Confucianism started with Confucius. Here are six key facts about Confucius:
- Lived around 500 B.C. in China
- Problem of his day was social anarchy
- His goal was to reform society
- Worked as a government official but grew frustrated and left
- Traveled and taught lessons from the ancients
- Seemed to die a failure
Confucius’s teachings are recorded in a book entitled The Analects. In order to reform society he sought to apply ancient traditions to the problems of his day. His teachings focus on maintaining harmony in human society. Here are his key teachings:
- A moral order pervades the universe and it is called Tao.
- Chun-tzu – perfect moral character; a “gentleman”; learning is the key to becoming a chun-tzu
- Jen – benevolence; doing one’s best to treat others as one would wish to be treated. Jen encapsulates the concept of shu which means reciprocity – “do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”
- Li – “sacred ritual” or “propriety” – acting appropriately for one’s role in society. Li involves filial piety – to act in a way suitable for a son or daughter. And filial piety involves obedience, providing for one’s parents, reverence and ancestor veneration/worship.
- Wen – the cultural arts (music, poetry, drama) help to maintain unity in society
- Te – the power of example; leaders should lead primarily by example not force
Society must be based on Five Constant Relationships: 1.) parent and child, 2.) husband and wife, 3.) elder sibling and younger sibling, 4.) elder friend and younger friend, 5.) ruler and subject. The Five Constant Relationships show that Confucius viewed the self as the center of human relationships.
The Divine and the Afterlife
Confucius had little to say about the divine. He refers to Heaven—which was China’s principal deity at the time—but he seems to have thought of Heaven as a universal moral force. Confucius’s teachings are focused on this life, not an afterlife, because he was seeking to apply lessons from the past to the social anarchy of his day.
While Confucius seemed to die a total failure (c. 500 B.C.), his teachings gained prominence through Mencius who is known as the second founder of Confucianism (c. 300 B.C.). By around 130 B.C., Confucius’s teachings were required reading for all government officials in China. That requirement remained in place for the next 2,000 years. Confucius is known as China’s First Teacher.
Confucianism and Christianity
The four East Asian religions (Confucianism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Shinto) have the following differences with Christianity: 1.) they don’t emphasize the afterlife, 2.) they don’t teach a relationship with the one and only Creator God, 3.) they don’t have the concept of sin, 4.) they don’t have the concept of salvation.
Here are a two similarities between Christianity and Confucianism:
- The concept of shu is closely related to the Golden Rule.
Shu says, “do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” (Analects, XV. 24). Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk. 6:31).
- The importance of relationships. Specifically, Confucianism teaches filial piety, and Christianity teaches honoring your father and mother. (Of course, this can also be a difference depending on whether filial piety includes ancestor worship. Note: Some argue that “ancestor worship” is better termed “ancestor veneration” because in many cases the living are not really worshiping the dead. They are simply honoring them—something akin to putting flowers on a grave in the West.)