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Te: The Ethics and Rituals of Confucianism

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Understanding the ethics and rituals of Confucianism is to explore a deeper understanding of the ideology. Learn about the concept of Te, including the background, teachings of the Analects and the Five Classics, and the role of Chun-Tzu and rituals. Updated: 10/03/2021

Defining Te

In order for us to understand the Confucian concept of Te, we're going to need some background information. For this reason, a good part of this lesson will deal with the origins of Confucius thought. However, before we get to that, I'll give the definition of Te, so you can sort of mull it over as you listen.

Te, sometimes also spelled De, is defined as moral power or the perfection of one's virtues. Also, it almost always refers to a ruler or a nobleman. Although this may seem a bit odd to those of us from the Western world, I promise it will make more sense as we get into some background information. With that promise, let's dive in.

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  • 0:01 Defining Te
  • 0:42 Background
  • 2:05 Te & Rulers
  • 2:54 Chun-Tzu
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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Unlike the more Western faiths of Judaism or Christianity, Confucianism does not teach the worship of any particular deity. Instead, it focuses more on human behavior, especially the behavior of the ruling classes. In fact, much of the Analects, or the collection of Confucius' teachings, deal with this subject. Many concepts on human behavior are also found in the Five Classics, another of Confucianism's early texts.

Many scholars believe this emphasis on human behavior is a direct result of the time in which Confucius lived. Being born sometime around the year 551 BCE, Confucius lived in China during the decline of the feudal system, a system of power based on land ownership. This decline led to a period of great instability as feudal lords and the nobility were unable to protect themselves or the common man against invasion, and warring tribes began tearing apart the old established order of Chinese society.

In fact, many sources report that Confucius' own family, which had once been members of the aristocracy, had lost their wealth and position of power during this very unstable time. Seeing the ills which had captured his society, Confucius, who although poor was rather well educated, longed for his lands to be restored.

Te & Rulers

To Confucius, peace would only come when rulers longed for peace over power. In short, he believed that in order for a society to succeed, it must be governed righteously. Rulers must live by a very strict moral code, holding tightly to the virtues of humility and benevolence. From this great emphasis on rulers was born the Confucian principle of Te.

As defined earlier, Te is moral power or the perfection of one's virtues. Very loosely translated, it's almost seen as a supernatural power that gives someone the ability to say no to temptation and evil. Going with this very, very loose translation, those who were believed to possess Te were sort of seen as moral superheroes.


Because of this, Te is seen as a prerequisite for the position of ruler. Without it, a leader will fall into greed and degrade into power mongering. A leader must possess Te in order to rule justly and benevolently, which, of course, is his duty and obligation. In fact, a ruler or nobleman who possesses Te and the other virtues of Confucianism is often referred to as a Chun-tzu, which we can translate as the superior or ideal man. Adding to this, a ruler's role is not only to govern but to be a good example. He is to be one worthy of being imitated.

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