Major school of thought in China which defends an ethical and political ideal that has been a dominant influence on the way of life of the Chinese. Members of the school are motivated by social and political concerns, and many take part in government at some stage of their careers, with some attaining influential official positions. They regard cultivation of the self as the basis of social and political order, and many of them are also influential teachers devoted to bettering themselves and their pupils. This predominantly practical orientation is coupled with a reflectivity that has led to the development of elaborate metaphysical views, theories of human nature, and accounts of the human psychology. Their discussion of such issues as the cultivation of character, forms of integrity, the nature of emotions and desires, and the relation between knowledge and action has important implications for the contemporary study of moral psychology and ethics in general.

The origin of the school can be traced to a social group in early China whose members, referred to as Ju (a term probably with basic meaning of weakling), were ritualists and sometimes also teachers by profession. Confucius (sixth to fifth century BC) belonged to the group but, although he retained the interest in rituals, he was also concerned with a search for remedy for the social and political disorder of the times, which he believed to lie with the restoration of traditional values and norms. Later thinkers who professed to be followers of Confucius shared such concern and belief, and developed Confucius' teachings in different directions. The school of thought comprising these thinkers has traditionally been referred to as 'Ju-chia' (the school of Ju), a term often translated as 'Confucianism'. Confucius' thinking was given divergent developments by Mencius (fourth century BC) and Hsn Tzu (third century BC), and different kinds of Confucian thought continued to evolve in the early period, yielding such major thinkers as Tung Chung-shu (second century BC). After a period in which it was overshadowed by Buddhism, a revival of interest in Confucianism was seen among such thinkers as Han Y (768-824), Shao Yung (1011-1077), Chou Tun-i (1017-1073), Chang Tsai (1020-1077), Ch'eng Hao (1032-1085), and Ch'eng I (1033-1107), marking the beginning of a movement often referred to as 'neo-Confucianism'. Han Y's view that Mencius was the true transmitter of Confucius' teachings became generally accepted largely through the efforts of Chu Hsi (1130-1200), who put together the Lun Y (Analects) of Confucius, Meng Tzu (Mencius), Ta Hseh (Great Learning), and Chung Yung (Doctrine of the Mean) as the Four Books. The Mencian branch of Confucian thought continued to be developed in different ways, leading to differences between the Ch'eng-Chu school of Ch'eng I and Chu Hsi, and the Lu-Wang school of Lu Hsiangshan (1139-1193) and Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529). Further development occurred among later thinkers such as Wang Fu-chih (1619-1992), Yen Yan (1635-1704), and Tai Chen (1724-77), and new forms of Confucian thought continue to evolve up to the present.

Two important concepts in Confucian thought are tao (the Way) and te (virtue, moral power, potency). Originally meaning 'road' or 'way', 'tao' came to be used to refer to the ideal way of life as well as teachings about that way of life. 'Te' originally referred to that by virtue of which a ruler has the authority to rule; it referred to both a quality involving proper religious sacrifice and such attributes as self-sacrificial generosity and humility, as well as a psychic power of attraction and transformation associated with that quality. It came to be used of human beings generally, referring to the quality or power by virtue of which one can tread the Way. The two concepts have been used by other schools (such as Taoism) in connection with different ideals, but Confucians further explain their conception of tao and te in terms of jen, li, and yi.

'Jen' (humanity, goodness, benevolence) has either the basic meaning of kindness, or the basic meaning of a quality distinctive of certain aristocratic clans. It is used in Confucian texts sometimes to refer to the all-encompassing ethical ideal and sometimes to refer specifically to an affective concern for all living things. Distinctive of Confucian thought and opposed by Mohist opponents is the view that the nature of such concern should vary according to one's relation to such things. Later Confucians also explain jen in terms of one's forming one body with, and hence one's being sensitive to the well-being of, all things.

'Li' (rites, rituals, propriety), originally referring to sacrificial rites, gradually came to refer more generally to all norms governing ceremonious behaviour and the responsibilities one has by virtue of one's social position. Just as performance of sacrificial rites should ideally be accompanied by reverence for spirits, observance of li in dealing with other people should ideally be accompanied by reverence for others; the attitude behind li is described in some Confucian texts as lowering oneself and elevating others. The emphasis on li is another distinctive feature of Confucian thought, setting it in opposition to Mohist and Taoist opponents.

To avoid its leading to improper behaviour, an affective concern for others has to be regulated by a sense of what is right, and departure from li in unusual circumstances or proper conduct in circumstances not covered by li also calls for an assessment of what is right. Confucians therefore also emphasize the importance of yi (rightness, duty, fittingness), the character 'yi' probably having the earlier meaning of a sense of honour before coming to refer to the fitting or right way of conducting oneself. Confucians emphasize that yi is not determined by fixed rules of conduct, but requires the proper weighing of relevant considerations in any context of action. The ideal form of courage involves a firm commitment to yi, as well as the absence of fear or uncertainty if one realizes upon self-examination that one is in the right.

Confucian thinkers emphasize gradual cultivation of the self to embody the attributes just described. In the political realm, although some Confucian thinkers, such as Hsn Tzu and Tung Chung-shu, also advocate the use of law and punishment as secondary measures, Confucian thinkers are generally agreed that moral examples and education should ideally be the basis for government. A ruler who embodies the attributes described will care about and provide for the common people, who will be attracted to him, and the moral example he sets will have a transforming effect on the people.

Though sharing a roughly common ideal, Confucian thinkers disagree about the justification of the ideal and the metaphysics underlying it. The disagreement has in large part to do with their different conceptions of hsing (nature). Originally derived from a character meaning 'life' or 'to grow', 'hsing' came to mean the direction of development that a thing will realize if unobstructed. Mencius believed that human beings share certain incipient ethical inclinations which are fully realized in the Confucian ideal; hsing is constituted by the direction of development of such inclinations and is good in that it has an ethical direction. Hsn Tzu regarded the hsing of human beings as comprising primarily self-regarding desires that human beings have by birth; hsing is evil in that unregulated pursuit of satisfaction of such desires leads to strife and disorder. Thus, while Mencius defended traditional social distinctions and norms on the ground that they make possible full realization of shared incipient ethical inclinations, Hsn Tzu defended them on the ground that they help to transform and regulate the pursuit of satisfaction of desires, thereby making possible social order and maximal satisfaction of human desires.

Different views of hsing continued to evolve within the Confucian tradition, such as Tung Chung-shu's view that human beings are born with both good and bad elements, and that hsing in the broad sense includes the bad elements and cannot be described as good. Along with the acceptance of the view that Mencius was the true transmitter of Confucius' teachings, Confucian thinkers came to agree that hsing is good. But this Mencian idea was also reinterpreted in terms of the metaphysics of li.

For example, Chu Hsi, following Ch'eng I, regarded all things as composed of li (principle, pattern) and ch'i (ether, material force). While the term had the earlier meaning of 'good order' or 'inner structure', li came to be regarded as something incorporeal and unchanging that runs through everything, explaining why things are as they are. It is also that to which the behaviour of things should conform; in the human realm, it includes all norms of human conduct. Ch'i is the concrete stuff of which things are composed, and is freely moving and active. According to Chu, hsing is constituted by the li in human beings, which is identical with the Confucian virtues; so, hsing is good in that human beings are born fully virtuous. While the mind originally had insight into li, this has been obscured by distortive desires and thoughts which are due to impure ch'i. While de-emphasizing the metaphysics of li and ch'i, Wang Yang-ming shared the view that human beings are already fully virtuous by virtue of the li present in them and that ethical failure is due to the obscuring effect of distortive desires and thoughts. However, while Chu regarded li as also residing in all things, Wang held the view that li ultimately resides in the way the mind responds to situations when not obscured, a point he put by saying that there is no li outside the mind.

Thus, unlike Mencius, who viewed self-cultivation as a process of developing shared incipient ethical inclinations, Chu and Wang viewed it as a process of making fully manifest the li in human beings which has been obscured by distortive desires and thoughts. Later Confucian thinkers regarded this as a reinterpretation of Mencian thought under Buddhist influence, and sought to recapture what they regarded as the true meaning of classical Confucianism. For example, Tai Chen regarded li not as a distinct metaphysical entity, but as the proper ordering of human desires and emotions which are due to ch'i. By applying a form of golden rule, one can know how one's own and other people's desires can be appropriately satisfied and emotions appropriately expressed, and this constitutes a grasp of li. Hsing is good not in the sense that human beings are already fully virtuous, but in the sense that being virtuous involves an ordering of desires and emotions natural to human beings.

Different views of hsing and of the underlying metaphysics have implications for ethical and political practices. For example, the view that there are bad elements in hsing tends to be coupled with some degree of advocacy of restrictive measures in politics - both Hsn Tzu and Tung Chung-shu advocated laws and punishment as secondary measures to restrain the bad elements in hsing. As another example, Chu Hsi's and Wang Yang-ming's different views of li led to different accounts of self-cultivation. Since Chu Hsi regarded li as present in all things, he regarded self-cultivation as involving to an important extent examining daily affairs and studying classics and historical records to regain the insight into li that one originally had. However, given his view that li does not reside outside the mind, Wang regarded the method of cultivation advocated by Chu as misguided; instead, self-cultivation should involve one's attending to the mind, constantly watching out for and eliminating distortive desires and thoughts.

Thus, while Confucian thought is given unity by a roughly common ethical and political ideal and eventually by a set of canonical texts, it includes a rich variety of metaphysical views as well as conceptions of human nature and of self-cultivation. New advances and developments continue to be made up to the present, and Confucianism continues to exert great influence not just on Chinese intellectuals, but also on the social and political order as well as on the daily life of the Chinese up to the present century.