A Brief Summary of Confucius and His Teachings


Kathy Shinn

Confucianism is the complex system of moral, social, political, and religious teaching built up by Confucius and the ancient Chinese traditions. Confucianism goal is making not only the man virtuous, but also making him the man of learning and of good manners. The perfect man must combine the qualities of a saint, scholar, and gentleman. Confucianism is a religion whose worship is centered in offerings to the dead. The notion of duty is extended beyond the boundaries of morals and embraces the details of daily life.

The main character responsible for this religion was K’ung-tze, or K’ung-fu-tze, who’s name was latinized by the early Jesuit missionaries into "Confucius". Confucius was born in 551 B.C., in the state of Lu. His parents, belonged to the upper class. From early childhood he showed a great aptitude for study. He made so much progress that at the age of twenty-two he opened a school. His ability and faithful service got him a promotion to the office of minister of justice. Under his administration, the State gained a prosperity and moral order that it had never seen before. But the rival states of Lu preferred common pleasures instead of focusing on the preservation of good government. Confucius tried to bring his state back to the path of duty, but his efforts were in vain. He then resigned his position and left the state. For thirteen years, accompanied by faithful followers, he went from one state to another, seeking a ruler who would listen to his teachings. More than once he came across the risk of being killed by his enemies, but his confidence in his mission kept him going. Finally, he returned to Lu, where he spent the last five years of his life encouraging others to study and practice virtue. He died in the year 478 B.C., at the age of seventy-fourth. His life almost exactly coincided with the Buddha, who died two years earlier at the age of eighty.

Confucius had a noble and commanding personality. Examples of this is illustrated in his moral teachings and by the high-minded men that he trained to continue his life-work. In their admiration of him, they declared him the greatest of men, the sage without flaw, the perfect man. He didn’t make any pretension to have virtue and wisdom. He was aware of his shortcomings, and he made no attempt to keep that concealed. Confucius’s love of virtue and wisdom is described in Analects as one "who in the eager pursuit of knowledge, forgot his food, and in the joy of attaining to it forgot his sorrow". Whatever traditional records of the past, whether history, lyric poems, or rites and ceremonies which promoted virtue, he sought out and taught to his disciples. He was a man of an affectionate nature, sympathetic, and most considerate towards others. He loved his disciples dearly, and won in turn their undying devotion.

Confucianism embraces not only the teachings of Confucius, but also the traditional customs and rites of the past. The texts are divided into two categories, known as the "King" (Classics), and the "Shuh" (Books). The texts of the King are commonly counted as five, but sometimes are counted as six. The first of these is the "Shao-king" (Book of History). It’s a religious and moral book, tracing the series of great events in history. It also teaches the lesson that the Heaven-god gives prosperity only to the virtuous ruler who has the welfare of the people at heart.

The second King is the "She-king" (Book of Songs), often called the "Odes". It consists of 305 short lyric poems. The third King is the "Y-king" (Book of Changes), It‘s an instruction on the art of divining with the stalks of a native plant, which after being thrown give different indications as they conform to one or another of the sixty-four hexagrams made up of three broken and three unbroken lines. Short explanations accompany them. The fourth King is the "Li-ki" (Book of Rites). It’s a compilation from a huge number of documents, most of which date from the earlier part of the Chow dynasty. It gives rules of conduct down to the minute details for religious acts of worship, court functions, social and family relations, dress—in short, for every aspect of human action. It remains the authoritative guide of correct conduct for every Chinese person even today. In the "Li-ki" there are many of Confucius’s sayings and two long treatises composed by disciples. One of these is the treatise known as the "Chung-yung" (Doctrine of the Mean). It‘s one of the most valuable treatises. It consists of a collection of sayings of Confucius characterizing the perfect man. The other treatise, is the "Ta-hio" (Great Learning). It gives descriptions of the virtuous ruler by the disciple Tsang-tze. The fifth King is the short historical treatise known as the "Ch’un-ts’ew" (Spring and Autumn), written by the hand of Confucius himself. It consists of a series of records about the state of Lu for the years 722-484 B.C. In addition to these five Kings belongs a sixth, the "Hiao-king" (Book of Filial Piety). The Chinese attribute its composition to Confucius, but in the opinion of critical scholars, it is the product of his disciple, Tsang-tze.

The religion of ancient China which Confucius stuck closely to was a form of nature-worship. While numerous spirits associated with natural phenomena were recognized—spirits of mountains and rivers, of land and grain, of the four quarters of the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars—they were all inferior to the supreme Heaven-god, T’ien (Heaven) also called Ti (Lord), or Shang-ti (Supreme Lord).

All other spirits were his ministers, acting in obedience to his will. T’ien was the upholder of the moral law, exercising a reign over all men. Nothing could escape his all-seeing eye. His punishment for evil deeds took the form either of disasters and early death, or of misfortune given to the children of the evil-doer. In passages of the "Shao-" and "She-king," this belief is a motive to promote right conduct. Confucius himself is recorded saying, "he who offends against Heaven has no one to whom he can pray". Another motive to the practice of virtue was the belief that the souls of the departed relatives were largely dependent for their happiness on the conduct of their living descendants. It was taught that children owed it to their dead parents to contribute to their glory and happiness by living lives of virtue. Confucius didn’t disregard motives to right conduct, but instead stressed the love of virtue for its own sake.The principles of morality and their application to life were embodied in the sacred texts, which in turn represented the teachings of the great sages to instruct mankind. These teachings were not inspired, or revealed, yet they were infallible. The sages were born with wisdom from Heaven to enlighten the children of men. It was a wisdom that was fortunate, rather than supernatural. The notion of Divine revelation isn‘t present in Chinese texts. To follow the path of duty as listed in the rules of conduct was within the reach of all men, provided that their nature was not spoiled by bad influences. Confucius held the traditional view that all men are born good. Original sin isn‘t in his teachings. He failed to recognize the existence of bad tendencies. In his view, what spoiled men was bad environment, evil example and a yielding to evil appetites that everyone could and ought to control. Moral downfall caused by suggestions of evil spirits had no place in Confucius’s system.

In Confucianism the pursuit of virtue is natural and fortunate. But in this pursuit of moral perfection Confucius sought to give others the enthusiastic love of virtue that he felt himself. To make oneself as good as possible was the main business of life. Everything that was conducive to the practice of goodness was to be eagerly sought and made use of. Knowledge was held as an indispensable treasure. The knowledge which he taught to be pursued was not purely scientific learning, but was the study of the sacred texts and the rules of virtue and propriety. Another factor which he stressed was the influence of good example. The heroes and sages of the past and sayings he sought to promote. He did this by insisting on the study of the ancient classics. Many of his recorded sayings are eulogies of these men of virtue. Confucius taught his followers the importance of always welcoming the correction of one’s faults. Also, the daily examination of conscience was enforced. To further aid to the formation of a virtuous character, he valued a certain amount of self-discipline. He recognized the danger, especially in the young, of falling into bad habits, so he insisted on eliminating the urge for unnecessary comforts.

As a foundation for the life of perfect goodness, Confucius insisted mainly on the four virtues of sincerity, benevolence, filial piety, and propriety. Sincerity was a cardinal virtue. It meant more than a mere social relation. Sincerity also meant to be truthful and straightforward in speech, faithful to one’s promises and to be conscientious in the discharge of one’s duties to others. The sincere man in Confucius’s eyes was the man whose conduct was based on the love of virtue, and who sought to observe the rules of right conduct in his heart as well as in outward actions. Showing a kindly regard for the welfare of others and in a readiness to help them in times of need, was also a fundamental element in Confucius’s teaching. These things were viewed as the traits of the good man. In the sayings of Confucius, he states many things that can be compared to the Golden Rule. For example, when a disciple asked him for a guiding principle for all conduct, Confucius answered: "Is not mutual goodwill such a principle? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others". This is almost exactly like the form of the Golden Rule found in Christianity. The third fundamental virtue in the Confucian system is filial piety. In the "Hiao-king", Confucius is recorded as saying: "Filial piety is the root of all virtue."—"Of all the actions of man there are none greater than those of filial piety." To the Chinese, filial piety prompts sons to love and respect their parents, contribute to their comfort and bring happiness and honor to their name by honorable success in life. Filial piety included the obligation of sons to live after marriage under the same roof with the father and to give him obedience as long as he lived. The will of the parents was declared to be supreme even to the extent that if the son’s wife failed to please them he was obliged to divorce her. If a dutiful son found himself compelled to scold a wayward father he was taught to give the correction with the utmost meekness. The father does not forfeit his right to filial respect, no matter how great his wickedness. Another virtue of primary importance in the Confucian system is "propriety". It embraces the whole aspect of human conduct teaching men to do the right thing. In the rules, ceremony, customs and usages are listed by which Chinese etiquette is regulated. They were distinguished even in Confucius’s day by the three hundred greater, and the three thousand lesser rules of ceremony, all of which had to be carefully learned as a guide to right conduct. The conventional usages as well as the rules of moral conduct brought with them the sense of obligation resting primarily on the authority of the sage-kings and on the will of Heaven. To neglect or deviate from them was equivalent to committing a sin.

In the "Li-ki", there are 6 main ceremonial observances. Capping, marriage, mourning rites, sacrifices, feasts, and interviews. I will briefly discuss the first four. These observances have lasted with little change to the present day. Capping was a joyous ceremony where the son was honored on reaching his 20th birthday. In the presence of relatives and invited guests, the father gave his son a special name and a square cornered cap as distinguishing mark of his manhood. This ceremony was included an enormous feast. The marriage ceremony was of great importance as well. To marry and have a male child was an important duty on the part of every son. This was necessary to keep up the patriarchal system and to provide for ancestral worship in later years. The rule laid down in the "Li-ki" was that a young man should marry at the age of thirty and a young woman at twenty. The proposal and acceptance pertained not to the couple directly, but to their parents.

The preliminary arrangements were made by a go between after it was determined that the proposed marriage was proper. The couple could not be of the same surname or related within the fifth degree of kindred. On the day of the wedding the young groom in his best attire came to the house of the bride and led her out to his carriage, which she rode to his father’s home. There he received her, surrounded by the joyous guests. Cups were made by cutting a melon in half and filled with sweet spirits and handed to the bride and groom. By taking a sip from each, they signified that they were united in wedlock. The bride then became a member of the family of her parents-in-law. Monogamy was encouraged as the ideal condition, but secondary wives known as concubines were not forbidden. The mourning rites were also of great importance. Their explanation takes up the biggest part of the "Li-ki". The mourning rites for the father were the most impressive of all. For the first three days, the son, clad in sackcloth of coarse white hemp, fasted, and leaped, and wailed. After the burial, the son had to wear the mourning sackcloth for twenty-seven months, starving himself and living in a crude hut made for the funeral near the grave. In Analects, Confucius condemned the suggestion that the period of the mourning rites be shortened to one year. Another class of rites of supreme importance was the sacrifices. They are repeatedly mentioned in the Confucian texts where instructions are given for their proper celebration. The sacrifice was to be nothing more than a food-offering expressing the homage of the worshippers, a solemn feast to do honor to the spirit guests, who are invited and are thought to enjoy the entertainment. Meat and drink of great variety are provided. There is also vocal and instrumental music, and dancing. The ministers in these ceremonies are not priests, but heads of families, the feudal lords, and above all, the king. There is no priesthood in Confucianism. The worship of the people at large is confined to the worship of ancestors. In the days of Confucius, there was in every family home, a chamber or closet called the ancestral shrine where wooden tablets were kept and inscribed with the names of deceased parents, grandparents, and more remote ancestors. At certain times, offerings of fruit, wine, and cooked meats were set before these tablets which the ancestral spirits were to make their temporary resting-place. There was also a public honoring that took place by each local clan of the common ancestors twice a year. This was an elaborate banquet with music and dances where the dead ancestors were summoned and in which they participated along with the living members of the clan. More elaborate and magnificent still were the great feasts given by the king to his ghostly ancestors. This feasting of the dead by families and clans was restricted to those united with the living by relationship. There were, however, a few public people whose memory was revered by all the people and whom offerings of food were made. Confucius himself came be to honored after death, being regarded as the greatest of public benefactors. Even today in China this religious worship of Confucius is faithfully maintained.

Confucianism has had a profound affect on the people of China as well as the people of other nations. Confucian beliefs and values have served many as a guide to moral living. The teachings of Confucius have not only survived hundreds of years, but have thrived as a system of virtue as well. It serves it‘s followers as a foundation for the life of perfect goodness. Many of his concepts, such as: ren, li, hsiao and the 5 relationships hold true even today. With all of this in mind, it can truly be said that Confucianism is a remarkable religion.





Aiken, Charles F. The Catholic Encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia Press, Inc. 1996
Heinz, Carolyn B. Asia, A New Introduction. Waveland Press. 1997

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