The Teachings of Confucius
Politics, Ethics...or Religion?
 
From Shang to Zhou
The Political Context
The following section of the “Shao Announcement” (from the Book of Documents) is supposed to record the words of the second Zhou ruler’s uncle, the Duke of Zhou, who served as regent for the young king:
 
Ah! August Heaven, High God [Shangdi; a.k.a. the Lord on High], has changed his principal son and has revoked the Mandate of this great state of Yin [a.k.a. Shang]. When a king receives the Mandate, without limit is the grace thereof, but also without limit is the anxiety of it. Ah!  How can he fail to be reverently careful!
       Heaven has rejected and ended the Mandate of this great state of Yin. Thus, although Yin has many former wise kings in Heaven, when their successor kings and successor people undertook their Mandate, in the end wise and good men lived in misery. Knowing that they must care for and sustain their wives and children, they then called out in anguish to Heaven and fled to places where they could not be caught. Ah! Heaven too grieved for the people of all the lands, wanting, with affection, in giving its Mandate to employ those who are deeply committed. The king should have reverent care for his virtue. ... Let the king reverently function in his position; he cannot but be reverently careful of his virtue. We cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Xia [an earlier dynasty]; also we cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Yin. ... We must not presume to suppose that the Yin received the Mandate of Heaven for a fixed period of years; we must not presume to suppose that it was not going to continue. It was because they did not reverently care for their virtue that they early let their Mandate fall. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 36]
 
 
The Life of Confucius
An Ethical Response to Political Disorder
Confucius lived during the Spring and Autumn era (770-476 BCE) of the Zhou dynasty (1122-256 BCE), a turbulent epoch in ancient Chinese history marked by political fragmentation and social upheaval. As the fedual system of government under Zhou rule — that initially worked well and was commendable for ensuring stability — largely collapsed and social order deteriorated, the various feudal states struggled for power and jockeyed for supremacy (or mere survival in the case of the smaller states). Confucius was one of the many innovative thinkers who responded to a prevalent sense of crisis engendered by the chaotic sociopolitical situation. He sought to revive Chinese society and shore up its ethical foundations by reforming the system of government, largely by infusing it with proper ritual and moral frameworks, modeled on those purportedly established by the ancient sages. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 40-41]
 
From Ritual to Benevolence
Establishing the Foundations of Confucian Morality

The main concerns of Confucius and the central tenets of his thought converged on the perfection of human conduct in this life, which was to be cultivated within a communal context, involving interacting with other people in an appropriate manner and gracefully mastering the intricacies of complex webs of social relationships. The two principal virtues and fundamental concepts in the moral teachings of Confucius are ritual (li) — understood in the sense of ritual propriety — and benevolence (ren). For him these two virtues served as indispensible foundations for proper human conduct. When perfected and enacted in the public arena with genuine sincerity, they naturally bring about positive social transformation. The two go together and reinforce each other: a good person who manifests benevolence in all his acts is a person whose behavior is in perfect accord with ritual. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 43]
 
 
Sacrificial Rites
When observing the vigils before sacrifice, Confucius wore immaculately clean clothing. He altered his diet, and he moved from the place where he commonly sat. [CRAS, 47 (Analects 10.7)]
 
 
When he sacrificed to ancestral spirits, he did so as if they were actually present; when he sacrificed to other spirits, he did so as if they were actually present. The master said, “If I do not really take part in the sacrifice, it is as if I did not sacrifice at all.” [CRAS, 47 (Analects 3.12)]
  
 Filial Piety
When Fan Ch’ih was Confucius’s charioteer, the master said, “Meng-sun asked me what filiality was and I said, ‘Not being disobedient.’” Fan Ch’ih asked, “What did you mean by that?” The master replied, “I meant to serve one’s parents with ritual when they are alive, to bury them with ritual when they die, and thereafter to sacrifice to them with ritual.” [CRAS, 46 (Analects 2.5.2-3)]
 

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, Let the ruler be a ruler; the minister, a minister; the father, a father; the son, a son. Excellent,” said the duke. Truly, if the ruler is not a ruler, the subject is not a subject, the father is not a father, and the son is not a son, though I have grain, will I get to eat it?” [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 56 (Analects 12:11)]
 
Benevolence/Humaneness
Yen Yuan asked about humanity [i.e. benevolence]. The master said, “If one can prevail over the self and turn toward ritual, that is humanity. If one can do this for just a single day, the whole world will incline toward humanity. But is it that humanity just comes from one’s own self alone, or from interacting with other people!” Yen Yuan said, “I would like to ask about the specific details of this.” The master said, “Look at nothing contrary to ritual, hear nothing contrary to ritual, speak nothing contrary to ritual, do nothing contrary to ritual.” Yen Yuan said, “Even though I am not gifted, I will try to practice what you have just said.” [CRAS, 46 (Analects 12.1)]
The master said, “Persons possessed of humanity are like this: wanting to develop themselves, they develop others; wanting to achieve things themselves, they also allow others to achieve what they want. This is the direction humanity takes: to use what is close to oneself as an analogy to be extended to others.” [CRAS, 46 (Analects 6.28.2-3)]

The Secular as Sacred
The Intersection of Politics, Ethics & Religion
As a religion, Confucianism is indeed of special character. The backbone of Confucian doctrines is composed of three principles: harmony and unity between humanity and Heaven, harmony and unity between descendants and ancestors, harmony and unity between the secular and the sacred (Yao, 1996a: 31-3). In analysing, and expanding on, these three dimensions of harmony, Confucianism develops a systematic and unique doctrine of human religiosity. This is a kind of humanism, because it concentrates on solving secular problems and insists on human perfectibility. However, Confucianism is not humanistic in the normal sense of this term, because it does not end with the material satisfaction of human needs, nor does it reject pursuing the spiritual Absolute. Although it holds a different conception of what can be counted as the ‘spiritual’, Confucianism does have a common sense of the ultimacy of a personal experience of the sacred and a personal commitment to the Ultimate. It is thus a humanistic religion, a humanistic tradition manifesting spiritual longing and discipline in its classics, creed, practices and institutions, and leading to a religious destination that answers human ultimate concerns. These concerns are expressed through individual and communal commitments and revealed by the desires to transform self and society according to their moral and political vision. [Introduction to Confucianism, 45]
 
 
Confucian Religiosity?
Rodney Taylor
[T]hose interpretations that have sought to define Confucianism as a form of humanism devoid of religious character have failed to realize the central feature that persists throughout the tradition. I argue that a single thread runs throughout the tradition, and this thread is religious. ... Let us make no mistake, Confucianism is an ethical system and humanistic teaching. It is also, however, a tradition that bears a deep and profound sense of the religious, and any interpretation that ignores this quality has missed its quintessential feature. [The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism, 1-2]