Outline of Confucianism

Great review for students and other learners. Please see a Christian reaction at the end of this post.

Let’s get started first with the religious development in China and then get to Confucianism itself.

Chinese Religious Development: The Big Picture



6000 BCE to 11th century BCE Earliest Records; polytheism; bone and shell divination; ancestor worship; tombs for powerful; Shang Dynasty (1500-1040 BCE)
11th century BCE to Begin. of CE Chou (Zhou) Dynasty (1040 to 256 BCE); “Decree of Heaven” is source for king’s authority; awareness of Supreme God: Shang Ti; emphasis on morality and right living: Confucius and Lao-tzu (Taoism) live
Begin. of CE to 11th century CE Buddhism and Religious Taoism
11th century CE to Present Eclecticism: synthesis of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism

I. Basic Chinese Religious Concepts

A. Polytheism: many gods

1. Gods of Heaven and Earth

2. Local Deities

a. Shen: Beneficial spirits of lighted places

b. Kuei: Evil spirits of dark places

3. Sacrifices

B. Yin and Yang

1. Two Primal Forces, Rhythms

2. Opposites

3. Yin: Dark, Negative, Female, Cool, Damp, Earth, Moon, Shadows

4. Yang: Light, Positive, Male, Warm, Dry, Sun

5. All things are a combo of two forces, except Sun and Earth

6. Universe is a living being

7. Happiness results when Y/Y in harmony

C. Ancestor Worship

1. Elders venerated

2. Family Values

3. Forget ancestors? Disgrace!

4. Ancestors can help with spirit world

5. Sacrifices to ancestors essential

D. Shang Ti (a k a T’ien or Tian)

1. Supreme God—personal?

2. Chou Dynasty asserts right to rule

3. Decree or Mandate of Heaven: Morality sustains dynasty

4. S/T judges Good and Evil, esp. rulers

5. S/T prefers righteousness over sacrifices

6. Close to Hebrew ethical monotheism

E. Decline of Chou Feudal System

1. Dates: 8th down to 3rd century BCE

2. Rise of Warlords

3. Rise of Philosophical-Religious Schools to deal with chaos


I. Chinese Philosophy or Religion?

A. No priesthood

B. No Revealed Scripture

C. No monastic or ascetic tradition

D. But a religious component

II. Life of Confucius

A. K’ung Fu-Tzu = K’ung the master

B. Dates: 551-479 BCE

C. Analects compiled 70 years after his death

D. Bio sketch:

1. Son of elderly warrior

2. Raised in poverty by widow

3. Educated

4. Married, divorced, one son

5. Gov’t bureaucrat

6. Becomes teacher / librarian (?)

7. Specializes in good gov’t, history, divination

At fifteen I set my heart on learning [to be a sage].

At thirty I became firm.

At forty I had no more doubts.

At fifty I understand Heaven’s [Tian’s] will.

At sixty my ears were attuned [to it]

At seventy I could follow my heart’s desires, without overstepping the line

III. Teachings of Confucius

A. Somewhere between agnostic, devout; and pro-religion, non-religion

1. No God or gods (?), but rituals unite people

2. Religion should not interfere with social obligations

3. Ethics, good gov’t over religion

B. Quick digression: Feudalism.

1. The Few rule over the Many; plus the nobility & warriors and landowners swear allegiance to the upper ruling class

C. Li

1. = Propriety, Rites, Ceremonies, Courtesy, Principle

2. Peace and Harmony

a. Pervades life and social relations

3. Main features:

a. Not really supernatural, but somehow pervades society

b. Course of life as it is intended to go

c. Everything in its right place

d. Everything runs smoothly according to rank and hierarchy

e. Best society: feudalism

4. Li = propriety and rituals

a. Te = virtue

b. Music, e.g., is essential for good character

 c. Inner equilibrium

D. Five Basic Relationships + Li

1. Father to son

2. Elder brother to younger brother

3. Husband to wife

4. Elder to junior

5. Ruler to subject

6. Li must be present for healthy social order

1.2 Yu Tzu said: “Few of those who are filial sons and respectful brothers will show respect to superiors, and there has never been a man who is not disrespectful to superiors and yet creates disorder. A superior man is devoted to the fundamentals (the root). When the root is firmly established, the moral law (Tao) will grow. Filial piety and brotherly respect are the root of humanity (jen).”

E. Li and Religious Practice

Confucians believe that in the human realm li has religious, social and psychological dimensions, and that its meaning extends from ritual to propriety, from civil laws to codified customs, and from moral rules for behavior to ethical senses for thinking, feeling, and acting. The religious dimension of li indicates the means by which humans communicate with spiritual powers. It is believed that the orderly performance of dance and music combined with offerings and sacrifice pleases the ancestors and the spirits to whom it is dedicated; in this way the descendants are able to express their gratitude and commitment. During this process, faults are repented, confidence gained, and happiness and success secured. In its social dimension, li “is the principle by which the ancient kings embodied the laws of heaven and regulated the expressions of human nature. Therefore, he who has attained li [ritual] lives, and he who has lost it dies.” . . . The web of ritual gives everyone a special position in family, community, and society, which in turn enables one to assess what one should or should not do in a particular circumstance and to formulate one’s words and actions accordingly. It is believed that if everybody acts in accordance with li, then the world would be peaceful and orderly, ruled without ruling, governed without governing, and ordered without ordering. The psychological dimension of li is somewhat similar to the harmony embodied in music, poetry and dance, and makes following rules an enjoyable personal experience and not the dull performance of duties. This experience is believed to be necessary for cultivating one’s character and to enable all feelings and emotions to be harmonized and expressed in proper measure.

(Xinzhong Yao, Introduction to Confucianism, 192)

F. Jen

1. Peace and Harmony in Society

2. Humanity in Heart

3. A.k.a. Ren

4. Not really supernatural, but should pervade human heart

5. All should strive for this inner quality

6. All must have attitude of shu = reciprocity =

Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you

7. Inner loyalty (to heart and conscience)

1.3 Confucius said, “A man with clever words and an ingratiating appearance is seldom a man of humanity.”

1.6 Young men should be filial when at home and respectful to their elders when away from home. They should be earnest and faithful. They should love all extensively and be intimate with men of humanity. When they have any energy to spare after the performance of moral duties, they should use it to study literature and the arts [ceremony, music, archery, carriage-driving, writing, and mathematics].

G. Natural goodness of humankind

1. Good gov’t leads to human goodness

2. Bad gov’t leads to human badness

3. People will be good for its own sake—no need to compel morality based on rewards and punishments

6.17 Confucius said, “Man is born with uprightness. If one loses it, he will be lucky if he escapes with his life.”

17.2 Confucius said, “By nature men are alike. Through practice they have become far apart.”

IV. Later Development

A. Early Failures

1. Opposition of rivals

2. Support of feudalism, when it was in decline

B. Mencius (372-289 BCE)

1. Orthodox Sage

2. Natural goodness of humans

3. Good environment leads to good people

4. Paternalistic feudalism

5. Opposes war, but supports revolution

6A:2 Mencius said, “Man’s nature is naturally good just as water naturally flows downward. There is no man without this good nature; neither is there water that does not flow downward. Now you can strike water and cause it to splash upwards over your forehead, and by damming and leading it, you can force it uphill. Is this the nature of water? It is the forced circumstance that makes it do so. Many can be made to do evil, for his nature can be treated in the same way.”

1B:8 King Hsün of Ch’i asked, “Was it a fact that T’ang [founder of Shang dynasty] King Chieh and that King Wen punished King Chou?” Mencius replied, “Yes, according to records.” The King said, “Is it all right for a minister to murder his king?” Mencius said, “He who injures humanity is a bandit. He who injures righteousness is a destructive person. Such a person is a mere fellow. I have heard of killing a mere fellow Chou, but I have not heard of murdering [him as] the ruler.”

C. Hsün Tsü (298-239 BCE)

1. Heterodox sage

2. Emphasizes more rituals than Confucius did

3. Denies basic goodness of human

4. Heavenly spirits are impersonal forces

The nature of man is evil; his goodness is the result of his activity. Now, man’s inborn nature is to seek for gain. If this nature is followed, strife and rapacity result, and deference and compliance disappear. By inborn nature one is envious and hates others. If these tendencies are followed, injury and destruction result, and loyalty and faithfulness disappear.

Crooked wood must be heated and bent before it becomes straight. Blunt metal must be ground and whetted before it becomes sharp. Now the nature of man is evil. It must depend on teachers and law to become correct and achieve propriety and righteousness, and then it becomes disciplined. Without teachers and law, man is unbalanced, off the track, and incorrect. Without propriety [li] and righteousness, there will be rebellion, disorder, and chaos. The sage-kings of antiquity, knowing that the nature of man is evil . . . created rules of propriety [li] and righteousness and instituted laws and systems in order to correct man’s feelings, transform them, and direct them so that they all may become disciplined and conform to the Way (Tao)

D. Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE)

1. In 136 BCE Han rulers place ed. in hands of Confucian scholars

2. Civil service exams based on Confucianism (up to 1905 CE!)

V. Essential Confucianism

A. Three Ways: Way of Heaven, Way of Humans, and Way of Harmony

B. All three bound together

C. Heaven = Tian

1. Universe, cosmos, Nature, Law of Nature

2. Maybe Lord or Supreme Being

3. Source of ethical principles

4. Ultimate Reality

D. Human

1. Humaneness, righteousness

2. Way of moral life in family, gov’t, etc.

VI. Way of Heaven

Heaven is not only the creator of life, the supreme governor of the universe, but also a just administrator of human affairs. Heaven is revered not for the deliverance rewarded to those who have prayed for it. Rather, Heaven is revered and respected with awe in the sense that Heaven is regarded as the final sanction of human behavior and social changes. For a fixed period, human efforts may succeed or fail, a particular action may or may not be justified, and the character of an individual may or may not be recognized. However, with faith in Heaven in which the final sanction is upheld, the failure of a particular person at a particular time does not frustrate a Confucian to the extent that he abandons his goals. Wrongdoing and violation of moral principles which for the time being cannot be corrected and punished are believed to be eventually corrected and punished by Heaven which is closely “watching” and passionately concerned with the world below. It is therefore regarded as the most serious crime to offend Heaven or to violate the Way of Heaven . . . . (Xinzhong Yao, Introduction to Confucianism, 145-46)

VII. Way of Humans

The Way of Humans is essentially the way of moral life, and that is why it is said that in human terms the Way is called humaneness and righteousness. For most Confucian scholars, Heaven is the source of a meaningful life and has provided human beings with the virtuous roots or beginnings of humaneness, righteousness, propriety and wisdom. However, this does not mean that all individuals are predetermined to follow a good course. Whether or not the roots can grow into the great tree of humanity and whether or not the beginnings can be fully developed, depend essentially upon whether or not, and how, humans preserve their heart/mind and cultivate their character. The Way of Heaven cannot be fulfilled unless it has been understood as the human way and consciously carried out by individuals in everyday life. Admitting that Heaven, Earth, and humanity are the Three Ultimates of the universe, Confucians believe that humans must fulfill their duties to qualify for this role . . . In exploring how the Way of Heaven and the Way of Humans are related and how the former [Way of Heaven] can manifest in the latter [Way of Humans], Confucians are not interested in the opposition between this world and the next, or between salvation and damnation. Rather, they focus on closing the distance between the human and non-human, or more precisely, between those who have been instructed in proper behavior and those who have not, and therefore Confucians establish education and self-cultivation as the center of the Human Way . . . . (ibid. 154)

VIII. Way of Humans and Politics

Heaven is believed to act according to certain ethical principles, which are in turn enforced upon living rulers who, as intermediaries between the supreme ruler above and humans below, are to model their behavior on those of Heaven in the activities of a rational, moral, harmonious and unified government. The supreme position of the king on earth and the extensive range of his responsibilities give rise to the concept of sacred kingship. Morally sacred kingship in the Confucian tradition is closely related to Confucian religio-politics and ethico-spirituality. In the classics, a king often addresses himself as “One Man” (yi ren), and is addressed as the “Son of Heaven” (tianzi). These terms explain not only his unique authority for ruling the world, but also his exclusive responsibility in carrying out the Mandate of Heaven. Heaven and the human world are connected by the king who speaks to Heaven above and governs for the people below. The Han Confucian, Dong Zhongshu, was caught up with this communion and explained that the character for king, wang, composite of three horizontal lines and the one vertical line running through them at the center, is in fact a representation of how three realms are related in the kingship; three horizontal lines representing respectively Heaven (above), Earth (below) and humans (in the middle), with the vertical line referring to the king who connects them . . . Heaven entrusts the king with the task of ruling the human world, and the king therefore “holds a position of life or death (over other men), and shares with Heaven its transforming power . . .” On the other hand, Confucians emphasize that a king is merely the executive manager of the Way of Heaven on earth. The ruler must model himself on Heaven and love the people, because Heaven does not establish the people for kingship, but establishes kingship for the people . . . . (ibid. 167-68)

IX. Way of Harmony

In the Confucian doctrine of the Way, there is no clear line that can be drawn between Heaven and humanity; thus the Way of Heaven and the Way of Humans are always related in one form or another. The terms used for the realm of Heaven such as qi (material force) yin-yang, tai-ji (the Supreme Ultimate) yuan (the origin) and so forth are all applicable to human beings, while those referring to the human realm such as xin (the heart/mind) xing ([human] nature) qing (emotions or feeling) can also be used to designate Heaven. Other terms like de (virtue) li (principle) dao (way) penetrate the two realms of Heaven and humanity. This demonstrates that the relationship between Heaven and humanity is the foundation of the Confucian world-view, and that the relationship is primarily one of harmony rather than of confrontation or conflict. (ibid 169-70)

Within the human realm, the Confucian resolution of conflict concentrates on three kinds of relationship. Firstly, it searches for peace and harmony between the self and others by working on human nature, calling for cultivating one’s virtues conscientiously. Secondly, it seeks to harmonize family relationships through cultivating the sense of mutual responsibilities between family members. Thirdly, it looks for a way to diminish the possibility of violent conflict by establishing a humane government in which virtues overwhelm selfish contention. By these three methods, Confucianism attempts to build up a mechanism that sustains and maintains a comprehensive social structure in which no conflict goes unnoticed and no opposition is allowed to exceed certain limits. On the one hand, these methods were useful in the past and some of them may still be of value for today. On the other hand, they were designed within certain historical conditions and created new problems while solving old ones . . . (ibid 178-79)

Family relationships in the Confucian classics are threefold, that is, between parents and children, between a husband and his wife, and between elder and younger brothers. Of these three relations the first and the foremost is that between parents and children, in which the primary responsibility for family harmony is laid on children. The tension between different generations is reduced through the respect, reverence and service that the younger pays or provides to the elder. It is believed that the cause of any conflict between parents and children is in the latter’s inappropriate attitude and behavior, and whenever a conflict arises, it is the children’s responsibility to seek reconciliation by apology and self-criticism. For a long period in history, this solution contributed to a stable family structure at the price of children, and its prejudice against children was open to extreme applications. In the later period of imperial China, it was indeed carried to such an absurd extreme that the meaning and value of a son’s life could be found only in his absolute obedience to his father; even if a father ordered his son to die, the son would not be deemed filial if he was unwilling to die . . . . (ibid 181-82)

The Confucian Way of Harmony has its modern values. Extreme Maoist Communists in Mainland China followed the Lenin-Stalinist doctrine of “class struggle” and opposed the traditional Confucian appreciation of harmony. These people believed that contradiction rather than harmony was the essence of the world and was the power pushing a society forward. Therefore, a philosophy of struggle (fendou), struggling against Heaven, against Earth (Nature) and against humans, was inaugurated as the guiding ideology and was believed to bring endless fulfillment to those engaged in the struggles. This resulted in disastrous conflict between the people and the natural environment and between the people themselves, which culminated in the ten years’ Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Reflecting on history and the ideologies of the twentieth century, many contemporary Confucian or non-Confucian intellectuals of Mainland China endeavor to rediscover and explore the theme of harmony in the Confucian tradition, focusing on its significance in Chinese life and its guidance in dealing with conflict. They argue that harmony must be reinstalled as the center of Chinese culture and re-established as the ideological foundation of the twenty-first century for guiding all nations in dealing with conflict between people, between human beings and nature, and between nations (ibid 188-89)

China and Religion Today

I. Communist Revolution (1949)

A. Suspicions

1. Feudalism

2. Buddhism is foreign

3. Christianity is foreign

4. Islam permitted to appease minorities

5. Gov’t cannot enforce strict secularism

B. Official Religion

1. Some churches open

2. Religious studies in universities

3. Translation of Bible

Christian Reaction and Reply

First we have to distinguish between Christendom or Christian civilization from a personal walk with Christ in a community of believers. Christendom and a personal relationship with God are different.

Let’s use bullet points to keep things simple and clear.

Here are some positives:

  • Confucianism promotes peace and harmony in society and government.
  • It can bring harmony and peace in family relationships.
  • It can bring peace and harmony to the human heart.
  • It teaches moral law, which benefits society.
  • Shang-Ti or Tian may have been an early form of monotheism, but it does not appear to be a personal God. It belongs to early Chinese beliefs, not Confucianism originally.
  • One sect of Confucianism denies basic human goodness, and Christianity can agree on that one point.

Here are some differences between Confucianism and Christianity:

  • In Christianity, a personal, loving God exists and he is seeking people to have a personal relationship with him. No one has to work this life out on his own without the personal God guiding and leading him.
  • A Christian who knows the fullness of the New Testament theology receives a personal relation with a loving and approachable God through Christ.
  • In Confucianism Ren or Jen and Li may have a supernatural component to it, but it is not a personal being. In contrast, God established the moral law, so we can know the Lawgiver personally.
  • The resurrected Christ ruling the home or family brings peace and harmony there.
  • When people surrender to God through Christ, then these people experience peace and harmony in society.
  • The Holy Spirit, a full person, enters the heart and mind and gives the believer peace of mind.
  • This loving Father forgives people who break moral laws because he loves them in a personal way.
  • In Christ the spirit world is clear: He is Lord and we can be protected from evil influences or spirits.
  • It’s all about a close, intimate relationship with the living, loving Father; it’s not about impersonal principles or laws.
  • It is difficult to love an impersonal principle or law more than a person; and for sure an impersonal principle or moral law never loves, while our loving Father, the moral Lawgiver, loves people.

It is always right if a follower of Confucian teaching says yes to Jesus Christ and invite Christ into his heart. This loving, personal Father forgives people when they break his moral law and repent and say Jesus is Lord and ask for the Spirit of God to enter their heart. The Confucian just has to ask and confess that Jesus is Lord above all impersonal principles or moral law.


Ten Big Differences between Christianity and Other Religions












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