Confucianism - Freedom and democracy 2.0

Is Confucianism a religion?

II. What is Confucianism? Another weird Asian thing?


Briefly - Confucianism is the ethical perspective that has been at the base of Chinese culture for more than two thousand years, hundreds of years longer than Christianity has dominated the west.

Over time Confucianism has drawn from Daoism and Buddhism, as well as ancient Chinese local beliefs and practices, to focus on practical advice for relationships in the lived world. 

Confucianism is a term coined by Westerners to refer to a tradition called Ruism or Rujia, the scholarly tradition. The tradition predates Confucius, who claimed to only follow the moral traditions of the ancient past. Like Plato or Socrates, Confucius' ideas are reflected in his conversations with followers, who then expanded and clarified, as did followers of Jesus in the centuries after his death. 

In the twentieth century Confucianism and modernity were seldom paired in one sentence until the last couple of decades or so. The idea was that this old, tired and rigid support of dynastic hegemony was of no value in a complex modern and pluralist society. Confucianism was perhaps comparable with medieval Christianity, sclerotic and scholastic and of historical interest but with nothing to teach us now.

There was a kernel of truth in that perspective.  Gier Sigurdsson, in Confucianism vs Modernity: Expired, Incompatible or Remedial? -

Confucianism has been many things and it has had many paradoxical manifestations––some of which were present at the same time. In its ancient form as philosophy, it was anti-dogmatic in nature, flexible and adaptive. During the Han-dynasty, it was a powerful but also a largely creative state ideology. In its Neo-Confucian guise, it was highly syncretic, lofty and idealistic, while also practical and real-political. In the Ming and Qing, it became inward-looking, somewhat dogmatic, nostalgic and thus reactionary.

Gier Sigurdsson. Confucianism vs. Modernity: Expired, Incompatible or Remedial? Asian Studies II (XVIII), 1 (2014), p 21-38.  Available at

Now, an ersatz Confucianism has become a convenient way for CCP to encourage deferral to the Party on matters of obedience to authority and economic and moral freedom. 

But a core attitude still pervades Chinese society, not supportive of CCP and promoting the family and benevolent values that stirred all the Asian Tiger countries – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. This Confucianism aligns well with other virtue ethics, including those of Aristotle and Jesus. 


Key elements

The Confucian program calls for every person to self-cultivate, to … well, as the US Army used to say, be all that you can be. The human person is humane - benevolent and compassionate. With this prescription, a harmonious society can be established in which all individuals can cultivate their personal worth as they define it. The moral vision or goal of morality of Confucianism is tian ren heyi (Heaven and humanity are one). People who can follow the Dao (the Way) for themselves are people of de (virtue) or sages.

The Confucian Dao, originally from Daoism, is the foundation of a harmonious universe, a peaceful society, and a good life. The key word is always harmony - between human beings, in society and politics, and between rulers and the people. The pre-Confucian theoretical concept is to achieve da tong, the Great Unity, in which the world is at peace, people select benevolent and wise rulers, the aged, infirm, and widows and orphans are cared for, there is no theft or crime, selfish thoughts are nowhere to be found, and doors are left open. It is peace on earth.

Confucius – and particularly his chief early disciple, Mencius - believed in the perfectibility of all people. As with other virtue ethics like those of Aristotle and early Christianity, Confucianism trusts in moral exemplars for guides to moral behavior. If one studies sufficiently and pays attention to the lessons provided by exemplars, one will be able to follow the Dao and become a fully human being. Such a person, referred to as a junzi (excellent or profound person) exemplifies virtues such as wisdom, justice, impartiality, and benevolence. Morality must be learned and cultivated, just as knowledge of reading or mathematics. With training and effort, every person can “be all you can be” and become a moral person.

Confucian scholar Huang Yong noted in Confucius: A Guide for the Perplexed that the primary goal of Confucius as an educator is not to transmit intellectual knowledge or technical skills to his students but to teach them how to be virtuous, authentic human beings.


Some key terms

These are the most frequently encountered Confucian terms that need some assistance in translation.

Daothe path, or in some translations the great generating force of all religions and all creation. Each person broadens the Dao, rather than the Dao directing the person. Confucius acknowledged existence of the Dao, but didn’t have much to say about it.

De – personal virtue or moral or spiritual charisma. The power attributable to an individual’s excellence.

Junzi – the exemplary person. Through training, through experience, through self-cultivation the junzi knows what to do and how to do it, seemingly without effort. One thinks of an idealized leader or perhaps the gentleman scholar.

Ren – benevolence or humaneness. The greatest virtue in Confucianism. Confucius never provides a good definition, as befits a virtue that is always in context.

Li – ritual, rites, customs or social norms. Li is not formality for the sake of formality. It helps us understand proper roles at any time, and attention to li can defuse conflict. 

Tian – heaven; in some translations, similar to God. Part of the trinity with nature and man. Tian can act in the world but does not necessarily respond to prayer.

Xin – heart-mind, indicating the absence of the Cartesian split between mind and emotion. Tian has endowed man with the heart of Dao (daoxin) and thus human dispositions to virtue are what distinguish us from animals. It is the heart-mind that motivates love of learning and self-cultivation.


So what?

Mencius says that being moral is the fulfilment of a basic human urge, like sex. We should be moral because we are humans, not animals. For the non-religious westerner, Confucianism provides a justification for being moral – we act morally because it is the human, and humane, thing. Humans must fulfill their role in acting as the intermediary between heaven and nature, the other two aspects of a triad or trinity.

There is no theology or Confucian church. But the prescriptions for moral behavior are not really distinct from those of Christianity – be humane, love one another.  One can find many parallel prescriptions in Confucian writings and the Bible. I will provide some in the following posts.

One situation in which Confucius recommends a policy different from the biblical is the “turn the other cheek” exhortation in Matthew 5:39-41.  Confucius advised to repay a good turn with a good turn, and an injury with uprightness. Uprightness could mean using the law or the power of the community to shame a wrongdoer. This clearly demonstrates the Confucian willingness to reform the other rather than simply accede to further injury. Huang Yong reminds us that punishment should not primarily be retributive, returning to the criminal the harm the criminal inflicted upon others, but a measure to transform the criminal. It would be wrong, Confucians would say, to permit another person to repeatedly debase himself by doing wrong. A better solution for all would be to seek to correct poor behavior.

Of course there are differences between Confucianism and Christianity at a deep level. Confucianism contains no promise of afterlife, salvation, hell or heaven. There is no original sin – in fact, Mencius declares all humans to be born good. And even though Confucianism and Aristotelian ethics are considered by most philosophers to be virtue ethics, they do differ.

Alasdair MacIntyre raises two significant objections to compatibility between Confucianism and Aristotelian virtue ethics. One is the importance for Aristotle of following law -  that good laws make for good citizens. Confucius does not disdain law, but argues for the primacy of virtue, learning and benevolence. Law should be used as a last resort.  Analects 2.3 (Wei Zheng 3)

The Master said, "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good."

MacIntyre also argues that community morality cannot be adequate in a large plural society (echoing Machiavelli, I think). In particular, a virtue ethic must be able to find appropriate exemplars to model. Very few Confucians would find adequate role models in any of our recent presidents, for example.

Alasdair MacIntyre. Questions for Confucians. In Kwong-loi Shun and David B. Wong, eds., Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

MacIntyre raises other objections to a westernized Confucianism. Although he has clearly read the Classics, I think his understanding remains a bit biased. MacIntyre seems to want a single version of Confucianism, rather than an evolving philosophy like Christianity.

Joel J. Kupperman has a reminder - For instance, an understanding of Aristotelian virtue ethics may assist in and deepen one’s readings in Confucian and Mencian moral development. If one is not careful in one’s earnestness to draw similarities, however, the risks of error and distortion may be multiplied.

Joel Kupperman. Tradition and Community in the Formation of Character and Self. In Kwong-loi Shun & David B. Wong (eds.), Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2004).

Ni Peimin clarifies the role of Confucianism - In other words, the whole system does not primarily intend to provide us with a descriptive theory of what the world is (a metaphysics), nor even an ethical theory of what we are morally obligated to be or to do, but a systematic instruction about how to cultivate ourselves so that we can live better lives, reach our human potentials, and achieve human flourishing.   

Ni Peimin. How Far is Confucius an Aristotelian?  Available at

Christianity provides more of a metaphysics – a way of understanding the reason for morality.  

Some scholars – notably Herbert Fingarette, Roger Ames,  David Hall and Henry Rosemont – have interpreted the importance of role obedience as paramount in Confucianism, to the point that a Confucian would have no inner life – that their mental and emotional states are so occupied by following ritual roles that there is no room for an independent “I.” Most Confucian scholars earnestly reject such a view.

Confucianism is not selfish. It seeks to reform others, even at cost to oneself. And the Rawlsian separation of the personal and the political has no place in Confucianism. Robert Neville in Boston Confucianism notes the Confucian need for human education in science, in the arts, and imagination to learn the subtle values of things. He points out that if part of helping someone is “to improve the health care system, then you need to know how to vote on taxes and other legislation that is relevant, which means understanding the nature of the health care, the economic situation, and the political possibilities.” In other words, Confucian ethics is not merely about personal virtues for oneself. It is an obligation to the community.

Confucianism is clearly about dialogue and learning and global relevance. Tu Weiming identifies the 21st century as a new axial age, in which cultural and religious pluralism can work to overcome the economic, religious, environmental, and equality problems of our time.

There is no theology or Confucian church. A few Chinese scholars have pushed for this concept in the past. Early new Confucian scholar Kang Youwei promoted the idea in the 1890s. By 1915 there were 130 national and overseas branches. (See The Hidden Tradition: Confucianism and Its_Metamorphoses in Modern and Contemporary China). This movement faded.

Recently, Jiang Qing has promoted a Confucian national religion – sort of an institutional or imperial Confucianism - and CCP would very much like to promote its own version of Confucianism as a state religion. Some Chinese in Hong Kong and Indonesia have developed Confucian academies, more as cultural than religious organizations, but with veneration as a practice. Confucianism, like Christianity, was designed for a small community. The status of the Confucian church idea is discussed here. 

Perhaps the most prominent divide in Chinese Confucianism today is that between cultural Confucianism, practiced unconsciously by Chinese in family matters and beyond, an ethic of benevolence and tolerance and respect for the five principle roles; and an imperial or dynastic Confucianism, promoted now by CCP as providing respectful guidance for all Chinese in honoring CCP as the ruling elite. 

But the basic prescriptions for moral behavior are not really distinct from those of Christianity – be humane, love one another. One can find many parallel prescriptions in Confucian writings and the Bible. I will provide some in the following posts.


But its Chinese … how can we do that?

Huang Yong reminds us not to worry about conflating Chinese and American values -

There is no such thing as “Confucianism” that is universal, abstract, and nonlocalized, ready to be implanted in a particular location in a particular period; nor is there any localized Confucianism that does not have any universal significance…. any of these historical and localized forms of Confucianism is pregnant with ideas that have significant implications beyond its own location and time.

Yong Huang. Taiwanese Confucianism. Contemporary Chinese Thought, 41:1 (Fall, 2009). Available at

Similarly for Christianity – there are multiple interpretations and views. Some Christians see the Nicene Creed as the fundamental statement of what Christians believe; others say only that one should “follow Jesus” and leave interpretation to the individual imagination. Both Tu Weiming, the preeminent popular Confucian scholar in the US, and Robert Cummings Neville, former dean of the Boston University School of Theology, see general compatibility between Christian and Confucian ethics.

We live in a complex, plural, and global world. Purity in ideology is not conducive to getting along in the world. We need all the commingling and cross interpreting we can get. Neville -

 A distinctly Confucian ethics may be as unsuited to present-day demographic, pluralistic and political conditions in East Asian societies as a distinctly Aristotelian or Thomistic virtue ethics is unsuited to pluralistic conditions in western societies. But this does not preclude the development of ethical thought which draws eclectically upon ancient and modern moral traditions.

Confucius was not unknown to the American founders. Thomas Paine listed Confucius with the Greek philosophers and Jesus as the world's  greatest moral teachers. And per Charlotte Allen in the Atlantic, a figure of Confucius in flowing sleeves joins Moses, Hammurabi, and Solon among the lawgivers in the marble frieze encircling the Supreme Court’s hearing room in Washington, D.C.

Confucianism is a philosophy … no, religion … no, management theory … no, guide to life … perhaps all …  that can help us in the US be all that we can be.


A few resources

Note: There are many resources to learn more, many good overviews and many detailed scholarly works. There are many American Confucian scholars. I am including only a few sources that can be accessed without buying into an academic access service. Many researchers put all or most of their papers online, and in that case I provide a reference to the general site.


Confucius. At Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Confucius. At Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

A good brief summary is at the wiki  Confucianism in the United States

Confucianism Introduction at Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology

Tu Weiming. Video on Confucianism and Liberal Education for a Global Era from the Georgetown Berkley Center

Stephen Angle. Books here  and papers here

HUANG Yong. List and downloadable file of more than 100 of his publications on Confucianism at

Wm. T. De Bary. The Trouble with Confucianism. The Tanner Lectures On Human Values Delivered at The University of California at Berkeley, May 4 and 5, 1988. Available at

Bryan W. Van Norden.  Books and papers.

Robert Cummings Neville. List of books and articles at including Boston Confucianism at

Michael Sandel. Professor for the famous Justice course at Harvard    books and some videos at  and Encountering China

Joseph Adler. Papers at

Confucianism and Catholicism: Reinvigorating the Dialogue. Michael Slater, Erin Cline, and Philip Slater, eds.

Li Chenyang.

May Sim.

Ni Peimin.

Philip Ivanhoe.