Confucianism is an ethical and philosophical system, sometimes defined a religion, developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (孔夫子 Kǒng Fūzǐ, or K'ung-fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kong", 551–479 BCE). Confucianism originated as an "ethical-sociopolitical teaching" during the Spring and Autumn Period, but later developed metaphysical and cosmological elements in the Han Dynasty. Following the official abandonment of Legalism in China after the Qin Dynasty, Confucianism became the official state ideology of the Han. Nonetheless, from the Han period onwards, most Chinese emperors have used a mix of Legalism and Confucianism as their ruling doctrine. The disintegration of the Han in the second century CE opened the way for the soteriological doctrines of Buddhism and Taoism to dominate intellectual life at that time.
A Confucian revival began during the Tang dynasty. In the late Tang, Confucianism developed aspects on the model of Buddhism and Taoism and was reformulated as Neo-Confucianism. This reinvigorated form was adopted as the basis of the imperial exams and the core philosophy of the scholar official class in the Song dynasty. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 marked the end of official Confucianism. The New Culture intellectuals of the early twentieth century blamed Confucianism for China's weaknesses. They searched for imported doctrines to adapt to the general nature of their own culture, such adaptations include the "Three Principles of the People" with the establishment of the Republic of China, and then Maoism under the People's Republic of China. In the late twentieth century, some people credited Confucianism with the rise of the East Asian economy and it enjoyed a rise in popularity both in China and abroad.
The core of Confucianism is humanistic, or what the philosopher Herbert Fingarette calls "the secular as sacred". Confucianism focuses on the practical order inscribed in a this-worldly awareness of the Tian and a proper respect of the gods (shen), with particular emphasis on the importance of the family, rather than on a transcendent divine or a soteriology. This stance rests on the belief that human beings are teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucian thought focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics. Some of the basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices include rén, yì, and lǐ, and zhì. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals. Yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good. Li is a system of ritual norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act in everyday life. Zhi is the ability to see what is right and fair, or the converse, in the behaviors exhibited by others. Confucianism holds one in contempt, either passively or actively, for the failure of upholding the cardinal moral values of ren and yi.
Statue of Yan Hui in the temple dedicated to him in Qufu
Yan Hui, also Yen Tzu or Yanzi (simplified Chinese: 颜回; traditional Chinese: 顏回; pinyin: Yán Huí; courtesy name Zi Yuan (Chinese: 子淵; pinyin: Zǐ yuān); 521 BC - 490 BC) was one of the disciples of Confucius.
Yan Hui was a native of State of Lu, the favorite of his master, whose junior he was by thirty years, and whose disciple he became when he was quite a youth. «After I got Yan Hui», Confucius remarked, «The disciples came closer to me». We are told that once, when he found himself on the Nang hill with Yan Hui, Zi-lu, and Zi-gong, Confucius asked them to tell him their different aims, and he would choose between them. Zi-lu began, and when he had done, the master said, «It marks your bravery».
Zi-gong followed, on whose words the judgment was, «They show your discriminating eloquence». At last came Yan Hui, who said, «I should like to find an intelligent king and sage ruler whom I might assist. I would diffuse among the people instructions on the five great points, and lead them on by the rules of propriety and music, so that they should not care to fortify their cities by walls and moats, but would fuse their swords and spears into implements of agriculture. They should send forth their flocks without fear into the plains and forests. There should be no sunderings of families, no widows or widowers. For a thousand years there would be no calamity of war. Yu would have no opportunity to display his bravery, or Ts'ze to display his oratory». The master pronounced, «How admirable is this virtue!».
When Yan Hui was twenty-nine, his hair was all white, and at the age of 32 he died. After the death of Yan Hui, Confucius lamented, Heaven has bereft me! «Heaven has bereft me!». When told by other students that he was showing "excessive grief", the old philosopher replied: «Am I showing excessive grief? Well, for whom would I show excessive grief if not for this man?». Even years later, Confucius would say that no other student could take Yan Hui's place, so gifted and dedicated Yan Hui had been.
Li (禮 pinyin: lĭ) is a classical Chinese word which finds its most extensive use in Confucian and post-Confucian Chinese philosophy. Li encompasses not a definitive object but rather a somewhat abstract idea; as such, it is translated in a number of different ways. Most often, li is described using some form of the word "rite" or "reason", "ratio" in the pure sense of Vedic ṛta, but it has also been translated as "custom", "mores", and "rules of proper behavior", among other terms.
Li embodies the entire web of interaction between humanity, human objects, and nature. Confucius includes in his discussions of li such diverse topics as learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance. Xunzi cites "songs and laughter, weeping and lamentation... rice and millet, fish and meat...the wearing of ceremonial caps, embroidered robes, and patterned silks, or of fasting clothes and mourning clothes... spacious rooms and secluded halls, soft mats, couches and benches" as vital parts of the fabric of li.
Confucius envisioned proper government being guided by the principles of li. Some Confucians proposed the perfectibility of all human beings with learning li as an important part of that process. Overall, Confucians believed governments should place more emphasis on li and rely much less on penal punishment when they govern.
In Neo-Confucianism, li is discussed explicitly as underlying reason and order of nature as reflected in its organic forms. It was central to Zhu Xi's work, that held that li, together with qi (氣: vital, material force), depend on each other to create structures of nature and matter. The sum of li is the Taiji. Zhu Xi maintained that his notion is found in I Ching (Book of Changes). Zhu Xi's school came to be known as the School of Li, which is comparable to rationalism.
Zhu Xi articulated an understanding of li as the basic pattern of the universe, stating that it was by understanding these principles that one can live a good life. In this sense, li according to Zhu Xi is often seen as similar to the Tao of Taoism or the Logos in Hellenism. Wang Yangming, a philosopher who opposed Zhu Xi's ideas, held that li was to be found not in the world but within oneself. Wang Yangming was thus more of an idealist with a different epistemic approach.
An edition of the Analects of the year 1533.
The Analects, or Lunyu (simplified Chinese: 论语; traditional Chinese: 論語; pinyin: Lún Yǔ; literally: "Selected Sayings"), also known as the Analects of Confucius, is the collection of sayings and ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his contemporaries, traditionally believed to have been written by Confucius' followers. It is believed to have been written during the Warring States period (475 BC–221 BC), and it achieved its final form during the mid-Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).
By the early Han dynasty the Analects was considered merely a "commentary" on the Five Classics, but the status of the Analects grew to be one of the central texts of Confucianism by the end of that dynasty. During the late Song dynasty (960-1279) the importance of the Analects as a philosophy work was raised above that of the older Five Classics, and it was recognized as one of the "Four Books". The Analects has been one of the most widely read and studied books in China for the last 2,000 years, and continues to have a substantial influence on Chinese and East Asian thought and values today.
Confucius believed that the welfare of a country depended on the moral cultivation of its people, beginning from the nation's leadership. He believed that individuals could begin to cultivate an all-encompassing sense of virtue through ren, and that the most basic step to cultivating ren was devotion to one's parents and older siblings.
He taught that one's individual desires do not need to be suppressed, but that people should be educated to reconcile their desires via rituals and forms of propriety, through which people could demonstrate their respect for others and their responsible roles in society. He taught that a ruler's sense of virtue was his primary prerequisite for leadership. His primary goal in educating his students was to produce ethically well-cultivated men who would carry themselves with gravity, speak correctly, and demonstrate consummate integrity in all things.
The Rectification of Names (Chinese: 正名; pinyin: Zhèngmíng; Wade–Giles: Cheng-ming) is the Confucian doctrine that to know and use the proper designations of things in the web of relationships that creates meaning, a community, and then behaving accordingly so as to ensure social harmony is The Good (Tian). Since social harmony is of utmost importance, without the proper rectification of names, society would essentially crumble and "undertakings [would] not [be] completed".
Confucius believed that social disorder often stemmed from failure to perceive, understand, and deal with reality. Fundamentally, then, social disorder can stem from the failure to call things by their proper names, and his solution to this was the rectification of names. He gave an explanation to one of his disciples:
A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.
— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge