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Confucian Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1994

All the religions of the East are relatively unknown to the general public of the West. A partial exception to this is Confucianism or, to be more specific, the religion’s founder, Confucius. But context of the Western exposure is such that it is of little enduring value. The fortune cookie of the Chinese restaurant may deal out a fragment of “Confucius says,” or in an old black and white movie a Euro-American actor made up to be Charlie Chan may use Confucius’ name in attempting to enlighten his slow-witted son. These commercialized impressions do very little to give any sense of one of the world’s most remarkably designed faiths.

To begin a rudimentary understanding of this belief system a brief portrait of the individual whose name, Confucius, has been taken for the identity of the religion is necessary. A common date given for his birth is 551 BCE, although like much other information about him, what is fact and what is part of the legend are impossible to differentiate. It has been said that his father, a soldier who married late, died when Confucius was only a few years old.  Confucius is said to have grown up poor, supporting himself and his family through various odd jobs, but to have developed a love of learning for the ancient Chinese classics that was to shape his entire life.  In his late teens it is said that he married and fathered two children, a boy and a girl. He began his life-long teaching career in his mid-twenties and lived out his life as a private person engaged in teaching the sons of the upper-class in the virtues proper to their position (Cleary 9-10).   Confucius occasionally served in  government positions but spent most of his time in direct teaching and traveling from state to state, vainly searching for a leader who would take his teachings to heart. At the age of seventy he returned to his home state of Lu where he died three years later (Cleary 11).

While he was greatly respected in his lifetime, the legend of the divine sage that grew in the centuries after his death is at direct odds with his own appraisal of himself. He once said that there was not a village of ten or more houses that could not produce men as loyal or dependable as he was.  He also spoke of his own weaknesses in his writings, insisting that his only claim to extraordinariness was his love of learning.  This humility was but one of the many virtues he taught in his philosophy that grew from the classics. He claims no originality. All that he taught, he says, was taught before him; he was simply passing it on.  For his guidance he looked to the Way of the Former Kings, what is called the Way of Goodness, ways that he claimed had long ago (yes, long before the fifth century BCE) been discarded for a way of violence and aggression. The ancient rulers he looked back to were kings such as Yao, Shun, and Yu, who were said to have lived two thousand years before his time and the more recent (only about five hundred years before his time) King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Chou.  The base of Confucius’ teachings is the legendary rule through goodness, with humanity forming a trinity with Heaven and Earth, and the perfection of the self in this system of goodness. Confucius believed that a harmony could be restored between people, and with Heaven and Earth, if people would return to living in the ways of the past. To bring people to this point he advocated education as the key. People must learn through the self-cultivation of their natural Heaven-given humanity.  A moral society living through the virtues of humanity, wisdom, righteousness, propriety, and faithfulness was Confucius’ vision of humankind again united with the source of Heaven.

Various books are attributed to Confucius but probably little, if any, can with certainty be said to have come from his hand. This is even true of his most famous book, The Analects. Analects means “selected sayings” and the book consists of short teachings and responses to students’ questions. While the written form of these sayings were probably formulated by later followers of Confucius, the ideas of Confucius are embodied in them (Waley 25). Much of the teaching in The Analects is designed to form his students into “chun- tzu.”  This term has been defined somewhat variously, by most translators who have dealt with Confucius, as the superior man, the Knight of the Way, the gentleman, or the perfect man. I prefer Tu Wei-Ming’s translation of “profound person.” The goal of chun-tzus is to find the Way of the Former Kings and through self-cultivation to bring themselves and, through their example, help bring those around them into harmony with Heaven and Earth.

The following are selected examples from The Analects, translated by Arthur Waley:

The Master said, `Clever talk and a pretentious manner’  are seldom found in the Good. (84)

The Master said, (the good man) does not grieve that  other people do not recognize his merits. His only  anxiety is lest he should fail to recognize theirs. (87)

The Master said, If out of the three hundred Songs I had  to take one phrase to cover all my teachings, I would  say `Let there be no evil in your thoughts.’ (88)

The Master said, He who by reanimating the Old can gain  knowledge of the New is fit to be a teacher. (90)

The Master said, A gentleman is not an implement. (90)

Tzu-kung asked about the true gentlemen. The Master said, He does not preach what he practises till he has   practised what he preaches. (90)

The Master said, A gentlemen can see a question from all  sides without bias. The small man is biased and can see  a question only from one side. (91)

The Master said, Without Goodness a man cannot for long endure adversity and cannot for long enjoy prosperity. (102)

The Master said, A gentleman takes as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover  what will pay. (105)

The Master said, A gentlemen covets the reputation of  being slow in word but prompt in deed. (106)

Chi Wen Tzu used to think thrice before acting. The  Master hearing of it said, Twice is quite enough. (112)

The Master said, Only one who bursts with eagerness do I  instruct; only one who bubbles with excitement, do I  enlighten.  If I hold up one corner and a man cannot  come back to me with the other three, I do not continue  the lesson.  (124)

The Master said, I for my part am not one of those who have innate knowledge. I am simply one who loves the past and who is diligent in investigating it. (127)

The master said, Just as lavishness leads easily to  presumption, so does frugality to meanness. But meanness  is a far less serious fault than presumption. (131)

The Master said, If a man has gifts as wonderful as  those of the Duke of Chou, yet is arrogant and mean, all  the rest is of no account. (135)

There were four things that the Master wholly eschewed:  he took nothing for granted, he was never over-positive,  never obstinate, never egotistic. (138)

Tzu-kung said, Suppose one had a lovely jewel, should one wrap it up, put it in a box and keep it, or try to get the best price one can for it? The Master said, Sell  it! Most certainly sell it!  I myself am one who is  waiting for an offer. (141)

The Master said, I have never yet seen

anyone whose  desire to build up his moral power was as strong as  sexual desire. (142)

Tzu-lu asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits. The Master said, Till you have learnt to serve men, how  can you serve ghosts?  Tzu-lu then ventured upon a  question about the dead. The Master said, Till you know  about the living, how are you to know about the dead?  (155)

The Master said, To go too far is as bad as not to go far enough.  (156)

The Master said, The gentleman calls attention to the good points in others; he does not call attention to their defects. The small man does just the reverse of  this. (167)

The essence of the gentleman is that of the wind; the essence of small people is that of grass. And when the wind passes over the grass, it cannot choose but bend.


The Master said, Imperturbable, resolute, tree-like, slow to speak — such a one is near to Goodness. (178)

The Master said, The knight of the Way who thinks only of sitting quietly at home is not worthy to be called a  knight. (180)

The Master said, In old days men studied for the sake of  self-improvement; nowadays men study in order to impress  other people. (187)

The Master said, A gentleman is ashamed to let his words  outrun his deeds. (187)

The Master said, `The demands that a gentleman makes are  upon himself; those a small man makes are upon others.’  (197)

Tzu-lung asked saying, Is there any single saying that  one can act upon all day  and every day? The Master  said, Perhaps the saying about consideration: `Never do  to others what you would not like them to do to you.’  (198)

The Master said, Clever talk can confound the workings of moral force, just as small impatiences can confound

great projects.  (198)

The Master said, When everyone dislikes a man, inquiry is necessary; when everyone likes a man, inquiry is  necessary. (198)

The Master said, From a gentleman consistency is  expected, but not blind fidelity. (200)

The Master said, It is only the very wisest and very stupidest who cannot change. (209)

After Confucius’ death his many students managed to keep his teachings alive through the Warring States period and the severe persecution of the Ch’in Dynasty. Then, toward the end of the second century BCE, the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as the official creed of the empire and the tremendous influence of Confucian thinking on Chinese history began in earnest. The Confucian philosophy adopted by the Han officials was primarily based on the Confucian teacher Hsun Tzu, who was born in the early fourth century BCE. Very little is known of his life other than that he was respected during his time and spent his life in rather quiet teaching and study. However, as was true for Confucius, he was basically ignored by the political leaders of day (Watson 2-3).

Many of Hsun Tzu’s teachings are based directly on Confucius but illuminate the concepts with a slightly different light:

Select men who are worthy and good for government  office, promote those who are kind and respectful,  encourage filial piety and brotherly affection, look  after orphans and widows and assist the poor, and then  the common people will feel safe and at ease with their  government.  And once the common people feel safe, then  the gentleman may occupy his post in safety. This is  what the old text means when it says, “The ruler is the  boat and the common people are the water. It is the  water that bears the boat up, and the water that  capsizes it.” (Watson 37)

Much of Hsun Tzu’s teaching had a stony practicality to it and encouraged people to face reality with a sense of conviction as shown in the following passage:

You pray for rain and it rains. Why? For no particular reason, I say. It is just as though you had not prayed for rain and it rained anyway. The sun and moon undergo  an eclipse and you try to save them; a drought occurs  and you pray for rain; you consult the arts of  divination before making a decision on some important  matter. But it is not as though you could hope to  accomplish anything by such ceremonies. They are done  purely for ornament.  Hence the gentleman regards them  as ornaments, but the common people regard them as  supernatural. He who considers them ornaments is  fortunate; he who considers them supernatural is  unfortunate. (Watson 85)

While Hsun Tzu had disdain for the supernatural, he, (as did Confucius) saw both the need and the value of traditional rituals:

What is the origin of ritual? I reply: man is born  with desires. If his desires are not satisfied for him,  he cannot but seek some means to satisfy them himself.  If there are no limits and degrees to his seeking, then  he will inevitably fall to wrangling with other men.  From wrangling comes disorder and from disorder comes  exhaustion. The ancient kings hated such disorder, and  therefore they established ritual principles in order to  curb it, to train men’s desires and to provide for their  satisfaction. They saw to it that desires did not  overextend the means for their satisfaction, and  material goods did not fall short of what was desired.  Thus both desires and goods were looked after and  satisfied. This is the origin of rites.  (Watson 89)

And later:

Rites have three bases. Heaven and earth are the basis  of life, the ancestors are the basis of the family, and  rulers and teachers are the basis of order…. The king  honors the founder of his family as an equal of Heaven,  the feudal lords would not dare to dismantle the  mortuary temples of their ancestors, and the high  ministers and officials maintain constant family  sacrifices. In this way they distinguish and pay honor  to the beginners of their family.  To honor the  beginning is the basis of virtue.  (Watson 91)

Much of Hsun Tzu’s teachings have a critical edge to them that encourages a careful and wholistic approach to action with the overriding Confucian concern of moderation:

These are the signs of a disordered age: men wear bright  colored clothing, their manner is feminine, their  customs are lascivious, their minds are set on profit,  their conduct is erratic, their music is depraved, and  their decorative arts are vile and garish.  In  satisfying the desires of the living they observe no  limits, but in burying the dead they are mean and  niggardly. They despise ritual principles and value  daring and shows of strength. If they are poor, they  steal, and if they are rich, they commit outrages.  A  well-ordered age is just the opposite of this. (Watson  120)

The thing that all men should fear is that they will become obsessed by a small corner of the truth and fail  to comprehend its over-all principles. (Watson 121)

The sage understands the dangers involved in improper use of the mind, and sees the disasters that come from obsession and a closed mind. Therefore, he does allow himself to be influenced by considerations of desire or hate, beginning or end, distance or nearness, breadth or  shallowness, past or present, but searches and examines  all things and weighs them impartially in a balance. As  a result, the distinctions which exist in all things  cannot inflict obsession upon him and bring disorder to  his reason.  (Watson 126)

When men acquire something, they never get only what they desire and nothing more; when men reject something,  they never rid themselves only of what they hate and  nothing more. Therefore, when men act, it must be on the  basis of some scale and standard. (Watson 153)

An old text says, “If you do not know a man, look at his  friends, if you do not know a ruler, look at his  attendants.” Environment is the important thing!  Environment is the important thing!  (Watson 171)

Hsun Tzu solidified Confucius’ concept of the chun tzu as the ideal public servant and created the basis of the Chinese civil service that was to be based on testing the applicants’ knowledge of Confucian classics:

As a basis for action, diversity is impractical. Hence the wise man selects one thing and unifies his actions about it. The farmer is well versed in the work of the fields, but he cannot become a director of agriculture.  The merchant is well versed in the ways of the market,  but he cannot become a director of commerce. The artisan  is well versed in the process of manufacture, but he  cannot become a director of crafts. Yet there are men  who, though they possess none of these three skills, are  still able to fill the offices that direct them. This is  not because they are well versed in the facts, but  because they are well versed in the Way.  He who is well  versed in the facts alone treat each fact as a fact and  no more. He who is well versed in the Way will unify his  treatment of the facts. Hence the gentleman finds a  basis for unity in the Way and on this basis examines  and compares the facts.  Since he has the unity of the  Way as his basis, his approach will be correct; and  since he examines and compares the facts, his perception  will be clear. With thinking that is based upon the  correct approach and action that is based upon clear  perception, he is able to control all things. (Watson  130)

The most famous or infamous of all Hsun Tzu’s teachings was his break from Confucius in promoting the concept that basic human nature is evil:

Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of  conscious activity.  The nature of man is such that he  is born with a fondness for profit. If he indulges this  fondness, it will lead him into wrangling and strife,  and all sense of courtesy and humility will disappear.  He is born with feelings of hate and envy, and if he  indulges these, they will lead him into violence and  crime, and all sense of loyalty and good faith will  disappear.  Man is born with the desires of the eyes and  ears, with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds.  If he indulges these, they will lead him into license  and wantonness, and all ritual principles and correct  forms will be lost. Hence, any man who follows his  nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become  involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms  and rules of society, and will end as a criminal.  Therefore, man must first be transformed by the  instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual  principles, and only then will he be able to observe the  dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the rules and  forms of society, and achieve order. It is obvious from  this, then, that man’s nature is evil, and that his  goodness is the result of conscious activity.  A warped  piece of wood must wait until it has been laid against  the straightening board, steamed, and forced into shape  before it can become straight…. (Watson 157)

While this outlook may be partially understood by the bleak warring period he lived in, this dark appraisal by Hsun Tzu was to have ramifications that he certainly did not foresee.  After his death his two most famous students took very different paths, both moving drastically to the right. Han Fei Tzu perfected the Legalist school of thought extolling harsh control of the people and aggressive warfare. Another student of Hsun Tzu was Li Ssu, who became an advisor to the brutal First Emperor of the Ch’in Dynasty and aided in a fierce repression of Confucianism.  Fortunately, the Han Dynasty revival of Hsun Tzu’s teaching went back to his more orthodox thought.

The second great follower of Confucius to have a major impact, and many would say more lasting impact than Hsun Tzu, was Mencius, 372 -289 BCE While there were similarities in the two philosophers’ approach to the teachings of Confucius, there was a principal difference.  Mencius held the position that basic human nature was good:

‘As far as what is genuinely in him is concerned, a man  is capable of becoming good,’ said Mencius. `That is  what I mean by good. As for his becoming bad, that is  not the fault of his native endowment. The heart of  compassion is possessed by all men alike; likewise the  heart of shame, the heart of respect, and  benevolence … the heart of right and wrong….  Benevolence, dutifulness, observance of the rites, and  wisdom are not welded to me from the outside; they are  in me originally…. The Book of Odes says, Heaven produces the teeming masses, and where there is a thing there is a norm. If the people are held to their constant nature, They would be drawn to superior virtue.’ (Lau 163)

While he held firmly to the position that people’s basic nature was good, Mencius saw clearly that most people had strayed from that goodness as shown in this ecological analogy from the third century BCE:

Mencius said, `There was a time when the trees were  luxuriant on the Ox Mountain. As it is on the outskirts  of a great metropolis, the trees are constantly lopped  by axes. Is it any wonder that they are no longer fine?  With the respite they get in the day and in the night,  and the moistening by the rain and dew, there is  certainly no lack of no shoots coming out, but then the  cattle and sheep come to graze upon the mountain. That  is why it is as bald as it is. People, seeing only its  baldness, tend to think that it never had any trees.  But can this possibly be the true nature of a mountain?  Can what is in man be completely lacking in moral  inclinations? A man’s letting go of his true heart is  like the case of the trees and axes. When the trees are  lopped off day after day, is it any wonder that they are  no longer fine?’ (Lau 164-5)

Mencius goes on to explain that after constant lopping of his true heart, man can become so much more like an animal that some people believe man was always an animal. Mencius taught that to follow the teachings of Confucius, the Ways of the Former Kings, human beings can find their way back to that true heart of innate goodness that Heaven has created in us.

Much of Mencius’ teachings reflect the basic virtues taught by Confucius but many times a gentleness is reflected that contrasts not only with Hsun Tzu but also with Confucius himself:

The attitude of a gentleman towards animals is this: once having seen them alive, he cannot bear to see them  die, and once having heard their cry, he cannot bear to  eat their flesh. That is why the gentleman keeps his  distance from the kitchen. (Lau 55)

Only a gentleman can have a constant heart in spite of a  lack of constant means of support. The people, on the  other hand, will not have constant hearts if they are  without constant means. Lacking constant hearts, they  will go astray and fall into excesses, stopping at  nothing. To punish them after they have fallen foul of  the law is to set a trap for the people. How can a  benevolent man in authority allow himself to set a trap  for the people?  Hence in determining what means of  support the people should have, a clear-sighted ruler  ensures that these are sufficient, on the one hand, for  the care of parents, and on the other hand, for the  support of wife and children, so that the people always  have sufficient food in good years and escape starvation  in bad; only then does he drive them towards goodness;  in this way the people find it easy to follow him. (Lau  58)

The people will delight in the joy of him who delights in their joy, and will worry over the troubles of him who worries over their troubles. He who delights and worries on account of the Empire is certain to become a  true King. (Lau 63)

Mencius said, `If others do not respond to your love with love, look into your own benevolence; if others fail to respond to your attempts to govern them with order, look into your own wisdom; if others do not  return your courtesy, look into your own respect. In  other words, look into yourself whenever you fail to  achieve your purpose.’ (Lau 119)

Mencius said, `Benevolence overcomes cruelty just as water overcomes fire. Those who practice benevolence today are comparable to someone trying to put out a  carload of burning firewood with a cupful of water. When  the fire fails to be extinguished, they say water cannot  overcome fire.’ (Lau 169)

Mencius went so far with his compassionate approach to Confucianism as to say that it is necessary sometime to break rules when they do not make sense for the situation:

Ch’un-yu K’un said `Is it prescribed by the rites    that, in giving and receiving, man and woman should not  touch each other?’

`It is,’ said Mencius.

`When one’s sister-in-law is drowning, does one  stretch out a hand to help her?’

`Not to help a sister-in-law who is drowning is to be a brute. It is prescribed by the rites that, in giving and receiving, man and woman should not touch each  another, but in stretching out a helping hand to the  drowning sister-in-law one uses one’s discretion.’ (Lau  124)

In the centuries following the Han Dynasty’s official adoption of the Confucian creed, the application of the faith underwent many transformations depending on the conditions and the rule of the time. This included occasional strong influence by Taoist and Buddhist doctrines that were periodically prevalent. Confucianism was shifted to focus primarily on the problems of social institutions rather than on the discipline and reevaluation of the self as Confucius had taught. In the eleventh century two brothers Ch’eng I and Ch’eng Hao began a revival of what they saw as a more orthodox approach to the teaching of Confucius. This approach grew to be called Neo-Confucianism.  Ch’eng I in particular promoted return to the education and development of the self as the primary goal of the creed. He also attempted to lessen the emphasis on divination, especially related to the Book of Changes, where the relations between Heaven and Earth were given linear symbolic form and used to divine human matters.  Ch’eng I did not believe in the supernatural and shifted the attention on the Book of Changes to its philosophical content (Wing-tsit 53).

Following the Ch’eng brothers was the greatest of the Neo-Confucian reformers, Chu Hsi, 1130-1200. He also called for the return to the fundamental teaching of Confucius, but he was also a very astute man of his times. Chu Hsi saw the need to make more obvious the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of Confucianism in a time when Buddhism and Taoism also were competing for attention. His teachings did a great deal to develop a clearer Confucian sense of Heaven and what he called the Great Ultimate. A problem many Western readers of Confucius have is finding the sense of religion in what appears to be primarily moral philosophy. Chu Hsi, building on Confucius and Mencius creates the conditions for a deep sense of spirituality to develop in Neo-Confucianism. Chu Hsi drew greatly on Mencius, using his gentler approach to Confucianism and the adherence to the premise that the nature of human beings was inherently good. Chu Hsi set as the basis of Confucian scripture the Four Books: The Analects, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and Mencius. The Doctrine of the Mean’s impact on Confucianism has been as great as The Analects. For two thousand years before Chu Hsi it functioned as one chapter in one of the Chinese Classics.  In traditional China the Confucian student started his study of The Doctrine of the Mean at the age of eight with the complete memorization of the text. After this submersion in the book the student then begins what can be a life-long undertaking of realizing its inner logic through personal experience and study.  The richness of the short text has given stimulation for many great minds to amplify the basics of Neo- Confucianism. One of the most profound commentaries has been given by the twentieth century Harvard scholar, Tu Wei-Ming.

Chung-yung, commonly called The Doctrine of the Mean, is translated by Tu Wei-Ming as Centrality and Commonality. These are the two main themes of the text. The primary thesis of the book is that “to cultivate centrality and harmony with thoroughness is the way to bring heaven and earth together” ( Tu 8). This cultivation process is the way of Confucianism, the Way of the Former Kings. Heaven is rooted in each person. Human nature is imparted by Heaven and is of Heaven and therefore it is ultimate goodness. But to find both this Way of Heaven and goodness, a person must go through process of self-realization (Tu 9). This process returns to Confucius’ concept of the chun tzu, interpreted by Tu Wei-Ming as the “profound person.” The course of learning to become a chun-tzu is the path to the true Heaven-created self within you. Everyone has the capacity for this realization and perfection, regardless of innate intelligence, talent, and abilities.  While the search is to find the Heaven-endowed nature of each person, the search for the Way is one of everyday living, of the ordinary, not the extraordinary.  While everyone has the capabilities, the fact is that few accomplish the task or even tread very far on the path of the Way.  Confucius explains the problem as follows:

I know why the Way is not pursued. The intelligent go beyond it and the unintelligent do no come up to it. I know why the Way is not understood. The worthy go beyond it and the unworthy do no come up to it. There is not one who does not eat and drink, but there are few who can really know the flavor. (Tu 29)

In Confucianism the path of self-realization is not that of the solitary life or meditative hermit, but rather that of social activity.  The profound person maintains contact with the people and can be a source of inspiration to them.  It is not a dogmatic path or a proselytizing position. People on the path have no compulsion to project their views onto others; their duty is to rectify themselves.

The Chung-yung extols one of the primary social duties as that of filial piety, commonly rendered as “reverence for parents.” This system of family obligations has been criticized as the groundwork for the autocratic political system of feudal China, but that was not its original intention in Confucian tradition (Tu 41).  The father- son relationship is one of the strictest in the culture, with the son’s ability to fulfill his family obligations regarded as a proving ground for trust in other aspects of life. Filial piety is also seen as a symbolic system of respect and acknowledgment of dependence. Through the honoring of our parents and ancestors we also honor our cosmic father and mother, Heaven and Earth. The ideal realization of filial piety is a natural response to the loving care of the parents. It is an inevitable outcome of human sensitivity. Brothers and sisters are treated as welcome gifts, enriching our lives by sharing our joys and sorrows. In Confucian families siblings are often referred to as “hands and feet,” symbolizing the closeness of the relationship (Tu 111). The husband and wife relationship has a special status as the origination point of the family and also an aura of mystery. The yin-yang model is often used to illustrate the complementary and conflicting aspect of the relationship. Social responsibility is more often at the core of the pairing rather than romantic love. A division of labor structures the relationship, with the mother supervising the allocation of finances and education and discipline of the children, while the father has unquestioned authority in the public world (Tu 113). The family is seen as the heart of Confucian tradition. The family functions as a unit and not as separate egos. The family forms the true roots of the Confucian society. The community, the state, and even peace are branches that grow from this stable, structured and caring base. What goes on in the confines of private homes has deep religious and social ramifications.

In traditional Confucian culture, rites and rituals are seen as an extension of this famial groundwork. As explained by Tu Wei-Ming:

The historical and sociological reasons behind the formation of these ceremonial acts have been lost forever, but each ritual, no matter how trifling it appears to us today, symbolized a sacrificial tradition with generations of devoted observance. To sons who were filial in Chung-yung’s sense, repairing their ancestral temples, for example, must have been a solemn occasion, observed year after year without any conscious deviation from the prescribed methods.  Similarly the display of the ancestral vessels and the exhibition of ancestral robes must have been performed with the utmost seriousness as manifestations of their commitment to ancestral worship…. For a traditional Confucian, ancestral worship by filial sons may be taken as a microcosm of an ideal society. Ceremonial acts in this connection symbolize desirable behavioral patterns. To respect the old and to honor the dead is to show special concern for the origin of all. The old are respected not only for their past service but also for the continual value of their wise guidance.  The dead are honored because a loving memory of the forefathers brings forth communal identity and social solidarity. Society so conceived is not an adversary system consisting of pressure groups but a fiduciary community based on mutual trust.  Only in this sense was Confucius able to make the claim that if the ruler can administer his state with rites, we will no longer have any difficulty. (47-8)

In the Chung-yung the concept of humanity is considered to be the ultimate virtue. It is through humanity that human beings can reach their most genuine state. It is through humanity that people have the capacity to embody love in their daily conduct. Along with humanity and as manifestations of humanity, the other Confucian virtues are wisdom, courage, righteousness, propriety, and faithfulness. To maintain a path of humanity the Chung-yung recommends the following: “avoid slanders, keep away from seductive beauties, regard wealth lightly, and honor virtue” (Tu 62).  In following the Confucian path these are more than social norms; morality in this context transcends social ethics and has as its ultimate goal the unification of Heaven and the human being. People are not “created” by a higher order; they are a part of that higher order themselves; they are identical with Heaven, but finding that identity takes a road of arduous self-cultivation.  It is a creative process which has as its goal a unification with the cosmos. To become fully human in the Confucian faith a relationship must be established with Heaven, a relationship of self-effort with the goal of self-transcendence. Finding the true self in Confucianism means losing the private ego. The true self forms a community with humanity and with Heaven. Tu Wei-Ming explains the relationship in this way:

As the Confucians argue, it is more difficult to imagine ourselves as isolable individuals than as centers of relationships constantly interacting with one another in dynamic networks of human-relatedness. Similarly, it is more difficult to believe in an omnipotent God who violates the rules of nature for mysterious reasons than in enduring cosmic patterns discoverable by human rationality. I do not mean to challenge the doctrine of individualism which has inspired generation after generation to search for autonomy, independence and dignity, or the concept of an all-mighty God which continues to be informed by sophisticated theological argumentation. I simply want to note that, despite its apparent naiveté, that concept of the organismic unity is predicated on an inclusive humanist vision. The Confucian way of being religious is a means of understanding that vision. (95)

The idea of a religion without a theistic God is difficult for some people to grasp. Confucianism sees no need for such a deity. The Confucian sense of Heaven as “enduring cosmic patterns discoverable by human rationality” is a sense of the transcendent that fulfills an intellectual understanding of a person’s relationship with the universe, a relationship that is not founded on creator/created, worshipped/worshipper, ruler/ruled, or lawgiver/obeyer systems. Instead a design is set in which humanity is an integral part of the cosmic forces and the goal is to find one’s true relationship with what one already is.

Confucianism has, as have all great religions, been abused and manipulated to fit the desires of those in power. It is often blamed for the feudal system of domination that spanned most of China’s history. While it is certain that distortions of the Confucian filial piety systems were developed as tools of repression, the basis of the filial system of respect and obligation had and still has much merit. The popularization of Confucianism and its competition with other religions in China led to the establishment of Confucian temples and systems of Confucian holidays, rites, and even “priests.” While some people do see this as a kind of deification of Confucius, most see it as a way to systemize the religion. The rites and temples are seen as ways to focus on perfecting one’s own moral and spiritual nature — a goal that is at the very core of the faith (Taylor 30).

With the great transformations that have been sweeping China and all Asia through the twentieth century there is now some talk of the advent of the “Third Epoch of Confucianism,” a new transforming of the faith to fit the modern world and technological changes.  It may well be that such an evolution will take place, but as I look at Confucianism from my own small part of the world and personal perspective, I question whether there is a need to change the faith to fit the times or technology. I see much in the traditional ways of family loyalty, moral guidance, and spiritual wisdom that could be relearned for immediate contemporary application.


Cleary, Thomas, trans., The Essential Confucius, San Francisco: Harper, 1993.

Lau, D. C., trans., Mencius, London: Penguin Books, 1970.

Tayor, Rodney L., The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism, Albany: State University Press of New York Press, 1990.

Tu Wei-Ming, Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Waley, Arthur, trans., Confucianism: The Analects of Confucius, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992.

Watson, Burton, trans., Hsun Tzu: Basic Writings, New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Wing-tsit Chan, editor, Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

1994 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at

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