Philosophy 175 - 9.4.1 Confucianism

As discussed earlier, the Warring States period in ancient China (ca. 475–221 BCE) was a period marked by warfare, social unrest, and suffering. Warfare during this period was common because China was comprised of small states that were not politically unified. New philosophical approaches were developed to promote social harmony, peace, and a better life. This period in China’s history is also sometimes referred to as the era of the “Hundred Schools of Thought” because the development of new philosophical approaches led to cultural expansion and intellectual development. Mohism, Daoism, and Confucianism developed in ancient China during this period. Daoism and Confucianism would later spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, where they would be adopted and changed in response to local social and cultural circumstances.


Confucius (551–479 BCE) rose from lowly positions to become a minister in the government of a province in eastern China. After a political conflict with the hereditary aristocracy, Confucius resigned his position and began traveling to other kingdoms and teaching. Confucius’s teachings centered on virtue, veering into practical subjects such as social obligations, ritual performance, and governance. During his lifetime, Confucius despaired that his advice to rulers fell on deaf ears: “How can I be like a bitter gourd that hangs from the end of a string and can not be eaten?” (Analects 17:7). He did not foresee that his work and ideas would influence society, politics, and culture in East Asia for over 2000 years.

Statue of Confucius, built in Yushima Seido Temple, Tokyo, Japan. Confucius was a Chinese philosopher, poet, and politician of the Spring and Autumn period.
Figure 9.7 This statue of Confucius, the largest in the world, stands at the Yushima Seido, a Confucian temple in Japan. (credit: “Confucius Statue at the Yushima Seido” by Abasaa/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Confucius is credited with authoring or editing the classical texts that became the curriculum of the imperial exams, which applicants had to pass to obtain positions in government. His words, sayings, and exchanges with rulers and his disciples were written down and recorded in the Lun Yu, or the Analects of Confucius, which has heavily influenced the moral and social practice in China and elsewhere.

Relational Aspect of Virtue

Like Mohism, Confucianism aimed to restore social order and harmony by establishing moral and social norms. Confucius believed the way to achieve this was through an ordered, hierarchical society in which people know their place in relationship to other people. Confucius said, “There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son” (Analects, 7:11). In Confucianism, relationships and social roles shape moral responsibilities and structure moral life.

A cornerstone of Confucian virtue is filial piety. Confucius felt that the role of the father was to care for and educate his son, but the duty of the son must be to respect his father by obediently abiding by his wishes. “While a man's father is alive, look at the bent of his will; when his father is dead, look at his conduct. If for three years he does not alter from the way of his father, he may be called filial” (Analects, 1:11). Indeed, when the Duke of Sheh informed Confucius that his subjects were so truthful that if their father stole a sheep, they would bear witness to it, Confucius replied, “Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” The devotion of the son to the father is more important than what Kant would call the universal moral law of truth telling.

There is therefore an important relational aspect of virtue that a moral person must understand. The virtuous person must not only be aware of and care for others but must understand the “human dance,” or the complex practices and relationships that we participate in and that define social life (Wong 2021). The more we begin to understand the “human dance,” the more we grasp how we relate to one another and how social roles and relationships must be accounted for to act virtuously.

Ritual and Ren

Important to both early and late Confucian ethics is the concept of li (ritual and practice). Li plays an important role in the transformation of character. These rituals are a guide or become a means by which we develop and start to understand our moral responsibilities. Sacrificial offerings to parents and other ancestors after their death, for example, cultivate filial piety. By carrying out rituals, we transform our character and become more sensitive to the complexities of human interaction and social life.

In later Confucian thought, the concept of li takes on a broader role and denotes the customs and practices that are a blueprint for many kinds of respectful behavior (Wong 2021). In this way, it relates to ren, a concept that refers to someone with complete virtue or specific virtues needed to achieve moral excellence. Confucians maintain that it is possible to perfect human nature through personal development and transformation. They believe society will improve if people abide by moral and social norms and focus on perfecting themselves. The aim is to live according to the dao. The word dao means “way” in the sense of a road or path of virtue.

Junzi and Self-Perfection

Confucius used the term junzi to refer to an exemplary figure who lives according to the dao. This figure is an ethical ideal that reminds us that self-perfection can be achieved through practice, self-transformation, and a deep understanding of social relationships and norms. A junzi knows what is right and chooses it, taking into account social roles and norms, while serving as a role model. Whenever we act, our actions are observed by others. If we act morally and strive to embody the ethical ideal, we can become an example for others to follow, someone they can look to and emulate.

The Ethical Ruler

Any person of any status can become a junzi. Yet, it was particularly important that rulers strive toward this ideal because their subjects would then follow this ideal. When the ruler Chi K’ang consulted with Confucius about what to do about the number of thieves in his domain, Confucius responded, “If you, sir, were not covetous, although you should reward them to do it, they would not steal” (Analects, 7:18).

Confucius thought social problems were rooted in the elite’s behavior and, in particular, in their pursuit of their own benefit to the detriment of the people. Hence, government officials must model personal integrity, understand the needs of the communities over which they exercised authority, and place the welfare of the people over and above their own (Koller 2007, 204).

In adherence to the ethical code, a ruler’s subjects must show obedience to honorable people and emulate those higher up in the social hierarchy. Chi K’ang, responding to Confucius’s suggestion regarding thievery, asked Confucius, “What do you say to killing the unprincipled for the good of the principled?” Confucius replied that there was no need to kill at all. “Let your evinced desires be for what is good, and the people will be good.” Confucius believed that the relationship between rulers and their subjects is and should be like that between the wind and the grass. “The grass must bend, when the wind blows across it” (Analects, 7:19).

Beijing Temple of Confucius, the second-largest Confucian temple in China, which is located in his birthplace, Qufu City of Shandong Province, China.
Figure 9.8 The elaborate Temple of Confucius in Beijing, China was initially built in 1302, with additions added in the centuries that followed. (credit: “Temple of Confucius, Beijing, China” by Fabio Achilli/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Japanese Confucianism

Although Confucianism was initially developed in China, it spread to Japan in the mid-sixth century, via Korea, and developed its own unique attributes. Confucianism is one of the dominant philosophical teachings in Japan. As in China, Japanese Confucianism focuses on teaching individual perfection and moral development, fostering harmonious and healthy familial relations, and promoting a functioning and prosperous society. In Japan, Confucianism has been changed and transformed in response to local social and cultural factors. For example, Confucianism and Buddhism were introduced around the same time in Japan. It is therefore not uncommon to find variations of Japanese Confucianism that integrate ideas and beliefs from Buddhism. Some neo-Confucian philosophers like Zhu Xi, for example, developed “Confucian thinking after earlier study and practice of Chan Buddhism” (Tucker 2018).

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax