An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Confucius and Confucianism

May 8, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

Confucius (latinized from Chinese Kongzi 孔子 or Kongfuzi 孔夫子 "Master Kong", 551-479 BCE), Chinese name Kong Qiu 孔丘, courtesy name Zhongni 中尼, was the most important Chinese philosopher. He is traditionally seen as the father of the philosophical school of Confucianism (rujiao 儒教), although the tradition of the experts on rituals (ru 儒) - sometimes rendered in English as "ruists" is much older than Confucius himself. His teachings were elevated to a state doctrine during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). Confucianism was reinterpreted by adopting concepts of cosmology during the Song period 宋 (960-1279). In this shape it is known in the West as Neo-Confucianism (the most important Chinese terms for "Neo-Confucianism" are lixue 理學 or daoxue 道學). During the 20th century, Confucianism was, especially among academicians, made liable for China's backwardness. Only with the discarding of socialist ideology in the late 1990s, Confucianism again became prominent as a unifying force of Chinese culture.

The term ru

There were "Confucians before Confucius" (Rosenlee 2006). "Confucians" are usually called rujia 儒家. The Chinese term is derived from the word ru 儒, which is interpreted by ancient philologists as "soft" or "peaceful" (rou 柔: Shuowen jiezi 說文解字, Zheng Xuan's 鄭玄 commentary on the Liji 禮記), meaning someone who is able to appease and becalm others by a certain decent behaviour. Other commentators use the word "smoothener" (ru 濡: Zheng Xuan, Huang Kan's 皇侃 commentary on the Shuowen jiezi) for such a mediating position. The ru were mediators not only between man and man, but especially between Heaven, Earth and Man (Fayan 法言). For this task, they needed constancy (buyi 不易: Hanshi waizhuan 韓氏外傳) as well as expertise (shu 術, ji 伎) to discern (Fengsu tongyi 風俗通義) what was proper and what not. Seen from the inscriptions on oracle bones, it seems that the word ru 濡 was a kind of ritual washing performed before sacrifices were performed.

It is not known from which time on ru (or ritual) experts existed, but they might have originated in very early times. It can be seen in the burials of the neolithic period, as well as the tomb furnishings of the Erlitou culture 二里頭 (1900-1350 BC) of the early Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) that rituals played an important role in religious and social life. During Confucius' time the rituals of the Xia 夏 (17th-15th cent. BCE) were still performed in the state of Qi 杞, and those of Shang in the state of Song 宋.

Scholars of the early 20th century tried to find out the real origin of the ru experts. Some identified them as a class of professionals of the Shang period, some as experts in the state of Lu 魯, the home state of Confucius. It is for sure that the term ru only came up during the late Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). The ru were specialists in rituals and music, with a special focus on funeral rites and ancestor veneration. These rituals were so complex that all courts of the various states, as well as members of the wealthy class, were in need of such experts. Their professional knowledge continued to play an important part of Confucian teaching and was crucial for the establishment of Confucianism as a state doctrine during the Former Han period. Besides pure rituals (type, arrangement and number of sacrificial tools; music to be played; actions to be performed), etiquette played an important part in the teachings of the ru. The term for rituals is li 禮, and that for etiquette yi 儀. The first character includes the radical "spiritual matters" (示) and a sacrificial vessel (豊), while the second character consists of the radical "man" (亻) and the term "to make oneself beautiful" (義). The latter became one of the core concepts of Confucianism and is usually translated as "righteousness" or "propriety". At the time of Confucius, social comportment like trustworthiness, seriousness or loyalty had ceased to be observed by the ru experts, and they had become simple-minded practitioners of rituals without caring much for the social context of etiquette. For Confucius, a ritual expert had to live as an example for others, with high moral standards. For him, the living were as important as the death.

After Confucius' death many other philosophical schools emerged (the "hundred contending schools") that offered different concepts for the ordering of society. Daoists, with their soft attitude, can be called the "original ru", especially because they did not adhere to the collar of rituals. The Mohists also discarded the rituals, especially the expensive mourning rituals, and advocated going back to a basic etiquette in an equally-leveled society. This was, by the way, also an aspect stressed by Confucius: that a small man with the right behaviour was more valid than a depraved nobleman. The ru were thus the fathers of many different philosophical schools and only became more rigorous after they had to distinguish themselves from the new schools.

The late Warring States-period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) thinker Xun Kuang 荀況 (Xunzi 荀子, 313-238 BCE) connected the quality of being a ru with the ability to govern a state. From a class of professionals (like physicians or teachers), the ru, then as adherents of the school of "Confucians" (rujia 儒家), had entered the realm of politics and participated in government affairs. Their usefulness for government was doubted by contemporaries because ruists still were experts in the rituals and knew the many ritual writings by heart, yet this seemed to be a thankless and very impractical work in regard to politics. At the beginning of the Han period, the ru professed in the six writings (liuyi 六藝; what later became the "Six Classics" liujing 六經) and adhered to the traditional social hierarchies of the time of Confucius.

The "Confucians" also venerated the ancient sages of the past, like the mythological emperors Yao 堯 and Shun 舜 or the founders of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), King Wen 周文王 and King Wu 周武王, as well as the brother of the latter, the Duke of Zhou 周公. The Duke of Zhou was, according to Han period historiography, characterised by benevolent and righteous behaviour, loyally assisted his brother in the war against the Shang dynasty and later ruled for his nephew, the young King Cheng 周成王. He performed the rituals for the king, drafted all proclamations necessary to firmly establish the rule of the dynasty and cultivated himself to bring peace to the kingdom and the people. The Duke also created the rituals necessary for the correct performance of the state sacrifices, the audiences at the court and the interaction between state officials of different layers of administration. Later Confucians therefore saw him as "the first Confucian" and often mentioned him together with Confucius (with the joint term Zhou-Kong 周孔). The Duke of Zhou had occupied a position for which all Confucians later envied him, namely that of the sage philosopher acting as a regent for a king. Confucius himself was never so happy to be given such a function. The Duke of Zhou was highly venerated by Confucius. In his later years Confucius was worried about his spiritual potential when he ceased dreaming of the Duke.


Confucius is said to have lived from 552 or 551 to 479 BCE (his birthday is celebrated on the 27 day of the 8th lunar month). He was a descendant of the house of Song 宋, heirs to the last prince of Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE). Confucius' direct ancestors had fled during an internal unrest and had found exile in the state of Lu 魯. His father Ju Shu Ge 郰叔紇 served the dukes of Lu, but he died when Confucius was still young. Confucius as a half-orphan lived a very austere life in his young years and never received an appropriate education. With the age of 15 sui he started learning everything he was able to study and was therefore later called a "universal erudite" (boxue 博學). He was especially interested in the ancient rites and music, but also learned shooting with the bow, driving the chariot, reading and arithmetics (the so-called six arts of the nobleman, liuyi 六藝). Confucius often visited the state altars and asked the priests about everything he liked to know (mei shi wen 每事問). His eagerness for learning can be seen in his statement that when he was accompanied by other persons, somebody was certainly able to be his teacher (san ren xing, bi you wo shi yan 三人行,必有我師焉). In his later years, Confucius became the first private teacher in Chinese history. Before Confucius, learning took only place in state academies (like the Jixia Academy 稷下 in the state of Qi 齊 or the princely Biyong Hall 辟雍 or Mingtang Hall 明堂 of the Zhou dynasty). Confucius assembled disciples around him to which he thought the meaning and the importance of the old classical books, like the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" and Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents". His career as a state official was not very brilliant. In his twenties he was appointed master of the granaries (weili 委吏) and the state-owned cattle (chengtian 乘田).

In 515, Duke Zhao of Lu 魯昭公 (r. 541-510) had to escape the usurpation of the three noble families of Jisun 季孫, Mengsun 孟孫 and Shusun 叔孫 (see Sanhuan 三桓) and requested exile in the adjacent state of Qi 齊. Confucius accompanied him and answered the questions of Duke Jing of Qi 齊景公 (r. 547-490). During this audience he made his famous statement that in a perfect society the ruler behaved like ruler, a minister like a minister, a father like a father, and a son like a son (jun jun, chen chen, fu fu, zi zi 君君,臣臣,父父,子子).

In 505, Confucius was given the post of minister of justice (sikou 司寇) in the state of Lu, and his disciple Zilu 子路 was made counsellor to the regent Ji Huanzi 季桓子. During the reign of Duke Ding 魯定公 (r. 509-495) Confucius, appointed as counsellor (zhong duzai 中都宰), submitted a plan to deprive the three noble families of their power, but this plan could not be realized, and he left Lu.

From then on Confucius traveled from state to state and offered his advice to the rulers of Wei 衛, Song, Chen 陳 and Cai 蔡. Yet he was never appointed to a prominent state office for a longer time (he was Junior Minister of Works, xiao sikong 小司空 and Senior Minister of Justice, da sikou 大司寇) and was thus not able to become the counsellor of a noble ruler who would revive the glory of the kings of the past. In 484, he disappointedly returned to Lu. At least he was received as a famous teacher by the regent Ji Kangzi 季康子, received a scholarship and was stimulated to continue his teachings. In old age he was granted the title of "Older of the State" (guolao 國老) and was allowed to bring forward suggestions for a better government.

Confucius died in 479. Duke Ai 魯哀公 (r. 494-467) personally wrote a eulogy, and Confucius was granted an extravagant burial. His disciples were allowed to keep a mourning period of three years that is normally observed in case of a father's death. The site of his tomb (in modern Qufu 曲阜, Shandong) with the temple and his ancient mansion (Kongzi guju 孔子故居, Queli 闕里) are since venerated as a holy place.

Aspects of religion

Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖 (r. 206-195 BCE) of the Han dynasty was the first to honour Confucius with the Grand Sacrifice (tailao 太牢). In the year 1 CE Emperor Ping 漢平帝 (1 BCE-5 CE) bestowed upon Confucius the title of Baochengxuan Ni gong 褒成宣尼公 "Duke Ni, Great accomplished and wide-reaching". The honorific titles by which Confucius is called are very numerous. The most important of them are Wensheng Ni fu 文聖尼父 "Cultivated and Holy Father Ni", Xianshi Ni fu 先師尼父 "Primordial teacher Father Ni", Xiansheng xianshi 先聖先師 "Primordial Saint and Teacher", Zhisheng xianshi 至聖先師 "Perfect Saint and Primordial Teacher", Wanshi shibiao 萬世師表 "Manifest Teacher of Ten Thousand Generations", Zouguo gong 鄒國公 "Duke of Zou", Wenxuanwang 文宣王 "Cultivated and Wide-Reaching King", and the like. Even if the veneration of Confucius is organized within the frame of ancestor veneration, and enlarged by the aspects of a state cult, liturgical aspects and prayers make Confucianism a religion.

The Philosophy of Confucius

Kindheartedness (ren 仁)

While the earlier ru had been experts in ritual matters, Confucius transformed the content of their rituals into a social philosophy. For him, a ritual expert could not be but a person of a high moral integrity. The two main concepts of him were kindheartedness (ren 仁, also translatable as "humanity", "kindness" or "benevolence"), and ritual (li 禮). Kindheartedness was the expression of righteousness (yi 義, also translatable as "generosity" or "philanthropy"), and it was the result of unselfishness (gong 公, as opposed to si 私 "selfishness").

The term ren refers to the interaction between two persons (the character is derived from the character of "man" 亻 and that of "two" 二). Relations between two interacting persons had become all the more important as status had become less important than abilities. Ren "kind interaction between persons" was therefore by Confucius raised to a status it never had before among the class of the ru "ritual specialists". It almost seems as if Confucius was the inventor of this term, all the more as it only rarely appears in "pre-Confucian" texts. In contemporary writings like the histories Guoyu 國語 and Zuozhuan 左傳, ren means "to have affections towards someone else" or "kind behaviour".

For Confucius, ren had many different meanings, depending on the context. To be ren was, "to be a human" (ren zhe, ren ye 人者,人也。). It meant "to have an affection towards others" (ai ren 愛人), whoever it might be. A kindhearted man thus had to overcome the difference between relatives and non-relatives or between persons standing close in a social network and such standing afar. Confucius surpassed the narrow frame of "being related [only] to relatives" (qin qin 親親) and "venerating [only] the venerable" (zun zun 尊尊). Yet this did not mean that Confucius did not lay stress on the respect for parents: filial piety played an important role in his ritual-guided thinking and it was "the root of kindness" (xiaodi zhe, qi wei ren zhi ben 孝弟者其爲仁之本), but had to be expanded also to others.

Confucius's most famous statement about benevolence is that "what I dislike should not be done to others" (ji suo bu yu, wu shi yu ren 己所不欲,勿施於人), or, vice versa, to erect or promote (i.e. support) others if one wanted to erect or promote oneself (ji yu li er li ren, ji yu da er da ren 己欲立而立人,己欲達而達人). The own feelings had to be transferred to others (tui ji ji ren 推己及人). Confucius provided numerous examples how kindheartedness was to be applied. A person being ren did use straight and simple words, without adornment and skilled speech. He "loves the mountains, quietness and longevity", i.e. something immoveable, reliable and constant. A man displaying kindheartedness was respectful (gong 恭), magnanimous (kuan 寬), truthful (xin 信), diligent (min 敏), and gracious (hui 惠). In all his conversations Confucius did not adhere to one single theoretical definition of what ren was, but he provided dozens of examples what kindheartedness could be in practice. Ren was a practical virtue, used in daily life and easily to apply. Such virtues (de 德) were fully displayed by giving up the self (ke ji 克己), "not seeking one's own life" (wu qiu sheng 無求生), and by "killing one's own body" (sha shen 殺身). He said, it was good to know what ren was, but it was yet better to like ren, and the best to enjoy kindheartedness displayed against others.

The Golden Mean (zhongyong 中庸)

The way (dao 道) of the cultivated man was never inclined to one extreme side, but was directed towards the "golden mean" (zhongyong 中庸, zhongxing 中行 "well-balanced behaviour"). Confucius' grandson 孔伋 (Zisi 子思, 483-402 BCE) therefore wrote - according to common belief - the book Zhongyong 中庸 "Doctrine of the Mean".

Filial piety (xiao 孝)

Parents were to be served during their lifetime and to be venerated after their death. As long as a father was alive, a son had to respect his will, and after his father's death, his way of life had to be taken as an example (fu zai guan qi zhi, fu mo guan qi xing 父在觀其志,父沒觀其行). Filial piety claimed not only to nourish the parents (something that animals do, too), but also to pay them respect.

Righteousness (yi 義)

The term yi 義 is often translated as "righteousness". Yet it must be understood as the substance of all activities and as the right manner in which something is performed in a particular situation. It is a kind of behaviour "appropriate" (yi 宜) to the actual situation. While kindheartedness was mainly reserved in the private sphere (father and son), appropriate behaviour was applied in the official sphere (lord and minister, husband and wife, younger and older, friend and friend, the "five human relations" wulun 五倫 or wuchang 五常). The appropriate behaviour of the perfect man of virtue (junzi 君子) was often contrasted with selfishness and the search for profit (li 利) by the mean man (xiaoren 小人).

Kindheartedness began at home with filial piety (xiao 孝) towards the parents (shi qin 事親 "to serve the parents") and love and respect towards older brothers (di 弟, also ti 悌). It was therefore tied to family relationship and by no means equal to the Christian universal love. Affection towards other persons (ai ren 愛人) ranked only in second place. In the official sphere, kindheartedness was expressed in two different ways. The first was loyalty towards superiors (zhong 忠), and the second respect towards others (shu 恕). Loyalty (zhong) towards superiors (shi jun 事君 "to serve one's lord") was important for the functioning of a state, a smaller polity, or even an enterprise in the widest sense. Filial piety was likewise a crucial constituent for a well-functioning society. Without it, social disorder would erupt. Zeng Shen 曾參 (Zengzi 曾子, 505-436), a disciple of Confucius, therefore compiled the small book Xiaojing 孝經 "Classic on filial piety".

A ruler, faced with the loyalty of his own ministers and the people, had the duty to respond this loyalty with benevolence. The kindhearted ruler granted to the people what it liked (yin min zhi li er li zhi 因民之所利而利之), lowered taxes and used the penal law with caution. He led the people along the right way by force of his own virtue (ren zheng de zhi 仁政德治 "kindhearted government and rule by virtue") and made it feel treated justly by applying the proper rituals (dao zhi yi de, qi zhi yi li 道之以德,齊之以禮 "He leads them by means of virtue and makes them equal by means of rites."). The righteous ruler appointed competent, wise and worthy talents (ju xiancai 舉賢才) as his advisors. While the ruler responded to the loyalty and respect (jing 敬) of his ministers with kindheartedness (ren), the father answered the filial piety (xiao) of his son by generosity (ci 慈). Comportment and behaviour inside a family are so directly compared with the situation in a state, and each family was seen as a basic cell of the whole empire. If there was benevolence and kindness, filial piety and generosity inside each family, it would also to be found on the level of a state's government. A generous father would incite filial behaviour in his son, and a decent and benevolent ruler would make his ministers most loyal not because they were seeking for profit but because they were convinced to serve their lord with their utmost sincerity.

Kindheartedness could move other people and change their inner heart. It had an educating and exemplary character that was able to move the hearts of a whole people. In order to become an exemplary personality, constant cultivation of the self was necessary (xiu shen 修身, xiu ji 修己, zheng shen 正身). In the eyes of Confucius everyone was able to become kindhearted, if one only really wanted it (wo yu ren, si ren zhi yi 我欲人,斯仁至矣。). The best way to become a kindhearted person was to give up oneself and to go back to the proper rites (ke ji fu li 克己復禮). To find the true form of kindheartedness was very easy because it was to be found in oneself (wei ren you ji 爲仁由己).

Rituals (li 禮)

"Ritual" is a general term for all rules, regulations, demeanor and customs in different social contexts. Part of rituals originated in religious contexts, when people were communicating with deities, spirits and the souls of ancestors. Rituals were to be observed in regular periods and in fixed patterns. The rites of the Zhou dynasty also defined which state officials observed what duties in administration. Everyone had a certain position with qualified duties. The term li can be translated as "kind behaviour in an official context". During the time Confucius lived, many noblemen disobeyed these ancient prescriptions and rebelled against their lords and masters. Rituals had become vain terms and designations. In such a society it was impossible to respect Heaven and to bring sacrifices to the spirits. Without rites it was impossible to give everyone his position in society. The positions of lord and minister, old and young, husband and wife would be utterly disturbed. Members of the upper and lower nobility indulged in luxury and lacked a sense for an appropriate modesty and frugality.

It was therefore necessary to revive the perfect rites established by the Zhou dynasty (wu cong Zhou 吾從周 "I adhere to the [rites of the] Zhou"). For Confucius, rites were not a meaningless formality but had to be filled with kindheartedness to obtain their full meaning. An outer guideline (li) without an inner spirit (ren) would be useless. Rites without a kindhearted spirit was meaningless, just as music without a benevolent spirit was not beautiful. Yet a personal attitude of kindheartedness without outer guidelines (rites and etiquette) would lead to confusion and chaos. Both had therefore to be combined. Rites were the standard for kind behaviour, while the latter was the spirit of all ritual behaviour. Each and every social encountering was accompanied by the performance of certain rituals, and all seeing, hearing, speaking and doing was involved in etiquette. Rituals were the outer expression of inward kindheartedness, and they were the visual and perceivable adornment of a sincere feeling. Rituals therefore played an important role in the private as well as in the political sphere.

In the society of his own days, Confucius saw that designations or names (ming 名) and facts (shi 實) were not any more congruent. The government was dominated by ministers and grandees, and the regional rulers behaved like the king himself, the Son of Heaven. The only way to restore order under Heaven was to "rectify names" (zhengming 正名). A ruler had to behave like a ruler, and a minister like a minister (and not like a ruler). Only strict adherence to what the rites of the Zhou prescribed would lead to a stable and peaceful society. Every ruler had to observe the rites of the Zhou and to fill them with the spirit of kindheartedness. The virtuous power (de 德) of the ruler, combined with the correct sense of sparingly used punishment (xing 刑), would offer the population the right sense for what was correct and decent. Politics was, to "rule in the correct way" (zheng zhe zheng ye 政者正也), with the help of the ancient rites (yi li zhi guo 以禮治國 "to rule a country with the help of rites"). A ruler who had rectified his own behaviour would be able to bring peace to his country (xiu ji yi an ren 修己以安人). If a ruler reigned with the help of rites, his ministers would serve him with loyalty (jun shi chen yi li, chen shi jun yi zhong 君使臣以禮,臣事君以忠). If the ruler had cultivated himself, everyone would follow him even without being given orders (qi shen zheng, bu ling er xing, 其身正,不令而行), yet a ruler without kindheartedness would not be obeyed even if he decreed orders (qi shen bu zheng, sui ling bu cong 其身不正,雖令不從). Although it was good if the people had sufficient food and a state disposed of a good army, a state whose people did not trust their ruler would never flourish. In a state that was governed by appropriate rituals the ruler was like the polestar around whom the people willingly gathered. This could only happen if the ruler gave up himself and returned to the ancient rites (ke ji fu li 克己復禮), motivated with the spirit of kindheartedness and simplicity.

The role of Heaven

The focus of Confucius' philosophy was society, and he seldom mentions Heaven (tian 天) and does not bring man into a cosmological pattern. Yet this does not mean that Confucius did not believe in ancestral spirits or ghosts and spirits or the impersonal Heaven as an arbiter of right and wrong. The man of virtue was well aware of the power of Heaven and its importance for the stability of dynasty and society. Confucius, in his own words, knew the rules according to which Heaven observed the earthly rulers, granting them the "Heavenly Mandate" (tianming 天命), but also the common man, and shaped his life, fortune and fate (si sheng you ming, fu gui zai tian 死生有命,富貴在天 "Dead and life are a man's fate, and his richness and grandeur lies with Heaven.").

Knowledge and learning

Only few persons have an innate knowledge (sheng er zhi zhi 生而知之). Apart from these men of virtue (junzi 君子, literally "son of a lord"), all others had to learn constantly (xue er xi shi zhi 學而時習之) and were only able to achieve their understanding of life by learning (xue er zhi zhi 學而知之). Good examples had to be followed (ze qi shan zhe er cong zhi 擇其善者而從之), and bad examples to be avoided (qi bu shan zhe er gai zhi 其不善者而改之). Everything one could observe and learn was thus constantly subject to a process of evaluation and of reflection. Learning and reflection about what was learnt could lead to the way to righteousness. Kindheartedness could be learnt from one's own heart, and there was no way to obstruct those who were willing to learn to become men of virtue. Only the "small man" would not try to learn or would act without learning, or learn without reflecting on what he had learnt. Confucius knew that it was hard to become a perfect noble, yet there were some points to be observed that at least could lead into the proper direction, namely to study the Classical writings (wen 文), correct behaviour (xing 行), loyalty (zhong 忠) and trustfulness (xin 信).

The ancient Classics

Confucius did not compile writings of his own. He understood himself as a transmitter and not as an author (shu er bu zuo 述而不作 "I transmit and do not author."). Yet he studied the ancient classics and often quoted from them because he trusted in the thoughts of the old (xin er hao gu 信而好古 "he loved antiquity and believed in it"). The ancient writings were the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", the Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents", the Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes", and the ritual books. Confucius was later credited with the compilation of these books, as well as of the chronicle of the state of Lu, the Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals". Yet textual research shows that the core part of these texts are much older than Confucius. Later on, these writings were canonized as "Confucian Classics". Confucius' own teachings are preserved in the Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects" that were compiled by his disciples.

The "Book of Songs" is a selection of 305 songs and hymns out of a total corpus of several thousand. Confucius is said to have made this selection with the intention to preserve those of the songs expressing the thought of ritual and etiquette. The originally hundred chapters of the "Book of Documents" contain the most important speeches giving an impression how the benevolent ruler would be rewarded with the Heavenly mandate. Confucius is also said to have revised ancient records of rites, but the history of the three ritual books (Liji, Yili 儀禮 and Zhouli 周禮) is very complex. According to a word of Confucius, all matters began with the "Songs", found their shape with the "Rituals" and were accomplished in the "Music". It is not sure whether there ever existed a book about music (a hypothetical Yuejing 樂經), but such a text is always counted among the "six Classics" (liujing 六經). Music was later seen as a part of rituals, so that a chapter on music, the Yueji 樂記, is included in the ritual book Liji. The "Book of Changes" consists of two parts, the core part being a book on prognostication with the help of hexagrams, and commentaries on these hexagrams. These "ten wing" commentaries (shiyi 十翼) are attributed to Confucius. The "Spring and Autumn Annals" is a chronicle of China written from the perspective of the state of Lu. Confucius is said to have compiled this book in order to criticize the chaotic and brutal circumstances of his time and the negligence of kindheartedness and benevolence (li beng yue huai 禮崩樂壞 "the rites were shattered, and the [proper] music was destroyed"). Zuo Qiuming 左丘明 (c. 502- c.422) wrote a kind of parallel to the Chunqiu, the Zuozhuan 左傳, which is more narrative and less cryptic than the main classic.

Disciples of Confucius

According to common sayings, Confucius had no less than 3,000 disciples (dizi 弟子), among which 70 were "worthy" (xianren 賢人). Confucius's most important disciples were Yan Hui 顔回 (Ziyuan 子淵, 521-481), Zilu 子路 (542-480), Zigong 子貢 (b. 520), Zai Yu 宰予 (522-458), Zixia 子夏 (b. c. 507), Ziyou 子游(b. c. 506), Zeng Shen (Zengzi) and Zisi 子思 (Kong Ji, a grandson of Confucius). There were, all in all, 72 canonised disciples or Confucian "worthies" (Kong men qishier xian 孔門七十二賢, see below), ten of which are praised as the "ten wise of the Confucian school" (Kong men shi zhe 孔門十哲).

The emergence of the school of Confucians (rujia 儒家)

In the late Warring States period, there were different trends in the interpretation of Confucius' teachings. The book Hanfeizi 韓非子 (ch. Xianxue 顯學) discerns between eight different schools (rujia ba pai 儒家八派) that emerged after the passing away of Kongzi, namely the schools of Zizhang 子張 (Zhuansun Shi 顓孫師, 503-447 BCE), Zisi, Master Yan 顏氏 (Yan Hui), Master Meng 孟氏 (i.e. Meng Ke 孟軻 or Mengzi 孟子, 385-304 or 372-289), Master Qidiao 漆雕氏, Master Zhongliang 仲良氏, Master Sun 孫氏 (i.e. Xun Kuang 荀況 or Xunzi 荀子, 313-238), and Master Yuezheng 樂正氏.

Zizhang was a disciple of Confucius. His questions on kindness (ren) and government are recorded in the Lunyu. Xunzi did not regard him highly and called him a low-standing scholar (jianru 賤儒) because of certain attitudes of this master. Zizhang is a central figure of the "Analects" and is known for his studies of universal human relationships which might have exerted some influence on the concept of "universal love" (jian'ai 兼愛) of Mo Di 墨翟 (Mozi 墨子, c. 476-c. 390 BCE).

The teachings of Zisi, Mengzi, and Master Yuezheng were in fact not diverging from each other, as Mengzi had been instructed by disciples of Zisi, and Yuezheng Ke 樂正克 was himself a disciple of Mengzi. The book Zisi 子思 with 23 chapters is lost, but fragments were published in the reconstructed book Zisizi 子思子. Zisi was a grandson of Confucius and is believed to have compiled the book Zhongyong. Chen Jiqiu 陳奇猷 (d. 1635), a commentator on the book Hanfeizi, was of the opinion that the Yuezheng school was not founded by Mengzi's disciple Yuezheng Ke, but by Yuezheng Zichun 樂正子春, a disciple of Zengzi.

Yan Hui was one of the most important disciples of Confucius, and of his teachings, a lot is known from the discussions recorded in the Lunyu. Yet among the Master's disciples and partners, there were eight persons with the family name Yan (Yan Wuyao 顏無繇, Yan Hui 顏回, Yan Xing 顏幸, Yan Gao 顏高, Yan Zu 顏祖, Yan Zhipu 顏之仆, Yan Kuai 顏噲, and Yan He 顏何), so it is not for sure that "Master Yan" is referring to Yan Hui. One of the latter's ideas was quiescence and cultivation, for which reason he is also mentioned in the Daoist book Zhuangzi 莊子.

Of Master Qidiao, not much is known, but the book Lunheng 論衡 (ch. Benxing 本性) explains that he was of the opinion that goodness as well as evilness were in man's heart. His teachings were similar to that of Mizi Jian 宓子賤 (Mi Buqi 宓不齊, author of Mizi 宓子), Gongsun Nizi 公孫尼子 (author of Gongsun Nizi 公孫尼子), and Shi Shuo 世碩 (author of Shizi 世子). Of the 13 chapters of the book Qidiaozi 漆雕子, only fragments survive. The Lunyu and Confucius' biography in the history book Shiji 史記 mention three persons with the family name Qidiao, namely Qidiao Kai 漆雕開 (Qidiao Qi 漆雕啟, b. 540 BCE), Qidiao Duo 漆雕哆, and Qidiao Tufu 漆雕徒父 (or Qidiao Cong 漆雕從). Qidiao Kai was quite probably the author of the book Qidiaozi. He refused to take over a state office and was known as a courageous and steadfast person.

Of Master Zhongliang, nothing is known. The founder might be identical to Chen Liang 陳良, a person mentioned in the book Mengzi (ch. Teng Wengong A 滕文公上). Chen Liang hailed from Chu 楚 and was the teacher of Chen Xiang 陳相 and Chen Xin 陳辛, and later on became an adherent of the school of agriculturalists (nongjia 農家), fierce enemies of Mengzi. Chen Qiqiu believed that the school originated in the person of Zhongliangzi 仲梁子, who is mentioned in the ritual Classic Liji (ch. Tangong A 檀弓上) with a reference to burial rites, and in a commentary on the "Book of Songs", Maoshi zhuan 毛詩傳. It can be concluded that this school merged the teachings of Zeng Sen (Zengzi) and Zixia.

Many of the eight Confucian schools fell into oblivion. Only the thoughts of Zisi, Mengzi, and Xunzi survived completely. The Republican writer and scholar Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892-1978) wrote a study on the early Confucian schools, Rujia bapai de piping 儒家八派的批判.

Mengzi stood in the tradition of Zisi, and refined the latter's propositions (see Xunzi 荀子, ch. Fei shi'erzi 非十二子). While Confucius had mainly preached to persons of the upper class only and told them how to behave as "gentlemen" in order to create a peaceful society, Mengzi made the rulers focus of his philosophy. From a social philosophy, Confucianism thus transformed into a political philosophy. Benevolence and kindheartedness were to the right ways of government. Only their application would contribute to a peaceful society in a state, and in turn to a strong nation that would be able to fend off all foreign challenges. Heaven as the "father" of the ruler would express his concerns about brutal government of exploitation by causing the people to rise in rebellion. Joyful and satisfied subjects were thus the base of successful government. This could be achieved by governance with kindness (renzheng 仁政), in a kind of "royal way of rule" (wangdao 王道), following the precedents of the sacred rulers of the past like Yao 堯 and Shun 舜 or King Wen of Zhou 周文王 or the Duke of Zhou. Confucian scholars would be able to educate (jiaohua 教化) rulers, and the latter to have a virtuous power (dehua 德化) over their subjects because the human character was good by nature (ren xing ben shan 人性本善). Such theories came into being because Confucians had to cope with several contending schools attempting to bring forward different arguments for the best way of ruling a state.

The concept of benevolence seemed not sufficient in the face of institutional reforms that took place in many of the states during the Warring States period. Xun Kuang, the last of the grand Confucian masters of pre-imperial times, therefore advocated the strict use of rituals (li) to govern state and society, and thus brought up a Confucian counterweight to the legalist use of laws (fa 治). Rituals and learning would enable humans to find back to the way of virtue, and were to be seen as artificial instruments to avoid the basic evilness of the human character (ren zhi xing e 人之性惡). While the human character was crude and unrefined by nature, "artificial" (wei 偽) education and propriety would refine and perfect it.

Confucianism as a state doctrine

Under the rule of the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (r. 246-210 BCE), the "hundred schools of thought" were abolished and had to cede in order to make room for legalism and practical sciences like medicine, agriculture, divination and military thought. This stance was relaxed at the beginning of the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). The first Han rulers were adherents of a Daoist policy of non-action (wuwei 無為). This "free market" policy helped the national economy to recover after decades of war and unrest. Yet an advisor of the founder of the Han, Shusun Tong 叔孫通 (d. 189), stressed the importance to make use of men that were expert in Confucianism in order to establish a good-working administration. Under the rule of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87), Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104), a philosopher who combined cosmological speculation with the Confucian view on the state, convinced the emperor that the adoption Confucianism as the sole state doctrine would greatly profit the coherence of dynasty, bureaucracy and the empire. All other schools were not further considered as worth being sponsored by the state (bachu baijia 罷黜百家 "driving out the hundred schools").

Yet Han-period Confucianism did not consist of a single tradition. There were mainly three traditions fighting for intellectual dominance over the other. These are the new-text school (jinwenpai 今文派), the old-text school (guwenpai 古文派), and the schools of the apocryphal writings (chenweixue 讖緯派). The new-text school relied on Confucian Classics that had survived the prohibition of the Qin period. The old-text school interpreted texts that were allegedly discovered in the walls of Confucius' mansion in Qufu, being hidden inside of walls to preserve them from the First Emperor's decree to burn "useless" or heretic books. The apocryphal texts contained material interpreting Confucian teachings as related to Heavenly revelations. The new-text school prevailed during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), and the old-text school during the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE). Only at the end of the Later Han period, adherents of the new-text school again gained ground.

The most famous old-text scholars, interpreters and commentators were Zheng Xing 鄭興 (around the time of Christ's birth), Jia Kui 賈逵 (30-101 CE), and Ma Rong 馬融 (79-166 CE), while Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200 CE) was the most important new-text commentator of the very late Han time. His interpretation of the Confucian classics is known as the "teachings of Zheng" (Zhengxue 鄭學).

Confucianism as a competitor to Daoism and Buddhism

During the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Jin 晉 (265-420) periods Confucianism had to compete with a growing interest in Daoism. The main philosophical stream of that time was the so-called "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學) which integrated Daoist ideas into Confucianism. Yet scholars were still deeply interested into the interpretation of the Confucian Classics. Some modern scholars trace this occupation back to the loss of political influence during the Later Han period, when eunuchs, relatives of empresses and powerful generals influenced the politics of the imperial court. Scholars were likewise interested in the core Confucian writings, as well as in Daoist writings.

He Yan 何晏 (190-249) and Wang Bi 王弼 (226-249) wrote comments on the "Classic of Changes" Yijing and the Lunyu, as well as on the Daoist scriptures Laozi 老子 and Zhuangzi 莊子. Wang Yan 王衍 (256-311) and Ji Kang 嵇康 (223-262) combined the idea of natural spontaneousness and the nothingness of the way with Confucian ideas.

With the growing importance of Buddhism in China the enmity between the latter and Daoism became more pronounced, a fight over which Confucianism lost its impetus. Tenets of Confucianism were nevertheless still used as a state doctrine because the Confucian scholars were experts in state rituals and all aspects of administration. Daoism and Buddhism, as religions that were focusing on a life outside the worldly society (monasteries, hermits), did not have a similar importance for administration. Even powerful adherents of Buddhism, like Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) of the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557), had Confucius temples erected, used Confucian experts in the administration and appointed Confucian erudites (boshi 博士) in the National University (taixue 太學). Society was based on hierarchies, about which only Confucianism had to say something.

Scholars like He Chengyan 何承天 (370-447) and Fan Zhen 范縝 (450-510) vehemently opposed Buddhism as a destructive ideology that would bring chaos into society, disrupt ancestor veneration and bring a government to the brinks of destruction. Confucianism was so important for the recruitment of state officials that during the Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 唐 (618-907) periods, the "three teachings" (sanjiao 三教) Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism were used for different purposes. Experts in the Confucian Classics ("classicists", mingjing 明經) and candidates passing the state examinations (jinshi 進士) had both passed the school of Confucius's teachings and their interpretation.

At the beginning of the Tang period, a new generation of Confucian scholars wrote novel commentaries to the Classics and purified them from Daoist influence seen in earlier commentaries. The most important commentators of that age were Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648) and Yan Shigu 顔師古 (581-645). Both scholars laid the foundation for the throughly new interpretation of Confucianism during the Song period. The scholar Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824) made further efforts to push back Buddhism into the realm of religion or even superstition and to make free the field of philosophy for a new, invigorated and austere Confucianism.

The reinterpretation of Confucianism during the Song period

Unlike Buddhism with its very complex cosmology Confucianism had never really cared about Heaven or the universe. This was a lack that late Tang and early Song-period scholars clearly recognized. In the 9th century, Confucian scholars therefore began to develop a cosmology of Confucianism, explaining that the natural Heavenly order or principle (li 理) was implanted into every human being. The social order of traditional Confucianism was a reflection of this Heavenly principle. This new kind of Confucianism (xin ruxue 新儒學) was therefore also called "teaching of the order" (lixue 理學) or "teaching of the (natural) Way" (daoxue 道學). Philosophers like Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 (1017-1073), Shao Yong 邵雍 (1011-1077), Zhang Zai 張載 (1020-1077), and the brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107) made use of Daoist concepts like dao 道 "the Way", taiji 太極 "Utmost Extreme" or wuji 無極 "zero-dimension" to explain the universe and the formation of objects and beings in the Confucian sense. The Classic of Changes was used for metaphysical speculations.

The brothers Cheng also used hitherto neglected writings, namely the chapters Daxue 大學 and Zhongyong 中庸 of the ritual classic Liji 禮記 and put them side by side with the Lunyu "Confucian Analects" and the Mengzi, thus creating the canon of the "Four Books" (sishu 四書). These four small books contained the material for a novel, personally interpreted version of Confucianism. Instead of focusing on society as a whole, the individual scholar began to cultivate himself in order to detect the Heavenly and natural Way, not only in himself, but also in all things on earth. The innate goodness of man came from Heaven, and everyone had the potential to become a perfect human. In order to detect the dao, a thorough investigation of all things was necessary (gezhi 格致).

The Southern Song-period 南宋 (1127-1279) philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) unified all the different philosophical interpretations of the early Neo-Confucians and integrated them into a coherent system. Zhu Xi was seen as a second Confucius. He assembled disciples around him and taught them by the question-and-answer method once used by Confucius. Zhu Xi wrote an interpretation to the Four Books, the Sishu jizhu 四書章句集注, which served as the orthodox interpretation of the Four Books for the centuries to come. His philosophy was the perfection of the teachings of the two Cheng brothers, and the teachings of all three scholars are therefore are subsumed under the term Cheng-Zhu lixue 程朱理學 "The Cheng brothers' and Zhu Xi's teachings of the Heavenly principle". There is another tradition of Neo-Confucianism with Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 (1139-1193) and Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Yangming 王陽明, 1472-1529) as representatives. Their tradition is subsumed under the term Lu-Wang xinxue 陸王心學 "Lu Jiuyuan's and Wang Yangming's teachings of the mind".

Scholarly Confucianism under the Qing dynasty

The tradition of Neo-Confucianism experienced an end during the 17th century. Confucian scholars felt that Neo-Confucianism was too speculative and not concerned with the original writings of Confucianism nor with the necessities of government, administration and politics. The late Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682) therefore criticized the Neo-Confucians and initiated a more scientific approach towards the ancient Confucian writings. This new approach was instantly followed by other scholars that started to carry out a new wave of textual critique, lexical research, to discern between originals and forgeries and to collect fragments of lost texts. This scientific and intellectual movement is known as the "teachings of research and prove" (kaozhengxue 考證學). The most important scholars of this school were Mao Qiling 毛奇齡 (1623-1716), Qian Daxin 錢大昕 (1728-1804), Dai Zhen 戴震 (1723-1777), Duan Yucai 段玉裁 (1735-1815), Lu Wenchao 盧文弨 (1717-1795), Ma Guohan 馬國翰 (1794-1857) and Sun Yirang 孫詒讓 (1848-1908). For the modern editions of the Confucian Classics, these scholars have made highly valuable contributions. Quite a few of them lived during the reigns of the Qianlong 乾隆 (1736-1795) and the Jiaqing 嘉慶 (1796-1820) emperors of the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), so that their school is also called the Qian-Jia School 乾嘉學派. Another term for this trend is "School of Han-period texts" (Hanxue 漢學) because they went back to texts of the early period of Confucianism to study its origins in imperial times.

Ideologization in the 20th century

The impact of the intrusion by foreign powers during the 19th century also influenced the interpretations of Confucianism by Chinese scholars. While some of them tried to use Confucianism as an element of Chinese culture that would enable China to withstand Western influence, others made Confucianism responsible for China's backwardness. Reformers of the late 19th century tried to find elements in Confucianism that supported a change of habits in administrations in order to strengthen state and nation. Kang Youwei 康有爲 (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao 梁啟超 (1873-1929) have to be counted among those scholars, but also Dai Jitao 戴季陶 (1891-1949), whose interpretation of Confucianism as an intrinsically Chinese philosophy able to strengthen the nation by bringing order and peace into China's society was used by Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi 蔣介石, 1887-1975) in his New Life Movement (Xin shenghuo yundong 新生活運動) during the 1930s. Other intellectuals like Liu Shipei 劉師培 (1884-1920) went on in the traditional way of interpreting Confucian writings.

Some years after the founding of the Republic of China (1911-1949), academicians in Peking began to blame Confucianism as the factor that had "mummified" China (as the German philosopher J.G. Herder said). During the May Fourth Movement (Wusi yundong 五四運動) in 1919, the destruction of the "Confucius shop" (Kongdian 孔店) was seen as a crucial activity on the way to a modern China with an advanced society and economy. This was a kind of foreplay to the Cultural Revolution (Wenhua da geming 文化大革命) in the People's Republic of China (1949-present) where Confucianism was seen as backward, "feudalistic" and worth eliminating. Confucianism was identified with strict obedience to superiors and the cementation of social status. It was also instrumentalized in the campaign against the "traitor" Lin Biao 林彪 (1907-1971), with the slogan "Criticise Lin and Confucius!" (pi Lin pi Kong 批林批孔).

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