Confucius' Ideas on Family & Society

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  • 0:01 Confucius Says
  • 1:22 Confucianism & the Family
  • 2:45 Government & Society
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the foundational principles of the Chinese philosophy Confucianism and discover how family relationships influenced emperors. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Confucius Says

There are far too many 'Confucius Says' jokes for me to pick just one. You see, the name Confucius is not something that most Americans are entirely unfamiliar with. We know he was wise, and we know he was Chinese. But, who was this Confucius guy really?

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and teacher who lived from 551-479 BC. He worked and taught in an era called the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, when China was first unifying culturally and politically as one people and when many of what are now called traditional Chinese practices first began. Confucius had several philosophies on society and government, and he traveled around China teaching them to government leaders. His teachings were collected into a series of books called the Five Classics, and his philosophies became known as Confucianism.

For years, Confucianism was just one of many political and ethical philosophies that were used in government. Then, in the later Han dynasty, between 200 BC and 200 AD, Confucius's teachings suddenly skyrocketed in prominence, and the Han emperors declared it the official moral standard of China. From this point on, Confucianism was an integral part of the Chinese government and society.

Confucianism & the Family

Confucianism, as it was originally used, is better described as a philosophy than a religion. It wasn't until much later that the Asian religion Buddhism entered China and fused with Confucian teachings to form a religious doctrine. True Confucianism presents a series of ethical values focused around maintaining a harmonious government and society, in which each member has responsibilities and obligations to everyone else.

While we could devote an entire course to discussing the various points of Confucianism, we are going to focus on the base unit, the central focus by which Confucian standards of ethics are measured: family. Family was the foundation of moral society in Confucianism. Every member of a family had a proper relationship with the others, defined by age, sex and birth order. A minor owed the elders respect, but could also expect protection, and so, everyone was part of this system.

Confucianism also had strict requirements regarding ancestor worship. Ancestors were still family and certainly counted as elders, so they were to be treated with immense respect and veneration. The reciprocal obligations in between family members and the base virtue of respect for parents and ancestors is called filial piety. If everyone obeyed filial piety and respected their elders, obeyed their parents, assisted the elderly, protected children and treated siblings fairly, society would be harmonious and peaceful.

Government & Society

The family was the basis of society for Confucius, and in his teachings, family relationships are used to explain the proper relationships between the government and the people. The most obvious of these is the emperor, who, by no accident, was often compared to the father of all the people. The people have a duty to respect, honor and obey the emperor, just like the children to a parent. However, the emperor also has a responsibility to protect and nurture his subjects, reflecting a parent's relationship with their children.

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