Confucianism is an ancient Chinese philosophy centered on ritual and tradition. Its founder, Confucius, taught that by carrying out the noble practices of the past, one cultivates virtue in oneself and in others. Virtue, according to Confucius, provides the foundation for a prosperous society.
Confucius was born in the Year of the Dog 551 BCE to a war hero father. His given name was Qiu, while his clan name was Kong. “Confucius” is a Latinized form of his adult title, Kong Fuzi, or “Master Kong.”
The details of Confucius’s early life remain largely a mystery, although it is known that at the age of three his father died. As a result, he spent his childhood with his mother in poverty.
Although born into the shi, a sort of middle class between the aristocracy and common people, Confucius attended a school for commoners, where he learned the Six Arts — ritual, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy, and mathematics — that would factor into his later philosophy.
As a young adult, Confucius married and had children. He worked as a bookkeeper and tended livestock while teaching his ideas to a gradually increasing number of disciples.
At the age of 50, after decades of trying and failing to enter politics, he received his first post as a governor in a small town. He then rose to Minister of Crime, where he attempted to dismantle city walls to restore ducal power and achieve a more centralized government.
He ultimately failed and was forced into exile, where he remained until the final three years of his life. At 68 years old, he was invited back to his native city of Lu and taught a group of disciples until his death at the age of 71.
An appropriate starting point for Confucian thought is the concept of li, or “proper conduct.” Li is the practice of adhering to ancient ceremony and conduct, in ways big and small. Examples include sacrificial rites, tribute-paying, mat-straightening, mourning, bowing, and yielding. For Confucius, li is the touchstone of all moral action:
“Look at nothing in defiance of ritual, listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, speak of nothing in defiance or ritual, never stir hand or foot in defiance of ritual.”
This reverence for li stems from its unique ability, according to Confucius, to foster de, or virtue. By performing rituals, one cultivates good habits in one’s personal relations, including filial piety, loyalty, dependability, and reciprocity.
Crucially, these rituals only bear fruit when carried out with presence of mind, devotion, and sincerity. If treated as empty gestures, their practice brings no benefit and signifies nothing about a person’s character.
Assuming proper study and practice, ritual transforms one into a junzi, or a gentleman. Junzi embody humanity’s superior qualities (e.g. grace, eloquence, and integrity) and radiate them out into the world, inspiring others to embrace them. As a result, the cardinal virtue of ren, or compassion, flourishes.
This creates a domino effect in which de scales up from the family realm to the social and political sphere. By embodying ren, individuals achieve he, or social harmony, fulfilling their role either as a benevolent ruler or an obedient subject. It is important to note that Confucius held that a ruler should not inherit their title, but rather earn it. This was a radical notion for its time — an aristocrat could be barred from a position if they lacked virtue and a commoner could assume it if they possessed virtue.
This emphasis on virtue over hereditary right aimed to ensure that rulers were qualified to rule and would do so morally, with self-discipline, love, and concern for others. Confucius believed that if a ruler led well, their subjects would willingly follow:
“The moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends.”
In fact, Confucius detested rule by force, suggesting that subjugated individuals do not develop a sense of right and wrong, but merely a desire to avoid punishment. Instead, Confucius promoted a society governed by virtue as the proper way of promoting loyalty:
“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.”
Such is the basis of Confucius’s worldview. By encouraging virtuous behavior via ritual in the home, individuals may be entrusted to act virtuously in society. Governing thus occurs on the basis of mutual respect rather than force, which begets harmonious relations between subjects and rulers and by extension a prosperous society.
Like many visionaries, Confucius experienced limited recognition while he was alive, but is now considered one of the most important figures in human history. His canonical text, The Analects, is read in China as much as the Bible is in the West, and his Golden Rule — “What you do not desire for yourself, do not do to others” — remains a credo throughout the world.