The main ancient philosophical ideas that developed in the region of China are said to stem from Confucius. Confucianism is both a religion and a philosophy, and it is an implicit part of Chinese culture in both China and the Chinese communities around the world. Confucianism beliefs have a long history of development and change over the past 2,500 years, and Confucianism embodies key aspects of Chinese culture.
What Confucianism Is
Every country has some sort of code of ethics. Confucianism was the code of ethics adopted as the official religion of most of the great empires in the region since the Han Dynasty. Everybody has some sort of religious belief. Confucianism provides a simple skeleton of ethical and religious beliefs that most Chinese flesh out by other religions such as Daoism.
It was the state-sponsored religion of many dynasties from the Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. It was the religion of the imperial bureaucrats, and it was the favorite political philosophy of rulers because it legitimated dynastic rule.
The Mandate of Heaven of Confucianism was a key concept underpinning imperial legitimacy. The doctrine is that Heaven chose a particular man and his descendants to be the mediator between Heaven and the region. The man was a god whose actions affected and even determined not only the course of the empire but the natural world as well.
In a stripped down version and mixed with many other religious beliefs, most Chinese people hold Confucianism beliefs to some extent.
The Main Confucianism Teachers
Three men laid the doctrinal framework of Confucianism during a 270 year period. Confucius laid the basic ideas, and then Mencius stated a thesis about the innate goodness of men, and then a generation later Xun Zi promoted an antithesis that was highly influential.
Confucius (孔子, circa 551 BC – circa 479 BC)
The originator of the genre of Confucianism beliefs was Confucius. He was born at a time of philosophical creativity at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476) during the reign of the Zhou Dynasty (1045–255 BC).
His was an era of philosophical and religious creativity, and since then, Confucius has been more popular and influential than any other seminal philosophers of his era. These other philosophers of his era laid out major philosophies, and they included Lao Zi who expressed the key ideas of the indigenous religion of Daoism, Mo Zi who taught the key beliefs of Mohism, and Shang Yang who taught Legalist doctrines of political philosophy.
He was probably born earlier than any other of these important teachers, but it isn’t known for sure when he was born. There are differing accounts about his life.
What is generally believed is that when he was in his late 60s, he returned to his hometown called Qufu that is in Shandong Province. Before his death when he was in his early 70s, for several years he taught a group of disciples who propagated his beliefs and developed their own philosophies.
Read more: The Confucius page contains more details about the life and teachings of Confucius.
Mencius (孟子, circa 371 – circa 289)
Mencius is now considered the second most important Confucian philosopher. But, during his era, he was more influential than Confucius himself because he taught influential noblemen and rulers. He helped develop the strain of Confucianism teaching that was much later adopted in the doctrines of Confucianism based on the idea that man is born innately good.
By writing the book called Mencius, he emerged as one of the most famous of the Confucians. In the book, he supplements the philosophy of Confucianism by a system of ideas positing the goodness and perfectibility of men. It is thought that the subject of the innate quality of man was left moot by Confucius himself.
Like Confucius, scholars debate about the details of his life. He was born in Shandong about 30 kilometers away from where Confucius was born near the town of Qufu. His era called the Warring States Period (475–221) was a turbulent period of history during which large kingdoms were conquering other kingdoms, and the Kingdom of Qin especially sought to conquer the whole region.
It is said that he was raised near a school and began to imitate the students and teachers and gained a love of learning. He was said to have been taught by one of the grandchildren of Confucius himself.
It was an opportune time to be a traveling scholar. The court officials needed to have wisdom about what to do in the dangerous times. A misstep might mean death or the loss of power.
Like Confucius, he is said to have been an itinerant philosopher, and he walked around teaching at courts for forty years. Between 401 and 221, he was an official and scholar at the Kingdom of Qi at the Jixia Academy.
Qi was a large and powerful country, and this platform afforded him influence and popularity. He taught his interpretation of Confucian teachings and his political philosophy that was more acceptable to government leaders than Confucius’s own teachings, and then he retired.
Mencius’ Influential Political Philosophy
At the time he lived, there was a great philosophical and religious debate in the realms of the Warring States. What should people do? Why do people do things? What should a ruling court do? The answers were not just academic. Entire countries were being swallowed up by invasions, and rulers were being assassinated and defeated in battle.
How does one rule for greatest benefit for one’s self and one’s state? Some Confucians like Xun Zi and others such as Legalism philosophers in Qin thought that humans are basically evil. This justified harsh imperial control and a hierarchical society.
In contradiction, some believed in the goodness of man and nature. These people had kind of Daoist beliefs like those of Laozi. They believed people would do good without effort and without outside political control. This obviously was not a philosophy suited for dynastic empires.
Mencius believed that humans are innately basically good, but need good education, good outside influences and good effort to train this goodness, otherwise people become evil. He also emphasized that it is not only good outside environment that produces right behavior, but that people must diligently study and train their inner goodness, or their potential for goodness will fail: “An unused path is covered with weeds.”
He also emphasized the political idea of the Mandate of Heaven that legitimizes dynastic rule. This teaching made his doctrines popular among ruling courts, and it is the key tenant of the Confucianism beliefs that developed later. According to the Mandate of Heaven idea, “Heaven” picks and deposes rulers and dynasties by natural disasters.
Mencius taught that leaders could and should be deposed by the common people. This idea contradicted Legalism that emphasizes total obedience to the rulers. It was also different than what is thought to have been Confucius’ own teachings. Confucius emphasized obedience, though he also taught about the Mandate of Heaven.
This idea is antithetical to Daoistic ideals. But his philosophy became the most popular political philosophy and later developed into the Confucianism adopted by the courts of the Tang Empire and afterwards. It is the strain of Confucianism that most Chinese still believe in to some extent today. His was a middle way; a balance.
Xun Zi (荀子, circa 313 – circa 230)
In antithesis to Mencius’ teaching. Xun Zi taught that human nature is basically bad. Like Mencius, he also worked at the same Jixia Academy of the Kingdom of Qi where Mencius had worked decades before. He is thought of as a Confucianist who was also an influential Legalist. Befitting a Legalist, his writings are more systematic, wordy, and elaborately argued.
And like a Legalist, he was intolerant of other philosophies and philosophers. He taught that Mo Zi should have been punished when he was alive. He directly attacked Mencius and Zhuang Zi by name. This intolerance was encouraged in the Qin court where Xun Zi taught for a while.
His disciples included Han Fei Zi who developed strict Legalist doctrines and Li Si who became the Qin Empire’s prime minister who promoted the “Book Burning” of the Qin Empire and the eradication of perhaps thousands of philosophers who believed different ideas. Li Si even persecuted Confucianists and had them put to death.
His teaching that man’s nature is “wayward” from birth since people want money and beauty and tend to be hateful and jealous. He taught that virtuous teachers by intensive training can cultivate morality in others. He argued that strict laws governing personal behavior was necessary, and that an essential characteristic of a proper teacher is the same belief in the evilness of man.
His disciples set the course for the Qin conquest of the region and the loss of millions of lives and eventually stirred up a great rebellion against the Qin court. However, in the Han Dynasty era, his brand of Confucianism was dominant.
The ideas of these seminal Confucianist philosophers engendered an enduring philosophical streamcalled Confucianism. Over the millennia, people codified and altered their teachings into systems of doctrine. These alterations usually happened as the result of the rise and fall of empires and the change of dynastic rule due to invasions. Confucianism, in its various incarnations, has been the core worldview of most people in the region for thousands of years.
Xun Zi taught Li Si, and Li Si convinced the Qin king who was later the First Qin Emperor of the Qin Empire to imprison a prominent Legalist and Confucianist philosopher named Han Fei Zi. Then Li Si told Han Fei Zi to commit suicide in 233.
Li Si emerged as the main official under Qin Shihuang, and they imposed strict rules in their empire about everything from language to religion. The people were reduced to slavery to create monumental mounds for Qin Shi Huang’s necropolis, the Terracotta Warriors, the first Great Wall, other great projects, and to fight in wars for expansion.
Following the teachings of Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi about absolute control, the Qin Empire became militarily powerful for about ten years, but then the system fell from its own flaws. Their court ruled that Confucian scholars and texts were outlawed and to be destroyed. When the people revolted, the Han Empire emerged in the year 206 BC under Liu Bang who named himself the first emperor in 202.
The Development of Confucianism in the Han Dynasty
At first, Liu Bang was against Legalism, and he didn’t think highly of Confucianism. However, later into his rule, Liu Bang had a favorite Confucian teacher named Lu Gu who convinced him of the need for that philosophy, and he and his successors promoted this political theory.
However, the Confucian texts had all been burned up during the Qin “Book Burning” campaign of 213 BC. What Confucian texts that were still remembered were written down by scholars in a set of texts later called the “New Texts.”
Lu Gu and other Confucian scholars became prominent officials in the empire under Liu Bang. The common strain of Confucianism was like that of Xun Zi that was mixed with Legalism.
The Development Under Emperor Wudi
Then under Emperor Wudi (Han Wudi 汉武帝, 156–87) who ruled from 141 to 87 BC Confucianism was institutionalized. He ruled that to be an official scholar, people had to teach the Confucian classic texts called the Five Classics. These texts are the Classic of Poetry, the Classic of History, the Spring and Autumn Annals, the Classic of Rites and the Classic of Changes.
Wudi was a centrally powerful emperor, and he had one of the longest reigns of the two thousand years of dynastic history. His court was highly influential, and he promoted the idea of the noble innate nature of man that was postulated by a Confucian scholar named Dong Zhongshu.
Dong Zhongshu expanded on the teachings of Mencius and merged in some Legalist ideas. This revised strain of Confucianism became the standard of Confucianism in the Western Han Empire.
Wudi instituted the Imperial Academy to promote the Confucianism philosophy. Wudi and later emperors approved of this strain of Confucianism for the emphasis about the Mandate of Heaven following the text of Mencius.
During Wudi’s reign, texts of some Confucian books were discovered in a wall of the Confucian clan compound in Qufu. It was thought that these were hidden there to save them from the book burning campaign of 213. A scholar in Wudi’s court named Kong Anguo published these books.
But there was controversy about which set of documents were correct. Traditions emerged around both the New Texts and the Old Texts. Official acceptance kept switching from one to the other during the rest of the Han dynastic era.
A view of the indeterminate nature of man became popular later in the era of the Eastern Han Empire. At this time also, Buddhism was reintroduced and started to influence the thinking of Confucianist scholars.
Confucianism in the Tang Dynasty Era
Buddhism was introduced to the Han Empire about 68 AD when Western teachers traveled along the Silk Road trade route. In the Tang Dynasty era, Buddhism was a very popular religion. The Confucianists, using imperial power, started an inquisition against the religion in the year 845 and promoted the strain of Confucianism of the book of Mencius.
Mahayana Buddhism became popular in the Han Empire. The second emperor of the Tang Dynasty Li Shimin known as the Emperor Taizong (唐太宗, Tang Great Religion) is remembered as an important emperor who promoted Buddhism in the Tang Empire.
The imperial court also appointed Confucian scholars to the ruling bureaucracy. Special examinations tested the candidates’ literary skills and knowledge of Confucian texts. The courts used this exam system to staff a portion of the empire’s bureaucracy. This was a foreshadowing of the rule of Neo-Confucian literati in the Song Dynasty.
The Tang Repression of Foreign Religions
Buddhist teachers from Central Asia were welcomed by the Tang court, and several large indigenous Buddhist sects developed. Some monasteries were large and wealthy. It was the dominant religion.
Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty era, an influential scholar named Han Yu lived near the end of the Tang Dynasty era and promoted this repression. At the time, the empire was facing invasions, rebellions and natural disasters. He promoted the Mencius version of Confucianism, and he urged that by repressing rival ideas and firmly establishing Confucianism, the empire would become stable and prosperous.
It was claimed that the Buddhist clergy reduced the tax revenues, and the egalitarian philosophy contradicted the hierarchical claims of imperial power. At the end of the Tang Dynasty, the Tang rulers became intolerant of “foreign religions” including Buddhism. In 845, Emperor Wuzong (814–846) decreed that all foreign religions were banned and he closed thousands of monasteries and temples.
Due to this repression, the Mencius strain of Confucianism became the dominant political philosophy of the later imperial eras, and Buddhism went into decline. There was a revival of Confucianism. But the Tang Empire began to experience far greater natural disasters and rebellions, and it fell in 907.
The Neo-Confucianism of the Song Dynasty Era
The teachings of Han Yu and others of his era continued to be influential in the Song Dynasty. During the Song Era, a philosophy called Neo-Confucianism emerged. Neo-Confucianism tends to elevate rationalism, is centered around the idea of the Mandate of Heaven to support the dynasty, and became the standard by which people were chosen for imperial posts.
The Imperial Examination system became the method by which almost all Song court officials were chosen to run the empire. To pass the examination, almost all the bureaucratic rulers needed to know by heart the Four Books of the Neo-Confucian Classics that were written in the difficult literary Classical Language.
There were two or three important Neo-Confucian streams in the Song era. However, all of them emphasized the text of Mencius with its emphasis on the belief of the Mandate of Heaven and the noble quality of men. One school emphasized meditation or introspection adopting the technique of self-centered focus from Chan Buddhism. The dominant school emphasized rational thought and discredited the ideas about the supernatural.
The Neo-Confucian Classics
The Neo-Confucian Classics were the Four Books and Five Classics (四書五經) that contained the political philosophy of Confucius and others. These nine books were compiled, standardized, and codified in the Song era to serve as standard examination material.
Traditionally, the Five Classics were thought to have been penned by Confucius, and the Four Books were thought to contain Confucian School-related material. However, modern scholars doubt that any material can definitely be described as written by Confucius.
The Four Books were considered the most important texts of the Neo-Confucian school. These texts include: The Analects of Confucius that is a book of pithy sayings attributed to Confucius and recorded by his disciples; Mencius that is a collection of political dialogues attributed to Mencius; The Doctrine of the Mean; and The Great Learning that is a book about education, self-cultivation and the Dao.
The Five Classics include: The Book of Changes, The Classic of Poetry, The Record of Rites that was a recreation of the original Classic of Rites of Confucius that was lost in the Qin book purge, The Classic of History, and The Spring and Autumn Annals that was mainly a historical record of Confucius’ native state of Lu.
From the Song Dynasty onward to near the end of the Qing Dynasty, except for in the Yuan Dynasty, these were the standardized texts people needed to know in order to pass an examination for the bureaucracy.
Confucianism Beliefs in Modern Times
Inspired in part by Western influences and the leadership of Sun Yat-sen and other Christians, there was a revolt against Confucianism at the end of the Qing Dynasty era between 1900 and 1920. China’s problems were blamed on the old traditions and ideas. Since then, over the last 100 years, Confucianism has emerged in a number of forms in various countries.
The major doctrine about the Mandate of Heaven is now impossible because there is no longer an emperor in China. The emperor had an important role in Confucian political science as a god to be worshiped and the cornerstone of society. In the place the emperor, most modern Chinese people worship various Daoist and Buddhist deities and their ancestors.
Modern Confucian philosophers are little known and have little influence anywhere in the world. Confucian texts are little read, but there are still central Confucianism teachings that most Chinese hold to since they are implicit traditions of Chinese culture.
The Confucian political hierarchy is gone along with the Qing Empire in 1912. But many Confucianism beliefs were such an implicit part of everyday life of the population that the ideas form what Chinese around the world consider their culture.
The Confucianism beliefs most Chinese still hold to include the ideas of harmony, obedience to parents and authority, that people should be trained and forced to behave “properly” in their roles, and an idea of reciprocity (do to others as they do to you whether good or bad).
Most Chinese still have some belief about the worship of ancestors. They believe that their spirits still influence people, but the idea of the Mandate of Heaven if it is applied, isn’t applied to living emperors.
Most Chinese feel that people are born at least slightly good, following the idea taught by Mencius and Daoism teachings.
The Analects of Confucius
In the Analects, a book of his pithy sayings, it is recorded that he said that he didn’t invent any of his philosophy. He said he was only transmitting the ancient teachings to his disciples. He wanted his disciples to read the ancient texts. He said he wanted to teach about the Mandate of Heaven.
This important belief of his political philosophy was that Heaven would choose a person and his clan to rule. He mixed his theology with his ideas of politics. So he encouraged everybody to behave as they should in whatever role they had in their society. He said that if they did so, there would be harmony and prosperity and happiness.
He taught what is called the Silver Rule of behavior that is less expansive than the Golden Rule:
Zi Gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”
The Master replied: “How about ‘shu?’ Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
The Analects of Confucius is thought to be pithy sayings of Confucius that were recorded by his disciples. For foreigners who want a taste of this Confucian philosophy, reading the Analects of Confucius is a good introduction since the statements are usually simple and like common sense. However, modern Confucian thought only partly resembles those teachings, and it isn’t a book to read to learn about modern Confucianism.