politeness. According to Confucianism, jen may be achieved only by the elect, the chün tzu (“noble men”), that is, the members of the highest strata of society. Commoners, or hsiaojen (literally, “little people”), were not capable of achieving jen. This opposition of “noble persons” to commoners and the affirmation of the superiority of the first over the second, frequently encountered in the writings of Confucius and his followers, is a clear expression of the social bias and class nature of Confucianism.

Confucianism devoted considerable attention to problems of “humane” rule, based on the deification of the power of the ruler. This idea existed before Confucianism but was further developed and substantiated. The sovereign was declared to be the son of heaven (t’ien-tzu), who ruled by heaven’s command and fulfilled its will. The power of the ruler was recognized by Confucianism as sacred and granted from above, by heaven. Believing that “to rule means to rectify,” Confucianism attributed great significance to the teaching of cheng ming (“the rectification of names”), which urged that each person be given his place in society and that his responsibilities be strictly and precisely defined. This found expression in the words of Confucius: “The sovereign must be a sovereign, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son.” Confucianism called on the sovereigns to rule the people not on a basis of laws and punishment but through virtue, through an example of highly moral behavior, on a basis of common law. The sovereigns were asked not to burden the people with heavy taxes and obligations.

Mencius (fourth-third centuries B.C.), one of the most prominent followers of Confucius, even voiced the idea that the people had the right to overthrow a cruel ruler by means of insurrection. This idea was determined, in the final analysis, by the complexity of sociopolitical conditions, the presence of powerful vestiges of primitive communal relations, acute social struggles, and strife between the kingdoms that then existed in China. Criticism of individual rulers, contrasting them with “wise” and “virtuous” sovereigns of the distant past (that is, ancestral tribal chiefs)— Yao, Shun, and Wen Wang—was at times allowed in such a situation by Confucianism, which was directed at strengthening the existing social order. In conjunction with this, Confucianism preached the social utopia of the ta t’ung society (the “great unity”), the “golden age” in the history of China, when there were supposedly no wars or strife, when there was equality of all men and genuine concern for the people.

Confucianism subsequently evolved by adopting many features of other ancient Chinese ideological currents, particularly Legalism. This was an objective necessity because of the formation of the centralized Han Empire, the rule of which required a flexible and ramified administrative apparatus. Confucians who had mastered the science of administration that was based on paternalism and traditions and who had assimilated Legalist methods of rule relying on law and punishment were able to head the administrative apparatus. The reformed Confucianism of the Han period strengthened its position in a society of centralized despotism. One of its main representatives was Tung Chung-shu (second century B.C.), who combined Confucian ethics with the natural philosophy and cosmological ideas of Taoism and the school of natural philosophers (yin-yang chid).

In 136 B.C. under Emperor Wu Ti, Confucianism was proclaimed the official doctrine and after this remained the ruling ideology for more than 2,000 years (until the bourgeois Hsin-hai Revolution of 1911), supporting feudal-absolutist despotic power. Religious, mystical, and reactionary features were intensified. Great emphasis was placed on the ideas of heaven as a predetermining divine force, of the dependence of man and society on the will of heaven, of the divine origin of the sovereign’s power (the son of heaven), of the loyalty of the subject to the sovereign, and of the rule of the son of heaven over all peoples of the universe. In this way, Confucianism, as a ruling ideology that for centuries preached the cult of the emperor as the executor of the will of heaven instilled in the people fanatical devotion to the son of heaven, Sinocentrism, chauvinism, and a disdainful attitude toward other peoples.

Confucianism as an ethical-political and religious system penetrated all aspects of societal life and in the course of many centuries determined norms of morality, family and social traditions, and scientific and philosophical thinking, hindering their further development and establishing fixed stereotypes in the consciousness of the people, particularly among the intelligentsia. Confucianism was further strengthened after an acute struggle with Buddhism in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. An important role in this struggle was played by the well-known writer and thinker Han Yü (768–824), who sharply criticized Buddhism and defended Confucianism.

The next stage of Confucianism dates to the Sung period (960–1279) and is linked with the name of Chu Hsi (1130–1200), a well-known historical scholar, philologist, and philosopher who was the founder of a revivified Confucianism—the philosophical system of Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism absorbed and preserved the basic principles of ancient Confucianism, including its reactionary theses about the permanence of the social order, the natural division of people into higher and lower and noble and base, and the supreme role of the son of heaven—the sovereign of the universe. Neo-Confucianism was also placed at the service of the ruling class and officially recognized as the orthodox ruling ideology, which until the modern period inhibited and retarded the development of sociopolitical and philosophical thinking, hindered progress in science and technology, and contributed to the isolation of China from European civilization and its progressive scientific and technological ideas. It was one factor determining the relative backwardness of China in the modern period. Neo-Confucianism played the same role in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam as in China.

In the late 19th century the bourgeois reformer K’ang Yu-wei and his followers made an unsuccessful attempt to modernize Confucianism, which was entering into increasing contradictions with conditions of social life (these conditions were changing with the development of capitalistic relations in the country). Confucianism was dealt a severe blow during the period of the May Fourth Movement (1919), when along with the social and political struggle there were demands to replace the old, obsolete culture with a new, democratic, and more progressive one. Nevertheless, even after this Confucianism continued to play an important role in the social life of China. During the rule of the Chiang Kai-shek Kuomintang (1927^9), the ideology of Confucianism was placed at the service of Kuomintang reaction. Even after the formation of the People’s Republic of China, Confucianism has continued to exercise a certain influence on various segments of the population, their social psychology in particular. The Maoist leadership has also come under its influence, arming itself with the Confucian principles of Sinocentrism and of authoritarian rule of the supreme leader over unconditionally submissive masses and with the personality cult ideology. The campaign of “criticizing Lin Piao, criticizing Confucius”carried out by Maoists in 1970–75 was purely a political move aimed primarily at Lin Piao and his followers.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the ethical system of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher and teacher of ethics (551--479 bc), emphasizing moral order, the humanity and virtue of China's ancient rulers, and gentlemanly education
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005