What is Confucianism?

Confu1Kong Qiu famously known as Confucius was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher of the approximately until 403 BC which is also called the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history which corresponds roughly to the first half of the Eastern  Zhou dynasty. This period can also be described further as a golden era because the concept of morality was established and practiced. Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. His followers competed successfully with many other schools during the Hundred Schools of Thoughts. The concept ‘hundred schools of thought’ refer to an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China. Though, that era was loaded with chaos and bloody battles, but it was also known as the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy because a broad range of thoughts and ideas were developed and discussed freely. This phenomenon is also been called the Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought.  The Qin Dynasty tried to suppress Confucius’s philosophy and thinking but Qin lost his dynasty soon, and Confucius’s thoughts received official sanction and were further developed into a system known as ‘Confucianism’.

Confucius’s teachings center on graceful existence of people; he also imbibed correctness and integrity in his philosophy. It seems Confucius was threatened with his life; but he kept going. He used say “I hear and forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” He believed that every human being is capable of cultivating moral feelings and virtues. To the morally cultivated individual, virtue is what he or she desires for its own sake and virtuousness is the foundation of a successful society.

If you read Confucianism in details, you will observe that Confucius overestimated the power of virtue. Virtue cannot protect the weak against the strong, and it is powerless against wickedness and naked selfishness. In pressing situations, people often simply find it more convenient to resort or submit to the use of power in order to protect themselves or advance their interests. Ironically, Confucius was keenly aware that his moral approach could not save the world from moral and political decay.

Confu2Confucianism is a complex system of social and political ethics based on dutiful piety, kinship, loyalty and righteousness. His teachings cover a wide range from how a “true gentleman” should behave in his daily life to how a ruler should govern with a benevolent concern for the well-being of his subjects. In other words, it’s a kind of moral guide and direction for good governance based on values of hierarchy, group orientation, and respect for seniors in age and tradition. The Confucian system is based on morality.

The Analects of Confucius is a collection of sayings and ideas discussed between him and his followers and contemporaries, traditionally believed to have been written by Confucius’ followers. The Analects was considered merely a commentary. But its status grew to be one of the central texts of Confucianism. The Analects has been one of the most widely read and studied books in China for the last 2,000 years, and continues to have a substantial influence on Chinese and East Asian’s thoughts and values today. In today’s chaotic world where morality has lost its value it’s all the more important for us to read about Confucianism. Once Confucianism is saved, it could make the world a much better place to live in.

Today’s generation feels that Confucianism is a very old tradition of thought that can no longer work effectively. They feel it is utopian in nature; hence for the modern world it requires systematic reconstruction. Confucianism also needs saving because of the chronic gap between its political ideals and the reality of societal circumstances. But to save Confucianism and to let it save the world, we must first learn its profound insights and its profound failures. Even in those days i.e 403 BC the political elite were motivated more by self-interest than by virtue, and played by the rules of power rather than the rules of rituals designed to ensure good governance. Same is the case even today. Confucius’s solution was to revitalize the style of governance. He observed that power goes to head and it is difficult to stay grounded when people have power in their hands.

Confu3Confucius felt that legalism spoils the social fabric; legalism is based on the belief that people are evil by nature and that people behave properly only if compelled by strict laws and harsh punishments. Xunzi who was one of the contemporaries of Confucius, led to the development of Legalism. He believed that people had to be forced to make the right decision. He did not believe in the essential goodness of all human beings, and he did not believe that they could make the right decisions. Whereas, Confucius felt that reward and punishment makes people shameless and turns them further away from independent moral cultivation. To accept Legalism is equal to abandoning the best aspects of humanity. Second, reward and punishment alone cannot ensure long-term stability and peace. If people have no virtue, sophisticated systems of sanction only breed ingenious crimes, and no government of any kind can save the day. If you see our system closely, that’s what criminals do. They study the loopholes in laws and exploit it to the hilt.

The Confucians cannot agree with the Legalist strategy, yet they admit that their rituals and virtues fail to control elite behavior. The challenge then becomes this: Is there any alternative that effectively tackles problems in the non-ideal world and yet retains Confucian ideal aspirations? This question has haunted Confucians for over 2,500 years, and continues to do so even today.

The best way to meet this challenge is to adopt liberal democratic institutions that are shaped by the Confucian conception. Confucianism has good instrumental reasons to adopt democracy, because of its view that political authority exists for the happiness of the people. Under suitable social and economic conditions, the institutions of liberal democracy – limited government, democratic elections, human rights, and civil liberties appear to be more effective than other political systems in restraining political power, preventing unconcealed corruption, and forcing elected officials to work for and respond to the people. Well, all this does sound utopian.

Confu4While democracy can promote and express Confucian values, Confucianism can also work to the advantage of democracy. For a democracy to function well and not deteriorate into aggressive politics based on narrow self-interest, it needs virtuous citizens. The cultivation of Confucian morals, as a form of humanity-based moral education, may well be more effective than liberal civic education in instilling the virtues of such a citizenry.

Confucianism can also provide food for thought on how to select virtuous and competent people to serve in politics. If democratic elections do not furnish an adequate number of high-caliber politicians, or if they discourage politicians from making policies conducive to the people’s long-term interests, Confucianism would consider alternative institutions to supplement democracy. By way of example, establishing a second legislative chamber whose members consist of seasoned participants in public service with good reputation in serving the people.

The Confucius Institute program began in 2004 and is overseen by Hanban – the Office of Chinese Language Council International. The program is governed by a council whose top-level members are drawn from Communist Party of China and various state ministries. The institutes operate in co-operation with local affiliate colleges and universities around the world, and financing is shared between Hanban and the host institutions. The related Confucius Classroom program partners with local secondary schools or school districts to provide teachers and instructional materials. Confucius Institutes are sometimes compared to language and culture promotion organizations such as Britain’s British Council, France’s Alliance Françoise and Germany’s Goethe Institute. Unlike these organizations, however, Confucius Institutes operate within established universities, colleges, and secondary schools around the world, providing funding, teachers and educational materials.



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  1. very interesting & though provoking article….Confucius is super genius who could think about the importance of ethics & virtues almost past 1000 years ….I believe the values even hold true in todays stressful & unethically world where everything starts & ends with money business….

  2. I would like to call Confucius as the pioneer of ethics moral values etc.He realised the importance of virtue and how these virtues contribute in making the world a peaceful place to live in when implemented. Many thanks for this bright article

  3. Nice article ” what is confucainism ‘ it is very much necessary and most essential things to be follow or practice in our day to day life for all of us we should strongly practice and follow the moral values and ethical way. thank you madam for writing such a valuable articles , i liked it

  4. Point 1:I would argue that gaining pevliirges is what all social structures are built around. People everywhere do what they can to climb the social ladder and have since time began. Societies just have different ways of going about social climbing. Point 2: I would also note that you haven’t really made the case that democracy would not work in a Chinese society. The fact that Taiwan is having a difficult time evolving could be just as much do to the fact that a resurgent China seems to be presenting an attractive model that allows the powerful to more blatantly conserve pevliirges that might be harder to conserve if, to the inhabitants of China and Taiwan, a Western democratic model were clearly superior. In fact, China is providing an unhealthy model to regimes worldwide right now. Development of rules-based societies does not happen overnight, and indeed, Taiwan was making slow if sure progress in the direction of fairness until recently? What changed? The KMT, which indeed had not abandoned its hopes of autocratic privilege, was able to effectively tar the party in power and the whole localization movement by opposing the impressive growth of the local economy to that of the faster-growing and larger economy across the strait, and did it with the support of the Chinese. Meanwhile, business interests (privileged members) in the US and Europe have thrown their lot in with the Chinese. This provides more support for the KMT than they would otherwise have, making it more difficult for competition to develop in the society. Competition, by the way, is what leads to more fairness in the long run. Why has China not reformed politically yet? In my opinion, China is a victim of its own success. The amazing growth story of the country is precisely what has allowed the privileged to maintain their hold on power. The masses have been somewhat placated by money and the idea that the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t. In short, my point is that you would have to convince me that the thing that has caused backsliding in Taiwan and impeded the growth of a fairer system in China is indeed due to the inherent nature of Chinese societies instead of the presence of an unfortunate set of untimely outside influences. On to point 3:You say “That’s why the democracy is denounced by Chinese, especially Chinese intellectuals, because in a democratic society the non-educated share the same political right as the educated.”I say: No that is not it. You have highlighted the excuse: “Those “uneducated” people might share our power and lead us to disaster.” I believe the reality is that the powerful are simply resistant to sharing power. Do you think that Chinese dissidents, local human rights lawyers, citizen activists, and members of the Chinese Democracy Party are uneducated? Of course you don’t. Neither do the “academics” to which you refer and neither do the Beijing officials. The issue is not about sharing power with the uneducated. It is about sharing power. Period.Final point:You say that Chinese break promises. Here I agree with you, and it is here that I think that Western politicians are at their most naive. Chinese societies don’t foster a spirit of compromise. Chinese leaders simply bend when they absolutely have to. Due to Point 2, the rest of the world overlooks the broken promises. The irony of Ma’s approach towards China is that he promotes the idea of compromise when he of all people should know that he has no power to “force” a compromise. So he gets a bone thrown to him here or there and declares a victory, because it is the rest of the world (as well as the localized populace) that expects compromise and he must make a show of gaining it to maintain his credibility.