Article written by Judith A. Berling for the Asia Society's
Focus on Asian Studies, Vol. II, No. 1 Asian Religions, pp.
5-7, Fall 1982. Copyright AskAsia, 1996.
Confucianism is often characterized as a system of social
and ethical philosophy rather than a religion. In fact, Confucianism
built on an ancient religious foundation to establish the
social values, institutions, and transcendent ideals of traditional
Chinese society. It was what sociologist Robert Bellah called
a "civil religion,"1 the sense of religious identity
and common moral understanding at the foundation of a society's
central institutions. It is also what a Chinese sociologist
called a "diffused religion";3 its institutions
were not a separate church, but those of society, family,
school, and state; its priests were not separate liturgical
specialists, but parents, teachers, and officials. Confucianism
was part of the Chinese social fabric and way of life; to
Confucians, everyday life was the arena of religion.
The founder of Confucianism, Master Kong (K'ung, Confucius,
551-479 B.C.) did not intend to found a new religion, but
to interpret and revive the unnamed religion of the Zhou (Chou)
dynasty, under which many people thought the ancient system
of religious rule was bankrupt; why couldn't the gods prevent
the social upheavals? The burning issue of the day was: If
it is not the ancestral and nature spirits, what then is the
basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order? The
dominant view of the day, espoused by Realists and Legalists,
was that strict law and statecraft were the bases of sound
policy. Confucius, however, believed that the basis lay in
Zhou religion, in its rituals (li). He interpreted these not
as sacrifices asking for the blessings of the gods, but as
ceremonies performed by human agents and embodying the civilized
and cultured patterns of behavior developed through generations
of human wisdom. They embodied, for him, the ethical core
of Chinese society. Moreover, Confucius applied the term "ritual"
to actions beyond the formal sacrifices and religious ceremonies
to include social rituals: courtesies and accepted standards
of behavior -- what we today call social mores. He saw these
time-honored and traditional rituals as the basis of human
civilization, and he felt that only a civilized society could
have a stable, unified, and enduring social order.
Thus one side of Confucianism was the affirmation of accepted
values and norms of behavior in primary social institutions
and basic human relationships. All human relationships involved
a set of defined roles and mutual obligations; each participant
should understand and conform to his/her proper role. Starting
from individual and family, people acting rightly could reform
and perfect the society. The blueprint of this process was
described in "The Great Learning, " a section of
the Classic of Rituals:
Only when things are investigated is knowledge extended; only
when knowledge is extended are thoughts sincere; only when
thoughts are sincere are minds rectified; only when minds
are rectified are the characters of persons cultivated; only
when character is cultivated are our families regulated; only
when families are regulated are states well governed; only
when states are well governed is there peace in the world.3
Confucius' ethical vision ran against the grain of the legalistic
mind set of his day. Only under the Han Emperor Wu (r. 140-87
B.C.) did Confucianism become accepted as state ideology and
orthodoxy. From that time on the imperial state promoted Confucian
values to maintain law, order, and the status quo. In late
traditional China, emperors sought to establish village lectures
on Confucian moral precepts and to give civic awards to filial
sons and chaste wives. The imperial family and other notables
sponsored the publication of morality books that encouraged
the practice of Confucian values: respect for parents, loyalty
to government, and keeping to one's place in society -- farmers
should remain farmers, and practice the ethics of farming.
This side of Confucianism was conservative, and served to
bolster established institutions and long-standing social
There was, however, another side to Confucianism. Confucius
not only stressed social rituals (li), but also humaneness
(ren [jen]). Ren, sometimes translated love or kindness, is
not any one virtue, but the source of all virtues. The Chinese
character literally represents the relationship between "two
persons," or co-humanity -- the potential to live together
humanely rather than scrapping like birds or beasts. Ren keeps
ritual forms from becoming hollow; a ritual performed with
ren has not only form, but ethical content; it nurtures the
inner character of the person, furthers his/her ethical maturation.
Thus if the "outer" side of Confucianism was conformity
and acceptance of social roles, the "inner" side
was cultivation of conscience and character. Cultivation involved
broad education and reflection on one's actions. It was a
lifetime commitment to character building carving and polishing
the stone of one's character until it was a lustrous gem.
Master Kong described his own lifetime:
At fifteen, I set my heart on learning. At thirty, I was firmly
established. At forty, I had no more doubts. At fifty, I knew
the will of heaven. At sixty, I was ready to listen to it.
At seventy, I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing
what was right. Analects, 2:4
The inner pole of Confucianism was reformist, idealistic,
and spiritual. It generated a high ideal for family interaction:
members were to treat each other with love, respect, and consideration
for the needs of all. It prescribed a lofty ideal for the
state: the ruler was to be a father to his people and look
after their basic needs. It required officials to criticize
their rulers and refuse to serve the corrupt. This inner and
idealist wing spawned a Confucian reformation known in the
West as Neo-Confucianism. The movement produced reformers,
philanthropists, dedicated teachers and officials, and social
philosophers from the eleventh through the nineteenth centuries.
The idealist wing of Confucianism had a religious character.
Its ideals were transcendent, not in the sense that they were
otherworldly (the Confucians were not interested in a far-off
heavenly realm), but in the sense of the transcendent ideal
-- perfection. On the one hand, Confucian values are so closely
linked with everyday life that they sometimes seem trivial.
Everyday life is so familiar that we do not take its moral
content seriously. We are each a friend to someone, or a parent,
or certainly the child of a parent. On the other hand, Confucians
remind us that the familiar ideals of friendship, parenthood,
and filiality are far from trivial; in real life we only rarely
attain these ideals. We all too often just go through the
motions, too preoccupied to give our full attention to the
relationship. If we consistently and wholeheartedly realized
our potential to be the very best friend, parent, son, or
daughter humanly possible, we would establish a level of caring,
of moral excellence, that would approach the utopian. This
is Confucian transcendence: to take the actions of everyday
life seriously as the arena of moral and spiritual fulfillment.4
The outer and inner aspects of Confucianism -- its conforming
and reforming sides -- were in tension throughout Chinese
history. Moreover, the tensions between social and political
realities and the high-minded moral ideals of the Confucians
were an ongoing source of concern for the leaders of this
tradition. The dangers of moral sterility and hypocrisy were
always present. Confucianism, they knew well, served both
as a conservative state orthodoxy and a stimulus for reform.
Great Confucians, like religious leaders everywhere, sought
periodically to revive and renew the moral, intellectual,
and spiritual vigor of the tradition.. Until the 1890s, serious-minded
Chinese saw Confucianism, despite its failures to realize
its ideal society, as the source of hope for China and the
core of what it meant to be Chinese.
Although since the revolution, the public ideology of the
People's Republic has abandoned Confucian teachings, one can
say that there is a continuity of form: like Confucianism
before it, Maoism teaches a commitment to transforming the
world by applying the lessons of a utopian ideology to the
actions and institutions of everyday life. This is not to
claim that Mao was a "closet Confucian," but to
emphasize that the Confucian way was virtually synonymous
with the Chinese way. Both Confucianism and Maoism are uniquely
See The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time
of Trial, New York: Seabury Press, 1975.
C. K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1961, pp. 20-21.
Excerpted and adapted from de Bary, Sources, I: 115-16.
For a somewhat fuller philosophical (but readable) discussion,
see Herbert Fingarette, Confucius -- The Secular as Sacred,
New York: Harper and Row, 1972, chapter one.
For Further Reference
Kitagawa, Joseph. Religions of the East, Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1968. Excellent chapter on Chinese religions and the
Mote, Frederick. Intellectual Foundations of China, New York:
Knopf, 1971. Short, and excellent on social and historical
context of Zhou period.
Tu Wei-ming. "Perceptions of Adulthood in Confucianism,"
Daedalus 105(1976): 109-124. Adult reading, but an excellent
interpretation of Confucianism in the light of Western interests
Filmstrip: "Confucius and the Peaceful Empire,"
Asian Man: China, Encyclopedia Britannica Education Corporation.
Filmstrip: "Confucianism and Taoism," World's Great
Religions Series, Part III (Time-Life, 1964)
Instructional Units developed by secondary teachers during
Indiana Religion Studies Project Institute. Available from
Indiana Religion Studies Project, Indiana University, Department
of Religious Studies, Sycamore 230, Bloomington, Indiana,
"The Development of Traditional Chinese Culture: 2000
B.C.-600 A.D.," by Ann Hoffman.
"Chung Kuo, the Middle Kingdom: Development of Traditional
China," by William J. Kiddle, Jr.
"An Introduction to Religions of the Far East: Confucianism,
Shintoism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism," by Elaine
Note: The reader may note some alternate spellings for the
same terms. These result from the use of different orthographies;
e.g., Sakyamuni/Shakyamuni; also from the use of the same
term in different languages: e.g., Amidha Buddha, an Indian
name, becomes Amida Buddha in Japan.
Note: This article and the one on Taoism were written during
the Indiana Religion Studies Project Institute for Teaching
about Religion in the Secondary Social Studies Curriculum.
The drafts were critiqued by the social studies teachers who
attended with an eye to supplementing and correcting the information
in textbooks and other materials used by teachers. The two
articles should read as a pair; they complement each other
in much the same way these two religions complemented each
other throughout Chinese history.
Ed. note: The extent to which both Confucianism and Maoism
continue to influence contemporary China is a subject of scholarly
interpretation. For different views on this question, see
Meisner, Maurice, Mao's China: A History of the People's Republic,
Free Press 1977, and Harding, Harry, Organizing China: The
problem of Bureaucracy, 1949-1976, Stanford University Press,