Assessing the ways of looking at Confucianism

Confucius believed in restoring the way of the ancient sages. It was Confucius’ teachings which eventually developed into Confucianism. For some people it is a religion based on moral teachings, while for others it is simply a philosophy. In this case, perhaps the dual concept of yin and yang could be used to explain Confucianism. It could be said that the philosophy and religion of Confucianism go hand in hand representing two different parts of one continuum (Liu, 2001). For example one could have a Confucian philosopher as well a master of ritual or meditation. Throughout history, Confucianism has been questioned as a religion for its lack of talk on the nature or function of God, yet it has deeply influenced the culture and history of East Asia. Confucius’ philosophies not only influenced China, but also, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan. Confucianism is part of the three faiths in China, the other two being Taoism and Buddhism. These religions are unique in their ways for they all have a sense of concern and are very humanitarian. Unlike other religions which focus on a supreme power, Confucianism focuses on the concept of humanity and the mandate of heaven.

Confucianism is a way of life, giving emphasis to education along with humanness, righteousness, ritual propriety, wisdom and faithfulness, and finally filial piety of Hsiao. Confucians believe that in order to fulfill our goals, one has to start at home, it is only then that we can further extend our virtues out in the world. For example, a person needs to live civilly with his or her immediate family first before being able to act civilly with the rest of society or even the government. Confucius’ morals if followed would basically bring peace to a state and promote welfare (Hasen, 135). After all, it emphasizes the need to put oneself in another’s place to attain true understanding and therefore find peace in humanity and service to others. “Zigong asked, ‘Is there a single word which can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘It is perhaps the word ‘shu’. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.’ (Confucius, p 43).

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Confucius and the school named after him offered a moral or ethical answer to the question regarding life’s meaning and order in society, an answer that would dominate Chinese philosophical thinking for about two millennia (Nuyen, 138). It is in the Analects, that Confucius’ teachings are found. His teachings are many, yet some are given immense importance. One of the most important of these is the concept of jen/ren which can be translated as humanness or benevolence towards others. It is the highest Confucian virtue. It was formerly a particular virtue, the kindness which distinguished the gentleman in his behavior toward his inferiors. He transformed it into a universal virtue, that which makes the perfect human being, a sage. “The key to achieving goodness lies within yourself- how could it come from others?” Ren is also connected to other important themes of the religion such as filial piety and ritual which display ones humanity. Ren was also the basis of Confucian political theory, where a leader was obeyed according to his humanity and behavior as it represented the mandate of heaven. Confucius’ believed that if a leader was virtuous enough, social perfection could be achieved without means of laws and punishments (Liu, 2001).

Filial piety is considered among the greatest of virtues and must be shown towards both the living and the dead . This relationship was extended by analogy to a series of five relationships. “When your parents are alive, comply with the rites in serving them; when they die, comply with the rites in burying them: comply with the rites in sacrificing to them.” (Confucius, The Analects p.63 2, 2.5). Confucius had also taught, that filial piety was one of the two threads that held his whole teaching together. It could be said to symbolize the inner and outer, the yin and yang dimensions of human conduct. A person needs to be faithful to both the family and the larger world (Confucianism, 62). Ancestral veneration is not something we only see in Chinese religion, in fact it is practiced in many different religions in different types of ways (Li, 594). Perhaps it could be said then that the ancestor cult might have arisen out of psychological needs or attitudes, including the fear of the deceased, as well as feelings of piety towards them.

The Chinese word for ritual is Li and it is one of the five main virtues taught. Hsun-tzu, is best remembered for his doctrine of ritual action. He provides the practical side of Confucian religion. “If you are respectful but lack ritual you will become exasperating; if you are careful but lack ritual you will become timid; if you are courageous but lack ritual you will become unruly; and if you are upright but lack ritual you will become inflexible” (Confucius, Analects, p23 8, 8.1). Ritual can be seen as the means to find harmony and balance between opposing qualities that could otherwise lead to conflict. It is through ritual that a hierarchy is formed and so everyone in society is assigned a place. There seemed to be a desire by Confucius to revive the etiquette of earlier dynasties. In fact, ritual is such an important part of Confucianism, that it is also known as the ritual religion li-chiao (Hasen, 174). It is these teachings that helped to keep alive the older cult of veneration for ancestors, and the worship of heaven. Confucius also emphasized the need to have the right inner dispositions, without which ritual propriety becomes hypocrisy.

There are many ways of looking at Confucianism. For an insider, it not only represents a religion and its beliefs, but also culture and history. For an outsider, Confucianism could be just a philosophy for its lack of a central power and the existence of other worldly beings. For a scholar it is a system which is easily corrupted and therefore it serves as great morals but is not easily done (Liu, 2001). Coincidently it was in the same century that Confucianism was repressed in China, that so many innocent people were killed by communists. Just like the Chinese philosophy where two extremes make one, the people of China proved to have two extremes in history. There were some who had extremely humanitarian values, perhaps the light or bright part of the spectrum and then there were also the inhumane ones, perhaps the dark or negative part. The very modernization of China and desire for economical growth has caused a lot of tragedies in Chinese history resulting in the loss of lots of lives. It can be looked at as a rebellious act by the people of China who didn’t agree with old humanitarian views, in the modern world, they seemed naive. Either way, Confucianism might be more a way of life, than a religion, yet it can be argued that all religions are a way of life. At least it is a humanitarian religion whose basis is people and society and not fear of supreme power.


Nuyen, A.T. (2000). Confucianism, the idea of min-pen and democracy. Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies. 14:130-151

Hasen, C. (1972). Freedom and Moral Responsibility in Confucian Ethics. Philosophy East and West, 22:2, 169-184.

Liu, H. (2001). Confucianism in the eyes of a confucian liberal. New York: Peter Lang, (Chapter 2).

Li, C. (2006). The confucian ideal of harmony. Philosophy East & West, 56(4):583-603.


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