Confucianism: Views, Philosophy & Teaching

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  • 0:01 Confucianism
  • 0:37 Origins
  • 2:01 Views
  • 4:27 Confucianism in History
  • 6:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the life and teachings of the ancient Chinese thinker, Confucius, as well as discovering the various ways his teachings were used to shape Chinese society after his death.


Are you on Twitter? If you are, you probably 'follow' many people from news organizations to media personalities to your own friends. It's how you get information about what they're thinking and what's important to them.

Well, long before the advent of Twitter, if you wanted to 'follow' someone, you really had to actually follow them around! Such was the case for the followers of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, whose followers codified his beliefs and teachings after his death into something akin to a religion, which had an enormous impact on Chinese civilization in the centuries after his death.


Confucius was not the philosopher's given name; after all, Confucius hardly sounds Chinese, does it? Confucius is a Latinized name of the Chinese title K'ung-Fu-tzu, and was given by later Western scholars to the teacher and wandering philosopher, who was born around 552 B.C.E. Confucius certainly did not set out to start a new religion or even start a movement. What Confucius really wanted was to be an advisor to a king or powerful statesman in China. When this position never materialized, he sometimes considered himself a failure.

This is not to say, of course, that Confucius was an unhappy man. Confucius had a deep love of learning, education, and an unparalleled reverence for tradition and Chinese culture. Instead of working to instill that culture from a high government position as he had hoped, he traveled from place to place, teaching. He had a small group of followers that traveled with him from location to location, learning from him as well as helping him teach, and several of these followers took up important government positions after Confucius' death in 479 B.C.E.

In Confucius' time, he did not delineate the social system or worldview that was later attributed to him. Instead, Confucius' teachings focused on real-world contemporary society and ways in which humans could better respect one another, and he held especially high esteem for one's elders and for state authority.


In fact, some historians and theologians even question the categorization of Confucianism as a religion because it does not necessarily consider many of the basic questions most religions consider. For example, Confucius considered any contemplation of God or the afterlife to be unimportant. Confucius believed absolute truth on either subject was impossible to know, so humans should focus their energies on doing the right thing in this world, rather than worrying about the next.

The main thrust of Confucius' teachings was creating a moral and just society in this world. The foundation of this society, according to Confucius, should be mutual respect in all its forms: respect for one another, respect for culture and tradition, respect for institutions, etc. Confucius sought to revitalize society through instilling respect for various institutions, traditions, and rituals, which Confucius claimed had long kept Chinese society just and moral. Confucius felt that the family was one of the basic units of the social organization that should be respected. The elderly and infirm were to be cared for by their able family members, while it was the responsibility of the entire family to teach the children to be moral members of society.

Confucius believed the best way to fuel this respect in society was the promotion of rituals. Rituals for Confucius encompassed many things, from the semi-religious routines and practices that you and I would think of to the basic courtesies and social conventions of conversation. Many of the rituals Confucius believed should be implemented were ancient vestiges of the Zhou dynasty, which began ruling China several centuries before Confucius' time and had slowly deteriorated. According to Confucius, through conformity to these ancient rituals and social conventions, each individual could promote a more humane and moral society.

Finally, as just hinted at, Confucius taught that a moral and just society could only be arrived at if each person committed to these ideals individually. On several occasions, when questioned by his followers as to how best to encourage an ideal society in China, Confucius replied that the best way to do that is to set an example for others by practicing Confucian principles at home. Confucius himself often claimed to be on a personal journey of self-realization through learning and teaching, and he instructed his followers to look inward to find the strength to act in a moral and just manner.

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