The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Religion III.


CONFUCIANISM, although spoken of with Buddhism and Taoism as one of the "Three Teachings," or three major religions of China, can hardly be defined as a religion in the precise way in which we can define Mahayana Buddhism or Roman Catholic Christianity. It has neither creed nor priesthood, nor any worship beyond what Confucius found already established in his day. The commemorative service, performed by local officials throughout China in spring and autumn in the red-walled shrines known as "Confucian temples" is not worship of the sage, but a civil rite in his honor, quite compatible with the profession of another religion. Indeed, when a few centuries after his death veneration approached to worship, and women began offering prayers to Confucius for children, the practice was stopped (A. D. 472) by imperial edict, as something superstitious and unbecoming. Confucianism may be said to have a bible in the nine canonical books associated with the sage's name; but it claims for them no divine revelation, nor other inspiration than such as speaks for itself from their pages. What these books yield to one who would define Confucianism is a conception of enlightened living, a social ideal which entails some allegiance to an old national religion blending nature worship and ancestor worship. One might say that the essence of Confucianism is a type of "eligible" life, the regimen of which includes a worship only indirectly Confucian, much as Stoicism among the Romans included as a matter of principle some adherence to the established worship.


Confucius can be appreciated only in his historical setting. It has been made a reproach to the sage that his vision was retrospective and conservative; but he cannot be charged with a mere desire to bring back "the good old days." When, at the court of Chou, he first inspected the ancestral shrines and the arrangements for the great annual sacrifices to Heaven and Earth, he exclaimed: "As we use a glass to examine the forms of things, so must we study the past to understand the present." The past, moreover, really held models of statecraft from which his own times had fallen away. The great Chou dynasty, which through a succession of able princes had ruled the whole valley of the Hoang Ho, had in the sixth century B. C. dwindled to a shadow of its early power. The emperor (or rather king for the title Huang-ti was then applied only to deceased monarchs) was reduced to a headship merely nominal, and the old imperial domain was broken up among turbulent vassals, each fighting for his own hand. The China of Confucius was pretty much in the condition of France before Louis XI broke the power of the feudal dukes and counts. With the tradition behind him of a nation united by wise leadership, Confucius is no more to be blamed for looking back than is Aristotle, whose Ethics and Politics show plainly that his sympathies were not with the advancing career of Macedon but with the old polity of Athens.

The first group of the Confucian books, the Five Classics, are fruits of this regard for the past, the sage being the reputed compiler of four of them, and author of the faith. These classics are the "Shu Ching" or "Book of History," made up of documents covering a period from the twenty-fourth to the eighth century B. C.; the "Shih Ching" or "Book of Odes," 305 lyrics dating from the eighteenth to the sixth century; the "Yi Ching" or "Book of Permutations," an ancient manual of divination; the "Li Chi," a compilation of ceremonial usages; and the "Ch'un Ch'iu," annals (722-484) of Confucius's native state of Lu. The second group in the canon, the Four Books, convey his actual teachings. They are the "Lun Yii" or "Sayings of Confucius"[1]; the "Ta Hsueh" or "Great Learning," a treatise by his disciple Tsang Sin on the ordering of the individual life, the family, and the state; the "Chung Yung" or "Doctrine of the Mean," a treatise on conduct by his grandson K'ung Chi; and the "Book of Mencius," his great apostle.

The distinctive features of Confucian doctrine may be summarized as follows:

(1) Filial piety is the cardinal social virtue. A dutiful son will prove dutiful in all the five relationships: those of father and son, ruler and subject, husband and wife, elder brother and younger, and that of friend. Such a tenet was naturally acceptable to a social system like the Chinese, with its patriarchalism and insistence on the family rather than the individual as the unit of society. Loyalty to family it raises to a religious duty in the rite of ancestor worship. Here Confucius did no more than emphasize with his approval a national custom—mentioned in the earliest odes—of offering food and wine to departed spirits. How far this family cult is to be construed as actual worship is disputable: some would compare it merely with the French custom of adorning graves on All Souls' Day. But it effectively strengthens the family bond, impressing as it does the sense of family unity and perpetuity through the passing generations.

(2) Between man and man the rule of practice is "reciprocity." "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." Benevolence—an extension of the love of son and brother—is the worthy attitude toward one's fellows, but it should not be pressed to fatuous lengths. When asked his opinion of Lao-tse's teaching that one should requite injury with good, Confucius replied: "With what, then, will you requite kindness? Return good for good; for injury return justice."

(3) The chief moral force in society is the example of the "superior man."[2] By nature man is good, and the unrighteousness of society is due to faulty education and bad example. Virtue in superiors will call out virtue in common folk. The burden of Confucius's teaching is therefore "superior" character—character so disciplined to a moral tact and responsive propriety that in every situation it knows the right thing and does it, and so poised in its own integrity as to practice virtue for virtue's sake. "What the small man seeks is in others; what the superior man seeks is in himself."

(4) Toward the world of spiritual beings the Confucian attitude is one of reverent agnosticism. The sage would have nothing to say of death and the future state. "We know little enough of ourselves as men; what, then, can we know of ourselves as spirits?" In his habit of referring to "T'ien" or "Heaven," Confucius may not have deliberately avoided the more personal term "Shang-ti" (Supreme Lord), and expressions of his are not lacking which suggest a personal faith: but speculation on the nature of being and the destiny of the world he treated simply as a waste of time. On a report that two bereaved friends were comforting themselves with the doctrine that life is but dream and death the awakening, he remarked: "These men travel beyond the rule of life; I travel within it."

In summary one might say that Confucius did not found any religious system, but transmitted one with a renewed stress on its ethical bearings. His interest was in man as made for society. Religious rites he performed to the letter, but more from a sense of their efficacy for "social-mindedness" than from any glow of piety. His faith was a faith in right thinking. The "four things he seldom spoke of—wonders, feats of strength, rebellious disorder, spirits"—were simply the things not tractable to reason.


Confucianism has so long dominated the intellectual life of China that western scholars have fallen into the habit of speaking as if there were a sort of preestablished harmony between it and the national mind. As a matter of fact it has had to win its way against vigorous criticism and formidable rivals. The two centuries following Confucius's death were rife with conflicting theories of ethics. Yan Chu presented a cynical egoism: death ends all; so make the most of life, every man for himself. To this doctrine Mo Ti opposed a radical altruism, with universal love as the cure of misgovernment and social disorders. Lao-tse impugned the Confucian idea of man's inborn goodness. Man's nature no more tends to goodness than water tends to run east, or willow wood to take shape in cups and bowls. Against all these contentions the teaching of Confucius was defended and elucidated by the greatest of his followers, Meng-tse (372-289), whose name has been Latinized as Mencius. But Confucianism had to meet systems of thought that carried a more positive religious appeal than it admitted of. Taoism was already in the field, preaching a wise passiveness toward the Way of Heaven, and enlisting in Chuang-tse one of the most brilliant writers that China has produced. His teaching was mystical: "The universe and I came into being together; and I, with all things therein, are One." The repulse of this doctrine by that of Confucius is perhaps correctly explained by the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien: "Like a flood its mysteries spread at will: hence no one, from rulers downward, could apply them to any definite use." But the reticence of Confucius as to the state of departed spirits left an opening for Buddhism, which describes that state with the full detail craved by popular imagination. The pessimistic philosophy of Buddhism was indeed alien to the Chinese temperament, but its missionaries won a ready response to its doctrine of retribution and its offer of salvation. From the fifth century on it was increasingly in conflict with Confucianism, and succumbed only after sharp persecution. Even in its decline it has contributed many ideas and practices to the old animistic religion of the masses. The triumph of Confucianism in its fall, moreover, was not a mere reassertion of the teaching of Confucius and Mencius. Taoism and Buddhism had raised questions of cosmology which could no longer be ignored. The Neo-Confucianism, therefore, that began with Chou Tun-i (1017-1073) built upon the Yi Ching a cosmic philosophy, describing the world in terms of two principles: a primal matter and an immanent intelligence, which give rise on the one hand to the five elements and all sense data, and on the other to all wisdom and moral ideals. The greatest name in Neo-Confucianism is Chu Hsi (1130-1200), whose commentaries on the canonical books are now authoritative, and whose manuals of domestic rites and manners have brought the Confucian code into the homes of the people.

In 1906 Confucius was "deified" by imperial decree. With the rise of republicanism, however, there has appeared a disposition to reject not only such a canonization of the sage, but the whole conservative tradition for which he has stood. The movement has at the present writing called out a reaction, but the future of Confucianism amid the intellectual currents now flooding in from the West, can be only matter of conjecture. One may hope that the ethical code that has made so much of what is best in the national culture both of China and of Japan will keep its vitality under change of forms and formulas. Western critics sometimes talk as if Confucius had held his countrymen's regard by a sort of infatuation. If so, it has been given to no other man to captivate the imagination of his kind with sheer reasonableness.

  1. Harvard Classics, xliv, 5ff.
  2. In the version printed in H. C., this term is translated "gentleman."