Confucianism, sometimes viewed as a Chinese philosophy and sometimes viewed as a Chinese religion, is a way of life taught by Confucius – K’ung-fu-tzu or Master K’ung – in the 6th–5th century BC in China.
Confucianism has been followed by the Chinese for more than two millennia and has formed the basis for the social order in China since 200 BC. Confucianism provided the working rules and ethical precepts for Chinese to follow and even today majority of Chinese still behave according to these rules.
My exposure to Confucianism began through my interest in the Chinese classic the I Ching or Book of Changes. Confucius wrote the ten commentaries or Ten Wings that are considered to have transformed the I Ching from a divination text into a “philosophical masterpiece” that is consulted around the world to this day.
Confucianism views individual as a social creature obligated to each other through relationships. These may include the relations between sovereign and subject, parent and child, elder and younger, husband and wife, or even friend and friend. Confucianism defined the rules in the engagement, action, and responsibilities in all these human relationships and interactions. Proper conduct proceeds not through compulsion, but through a sense of virtue and self-consciousness achieved by learning, observing and practicing.
The main principle of Confucianism is humaneness or benevolence (ren), signifying excellent character in accord with ritual norms (li ), loyalty to one’s true nature (zhong), reciprocity (shu), and filial piety (xiao). Together these constitute virtue or de.
Confucianism takes a highly optmistic view of human nature. The faith in the possibility of ordinary human beings to become awe-inspiring sages and worthies is deeply rooted in the Confucian heritage (Confucius himself lived a rather ordinary life), and the insistence that human beings are teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavour is typically Confucian.
Confucius regarded Heaven (T’ien) as a positive and personal force in the universe; he was not, as some have supposed, an agnostic or a skeptic.
Aside from its important ethical principles, Confucianism does not prescribe any specific rituals or practices. These are filled by the practices of Chinese religion, Taoism, Buddhism, or other religion which Confucians follow.
The Lun-yü (Analects) are the most revered sacred scripture in the Confucian tradition. It was probably compiled by the second generation of Confucius’ disciples. Based primarily on the Master’s sayings, preserved in both oral and written transmissions, it captures the Confucian spirit in the same way that the Platonic dialogues embody Socratic teachings.
The Confucian Canon achieved its present form in the Sung dynasty under the direction of Chu Hsi (1130-1200). It consists of the Five Classics and the Four Books.
The Five Confucian Classics
The Five Confucian Classics are:
- Shu Ching (Classic of History) – collection of documents and speeches dating from the Later Han Dynasty (23-220 CE)
- Shih Ching (Classic of Odes) – collection of 300 poems and songs from the early Chou Dynasty (1027-402 BC)
- I Ching (Classic of Changes) – collection of texts on divination based on a set of 64 hexagrams that reflect the relationship between Yin and Yang in nature and society
- Ch’un Ching (Spring and Autumn Annals) – extracts from the history of the state of Lu 722-484, said to be compiled by Confucius
- Li Ching (Classic of Rites) – consists of three books on the Li (Rites of Propriety)
The Four Confucian Books
The Four Confucian Books are:
- Lun Yu – (Analects) of Confucius
- Chung Yung – (Doctrine of the Mean)
- Ta Hsueh – (Great Learning)
- Meng Tzu – (Mencius)