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”

About Confucius

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.

Ren is defined in English as “love” or “virtue” and is the focal point of Confucian philosophy. It is expressed in another way, a phrase very familiar to Western ears: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That's right, the famous “Golden Rule” is also a mainstay of ancient Chinese thought.

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 The Lunyu, which is also known as TheAnalects. Confucius is not a religious leader, though there are those who have worshipped him as a divine messenger over the centuries. His is an ethical teaching that valued deep respect for parents, including ancestor worship, loyalty to the state and its leaders. He also concluded that five virtues were what one need to lead a good life: compassion, decency, good manners, insight, and fidelity.

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.

Its Legacy

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 I Ching, meaning “Book of Changes.” The I Ching is often used as a fortune-telling parlor game by contemporary Westerners, but it is an ancient and sacred text. Lots are cast and then you refer to the book to get the appropriate quotation (based on the number in your casting of the lots), and it is more often than not appropriate to the question you asked!

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