Confucianism

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
Save to active project

Confucianism

Confucianism (kənfyōō´shənĬzəm), moral and religious system of China. Its origins go back to the Analects (see Chinese literature), the sayings attributed to Confucius, and to ancient commentaries, including that of Mencius.

Early History and Precepts

In its early form (before the 3d cent. BC) Confucianism was primarily a system of ethical precepts for the proper management of society. It envisaged man as essentially a social creature who is bound to his fellows by jen, a term often rendered as "humanity," or "human-kind-ness." Jen is expressed through the five relations—sovereign and subject, parent and child, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend. Of these, the filial relation is usually stressed.

The relations are made to function smoothly by an exact adherence to li, which denotes a combination of etiquette and ritual. In some of these relations a person may be superior to some and inferior to others. If a person in a subordinate status wishes to be properly treated that person must—applying a principle similar to the Golden Rule—treat his or her own inferiors with propriety. Correct conduct, however, proceeds not through compulsion, but through a sense of virtue inculcated by observing suitable models of deportment. The ruler, as the moral exemplar of the whole state, must be irreproachable, but a strong obligation to be virtuous rests upon all.

The early philosophers recognized that the epochal "great commonwealth," the union of mankind under ethical rule, would take a long time to achieve, but believed that it might be constantly advanced by practicing the "rectification of names." This is the critical examination of the degree to which the behavior of a functionary or an institution corresponds to its name; thus, the title of king should not be applied to one who exacts excessive taxes, and the criticism of the undeserving claimant should force him to reform. The practice of offering sacrifices and other veneration to Confucius in special shrines began in the 1st cent. AD and continued into the 20th cent.

Renaissance and Decline

Confucianism has often had to contend with other religious systems, notably Taoism and Buddhism, and has at times, especially from the 3d to the 7th cent., suffered marked declines. It enjoyed a renaissance in the late T'ang dynasty (618–906), but it was not until the Sung dynasty (960–1279) and the appearance of neo-Confucianism that Confucianism became the dominant philosophy among educated Chinese. Drawing on Taoist and Buddhist ideas, neo-Confucian thinkers formulated a system of metaphysics, which had not been a part of older Confucianism. They were particularly influenced by Ch'an or Zen Buddhism: nevertheless they rejected the Taoist search for immortality and Buddhist monasticism and ethical universalism, upholding instead the hierarchical political and social vision of the early Confucian teachings.

The neo-Confucian eclecticism was unified and established as an orthodoxy by Chu Hsi (1130–1200), and his system dominated subsequent Chinese intellectual life. His metaphysics is based on the concept of li, or principle of form in manifold things, and the totality of these, called the "supreme ultimate" (t'ai chi). During the Ming dynasty, the idealist school of Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529) stressed meditation and intuitive knowledge. The overthrow (1911–12) of the monarchy, with which Confucianism had been closely identified, led to the disintegration of Confucian institutions and a decline of Confucian traditions, a process accelerated after the Communist revolution (1949). Elements of Confucianism survived as a part of traditional Chinese religious practice in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao and among Chinese emigrants and have experienced a modest revival in China since the mid-1990s.

Bibliography

See R. Wilhelm, Confucius and Confucianism (tr. 1931, repr. 1970); S. Kaizuka, Confucius (tr. 1956); H. Fingarette, Confucius (1972); The Analects (tr. 1979); W. T. de Bary, Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart (1981); R. Dawson, Confucius (1981); B. I. Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China (1985).

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Confucianism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?