Confucius, Confucianism, and Confucian Classics

American sinologist William Theodore de Bary once said that “If we were to characterize in one word the Chinese way of life for the last two thousand years, the word could be ‘Confucian.’ No other individual in Chinese history has so deeply influenced the life and thought of his people, as a transmitter, teacher, and creative interpreter of the ancient culture and literature and as a moulder of the Chinese mind and character.”

Who is Confucius? Why is his English name such?

About 2,500 years ago, Confucius was born to a once-aristocratic family in a small state called Lu in East China, now Shangdong province. During his lifetime, he set his eyes on a mission impossible, carrying forward the old tradition of the Zhou Dynasty in a turbulent and dark age inflicted by wars and poverty. By the time Confucius died at 73, his teachings had spread throughout the state and beyond. More importantly, the notable achievements of Confucius are acknowledged and carried out by generations to come. Chinese culture, and to some extent, East Asian culture, would be forever linked with his name, and the tradition he loved and transmitted would rank with the greatest in the world. This tradition is known in the West as “Confucianism.”


The origin of the English word “Confucianism” may be traced back to the Jesuits of the 16th century. “Confucius” is a Latinized form of the Chinese name Kong Fuzi, Master Kong, which is in turn a reverent title for Kong Qiu or Kong Zhongni.

What is Confucianism?

Confucianism, also known as Ruism (儒家思想), is described as tradition, a philosophy, a religion, a humanistic or rationalistic religion, a way of governing, or simply a way of life.

Around the 2nd century, Confucianism was ordained as the orthodox ideology in China, with its classics read and studied by scholars and politicians. As of 2,000 years later, when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911, Confucianism remained the dominant conviction in China. As a matter of fact, even after the downfall of the Qing Dynasty, Confucius continues to exert his influence on China. Even today, Taiwan still celebrates Teachers’ Day on September 28 – the birthday of Confucius – to honor the Ancient Sage, the teacher of all teachers.

It is said that Confucius is the first great educator in Chinese history. To a certain extent, he is also a great educator around the globe. Confucius took the initiative in promoting the idea of education for everyone. He functioned as a bridge between ancient Chinese civilization and our times and even the future. The teaching philosophy, methods, and attitude of Confucius and the equal relationship between him and his students are commendable even today.

What are the core values of Confucianism?

The main concern of Confucius was with humans and with the fundamental principles of humanity. Confucius believed that these principles were the root of social relationships, the foundation of the stability, peace, and prosperity of the state, the family, and individuals. He developed his ethics around two central theses: that goodness can be taught and learned, and that society can only be in harmony and at peace under the guidance of wisdom.

He further developed a system of concepts to expound the central theses. Of these concepts, four became the underlying ideas of the Confucian tradition, namely, the Way (道), ritual/propriety (礼), humaneness (仁), and virtue (德), and later the backbone of the ideological structure of a Confucian state. Devoting himself wholeheartedly to solving human problems, Confucius propagated the value of education, virtue, and self-cultivation.

On the one hand, Confucius kept a distance from religious matters such as serving “spirits and ghosts, ” and would rather talk about this life than the life after (未能事人,焉能事鬼?); on the other hand, he held a deep faith in Heaven and destiny (命) and preserved religious ritual strictly. Although he believed in his mission that was endowed by Heaven, he never saw himself as the leader or founder of a religious tradition; what he did was merely to transmit the ancient culture, which in his mind was the model for the present and the guarantee for the future. However, in the transmission, Confucius “innovated” the old tradition, which is a distinctive feature of Confucianism and will be discussed in detail later.

What made Confucianism the dominant ideology in China?

How can Confucianism become the core of China’s traditional culture and still exert its influence even today? One of the most accepted ideas is that Confucianism has been established as the only politically correct ideology by generations of ancient rulers in feudal China since it serves the purpose of reinforcing the monarchy and centralizing the empire. However, this view is reasonable only to a certain extent.

As it is known to us, Legalism was adopted by Emperor Qin Shi Huang to tighten his grip on the empire, but the Qin Dynasty only lasted two generations. The first rulers of the Han Dynasty, big fans of Taoism, also championed this philosophy for a while, only to be replaced by Confucianism before long. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, Emperor Wu of Liang, a Buddhist himself, advocated Buddhism. As a result, in Nanjing alone, there are over 700 Buddhist temples. However, Buddhism never becomes the root of Chinese culture. From these cases, we can see that the advocacy of the ruling class is for sure not the sole reason accountable for the status of Confucianism.

More importantly, Confucianism has its inherent strengths. Firstly, Confucianism is not merely a transmitter of traditional cultural gems, but also an innovator of them. This feature of Confucianism helps it win the hearts of the public, and consequently gains its place as mainstream. Secondly, Confucianism is very inclusive and open to excellent schools of thought both from previous generations and from its own times. In the Western Han Dynasty, when Taoism was on the rise and posed threats to Confucianism, Dong Zhongshu incorporated it together with Legalism into Neo-Confucianism to make Confucianism more fitting to the then society. Thirdly, Confucianism believes there are many relationships in the world, the relationship between man and nature, man and gods, and most important man and man. Moreover, interpersonal relationship is closely linked with the man-nature relationship. If the former is dealt with diplomatically, the latter will in turn be harmonious and smooth. From this, we can see that Confucianism is based on this life and this world, instead of promising its believers heaven after death as other religions do.

Who can receive Confucian education?

Prior to and at Confucius’ time, culture and education were exclusive to the ruling feudal class. The so-called “knowledge monopoly system” made it impossible for the commoners to receive education, with schools run solely by the government and serving only the nobilities. In contrast, private schools set by Confucius welcomed all who were eager to learn, with his most noble educational idea – “teaching without distinction”. Confucian education in the private sector marked the shift from a state-controlled “knowledge monopoly system” to grass-root liberal education.

Confucius’ educational belief of “teaching without distinction” is that everyone is entitled to education, showing the grass-root and democratic nature of Confucius’s education. It paved the way for the popularization of culture and education in China.

A practitioner of his own “teaching without distinction” doctrine, Confucius took in as many as 3,000 students in his lifetime, irrespective of their social station, possections, age, and nationality. Among all the students Confucius had, 72 of them were of exceptional talent and thus named Confucius’ 72 disciples. Many of these distinguished disciples of Confucius came from disadvantaged families. Yan Hui is a case in point. According to The Analects of Confucius, the Master said, “Incomparable indeed was Hui! A handful of rice to eat, a gourdful of water to drink, living in a mean street—others would have found it unendurably depressing, but to Hui’s cheerfulness it made no difference at all. Incomparable indeed was Hui! ”

What are the teaching objectives of Confucian education?

Confucian education is Confucius’ way to realize his political ambition. Therefore, Confucius believed that “a good scholar will make an official”. Eventually, Confucian scholars can become talents not only in knowledge learning, family support, and state management but also in the country unifying. In the end, the utopia of a welfare state, harmonious society, and trustworthy relationships can be achieved.

What is the teaching content of Confucian education?

Confucian teaching is man-centered, mainly dealing with self-development and state management, with the study of Confucian classics. To be more specific, there are six classic books adopted in Confucian education,i.e. Book of Poetry, Book of History, Book of Rites, Book of Music, Book of Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals.

Why were these six books chosen as textbooks for Confucian education? According to Confucius, “Book of Poetry tells people to be kind and tolerant; Book of History teaches people to be sophisticated and visionary; Book of Music cultivates all-round good-doers; Book of Changes instills in people both sacred philosophy and serious science; Book of Rites nurtures polite and courteous people; and Spring and Autumn Annals teaches people how to write.”

Besides the Six Books, Confucian education also provides the so-called “Six Arts, ” including rites, music, archery, driving a chariot, writing, and mathematics. From these six arts, people can learn the educational purpose of Confucianism. Learning is writing-based in areas of literature and philosophy; mathematics is somewhat similar to today’s science and engineering; rites are about the establishment of harmonious interpersonal relationships; music is artistic education, such as singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, etc.; archery is not only about bows and arrows, but also martial arts as a whole because, in the warring Spring and Autumn Period, self-protection is for sure a necessity to learn; driving a chariot is as practical skill as driving a car today.

What are the teaching methods of Confucian education?

Confucius is a keen observer of the rules in education. His emphasis on students’ learning motives is a case in point. In The Analects of Confucius, Confucius says, “He who devotes himself to securing for his subjects what it is right they should have, who by respect for the Spirits keeps them at a distance, maybe termed wise. Goodness cannot be obtained till what is difficult has been duly done. He who has done this may be called Good.”

Besides, “Teaching students in accordance with their aptitude” is a distinctive feature of Confucian education. Early on, Confucius found that people had different levels of intelligence and diverse interests and talents. The Master put it in The Analects of Confucius, “The wise man delights in water, and the Goodman delights in mountains. For the wise move; but the Good stay still. The wise are happy; but the Good, secure.”In a word, for students with exceptional aptitude, Confucius would teach them complex knowledge, whereas, for students with only average intelligence, the Master would not confuse them with such teaching.

Lastly, Confucius encouraged his students to challenge him and welcomed discussion or even debate from his students, so as to“learn while teaching”(教学相长).In fact, The Analects of Confucius is a documentation of the dialogues between Confucius and his disciples. From it, we can see how open Confucius was to his students’ opinions or even constructive criticisms. In Chapter XVII, there are two examples of Zilu’s frustrating the Master’s attempts to be an official. In one case, “Gongshan Furao, when he was holding the castle of Mi in revolt (against the Ji Family), sent for the Master, who would have liked to go; but Zilu did not approve of this and said to the Master, ‘After having refused in so many cases, why go to Gongshan of all people? ‘”

In another case, “Bi Xi summoned the Master, and he would have liked to go. But Zilu said, ‘I remember you once saying, “Into the house of one who is in his own person doing what is evil, the gentleman will not enter.”Bi Xi is holding Zhongmou in revolt. How can you think of going to him? ‘” Though Confucius offered his own explanation and rebuttal, he eventually accepted the suggestion of Zilu and turned down the two rebels.

What is the difference between jing (经) and shu (书)?

In the Confucian tradition, there are two kinds of sacred writing: One is called jing (经), referring to ancient scriptures or classics. What jing to society is a warp to fabrics since the Chinese character jing originally means the warp of cloth, from which it is extended to mean the constant principles that guide life and history. The other is called shu (书). The character is a combination of “holding a writing brush” and “mouth, ” meaning the “records of sayings” and thus refers to “books.” There used to be a difference between a jing and a shu, with the former being earlier and more fundamental than the latter. Indeed, with only one exception (Xiao Jing or Book of Filial Piety《孝经》), all those that are known as jing have their origins in the ages before Confucius. However, in their later usage in a Confucian context, the meaning of these two characters fused, both referring to sacred writings.

What are the Five Classics?

The earliest known number of Confucian classics is six: Book of Poetry, Book of History, Book of Rites, Book of Music, Book of Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals(《诗》《书》《礼》《乐》《易》《春秋》), which are named as Six Classics (六经). One of them, the Book of Music, was completely lost probably in the “burning of books(焚书坑儒), ” and so the Six Classics became the Five.

What is the relationship between the Five Classics and the Four Books?

From the Han to the Tang Dynasty, the Five Classics were the key textbooks for Confucian learning and for the state examination (科举考试). Of other Confucian writings, only The Analects of Confucius was occasionally accepted as one of the official textbooks. However, this situation changed during the Song Dynasty, when great Neo-Confucians, especially Zhu Xi, paid more attention to The Analects of Confucius, the two chapters from Book of Rites (《礼记》), Great Learning(《大学》)and Doctrine of the Mean(《中庸》), and Book of Mencius(《孟子》). Zhu’s annotations and commentaries on them were published as a book entitled Sishu Jizhu, Collected Annotations on the Four Books. Zhu believed that the Four Books were a necessary ladder for scholars who wanted to learn the Way of Sages and that a scholar would only be able to read other classics, explore basic principles, and tackle social and personal affairs if he had thoroughly studied the Four Books.

Since then, the status of the Four Books soared, and in 1313 the Imperial court of the Yuan Dynasty decreed that the questions of state civil examinations had to be taken from the Four Books and all the answers had to be based on Zhu Xi’s annotations and commentaries. This decree effectively promoted the Four Books to a position above the Five Classics. From then until the beginning of the 20th century, a majority of Confucian scholars concentrated on the Four Books rather than the Five Classics, and every schoolboy had to learn them by heart before reaching adolescence.

What are the Four Books?

As the Four Books are the basic textbooks, they are ordered according to their length. Thus, the shortest of the four, Great Learning, is the first, and the study of this text is believed to enable one to have a good foundation of learning: “Great Learning is the first stage where the learning of the Sage must be explored.”It is followed by the Doctrine of the Mean, and then by The Analects of Confucius. The longest book, and more difficult to apprehend Book of Mencius comes last.

Who were the first ones to introduce Confucianism to the West?

The influence of Confucianism was not restricted to its neighboring southeastern Asian neighbors, but also to Europe and North America. With the increased exchange of ideas between the East and the West, Confucianism found its way to its place in the West. Nowadays, it has also become one of the shaping forces of world culture.

From ancient times, China and the West were associated with each other, particularly in the aspect of trade. The introduction of Confucianism to the West was accompanied by Western colonialism.

Matteo Ricci was said to be the first person who introduced Confucianism to the West. In 1593, Matteo translated the Four Books into Latin and sent it back to Italy. Later on, with more and more Western missionaries, especially Jesuits, coming to China, Confucius and his ideas were systematically introduced to the West. For example, in 1626, Nicolas Trigault, a Flemish Jesuit missionary to China, translated the Five Classics into Latin.

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