Confucianism Influential East Asian spiritual and ethical tradition. It originated with CONFUCIUS
at the end of the sixth century B.C.E. Since then, Confucianism has often been the official ideology of the Chinese state.


Confucius [Latin for K’ung-fu-tzu, “Master K’ung” (551–479 B.C.E.)] was a profoundly influential teacher who emphasized that, because human beings are social creatures, a good society is important to a good human life. But he also realized that a good society in turn depends on good, highly motivated people. The first goal, then, must be to cultivate humaneness within oneself. He believed this was something all people can do. He is said moreover to have edited fi ve classic books of Chinese thought, and his disciples gathered his own teaching into a collection known as the Analects (see ANALECTS OF CONFUCIUS). Later Confucians taught proper behavior in terms of fi ve relationships: ruler–subject, father– son, elder brother–younger-brother, husband– wife, and friend–friend. They also developed specifi c views of humaneness. Mencius (Chinese, Meng-tzu) (c. 372–c. 289 B.C.E.) had an optimistic view of the human being. Humaneness, he said, is present in all human beings; it simply needs the right nurturing in order to blossom and flourish. Hsun Tzu (c. 300–238 B.C.E.) disagreed. In his view people are by nature evil and uncivil. To avoid the evils that result from greed and contention, people must be restrained by teaching and observances. At the time Hsun Tzu was more influential. As time passed, however, Mencius’s positions came to dominate Confucian thinking. In 195 B.C.E. the Han emperor offered a pig, a sheep, and an ox at the grave of Confucius. This act marked the beginning of the official link between Confucianism and the Chinese government. To become a government official, one had to pass grueling examinations in Confucianism and the Confucian classics. The cult of Confucius also became a major part of an official’s duties. When the Han dynasty ended in 220 C.E., Confucianism was temporarily eclipsed. Its place at court was taken by BUDDHISM and TAOISM. But around 1000 C.E. the fortunes of Confucianism began to rise again. Important neo-Confucian thinkers like Chu Hsi (1130–1200 C.E.) and Wang Yang-ming (1472–1528) provided Confucianism with what it had seemed so severely to lack: a metaphysics (thought about the nature of reality) as lofty as that of Buddhism and Taoism. Confucianism became the dominant ideology of China. It was also the senior partner in a religious union that included Taoism and Buddhism. By the 19th century, Confucianism had become moribund. Many Chinese rejected it as old-fashioned and powerless, especially in contrast to the newly arrived European powers. The democratic revolution associated with Sun Yatsen (1866– 1925) and then especially the communist regime established by Mao Tse-tung (1893–1976) cut the ties between Confucianism and the government. On the mainland, Confucianism suffered severely during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–69, but the Chinese state in Taiwan preserved Confusion rituals as part of its cultural heritage.


Confucianism focuses on how human beings behave in society. It strives to identify the ideal way to live. In Confucianism the ideal person is the noble person. For Confucius, nobility did not derive from birth. It derived from cultivating true humaneness (jen). This was done, Confucius believed, through the practice of Rituals (li). The rituals Confucius had in mind, however, were not religious rites. They were rituals of respect that one showed one’s fellow human beings. One can begin to see how truly radical Confucius’s teachings were. He redirected the focus of religious observance. The attention one used to give to the ancestors one now gave to life in this world. The fi ve relationships within which people cultivate virtue mentioned above are clearly not relationships between equals. They are also clearly male-centered. Indeed, some Confucians have suggested that since the relationship between a mother and her child is a natural one, the father–son relationship should be seen as the foundation of society. In any case, the relationships are not one-sided.

Each person has responsibilities. For example, a younger brother should respect an older brother. But if the older brother wants respect, he should act only in ways that are worthy of respect.


To practice Confucianism individual persons cultivate virtue by carefully performing their responsibilities. These include responsibilities that North Americans would call religious as well as those they would call ethical. For example, the philosopher Wang Yang-ming recommended sitting quietly as a way to cultivate spirituality. The primary ritual of Confucianism, as the Chinese state religion, was SACRIFICE. Confucians performed sacrifices for ancestors, especially the ancestors of the emperor, for those who first brought culture, and for Confucius himself. They also performed sacrifices for spirits associated with political institutions, for the powers of nature, and for the universe as a whole. The elaborateness of a sacrifice depended upon how important the occasion was. On the most important occasions the sacrificial victims included a pig, a sheep, or an ox. In performing the sacrifice, either the emperor or a high official would bow, present the offerings, and pray. At the same time, INCENSE was burned and musicians would play.


No professional priests conducted the cult of Confucianism. Scholars trained in Confucian teachings did. This was one of their duties as officials of the Chinese state. When the emperor was present, he took the leading role. A special government ministry was in charge of the state cult. Among other things, it provided the materials used in the sacrifice, established the proper procedures to be followed, and set the calendar, so that the rituals would be performed at the proper time.


Confucianism has defi ned the traditional values and ideas of proper behaviour in China. Although
it is out of favour in communist China, it lives on in Taiwan. Confucianism has also profoundly influenced traditional values and ways of life in Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.


  • Ch’u Chai, and Winberg Chai, Confucianism (Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1973);
  • David S. Nivison, and Arthur Wright, Confucianism in Action (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959);
  • James R. Ware, The Sayings of Confucius [The Analects] (New York: Mentor, n.d.);
  • Hsin-chung Yao, An Introduction to Confucianism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).


The Encyclopedia of World Religions – Revised Edition – written by DWJ BOOKS LLC.
General Editor: Robert S. Ellwood – Associate Editor: Gregory D. Alles – Copyright © 2007, 1998 by DWJ BOOKS LLC