23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Confucianism is the ethical and philosophical teaching developed by the Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Although Confucianism originated before our era, his ideas became the basis of China’s philosophy, ethics, religion, and statehood up until the early 20th century. In Japan, Korea and some other countries, Confucianism became part of the world view and religious thought. 

The concept of confucianism

The term “Confucianism” originated in the West and has no analogue in Chinese. The doctrine was formed during the period of severe upheaval in China (723 – 481 B.C.) and served as the main religion and principle of the political system before the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese name of the teaching is not related to the identity of its founder. The meaning of the chacacter “Confucianism” literally translates as “School of educated people”. Confucius is the name of a philosopher written in Latin by European preachers of the late 16th century. The Chinese thinker’s name was Kung Fu-Tzu which translates as “a wise Kun Teacher”.

Confucianism is a combination of teachings and doctrines based on moral principles, moral ideals, and social order.


Stages of development

For thousands of years, Confucianism was the foundation of state power and society.

Early confucianism

After the death of Confucius, his students and followers organised many groups for the purpose of teaching. Meng Ke and Xun Kuang are the most famous spiritual heirs. They became the authors of the philosophical treatises “Men Tzu” (records of conversations and discussions regarding politics, morality, philosophy, and education) and “Xun Tzu” (the art of war).

During this period, ancient Confucianism was opposed by other philosophical schools in China:

  • Mohism – its proponents developed a program to improve society through knowledge
  • Legism – this movement implied the equality of all before the law and God

Emperor Qin Shi Huang launched a brutal crackdown on followers of the doctrine, but after enduring many years of trials, Confucianism regained its strength under the rule of the Han family (206 B.C. – 220 B.C.). In the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., it became the official worldview of China.

During this period, the teaching was divided into the traditional and the improved movements. Some followers advocated the inevitable authority of Confucius and the incontestability of his ideas and instructions. Others said that the teaching needed to be creatively reworked.


During the rule of the Tang dynasty (618-907), China’s culture underwent significant changes and Confucianism became influenced by the Buddhist movement. Politician and scholar Han Yu was the instigator of the changes. Transformations and renewals in the essence of Confucian thought remained insignificant until the 19th century. As a result of the colonial and cultural expansion of the West, Chinese civilization underwent a major spiritual crisis.

Confucians, who wanted to preserve their former values, began looking for ways to combine traditional Chinese ideas with achievements in the current worldview and culture of Europe. Several ideological movements formed as a result of the wars between the 19th and 20th centuries:

  • Conservative movement
  • Liberal Western-inspired movement
  • Radical and Marxist thought
  • Social and political idealism
  • Social and cultural idealism, which became Neo-Confucianism.

The last movement was formed in the 1970s in the United States and continues to exist to this day. It is referred to as “Post-Confucianism”.

In the 20th century, the most significant revolution in the spiritual life of the Chinese people in the country’s history occured. The society that honoured centuries-old traditions tried to adopt to a new, Western worldview model. Changes in Confucianism were inevitable.

Confucian canon and concepts

Confucian laws, reflecting the meaning of Confucianism, were gradually formed and passed several stages of development.

  1. The Five Classics are the set of texts on which traditional Chinese education is based. These texts can be compared with the Bible in their importance to Chinese civilisation.
  2. The Four Books provide an introduction to Confucian ideas, fully formed under Neo-Confucianism in the 12th century.
  3. The Thirteen Classics are a collection of authoritative records of ancient Chinese thoughts. Until the early 20th century, traditional philosophy, science, education, and state exams were based on this collection which includes more than six thousand original characters.
  4. The Five Canons are a poetic collection that served the ruler as the source of information concerning the manners and moods of people for political decision-making, the improvement of ceremonies and ritual music.
  5. Specific comments on ancient records that help to reveal the innermost meanings from the point of view of the Confucian doctrine.

Later, Old Text and New Text schools tried unsuccessfully to canonise other sources (“Canons from the Wall”, “Canon of Music”). The rivalry between them resumed in the 18th century provoked by other ideological differences.

In Confucianism, there are more than 22 categories available for understanding and translation. In Japan, for example, during the Fukan era, they had their own understanding of the principles of Confucianism — the five constant virtues:

  • li—a ritual
  • zhi—wisdom
  • ren—benevolence
  • yi—righteousness
  • xin—trustworthiness

Other categories also conveyed the idea of Confucianism:

  • tao—path, truth, morality
  • de—humanity, moral justice, good power
  • tzai—talent and abilities
  • xiao—filial piety
  • ti—respect for older brothers and love for the younger ones
  • young—courage
  • jung—loyalty and sincerity
  • shun—obedience, loyalty
  • he—harmony, peace
  • jun-tzu—a man of the highest moral foundations, a noble man
  • xiao zhen—a low and vile man
  • san gang—three norms (absolute power of the ruler over the subjects, husband over wife, and father over son)
  • jong yong—balance
  • da tong—complete harmony
  • xiao kang—the average affluence

One of the significant ideas of the ethical and philosophical teaching of Confucius was the establishment of an ideal state with a sacred ruler, where the actual power belongs to scientists (ju) who are knowledgeable about philosophy, bureaucracy, and literature. This mode of thought believes that the basis of social ties lies in family relations. The father’s function was compared to that of Heaven, and the sons’ respect was the basis of virtue (de).

To this day, books with the philosophy of Confucianism are published in many countries of the world. In China, it is obligatory to study it in school as a model of good human behaviour.