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
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
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
(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.
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).