This lesson discusses Confucianism from a historical, religious, and cultural standpoint, with emphasis on its role in societal stability and its unique ability to meld with religions as different as Buddhism and Christianity.

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Welcome to this tutorial on Confucianism. Confucius lived from about 551 to 479 BCE. This is just before Socrates. In fact, he's often compared to Socrates, as sort of the Socrates of eastern culture. His name was Kong Fuzi, or "Master Kong." The name Confucius is an anglicization that comes from British travelers to China. Confucius taught his disciples poetry, music, and history. So, unlike many of the other religious figures that we'll be studying in these tutorials, Confucius taught an actual subject matter to his disciples. He was very interested in the Chinese classics, and oftentimes claimed that he wasn't really inventing anything new, he was just teaching his disciples Chinese culture.

Two principles we can bring out as being important are ren, which is "benevolence," sort of "universal goodness" or "compassion." And li, which is "propriety" or "custom." So ren, Confucius said, "You should go on doing good until you fall down in the road." And another one of the Analects contain his philosophy. Another one of the Analects, Confucius says, "If somebody comes to your house, and they ask you for some vinegar"-- this is like asking for a cup of sugar-- "If someone comes to your door asking for vinegar, don't just say, 'No, I'm sorry, I don't have any.' No, you go to your neighbor's house, ask for the vinegar, and bring it back and give to the person." Propriety, things like having respect for your elders, having respect for the customs in society, obeying the government, obeying authority figures. So, in fact, prior to communism in China, Confucianism was the state orthodoxy. That it was the official state religion of China. And if you wanted to get a job in the Chinese government, you would have to take an exam on Confucian philosophy. Confucianism blends harmoniously with Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity. So, they did not have this idea that you have to either be Confucian, or be Buddhist, but it very nicely blends with these other traditions. In fact, in a quite seamless way, so you couldn't say where one began in the other started. This is true in Korea today, where nearly the whole population identifies as Confucian, but maybe only half identify as Buddhist or Christian. So it's completely comfortable blending with these other religions.

So we could say Confucianism as a way of life, it's a culture, it's a philosophy, it's a religion, and in a way it's all of these. So, we can say that Confucianism stresses loyalty to family, and loyalty to the government. Confucianism maintained unity in China, when other philosophies could not do it. China is very far flung geographically, it went through a very long feudal period of warring states. Other philosophies, the Mohists, their founder was Mo Tzi, taught a doctrine of universal love, look if we just love each other, we can get over these tensions in society. On the other camp, the realists, were advocating strong state power. If any of you are familiar with Thomas Hobbes in the west, Hobbes argued something like this, you just need a strong government to kind of crack heads together and keep the violence in control. Confucius took the better points of both of these philosophies, and brought them together, and he said, yes we need strong state power we need people to obey the government, but we also need universal love. And this Confucian middle way succeeded in uniting China, and providing some social glue where other philosophies had failed in doing that.

Just to recap, we said the Confucianism teaches a respect for authority, whether that authority be in the family, like your elders, or in the form of government power. Confucianism also teaches universal love and benevolence, that one should go out of one's way to do good. Confucianism is a humanistic discourse, because it teaches that human beings occupy unique position in the world, and that consequently, the study of humanity is central to human inquiry. So Confucianism doesn't do a whole lot of talking about God, and spend much more time talking about right relations among human beings on the earth. Confucius' teaching can be found in the Analects, in a number of pithy statements that Confucius made to his disciples. And unlike many of the teachers in other world religions, he taught actual subject matter. He taught his disciples Chinese history, he taught them poetry, and he taught them music. Confucianism was very successful in uniting China, and still forms the background to much of Asian culture.

  • Humanism

    The belief that human beings occupy a unique position in the world and/or universe and that consequently the study of humanity is central to all human inquiry.