A carved stone guard at the Temple of Confucius at Qufu in Shandong Province, the legendary birthplace of Confucius. Eastern Han dynasty, first/second century CE. The site at Qufu draws almost as many visitors as Beijing’s Forbidden City. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The teaching of the philosopher Confucius inspired philosophers and statesmen for more than twenty-five-hundred years. Confucianism stresses the importance of education for moral development of the individual so that the state can be governed by moral virtue rather than coercive laws.

Confucianism is a system of thought based on the teachings of the philosopher Confucius (or Kong Fuzi [Grand Master Kong], 551–479 BCE). Confucianism includes the complete literature, teachings, and practices of the traditions that are aligned with Confucius. Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) bibliographers classified the works of Confucius and his disciples under the heading “literati.”


Scholars often claim that traditional China was a Confucian society or that before the twentieth century Confucianism was the official state religion and philosophy of China. Such claims are overgeneralizations and misleading, First, the syncretic (relating to the combination of different forms of belief or practice) nature of both early and late Confucian thought must be understood. Second, the hybrid syncretic character of later state-sanctioned Confucianism must be understood.

Speaking generally, the cultures, philosophies, and religions of East Asia are syncretic in nature. Because of their practical orientation, they do not place great value on exclusive ideas or practices but instead prefer to absorb and integrate whatever proves to be useful. This practice is particularly true of Chinese culture and philosophy and is in large part the reason why the dynastic system was effective and enduring.

Their syncretic, amalgamated character and content are what have made the teachings of Confucius so attractive to so many thinkers for more than twenty-five hundred years. Confucius, his contemporary followers, and most of his later followers incorporated various forms of literature. They emphasized poetry, legend, history, divination, music, and ritual. They integrated virtue and self-cultivation with the notions of harmony and a political philosophy. The Confucian curriculum was well rounded. It consisted of the six arts: ritual, music, archery, calligraphy, charioteering, and mathematics. Confucius also stressed that any serious student, even a commoner, should be trained in military arts. Confucians assumed that the masses would be engaged in agriculture and related industry and incorporated agricultural skills into their social program, although they did not place great stress on these skills because they were more concerned with moral cultivation.

Borrowing from statesmen who were concerned about properly naming job titles and evaluating job performances, Confucius and others, especially the philosophers Mencius (385–303/302 BCE) and Xunzi (c. 300–230 BCE), delineated the meaning of the “rectification or attunement of names” (zhengming). This delineation was important because knowing the precise name for one’s position in the world (as father, son, prince, and so on) let one know one’s responsibilities.

Confucians were at odds with a school of philosophy called the “Legalists” (fajia), who advocated a rigorous notion of the rule of law, as opposed to the Confucians’ notion of rule by virtue. Although Confucius, Xunzi, and Mencius believed that people should be ruled with virtue by setting a moral example, they also certainly recognized the need for law. According to tradition, when Confucius was chief of police, even he had to authorize the execution of a criminal. Confucians, like Legalists, sought to standardize a code of human conduct. Legalists sought to achieve this standardization by instituting public law, whereas Confucians sought to achieve it by placing greater emphasis on instituting a homogeneous system of ethics to govern human interactions, holding the law in reserve for cases of flagrant behavior.

Confucius clearly did not create a pure philosophical system; he borrowed from various approaches. Likewise, his followers absorbed elements from other schools of philosophy to bolster their interpretation of Confucius.

Xunzi and Mencius

Mencius is known for advancing the teachings of Confucius. However, whereas Confucius was concerned with the details of proper moral behavior, Mencius advocated a more abstract philosophy, emphasizing the goodness of human nature (xing) and the development of the mind (xin). Although Mencius had syncretic tendencies, he also criticized other philosophers, including the early Daoist Yang Zhu (c. late fourth century BCE); Mozi (479–438 BCE), the founder of Mohism, a philosophy that emphasized universal love; and Xu Xing (c. late fourth century BCE), who argued that a ruler should labor in the fields alongside his subjects. (Mencius answered Xu Xing by saying that the ruler should concentrate on ruling and leave farming to the farmer).

Xunzi a century later revitalized Confucian teachings by invigorating them with practical political measures such as economic means to enrich the state and a greater stress on public law. Xunzi is known for criticizing Mencius’s belief that human nature is basically good. Xunzi argued that people are basically selfish, given limited resources, but that people can be trained to be good through the practice of ritual action and education. Xunzi’s teachings dominated Confucian thinking from the Han dynasty to the Song dynasty (960–1279). During the Song dynasty Mencius’s teachings were used to develop neo-Confucianism.

State-Sponsored Confucianism and Syncretism

The syncretic approach to philosophy and the arts of rulership became particularly popular toward the end of the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) and the first part of the Han dynasty (the so-called Western Han, 206 BCE–8 CE).

Han emperors struggled with the problem of systematizing political philosophy and the arts of rulership. During the reign of the Han emperor Wu (156–87 BCE) Dong Zhongshu (c. 179–104 BCE) developed a composite form of Confucianism that became the state-sanctioned philosophy. Dong was a Confucian in that he praised Confucius and generally subscribed to the Confucian ideas of rule by virtue and self-cultivation. However, Dong integrated aspects of the Five Phases philosophy (a philosophy of the mystical composition of the universe out of five forces), Legalism, and Daoism into Confucianism.

The intellectual life of Confucianism stagnated after the Han dynasty. During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) Han Yu (768–824 CE) revived Confucianism with his study of the moral way (daoxue). He rejected Xunzi and emphasized the basic goodness of human nature.

Zhou Dunyi, Zhu Xi, and the Cheng Brothers

During the Song dynasty a Tang dynasty Daoist alchemical document called the “Diagram of the Great Ultimate” (Taijitu) was transmitted to the philosopher Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073). (The term alchemical relates to alchemy, a medieval science aiming to transmute base metals into gold, discover a universal cure for disease, and discover a means of indefinitely prolonging life.) Zhou wrote a profound work based on that document in which he linked the moral nature of humans with the nature of the universe and claimed that the goodness of human nature is part of the moral goodness of the universe.

Zhou Dunyi taught the Cheng brothers. Cheng Hao (1032–1085) and his younger brother Cheng Yi (1033–1107) developed Zhuo’s concept of a universal principle (li) that is inherent in all things, making it the foundation of their respective philosophies and the main concept of Song dynasty neo-Confucianism. They taught that the proper subjects for study are principle (li) and human nature (xing) and that human nature ultimately is identical to principle. For them the investigation of things was crucial for self-cultivation. They claimed that goodness is the life-giving principle of the universe.

The Cheng brothers influenced the neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (1130–1200), who systematized the teachings of the Cheng brothers and Zhou Dunyi and argued that reality consists of two components: principle (li) and material force (qi). Principle is the form of everything that exists, whereas material force fills and activates things. Zhu taught that human nature is basically good because it is endowed with the principle (li) that is goodness. People learn to be bad, and thus the purpose of education is to retain the good principle in one’s original nature and to remove acquired pollutants. Zhu Xi sided with the rationalistic (relating to reliance on reason as the basis for establishment of religious truth) tendencies in Cheng Yi’s philosophy, and for several hundred years what is called the “Cheng-Zhu school of neo-Confucianism” dominated China.

Zhu Xi debated with Lu Xiangshan (1139–1193), who supported the idealistic tendencies of Cheng Hao’s philosophy. Lu focused on the mind, teaching that it is one with principle. For Lu the investigation of things meant the study of the mind. He argued for the unity of the Way (dao), opposing the distinction that Zhu made between principle and material force.

Ming and Qing Dynasties

During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) Wang Yangming (1472–1529) developed the idealism of Lu Xiangshan. (In philosophy idealism means that reality is in the mind or in the ideas of the mind; it does not denote a perfect [ideal] world). Wang was a champion of the School of Mind (xinxue), as opposed to Zhu’s School of Principle (lixue). Wang argued that anyone can become a sage because everyone has a mind that contains innate knowledge of the good. This innate knowledge of the good extends outward, starting with a natural love for self and family, extending to community, and then outward to all other people, creatures, and things. Wang is known for teaching that knowledge and action form a unity. His philosophy influenced later thinkers such as Tan Sitong (1865–1898) and Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925).

In 1644 the Manchus conquered China and established the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Under foreign occupation Chinese government officials were marginalized. To avoid criticism or punishment by the Manchus, many turned to scholarship and the study of Confucian philosophy. Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Dai Zhen (1724–1777) are two important Confucians of the Qing dynasty. Dai Zhen devoted his life to studying the Mencius (a book of Mencius’s conversations with kings of his time). Dai Zhen rejected the Chang-Zhu school and taught that human morality had its origin in blood-and-material force and the knowing mind. He taught that principle exists only when the feelings are not mistaken. Kang Youwei accepted a basic tenant of the Lu-Wang school that taught that book learning must be complemented with profound action. Kang was a scholar who advocated political and social reform. He saw Confucius as an innovative institutional reformer and proposed that Confucius was a divine being or god and the founder of a great religion. Kang adapted Dong Zhongshu’s concept of the three, suggesting that human history begins with an Age of Disorder, followed by an Age of Small Peace, culminating in an Age of Great Peace. During the Age of Great Peace everyone and everything will be treated exactly the same; there will be one world order, one humanity, one great unity (datong).

Twentieth Century

Confucian scholars in the twentieth century revived the tradition with what is now known as “New Confucianism.” Feng Youlan (1895–1990) revitalized rationalistic neo-Confucianism and argued that everything in existence is undergoing a continuous process of realizing principle (li) by means of material force (qi). He taught that people live in one of four spheres of life: the innocent sphere, the utilitarian or practical sphere, the moral sphere, and the transcendent sphere. Philosophy helps people to live in the last two higher spheres of life: the moral sphere and the transcendent sphere. Feng’s notion of the transcendent realm was influenced by Daoist mysticism. Xiong Shili (1883–1968) reconstructed idealistic neo-Confucianism and advocated that reality is change, a perpetual process of production and reproduction or closing and opening. By “closing” Xiong meant that reality has the tendency to integrate, to momentarily be what we call “matter.” By “opening” Xiong meant that reality has the tendency to maintain its own nature, to be its own master, to momentarily be what we call “mind.”

When Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) and his followers won the civil war in 1949, Confucius and Confucianism were strongly attacked. Xiong, Feng, and all other scholars were forced to denounce Confucius and their own decadent views. However, after Mao’s death the Communist Party became far more tolerant of Confucianism such that by the 1990s party propaganda began to quote the ideas of Confucius or his followers.

New Confucianism has continued to develop as some scholars in China offer interpretations of the Confucian classics to help people cope with a rapidly changing China. Others are developing what Daniel A. Bell (2008), a scholar who teaches at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, has called “Left Confucianism,” which attempts to revitalize the intellectuals’ role as political and social critic. Some of the New Confucians are seeking to blend the humanitarian ideals of Marxism with those of Confucianism. In addition, in both Taiwan and the West, Confucianists advocate promoting Confucian values in democratic and capitalist societies.

Further Reading

Allan, S. (1997). The way of water and sprouts of virtue. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ames, R. T., & Rosemont, H., Jr. (Trans.). (1998). The Analects of Confucius: A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Bell, D. A. (2008). China’s new Confucianism: Politics and everyday life in a changing society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chan Wing-tsit. (1963). A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fung Yu-lan. (1952). History of Chinese philosophy (D. Bodde, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, A. C. (1986). The background of the Mencian theory of human nature. In A. C. Graham (Ed.), Studies in Chinese philosophy & philosophical literature (pp. 7–59). Singapore: Institute of East Asian Philosophies.

Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Hall, D. L., & Ames, R. T. (1987). Thinking through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hsiao Kung-chuan. (1979). A history of Chinese political thought (F. Mote, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (1993). Confucian moral self-cultivation. New York: Peter Lang.

Jensen, L. M. (1997). Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese traditions and universal civilization. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press.

Lau, D. C. (Trans.). (1970). Mencius. Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books.

Lau, D. C. (Trans.). (1979). Confucius: The Analects. Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books.

Legge, J. (Trans.). (1960). The Chinese classics. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong.

Munro, D. J. (1979). Concept of man in contemporary China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Nivison, D. S. (1996). The ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese philosophy (B. W. Van Norden, Ed.). Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Tu Weiming. (1979). Humanity and self-cultivation: Essays in Confucian thought. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press.

Tu Weiming. (1985). Confucian thought: Selfhood as creative transformation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Tu Weiming. (1996). Confucian tradition in east Asian modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Sellmann, James D. (2009). Confucianism. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 477–481. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Historical illustration, A sacrifice to Confucius.

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