BRIA 24 2 c The Development of Confucianism in Ancient China

Bill of Rights in Action
FALL 2008 (Volume 24, No. 2)


How Political Parties Began  |    Making it Easier to Vote vs. Guarding Against Election Fraud  |    The Development of Confucianism in Ancient China  

The Development of Confucianism in Ancient China

Confucius spent most of his life traveling throughout China, teaching about the importance of duty, ritual, and virtue. He taught that a ruler must set an example to inspire people to strive for a moral life. Years after he died, students assembled his teachings into a book, the Analects, and a new school of thought developed—Confucianism. This philosophy deeply influenced China throughout most of its history.

A series of dynasties, or ruling families, governed China for centuries. The first great dynasty was the Shang, which ruled much of China for about 400 years. The next dynasty was the Zhou. The Zhou Dynasty clung to power for about 800 years—from 1027 to 256 B.C. But it ruled in name only for the last 500 years. Barbarian tribes attacked, and the Zhou Dynasty eventually had to move its capital. Dropping their loyalty to the Zhou Dynasty, nobles battled one another for control of parts of China.

During this disorderly and dangerous time, Chinese society was falling apart. As the decline of the Zhou Dynasty continued, wars increased. To provide for the wars, rulers imposed high taxes, impressed men into military service, and left women and older men tending the fields. Food was often scarce, and people sometimes starved. It was a time of great insecurity.

It was also a time of great intellectual ferment. Many thinkers came up with ideas for building a better society. So many ideas were in the air that the so-called Hundred Schools of Thought arose, each trying to influence rulers and change society. It was the golden age of Chinese philosophy. The four most important schools of thought were Daoism, Mohism, Legalism, and Confucianism.

Confucianism was the first, and ultimately most influential, of all the schools. It recommended healing Chinese society by returning to the traditions of the early Zhou Dynasty.

Another school was Daoism. Daoists advised returning to a simpler time, more in tune with nature. According to legend, the founder of Daoism grew so disenchanted that he left China, leaving behind the school’s basic text, the Dao De Jing (The Book of the Way and Its Power). This poetic work urges rulers to be fair and gentle and not pass too many laws: "When the government is relaxed, the people are relaxed."

A third school was Mohism, named after its founder Mo Zi (470–c. 391 B.C.). It rejected Confucian and Daoist calls to return to the past. Mohists believed in loving all people equally and helping the common people. They thought people should live simply. A ruler should promote the economy and avoid offensive wars. They viewed music, tradition, and luxuries as wasteful or frivolous.

A final school was Legalism. The Legalists believed all the other schools were impractical. The way to get order was to create a code of strict laws, make the code public, and reward those who obeyed the laws and harshly punish those who broke them.

Confucius (551–479 B.C.)

The founder of Confucianism was a man named Kong Qi. He later was known as Kong Fuzi, or Master Kong. In the West, he is called Confucius. He was born in 551 B.C. in northeastern China in the state of Lu. (Lu is today part of China’s Shandong Province.)

Confucius lived a simple life, spending most of his time as a teacher. Only a few facts are known about his life. But because he is considered one of the greatest Chinese thinkers, many stories have arisen about him.

His family was poor, and his father died when he was 3. His mother taught him, and he studied hard. By 15, he decided to spend his life learning. He read and studied classic Chinese works.

When he started teaching, Confucius quickly attracted a band of loyal students. He said he taught anyone who came to him "from the very poorest upward . . . no one has ever come to me without receiving instruction."

He is called the "First Teacher" in China. Before Confucius, rich people had hired tutors to teach their children. Confucius did not think learning should just be for the rich. He believed every man in China should learn. He saw teaching as a way to improve people’s lives and change society.

When he was about 50, he was appointed to work in the government of Lu. He wanted to apply his ideas to make society better. He was soon made the minister of justice, but Confucius saw that those above him did not like his ideas. So he left.

He spent the next 12 years traveling around China looking for a ruler who would listen to his ideas. He never found one. His students, however, continued to follow him. When he was 67, he returned to Lu and continued teaching and studying five Chinese books, known as the Five Classics. They are:

1. Book of Changes (Yi Jing). This poetic text describes two opposite, but complementary forces of life—yin and yang. This ancient book was frequently used to divine the future or guide actions. Both Confucian and Daoist thinkers adopted it as part of their philosophy.

2. Book of History (Shu Jing) contains official documents dating far back in Chinese history.

3. Book of Poetry (Shi Jing). Confucius said: "In the Book of Poetry there are 300 poems. But the essence of them can be expressed in one sentence: ‘Have no depraved ideas.’ "

4. Book of Rituals (Li Ji) details the ceremonies and rituals of the Zhou Dynasty.

5. Spring and Autumn Annals (Lin Jing) chronicles the history of the state of Lu from 722 to 479 B.C., the year Confucius died. Written in spare prose, it follows important events in the government.

Confucius also studied a sixth classic, the Book of Music (Yue Jing). Confucius considered music essential to life. But this work has not survived. Controversy surrounds each of the other texts: Who wrote it? When was it written? Who wrote the commentaries on the text?

Confucius claimed he merely "transmitted" the teachings of the classics. But his interpretations of the classics created a new school of thought in China. The Five Classics (except for the Yi Jing) became the sole province of Confucianism. Other schools of thought created their own works.

Confucius died in 479 B.C. Many years after his death, his students (or the students of his students) wrote down Confucius’ teachings in a book called the Lun Yu. In English, this book is usually called the Analects. It has hundreds of short passages. Most of what we know about Confucius comes from this source.


Confucius highly valued the past. He wanted people to adopt ancient truths. By adopting them, he believed society would return to peace and harmony.

Confucius emphasized several basic ideas. The most important one is ren. It is made up of the Chinese characters meaning "man" and "two," showing the connection of humans to one another. Ren is what makes a person human and life worth living. It can be translated as "humaneness" or "goodness." The goal of everyone should be to achieve ren. Confucius calls a person who achieves ren a "superior person," "ideal person," or "sage." To become a superior person, a person must do the right things.

One of the right things is yi, doing one’s duties. Confucius saw everyone as having a duty to everyone else. When asked for a single idea to guide a person’s actions, he answered, "What about fairness? What you don’t like done to yourself, don’t do to others."

Confucius talked about duties in unequal relationships: parents and children, elder child and younger child, husband and wife, brother and sister, older friend and younger friend, teacher and student, ruler and subjects. In each relationship, the higher-ranking person must take care of the lower-ranking person. In turn, the lower-ranking person must obey and honor the higher-ranking person. For example, parents should treat their children well and carefully raise them. Children should obey and be loyal to their parents.

Everyone should play his role properly: "Let the ruler be a ruler, the minister a minister, the father a father, and the son a son." When people perform their role properly, society runs smoothly. When they don’t, it falls apart.

Another part of the superior person is de, virtue or moral force. Confucius said: "The superior person cares about virtue (de). The inferior person cares about things."

Ritual (li) was also important. Rituals were not meant to be empty gestures, but the means for expressing ren, yi, and de. Confucius said: "If a man be without humaneness (ren), what value is ritual (li)?"

Ritual can mean ceremonies. It also includes the actions of everyday life: greeting people, talking, asking for favors, saying goodbye. Rituals are the correct forms for action, and they work magic. This may sound strange, but think about the magic words "please" and "excuse me" and their power. For example, you can move someone much larger than yourself by simply saying, "Excuse me." Confucius saw rituals as the way to make society run smoothly.

Confucius believed that rulers did not need to use force to return harmony to society. Confucius said: "If you govern them by means of virtue (de) and keep order among them by ritual (li), people will gain their own sense of shame and correct themselves."

Confucius sought to restore the harmony and order that he believed prevailed in the state of Zhou hundreds of years before. Confucius taught that the ideal ruler during this time was the duke of Zhou, the brother of the king. When the king died, the duke ruled until the king’s son reached adulthood.

According to Confucius, the duke thought of the needs of his people first and led the Zhou Dynasty into a period of peace and prosperity. Confucius concluded that the duke’s success was due not to his military prowess but to his moral virtue, which set a good example for his people. "The moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends."

Confucius believed that the abandonment of virtue among rulers since that time had resulted in the lack of morality that he saw all around him.

Confucius taught that rulers had a sacred responsibility to rule virtuously. This meant ruling with self-discipline, attention to the ancient rituals, and putting the welfare and happiness of his subjects first. Ruling in this fashion, Confucius said, set an example of moral goodness for all others to follow.

Based on his study of the Five Classics, Confucius believed that the people would naturally follow and support the virtuous ruler without the need for harsh laws and punishments. Such a ruler would act like the duke of Zhou and the other "sage-kings" who first created the harmonious moral society that Confucius wanted to restore.

Mencius (371–289 B.C.): The Defender of Confucianism

A century after Confucius died, life in China had gotten even worse. States assembled huge armies and were constantly at war with one another. The debate among the Hundred Schools continued. A new voice arose to defend Confucianism.

Meng Zi (known in the West as Mencius) was born in 371 B.C. Growing up in a small state neighboring Confucius’ home state, he studied the Five Classics and the Analects to become a Confucian scholar. Like Confucius, he traveled from one state to another, teaching and holding government offices.

Mencius talked with many state rulers. He sought to find one who would put the needs of the people first. He grew impatient when the rulers seemed interested only in personal pleasures and military glory. After 40 years of travel, he returned home to teach and write for the rest of his life.

Mencius adopted the teachings of Confucius, but he put forward new ideas on economics, government, and human nature. Like Confucius, he claimed he was a transmitter. But like Confucius, he was creating new interpretations.

He made specific proposals on agriculture. He believed that eight families should farm a square of nine fields. The families will help one another and "live in affection and harmony." Each family will have its own field but first must work the center field. The produce from the center field will go to the ruler. "If the seasons for farming are not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten."

Confucius never addressed human nature in detail. Mencius, however, taught that all humans were born for goodness. He illustrated his point by telling the story of how anyone seeing a child about to fall into a well would feel alarmed. Mencius argued:

The feeling of compassion [toward the child] is the beginning of humaneness (ren). The feeling of shame is the beginning of dutifulness (yi). The feeling of modesty and yielding is the beginning of ritual (li). The sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.

Mencius believed that all these feelings are naturally within us, but they need to be developed. He thought the feelings of goodness were weak, and a person’s baser desires could easily overwhelm them. After all, he saw examples of selfishness and immoral behavior everywhere. Mencius concluded: "Those who follow the part of themselves that is great are great men, and those who follow the part of themselves that is small are small men."

If people developed their good nature, society would greatly benefit. But Mencius did not argue that people should develop it for this reason. Instead, they should develop it because it is what makes us human:

Man differs from the birds and beasts only slightly. Most people cast aside what makes us different. The superior person preserves it.

Mencius believed that a ruler should be an example to his people and help them develop their humaneness (ren). The ideal ruler would be a sage. People would be drawn to him, love him, and support him. He would never have to fear rebellion or military defeat.

The ideal ruler would put the people first. According to Mencius:

The people are to be valued most, the state of the grain and the land next, the ruler least. Hence winning the favor of the common people you become emperor. . . .

In a radical twist to Confucianism, Mencius introduced the idea that if any ruler acted as a tyrant and oppressed his people, the people had the right to revolt and even kill him. He justified this by arguing that a tyrant was not acting like a ruler. Therefore, he was not a ruler. When Mencius was asked whether it is ever permissible to murder a ruler, he replied:

One who robs humaneness (ren) is called a robber; one who robs duties (yi) is called a wrecker; and one who robs and wrecks is called an outlaw. I have heard that the outlaw Zhou [a tyrannical ruler] was put to death. I have not heard that this was murdering a ruler.

Mencius never found a ruler who acted on Confucian virtues. After Mencius died in 289 B.C., his disciples assembled the Book of Mencius on his teachings. It later became another classic work of Confucianism.

The End of the Hundred Schools

The Hundred Schools, the golden age of Chinese philosophy, ended when the ruler of the state of Qin conquered all the other states. He became the "First Emperor" of a united China. Adopting the Legalist philosophy, Emperor Shi Huangdi headed a brutal regime of strict laws and harsh punishments. He outlawed and burned the classic books. He ordered all scholars except Legalists buried alive.

The Qin Dynasty was short-lived and ended in a violent revolt. The new Han Dynasty restored Confucianism and made it the official thought system of the Chinese Empire. The Han established a large government bureaucracy operated by Confucian scholars. They gained their positions by taking difficult civil service examinations based on the Five Classics, the Analects, the Book of Mencius, and other works.

Confucianism Through the Centuries

For centuries, Confucianism went in and out of favor in China. By the beginning of the Song Dynasty in A.D. 960, Daoism and Buddhism, a religion originating in India, were gaining popularity over Confucianism. A new movement of scholars, however, revived the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. The greatest Neo-Confucian scholar was Zhu Xi (1130–1200). He called on the Song emperor to set a proper moral example and thus end the widespread corruption that was weakening his empire. Angry advisors to the emperor struck back by labeling Zhu and other Neo-Confucians a "rebel clique of false learning."

A hundred years later, however, the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty made Zhu’s own interpretations of Confucianism mandatory reading for the civil service exams. Zhu’s influence on the exams for government service remained until 1905 when the Qing Dynasty abandoned them. The Qing was the last Chinese imperial dynasty. After a revolution replaced it with a republic in 1912, the new leaders rejected Confucianism because its focus on the past ignored 20th century science, technology, and democracy.

Following the Communist takeover of China in 1949, Mao Zedong attempted to root out all remnants of Confucianism. He viewed its emphasis on the wisdom of the ancient sages as a threat to Communism’s own "sages": Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and himself.

Today’s Chinese Communist leaders have adopted Confucianism’s elusive ideal of a harmonious society as their own goal. After 2,500 years, the ideas of Confucius are still alive in China.

For Discussion and Writing

1. What was life like in China during the declining years of the Zhou Dynasty?

2. What were the main ideas that Confucius and Mencius believed in? Which do you think were most important? Why?

3. Confucius said: "Let the ruler be a ruler, the minister a minister, the father a father, and the son a son." What did he mean by this?

4. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) said: "Man is a political animal." What does this mean? Would Confucius or Mencius agree or disagree with Aristotle? Why? Do you agree with him? Why?

For Further Reading

Loden, Torbjorn. Rediscovering Confucianism. Folkstone, Kent, UK: Global Oriental, 2006.

Waley, Arthur, trans. The Analects of Confucius. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1945.


A Dialog With Philosophers

In this activity, students will get the chance to examine some famous quotations from political philosophers from different eras.

1. Form small groups of four or five students.

2. Assign each group one of the five quotations below.

3. Each group should do the following:

a. Discuss and answer these questions:

(1) What does the quotation mean?

(2) Would Confucius or Mencius agree or disagree with the quotation?

(3) Do you agree with the quotation?

b. Be prepared to report your answers to the class and your reasons for them. Cite material from the reading, if possible, when answering question #2.


1. "It is better [for a ruler] to be feared than loved . . . ."
From The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (A.D. 1469–1527), Italian political philosopher

2. Those who "are subjects to a monarch cannot . . . cast off monarchy and return to the confusion of a disunited multitude; nor [can they] transfer . . . to another man, [or] other assembly of men: for they are bound . . . [to the monarch]."
—From Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (A.D. 1588–1679), English political philosopher

3. "The extension of women’s rights is the basic principle of all social progress." From Theory of the Four Movements by Charles Fourier (A.D. 1772–1837), French political philosopher

4. "It is not human nature we should accuse but the despicable conventions that pervert it."
—From On Dramatic Poetry by Denis Diderot (A.D. 1713–1784), French philosopher

5. "The rulers of the state are the only ones who should have the privilege of lying, whether at home or abroad; they may be allowed to lie for the good of the state."
—From The Republic by Plato (c. 428–c. 347 B.C.), Greek philosopher


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