7: Confucianism

Confucian Temple

Key Terms

  • The Vinegar Tasters
  • Confucius
  • Rectification of Names
  • Five Relationships
  • Junzi
  • Li
  • Ren


  • Major populations: China & Taiwan
  • Designated as a world “religion” in 1877
  • Adherents: Considered a Traditional Chinese Religion
    • 394 million (5th largest)

  • Key texts: the Five Classics, the Four Books
  • Places of worship: Temples (3 min vid)

  • Do They Proselytize? No.
  • Dogmatic? No.
  • Theistic? No.

  • Totems: Dragon, Red, Hexagram, Taiji, symbols of social hierarchy
  • Taboos: Disrespect within the social hierarchy


I. Confucianism in Historical Context

  • Confucianism as one of the the Three Mountains
  • Confucians in History: Kong Fuzi (5m video)
  • Cultural Influences: China
    • Born Kong Qui, 551-479 BCE
    • Posthumously called Kong-fu-tzu, Tzu meaning ‘master.’
    • Latinization of Kong-fu-tzu (孔子) by Jesuit missionaries to Confucius
    • Humble beginnings, recruited and trained civil servants in matters of public administration and political and social theory
    • Self-described lover of antiquity; claimed it informed us about the present
    • Confucius film (American-audience trailer)
    • Fantasy encounter between Confucius + the elder Laozi (1 min)

  • Confucians in History: Rise and Fall in Popularity
    Cultural Influences: Buddhism
    • Originated in China during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE)
    • Originally called Rujia, “School of the Scholars”
    • Chinese feudal states - conflict and division among the Chinese people
    • Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), Confucianism becomes the official ideology of the state


Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves


Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.

II. Confucianism as a World “Religion” 

  • Contemporary dispute over whether Confucianism should be considered a
    world religion

  • Argument for Philosophy
    • Few people in China consider Confucianism as a religion
    • It is a way of life
    • Not recognized by the current Chinese government as a religion
    • No formal religious hierarchy and no priesthood
    • Important texts focus on the mundane
    • Lack of interest in the divine
    • Stronger focus on the present than the hereafter
    • Rituals focus on community building, not miraculous events

  • Argument for Religion
    • Confucianism is a “this–worldly” religion
    • It attempts to find the sacred hidden in plain sight
    • Avoids the western division between the sacred and the secular
    • Religious humanism


I. Confucian Texts


Hexagram 9 
from the I Ching

  • The Five Classics (written before and during the time of Confucius)
    • I Ching, Book of Changes
      • Manual for predicting the future and communicating with ancestors
      • Confucius wrote 10 commentaries
      • Divination to predict the future using 64 random hexagrams
      • Connects to both Daoism and Confucianism
    • Book of Documents
      • Historical records from wise rulers
    • Book of Odes
      • Anthology of Chinese poetry
      • Many include a moral lesson
    • Book of Rites
      • Describes proper etiquette and ritual
      • Directions to care for the widowed, orphaned, sick, and poor
      • Government should act as caretaker for those with no family
    • Spring–Autumn Annals
      • Diary-like history of Confucius’ home state
      • Importance of collective memory

  • The Four Books (most written around the 1200s to replace less relevant Five Classics)
    • The Book of Great Learning
      • Describes a person of good character
      • Memorized by some Chinese students
      • Establishes priority as family, neighborhood, then society
    • Analects of Confucius
      • Collection of sayings: “The Master Says..."
    • Book of Mencius
      • Written by a follower of Confucius within 100 years of his lifetime
      • Violence is pointless, restates many of Confucius’ teachings
    • The Doctrine of the Mean
      • Finding balance and harmony in one’s life
      • Incorporates Daoist teachings

II. Key Teachings and Concepts in Confucian Texts

Cult of Personality
Confucianism’s absolute respect for  authority encouraged the Chinese to embrace Communism under Mao Zedong, the “paramount leader” .
Beijing, China (PRC)

  • In Brief: Social Roles in Chinese Culture
    • Proper behavior is priority
    • If people knew their roles, there would be no conflict
    • The State carries out the Mandate of Heaven (Clip)
    • Citizens abide by the Five Relationships

  • Propriety
    • Propriety: Li
    • Living according to order and rightness
    • Emphasis social governance, harmony, and interpersonal relationships

  • Know Your Role: On the Rectification of Names
    • Acknowledging roles in society that create community 
    • Acting in such a way that fits with that role to ensure social harmony

  • Know Your Duties: On the Five Relationships

III. Exegesis: Traditions of Confucian Interpretation

  • Confucianism’s teachings are firmly embedded in Chinese culture
    • Filial piety: Confucianism Crash Course (6:32 - 8:18)
    • Respect according to the Five Relationships
    • Primacy of social harmony

  • Over the centuries Confucianism incorporated other popular cultural traditions
    • Revival of Confucianism has occurred multiple times
      • Neo-Confucianism (900s)
        • Return to Confucianism after Buddhist and Daoist influences
      • Growth of the Confucian Church (2000s)
        • Organization of Confucianism into Christian structures


I. Confucianism and Empire

  • Neo-Confucianism
    Cultural Influences: Buddhism, Daoism
    • Tang Dynasty (618-907), China is unified; Daoism and Buddhism become popular and begin to blend with Confucianism
    • Song Dynasty (969-1279), Neo-Confucianism emerges, removing Daoist and Buddhist elements
      • The Four Books and the Yin-Yang symbol becomes popular during this time

  • Confucianism in the Modern World
    Cultural Influences: Communism
    • Confucianism as embedded way of life for over a thousand years
    • When China adopted Communism, Confucianism declined again
    • Confucianism is not one of the official state religions of Communist China

  • Contemporary Confucianism
    Cultural Influences: Christianity
    • Since the 2000s, Confucianism has seen a rebirth in China
    • Confucian churches, schools, and academies have been built
    • Churches are modeled after Christian churches with organized worship and teachings from Confucius
    • The Center for the Study of Confucian Religion was established in 2005, which embedded Confucian teachings
      in public schools
    • "China’s Communist Party Turns to Confucius" - Wall Street Journal video
    • The Elderly Rights Law, passed in 2013, allows parents to bring lawsuits against children who do not show appropriate
      filial piety


I. Enacting Confucianism

  • The Five Virtues
    • Wisdom (Zhi)
    • Justice (Yi)
    • Goodness or Human-heartedness (Ren)
    • Faithfulness, reverence for family (Xin)
    • Propriety, etiquette, and courtesy (Li)

  • Becoming a Junzi
    • Through education, one can become a gentleman (a social example)
    • The educated person follows the rules and seeks social harmony (Li)
    • Through this propriety, he develops compassion for others (Ren)
    • Filled with Ren and practicing Li, he becomes an exemplar (Junzi)
      • Ren (inside) + Li (outside) = Junzi
    • Through the influence of their superior example, society is made better
    • In their 5 relationships, educated people seek to be a Junzi

II. Becoming a Confucian

  • No ceremony or initiation to becoming a Confucianist
  • Process of training yourself in the Confucian texts and ideals
  • Live according to those precepts and guidelines

III. General Guidelines for visiting a Chinese Temple

  • Q. How should I be dressed?
    • Dress casually but well-covered. Jeans are ok. Legs should be covered below the knee.
    • Remove head coverings
    • White is generally the preferred color to wear for funerals.
    • Red is for weddings

  • Q. What are the totems used in the service?
    • Guardian statues (e.g. a dragon and tiger) sit in front of the main gate
    • Architectural details contain Chinese calligraphy, representing peace and long life
    • Auspicious animal totems include the dragon, fish, lion, phoenix, tiger, and tortoise
    • Daoist decoration also includes many natural phenomena: sun, moon, stars, cypress trees, and bamboo
    • Incense is burned as a gesture of ancestor veneration
    • A gong or bell is used to mark auspicious times

  • Q. Will contributions to the temple be collected?
    • Yes. In the People's Republic of China, you buy a ticket at the ticket window.
    • There will also be a donation box next to some food offerings. $1 donation is fine. Never touch the food.

  • Q. How should I behave in a Chinese temple?
    • In China, the entrance is on the south side. You exit through the north side.
    • You may enter if doors are open. If closed, do not open them.
      • Enter a temple with your left foot first. Exit with your right foot first.
    • You may buy incense outside the temple. Incense is lit and held in the temple while praying, then placed in a bowl.
    • Most temples require you to remove your shoes before entering. A collection of shoes at the front will indicate this.
    • Do not touch statues or people. The polite gesture is to bow with hands together.
      • Women guests are expected not to give food or otherwise communicate with monks.
      • Men may give food or donations to monks from the right hand.
    • If seated, stand when a monk or nun enters the room.
    • Do not speak, touch another person, or eat anything while in a Chinese temple.

  • Q. What are the death and mourning customs of China?
    • It is a Confucian practice to accompany the dying (c.f. filial piety).
      • The Chinese generally take shifts sitting at the deathbed of family members.
    • To announce a death, a white banner is placed over the doorframe of a house. (White signifies death.)
    • The funeral usually takes place on an auspicious day of the Chinese calendar.
    • The dead are cremated in cities, or buried in the countryside
    • Confucian funeral rituals include veneration of the ancestors and acts of filial piety
      • It is the duty of young people to venerate the (elder) dead
      • Child and bachelor funerals are sometimes held in silence for this reason
    • Offerings of food, incense, and "ghost money" can be offered to the dead
    • Buddhist and/or Daoist blessings may be recited by monks, so that the soul may find peace
    • Ancestor veneration takes the guise of tombstone clean-up on the anniversary of the deceased