A Short Introduction to Confucianism

[disinfo ed.’s note: The following is excerpted from The Great Equal Society : Confucianism, China and the 21st Century by Young-oak Kim and Jung-kyu Kim]

Confucius 02


Benevolence is the most comfortable house of man, and righteousnessis his only straight path. Alas for them, who leave the tranquil dwelling empty and do not reside in it, and who abandon the right path and do not pursue it? – Mencius, 4a-10

Confucius and religion

Confucius was born in a religious environment. His father was a descendent of the Shang people, who were exceedingly zealous in their religious beliefs. What little we know about the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), which preceded the Zhou, comes from their religious relics: vast amounts of bronze ritual vessels and so-called “oracle bones.” The latter mainly consist of turtle shells and bones, which turned out to be extremely valuable because of the inscriptions they contained. Oracle bones are China’s oldest texts. Ian Morris, in his characteristically witty style, describes the fortune-telling rituals as follows:

The king would put questions to his ancestors, summoning their spirits… Pressing a heated stick against a shell or bone, he would interpret the cracks it produced, and specialists would inscribe the results on the “oracle bone”… The rites made [the king] ancestor-in-chief, hosting parties for spirits of recently dead kings… The rituals also involved binge drinking, perhaps to put the king and diviners into the right frame of mind for talking to spirits.[i]

Lots of drinking and orgies accompanied these rituals. The glittering court life of the late Shang period is captured in the proverbial expression “lakes of wine and forests of meat,” where “naked men and women chased one another and drank long into the night.”[ii] The more sinister aspect of the Shang religion involved human sacrifices. Archaeologists excavated a tomb in Anyang, the last capital of Shang, containing about two-hundred corpses, some of whom were beheaded or had their limbs chopped off; the rest were bound and contorted, indicating they were buried alive. Approximately five-thousand sacrificial pits have been identified around the tomb. It has been estimated that during the 150 years that Anyang served as Shang’s capital, a quarter of a million people may have been sacrificed in this manner, mostly as appendages to the funerals for the elites.[iii] Royals presumably required the service of hundreds of slaves in the afterlife. 

Confucius was born in 551 BCE, almost five centuries after the fall of the Shang dynasty, but religious superstitions had survived in various parts of the society. We already mentioned that the father of Confucius was a descendant of Shang refugees. His mother came from a family of shamanic mediums who served as intermediaries between the dead and the living, and who also administered funeral rites. Sima Qian, the great historian who left the most authoritative biography of Confucius, includes this description of his childhood:

Confucius loved “playing house” when he was small. He would always set out on the table wooden blocks and plates used in funerals, and dress up in a way appropriate for ceremonies.[iv]

As a child, Confucius was steeped in religious culture. Yet when he grew up, the Duke of Zhou became his hero. The Duke of Zhou was the brother of King Wu, who defeated the Shang dynasty in 1046 BCE. Because King Wu passed away only a couple of years after his victory, the Duke became the regent of his 13-year-old nephew who had succeeded King Wu. It was the Duke who consolidated the rule of the newly founded dynasty. We could say that the culture of Shang was a culture of the dead, as symbolized by its massive tombs, religious rites, and frequent intoxication. The Duke sought to instill a culture of the living instead, by replacing the “drunken” Dionysian culture of the Shang with a new, “sober” Apollonian culture. Just how greatly he detested the inebriation of the Shang court is evident in the Classic of History, in a section called “The Announcement about Drunkenness.” He sought to dispel the religious madness of the Shang dynasty and introduce a more rational humanism in its place. To do so, he replaced Di, the highest god in Shang mythology, with a more abstract notion of the Mandate of Heaven, which meant something akin to the voice of people.

Confucius descended from the Shang diaspora, but he consciously shed his Shang heritage – just as Jesus shed his Judaic heritage – and identified himself as a subject of Lu, a vassal state where the Duke of Zhou had been enshrined. As the Analects quotes him, “How its culture shines! I will follow the Zhou.”[v] Confucius saw it as his mission to uphold the humanist tradition asdefined and passed down by the Duke. In another passage Confucius confesses, “I must be getting old. It has been so long since I met the Duke of Zhou in my dreams.”[vi] So the Duke must have frequently appeared in his dreams when he was young, just as a long-separated lover might appear in our dreams. In practice, negating the Shang and embracing the Zhou meant demystifying the religious ceremonies he had grown up with. Once Confucius took the shamanic impulses out of the ceremonies, what remained were rites and music. He preserved both, but principally as a means to civilize human society, rather than as a way to soothe spirits. He transformed religious rites into human rites. As his disciple Zheng Shen observed, even funerals and ancestor worships were held primarily for the spiritual benefit of the living, not the dead.[vii]

It would be wrong to say that Confucius denied religion, though. He fully recognized that the need for the divine was an important part of human nature, and he allowed for the possibility that there were mysteries in the universe which one could never fully comprehend. It was just that the “here and now” mattered more to him. After the premature death of Yanhui, his favourite pupil, a disciple asked him about serving spirits. Confucius replied, “While you cannot serve the living properly, how can you serve spirits?” When the same disciple then asked about death, Confucius replied, “When you do not know enough about life, how can you know death?”[viii]

When another disciple asked Confucius about knowledge (in ancient times the term could imply possessing intimate knowledge of the divine), Confucius replied:

True knowledge is to exert one’s efforts to duties of men and, while respecting the spirits, to keep a distance from them.[ix]

Confucius did not bother to counter those who believed in the existence of spirits. What would be the point of arguing over the unknowable? He respected that some people had religious experiences while othersdidn’t, and heleft it at that. Rather, he tried to settle the question of religion by putting a proper distance between men and gods. We find this approach infinitely wiser than that of Nietzsche, who famously declared that “God is dead.” Not only did Nietzsche fail to put God to rest, but he eventually went mad. The modern principle of separation of church and state also refers to the proper distance the government must keep from organized religions.

Another implication of Confucius’s statement is this: those who are too close to the gods (the fanatics) would find it hard to acquire true knowledge because they tend to be stubborn and dogmatic in their beliefs. It is a trap into which many devout practitioners of religion fall – a stance which is not compatible with modern science. What distinguishes an advanced religion from a primitive religion, in our view, is the ability of an advanced religion to keep an open mind and accept criticism. By this criterion, modern Christianity would undoubtedly qualify as an advanced religion.Even the Vatican, which has long maintained the doctrine of papal infallibility,issued many retractions and apologies over the past half century, although bigotry and intolerance persist in extremist fringes.

The astonishingly modern view of religion held by Confucius did not arise out of thin air. Thousands of years before Max Weber spoke of rationalization, secularization and “disenchantment,” the Zhou civilization went through its own version of demystification and demythologisation. Let us illustrate this development with an episode concerningZi Chan, prime minister of the state of Zheng. (Whenever we refer to a “state” in the Spring and Autumn period, it means a vassal state of the Zhou. Confucius was a native of the state of Lu, while Zigong was from the neighbouring state of Wei. By the time of Confucius, the king of Zhou was reduced to irrelevance, and most vassals acted like independent lords.)

According to the Spring and Autumn Annals, a powerful shaman categorically declared in 523 BCE that a great fire would sweep over the state of Zheng. To save the country from the impending disaster, the people of Zheng scrambled to donate treasures to the gods and organize grand rites. The prediction came on the heels of several big fires in neighbouring states, so the panic was understandable. Nevertheless, Zi Chan calmly reassured the people: “The Way of Heaven is far away, and the Way of Man is near. The Way of Heaven is, in fact, too far for us to fathom. How can [a shaman] claim to understand it?” No treasure was donated, no rite was performed, and of course, no fire broke out.

A similar episode features XimenBao, who was appointed provincial governor in the state of Wei. Upon arrival at his post, he gathered farmers to listen to their complaints.In the ensuing discussions, he learned of the practice of human sacrifice. A powerful priestess, three elders, and corrupt bureaucrats conspired to extract religious donations, and they also demanded that a young woman be plunged into a river, supposedly to placate the river god. Ximen went to attend the ritual, accompanied bysoldiers. As soon as the sacrificial victim came forward, Ximen shook his head: “The girl doesn’t look good enough. I will find a better replacement.” He grabbed the priestess and said: “In order not to anger the river god, we should send someone who is closest to him.” Upon his order, the priestess was thrown into the river. He looked around at the disciples of the priestess: “Your master is not coming back. Go search for her.” Then he ordered them thrown into the river, too, followed by the three elders. Finally he turned to the trembling bureaucrats: “It is very strange that the elders are not coming back. Shall we dispatch the bureaucrats who collected donations?” The bureaucrats knelt down and begged for forgiveness.

Zi Chan was a great statesman who enacted the first written code of law in China’s history. XimenBao went on to become court advisor to Marquis Wen of Wei, and he is credited with creating China’s first large-scale irrigation system (obviously without worrying about what the river god might think of his efforts). Both were rationalists who sought to dispel superstition, as these anecdotes demonstrate. Zi Chan was a contemporary of Confucius, while XimenBao came a bit later (he studied under a disciple of Confucius). Confucius, then, was hardly alone in his suspicion of religion, but he probably had the most sophisticated understanding of human nature, including its religiosity, and promulgated a philosophy which could plausibly stand in for organized religion as a guiding principle of human society.

Confucianism as a moral philosophy

While Confucius respected religious sentiments as an essential part of human nature, he clearly did not believe in the existence of a personified god telling us what to do, or punishing us in the afterlife if we did not obey. So what was his source of inner morality? Confucius held that a man who possesses ren cannot help but be moral. That, in essence, is the Confucian theory of morality.

What is ren? While ren is commonly translated as “benevolence” or “humaneness,” its original meaning was closer to “an ability to feel” or “sensibility.” A Chinese-speaking reader might ask, “But how do we know that? Confucius never clearly defined the meaning of ren.” One way is to look up the meaning of bu-ren, the negative form of ren: in Chinese medicine, bu-ren means numbness or paralysis, i.e. the absence of feeling. So we can infer that ren must have originally meant having feeling or sensibility. The analogy with Western languages is striking: sensibility in Greek is aisthēsis, the origin of the word aesthetics. The negative form of aisthēsis is an-aisthēsis, or anesthesia, which means loss of the senses and is also used as a medical term.

ren (ability to feel) bu-ren (numbness, paralysis)
aesthetics (sensibility) anesthesia (general or local insensibility)

How the word ren came to encompass other meanings such as benevolence and humaneness is easy to see, if one thinks of the English term empathy. The word originally came from the German Einfühlung (feeling into) and denotes a capacity to feel what others feel. It is analogous to projection or perspective-taking– the ability to imagine oneself in another’s shoes. The term has become popular, and its meaning has expanded to include new connotations such as “sympathy,”“compassion,” and even “altruistic concern for others.”[x] The implicit assumption here is that identifying with how others feel is closely linked to our beneficence to them.

Since ren is alsoa multifaceted term, we will lay out the concept using several definitions: compassion, aesthetic sensibility, and humaneness.

1. Compassion

A popular illustration of this aspect of ren, often cited by Confucian scholars, appears in the following observation of Mencius, arguably the most important Confucian philosopher besides Confucius himself:

…if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel it, not because they think to gain the favour of the child’s parents, nor in order to seek the praise of neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike of the reputation they might get as having been unmoved by it. From this we may perceive that the feeling of commiseration [i.e. empathy] is essential to men.[xi]

If we see a small girl about to be injured, our instinctive response is to cringe in fear and rush to help her. For Mencius, such compassionate sentiment, based on our sensitivity to others’ pain, forms the basis of our morality. In the passage above, he repeatedly stresses that there is no utilitarian calculation of self-interest involved in the feeling, because his goal is to show that there is something intrinsically good about human nature.

Peter Singer, in The Expanding Circle, points out that the range of human compassion has historically expanded to include increasingly greater numbers of people.[xii] The scope of our unselfish concern can be widened beyond our immediate relations, to the rest of our society, or even to those who live halfway around the world. Although we might not feel the same degree of empathy towards strangers as we do toward our own children, ren, when cultivated this way, could plausibly make us act with decency towards people of a different class, race, or nationality.

2. Aesthetic Sensibility

Compassion based on empathy is a worthy moral sentiment. But the concept of ren as envisioned by Confucius goes deeper. Mencius, born a century after the death of Confucius, was a moralizer who could only comprehend one aspect of ren. Confucius was anything but one-dimensional. He was a free spirit, a jazz artist – we mean it literally, as he was an accomplished musician who compiled the Book of Songs– who improvised at will. Weget a glimpse of his understanding of ren in the following exchange:

A disciple asked Confucius, “If one were to refrain from asserting one’s superiority, boasting about oneself, remembering petty grievances, or acting in greed, would you say such person has ren?” Confucius replied, “All those are difficult to achieve, but I cannot tell from those qualities whether the person has ren or not.”[xiii]

Here Confucius indicates that moral virtues, however desirable they may be, are not enough. One also needs to cultivate aesthetic sensibility, so that one may be able to handle subtle moral issues arising out of complex real-life situations. For Confucius, morality is not about blindly observing a rigid set of rules, but about being able to form appropriate value judgments based on one’s(developed) emotionalresponse to a specific circumstance.

Aesthetic sensibility, on its own, is neither moral nor immoral. But there is a sense in which a person who can truly feel also tends to be moral. It is because the ultimate source of our moral inclination is (if we accept Confucius’s view) our aesthetic impulse. We may postulate that since we all desire beauty, we also pursue nobility in our conduct. Confucian teachings are not a set of commandments telling us what to do. Rather, they are an exhortation to strive for a higher standard in life by honing our sensibility and cultivating good habits. The drive for such self-improvement should be found within our nature, namely the universalhuman desire for aesthetic perfection. To live one’s life in style, with one’s head held high, isa choice any person can make. We can choose to make our lives as beautiful and as nobleas we wish. And we might as well do our utmost to make this society of ours beautiful andnoble, too. Neo-Confucians developed this line of thinking to assert that anyone can, givenone’s choice and efforts, realize the ideal of sagehood.

3. Humaneness

A readermight object that basing moral judgment on ren is dangerous, as it implies there is nosuch thing as an absolute standard of good and evil. What one person likes or dislikes may notbe the same as what another likes or dislikes. Is this not precisely the kind of moral relativismwe have been up against?

We concede that Confucianism does allow for a degree of moral relativism. Philosophically speaking, the Confucian position is that there is no such thing as a universal moral principle which is valid regardless of the context. Is lying always wrong? Kant says one should not lie to a murderer standing outside one’s house, even if the murderer is trying to kill a friend who is hiding inside. This is obviously ridiculous, and it shows the limit of deriving moral principles purely from reason. The “objective” moral standard, from the Confucian viewpoint, consists in the shared emotional response – the shared moral taste, if you will – we have as a society.

Nonetheless, it is very different from moral nihilism, based as it is on the “humaneness” of our moral judgment. Let us demonstrate this point with a familiar example. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, moral judgment according to scripture would unequivocally condemn Hester Prynne as the adulteress and Reverend Dimmesdale as the adulterer. Yet by the time they mount the scaffold together towards the end of the novel, the townspeople have all but forgiven them for whatever sin they may have committed. Confucius would have approved. Below is a well-known exchange from the Analects:

The Duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, “Among us there are those who are verystraight in their conduct. If a father has stolen a sheep, the son will bear witness to the fact.”Confucius replied, “In our part of the country, those who are straight are different. A father covers forhis son, and the son covers forhis father. Straightness is to be found in this.”[xiv]

Here Confucius is teaching us to be human before we are moral. This example is obviously problematic from a societal standpoint, but it does give us a sense of how Confucianism manages to be situational (flexible) and moral at the same time. If we read the passage carefully, we can see there is a subtle difference between the way the Duke and Confucius interpret the term “straight.” For the Duke, it simply means “morally upright.” For Confucius, it refers to the natural emotion a father feels for his son (and vice versa), which comes “straight” from the heart. We forgive Hester and Dimmesdale because the depth of their love, and the sincerity of their atonement, touches our hearts. Such humane morality, however judgmental, is actually quite different from moral relativism (“there is no objective basis of good and evil”) or moral nihilism (“nothing really matters”).

*    *    *

The chief concern of Neo-Confucians, who revived Confucianism during the Song period, was how to restore some sense of moral certainty to the world. If all the extravagant rhetoric of Buddhismand Taoism could not solve simple social problems like bureaucratic corruption and youth crime, what was its social value? That was why Neo-Confucians decided to return to the basics, seeking to reinstate a moral order based on the Confucian teachings of self-cultivation and social realization. The real-world agenda of Zhu Xi, the grand master of Neo-Confucianism, was to ensure that civil servants, who were given wide-ranging discretion in the municipalities they governed, behave responsibly in their jobs. He sought to achieve that goal by seizing on the Confucian idea that there was something fundamentally good about human nature, which could be cultivated to produce exemplary leaders.Although the world has become exponentially more complicated since then,our task is similar. The challenge of modernity is also one of morality. How might we bring back some sense of moral certainty to the world, in this God-deprived age of moral relativism? This passionate call by Mencius offers a clue:

Mencius said, “With those who do violence to themselves, it is impossible to have a meaningful conversation. With those who throw themselves away, it is impossible to do anything together. To disown in his conversation propriety and righteousness– this is what we mean by doing violence to oneself. To say that one is not able to dwell in benevolence or pursue the path of righteousness– this is what we mean by throwing oneself away. Benevolence is the most comfortable house of man, and righteousness is his only straight path.Alas for them, who leave the tranquil dwelling empty and do not reside in it, and who abandon the right path and do not pursue it?”[xv]

Mencius urges us to dwell in benevolence (ren) and pursue righteousness (yi), as they are the keys to leading a meaningful and satisfactory life. Failure to do so is tantamount to hurting oneself. Whatever we do in our lives, let’s not give in to despair and self-abandonment!We see here that for Confucians, morality is not about following a set of rigid rules based on God’s decrees; rather, it involves the active choice of a virtuous life based on an enlightened understanding of human nature.

Confucianism vs. Legalism

As we noted earlier, Mencius maintained that there was something intrinsically good about human nature. Specifically, he said that a“feeling of commiseration” (empathy) constituted the basis of ren. Hsun Tzu, another great philosopher of the Warring States period, disagreed. Consider the following opening of a chapter titled “The Nature of Man is Ugly”:

The nature of man is ugly – his goodness is only acquired through training. The original nature of man today is to seek for gain. If this desire is followed, strife and rapacity results, and the spirit of courtesy dies… Therefore to give rein to man’s original nature, to follow man’s feelings, inevitably results in strife and rapacity… there is reversion to a state of violence.[xvi]

Since it is human nature to “seek for gain,” giving free rein to it would result in “strife and rapacity.” This view resembles that of Thomas Hobbes, who observed in Leviathan that human nature “maketh men invade for gain,” and therefore the state of nature is one of bellum omnium contra omnes (war of every man against every man). Hobbes went on to advocate rule by an absolute sovereign, as only a strong central government was seen as capable of imposing law and order –thus liberating the masses from the state of nature, which he famously described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”Hsun Tzu’s view was much more nuanced, as his emphasis was on the civilizing role played by education, but it was perhaps inevitable that the political philosophy of his followers would lean towards the authoritarian stance of Hobbes.

The most influential students of Hsun Tzu were Han Fei and Li Si. The former expounded the doctrine of Legalism, while the latter implemented it under the aegis of the First Emperor. Legend has it that Han Fei was recruited by the First Emperor (then king of the state of Qin) who was enamoured with his philosophy, but Li Si, feeling threatened in his position, conspired to have Han Fei killed. Obviously there was not much love between these two brilliant classmates. All the same, the policies Li Si carried out as prime minister of the First Emperor faithfully stuck to Han Fei’s doctrine of Legalism.

Han Fei’s thinking went like this: the Confucian ideal of rule by benevolence, desirable as it may sound, is hopeless in practice. How can a ruler judge legal matters based on ambiguous criteria like humaneness (ren)? However good his intentions might be, his rulings would be accused of being partial and subjective. Therefore,a ruler needs a more objective governing principle, which is a clearly defined set of laws. If the ruler metes out rewards and punishments strictly according to the letter of the law, his judgments will be seen as impartial and fair. The ruler applying the law does not have to feel guilty, and the person being punished will not bear any grudges. Why rely on such abstract notions as accepted morality or the goodwill of the people, when the law suffices to maintain the state in order?

Han Fei stressed the impersonal nature of law enforcement. As Joseph Needham notes, “The law should, so to speak, apply itself, and not require the constant interference of the ruler.” There was to be no exception in applying the law, regardless of mitigating circumstances. One story quoted by Han Fei, concerning Prince Chao of the state of Han, is particularly revealing:

The prince, having got drunk and fallen asleep, was exposed to cold, whereupon the crown-keeper put a coat over him. When he awoke, he asked who had covered him, and on being informed, punished the coat-keeper but put the crown-keeper to death [because] the transgression of the duties of an office was worse than mere negligence.[xvii]

It is all rather frightening, isn’t it? Law enforcement was intentionally amoral – in fact, officials were chosen for their “ruthlessness” in applying the law – and the only “virtue” which counted was adherence to the law as laid out by the lawgiving prince. The law had to be designed on the assumption that human beings were selfish. For example, the punishment for soldiers who ran away from battle had to be made worse than dying at the hands of an enemy. Rewards were also strictly performance-based, e.g. military rank depended on the number of enemies slain. The state of Qin was notorious for its severe rules and draconian punishments, which contributed greatly to its military success and eventually brought about the unification of China.

Nevertheless, the Qin dynasty fell apart after only 14 years. Every subsequent dynasty which followed the Qin consciously abandoned Legalism and embraced Confucianism. Why? We find a clue in the following passage of the Analects:

If people are led by laws, and order maintained by punishments, they will only try to avoid the punishment, with no sense of shame.If peopleare led by virtue, and ordermaintained by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will have principles.[xviii]

Here Confucius is saying that inner morality, which he calls “the sense of shame,” matters. If a ruler leads only with rewards and punishments (assuming the worst about human nature), then people will merely try to avoid breaking the law, with no sense of right or wrong. If, on the other hand, a ruler leads by high-minded principles (appealing to the better angels of our nature), then people will behave quite decently on their own.

Ultimately, it is the collective goodness of citizens which holds a society together, not the written statutes. What happened during the final days of the Qin dynasty is clear: as soon as the leadership began showing cracks, generals and local officials were all too ready to defect, as their obedience was built not on any real allegiance to the regime, but on fear of punishment. The glorious empire of Qin, which had produced the Great Wall and the Terracotta army, crumbled like a sand castle.The Qin dynasty is admittedly an extreme example, but it should warn us of the dangers of a purely incentive-based system which is agnostic ofthe moral character of its participants.

Failures of Confucianism

No introduction to Confucianism would be complete without discussing where Confucianism went wrong historically, and why. It starts with the problematic notion of filial piety, which has long been regarded as the supreme virtue in Chinese culture.

As adults we tend to forget, but love for one’s parents is the primal emotion of a human being. Freud claimed infantile sexual experiences formed the basis of later psychological development. In contrast, Confucius regarded the attachment to one’s parents as the foundation of emotional growth. In a controversial Japanese TV drama called Mother (2009), the heroine, who has decided to “abduct” a horribly abused child and become her surrogate mother, makes this insightful observation: “We all say a mother’s love is the most unconditional love of all. But the truly unconditional love is the love a child gives to one’s parents.” A child does not care whether his parents are nice or mean, rich or poor, handsome or ugly. The child is always eager to please them and desires nothing in the world more than being loved back.

Parental love is just as deep. Here is another moving line from Mother: “Happiness is when you could love someone like your own life.” Only a parent could say that. When a young man asks Confucius about filial piety, he replies, “Parents only worry over a child’s illness.”[xix] Anybody who has raised a child will sympathize with this sentiment. When a child is healthy, parenthood is filled with rosy happiness. But when a child becomes seriously ill, the whole world turns dark with despair. Parents cast aside everything else and devote themselves to the child’s recovery. When parents tell their children “Just stay healthy,” they mean it literally and sincerely.

Given the above, it was only natural that Confucius regarded filial piety as the quintessential expression of ren and promoted the virtue of caring for one’s parents. Confucius held that individuals who treated their parents with proper respect and care would also behave responsibly in society, and no doubt there is some truth to it. What he did not teach, however, was blind obedience. Note the following passage from the Analects:

Lord Meng asked about filial piety. Confucius replied, “Don’t contradict.” On his way back, Confucius told Fanxu [a disciple who doubled as his carriage driver], “Meng asked me about filial piety, but I just said ‘Don’t contradict.’”Fanxu asked, “What did you mean by that?” Confucius replied, “It means to serve one’s parents with manners when they are alive, and to bury and commemorate them with manners when they pass away.”[xx]

The dynamism of this short exchange is hard to convey, but let us try: Meng was one of the three powerful lords in the state of Lu. When Confucius was called in to give him counsel, he saw little choice but to oblige, but the old sage was not pleased to be ordered around in such a manner. So when Meng asked him about filial piety, he replied curtly: “Don’t contradict.” Then, on his way back, he began to feel uneasy. Undoubtedly Meng would have understood his answer in the conventional sense, as in “Don’t disobey your parents.” But filial piety surely cannot mean blind obedience. If a father teaches his son to steal, should the son obey and become a thief? Suddenly Confucius realized the need to redefine his words.

When your parents’ order goes against your values, youcan and should disagree. But there is an important caveat: even when you disagree, you should do so with manners. Many young people are confused about this point, but you don’t have to be rude to your parents to assert your opinion. Here Confucius is teaching us that the key attribute of filial piety is not blind obedience butbeing respectful. Another passage makes this point clearer: “In serving your parents, you have to advise them delicately. Even if they don’t follow your advice, respect them and do not contradict. Even when it is painful to do so, you should not be angry with them.”[xxi] When you clash with your parents on an important matter, arguing logically often leads nowhere, as the differences are likely emotional rather than rational. The better way is to resolve it gradually, by showing respect and giving it time.

Unfortunately, such subtle nuances were all but lost on the followers of Confucius. Filial piety increasingly became a repressive set of protocols governing social behaviour. Unquestioning obedience to elders, especially one’s father, was upheld as a supreme virtue and enshrined in law. See, for example, the following legal discussion from a Qin period document (around 217 BCE), excavated from a tomb in Yunmeng county, Hubei province:

Suppose a retired old man comes to the court, accusing his son of not being filial, and requesting the death penalty. Normally the death penalty requires three careful deliberations. Should this case be deliberated three times? That will be unnecessary. Execute the son right away, so that no such behaviour may ever escape punishment.

This is a terrible law. Nevertheless, such legal tradition survived in China throughout history. Even if a father killed his child, the court would not consider it a crime. The authority of the father became so absolute that a father no longer inspired love and respect, but rather instilled fear and submission. Rewards were given to so-called filial children, and memorials were built in their honour. Those who were labelled “unfilial,” on the other hand, were ostracized and often dealt extreme punishments. This line of thinking originated from the Classic of Filial Piety, which states: “There are three thousand offences against which the five punishments are directed, and thereis not one of them greater than being unfilial.”[xxii]

The Classic of Filial Piety, although it is attributed to a conversation between Confucius and his disciple Zheng Shen, was most probably created by an unknown author in the third century BCE,towards the end of the Warring States period. It has dominated Chinese society ever since. The book was the first to be canonized among the Thirteen Classics of Confucianism. In some ways, it was even more influential than the Analects. Various rulers, ranging from Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang to Emperor Kangxi of the Qing, have annotated and promulgated it. Why?

The Warring States period, as the name implies, was characterized by bloody wars of conquest. Intellectuals began yearning for a powerful emperor who would bring peace to China, just as Machiavelli dreamed of a prince who would unite Italy in the sixteenth century. It was this vision of an orderly empire which propelled the unnamed author to pen the Classic of Filial Piety. The defining feature of the book is the parallel the author draws between obedience to the father and loyalty to the ruler: “As common men serve their fathers, sothey serve their rulers, and they revere them equally.”[xxiii] By equating natural respect for one’s father with reverence to the ruler, the author sought to give an emotional foundation to the imperial rule.

What underlay both loyalty and filial piety (as construed by the author) was a strong sense of vertical hierarchy, as the chapter structure of the book demonstrates.

Chapter 1 The Scope and Meaning of the Treatise
Chapter 2 Filial Piety in the Son of Heaven [i.e. emperor]
Chapter 3 Filial Piety in the Princes of States
Chapter 4 Filial Piety in High Ministers and Great Officers
Chapter 5 Filial Piety in Inferior Officers
Chapter 6 Filial Piety in Common People

This vision of social hierarchy turned out to be all too convenient for subsequent rulers. Just as sons obeyed their fathers, common men were to obey officers, who in turn took orders from their ministers, and so on, until it culminated in the Son of Heaven. Confucius would never have dreamed that the filial piety of an emperor should be any different from that of common men. Yet his philosophy had somehow been used to justify the absolutist rule of an emperor from the Han dynasty onward, in the same manner that the teachings of Jesus were distorted to legitimize the authority of Roman emperors, and subsequently, the Vatican.

Just as Christianity should go back to the original teachings of Jesus, Confucianism must also rediscover the non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian spirit of Confucius. If you read the Analects, you see that Confucius was the most unassuming man there ever was, who often highlighted his own failings to encourage his followers. There was not a hint of authority about him.[xxiv] He readily admitted mistakes.[xxv] He treated a blind music teacher with just as much courtesy as he would accord a prince.[xxvi] Nor did he submit to undue authority in others. Although he was of humble origin, he never flinched from challenging the most powerful men of his time.[xxvii] As Hsun Tzu memorably puts it, “To follow the Way, not the king; to follow Righteousness, not the father; this is called the great conduct of man.”[xxviii]

During the last century, it was fashionable to blame Confucianism for various ills of pre-modern China: familism, authoritarianism, passivity, submission, and stagnation. Our discussion here serves to show that the charges were not entirely unfounded. In recent years the Chinese government has established hundreds of “Confucian Institutes” worldwide and Korea has also seen the revival of private Confucian academies, known as seowon. We see them as a broadly positive trend, but we also worry about the potential of such movements to condone reactionary values such as rigid hierarchy and unquestioning obedience. Those of us in the East need to ask ourselves: Do we really want to go back to the days when seniors could beat up their juniors with impunity, a practice which used to be common in our schools and barracks? Or bring back a society where our “rulers” would look down upon citizens as their “subjects”? We must not romanticize the past but rather acknowledge the real and great benefits which modernization has brought. Only then can we bring Confucianism back to life, so that it may once again become a force for human progress.


[i]Ian Morris,Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (London: Profile Books, 2010) p. 212

[ii]Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, Annals of the Shang Dynasty

[iii]Morris, p.213

[iv]Sima Qian, Genealogies, House of Confucius

[v]Analects, 3-14

[vi]Ibid., 7-5

[vii]See, for example, Analects, 1-9

[viii]Analects, 11-11

[ix]Ibid, 6- 20

[x]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (London: Allen Lane, 2011), p. 574

[xi]Mencius, translation by Legge, Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 6

[xii]Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Vintage, 1995), p. 372

[xiii]Analects, 14-2

[xiv]Ibid, 13-18

[xv]Mencius, 4a-10

[xvi]Hsun Tzu, Chapter 23, translation based on the works of H. H. Dubs and Cheng Chih-I, quoted from Needham, pp. 19-20

[xvii]Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 2, History of Scientific Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1991),p. 207

[xviii]Analects, 2-3

[xix]Ibid., 2-6

[xx]Ibid., 2-5

[xxi]Ibid., 4-18

[xxii]The Hsiao King, orClassic of Filial Piety, translation by Legge, chapter 11

[xxiii]Ibid., chapter 5

[xxiv]See, for example, Analects, 3-15, 5-14, 7-23, and 9-6

[xxv]Ibid., 7-30

[xxvi]Ibid., 15-41

[xxvii]Ibid., 12-17

[xxviii]Hsun Tzu, 29-2


Excerpted from excerpted from The Great Equal Society : Confucianism, China and the 21st Century by Young-oak Kim and Jung-kyu Kim with kind permission of the publishers.
About the Authors:
Young-oak Kim is widely considered the leading public intellectual in Korea. He has written many books on Eastern philosophy and social issues (all in Korean) including Lao Tzu and the 21st Century, Conversations with the Dalai Lama, and What Is Woman?, the bestselling social science book of all time in Korea. All in all, his books have sold over 2.5m copies to date. A series of his lectures on Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have aired on national networks and garnered unprecedented ratings. He received a bachelor’s degree from Korea University, department of philosophy, where he later served as a tenured professor. He received advanced degrees from the National Taiwan University, the University of Tokyo and Harvard University.
Jung-kyu Kim serves as director of ACA Investments, a private equity firm headquartered in Singapore. He has advised investments in various sectors including clean technology, media, IT, and healthcare, and chaired and spoken at several regional private equity conferences. He is also a trilingual writer who has published works in English, Korean and Japanese. He started his career at the Tokyo office of McKinsey & Company as a management consultant. He received a B.A. in Government from Harvard University and an MBA from INSEAD. He also studied Chinese classics under Young-oak.

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71 Comments on "A Short Introduction to Confucianism"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Feb 10, 2014 at 12:34 pm |

    pretty long short intro
    here’s the gist of it
    Confucius wanted to preserve Chinese cultural values
    which he preceived as passing away 2500ish years ago
    his ideas devolved into a system of beliefs & core values
    centered on family & kingdom values
    over time his ideas harded into various systems of thought
    based on interprations of his ideas
    and have been used to govern China for thousands of years

    the great novel Dream of the Red Mansion (Story of the Stone)
    shows how that system worked 200 years ago

    two earlier systems of Chinese thought
    based on the I Ching & the Tao Te Ching
    are much more obscure & somewhat more difficult to comprehend
    by those cuaght in the web of Confusian thought

    • I’m glad I passed on reading the article to read the comments instead.

      • kowalityjesus | Feb 10, 2014 at 6:06 pm |

        you definitely missed some good stuff. I think one of the most interesting concepts is

        “While you cannot serve the living properly, how can you serve spirits?”

        “When you do not know enough about life, how can you know death?”

        “True knowledge is to exert one’s efforts to duties of men and, while respecting the spirits, to keep a distance from them.”

        • Calypso_1 | Feb 10, 2014 at 6:20 pm |

          when serving the living, one should start with plants before people.

          • kowalityjesus | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:10 pm |

            what are you talking about, agriculture? psychoactives?

          • Calypso_1 | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:26 pm |

            if you can’t care for a plant you might not want to try people.

          • kowalityjesus | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:35 pm |

            How did you know I have a struggling wandering jew and poinsetta in my front room? foiled again.

          • No animal companion interim?

          • How many people are there that “love” their pets, yet couldn’t be assed to care about the neighbor down the street?

            Kind of difficult to project ego issues or what have you on a plant, if you ask me. Though there was that one time on shrooms with the christmas tree…

          • Clint Eastwood can project on chairs.

          • Calypso_1 | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:53 pm |

            i was including them with people.

          • Just making sure, because plant to people is a jump .

            Also Dolphins… Because!

          • Calypso_1 | Feb 10, 2014 at 8:29 pm |

            oh i often think in terms of plant people.

          • Like in the crowd to support a caller, snake oil salesman, and con men? Or like the Swamp Thing?

          • Calypso_1 | Feb 10, 2014 at 10:08 pm |

            like in plants that are entities without any anthropomorphizing of form.

          • Ah, I took that into the abstract. Or maybe you meant something abstract. Like Aya or something. I am confused.

        • I know plenty about life already, thanks.

          I did wind up scanning parts of this voluminous tome and it seems to be a sales pitch from Eastern elites to Western elites about how to rule.

          • kowalityjesus | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:09 pm |

            check this bit out, as referenced by American Cannibal
            only an ass thinks he is done learning

          • when did I say I was done learning?

            You know what they say about assumptions…

          • kowalityjesus | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:15 pm |

            when you implied that you don’t need to know any more about life: I would spell it “assu” haha 🙂

          • Keep on target there, sport.

            We were discussing Confucianism, remember? Unless you’re somehow equating life with confucianism, I think I’m in the clear…

          • American Cannibal | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:28 pm |

            Nah, no clearance.

            You rejected foundational Eastern texts because, as a Westerner, you claim to know what life is all about already. So why bother, right? Just leave half the planet’s earliest wisdom uncovered as you muddle through in Civilization. You are superior -congrats. Gold Star 4 U.

          • … eventually the reply I posted will leave Mod Purgatory …

          • Somewhere Paul Weller is crying.


          • I don’t know that I agree with the sentiment of that song…

            As long as a body isn’t cremated, something somewhere will be “drinking” it very soon…

          • I was looking for a theme related to purgatory within Paul Weller’s body of work. It’s the best I could find without spending too much time. But yes, *sings* the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.

          • Generally not a lyrics person, so may have missed that in listening…

          • Well, someone has to die to go to the speculative purgatory.

          • Seriously, you’ve never heard the hearse song?


          • Possibly, when I was a youngin’. I didn’t recognize the tune though.

            The acoustic version reminds me of Comus though. Very cool.

          • Wow, how have I not heard of Comus? This is fantastic.

          • Because he’s the King of Mod.

          • Ah, I can see the whole thing now. I knew I was missing some context.

            Wasn’t Paul Weller the Style Council dude?

          • What, I don’t know that? *whoosh*

          • I was just being lazy and didn’t want to google it. But in answer to my own question, then yes’m, yes he is.

            Forgot about him being in The Jam until you mentioned Mod though. I’d imagine I’m probably one of the few individuals that would associate Weller with Style Council before The Jam.

          • I have not delved into his earlier work yet.

          • And you posted one of his songs on the interwebz without knowing everything about him!?!?!?! wtf!?!?!11~!?~?!?!?~13212#!#

            Forshame, echar!!! You are not the disinfo poster I thought you were!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

          • I was just reading the Style Council wiki, however you are right. I have let myself down, Walls Come Crumbling Down!

          • I will give you a pass, just this once, if you answer my questions three.

            question the first: what is thy name?

            question the second: what is thy quest?

            question the third: what is the air speed velocity of an african swallow? (no google)

          • I cannot answer the 3rd without checking google, or any other search engine. No pass for me.

          • You get…

          • not cool!

          • It was that or “Troll eats you.”

            Surprisingly, I didn’t find a good picture of a troll eating anything during a quick google image search. But squirrel-spider saved the day.

          • I suppose so. *shifts awkwardly in chair

          • This will ease the discomfort some…

          • Ÿ Ÿ

          • This one time, it just came out as: ¨
            which I had taken to be an umlaut, but apparently it is a diaeresis

          • Unapproved!? WTF!?!? How can I get a proper zing without my media attachment!?!?!?


            Anyways, when did I reject a foundational Eastern text?

            Timeline of Events:


            I’m glad I passed on reading the article to read the comments instead.

            Not Me:

            you definitely missed some good stuff. I think one of the most interesting concepts is

            “While you cannot serve the living properly, how can you serve spirits?”

            “When you do not know enough about life, how can you know death?”

            “True knowledge is to exert one’s efforts to duties of men and, while respecting the spirits, to keep a distance from them.”


            I know plenty about life already, thanks.

            I did wind up scanning parts of this voluminous tome and it seems to be a sales pitch from Eastern elites to Western elites about how to rule.


          • American Cannibal | Feb 12, 2014 at 8:00 am |

            Too loooong, too sloooowww…yet, oh zoo savvy. Sassy? Mmmhmmm…

    • kowalityjesus | Feb 10, 2014 at 3:08 pm |

      could one draw a rough analogy in the spiritualism vs natural philosophy of China to that of ancient Greece?

      Confucious: I Ching and Tao Te Ching as Plato/Aristotle: the Oracle of Delphi

      • Maybe if you’d gone with Pythagoras instead of the Oracle of Delphi, I could sanction that you attempted a rough analogy.

        • kowalityjesus | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:07 pm |

          I don’t see the connection, and I don’t accept your unsubstantiated authority

          • “I don’t see the connection, and I don’t accept your unsubstantiated authority”


          • kowalityjesus | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:14 pm |

            I am writhing in mystery. Perhaps you would like to support your critique with some kind of reference or would you like to remain cryptic.

          • Read the wiki entry on Pythagoras.

            I was not the one who downvoted your post, fyi…

          • kowalityjesus | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:17 pm |

            ok, I will spell it “assume” now hahaha, still I could have used less of a lazy critique

          • Please do that. It suits you. 🙂

      • BuzzCoastin | Feb 11, 2014 at 2:23 am |

        confucious, lao tzu, buddha, heraclitus
        may have contempoaries
        delphi, the I ching & the hindu vedas
        preceded them
        upanishads, buddhism, taoism, plato, aristotle
        500 years later
        more or less, kinda sorta

  2. Liam_McGonagle | Feb 10, 2014 at 1:16 pm |

    You’re fighting an uphill battle if you want to get support for a philosophy called “Confusionism”.

  3. I’d hate to read the long introduction…

    • I’d pass on the book then, if I were you…

      • That was never going to be an issue… 😉

        Besides, everything I needed to know about Confucianism was already neatly summed up in one of the early chapters of ‘The Tao of Pooh’. 🙂

  4. That is awful in the best possible way.

    • Thanks, that’s what I was going for. =)

      Always a little dicey to take something like that so removed from context. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

      • And he’s black. The comedy in that one is intricate.

        • Are you new to the joy that is Chappelle’s Show? It was two seasons of brilliance.

          • I didn’t have access to tv at the time. I’ve seen some of his characters around. The “fuck yo’ couch” guy, the crack fiend, and the Prince bit.

          • I’m pleased to have introduced you to Clayton Bigsby, the black white supremacist.

            It was a real loss for high culture when Chappelle thought he’d lost control of the show and decided to pull the plug.

          • I thought he had a moral conflict with how he was portraying African Americans. Or is that what you meant by losing control of the show?

          • To my understanding, it didn’t really become an “issue” until the third season was in production. And I think it had less to do with the portrayal of African Americans than the overall reliance/usage of stereotypes racial and otherwise.

            Comedy Central did release some of the completed segments from the third season, and from what I saw something had gone horribly wrong, besides being generally unfunny.

          • I see, thank you.

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