Confucius and Confucianism — A Basic Introduction


Confucius’ Life

Confucius, or “Master Kung” as he became known, was born in the city of Lu (now known as Qufu) in the Northeast of China in 551 BCE and he died in 479 BCE.

According to legend, his father died at the age of 70 and he was raised by his mother. Women in the Confucian system of political philosophy are important in childhood education, as Confucius’ mother is thought to have been in his own upbringing. Besides studying history and music, as a child he learned hunting, fishing and archery. Confucius exemplified in his own life the rather broad set of competencies and broad minded interests that come to be thought befitting of a well-developed gentleman within the Confucian system of education. He married but divorced.

Confucius spent a part of his early life as a civil servant for the Duke of Lu. According to legend he had great success in that position, but his job was compromised due to the jealousy of others. After leaving that position, he spent his life as a scholar and educator. He developed the system of political philosophy that would come to dominate Chinese society for more than 2000 years. As a scholar, he travelled from town to town, with students who followed him. He sought throughout his life to again find work as a political advisor, as he thought that having the opportunity to positively influence political institutions was key to creating the conditions for the self-development of individuals. He found such work again at the age of 67 as an advisor for the Duke of Ai.

The texts of Confucius 

For most of Chinese history, Confucius was thought to have edited (or written) five books which became known as the Confucian Classics. These books covered areas thought integral for the well-rounded eduction of civil servants. These included:

  • The Classic of Poetry — a book of 305 poems and songs, performed at court ceremonies
  • The Book of Documents — a book of documents and speeches attributed to leaders of the Chao period
  • The Book of Rites — a description of ancient rites and ceremonies
  • I Ching — a book of divination
  • Spring and Autumn Annals — a historical record of the region of Lu from which Confucius came

Besides these texts, the Analects is the collection of sayings of Confucius, early compiled by his students. It consists largely of proverbs, thematically related in sections. From this text, in particular, we cull some of the basic ideas of Confucius.

The warring state period

Confucius, like Laozi, lived in a period of political disarray in China, known as the warring states period. The time was one of political dissolution in which the unity of the Chou dynasty was erroded and small state conflict was dominant. Various philosophical and political systems were developed at this time with the aim of helping to reestablish a better functioning political order. Besides Confucianism and Toaism, in political thought the period gives rise to legalism, which sought strong centralist policies for the empire, and Mohism, which argued for the need to rule in accord with “the will of heaven,” but offered a utilitarian standard of considering the greatest benefit (li) for the people. While Taoism argued for a return to largely self-government, or even anarchism, with the small village unit as a model, Confucianism argued for reestablishing the feudal ideal identified with the earlier Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Confucius as a model

Like Socrates’ in Ancient Greece, Confucius’ life is thought of as exemplary. Though Confucius did not think of himself as a sage, in Chinese history he has come to serve in particular as an example of a normal individual who is able, through his own efforts, to become a sage. He is not a prophet with a divinely inspired message. He is not a mystic. He is a scholar who strives to live virtuously. In fact, Confucius sees himself not as the founder of a school but as one individual in a longer line of scholars (Ju chia) which extends back to the era of the Shang dynasty, circa 1100 BCE.

Views of religion

Though Confucianism was intricately tied into the state religion in China, Confucius did not teach much about the gods. His is not primarily a religious philosophy but a political philosophy. As noted in the Analetcts, “The Master did not talk about marvels, feats of strength, irregularities, gods” (7/21).

We often find Confucius expressing hesitancy to discuss questions of traditional religion. The following is indicative: “Chi-lu asked about serving the ghosts and gods. The Master said, ‘Until you can serve men how can you the ghosts.’ ‘Permit me to ask about death.’ ‘Until you know about life how can you know about death?’” (11/12)

Similarly, it is noted: “The Master said, ‘To work for the things the common people have a right to and to keep one‘s distance from the gods and spirits while showing them reverence can be called wisdom.'” (6/22)

That said, Confucius did emphasize the importance of ritual for a virtuous life. And the civic religious functions played an important role in this. Still, we might say that he sees religion more in the service of a good life than man in the service of religion.

Self Development

The focus on Confucius is on self-development. In the Confucian worldview this not not means that one lives with focus on narrow self-interest, but with an understanding of how one’s life and well-being is tied into that of others. One becomes self-developed through cultivating virtues and fulfilling one’s social role.

Jen and Li 

Of special importance for self-development are the virtues of Jen and Li.  Jen is a virtue entailing conscientiousness, empathy, and altruism (that is, action done for the benefit of others, not ourselves). Li is translated as rites, ceremonies, or customs. Here religion clearly played role, but Li extends beyond the religious rites tot he cultivation of custom. All of this is to play a part in helping us develop Jen. In fact, the everyday rituals and customs can serve to wake us to the special character of the everyday world we are immersed in. It can foster our empathy and serve to undergird the social order.

Interlinked connections

While both Taoism and Confucianism underline the need for self-development in harmony with the Tao, their understandings of what this entails differ from each other. The Taoists have a much greater focus on individualism and spirituality as traditionally understood. Confucianism by contrast sees our harmony with the Tao and our self-development as taking place always against the backdrop of our existing social relationships. We fulfill ourselves and live in harmony with the Tao by fulfilling our roles as sons or daughters, fathers and mothers, within the family, or by fulfilling our roles as civil servants within the state. The well-ordered society is key to well-ordered individuals. And developing ourselves requires contributing to our society in its various social systems. Human life is characterized fundamentally by a network of relationships of interlinked systems. The self finds itself interlinked with a family, within a city, within a regional government, within an empire, within the world. The Tao is aligned when each of these system levels is aligned.


The study of the earlier mentioned five classics was thought integral to the education of civil servants throughout most of Chinese history. The works cover various domains of human life, and the study of them was to instill in them the importance of artistic expression, social processes and social systems, rituals, and considerations of metaphysics. These were tracked formally to the poetic vision, political vision, social vision, metaphysical vision, and historical vision. Each of these domains is key to our own self-development. They are domains of human expression that shape us. A wise civil servant shapes our social and political institutions with a view to the importance of each of these domains of human life, in service of the goal of virtue.

The Mandate of Heaven

Confucius emphasized that an emperor had a great responsibility to lead by virtuous example. As stated in the Analects: “Direct the people with moral force and regulate them with ritual, and they will possess shame, and moreover, they will be righteous.” (2.3)

The leader should be a well-rounded developed individual, who lives virtuously and properly embodies the empire’s customs and conscientiousness. Such an exemplary leader governs not for himself but to meet the needs of those in the kingdom. Seeing this, the people will follow his example. This is key to aligning the earth with heaven, for aligning action with the Tao. Under the best circumstances, this occurs, and the emperor is owed allegiance.

However, if an emperor fails to fulfill his role, then Confucianism came to accept that an empire could rightfully be overturned and a new imperial order could be instituted that did fulfill its correct purpose. The old empire — failing to fulfill its purpose — would lose the mandate of heaven. A new dynasty could then ascend and gain it. The kind of regime change that was imagined here would of course be extremely rare.

The rectification of names

The Confucian system developed a quite rigid set of roles for individuals within the imperial system. As very concisely expressed in the Analects:

“Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son” (12.11).

Confucianism became quite focused on obligations associated with the roles one had in society. These roles also paid respect to and solidified a set of “natural hierarchies”: The subject owed the emperor obedience.  The son owed the father allegiance. The wife owed the husband obedience. The friend owed the friend respect.

The obligation to retain that allegiance in each case was that the father, husband, friend, etc. fulfilled their own obligation. If they did not, then there were not considered an emperor, father, friend and so on in the true sense of the word and the obligation was not complete.

In the example we have discussed, the emperor had a set of attributes and rituals that he was to fulfill in order to really be an emperor. Conscientiousness about fulfilling that role was essential to retain the mandate of heaven. In the case of the other various roles, conscientiousness of the obligations of the role  was also vital. When individuals lived up to the name of their role (lived up to the obligations of being a good father, son, wife, friend, minister, etc.) then heaven was thought to be unified with earth.


Many Chinese, especially in the twentieth century, came to be critical of the Confucian system of government in different ways, but mainly for what we can see as its conservatism. Its emphasis on traditions and rituals meant it was tendentially backward looking. Though the Chinese had made many technological and scientific developments, the focus of the Confucian education system was on disciplines that are hermeneutic rather than scientific. The focus of education was all too often on interpreting what great men of the past had said rather than examining the world with modern science.

Other issues of contention included the rather hierarchical social order of the Confucian ethical system. In alignment with the Confucian system children were to obey their parents, wives to obey their husbands, citizens to obey their political leaders. Individuals increasingly felt that this often lead to the unjust treatment of many. And it simply came to be thought that these characterization of natural roles (of women, for example) were simply incorrect.

Further after years of international subjugation of China to Western powers, various Chinese wondered if Confucianism was partially responsible because of its focus on obedience to those in power.

The Confucian dynasty system was finally ended in 1912. Later, under Mao and modernization, much  changed. Nonetheless, various elements of Confucianism are still present in Chinese culture, much like Christianity is in an increasingly secular Europe.

A follow up note on regime change within Confucianism

It is perhaps worthwhile to note difference in such regime change as it was legitimized in the Confucian system from the way it is occurs in a socialist revolution or a modern democracy. In a socialist revolution, the hope is for a future that is much better than the alienating or exploitative past. The Confucian system did not really think of a future that would be an improvement over the past. It quite idealized early periods of Chinese history. Any regime change would be to re-establish the political order as it was properly instituted in the past. In contemporary democracies, of course, the regime change is different still: The hope is for a seamless transition out of power as voters conclude that a government is not meeting the needs of people as well as another might. A peaceful election in most cases works to bring about a new government.

Go to chapter 4, Laozi.

Some useful links

The Analects

Confucius — Entry of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Confucius — Video of the School of Life

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