The Founding of Confucianism: Overview & Influence

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  • 0:01 Religion or Philosophy
  • 1:03 Master Kung
  • 1:51 Key Relationships & Jen
  • 3:13 Spread of Confucianism
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the origins of Confucianism by highlighting the life and times of Master Kung, known today as Confucius. In doing so, it will focus on feudalism in China as well as the principle of jen.

Religion or Philosophy

Like many other Eastern religions, the details surrounding the founding of Confucianism are a bit sketchy. With many historians arguing over dates and events, the most authentic materials on the topic are found in a collection of Confucius' teachings known as the Analects.

To begin, Confucianism is the philosophy or religion based on the teaching of Master Kung. Notice I chose to say philosophy or religion. I do this because it doesn't really hold to any solid belief in a divine being or even a view on the afterlife. For this reason, many choose to look at Confucianism more as an attitude toward life rather than a religion. Regardless of whether you call it a religion or a philosophy, it's very hard to deny the huge impact Confucianism has had on the Eastern world.

With this in mind, let's take a look at its founder. As we do so, we'll try and stick with the most agreed upon details of his life and his philosophies.

Master Kung

Born sometime around 551 BCE in China, Master Kung, known to us by the Westernized form of his name, Confucius, lived during a time of great political upheaval. The decline of the Chinese feudal system, a system of power based on land ownership, had led to a period of great instability at the time of Confucius' birth. At this time, feudal lords and the nobility were unable to protect themselves 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.

Key Relationships and Jen

Seeing the ills which had captured his society, Confucius, who although poor was rather well educated, longed for his lands to be restored. To him, this would only occur when people, especially rulers, longed for peace over power. In short, he believed that in order for society to succeed, it must be governed righteously. Rulers must live by a very strict moral code, holding tightly to the virtues of humility, loyalty and diligence. Adding to these, rulers must always hold to the practice of filial piety, or deep respect of elders and ancestors. Not surprisingly, all these beliefs make up the basic tenants of today's Confucianism.

Along with this, Master Kung, or as we call him, Confucius, taught that a successful society must always protect and uphold what he called the five key relationships. They are the relationship of ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger and friend to friend. Out of this belief in the importance of relationships comes one of Confucianism's main principles known as jen. Sometimes also spelled ren, jen, simply stated, is the desire to seek the good of others.

Spread of Confucianism

Even as a young man, Confucius wanted his beliefs to be heard. In fact, history tells us he had hopes of holding a high government position, one in which he could have influence over great feudal lords or a king. Since he believed that change would have to come from the top down, Confucius knew he'd have to bend the ear of the powerful in order to make a difference.

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