Confucianism is more complex than the typical Westerner's notion of bromides in fortune cookies and Asian stereotypes that were once ubiquitous on old TV shows, who would intone in broken English, “Confucius say <insert inscrutable cliché”
Confucius (551 — 479 B.C.) was born into a well-to-do family, but a series of tragedies thrust him into poverty. He was a traveling philosopher, around whom disciples would form and imbibe of his insights and wisdom. He lived in a time of chaos and corruption in ancient China, and his philosophy stressed the ethical in interpersonal and political relations and family values, emphasizing a deep respect for parents. His centerpiece of this belief was setting a good example. The leader should be of exemplary moral fiber, and in an ethical trickle-down theory, the citizenry would toe the virtuous line. Confucius had a brief tenure in political office and put his beliefs into practice with remarkable results. He was so successful that less noble politicos had him removed from office. He spent the rest of his life trying, through his writings and teachings, to convert the wicked to his philosophy of truth, justice, and the Chinese way.
Confucius, like Jesus and Buddha, did not put anything in writing, which seems to be a trend among the great spiritual leaders. They leave the transcribing to their disciples. The best distillation of Confucius's life and his teachings is called
Confucius and his followers created a philosophy that changed Asian culture on social, political, and spiritual levels. Starting in China, it spread across the world and is of continuing fascination to the Western mind.
A Secular Philosophy
Confucianism is not an organized religion. It is a secular philosophy. There are no monks or priests or a dogma. Confucius is revered as a great man, not a divinity or an emissary of any Deity. There are Confucian “temples,” but they have functioned more as community centers. Confucius sensed that it was human nature to turn great leaders into superheroes and gods, and he expressly forbade any attempts to worship him as a god either during his life or afterward.
The Two Schools
Two schools of Confucianism vied for predominance in Chinese history: the philosophy of Mencius and the teachings of Xunzi. Mencius, like his mentor, believed in the inherent decency of mankind, but his teachings addressed the possible dark side. Speaking of heredity and environmental factors, Mencius felt that people were born pure of heart, but could be corrupted by their own natures and the world around them.
This belief is the opposite of the Christian notion of Original Sin, which proposes that people are inherently sinful, but can be redeemed through the Christian faith.
The other main school of Confucianism, espoused by Xunzi, mirrors the Original Sin theory. He believed that people were inherently evil but could be redeemed through exposure to a moral upbringing and life in a just society.
Confucianism Versus Taoism
Confucianism, with its emphasis on proper behavior, and protocols and etiquette for every occasion, is the opposite of the footloose, fancy-free, and formless Tao. There is a legend that the young Confucius met the elder Lao-Tzu and left saying, “I have met a dragon.” By this statement, he did not mean that he had met a cranky, fire-breathing old coot. In Chinese legend, the dragon is not earthbound; it soars through the clouds and is not confined by mundane matters. Confucianism is a philosophy concerned with the concrete; Taoism is not concrete in the least.
Confucianism was eclipsed by Buddhism and Taoism, but never faded away as an influence on Chinese social and political life. Eventually, a new school of Confucianism, which was an amalgam of Buddhism and Taoism called Neo-Confucianism, developed.
Confucianism was always, in one form or another and in and out of favor, a significant Chinese school of thought until the Chinese Communist revolution of 1949. Wanting a monopoly on dogma, the Communists aggressively discouraged the study of Confucius, and new philosophical writings were not well received. However, the main books of Confucian philosophy are still around for any and all to read, despite the best efforts of their detractors. The most famous of these ancient texts is the