Confucianism Definition, History, Beliefs, & Lifestyle (08.06.2018)
Confucianism (ru-jia, the School of the Scholars) is a major system of thought in China, not really a religion. It was developed from the teachings of Confucius (Kung fu-tze) and his disciples. Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) was born poor in the Shandong Province of China. In spite of his birth, he nevertheless managed to get a good education. A remarkable thinker and educator, he became a teacher in his later life and attracted about 3,000 followers, of whom 72 became famous, or so the legend goes. His teachings have had a tremendous influence on China’s civilization, the people’s lives, their patterns of living, social values, standards for training government officials, and the development of Chinese political theories and institutions.
It is difficult to categorize Confucianism, since it is neither a philosophy nor a religion. It is more of a collection of values, precepts, and adages designed to lead practitioners toward the “middle way” (tao) of living. Confucianism does not have the elements that religions, like Christianity and Islam, require. Rather, rituals have been added to what is primarily an ethical system that provides guidelines for right living and right ruling.
Confucius stressed the ways people can live together cordially and develop a just and systematic society. According to Confucius, the “higher good” does not come from the privileges of birth but from the practice of moderate, beneficial, and generous behavior and of service to others. Attainment comes through education and formal behavior. Confucianism does not favor military solutions, but rather spiritual patience. It does not require religious edifices or clergy, and the only sin is a breach of the rule of goodness toward one’s parents, one’s superior, one’s homeland, one’s chief of state, or one’s sons and daughters.
Confucius not only stressed social rituals (li), but also humaneness (ren). Ren, sometimes translated as “love” or “kindness,” is not a single virtue but the source of all virtues. Ren keeps ritual forms from becoming hollow: A ritual performed with ren has ethical content apart from form; it nurtures the inner character of the person and furthers his or her ethical maturation. If Confucianism’s exterior is conformity and acceptance of social roles, its interior is cultivation of conscience and character. Cultivation concerns extensive education and reflection on one’s actions. It is a lifetime commitment to character-building.
The heart of Confucianism is reformist, idealistic, and spiritual. It stresses family interaction: Members are expected to treat each other with love, respect, and attention to the needs of all. It also prescribes the highest ideal for the state: The ruler is supposed to be a father to his people and look after their basic needs. It requires officials to be critical of their rulers and to refuse to serve the corrupt.
Origins and History
Confucius did not set out to found a religion, nor did he consider himself an original thinker. Instead, he saw his work as that of restoring a utopian period of Chinese history based on ancient wisdom, an unnamed core of social values at the heart of Chinese society. This undertaking, he believed, would bring order to his world. Confucius pulled together the common moral ideals of his culture. In its fledgling form the philosophy was principally a system of moral precepts for the proper management of society.
To Confucius the old Chou religion framed the activities and events of everyday life.
For Confucius rituals were much more than religious acts of piety seeking the beneficence of the gods. They were everyday manifestations of the humane, cultured behaviors that had developed over centuries of human social activity. These rituals, he believed, were the ethical core of Chinese society, its “social mores.” He was not a philosophical pioneer striking out into a wilderness of abstraction. Rather Confucius’s task was restorative and conservative, mining China’s past for small nuggets of wisdom, and his teachings affirmed the need for adhering to accepted social values and customs necessary to the social infrastructure and the bonds of human relationships. If each person understood his or her role and performed it, starting from the individual and the family, a society would evolve.
Li and ren provide the foundation of Confucianism.
According to Confucianism, li (or social propriety) is the greatest rule of living. A society that lives by li functions smoothly. Confucius viewed people as social creatures who are bound within society by ren, or human kindness. Ren is expressed through five relationships: sovereign and subject, parent and child, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend. The filial equation is often most stressed among these.
Confucius lived in a tumultuous era in China’s history, during the second half of the Zhou dynasty.
The Zhou had conquered the Shangs and ruled China for close to 800 years (1050–256 B.C.E.). It was a time of social and moral chaos, when values were often disregarded or cast aside. In the culture of fear created by the warlords, the philosophy of Confucianism flourished, ultimately transforming Chinese society and dominating it for centuries. The reason for its dominance was that Confucianism conformed to the needs of the ruling classes. It stressed five constant virtues: ren (benevolence), yi (righteousness), li (propriety), zhi (wisdom), and xin (fidelity) as the foundation of a basic ethical code necessary for an ordered society. It presented a utopian world for both the ruling class and the common people.
According to Confucianism, the ruler should be like a father to his people and cater to their essential needs. It encouraged officials to be loyal to their rulers and shun corruption, and promoted the absolute authority of a king over his subjects, a husband over his wife, and a father over his son.
Confucius’s method of presenting information was indirect, and he frequently used allusions, innuendo, and even tautology to make his points. Had it not been for his disciples, Confucius’s ideas would still be unknown. The great social thinker never wrote anything down himself, but his disciples preserved all of his sayings and conversations in a collection of books called the Analects. The Analects contain all that the world knows today of the man whose teachings are largely responsible for shaping the culture of China.
Two of the most important Confucian philosophers viewed Confucianism in totally different ways: Mencius (390–305 B.C.E.) and Xunzyi (mid-200s B.C.E.). Both held beliefs similar to those of Confucius, yet, at the same time, they were quite opposite.
Mencius believed that people are born good and that they have to “preserve the natural compassion of the heart.” Xunzyi (or Hsün-tzu) argued that people are innately evil but can be changed through moral education.
Xunzyi was also the major exponent of ritualism in Confucianism. He believed that desires should be guided and controlled by the rules of propriety and that character should be shaped by an orderly observance of rites and by the practice of music. This code was to serve as a commanding influence on character by properly directing emotions and providing inner harmony.
Confucianism focused on the needs of society and, in contrast to Buddhism and Taoism, not on the individual’s ability to live in harmony with nature. In the 200s B.C.E., however, these two religions began to affect and reshape the standards of Confucianism, and elements like nature began to be incorporated. Between 200 B.C.E. and 600 C.E., there was a rapid decline in interest in Confucianism in China. This was in part because Confucianism now had to contend with Buddhism and Taoism, which were developed around this time.
These religions and Confucianism were at the extreme ends of the spectrum. Buddhism and Taoism were largely concerned with the significance of death and suffering, while Confucianism largely ignored those aspects of life.
A revival of Confucianism began around the 600s but had ended by the 700s. In the 1100s, Zhu Xi (1130–1200 C.E.) was a Song Dynasty (960–1279 C.E.) Confucian scholar who led the movement called Neo-Confucianism. He developed a branch of Confucianism known as the rational wing, which dealt with the study of li, the relationship between humans and nature. Another branch was called the intuitional wing; it dealt mainly with enlightenment through a blend of meditation and moral action.
Zhu Xi and his students are largely responsible for what is considered the Confucian canon: the four books (sishu), which consist of the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean; and the five scriptures, which include the Book of Changes (I Ching), perhaps the single best-known Chinese work in the West. Zhu Xi also wrote extensive commentaries for all of these classics. The writings were considered unorthodox in Zhu Xi’s time, but they were accepted as standard commentaries on the Confucian classics at a later date.
From the 11th through the 19th centuries, NeoConfucianism produced reformers, philanthropists, dedicated teachers, officials, and social philosophers.
In the early 20th century, Confucianism came into conflict with Communism. For many years after the Communist revolution in China the government outlawed Confucianism, because it tends to look to the past rather than the future. However, official government opposition ended in 1977.
Holidays and Religious Observances
Because Confucianism is not a religion in the most commonly understood sense of the term, it is more appropriate to talk about ceremonial observances, of which there are six: capping, marriage, mourning rites, sacrifices, feasts, and interviews. The first four are the most important, and they have changed very little over the centuries. Capping is a joyous celebration, held when a son turns 20. Relatives and invited guests gather to witness the father give his son a special name and a square-cornered cap as symbols of his having reached manhood. The ceremony is followed by a feast.
The marriage ceremony is very important because sons are expected to reproduce in order to sustain the patriarchal line and to ensure the continuance of ancestral worship. Young men are supposed to be married by the time they reach 30, whereas the age for young women is 20. Marriage in Confucianism is an elaborate process performed in six stages.
During the proposal phase, the couple exchanges the year, month, day, and hour of their respective births.
If any unfavorable event takes place in the bride-tobe’s family in the subsequent three days, then the bride is believed to have rejected the proposal. After the wedding day is chosen, the bride announces it with invitations and gifts of moon-shaped cookies.
Next, the bride’s dowry is delivered to the groom’s house in a formal procession, and the groom’s parents reciprocate by sending the bride-price to the bride. The groom must then send gifts to the bride, which should be equal in value to her dowry. Then the groom goes to the bride’s home and brings her to his house amid much celebration. During the actual wedding ceremony, the two recite their vows, toast each other with wine, and then host a banquet.
Melon halves are hollowed out to serve as cups and filled with sweet spirits; these are handed to the bride and groom. The morning after the wedding, the bride serves breakfast to the groom’s parents, who then reciprocate.
Mourning rituals are also very important because of the connection with the worship of ancestors.
They are extremely elaborate, and both their details and the length of mourning are based on the rank and relationship of the deceased. Confucian practice requires that, during a funeral, the family of the deceased put on clothes made of a coarse material.
The corpse is washed and placed in a coffin.
Mourners bring incense and money to make up for the cost of the funeral. Food and noteworthy objects of the deceased are placed inside the coffin. Because there are no religious “officials” in Confucian groups, the funeral is nondenominational in nature, insofar as a Buddhist or Taoist priest (or even a Christian minister) may perform the burial rites.
Friends and family follow the coffin to the cemetery, carrying a willow branch, which represents the soul of the dead person. The branch is brought back to the family altar, where it is used to “install” the spirit of the deceased. Liturgies are performed on the seventh, ninth, and 49th days after the burial and on the first and third death anniversaries.
The importance of sacrifices is repeatedly emphasized in Confucian texts, where instructions are provided for their proper performance. “Sacrifice,” however, does not entail blood-letting or death, as the word may suggest to Westerners. It is merely an offering of food to spirit guests, intended to express homage and reverence. There is always a lot of food and drink available for all at these observances, as well as music and singing, and it is believed that the spirits enjoy the feasting and entertainment as much as the living celebrants.
Finally, the worship of one’s ancestors remains of great importance to followers of Confucius, although, like sacrifice, it is not “worship” as Westerners conceive of it. It consists of feasts held to honor one’s dead kin. Every home, from the emperor’s palace to the smallest peasant cottage, had a space set aside for an ancestral shrine where wooden tablets bearing the names of relatives, including even remote ancestors, were kept. At specific times, offerings of fruit, wine, and cooked meats were placed before these tablets, where the people believed the spirits of their relations temporarily rested. More impressive, public rituals were also performed by local clans, where their common ancestors were honored twice a year, in the spring and, again, in the fall. These observances involved great banquets, including music and formal dances, to which the dead were invited. Although these periodic feasts are largely restricted to those actually related by kinship ties, some public figures also earned the allegiance of the people and were also recognized with gifts of food. Confucius, regarded as one of the greatest social benefactors, is still honored in this way in China.