Confucius said: “Cultivated people reach upward. Petty people reach downward.” – The Analects, 14:24
“Sincerity is the way to heaven…He who possesses sincerity is he who, without an effort, hits what is
right…He who attains sincerity is he who chooses what is good and �rmly holds fast.” – The Analects
There are many schools of philosophy in Confucianism and while you will recognize some elements that are similar to Buddhism and Taoism, Confucianism has its own distinct set of rules, virtues and beliefs. A system of moral, social, political, philosophical, and religious elements, Confucianism has had a
tremendous in� uence on East Asian culture, history and art.
In Confucianism, it is believed that humans are able to achieve perfection through their own self cultivation and self creation, centered in the highest virtue and moral perfections.
Confucianism, which is practiced today mostly in China, Taiwan, Korean, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore, can be summed up with the “Golden Rule” philosophy, focused on kindness, sincerity, honesty, compassion and benevolence toward our fellow human beings. This is our key to true happiness.
Born in 551 BCE (around the same time as the Buddha and Lao Tzu), Confucius was from a noble family, raised in a time period where China was divided into small kingdoms, and made his living as a teacher. Confucius originally was named K’ung Ch’iu and then renamed K’ung fu Tzu, which means
Confucius said: “Do not be concerned about others not appreciating you. Be concerned about your not appreciating others.” – The Analects Confucianism arises out of a period of social upheaval and political turmoil in China. Witnessing poverty, turmoil, oppression and suffering will greatly in�uence the teachings of Confucius, who emphasized the creation of highly virtuous (or “excellent”) individuals who would be China’s social leaders. These new leaders would help rectify many of the problems and imbalances that their current society faced.
Much like the Greek Philosopher Plato, Confucius believed that a harmonious society was only possible with harmonious individuals and if individuals followed proper morals and virtues, as leaders, they would encourage this behavior among everyone else. Politically, Confucius felt that if a leader was just, his followers would be just and vice versa. Basically, it’s a kind of “pay it forward” idea (or again, Golden Rule) which would result in a harmonious and happy society.
Beliefs For Confucianism, education is essential.
A well rounded, holistic education, focused not only on book learning, but on music,
the arts (especially calligraphy!) and religion is highly valued and is considered
the key to happiness.
In addition, social interaction , contributing to others’ well being, reverence and care for the young and elderly, and an overall sense of individual (and communal) importance is essential. In a perfect society, Confucianism teaches that every single individual would feel protected and important. No one feels alone, but cared for and a part of a greater good. In other words, their voice and
Confucianism’s ideal is the Chun Tzu or the “noble person.” It’s interesting to compare Confucianism to
Taoism. While they have much in common, Confucianism is focused more on the Tao of the human,
physical world , not in the metaphysical. They are focused on social harmony more than spiritual
immortality. Confucianism also believes that harmony and balance does not come naturally, but is
something that humans must train and work for through lots of discipline. And �nally, Confucians do not emphasize focus in isolation as Taoists often do, but instead feel we thrive best in community and social relations.
1. Father and Son – Children obey and respect their parents and parents provide education and morality
for their children. It is a mutual obligation, with parents caring for their infants and later in life, grown
children taking care of their elderly parents. Even after they pass, the children will honor their parents’
memories with photos and meticulous grave maintenance.
This parent-child relationship is considered to foundation of society for Confuncians.
2. Brothers – In many Eastern languages, there are speci�c words to distinguish age levels of brothers, since an elder brother’s responsibilities are different than a younger brother’s. The older brother teaches the younger siblings and is responsible for their well being. If the father of the house dies, it is the older brother that will become the paternal �gure and role model.
3. Husband and Wife – Each is responsible for the other’s care and well being. While not really
embodying our western “romantic” ideals of marriage, Confucian partnership is focused more on
caretaking, protection and nurturing.
4. Elderly and Young – The young are expected to show respect and reverence to the elderly while the elderly have a responsibility to teach and provide for younger generations.
A mentor or teacher/student relationship is very key to this component. Interestingly, the Chinese characters for “teacher” literally translate as “earlier- born.”
5. Ruler and Subject – A ruler takes on a father-�gure role and the subjects are like his children. So, a lot of the Ruler/Subject structure will be based on the Father/Son dynamic. This �fth element shows that our respect, manners and duty are extremely important even outside of our immediate family unit.
We are always expected to give our best and to treat others around us as we would treat our own families
and children. Again, the ultimate focus is on respect and reverence and humility (evident in the Chinese
practice of bowing). There are several types of bows to indicate the nature of the relationship or dynamic.
Gift- giving is also common with interactions, including ceremonies, funerals, or just meeting someone
Our western minds may be weary of a social order or hierarchy at �rst, but Confuncians feel by having a
clear understanding of these relationships, we can reach our maximum potential for our talents and
success, resulting in not only a harmonious home, but a harmonious society. Relationships and social
roles are therefore paramount in Confucianism.
While social harmony arises out of these Five Relationships, personal excellence is rooted in the
following �ve virtues . Focused on individuality sincerity, honesty, and uniqueness, these highly revered
virtues are the key to happiness and harmony.
Ren (jen) – Benevolence, kindness or politeness.
Li – Being appropriate and proper (for example, dressing accordingly for the occasion, being polite and
Shu – Reciprocity or doing unto others as you would have done unto you. The Golden Rule philosophy again.
Xiao – Filial Piety or devotion to our elders/parents.Valuing our families and ancestors.
Wen – Culture. A love and pursuit of the arts. A “Renaissance” person so to speak.
Confucian Literature There is much wisdom literature within Confucianism, the most authoritative being the Five Classics and Four Books (you can read in more detail about these in your Molloy Text, in Chapter 6).
The most famous (and most quoted) are The Analects , which are sayings of Confucius and his followers. As you can see with the quotes in this lesson, they often begin with the phrase, “The
Master said,” or “Confucius said.”
This is where we get the modern, often parodied expression, “Confucius say…”