Confucianism is the way of life promoted by Confucius in the 6th–5th century BCE and followed by the Chinese people for more than two millennia. Although transformed over time, it's still the substance of learning, the source of values, and the social code of the Chinese people. Its influence has extended to other countries, in particular Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Confucianism is a Western term that has no counterpart in Chinese. It is a worldview, a social ethic, a political ideology, a scholarly tradition, and a way of life. It's sometimes considered a philosophy and at other times as a religion. Confucianism may be understood as an all-encompassing way of thinking and living that entails ancestor reverence and a human-centered religion.

Confucianism is often grouped with the major religions. It differs from them by not being an organized religion. It spread to other East Asian countries under the influence of Chinese culture and has exerted an influence on both the spiritual and political life of many Asians. Both the theory and practice of Confucianism have marked the patterns of government, society, education, and family of East Asia.

It was whilst he was teaching in his school that Confucius started to write. Two collections of poetry were the BOOK OF ODES (Shijing or Shi king) and the BOOK OF DOCUMENTS (Shujing or Shu king). The SPRING AND AUTUMN ANNALS (Lin Jing or Lin King), which told the history of Lu, and the BOOK OF CHANGES (Yi Jing or Yi king) was a collection of treatises on divination.

Unfortunately none of these works outlined Confucius’ philosophy. Confucianism, therefore, had to be created from second-hand accounts and the most reliable documentation of the ideas of Confucius is considered to be the Analects. But even here there is no absolute evidence that the sayings and short stories were actually said by him. The lack of context and clarity leave many of his teachings open to individual interpretation.

The other three major sources of Confucian thought are Mencius , Great Learning , and Mean . With Analects , these works constitute the Four Books of Confucianism , otherwise referred to as, the Confucian Classics . Through these texts, Confucianism became the official state religion of China from the second century BCE.

The Confucian system looks more like a philosophy of life than a religion. This may be because it focuses on earthly relationships and duty as opposed to deities or the divine. Confucianism teaches that becoming the gentleman-scholar is the highest calling in life. Confucius believed that the gentleman, or junzi , is a role model and the highest calling for a person. The gentleman holds on to high principles regardless of life’s hardships. The gentleman does not remove himself from the world but fulfills his capacity for goodness within it. He does this by a commitment to virtue which is developed through moral formation.

There is not much concern with the afterlife or end times. Whereas a religion like Hinduism devotes much of its doctrine to accomplishing spiritual fulfillment, Confucianism is concerned with social development and fulfillment. Unlike Buddhism, there are no monks or religious leaders.

Confucius did not give his followers a god or gods to be worshipped. Confucianism is not against worship, but it teaches that social duties are more important. The focus is on ethical behavior, good government and social responsibility.

Relationships are important in Confucianism. Order begins with the family. Children are taught to respect their parents. A son ought to study his father’s wishes as long as the father lives. After the father dies, the son studies studies his life and respect his memory.

A person needs to respect the position that s/he has in all relationships. Honor must be given to those people above and below oneself. This makes for good social order. The respect is typified through the idea called Li . Li is the term used to describe Chinese proprietary rites and good manners. These include ritual, etiquette, and other practices that support good social order. The belief is that when Li is observed, everything runs smoothly and order exists.

Relationships are important for a healthy social order and harmony. The relationships in Li are

  • Father over son

  • Older brother over younger

  • Husband over wife

  • Ruler over subject

  • Friend is equal to Friend

Each of these relationships is important for a balance in life. There are five main relationship principles : hsiao ,chung , yi , xin , and jen .

  • Hsiao is love within the family. Examples include love of parents for their children and of children for their parents. Respect in the family is demonstrated through Li and Hsiao.

  • Chung is loyalty to the state. This element is closely tied to the five relationships of Li. Chung is also basic to the Confucian political philosophy. An important note is that Confucius thought that the political institutions of his day were broken. He attributed this to unworthy people being in positions of power. He believed rulers were expected to learn self-discipline and lead through example.

  • Yi is righteousness or duty in an ordered society. It is an element of social relationships in Confucianism. Yi can be thought of as internalized Li.

  • Xin is honesty and trustworthiness. It is part of the Confucian social philosophy. Confucius believed that people were responsible for their actions and treatment of other people. Jen and Xin are closely connected.

  • Jen is benevolence and humaneness towards others. It is the highest Confucian virtue and can also be translated as love. This is the goal for which individuals should strive.

Together, these principles balance people and society. A balanced, harmonious life requires attention to one’s social position.

For Confucius, correct relationships establish a well-ordered hierarchy in which each individual fulfills her/his duty.


Birth rituals center on the spirit of the baby. These rituals are designed to protect an expectant mother. The mother is given a special diet and is allowed rest for a month after delivery. The mother’s family supplies all the items required by the baby on the first, fourth and twelfth monthly anniversaries of the birth. Maturity is no longer being celebrated, except in traditional families. A ceremony in which a group meal is served celebrates a young adult who is coming of age; s/he is served chicken.

Marriage rituals are very important. They are conducted in six stages. At the proposal stage, the couple exchanges eight Chinese characters. These characters are the year, month, day, and hour of each of their births. If anything unfavorable happens within the bride-to-be’s family during the next three days, the proposal is considered to have been rejected. The engagement stage occurs after the wedding day is selected. The bride may announce the wedding with invitations and a gift of cookies made in the shape of the moon. This is the formal announcement. The dowry is the third stage. The bride’s family carries it to the groom’s home in a procession. The bride-price is then sent to the bride by the groom’s parents. Gifts by the groom to the bride, equal in value to the dowry, are sent to her. Procession is the fourth stage. It is brief but important. The groom visits the bride’s home and brings her back to his house. The procession is accompanied by a great deal of singing and drum beating. The marriage ceremony and reception is the stage in which the couple recite their vows, toast each other with wine, and then take center stage at a banquet. The morning after the ceremony is the final stage. The bride serves breakfast to the groom’s parents, who then reciprocate. This completes the marriage.

Death rituals seem elaborate to many Westerners. At the time of death, the relatives cry loudly. This is a way of informing the neighbors. The family begins mourning. They dress in clothes made of rough material. The corpse is washed and placed in a coffin. Mourners bring incense and money to offset the cost of the funeral. Food and significant objects of the deceased are placed in the coffin. A Buddhist, Christian, or Taoist priest performs the burial ceremony. Liturgies are performed on the seventh, ninth, and forty-ninth days after the burial. On the first and third anniversaries of the death, friends, and family follow the coffin to the cemetery. They carry a willow branch which symbolizes the soul of the person who has died. The branch is carried back to the family altar where it is used to “install” the spirit of the deceased.