Confucianism - Freedom and Democracy 2.0

Is Confucianism a Religion?

Appendix 5. Are there Sacred Texts?   Are they the words of god?

There are no sacred texts purported to be the word of god. The closest one could come to sacred  texts are the four Confucian classics, defined by Zhu Xi in the 12th century - the Analects of Confucius, Mencius, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Great Learning. But the books are said to reflect the teachings of the human Confucius, not words handed down from god. The “Confucian” ideals were present in Chinese society hundreds of years before Confucius. These Four  Books became the central texts for primary education and for the imperial exams for more than six hundred years.   

According to legend, Confucius himself is said to have compiled another set of books termed the Five Classics. These are the Books of History, Poetry, Changes, Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. These five are given a role of secondary importance to the Confucian classics.  A sixth book, the Book of Music, has been lost.


The books

The Four Books were assembled by Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE) during the Song dynasty. They are:

- The Lun Yu, the Analects of Confucius

- The Da Xue, or the Great Learning – sayings from Confucius with commentary by his student Zengzi

- The Zhong Yong, or the Doctrine of the Mean – a discussion of ethics by Zisi, Confucius’ grandson and student of Zengzi

- Mencius, the writings of Meng Tzu (371-289 BCE) Mencius, like Confucius, traveled from state to state teaching and conversing with government rulers. As Paul is to Jesus, Mencius is considered to Confucius – the great explainer and expander to the original master. Mencius was a student of Zisi.


The Great Learning is attributed to one of Confucius' disciples, Zengzi. The Great Learning came from a chapter in the Book of Rites which formed one of the Five Classics. The Great Learning and the Zhong Yong were originally two of the books in the Classic of Rites.

The Five Classics are:

- Shu Ching or Classic of History: writings and speeches from ancient Chinese rulers

- The Shih Ching or Classic of Odes: 300 poems and songs

- The I Ching or Classic of Changes: the description of a divinatory system involving 64 hexagrams. This book had notable impact on 1960s American counterculture

- The Chun Chiu or Spring and Autumn Annals: a history of the state of Lu from 722 to 484 BCE. 

- The Liji or Lijing or Classic of Rites: one of three books on Li, the rituals of propriety in the Zhou dynasty era. The Liji includes the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean as chapters.  


The Four Books and Five Classics tell us what it means to be human, and how to be human.

The definition of human as tool maker, or speech user, or symbolic processor is too shallow, new Confucian scholars say. The human as rational being is far too narrow.

Humans in the Confucian sense are emotional, political, social, historical, aesthetic and even metaphysical beings. Tu Weiming says the six classics each represent an aspect of humanity.  The Book of Poetry tells us that humans are emotional beings. The Book of Rites is a statement about social beings. The Book of Documents tells us about governance. The Spring and Autumn Annals reminds us of our historical nature. The Book of Changes is about metaphysical beings, and the now lost Book of Music is about our aesthetic nature.

The four books in the Confucian are linked in time, not unlike the continuities in the gospels or the letters of Paul. The Analects are supposed to be the sayings of Confucius and his immediate disciples; Confucius’ disciple Zengzi wrote a commentary on Confucius’ sayings, and that became the Great Learning; the Doctrine of the Mean was composed by Confucius’ grandson and student of Zengzi; and Mencius was a disciple of Zisi. 

This covered a period of about two hundred years, from the purported time of the sayings of Confucius to the writings of Mencius. More than a thousand years later Zhu Xi promote the Four Books as the Confucian canon, and the books and his commentaries served as the required learning for the imperial exams for 600 years from about 1313.   

Bryan W. Van Norden. The Dao of Kongzi.  Asian Philosophy, 12:3 (2002). Available at

The Analects is organized into twenty books or chapters and each chapter is divided into numbered sections, sentences or paragraphs, not unlike biblical verses.  The verses are purported to be statements by Confucius, statements by his students or people who knew him, or stories about Confucius. Mencius is organized in a similar way. 

There are many Confucian commentaries and analyses on interpretation of the four classics, in a way similar to analyses of the bible – what does this word mean, what was intended by that phrase, how does that phrase alter what was said in another document. Many Confucian scholars from hundreds of years ago are still studied – the Cheng brothers, Zhu Xi, and in more recent times, Wang Yangming,  Xiong Shili and Mo Zongsan to name a couple of the most prominent. Scholars still write on interpretations of the classics, particularly as they relate to modern societies and cultures. Can Confucian precepts support human rights or democracy? Can one be a Confucian Christian?

Paul Goldin, Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, comments on the Analects in language appropriate to the Bible as well –

… whoever was responsible for compiling the Analects included an overwhelming proportion of genuine material within it, but at a minimum modern readers must bear in mind that they are not reading the work of Confucius himself – that is to say, the Confucius we are given to see in the Analects is the Confucius that some posterior committee wanted us to see. To muddy the waters further, sayings and conversations are often presented with scant context. Reconstructing a coherent philosophy out of such fragmentary material requires considerable creativity. Nor are we alone in this quandary: the varied interpretations of Confucius’ philosophy even in antiquity indicate that there was no authorized ideology shared by all Confucians.

No one claims the Analects are entirely the words of Confucius. No one claims that Confucius “invented” Confucianism. In China, Confucianism is known as rujia, the scholarly tradition. The Confucian canon has been studied, interpreted, reinterpreted, and massaged over a period of more than two thousand years. There are schools of Confucianism, most notably right now imperial or CCP Confucianism and cultural or folk Confucianism. Slavery and subjugation of women have been interpreted away.

Almost no one claims the actual words of Jesus are always faithfully presented in the Bible. Almost no one claims that Jesus “invented” Christianity. The Bible and related writings have been studied, interpreted, reinterpreted, and massaged over a period of almost two thousand years. There are schools of Christianity, most notably right now varieties of Catholicism, Protestantism, and evangelicalism. Support for slavery and subjugation of women have been interpreted away.

A distinction from the Bible is that the unholy Confucian texts more easily invite interpretation and discussion. The four books are being reinterpreted for a modern age, to determine whether modernity, democracy, and human rights can be compatible. While some Christians are willing to interpret the Bible from a modern perspective, many are not. We can have nothing to say to Christians who take the Bible literally – they are operating beyond rationality.  Both Christianity and Confucianism have been interpreted and translated and reinterpreted for more than two thousand years. But interpretive intransigence is not limited to religious texts. Some Americans want to limit the US government to roles explicitly defined circa 1789.  To them, and all literalist readers of sacred texts, we suggest it is a good thing that the texts are not too explicit, lest they be quickly abandoned in gales of laughter or derision.  The living word should apply to both religion and the US Constitution.

The problem for some Christians is that interpretation opens the Pandora’s box of using explicitly social values, current values, humane values, to judge moral behavior.  A result could be Christian democracy, or social justice, or liberation movements. This is a problem for some Protestant groups, as described by Michael Gerson –

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.

Michael Gerson. The Last Temptation The Atlantic, Mar 16, 2018.  Available at

In distinction from Gerson’s point above, neither Christians who abide by the Golden Rule nor Confucians who abide by the Silver Rule fear social justice today.

For Catholics, the papal encyclical Gaudium et Spes reminded believers that the common good is worldwide in scope, and international cooperation, international solidarity, international law are needed for human development. If the common good is international, then it cannot be determined by adherence to a book constructed over decades, with theory constructed over centuries and modified, and not available or desired by the majority of people in the world.

Confucianism has evolved over the centuries, as has Christianity. Classical Confucianism, the period of Classics formation, is generally thought to end with the beginning of the Qin dynasty.  In the late Tang dynasty neo-Confucianism developed, incorporating some Buddhist and Taoist ideas, but rejecting mysticism in favor of rationalism. The foremost neo-Confucian is considered to be Zhu Xi, who defined the canon of four classics and five books. New Confucianism is mostly the province of thinkers since the beginning of the twentieth century, including Mou Zongsan and today, Tu Weiming. There are many Confucian scholars in the west, Joseph Chan among them, even though he might describe himself as a political philosopher rather than a Confucian scholar. Other prominent writers include David Hall and Roger Ames, Robert Cummings Neville, Wm. T. de Bary, Stephen Angle, HUANG Yong, Paul Goldin,Bryan W. Van Norden, and Robert Eno. Gregg Ten Elshof, teacher at the evangelical school Biola University, wrote the short book Confucius for Christians. The modern Confucian industry is bigger than one might think, even if it is still largely academic and unknown to the general public.  


The basic idea

Basic Christian ideas are in Matthew 5:1-12, the Sermon on the Mount, and in the two great commandments, to love God and to love one another.

In Confucian writings, there is no list quite so clean as the Sermon on the Mount. But we do have this from Mencius Gong Sun Chou-1.6

Mencius said, 'All men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others. 'The ancient kings had this commiserating mind, and they, as a matter of course, had likewise a commiserating government. When with a commiserating mind was practised a commiserating government, to rule the kingdom was as easy a matter as to make anything go round in the palm. When I say that all men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: even now-a-days, if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel so, not as a ground on which they may gain the favour of the child's parents, nor as a ground on which they may seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike to the reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing. From this case we may perceive that the feeling of commiseration is essential to man, that the feeling of shame and dislike is essential to man, that the feeling of modesty and complaisance is essential to man, and that the feeling of approving and disapproving is essential to man. The feeling of commiseration is the principle of benevolence. The feeling of shame and dislike is the principle of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and complaisance is the principle of propriety. The feeling of approving and disapproving is the principle of knowledge. Men have these four principles just as they have their four limbs. When men, having these four principles, yet say of themselves that they cannot develop them, they play the thief with themselves, and he who says of his prince that he cannot develop them plays the thief with his prince. Since all men have these four principles in themselves, let them know to give them all their development and completion, and the issue will be like that of fire which has begun to burn, or that of a spring which has begun to find vent. Let them have their complete development, and they will suffice to love and protect all within the four seas. Let them be denied that development, and they will not suffice for a man to serve his parents with.'


A text becoming well known in the west is the “Western Inscription”, written by Neoconfucian Zhang Zai in the eleventh century. This prescription for compassion and benevolence strikes a chord in the modern world and rings familiar to those who remember the Sermon on the Mount. Excerpts -

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst.  Therefore, that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature.

All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions. . . . The Great Ruler is the eldest son of my parents, and his great ministers are the household retainers of the eldest son. To respect who are great in years, is the way to respect my aged;  To be kind to the orphaned and the weak, is the way to be kind to my young. The sage is the one who embodies the virtue of Heaven and Earth; and the wise man receives the finest from them (Heaven and Earth). All persons under Heaven who are tired, crippled, exhausted, sick, brotherless, childless, widows, or widowers are my siblings who are helpless and have no one else to appeal to. 

Respect the aged…. Show concern toward the orphaned and the weak…. The sage identifies his relationship with heaven and earth, and the virtuous man is the best among the children of heaven and earth. Those who are tired and infirm, crippled or sick, those who have no brothers or children, wives or husbands, are all my brothers…. This is the Beatitudes with Chinese characteristics.