Origins and Development

Confucianism was started in China between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. and has been followed by the Chinese people for over two millennia. A major part of the belief is an emphasis on learning as well as a source of values.

Confucius was an educator and transmitter of knowledge rather than a creative thinker. In accepting students, he applied no class distinctions, accepting the poor as well as the rich. One of his inestimable contributions was the redefinition of key terms in Chinese life and thought along ethical and humanistic lines. For instance, the term chun tzu, meaning “son of a ruler” or person of noble birth, was extended by Confucius to refer to anyone who was benevolent and modest of speech, regardless of background.

The Four Books — The Analects, The Great Learning, The Mean, and The Book of Mencius — refer to ancient Confucian texts that were used officially in civil service exams in China for over 500 years. They introduced Confucian literature to students who then progressed to the more difficult texts, the Five Classics: The Book of History, The Book of Poems, The Book of Change (I Ching), The Spring and Autum Annals, and The Book of Rites.

The influence of Confucianism has spread across many other countries, including Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Confucianism is now regarded seriously in the United States, where the culture has gone far beyond the derogatory stereotypical image of the Charlie Chan detective movies of the 1930s and 1940s and their fortune-cookie sayings. Confucianism made its mark extensively in Chinese literature, education, culture, and both spiritual and political life.

Confucius lived in a time of political violence, setting the stage for a teacher with the ability to dispense a spiritual philosophy that would generate restorative thoughts of social and ethical calm, and who saw perfection in all people. It is said he initially attracted over 3,000 students, some of whom became close disciples.


Rituals and Customs

As Confucianism does not have all the elements of a religion and is primarily an ethical movement, it lacks sacraments and liturgy. However, the rituals that occur at important times in a person’s lifebecame part of the movement. Confucianism recognizes and regulates four life passages — birth, reaching maturity, marriage, and death. At the root is the ritual of respect: A person must exhibit respect to gain respect.


The Tai-shen (spirit of the fetus) protects the expectant woman and deals harshly with anyone who harasses the mother to be. The mother is given a special diet and is allowed to rest for a month after delivery. The mother’s family is responsible for coming up with all that is required by the baby on the first-, fourth-, and twelfth-month anniversaries of the birth.


There are six stages that couples go through in the marriage process:

  • Proposal. The couple exchange the year, month, day, and hour of each of their births. If any unpropitious event happens within the bride-to-be’s family during the following three days, the woman is believed to have rejected the proposal.
  • Engagement. After the wedding day has been chosen, the bride announces the wedding with invitations and a gift of cookies made in the shape of the moon.
  • Dowry. This is carried to the groom’s home in a solemn procession. Gifts equal in value to the dowry are sent to the bride by the groom.
  • Procession. The groom visits the bride’s home and brings her back to his place, with much fanfare.
  • Marriage and reception. The couple recite their vows that bond them together for a lifetime, toast each other with wine, then take center stage at a banquet.
  • Morning after. The bride serves breakfast to the groom’s parents, who then reciprocate.


At death, the relatives cry aloud to inform the neighbors. The family starts mourning and puts on clothes made of coarse material. The corpse is washed and placed in a coffin. Mourners bring incense and money to offset the cost of the funeral. Food and significant objects of the deceased are placed into the coffin. A Buddhist or Taoist priest, or even a Christian minister, performs the burial ritual. Friends and family follow the coffin to the cemetery, bringing a willow branch, which symbolizes the soul of the person who has died. The branch is later carried back to the family altar where it is used to “install” the spirit of the deceased. Liturgies are performed on the seventh, ninth, and forty-ninth days after the burial, and on the first and third anniversaries of the death.

On Confucius’s death, his students compiled his thoughts in Spring and Autumn Annals. Mencius spread the values of Confucianism throughout the known world. With the increasing popularity in Confucius, his disciples and followers left sacrifices in temples dedicated to him. The People’s Republic of China banned the ritual sacrifices in 1906.



Confucius was born in the small state of Lu in 551 B.C.E., in what is now Shantung Province. As a thinker and teacher, Confucius made an important contribution to political thought, with his insistence on the connection between ethics and politics. He thought that government included a moral responsibility and was not primarily the manipulation of power.

He was born into an aristocratic family that had seen much better times. His father died when he was only three years old, and his mother educated him at home. By the time he was a teenager, he inquired about everything and had set his heart on learning. He started as a keeper of stores and accounts, but moved on to other minor posts in government. However, he had difficulty finding a good job even though he was ambitious and willing to do anything. He never gave up his first love — learning. He found teachers who would school him in music, archery, calligraphy, and arithmetic. From his family he had learned the classics: poetry, literature, and history.

When he was nineteen, he married a woman of a similar background to his own. Not much else is known about her. They apparently had a son and daughter.


The Reputation of Confucius

The edicts of Confucius did not go without criticism, much of it based on what was seen as his idealism and unrealistic attitudes. Confucius said that, unlike Buddhist belief, karma was not a force inthe progress of man resulting from moral goodness or the lack of it; rather, it was destiny. Confucianism taught that a person should choose what to do in a single-minded manner, without taking into consideration what the outcome may be. Is human nature fundamentally good or bad? Confucius didn’t have an answer. As time went by, the positive view became the orthodoxy.

Confucius developed his ambition to become active in the teaching of politicians. He wanted to put his humanist ideas into practice and saw government employees as the best conduit. In his early forties and fifties he became a magistrate, then eventually a minister of justice in his home state of Lu.

Confucius’s pronouncements on the cultivation of the gentleman are in the Analects or “Selected Sayings,” (Lun Yu), the earliest parts of which were composed shortly after his death. They provide an insight into his ideal of the Superior Person. He said:

If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there be harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there be order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.

Confucius was asked for advice on how to induce people to be loyal. He answered,

“Approach them with dignity, and they will respect you. Show piety toward your parents and kindness toward your children, and they will be loyal to you. Promote those who are worthy, train those who are incompetent; that is the best form of encouragement.”

The reputation of Confucius grew, as did the number of his disciples. Trouble came, of course, because he generated the enmity of those who opposed his teachings and growing influence. His political career was shortlived, and at the age of fifty-six when he realized his influence had declined, he moved on and tried to find a feudal state in which he could teach and give service. He was more or less in exile, but his reputation as a man of virtue spread.

When he was sixty-seven years old, he returned home to teach, write, and edit. He died in 479 B.C.E. at the age of seventy-two.


The Teachings of Confucius

All Confucius’s learning qualified him to teach, which he started to do in his thirties. He became known as the first teacher in China whose concern was providing education for all. The rich had tutorsfor their children; he believed everyone could benefit from self-education. He defined learning as not only the acquisition of knowledge but also the building of character.

A major point in his teaching was filial piety, the virtue of devotion to one’s parents. He considered it the foundation of virtue and the root of human character. Interestingly, the male attitude toward sex was strict. The purpose of sex was to conceive children, preferably sons. Sexual excess on the part of a ruler was given as a valid reason to take the right to rule from him.

Proper social behavior and etiquette were considered essential to right living. An ethical view is set forth in the Analects, a collection of moral and social teachings that amount to a code of human conduct. Many of the sayings were passed on orally. Here are some examples:

  • Clever words and a plausible appearance have seldom turned out to be humane.
  • Young men should be filial when at home and respectful to elders when away from home. They should be earnest and trustworthy. Although they should love the multitude far and wide, they should be intimate only with the humane. If they have any energy to spare after so doing, they should use it to study culture.
  • The gentleman is calm and peaceful; the small man is always emotional.
  • In his attitude to the world the gentleman has no antagonisms and no favoritisms. What is right he sides with.
  • If one acts with a view to profit, there will be much resentment.
  • One who can bring about the practice of five things everywhere under Heaven has achieved humanity … courtesy, tolerance, good faith, diligence, and kindness.

Confucius concentrated his teachings on his vision, Jen, which has been translated in the most complete way as: love, goodness, and human-heartedness; moral achievement and excellence in character; loyalty to one’s true nature; then righteousness; and, finally, filial piety. All this adds up to the principle of virtue within the person.


Diversification into Modern Society

Not long after Confucius’s death, his followers split into eight separate schools, and all of them claimed to be the legitimate heir to the legacy. Many superior disciples surfaced though, including Tseng-tzu,Tzu Kung, and Tzuhsia. They were instrumental in continuing the teachings and legacy of Confucius. The man who had the greatest influence on Confucianism and its continuance is Mencius, known as the Confucian intellectual.

Mencius sought social reform in a society that had become oriented almost totally for profit, self-interest, wealth, and power. It was the philosophy of Mencius that a true man could not be corrupted by wealth. Rather than challenging the power structure head on, Mencius offered a compromise of right living and wealth. That way the wealthy could have their cake and eat it and preserve protection for themselves and their families. Mencius’s strategy was to make the urge for profit and self-interest part of a moral attitude that emphasized public spiritedness, welfare, and rightness. This attitude of acknowledging human nature and its desire for success and self-improvement in shaping the human condition might today be thought of as surprisingly modern, particularly when one considers when it was said.

Mencius was followed by Hsun-tzu (300–230 B.C.E.), one of the most eminent of noble scholars. Unlike Mencius, Hsun-tzu taught that human nature is evil because he considered that it was natural for men to go after gratification of their passions. His attitude, as opposed to that of Mencius, was that learning produced a cultured person who, by definition, became a virtuous member of a community. Hsun-tzu’s stance was a tough, moral reasoning. He believed in progress, and his sophisticated understanding of the political mindset around him enriched the Confucian heritage. Confucians revered him as the finest of scholars for more than three centuries.

The influence of Confucianism on China in particular was largely due to the power of its disciples and of the written works of not only Confucius but also his followers. The vitality of the Confucian ethic permeated much of the basic elements of societal thought and political action in the eastern hemisphere that was unprecedented. But in modern times it began to wane, due to the rise of Marxism-Leninism in 1949 as the official ideology of the People’s Republic of China. Confucianism was pushed into the background. In spite of that, the upper crust of that society kept a publicly unacknowledged link that amazingly continued to influence aspects of behavior; it had an effect on the attitudes at every level of life. Confucian roots run extremely deep.

In other regions, especially Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and North America, there has been a revival of Confucian studies. Thinkers in the West have been inspired by the philosophy and have begun to explore what it might mean today. Even in China, exploration is taking place between what might be a fruitful interaction between Confucian humanism and other kinds of political practices. There are six different schools of Confucianism: Han Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism, Contemporary Neo-Confucianism, Korean Confucianism, Japanese Confucianism, and Singaporean Confucianism.


Confucian Literature

The most important Confucian literature comprises two sets of books. The major one is the Five Classics. While Confucius may not have personally written them, he was associated with them. The Five Classicscontain five visions: I Ching (Classic of Changes); Shu Ching (Classic of History); Shih Ching (Classic of Poetry); LiChi (Collection of Rituals); and Ch’un-ch’iu (Spring and Autumn-Annals). For 2,000 years, their influence has been with-out parallel in the history of China.

When Chinese students were studying for civil service examinations between 1313 and 1905, they were required to study the Five Classics; however, before they reached that level they tackled the Four Books, which served as an introduction to the Five. The Four Books have commentaries by Chu Hsi, a great Neo-Confucian philosopher who helped revitalize Confucianism in China. Confucian Classics, as they were called, became the core curriculum for all levels of education.

The I Ching, one of the Five Classics of Confucianism, combines divinatory art with numerological techniques and ethical insight. There are two complementary and conflicting vital energies: yin and yang. Enthusiasts have claimed that this Classic of Changes is a means of understanding and even controlling future events.

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