Confucianism is the most influential of the three main philosophies and pillars of Chinese culture (along with Buddhism and Taoism)—today. It is composed of 5 main ideas that define and guide human relationships and is named after Kongfuzi (pronounced ‘kong-foo-dzih’ and Latinized as Confucius), a scholar and bureaucrat from the 5th century BC. Kongfuzi’s teachings were written down many years after his death and collected into a book called The Analects. He taught on many subjects, but especially ethics and religion, and in these areas his main ideas include:
The 5 Bonds
Kongfuzi taught that all human life takes place within a system of relationships. He categorized these relationships into the 5 Bonds: (1) ruler and subject; (2) parent and child; (3) husband and wife; (4) elder sibling and younger sibling; (5) elder friend and younger friend. Each relationship is governed by its own form of li—which translates as ‘duty’ or ‘proper behavior.’
Li, or Duty
Within each of these relationships, we have duties. For example, subjects have the duty to loyally obey their leader, whereas leaders have the duty to protect their subjects and not abuse their trust. Each of the 5 Bonds carries its own set of duties and responsibilities.
In family relationships, Confucianism teaches the importance of filial piety, or honoring one’s parents and worshipping one’s ancestors. When Confucianism is interpreted as a religion, the practice of filial piety appears as its central ritual, expressed in various forms of ancestor worship. Even today, most people from China feel their greatest duty in life is to their parents.
Social Order through Hierarchy
Each of the 5 Bonds is a hierarchical relationship. Fathers are placed above their sons, husbands above their wives, etc. This sort of hierarchy doesn’t generally appeal to Western audiences, who believe (or at least want to believe) in equality. But Kongfuzi believed that hierarchy was necessary for the preservation of social order. As we’ll see in section 5, he lived at a time of terrible strife and violence, and so his preoccupation with order is understandable in this context.
The Golden Rule
Like so many philosophers and religious leaders, Kongfuzi believed that ethics could be summed up by the rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule should be understood in terms of the Confucian hierarchies: if you are a king, you should be the sort of king you would want to have if you were a commoner; if you are a husband, you should be the kind of husband you would want to have if you were in your wife’s position.
II. Confucianism vs. Taoism
Confucianism and Taoism (or Daoism) are the two main Chinese philosophies that originated in China. They have come into conflict at various points in history. Typically, Confucian reformers have sought to update and “secularize” traditional Taoist practices, which include worshipping supernatural gods. Compared to Taoism, which involves all kinds of rituals and traditional gods, Confucianism has a more rational but more narrow-minded approach; where Confucianism emphasizes duty, obedience, and hierarchy, Taoism places a high value on freedom, equality, natural living, and mysticism.
In addition, Confucianism and Taoism focus on different questions: Confucianism focuses on ethics and politics, whereas Taoist philosophy asks many metaphysical questions (questions about the nature of reality):
How can justice and social order be preserved?
What are our duties and responsibilities in life?
What does it mean to be a good parent/student/friend, etc.?
How do we relate to our family and community?
What is the true nature of existence?
How can we find inner peace?
What can people do to be happy?
How do we relate to the natural world?
How does nature work?
III. Confucianism vs. Buddhism
For much of Chinese history, the major religions were Confucianism and Taoism. Then, sometime around the 1st Century AD, a new religion arrived from India: Buddhism. From that point on, wave after wave of Buddhist teachers and migrants came into China to spread the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhism was tolerated in China and eventually became a hugely popular alternative to Confucianism and Taoism.
In addition, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism all mingled in China throughout this period so that Chinese Buddhism shows strong Taoist influences compared to Buddhism in other regions and all three philosophies have partially blended with each other in China. Nonetheless, there’s enough difference that we can draw a rough comparison:
Focuses on relationships and the search for social harmony
Seeks to solve the problems of chaos, violence, and meaninglessness in life
When we die, we will be worshipped by our descendants, just as we worship our own ancestors.
Focuses on individual life and the search for inner peace
Seeks to solve the problem of suffering
When we die, we start again through reincarnation
Ancient traditions of monastic scholarship
Generally de-emphasize the role of God or Gods, though they may adopt the gods of local religions, such as in Tibet
No Christian-style concept of faith; all ideas said to be compatible with modern science
IV. Quotes About Confucianism
“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” (Kongfuzi, Analects)
Kongfuzi was very interested in pedagogy, or the art of teaching and learning. He lived at a time when Chinese society was just starting to be ruled by a powerful group of well-educated administrators, known as mandarins, in a system that would survive for over 2,000 years. As the system was in its early stages, Kongfuzi developed a philosophy of education that would, he hoped, ensure that the mandarins would be intelligent, wise, and moral, and that this would help them govern well. In his philosophy of education, Kongfuzi emphasizes hands-on learning in combination with reading, writing, and abstract math.
“Any religion based on a single . . . god is not as useful to the human race as, say, Confucianism, which is not a religion but an ethical and educational system.” (Gore Vidal)
The American writer Gore Vidal was a strong critic of traditional Western religion. This quote is part of a broader debate over whether Confucianism is a religion or a philosophy (which we’ll take up again in section 7). For Vidal, Western religions such as Islam and Christianity are dangerous because they focus on a single book, a single god, or a single religious community, whereas Eastern religions such as Confucianism and Buddhism provide better flexibility and emphasize right behavior rather than right belief.
V. The History and Importance of Confucianism
Kongfuzi lived during the Zhou Dynasty, a period of rapid technological and philosophical innovation. Zhou dynasty bronze-workers produced spectacular works of art that can be found in museums all over the world; meanwhile, scholars were hard at work formalizing a system of Chinese writing, which formed the basis for the system still in use today. This was also the period when the philosopher Laozi (LAO-dzih) was creating Taoism.
In Zhou-era China (just like any other ancient society), the political system was closely intertwined with religion. In this case, it was the traditional religion of China, which the Taoists embraced. Chinese philosophers at this time believed that the Emperor ruled with divine authority — that he had been given the so-called Mandate of Heaven to place him above his subjects.
Konfuzi criticized this system. He agreed that the subjects should obey the Emperor, but he argued that this was because the subjects needed an Emperor to keep their society together, not because the gods decreed it. Over 2,000 years later, Thomas Hobbes would make a very similar argument in defense of the Western monarchies, though it doesn’t seem like he knew much about Kongfuzi.
After the Zhou Dynasty came the rulers of the Qin Dynasty, who saw Confucianism as a threat. To them, the Mandate of Heaven was a crucial part of the political system, and without it they worried that they could not retain power. To counteract the rapid growth of Confucianism, they outlawed it as a belief system and tried to burn every copy of the Analects that they could find. Despite this, Confucianism survived and continued to flourish as an alternative to the dominant Taoist school.
During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Communists revised their picture of Kongfuzi. No longer the honorable old teacher, he was portrayed as the defender of the slaveholding class and a wealthy landowner — a villain from the Communist perspective. Once again Confucian books were burned, but once again the philosophy survived this attempt at extermination. Today’s Chinese generally see the suppression of Confucianism as a mistake of the Cultural Revolution and the current government promotes Confucianism. The Chinese government has even founded “the Confucius Institute” to spread Chinese philosophy and culture by running educational programs in universities all over the world. And, throughout China, people still keep the family shrines encouraged by the Confucian system of ancestor worship. Confucianism is incredibly valuable to the current government in China because it rationalizes un-questioning obedience and discourages individualism.
VI. Confucianism in Popular Culture
In one of the early scenes in Disney’s Mulan, we see Mulan’s father praying to his ancestors at a family shrine near their home. This form of ancestor worship has been practiced in China since prehistoric times, but is particularly emphasized in Confucianism. Worshipping in a shrine is one of the ways that a Confucian can show filial piety to the ancestors.
“This type of arrogance is sure to be expected / from men who speak of wisdom with no clue of what respect is” (Confucius, Epic Rap Battles of History)
Konfuzi makes an appearance in an episode of Epic Rap Battles of History, where he teams up with Laozi and Sunzi to take down Socrates, Nietzsche, and Voltaire. All of his lines make reference to some aspect of Confucian philosophy and history; in this line, he criticizes the Western philosophers for failing to understand the importance of respect and honoring those above one’s own station.
Duties vs. Rights
In the Western tradition, going back to the era of Roman law, we tend to emphasize rights. Our legal systems enshrine these rights (or come in for stern criticism when they fail to do so), and philosophers try to work out what rights we ought to guarantee. But we tend to be less interested in duties, especially in the current age. That is, we are more focused on what the world owes individuals, and less focused on what individuals owe the world.
Lately, some philosophers in the West have taken inspiration from Kongfuzi and other Chinese scholars, and have reignited a debate over rights and duties. They argue that rights don’t make sense unless we have some sense of who is responsible for protecting those rights, and by what methods. In other words, they argue that rights only make sense if we have a corresponding theory of duties. In response, rights-theorists make basically the same claim in reverse–that you can’t understand duties unless you have a sense of to whom those duties are owed. The controversy is essentially about which of these poles should have priority.
Confucianism: Philosophy or Religion?
Like many Asian belief-systems, Confucianism is both a philosophy and a religion. It is one of the more “secular” of Asian traditions, since it has no god or gods, and isn’t concerned with an afterlife, Creation, or a spirit-world. Instead, it focuses squarely on the physical and social world, the here-and-now, and for this reason many people argue that it is not a religion at all.
Ultimately, the categories of religion and philosophy may not be all that helpful in understanding Asian religions. In traditions like Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, the concepts of religion and philosophy are essentially the same. In fact, much the same could be said of Islam; the distinction between philosophy and religion was created to explain the peculiar course of European (particularly Christian) history, in which classical philosophical ideas came into conflict with religion during the period of the Enlightenment. In areas like China, however, this history is not so relevant, and the distinction between religion and philosophy is not as useful.