The Teachings of Confucius
The Intersection of Politics, Ethics, Philosophy, Culture ... & Religion?

Image of Confucius in a Confucian Temple
Confucius Icon (Abstract)
Zhou Conquest of the Shang: The Battle of Muye
Icon of Confucius (Traditional)
Divine light illuminating the ruler with the Chinese words "tianming" (Mandate of Heaven)
 
King Cheng was the second of the Western Zhou dynasty rulers; he reigned from 1043 to 1021 B.C.E., not long after his father, King Wu, conquered the last Shang king. King Cheng was a child when he came to power; his father's younger brother — Dan, the powerful duke of Zhou — assumed the regency for seven years until Cheng was old enough to assume the Mandate of Heaven (or tianming), the religious power that entitled him to rule. In the last year of his regency, as a new city, Luoyang, was being built, the duke made this speech, the Shao Announcement, describing the mandate received by a virtuous king and his heirs as long as they ruled with wisdom and benevolence. When a dynasty crumbled, possibly from corruption or cruelty, and the family was dethroned, it was said they had lost the mandate that entitled them to govern by divine right. (Shao Announcement).
 
Portrait of the Duke of ZhouAh! 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 [de ]. ... 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)
 
 
Maps of the Western Zhou and Spring & Autumn periods
 
Poster for the Movie "Kongzi" (Confucius)
The Life of Confucius
An Ethical Response to the Collapse of the Sociopolitical Order
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, 40-1)
 
Confucius was born in the domain of Zou, in modern Shandong Province, south of the larger kingdom of Lu. A date of 551 BCE is given for his birth in the Gongyang Commentary (Gongyang zhuan 公羊傳) to the classic Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋), which places him in the period when the influence of the Zhou polity was declining, and regional domains were becoming independent states. His father, who came from Lu, was descended from a noble clan that included, in Sima Qian’s telling, several people known for their modesty and ritual mastery. His father died when Confucius was a small child, leaving the family poor but with some social status, and as a young man Confucius became known for expertise in the classical ritual and ceremonial forms of the Zhou. In adulthood, Confucius travelled to Lu and began a career as an official in the employ of aristocratic families.
 
Map showing the travels of Confucius, c. 497-494 BCE)
 
Different sources identify Confucius as having held a large number of different offices in Lu. Entries in the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan 左傳) to the Spring and Autumn Annals for 509 and 500 BCE identify him as Director of Corrections (Sikou 司寇), and say he was charged with assisting the ruler with the rituals surrounding a visiting dignitary from the state of Qi, respectively. The Mencius (Mengzi 孟子), a text centered on a figure generally regarded as the most important early developer of the thought of Confucius, Mencius (trad. 372–289 BCE), says Confucius was Foodstuffs Scribe (Weili 委吏) and Scribe in the Field (Chengtian 乘田), involved with managing the accounting at the granary and keeping the books on the pasturing of different animals (11.14).[1] In the first biography, Sima Qian mentions these offices, but then adds a second set of more powerful positions in Lu including Steward (Zai ) managing an estate in the district of Zhongdu, Minister of Works (Sikong 司空), and even acting Chancellor (Xiang ). Following his departure from Lu, different stories place Confucius in the kingdoms of Wei, Song, Chen, Cai, and Chu. Sima Qian crafted these stories into a serial narrative of rulers failing to appreciate the moral worth of Confucius, whose high standards forced him to continue to travel in search of an incorrupt ruler. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Confucius)
 
Ritual and Humaneness (primary Confucian virtues)
Ritual Propriety & Humaneness
Inner Cultivation Through External Socialization
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)
 
 
Ancestral 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])
Filial Piety: girl massaging father while he washes grandma's feet!
The Master said, “When someone’s father is still alive, observe his intentions; after his father has passed away, observe his conduct. If for three years he does not alter the ways of his father, he may be called a filial son.” (Confucius: Analects, 45 [Analects 1.11])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])
 
Confucius meeting Duke Jing of Qi
 
Zilu asked, “If the Duke of Wei were to employ you to serve in the government of his state, what would be your first priority?” The Master answered, It would, of course, be the rectification of names (zhengming ).” Zilu said, Could you, Master, really be so far off the mark? Why worry about rectifying names?” The Master replied, How boorish you are, Zilu! When it comes to matters that he does not understand, the gentleman should remain silent. If names are not rectified, speech will not accord with reality; when speech does not accord with reality, things will not be successfully accomplished. When things are not successfully accomplished, ritual practice and music will fail to flourish; when ritual and music fail to flourish, punishments and penalties will miss the mark. And when punishments and penalties miss the mark, the common people will be at a loss as to what to do with themselves. This is why the gentleman only applies names that can be properly spoken and assures that what he says can be properly put into action. The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in his speech. That is all there is to it.” (Confucius: Analects, 139 [Analects 13.3])
Icon with the Chinese character for "humaneness" (ren)
Yan Yuan asked about humaneness. The Master said, “To overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety is the way to become humane. If one could overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety for a single day, the whole world would return to humaneness. Does the implementation of humaneness depend on oneself or on others?” Yan Yuan said: “May I ask about the details?” The Master said “If it does not accord with ritual propriety do not look; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not listen; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not speak; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not act.” Yan Yuan said: “Though I am not clever, I will try to put these words into practice. (Analects 12:1 [translated by Brian Hoffert]; cf. CRAS, 46)
Chinese character for "ritual/propriety" (li)Chinese character for "humaneness" (ren)
With regard to humaneness: wishing to establish oneself, one helps to establish others; wishing to develop oneself, one helps to develop others. The ability to take what is close (i.e. what one wishes for oneself) as an analogy [for what others would also wish for] — this may be called the method of [cultivating] humaneness. (Analects 6:30 [translated by Brian Hoffert]; cf. CRAS, 46)
Blind Men and the Elephant Parable
So ... Is Confucianism a Religion?

In light of the above considerations [regarding the “secular” dimensions of Confucianism], it is possible to question the characterization of Confucianism as a “religion.” The problem is compounded by the facts [sic] that the term itself is problematic, especially given that its varied connotations or analytical frames of reference developed within Western milieus that in significant respect differ from the situation that obtained in China. There are many aspects of Confucianism, however, that are either explicitly or implicitly religious, especially if we accept the kind of open-ended and broadminded understanding of religion suggested in the introduction. Throughout the history of Confucianism, there are recurrent expressions of belief in Heaven, often accompanied by efforts to divine its will and act accordingly. There is also a tacit acknowledgement of a supernatural realm, populated with various gods and spirits, along with a pervasive emphasis on ritual.
 

 
Furthermore, a central aspect of Confucianism in many of its historical manifestations is the quest for sagehood. Besides the study of canonical texts, this also involves various forms of spiritual cultivation, including contemplative practices. All of this makes it possible to talk of Confucianism as a religion, even if not in exactly the same terms as many might be accustomed from their background or familiarity with the monotheistic traditions of the West. The Confucian tradition’s complex character and many-sided applications thus challenges us to rethink the basic ocontours and character of religion as a pervasive force in human history, as well as a field of academic study. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 36-7)
Venn Diagram of Religion: Belief, Practic and Experience
Herbert Fingarette's "The Secular as Sacred"
 
Confucianism as a "Humanistic" Religion
Xinzhong Yao
Xinzhong Yao: An Introduction to ConfucianismAs 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)
Image showing religious dimensions of Confucianism
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)
 
Rodyney Taylor: The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism