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Religious Studies: Confucianism

Religion 101


“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” (Confucius)


"Confucianism is a moral ideology or social tradition fathered by the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his disciples in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. It is concerned with the principles of civil conduct, common sense, and proper social relationships. Not only has Confucianism influenced the Chinese perspective toward life, it is the foundation on which Chinese politics and institutions are based. Confucian teachings have been followed for more than two thousand years, spreading beyond China to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and capturing the interest of Westerners as well."

Confucianism. (2001). In J. M. Palmisano (Ed.), World of sociology, Gale. Gale. 

"Thought to be founded by Confucius (sixth–fifth century BCE), a member of a social group, the Ju, whose members had an interest in rituals and often were teachers. Confucius retained the interest in rituals, but became concerned with searching for remedies to the then chaotic social and political situation in China. This focus was also characteristic of his followers and constituted the characteristic feature of the school of thought thus developed, Confucianism, whose Chinese name is Ju-chia (the School of Ju)."

Confucianism. (2001). In A. P. Iannone, Dictionary of world philosophy. Routledge. Credo Reference.


  • Respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice
  • Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.”

The Principles

  • Jen (wren): "human heartedness; goodness; benevolence, man-to-man-ness; what makes man distinctively human (that which gives human beings their humanity).
  • Li (lee): principle of gain, benefit, order, propriety; concrete guide to human action.
  • Yi (yee); righteousness; the moral disposition to do good (also a necessary condition for jen or for the superior man).
  • Hsiao (showe): filial piety; reverence
  • Chih (chee): moral wisdom; the source of this virtue is knowledge of right and wrong. Chih is added to Confucianism by Mencius (muhn shoos) who believed that people are basically born good.
  • Chun-tzu (choon dzuh): the ideal man; the superior man; gentle person in the most significant sense.
  • Te (day): power by which men are ruled; the power of moral example (the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest)."

The Principles of Confucianism

"The virtue of virtues". Confucius never saw this fully expressed, and he never fully defines it. The other virtues follow from Jen.

Characteristics of Jen:

  1. "Dearer than life itself."
  2. Dignity of being human.
  3. Universality of the feeling of Jen.
  4. Belief in the natural "perfectibility of man" - anyone can reach Jen if they truly try.
  5. The ultimate guide to human action.
  6. We should extend Jen to others.

"Li" has two basic meanings: 

  1. "Li is a concrete guide to human relationships or rules of proper action that genuinely embody Jen, the virtue of virtues.
  2. General principle of social order, or the general ordering of life.

First Sense: the concrete guide to human relationships.

  1. The reification of names: language used in accordance with the truth of things.
  2. The Doctrine of the Mean: the proper action is the way between the extremes.
  3.  The Five Relationships: the way things should be done in social life between 5 social groups: father & son, elder & younger brother, husband and wife, older & younger friend, ruler & subject.

Second Sense: principle of social order; ritual; ordering of life; conforming to the norms of jen.

  • Every action affects someone else--there are limits to individuality.

"Yi connotes a moral sense: the ability to recognize what is right and good; the ability to feel, under the circumstances what is the right thing to do. Can also be called moral intuition.

  • Acting from yi is quite close to practicing jen.
  • Some actions ought to be performed for the sole reason that they are right--regardless of what they produce; not for the sake of something else.
  • The value in the act is the rightness of the action regardless of the intention or the consequences of the act."

    1. Parents are revered because they are the source of your life. They have sacrificed much for you.
    2. One should do well and make the family name known and respected: bring honor to your family.
    3. Consider someone you respect and admire who saves your life or someone who has sacrificed his life for you--as, indeed, your parents did. Hence, the reverence.
    4. Hsiao implies that you give your parents not only physical care but also emotional and spiritual richness. When the parents die, their unfulfilled aims and purposes should be the purposes of the children.
    5. What do you do if your values are different from your parents? I.e., in a changing society?
    6. The beginnings of jen are found in hsiao (family life).
      a. Once the reverence and respect is understood for parent, hsiao can be extended by generalization to family, friends, society, and mankind.
      b. Respect for the sake of reverence affects who you are.

Chih states that since we draw the difference between right and wrong from our own mind, these ideas are innate. We are inherently moral creatures.
  • Why evil exists:
  1. From external circumstances: nature and the needs for survival.
  2.  From society and culture being is disarray: it would be to our disadvantage to be moral.
  3. From lack of knowledge: we do not seek to find out the options we have. We fail to develop our feelings and senses.

    1. He is at home in the world; as he needs nothing himself. He is at the disposal of others and completely beyond personal ambition.
    2. He is intelligent enough to meet anything without fear.

3. Personal relationships come before anything else (i.e., before thinking, reasoning, studying).

    4. The five virtues come from within the impersonal ego: (1) kindness, (2) rectitude, (3) decorum, (4) wisdom, and (5) sincerity.

    1. The patterns of prestige are used in the service of governance of the country.
    2. Government is good if it can maintain (1) economic sufficiency, (2) military sufficiency, and (3) confidence of the people.


  1. The Doctrine of the Mean
    1. "The Doctrine of the Mean focuses on following the Way and acting in accordance with what is right and natural, engaging in moral self-cultivation to act properly, and the idea that good governance encourages the Way in others."
      1. English Translation
  2. The Great Learning
    1. Prescribed as the first Confucian Classic to read, "the Great Learning is a guide for moral self-cultivation. According to the Great Learning, the key to moral self-cultivation is learning, or the investigation of things. Through the investigation of things, one comes to understand the principle in all things, which allows one to better comprehend the world. Through this moral self-cultivation, one's li and qi  are in harmony, leading to consistent moral behavior."
      1. English Translation
  3. Mencius
    1. "Mencius places a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the emperor to practice good governance through following the Way, and  Mencius believes that all human beings are inherently good, and we must learn how to nurture and cultivate those seeds."
      1. English Translation
  4. Analects
    1. "The Analects is a collection of Kongzi's teachings and discussions with disciples. Just as The Great Learning emphasized learning, so did the Analects. According to the Analects, the first step in knowing the Way is to devote oneself to learning. In addition to learning, the Analects emphasize the importance of good governance, filial piety, virtue, and ritual."
  1. The Book of Documents
    1. The Book of Documents is a compilation of 58 chapters detailing the events of ancient China. The Book of Documents tells the deeds of the early sage-kings Yao and Shun. These narratives are influential in the development of the understanding of a sage. The compilation also includes the history of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. The Book of Documents is often considered the first narrative history of ancient China.
  2. Book of Odes

    1. "The Book of Odes is also translated as the Book of Songs or Book of Poetry. The Book of Odes is comprised of 305 poems dealing with a range of issues, including love and marriage, agricultural concerns, daily lives, and war. The Book of Odes contains different categories of poems, including folk songs and hymns used in sacrifice. Kongzi is believed to have selected the 305 poems in this collection from a much wider collection."

  3. Book of Rites

    1. "The Book of Rites described the social norms, governmental organization, and the ritual conduct during the Zhou dynasty. Believed to have been compiled by Kongzi, the Book of Rites is the foundation of many ritual principles that arise in later imperial China. According to the Book of Rites, proper ritual conduct would maintain harmony in the empire, as well as emphasize the virtue of piety."

  4. Book of Changes

    1. "​​​​​​​The Book of Changes contains a system of divination, which is centered largely around the principles of yin and yang. The Book of Changes has also been translated as I Ching or Classic of Changes. Some of the divination practices are still used today."

  5. Spring and Autumn Annals

    1. ​​​​​​​"As the longest of the Five Classics, the Spring and Autumn Annals is a historical chronicle of the State of Lu. Unlike the Book of Documents, the Spring and Autumn Annals appear to have been created specifically for annalistic purposes. The Spring and Autumn Annals was traditionally understood as being written by Confucius, but modern scholars believe the text was actually written by various chroniclers from the State of Lu."

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