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READ: Confucianism

The confusing thing about Confucianism is how it required unequal relationships, but also balance and harmony within those relationships – at home, in school, and in government.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What was the period like in which Confucius developed his ethic and shared it with others?
  2. How did Confucius argue that order could be restored?
  3. What were the principle ideas of Confucian social order?
  4. What does the author mean when she says that it was a belief system that was political?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. The community frame refers to both belief systems and states as communities. What does this reading suggest about the relationship between the two in China during this period?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.


By Eman M. Elshaikh
The confusing thing about Confucianism is how it required unequal relationships, but also balance and harmony within those relationships – at home, in school, and in government.


For someone who left no writings behind, Confucius sure is quoted a lot. Hundreds of aphorisms (wise sayings or proverbs) and philosophical ideas are attributed to Confucius, but historians aren't exactly sure which ideas were really his. After Confucius' death, his followers compiled his teachings into The Analects, which lay out Confucius' ethical system.
The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685-758 CE, Tang Dynasty. Public domain.
But according to The Analects, Confucius didn't think he was coming up with original ideas. Instead, he claims he is merely a transmitter, promoting what's essentially ancient Chinese wisdom. History is a big part of Confucian beliefs. For Confucius, the key to an ideal society was in the past. Confucius (551-479 BCE) was an educated man born to a wealthy family. But he was very troubled by the political turmoil he observed. Confucius lived during the Eastern Zhou dynasty when different states were fighting to gain more power. It was an unstable time with frequent wars. Motivated to ease these problems, he developed a sophisticated moral framework. His teachings would make a huge impact on Chinese culture and government and, as this philosophy traveled along trade networks, to other societies in East Asia as well.

The Confucian solution

Confucius believed that to restore order, societies had to encourage certain virtues, such as loyalty, trustworthiness, and respecting your elders. He believed people were capable of attaining these and other virtues through education. By learning history, literature, and philosophy, people could gain insights. They could then apply this knowledge to their private lives and to public political issues. But how do you practice virtues, and how do you enforce them in others? That's where rituals and rules come in. It's one thing to you say you're virtuous, but when the whole community adopts rules and practices rituals meant to encourage specific virtues, people are more able to adjust to this ethical life. By living respectful and ethical lives, his followers believed they could become "superior" people.
In order to attain this moral refinement, according to Confucius, people had to constantly reflect upon their behavior. In The Analects, this is described as follows: "Master Zeng said: Each day I examine myself upon three points. In planning for others, have I been loyal? In company with friends, have I been trustworthy? And have I practiced what has been passed on to me?"
A Confucian ritual ceremony in Autumn in Jeju, South Korea. After the ritual ceremony, they burn ancestral tablets made of paper. By joonghijung, CC BY 2.0.
Initially, Confucian ideas appealed mostly to everyday folks. But over time, his philosophy gained popularity in the political sphere and became the official belief system of the Chinese state. Confucianism also became a big part of the educational system. So much so that officials had to master Confucian principles in order to pass the civil service exams for government employment. Because of this, Confucian ideas influenced Chinese government for centuries.
But though Confucianism was bound up in government, it didn't call for harsh laws or punishments like Legalism1, another Chinese philosophy. According to The Analects, "The Master said: Guide them with policies and align them with punishments and the people will evade them and have no shame. Guide them with virtue and align them with li [traditions and virtues of the Zhou] and the people will have a sense of shame and fulfill their roles…" As this passage suggests, Confucianism called for a kind of moral training which strengthened the correct social order. It was less about punishing wrongdoers and more about making people want to be good.

Confucianism and social order

The Confucian social order was centered on relationships, and in particular "five key relationships". Importantly, these relationships were generally unequal but complementary, which means that they worked in harmony2 . Fathers were above sons, husbands above wives, older siblings above younger ones, and rulers above their subjects. (One relationship—friend to friend—was not unequal). Because, in general, one side had more power, that side had to behave morally, with concern for the other side. This would then help the inferior person in the relationship obey and respect the superior. Though it sounds contradictory, the unequal relationships were meant to create balance and harmony.
In this way, the family was an example of political life, and the place where social order was created and maintained. The family was seen as a kind of mini- government. Filial piety, meaning respect and honor for elder family members, was incredibly important. It tied into existing practices, like the veneration (great respect) of ancestors. These principles were clearly expressed in The Analects:
"1.6 The Master said: A young man should be filial within his home and respectful of elders when outside, should be careful and trustworthy, broadly caring of people at large, and should cleave to [embrace] those who are ren [virtuous in all things]. If he has energy left over, he may study the refinements of culture (wen)…
1.9 Master Zeng said: Devote care to life's end and pursue respect for the distant dead; in this way, the virtue of the people will return to fullness…"
Confucian family structures were also very hierarchical when it came to gender. Though filial piety called for respecting all elders, men came first. Women's roles were primarily to care for the family and manage the household. They typically did not have formal roles outside of the home. This was truer for women of the upper classes than it was for lower class women, who sometimes had to work outside of the home to support their families. In the cosmic balance between yin and yang, women were seen as passive, soft, and inferior.
Fourteenth of The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, a sculpture depicting a figure from a classic text of Confucian filial piety written by Guo Jujing during the Yuan dynasty (1260–1368 CE). By Dingar, public domain.
Even though Confucian ideas resulted in social hierarchies, they placed an emphasis on compassion. The most superior person in society, the emperor, was therefore tasked with ensuring justice and providing for his subjects. According to The Analects, "The Master said: To guide a state great enough to possess a thousand war chariots: be attentive to affairs and trustworthy; regulate expenditures and treat persons as valuable; employ the people according to the proper season." This emphasized the importance of sincerity and care on the part of the state. Similarly, men had to care for their wives and children and treat them with kindness.
Despite this hierarchical structure, Confucianism still left room for social mobility. Because it emphasized education and proper behavior, it created opportunities for common people to improve themselves and gain important positions. It created a system which valued merit rather than simply noble birth, though who your parents were still mattered.
Confucianism was therefore a belief system that was distinctly political, focused on maintaining order in relationships at many levels. But it was less concerned with the divine and the mystical. Confucius is said to have claimed that because humans have yet to understand this life, they can't really know anything what's beyond it. Little thought was given to concepts like heaven, hell, and reincarnation. Instead, Confucius and his followers focused on practical, worldly affairs, like maintaining harmony in family, government, and the community.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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