Skip to main content

What is Confucianism?

Confucius -The Early Years

Confucius was born to parents of notable social status and was the son of a warrior. Even so, one historian reported that his birth was illegitimate. He was born in 551 B.C.E. and his father died when he was only three. In spite of their status, money was still limited, so without his father, finances became very difficult for his mother. But she instilled in him a love of learning that would follow him throughout his life.

When Confucius was of age, he married, and at age 20 his first child was born. Over his lifetime he had many jobs, including herding cows and sheep, book-keeping, and various government positions when he was in his 50’s. When one boss, the Duke of Lu, began a moral descent, Confucius resigned and became an itinerant political adviser. He was not one to hedge, which didn’t go over well with a lot of government leaders. Even though some leaders agreed with him, few put his ideas to practical use.

A New Beginning Late in Life

After many years of seemingly unfruitful teaching to people who weren’t listening, Confucius retired at age 68 and began to take on students and disciples and he taught the ancient wisdom of the Chinese. Confucius actually thought of himself as a failure, who had not been very good at getting jobs, which is why he turned to teaching.

He used a group of ancient writings called the Five Classics. The five categories of classics included poetry, history, rites and rituals, religious divination and a history of Confucius’ home state, Lu. The poetry classics contained over 300 poems which were actually songs such as folk songs and hymns to various gods and ancestors. The History classics consisted of speeches that were given by dignitaries and other leaders in the past, and up to the Zhou period. The rites and rituals classics were descriptive of all the various ceremonies practiced in ancient China, as well as the ceremonies that were used to determine the appropriateness of almost any course of action. Confucius' history of Lu was considered by some to be something of an expose, with the intention of instructing future leaders so that they would not make the same mistakes former leaders of Lu had.

The Analects

This work is actually the core collection of writings in Confucianism and is attributed to Confucius. It consists of speeches and sayings Confucius reportedly transmitted to his students. It has been said that Confucius did not write these things himself, but that his students and disciples wrote and collected them. In one famous incident, a student was asking Confucius what he should focus his mind on. Confucius responded, “Never do to others what you would not want done to you.” It is interesting how many other philosophies and religious texts have similar admonitions attributed to their leaders.

Confucian Wisdom that is still Relevant

The Analects can be found online and are even downloadable from this web address: They make for very interesting reading. Some sayings include:

“Is it not pleasant, when you have learned something, to try it out?”

"I will not be afflicted at men's not knowing me; I will be afflicted that I do not know men."

"If a man keeps cherishing his old knowledge, so as continually to be acquiring new, he may be a teacher of others.”

"A great minister is one who serves his prince according to what is right, and when he finds he cannot do so, retires.”

"Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Have no friends not equal to yourself. When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them."

"The superior man has a dignified ease without pride. The mean man has pride without a dignified ease."

"The high-mindedness of antiquity showed itself in a disregard of small things; the high-mindedness of the present day shows itself in wild license. The stern dignity of antiquity showed itself in grave reserve; the stern dignity of the present day shows itself in quarrelsome perverseness. The stupidity of antiquity showed itself in straightforwardness; the stupidity of the present day shows itself in sheer deceit."

Scroll to Continue

A Summary of the Teaching

The Analects contained five main ideas that seemed to be at the heart of what Confucius wanted to get across to his students. These included:

1.The importance of education, which focused on h history, poetry and ancient tradition

2.The elements of moral government. Confucius taught this through sayings such as, “The grass will bend whichever way the wind blows.”

3.The maintenance of traditional rituals and music. Confucius thought it was important for people to practice traditional things and participate in rituals. He believed that this was a way to channel beneficial emotions and good moods. This positive influence would impact the ethics of the individual, who would then have a positive impact on society.

4. Individual effort was essential in Confucius’ view. He taught the principles of the superior man versus the inferior man. He called the superior man the “gentleman” and believed that anyone, even if they were humbly born and poor could be gentlemanly. He believed it was up to the individual to overcome their circumstances.

5.The final and possibly most influential teaching of Confucius was the Hierarchy. In Confucius’ view, life consisted of five relationships that were mutually beneficial. Each person in society should, according to Confucius play his or her role in each relationship. A person could be subject to a few or all of the relationships and should act accordingly in each circumstance. If they were obedient, there would be an order to society, which was overall, more important than the desires of the individual. The system could work but of course some injustices might be suffered. These relationships, in order of importance, are as follows:

  1. Ruler/subject
  2. Parent/child (most important)
  3. Husband/wife
  4. Older brother/younger brother
  5. Friend/friend

The Foundation of Ancient Chinese Culture

Much emphasis was placed on adherence to these principles over the course of history in the years following Confucius’ life. His teachings became the foundation for the Chinese examination system, which was a strict course all men entered into. Men spent the majority of their lives studying for the examinations as this was common and was the only way to progress in society. No one was allowed to serve in any leadership position unless they had passed the appropriate examination. In Chinese society today, there is still much emphasis on the teaching of Confucius. It is a normal part of life for all Chinese children to study and memorize the Analects.


peter565 on February 03, 2016:

The company I work for just published a book translating the full book of Confucius ideology into English. :)

nathan on April 17, 2014:

this site is very clear and informational and the video adds to it greatly ...fastest report i've ever done:)

Related Articles