Confucianism: What Does Confucian Philosophy Teach Us?

The purpose of Confucianism is to restore harmony to society through the development of certain virtues and respect for social hierarchy. Is it a religion or a philosophy of life?
Confucianism: What Does Confucian Philosophy Teach Us?
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 25 September, 2022

Confucianism, also called Ruism (school of scholars), is a philosophical and religious doctrine that emphasizes the development of individual virtues to achieve a stable society and government. It was promoted by the philosopher Confucius in the 5th century B.C.

Its purpose was to transform and recover many aspects of society, through the teachings of ancient precepts and respect for social hierarchies. Let’s see what it consists of.

Who was Confucius?

Confucius’ real name was Kong Kio. He was born in the Chinese State of Lu, in 551 BC.

By the time he was middle-aged, he had held some important positions. Among them, Minister of Justice of the Federal State of Lu, where he taught the precepts he considered necessary to achieve a stable government and was famous for implementing reforms in the field of justice.

When he left office, he went on a pilgrimage around the country in search of authorities sensitive to his teachings. On his return to his homeland, he founded a private school to train royal advisors, where he is said to have had some 3,000 disciples from all walks of life.

From then on, he was called Kong-fuzi, meaning “Kong master”. It should be noted that the name Confucius is the Latinized version that we use today.

After his death in 479 BC, his followers spread his teachings in books such as The Analects and exalted him as a sage. His doctrine spread in China for two millennia and his system of values remained linked to the political system of the empire until 1911.

Confucianism and a dragon.
Chinese culture is deeply rooted in the teachings of Confucius and Taoism.

Origin of Confucianism

Confucianism gathers religious beliefs and practices dating back to the 18th century B.C. However, around the 6th century B.C., the thinker Confucius, concerned about the crisis China found itself in, took up the teachings of the ancient sages as a code for moral, religious, social, and political life.

This is why Confucius didn’t see himself as a founder, but rather as a preacher of the message he had received from his ancestors. For him, the reestablishment of the ancient precepts and respect for social hierarchies were indispensable in order for China to recover the harmony it had lost during the Warring Kingdoms.

Soon after he began his work, Confucius gained numerous followers and systematized what would later be known as Confucianism. However, the dissemination of this knowledge met with resistance. In fact, the movement was persecuted during the first empire and refuted by the Taoist school.

Later, with the rise of the Han dynasty in the 3rd century B.C., Confucianism was vindicated and recognized as the official state religion. Since then, it has played an important role in shaping the Chinese way of life and traditional value system.

Characteristics of Confucianism

Confucianism is not a religion like Christianity or Islam, as it isn’t composed of dogmas, but of behavioral guidelines to achieve perfect government and social harmony. That’s why it’s often considered a political philosophy and a way of life.

Social hierarchy to achieve harmony

Confucianism believes in a harmonious cosmos, whose order is dictated by Heaven (tian), a higher power that ordered the universe in a hierarchical manner and divided it between those with yin strength (the noble) and those with yang strength (the vile). At the top of this hierarchy is the emperor, the “son of Heaven,” who mediates with men to enforce the heavenly will.

The next level is represented by the father of the family, who is the yin with respect to his wife and children. Therefore, the son owes respect and obedience to his parents, and the wife to her husband. Hence it’s considered a patriarchal religion.

For this philosophy, human beings, as part of the cosmos, must respect the established order. Any attempt to alter it could produce serious disturbances.

Moral perfection

Likewise, society must be organized according to a social-moral hierarchy. Consequently, the most responsible positions, such as that of a governor, should be occupied by people with a higher degree of moral perfection.

However, the degree of moral perfection is not linked to a person’s origin, but to the level of internalization and development they have achieved in the 5 Confucian principles: ren (humanity), yi (righteousness), li (ritual), zhi (wisdom) and xin (honesty).

Take a look at this interesting article: Mackie’s Error Theory: Is Morality Objective?

The 5 principles of Confucianism

For Confucianism, only those people who possess and practice these principles can become junzi, that is, “respectable people” or “superior people”:

  • Ren: Encourages people to develop love for others and to act with altruism and empathy as a result.
  • Yi: Urges people to do what is right and just at all times.
  • Li: Preaches good behavior and good manners.
  • Zhi: Encourages people to expand their knowledge. Only those with knowledge and good judgment would be able to act with righteousness and wisdom.
  • Xin: Encourages people to act without deceit.
A temple.
The movement has oscillated between philosophy and religion. It has temples scattered throughout China and the rest of the Far East.

Confucianism in the present

Confucianism is a doctrine that’s very much a part of Chinese society. In fact, it’s estimated that 42% of the Chinese population practices the country’s traditional religion, which is a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Moreover, the virtues preached by Master Kong are still present in Chinese society. For example, filial piety and respect for ancestors remain important.

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