Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The name given by Westerners to a large body of Chinese scholarly works. The Chinese refer to "the scholarly tradition." Confucius is the latinized version of Kung Fu-tzu (i.e., Master Kung), who was a teacher in China (c. 551 B.C.E.-479 B.C.E.). The Analects, which is a collection of sayings attributed to Confucius, are the roots for a large literature that comments and embellishes on the principles set forth in the Analects. These supposed sayings of Confucius were written down 70 to 80 years after his death. Confucianism also includes the Five Classics: stories about Ancient China, poetry, ritual rules, and court records. As the classics exist today, they were written after Confucius's time, but some version of them probably predated Confucius and influenced his thinking. Through the centuries, scholars have selected preferred ideas from the vast canon, sometimes combining them with notions from competing ideologies such as Taoism or Buddhism, and called their selections "Confucianism."

During the second century B.C.E., Confucianism became the basis of China's civil morality. Until 1911, an applicant's knowledge of Confucian classics was used for selecting state bureaucrats. Throughout China, state-supported Confucian temples were established. Although deified by the state, Confucius was never a popular deity, and among the elite the acceptance of Confucius as a god steadily declined.

The ordinary people, until the late twentieth century, did not know Confucianism; however, aspects of this ideology, especially filial piety and all it implies, are part of Chinese Folk Religion. Confucianism has been an important influence on Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese cultures.

Confucius valued self-cultivation. Each person must continually improve by learning how to carry out duties better so as to advance society. By and large, Confucianists do not consider human nature as inclined to evil; rather, each of us needs the right education to achieve wisdom, then we will spontaneously enact jen or humaneness. Although religious beliefs were accepted by Confucius, they remained in the background. Self-cultivation does not depend on divine grace but on self-disciplined study. The reward for good behavior is not living in heaven after death; goodness is its own reward: We feel fulfilled, and society is harmonious. The good person is courteous, considerate, avoids extremes (such as by neither craving luxury nor practicing asceticism), and follows the "golden rule": "Do not inflict on others what you yourself would not wish done to you" (Analects 15:24).

Confucianism presents the individual not as a detached entity but always as part of human relationships. Five such relationships are addressed specifically: father and son, elder and younger brothers, husband and wife, friend and friend, as well as sovereign and subject. In each relationship, both parties have obligations. For instance, the father should be kind, furnish security, and provide education. The son should be respectful, obedient, and care for his father in old age.

As Asian societies have modernized, Confucianism has been criticized for inhibiting democracy, being an obstacle to economic development, and justifying the subjugation of women. Regarding democracy, Creel (1960) noted aspects of Confucianism that are compatible with democracy: instruction to political leaders to maximize the wealth and happiness of the people, a preference for persuasion rather than force, and the elevation of faithfulness to principles over loyalty to persons. At the same time, three crucial aspects of Confucianism inhibit the development of democracy. First, the ideal political situation is a society ruled by a sage-emperor, that is, someone who has both wisdom and power. Confucius believed that the elite should control the common people. However, gaining political office should not be a hereditary right; leaders should be chosen because they are intelligent and morally upright. Second, the ideal society is in a constant state of harmony; in contrast, democracy assumes that some degree of conflict advances the common good. Third, Confucianism does not contain the idea of human rights; the ideology offers no basis for legitimating such principles as freedom of speech or a zone of privacy.

Scholars, in praising harmony, have implied a preference for social order and continuity. Ideally, everyone remains in the same status and is committed to retaining the traditional relationships among existing statuses. Order is maintained by li , that is, by each person acting with propriety. Confucianism is oriented toward the past, which attitude conflicts with the most basic aspects of a modern society: the orientation to the future and the expectation of continual change (Weber 1951, Jenner 1992).

Regarding economic development, Confucianism has valued being a gentleman or a sage higher than being a merchant. In the Analects, we read: "The Master said, 'The gentleman is familiar with what is right, just as the small man is familiar with profit'" (4:16). However, because of the economic success of Confucian-influenced societies such as Taiwan, the argument is now made that once economic development is under way, the process is reinforced by certain aspects of the Confucian tradition: support for a strong state, the value given to education, and a model of the family that encourages adult children to care for their parents and that discourages divorce.

Confucianism conflicts with modern familial norms. Gender equality is inconsistent with the preeminence of the father-son relationship in Confucianism. This attitude means that sons are valued more than daughters, and the father-son relationship is more important that the husband-wife relationship; appropriately, the proper role of a wife is to be obedient and look after her family. Moreover, modern children expect some independence, whereas Confucianism stresses obedience. Finally, modern couples want marriage to bring happiness, whereas Confucianism emphasizes harmony and the endurance of the relationship.

In capitalist East Asian societies, there is a revival movement, as scholars work to define a form of Confucianism that is modern but distinctive from Western culture (Rozman 1991, Tu 1991).

See also Taoism.

Joseph B. Tamney


H. G. Creel, Confucius and the Chinese Way (New York: Harper, 1960)

W. B. F. Jenner, The Tyranny of History (London: Lane, 1992)

G. Rozman (ed.), The East Asian Region (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991)

L. Kam, Critiques of Confucius in Contemporary China (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1980)

J. B. Tamney, "Modernizing Confucianism," in Twentieth-Century World Religious Movements in Neo-Weberian Perspective , ed. W. H Swatos, Jr. (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1992): 31-44

W. Tu, "The Search for Roots in Industrial East Asia," in Fundamentalisms Observed , ed. M. E. Marty and R. S. Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991): 740-781

M. Weber, The Religion of China (New York: Free Press, 1951).

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