Confucianism: Definition, Beliefs & History

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  • 0:01 What Is Confucianism?
  • 0:41 Founding & Overview
  • 1:53 Social Rituals
  • 2:54 Humane Behavior
  • 3:34 Inner Cultivation
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jade Mazarin

Jade is a board certified Christian counselor with an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy, and a certification in Natural Health. She is also a freelance writer on emotional health and spirituality.

Confucianism is an ancient philosophy of respect and kindness. Learn about the history of Confucianism, including its philosophy and founder. Then, test your understanding of the subject with a short quiz.

What is Confucianism?

Many of us have heard the biblical phrase, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' The Chinese philosophy of Confucianism puts it this way: 'Do not do to others what you would have them not do to you.'

Unlike Christianity, Confucianism is technically not a religion. But it does share the Christian approach of loving others. In fact, that is the foundation of the philosophy. Confucianism is based entirely on kindness, mutual respect and an appreciation for character virtues. It is founded on the belief that society can flourish only when people learn to interact positively with each other.

Founding and Overview

Confucianism was developed in China by Master Kong in 551-479 BC, who was given the name Confucius by Jesuit missionaries who were visiting there. However, the fundamental principles of Confucianism began before his birth, during the Zhou Dynasty.

At that time, the ideas of respect and the well-being of others were prevalent, but there was also an emphasis on spiritual matters - specifically, the goodness of the divine and the mandate to rule given to those in power. These ideas were meant to unite the people, create stability and prevent rebellion.

Confucius believed his philosophy was also a route toward a civil society. However, he shifted attention away from ruling authorities, the divine or one's future after death, focusing instead on the importance of daily life and human interactions. This new, refined version of the philosophy did not completely take root until the next dynasty, the Han (140-87 BC). It is the Confucianism that many people are familiar with today.

The foundation of Confucianism is an appreciation for one's character and the well-being of others. Now we will discuss the main features that reflect this aim.

Social Rituals

According to Confucius, social rituals are specific ways of interacting with others. He explained that in each of our relationships, we have a designated role. In order to keep these relationships healthy, we have to be aware of what that role is and how to live it out. He identified the five main relationships in life to be:

  1. Ruler and subject
  2. Husband and wife
  3. Father and son
  4. Elder brother and younger brother
  5. Friend and friend

As you can see, three of these relationships are familial, and all but the last are hierarchical. According to Confucius, the family makes up the core of society and is the most important of relationships. In terms of the roles of each person, the husband should be kind and listen to his wife, for example. His wife should also obey him because that is part of her assigned role. The principle of doing what we are supposed to do is referred to as 'Li' in the Chinese language.

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