Authored by Patricia Dold and Matthew Sheedy
The categories used for the academic study of Chinese religious traditions are often
inadequate. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are typically described as separate
and distinct religions but all three respond to many of the same concerns and in later
periods these religions influence each other so much that the lines between them become
blurred. Many scholars distinguish these three religions from popular Chinese religion
but not everyone agrees about what belongs under this vague category. You should not
be surprised then, if you find the categories confusing.
• The goal of Confucianism is social harmony through good government and good
citizenship. The goal is to be attained through a variety of practices some of
which are more obviously religious than others. Morality and especially morality
in human relationships are central.
Origins and Crystallization
• A key founding figure is Kong Qui (559–472 BCE), later honored as Master
Kong (Kongzi, Latinized as Confucius).
• Worked in government but more importantly became a teacher.
• His disciples collected accounts of his conversations and these become the
• Kong teaches that all should cultivate virtue and properly manage relationships,
be mutually respectful according to rank, treat others as you wish to be treated,
and bring a sacred quality to all human interaction.
o Human interactions are summarized in the five relationships, which are all
hierarchical, with one side occupying a dominant position.
o Filial piety, the respect and obedience of a child for its parents, is a crucial
building block for all human relationships. • One does not just have a title; one fulfills it. Be a true king or husband or son etc.,
i.e., practice rectification of names.
o This challenges the existing aristocracy, and the idea that one’s social
status is given as a birthright.
• Kongzi takes notion of ren, formerly the benevolence of a king toward his
subjects, and calls upon all people to cultivate this virtue.
o Ren is based on shu (reciprocity) and loyalty (zhong) to one’s own heart.
o Ren is the basis for and is expressed through li, propriety in one’s
interactions with others.
• The king had a key role to play and should model himself on ideal rulers of the
past, the Duke of Zhou being Kong’s most highly regarded ruler.
• Kong saw himself as a transmitter of an older tradition, not an innovator.
o Confucian tradition credits Kongzi as the editor and in some cases the
compiler of the five Classics (the Yi Jing, the Book of History, the Book
of Odes, The Spring and Autumn Annals, and the Book of Rites)
• Though he did not define Tian clearly, he seems to regard it as a moral force and
so he declares that he worked to understand the will of Heaven and follow it.
• Mencius (Mengzi) and Xunzi are two important thinkers who lived a few
centuries after Kong.
o They take different positions on human nature and the source of evil.
o For Mencius, human nature is good; it is circumstance and environment
that makes people behave immorally.
o For Xunzi, human nature must be controlled otherwise people will follow
their selfish, greedy natures into immoral behaviour.
o Both also speak more directly about Tian and its relation to human nature
and human ritual behaviour.
• Han Dynasty Confucianism
o Confucianism was the state ideology during the Han dynasty (second century BCE to early third century CE), a period long regarded as a
Golden Age of Chinese culture.
o Dong Zhongshu, a major Han dynasty Confucian advisor to the Han
rulers, emphasized the importance of the king and also that the king
needed reliable signs about the will of Heaven in order to rule
successfully, i.e., with the support of Heaven. To this end, the king’s
advisors were to use divination techniques based on yin/yang and five
agents methods of analysis.
o After the Han dynasty, the political influence of Confucianism declined but
was revived 1000 years later in a form scholars call Neo-Confucianism.
o This ‘new’ Confucianism had been influenced by both Daoism and Buddhism.
o Zhu Xi (1130–1200)
The most important Neo-Confucian thinker, his works become the
curriculum for government workers from 1300 to 1900.
He writes the definitive Confucian commentaries on the four
Confucian classics: The Analects of Confucius, the Mengzi, the
Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean.
Li as the Great ultimate, the Ultimate Principle, was the guiding
force and pattern of all. Its partial expressions the li or principle in
each thing, were imperfectly expressed through qi, matter/energy.
Through investigation of things via study and meditation, one
could become enlightened and so become a perfectly moral human
o Wang Yangming (1472–1529)
As an opponent of Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, taught that the
ultimate was one’s true nature; there is no difference between the
Great ultimate and the true self. One needed to understand one’s
own mind, not study or meditate upon external things. Practice
• Important types of ritual in Confucianism include:
o The many observances of li, often translated as propriety or even as ritual.
o Rituals of ancestor worship.
o State rituals in which the king was the central actor and exercised his royal
responsibilities to honor and obey Heaven, Earth and Humanity and also
to maintain his own power by holding onto the Mandate of Heaven,
Heaven’s support for the rule of the king.
o Life cycle rituals such as the capping ceremony to mark a young man’s
adult status and also marriage rituals.
Interaction and Adaptation
• A number of different evaluations of Confucianism have developed in the last two
o Jesuits: favour the older forms over Neo-Confucianism.
o Forerunners to Chinese communism and many Chinese communist leaders
have viewed all of Confucianism as oppressive.