Christian Jochim. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.


The term Confucianism is derived from Confucius, the conventional name for Master Kong, the most revered sage of this religious tradition. Although Master Kong (551-479 B.C.E.) is the putative founder of the tradition, its practitioners, including the master himself, venerated sages who predated Kong by hundreds of years, and most modern scholars view the tradition as having evolved only after Kong’s death. Historically, Confucianism was not an organized religion that spread across continents in the manner of, say, Buddhism or Christianity. To borrow the terminology of scholar C.K. Yang, Confucianism, rather than being an “institutionalized” religion, was a “diffused” one that permeated existing social entities, such as the family and the state. This diffusion happened first in China and later in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, as Chinese familial and governmental practices spread to those countries, along with Chinese philosophy, language, and art.

Because Confucianism permeated so many areas of East Asian life, there have been controversies over how to define it. Is it religion or philosophy, ritual or ethics, family custom or bureaucratic protocol? In different contexts it has been all of these and more. Above all, it has been a value system that has penetrated almost all aspects of East Asian societies. For this reason its modern critics—as well as its modern supporters—have considered it synonymous with East Asian culture, sometimes overlooking the contributions of Buddhism, Taoism, and other traditions. Ironically, in the first half of the twentieth century, many blamed Confucianism for the failure of national efforts to modernize, while more recently others have praised it for facilitating the rapid economic development of East Asian nations.

Without exaggerating its impact, it is best to approach Confucianism primarily as the source of moral values and ritual practices that have influenced personal development, family life, social relations, and political behavior in East Asia. Its main moral values have included filiality (obedience and respect toward elders, especially parents), loyalty, humaneness, just action, mutual trust, reciprocity, and moral courage. Its ritual practices, derived from Chinese texts more than 2,000 years old, have influenced East Asian weddings, banquets, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and official protocols into the twenty-first century. Moreover, as indicated by this list of activities, Confucian rituals have often concerned human interrelations rather than relations between humans and divine beings.

Of course, Confucianism has been more than a system of social values and public rituals. In particular it has served as a path of spiritual cultivation for individuals. It has also been a philosophical tradition within which different schools of thought have pursued competing interpretations of the Confucian heritage. The latter remains especially vibrant today, with various new interpretations of the Confucian heritage having been inspired by the challenge of Western thought.


The history of a religious tradition begins when it becomes conscious of itself as a tradition and when it seeks to preserve and develop the teachings of its founder(s). In the case of the Confucian tradition, historians see this happening in the century after the death of Master Kong. It should nonetheless be noted that followers of the tradition have often stressed a sacred history that traces its origins to ancient sage rulers, such as the legendary emperors Yao and Shun (supposedly prior to 2000 B.C.E.), and to early rulers of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1050-256 B.C.E.): King Wu, King Wen, and the Duke of Zhou.

In the centuries following his death, during the late Zhou and early Han (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) dynasties, the followers of Master Kong produced collections of sayings attributed to him and progressively enhanced his reputation from teacher to sage and, at least for some, from sage to deity. During the same period, the Confucians established themselves as custodians of ancient China’s ritual, political, and historical traditions. In addition to Master Kong’s sayings (known as the Analects), they preserved records of teachings attributed to other early sages, such as Master Meng (also Mencius; c. 391-308 B.C.E.) and Master Xun (also Hsün Tzu; c. 298-235 B.C.E.), as well as various ritual, political, and historical records that would later become authoritative Confucian sacred books. This process of formulating sacred books neared culmination during the Han period, just as the tradition was becoming a major social and political force in China.

At the start of the Han period the Confucian tradition’s imminent success was not self-evident to its proponents. Rulers of the preceding Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.) had burned Confucian texts because of their support for the Zhou Dynasty. Han literati debated which texts to accept as well as what the texts meant. Nevertheless, they agreed that Master Kong was a great sage. They considered him not only the source of the famous Analects but also the author or editor of the texts that would come to be known as the Five Scriptures (also Five Classics). These books grew in importance to the point that, in 175 C.E., the emperor Han Xiaoling issued an edict to have stone stelae (pillars) inscribed with the sacred texts erected outside the national university. The Confucians also benefited from becoming the custodians of ancient rituals. Chinese rulers knew that magnificent ceremonies held an air of majesty, and in their way of thinking, the ritual dimension of statecraft was as important as its practical aspects. In the case of sacrificial offerings, it kept a ruler in good standing with his royal ancestors and the forces of nature (such as Heaven, Earth, Sun, and Moon). In the case of audience rites (ceremonial meetings a ruler grants to persons who wish to encounter him), it also brought order to a ruler’s relations with his government officials and foreign neighbors.

Among the earliest Confucians to gain imperial favor was Dong Zhongshu (c. 176-104 B.C.E.), who served under the Han emperor Wudi. On Dong’s advice the emperor established positions for the study of Confucian scriptures as well as the national university in front of which Han Xiaoling would later erect his famous stelae. In developing an examination for aspiring imperial scholars, Dong established the basis for the state examinations that later East Asian governments used to recruit government officials. Dong was himself an expert on the sacred book Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), and his famous commentary on it, Chunqiu fanlu (Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals), indicates key trends in Han Confucian thought. In his view Master Kong—the Annal’s reputed author—was a great sage and uncrowned king. This portrayal matched ongoing efforts to deify Kong and develop the practice of performing sacrificial rites at his tomb and in Master Kong temples and government schools. Synthesizing yin-yang thought of the late Zhou era with Confucian ideas, Dong also established numerological and cosmological correspondences between Heaven (Tian) and humanity within a microcosm-macrocosm theory (a microcosm is a miniature model of the larger universe, or macrocosm). Yin-yang thought was based on the idea of pairs of complementary opposites in the world, including (in yin-yang order) dark and light, cold and hot, wet and dry, female and male, winter and summer, night and day, and the sun and the moon. Exemplifying the microcosm-macrocosm theory, a balance of yin and yang made for a healthy person (a microcosm) as well as for a harmonious universe (the macrocosm).

Dong also further developed the old idea of a Mandate of Heaven (tianming), according to which Heaven granted the right to rule to a line of rulers and expressed its evaluation of them through natural phenomena or other omens. This corresponded to a fundamental Confucian belief that social order must follow cosmic order in the harmonious relations between its parts and in the hierarchical structuring of its high and low parts (for example, Heaven and Earth, yang and yin). To maintain harmony with Heaven, people must observe the doctrine of the Three Bonds: subject to ruler, son to father, and wife to husband. Many Han Confucians followed Dong’s cosmological ideas, which implicitly supported autocratic rule. (Some Han emperors supported Confucian thought but ruled in the autocratic fashion of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who had burned Confucian texts.) Later, Confucian scholars would play a dual role, supporting the emperor as a “Son of Heaven” yet reminding him that Heaven wanted its “Son” to practice benevolence and justice (ren and yi).

In later history political and social trends favored the spread of authoritarian tendencies in the Confucian tradition rather than the flowering of its moral ideals. In the name of Master Kong leaders stressed views of harmony and filiality that held that people should subordinate themselves to social units (family, clan, and state) and remain subservient to those who ranked higher in generation, age, or gender. Han scholars defined women’s roles in various ways: Stories of selfsacrificing women were collected in the Lienü zhuan (Biographies of Exemplary Women) by Liu Xiang (79-8 B.C.E.), and the virtues of ideal womanhood were presented in the Lessons for Women (Nüjie) by Ban Zhao (died in 116 C.E.), a female scholar from an elite family. Biographies of Exemplary Women presented women in their role as upholders of social morality but also included negative examples of women whose selfish, sensual demands destroyed social morality, their husbands, and even dynasties. Ideal figures were mothers who reared their sons well and gave their husbands moral guidance. On the one hand, Lessons for Women contained strong statements against spousal abuse and stressed male respect for women. On the other hand, it painted a picture of the ideal (marriageable) girl as a model of obedience who possesses the “four virtues”: “womanly virtue” itself, which involves being chaste and demure; “womanly words,” which are always polite and never quarrelsome; “womanly bearing,” which is ever erect and clean, never slovenly or dirty; and “womanly work,” which is domestic and industrious.

Available evidence indicates that, by the time of the Han Dynasty texts just mentioned, families already preferred newborn boys to girls, clans expected wives to be completely obedient to their husbands and in-laws, and social leaders excluded women from positions of power. In the centuries that followed, Confucian scholars did little to challenge these social values. Some later wrote to condemn the most egregious abuses against women, such as wife beating and foot binding. In late imperial history there were rare individuals, such as Li Zhi (1527-1602) and Tang Zhen (1630-1704), who advocated that women have educational and life opportunities similar to those afforded men. Mainstream Confucian scholars, however, mainly reinforced the patriarchal values of traditional society in China (and, later, in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan).

Typically, the Confucian Way for a man meant a life of public service, informed by the study of Confucian scriptures and the practice of inner cultivation. For a woman the Confucian Way involved a search for personal fulfillment through a life of service to the men in her life. Excluded from the path of formal study that led to government service, most women took this prescribed path. If a woman wanted a less domestic spiritual life, she had to seek it on another path, such as that of a Buddhist nun or Taoist priestess. For families, ritual traditions based on Confucian scriptures spread among social elites before ultimately reaching society’s lower levels. Having a Confucian-style marriage for one’s daughter, coming-of-age ceremony for one’s son, or funeral for one’s deceased parent marked upward social movement.

Over time the Confucian tradition came under the influence of Taoism and Buddhism, the latter having gained strength in post-Han China. By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 C.E.), most literati were content to share the stage with Buddhism and Taoism, the other two of China’s “three teachings” (san jiao). Some felt the true Confucian Way had been lost, however. By the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), this view became more widely held, and a major Confucian renaissance movement began. The movement had so many new elements that modern scholars came to call it Neo-Confucianism. Despite the Neo-Confucian’s avowed opposition to Buddhism and Taoism, the new elements can be traced mainly to those religions. Of special importance was the fact that Neo-Confucians adopted the originally Indian idea that ascetic self-denial should play a necessary role in spiritual development. This development tended to undermine certain salutary elements of early Confucian thought, with its positive evaluation of human emotions, the human body, and the natural world. It affected the behavioral ideals promoted by Confucians for women as well as men. While Song literati did not themselves advocate foot binding or seclusion for women, the ascetic turn in their thinking had subtle links to the development and spread of such practices.

Looking beyond China, these later developments played a key role in determining which Confucian beliefs and practices would be adopted in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan and thus had a momentous effect on the lives of men and women throughout East Asia. For example, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the leading Song Confucian thinker, presented the tension between the ideal of heavenly principle (tianli) and the actuality of human desires (renyu) as the basic problem of philosophical understanding and moral cultivation. Moreover, when Confucian teachings were transmitted to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan from China’s Song, Yuan (1279-1368), and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, Zhu Xi’s new orthodoxy held a central place in both its social and philosophical aspects. Indeed, Zhu Xi was known throughout East Asia as much for the book Zhuzi jiali (Master Zhu’s Family Rituals) as for his philosophical writings.

The Confucian tradition first arrived in Vietnam long before China’s Song era, for the area was frequently under Chinese control. Chinese writing was introduced to Vietnam as early as the Han period. Later, Vietnamese scholars competed in state examinations and became officials of the Chinese government. Nonetheless, as in Korea and Japan, the extensive Confucian penetration of Vietnam occurred later, during the Ly (1010-1225), Tran (1226-1400), the second Le (1428-1789), and Nguyen (1802-1945) dynasties. Despite the fact that the country’s society was originally less patriarchal than that of China, Vietnamese leaders encouraged adoption of the rituals and values in Confucian scriptures as interpreted by Zhu Xi and other Chinese Neo-Confucians. State ceremonies, like state administrative practice, followed Chinese models. Vietnamese leaders idealized the hierarchical pairings in father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject, and, in addition, teacher-student relationships.

Korea’s history reveals a situation similar to that in Vietnam. Following earlier exposure to isolated elements of the Confucian tradition, Korean leaders would ultimately adopt Neo-Confucian ideals in attempting a full-fledged transformation of their state and society. They introduced examinations for the recruitment of officials, rules to establish honesty in government, ceremonies to add civility to public life, and the ideal of benevolent rule. At the same time Korean Confucian loyalists sought conformity to social norms that deprived women of established social privileges in the areas of inheritance, freedom of movement outside the home, relations with their natal families, and status within their marriages. This effort began during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) and continued during the Yi (Chosôn) Dynasty (1392-1910), which became aligned with the Confucian tradition to the extent that it even suppressed Korean Buddhism.

Chinese Confucian influence in Japan also predated the Song period. During the seventh and eighth centuries Japan adopted various social norms, administrative practices, and intellectual trends of China’s Tang Dynasty. Confucian governmental traditions borrowed directly from the Tang Dynasty state codes were particularly important in Japan’s first attempts at centralized rule. Nonetheless, it was later Confucian influence (in the post-Song era) that led to the creation of lasting philosophical schools and that had widespread social effects in Japan.

During the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1392-1568) periods in Japan, Zen Buddhists helped spread new Confucian ideas and practices. The meditative practices of Buddhist zazen and Confucian seiza (quiet sitting; from the Chinese jingzuo) became popular, along with the synthesis of other Buddhist and Confucian personal development practices. Against this background, Bushido (Way of the Warrior) later developed as the way of the feudal knights known as Samurai.

The Samurai ascended to power under Tokugawa rule (1600-1868), and their rise was accompanied by Tokugawa support for Confucian scholars who followed Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian orthodoxy. Yamaga SokM (1622-85), admired for formulating the Bushido code, was once banished from the capital (Edo) for ten years (1666-75) for advocating that Confucians overlook Zhu Xi in favor of the “ancient learning” (kogaku) of early Confucian sages. Japanese political conservatives usually preferred Zhu Xi’s orthodoxy, while progressives adopted the activist and intuitionist alternative associated with the scholar Wang Yangming (1472-1529) of China’s Ming Dynasty. Progressive Confucians were among those who brought about the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which marked the beginning of Japan’s era of modernization.

Confucian teachings thus affected Japan’s male world of warriors and statecraft. At the same time, they also had an impact on women in Tokugawa Japan that mirrored their effects under pro-Confucian regimes in Korea and Vietnam. It seems, however, that the Japanese emphasis on the emotional and sensual dimensions of life kept the puritanical features of the Neo-Confucian value system from penetrating Japanese society as deeply as it had other East Asian societies. Nonetheless, since Japanese society was the most explicitly feudal of premodern societies in East Asia, Confucian views on loyalty, filiality, and female subservience also reinforced the Tokugawa social structure.

Lacking distinct institutional forms of its own, Confucianism relied on existing social institutions, such as the family and the state, to preserve and transmit its teachings. As these institutions changed in each of the East Asian societies where it traditionally held sway, Confucianism also changed. Moreover, in each of these societies intellectuals promoting modernization attacked the tradition as a conservative obstacle to change. As a result, the Confucian tradition eventually entered a crisis comparable to an identity crisis in an individual.

This is best seen in the case of China, where Confucianism was born. Indeed, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), telltale trends against Confucianism emerged in the first decade of the new Chinese republic. In 1915 a group of intellectuals led by Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) of Beijing University founded the journal New Youth and initiated a movement that produced mass student demonstrations on 4 May 1919. Known as the May Fourth Movement, it made Confucianism a key target of its attack on traditional culture. As indicated by the articles and short stories published inNew Youth, the movement saw Confucianism as the main obstacle to achieving what it defined as China’s key goals: male-female equality, scientific thinking, economic development, and democracy. The journal came to epitomize the spirit of the era and was followed by similar journals, including some dedicated specifically to women’s rights, such asThe New Woman and The Woman’s Bell. Chen, who later founded the Chinese Communist Party, was joined by literary figures—such as Lu Xun (1881-1936), the period’s greatest short-story writer—and political essayists, including Hu Shi (1891-1962). Hu and other proponents of the Western liberal tradition disagreed with Chen and other Communists about many things, but both groups of social reformers agreed on the need to criticize Confucianism.

One needed a great deal of courage to defend Confucianism in this milieu. There were those, however, who not only defended the tradition but also insisted that a Confucian revival was just what would lead China out of its national crisis and into a bright future. Building on the work of such turn-of-the-century thinkers as Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), Liang Shuming (1893-1988) was the first of Confucianism’s post-May Fourth defenders. In 1922 he published Dongxi wenhua ji qi zhexue (Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies), a work in comparative thought and culture that argued Chinese culture was supreme and that true Confucianism was China’s salvation. For Liang, as for other modern Confucians, true Confucianism transcended the imperial system with which it had once been identified and was, in fact, compatible with science and democracy. Xiong Shili (1885-1968), another scholar of Liang’s generation, trained many students who continued to revive and redefine the Confucian tradition. These students included a famous group of four self-styled New Confucians: Mou Zongsan (1909-95), Tang Junyi (1909-78), Xu Fuguan (1903-82), and Zhang Junmai (1886-1969).

Due to its apologetic tone, the foursome’s attempt at Confucian revival has been termed Fundamentalism. Yet, these scholars and their living students, notably Shu-hsien Liu (born in 1934) and Wei-ming Tu (born in 1940), have seen themselves as modernizers of their tradition, seeking to find a place for it in contemporary theology and philosophy. Until recently these Confucian apologists were alone in their defense of the tradition. Since the economic success of Japan and the “Four Little Dragons” (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), however, a new breed of Confucian apologists has emerged. These defenders are social scientists armed with data on rapid economic development as well as surveys demonstrating the perseverance of such socalled Confucian values as diligence, thrift, loyalty to authority, and conformity to social norms. They claim Confucianism facilitates, rather than obstructs, economic modernization.

Despite this new assessment of Confucianism’s economic role, many remain less sanguine about its role in social and political modernization. The tradition’s key representatives, all of whom are men, have not dealt extensively with its patriarchal norms and sexist historical record. Socially, while other religious traditions—Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, for example—have striven to take into account feminist movements, Confucianism has yet to see such a movement emerge within its ranks. While other traditions have given rise to progressive movements that are socially and politically active, like Engaged Buddhism and “Social Gospel” Christianity, the Confucian tradition has not produced any social activists. Its modern political champions, such as Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and Lee Kuan Yew (born in 1923), have been authoritarian rulers rather than social activists. This has hurt its chances for developing what William Theodore de Bary, for example, has called the “liberal tradition” in Confucianism.

Central Doctrines

Through its doctrines every religious tradition seeks to answer three questions. In their simplest form these are: (1) What’s wrong with people (as individuals or as a group); (2) what ideal state should people seek (salvation, enlightenment, moral perfection, or the perfect society); and (3) what means should people use to transform themselves from their present (flawed) state to the ideal state? Frederick J. Streng, a scholar of comparative religious studies, has explained that each religion is “a means of ultimate transformation” because, in answering the third question, it tells people they can change—or be changed by divine will or grace—to become ultimately different from the sinful, selfish, ignorant, or morally lax persons they are now.

While Master Kong and other early Confucian thinkers never presented people as evil or ignorant by nature, they were completely dissatisfied with people’s behavior and with the state of human society. They argued that people behaved in a selfish and morally lax manner because the world lacked true moral leadership of the kind once provided by ancient sage rulers. Master Kong is quoted as saying that “the world is without the Way (of moral behavior).” For Kong the Way (dao; also, tao) came from a cosmic and moral entity called Tian (Heaven). It was a spiritual path inherent in existence and accessible to human understanding. Confucians believed the Way could be found in the behavior of exemplary sages, including Master Kong, as well as in themselves.

People can find the Way in themselves in the sense that they possess a moral potential that has been conferred on them. Depending on the context, Confucians have called this potential de (virtue) as well as xing (inner nature). When this potential is developed, a person exists in an ideal moral-spiritual state that enables him or her to have a powerful positive influence over others. This realized moral potential has been called ming de (brightly shining virtue). Another way of saying humans are born with a powerful moral potential is to argue, as have most Confucians since Master Meng, that “a person’s inner nature is originally good” (“renxing ben shan”). In other scriptures the two concepts were merged in such phrases as zun dexing (honoring virtuous nature), which comes from the text Zhongyong 27:6 (Centrality and Commonality).

This account would be incomplete without mention of the “heart-mind” (xin), a special human capacity for moral feeling and thinking. Using this reflective capacity, a person is able to distinguish between good and bad behavior as well as to discern the part of the self that tends toward goodness and that should be developed in order to restore the Way in the world.

Over the centuries Master Kong and his followers, in declaring “the world is without the Way,” blamed social leaders for setting poor examples for the masses. By indulging their selfish desires, they had grown out of touch with the suffering of the masses, as well as with their own potential for goodness. If leaders would practice moral-spiritual cultivation, they could not only transform themselves but also have a transforming effect on the common people, according to the Confucians. In Master Kong’s words: “As grasses bend with the wind, so will the masses bend [toward goodness] under the sway of a true moral gentleman” (Analects 12:19). Because such gentlemen were not in power, every kind of moral outrage existed. Leaders ignored the welfare of the common people and used them as cannon fodder in their wars; ministers set bad examples in their own behavior yet punished others for minor infractions of strict laws; sons attacked their own fathers; and ministers rebelled against their rulers. Master Kong exclaimed, “Fathers should be true fathers, sons should be true sons, rulers should be true rulers, ministers should be true ministers” (Analects 12:11). This suggests that, in an ideal society, each person fulfills his or her role, setting an example for those over whom he or she has influence. While this would seem to favor the development of a rigid social structure, in Confucian doctrine the harmonious society was considered one in which each person would have a chance to flourish individually while making a contribution to social harmony. Thus, the goal of the Confucian individual is to become the kind of sage who can be a social leader, not the kind who leaves society or seeks to transcend the material world. Confucians have used the phrase “sage within and king without” (neisheng waiwang) to describe an ideal person who has the characteristics of both a spiritual seeker and a social leader. It is easy to see how this individual ideal is linked to the collective goal of a peaceful, harmonious, and just society. Like Master Kong and Master Meng, later Confucians argued that personal development should be pursued for the sake of improving society. The standard passage describing personal development as the basis for social service is chapter one of Daxue (Great Learning), which states: “The ancients who wished to manifest brightly shining virtue throughout the empire, first brought order to their own states. Wishing to order their own states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their heart-minds. Wishing to rectify their heart-minds, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things … From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people; all must consider cultivation of the person as the root.”

This passage is essential not only for understanding the nature of the Confucian goal but even more so for understanding the characteristic Confucian path. Confucians have identified eight principles, or eight stages, of personal cultivation in chapter one of the Great Learning. The first four are interpreted as aspects of inner cultivation, concluding with “rectifying the heart-mind” by making it fully present but not under the influence of negative feelings. The explanation of this in chapter seven of Daxue reads: “If one is under the influence of passion, one will be incorrect in one’s conduct. One will be the same if one is under the influence of fear, or under the influence of fond regard, or under that of sorrow. When the mind is inattentive, we look and do not see, we hear and do not understand, we eat and do not know the taste of our food.” With the heart-mind rectified, a person can perfect outward behavior; and, with the “brightly shining virtue” stressed in Daxue, he or she can assume a role of leadership in the family, the local state, and, then, the world.

In practice the Confucian path not only involved efforts to develop one’s inner moral potential, it also involved adherence to the complex rules of propriety (li) that governed the gentleman’s life in ancient China. Indeed, over time these ritual norms came to govern the behavior of almost all Chinese. Although an ancient saying proclaimed that “the li do not reach down to the common people” (“li bu xia shu”), Confucians ultimately encouraged their observance on all of the important occasions in people’s lives—birth, puberty, marriage, and ancestor worship, for example.

The doctrine of li, however, has involved more than prescribing correct ritual behavior for social occasions. It is a doctrine that has encapsulated the Confucian perspective on life at all levels: the individual, the family, society, and the cosmos. Believing the li were grounded in nature, Confucians saw adherence to these ritual norms as a way to maintain harmony between people in society as well as between human society and the natural world. As in the case of the need for inner moral cultivation, this was true “from the Son of Heaven down to the common people.” Whether it was the imperial sacrifices to Heaven, Earth, Sun, and Moon or a common person’s observation of ancestral rites, the ultimate motivation for the observance of li lay in the search for harmony.

As has already been discussed, the transformation of individuals was linked with the transformation of society, which was seen as leading to an era of great peace and harmony for all. Of course, while each individual could be transformed, it was particularly important for society’s leaders to become sages. Indeed, the entire process of social transformation began with the ruler who held the Mandate of Heaven. According to this central Confucian religio-political doctrine, the man who held the mandate not only gained political legitimacy, he also inherited a deep moral obligation; and, if he did not fulfill this obligation, he would lose the mandate. The doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven specified that Heaven was a model for the king (who was sometimes called the Son of Heaven), and the king a model for all his subjects. In ritual behavior he had to act in accordance with Heaven’s seasonal cycle, and in political behavior he had to lead his subjects, above all, by exemplifying the development of human moral potential. As a moral sage, he could rule with benevolence and justice (ren and yi) as well as engage in the transformative instruction (jiaohua) of his subjects. These two activities went hand-in-hand, for a just and benevolent ruler provided the material conditions within which people could morally educate themselves and, at the same time, gave them a model to emulate.

An ideal Confucian king who fulfilled this dual role was himself emulating Heaven, which was not only the source of all natural and social goods but also a just and compassionate guide for the ruler. Whenever the ruler strayed from the true Kingly Way (wangdao), Heaven sent forth signs of displeasure—strange natural phenomena, for example, or even natural disasters. A ruler who failed to heed such warnings would not last long. In theory, at least, the doctrine of Heaven’s Mandate thus assumed that a ruler would take seriously his obligations to perform the rituals required to maintain harmony within society as well as between human society and the cosmos; to establish laws that would deter his subjects from following their selfish instincts into misbehavior; and to provide moral guidance that would help his subjects develop the better part of themselves (the good nature endowed by Heaven). Success in all these areas would be enough to usher in an era of great peace and harmony, the ultimate goal of Confucian personal and social development.

Moral Code of Conduct

Identifying a basic code of conduct, such as the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity or the five precepts of Buddhism, is not possible in Confucianism because of its nature as a diffused, rather than institutional, religion. Confucianbased moral codes that affected people’s behavior were found, for example, within Chinese law, imperial edicts issued to improve social morality, and clan rules that governed family behavior. The Liji (Book of Rites) and other ancient texts about li are the most important sources for these Confucian moral codes. Other texts with an emphasis on practical morality, such as the Scripture of Filiality, Instructions for Women, and Master Zhu’s Family Rituals, were also influential.

Ethics concerning social relations is at the heart of Confucian morality, from the basic moral principles established by the masters Kong and Meng to the specific codes of conduct found in clan rules and imperial edicts. The most consistently important example of this was a list of five principles governing social relations found in Mengzi (Master Meng) 4A:12. The principal of loyalty governs the relationship between a ruler and his officials; filiality, that between a father and his son; proper order, that between an elder and a younger brother; separation of duties, that between a husband and his wife; and mutual trust, that between friends.

How these principles and other aspects of Confucian ethics affected moral codes can be seen in Chinese law, clan rules, and imperial edicts. It must be noted that the basis of Chinese imperial law was not originally Confucianism but rather Legalism, to use the name frequently given to an early rival of the Confucian school. The School of Law (Fa Jia) saw its legal traditions adopted by the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.), the first dynasty to unite China under a central bureaucracy, and, with revisions, all later dynasties in China. According to Legalist thought, laws should be created so as to apply universally to all subjects of the empire, and laws should be enforced with equal strictness in all situations. In contrast, in Confucian thought, the li were created to reinforce social distinctions and to prescribe different behavior in different situations. What scholars have called the “Confucianization of law” was the process whereby the spirit and many of the details of the Confucian teachings penetrated the Chinese legal system.

For example, penalties prescribed for crimes against others were adjusted according to the social status of the perpetrator and the victim. A heavy penalty was prescribed for a commoner harming an official (or a child offending a parent), but a light penalty was prescribed in reverse circumstances. Confucian relational principles, such as filiality and loyalty, also affected the legal system, reinforcing the idea that persons in subordinate social roles—such as children, commoners, or wives—committed an especially grave offense when they harmed one of their superiors. Even more indicative of the influence of Confucian on Legalist ideology was the priority of filiality over loyalty when the two principles came into conflict, pitching one’s need to serve parents against the needs of the state. For example, throughout imperial history people were allowed to conceal the crimes of close relatives in accordance with Master Kong’s strong disapproval of a son who had reported his father’s theft of a sheep to the authorities (Analects 13:18). Another example is the law that allowed judges to repeal the sentences of criminals who were the sole supporters of aged relatives or even the sole male descendants of deceased parents in need of the customary ancestral offerings. By lessening the punishment meted out to a sole surviving son, the judge allowed the son to fulfill the requirements of the principle of filiality.

Such cases raised the related issue of efforts to enshrine into law the Confucian principle of “humane government” (renzheng). Providing for the support of elderly parents by commuting the sentences of their son was an example of this, but only one among many. When judges meted out death sentences, higher courts and the emperor reviewed these sentences, often prescribing lesser punishments in order to make a show of their support for the Confucian principle of humane government. Imperial amnesties were frequently announced for the same reason, allowing those imprisoned to return to their families. In some cases the young, the elderly, the handicapped, and women were judged less harshly than other subjects of the state. All such cases were largely the result of efforts to have a code of behavior that accorded with the principle of humaneness (ren) and the various ritual norms (li) found in Confucian scriptures.

Clan codes represented even more explicit efforts to “Confucianize” the rules by which people were supposed to live. Indeed, among all Chinese social institutions, the family clan, or zu (lineage), came closest to being a Confucian moral church. A clan was established to honor its founding patriarch and other clan ancestors, which often involved the construction of an ancestral temple in which to worship their spirits. The clan’s raison d’être was the pursuit of achievements that would glorify those ancestors. Toward this end, clan rules prescribed filial behavior for all situations in which children related to parents and older siblings, wives related to husbands and parents-in-law, and living clan members related to dead ancestors. The rules also emphasized honesty and hard work as the means to succeed in life and to glorify one’s ancestors. Finally, the rules prescribed charitable behavior toward less fortunate clan members and the building of schools for clan youths in order to honor the Confucian principles of humanity (ren) and the love of learning (haoxue), respectively.

Many of the principles of the clan codes are also evident in “sacred edicts” (sheng yu), which represented the emperor’s efforts to provide guidelines for moral behavior. In fact, clan rules often quoted passages from these edicts. The best known among them was the sacred edict of the Kangxi emperor, issued in 1670, with its famous Sixteen Instructions. The first six demonstrate how the instructions enshrined the principles of filiality, harmony, diligence, and love of learning: (1) In order to honor proper human relations, maintain filial and brotherly duties. (2) In order to manifest cordial behavior, be sincere in familial relationships. (3) In order to prevent discord and lawsuits, promote harmony in your village and neighborhood. (4) In order to provide adequate food and clothing, honor farming and silk production. (5) In order to be efficient in expenditures, esteem thrift and frugality. (6) In order to establish scholarly practices, support building schools. Next to the family clan, the traditional Chinese state was the most important surrogate Confucian church, with the emperor and his officials committed, at least in word, to the moral principles set forth by Master Kong and his followers. It was, therefore, appropriate that the state enshrined Confucian morality not only in its legal system but also in its efforts at moral suasion. After all, according to Confucian teachings, rulership that employs moral suasion and personal example is better than rulership that depends on legal statutes and punishments.

Sacred Books

For the past 1,000 years, Confucians have considered 13 books to be their jing (scriptures). These books include the earlier and more basic Wujing (Five Scriptures) as well as the later, but more frequently used, Sishu (Four Books). The 13 are the Yijing (Book of Changes), Shujing (Book of Documents), Shijing (Book of Odes), Liji (Book of Rites), Zhouli (Rites of Zhou), Yili (Book of Etiquette and Ritual), Lun yu (Analects), Xiaojing (Scripture of Filiality), the Chinese dictionaryErya, Mengzi (Master Meng), and Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), which is included three times, in each instance accompanied by a different commentary. The Four Books were drawn from the Thirteen Scriptures and include the Analects, Master Meng, Daxue (Great Learning), and Zhongyong (Centrality and Commonality), the last two being chapters of the Book of Rites. The Four Books became popular as a basic catechism for young boys being introduced to classical Chinese thought as well as the standard set of texts whose meanings were explored in essays by candidates taking state examinations. For 800 years they have been part of the curriculum recommended by educators throughout East Asia, with rare exceptions, such as the educators who were followers of the Communist leader Mao Zedong.

Sacred Symbols

Today, the most recognizable symbol of the Confucian tradition is an image of Master Kong. Historically such images, whether paintings or sculptures, were also common symbols. For hundreds of years, however, the correct representation of the master in Master Kong temples was his ancestral tablet engraved with the words “supreme sage and ancient teacher.”

Master Kong temples, found in major cities throughout East Asia, are themselves powerful symbols of the tradition. Traditionally the officials who performed ceremonies in Master Kong temples dressed in mandarin robes that also symbolized the tradition, especially for the common folk, who saw them as emblems of sacred authority.

Within Master Kong temples, placards were found upon which were written famous Confucian phrases in the hand of a leading scholar, state official, or even an emperor. Because of the importance of calligraphy in East Asia, as well as the importance of sacred words, these placards have also been regarded as sacred symbols of the tradition. Finally, sacred texts have been important symbols of the tradition, revered by the literate and illiterate alike because they contain the words of holy sages.

Early and Modern Leaders

The ancestral cult of Master Kong has always been led by a Kong clan patriarch who is a descendent of the master. The current clan patriarch, Kong Decheng (born in 1920), has lived in exile in Taiwan in recent decades. Historically there have been several instances when descendants of the master became more than just patriarchs of the clan, such as when Kong Anguo (died in 74 B.C.E.) and Kong Yingda (574-648 C.E.) became leading Confucian intellectuals in the Han and Tang eras, respectively.

But neither the Kong clan patriarch nor any other figure could have been considered the religious leader of all Chinese Confucians, let alone of those in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. In fact, the problem is not only that it is hard to identify a leader but also that it is hard to locate his flock, given that Confucianism is a diffused rather than an institutional religion.

Since Confucianism was diffused throughout the state system, the reigning monarch of an East Asian state that promoted Confucian ritual and ideology was by default a Confucian leader. He performed the state ceremonies prescribed by Confucian ritual tradition, was ultimately responsible for recruiting Confucian-educated officials, and, as in the case of China’s Kangxi emperor, led efforts to cause the populace to embrace Confucian morality. High-ranking Confucian officials were also leaders responsible for providing moral and political guidance for the literati in general. These leaders could galvanize others to engage in collective action, some-times in opposition to their reigning monarch.

In serving as the political ideology for the premodern states of East Asia, Confucianism played a dual role. It supported monarchies, yet, at the same time, preserved conventions of protest according to which a loyal official could remonstrate against a corrupt monarch. Even the Scripture of Filiality quotes Master Kong as saying that, when confronted with what is unrighteous, a son must remonstrate against his father, and the minister against his ruler. In China this ideal manifested itself in an institution, the Censorate, as well as in the actions of courageous individuals. The Censorate was a product of the merger of Confucian and Legalistic ideology, for it combined the function of surveillance on behalf of the monarch with that of remonstrance against a monarch’s misdeeds. One famous case of the latter was the protest of officials against the Tianqi emperor (reigned 1620-27) and his powerful palace eunuch, Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627). According to the imperial censor Zuo Guangdou and his colleagues, palace eunuchs preferred taxing the people to lessening expenditures on palace luxuries and coddling the emperor to telling him the truth about the poor condition of national defense and popular welfare. Most important of all, Confucian officials accused Wei Zhongxian, perhaps the most powerful eunuch in all of Chinese history, of usurping the emperor’s unique right to rule.

In 1624 Wei convinced the Tianqi emperor to have hundreds of Wei’s opponents rounded up and punished. Some lost only their jobs, but others, including Zuo Guangdou, lost their lives (Zuo died under torture in 1625). In a world where power politics could trump Confucian ideals, Zuo could not be saved, despite decades of service under two imperial ancestors, the father and grandfather of the reigning emperor. This fact exposes a key irony of Confucian political life: Adherence to Confucian ideals in the service of the ruler could easily engender imperial wrath rather than imperial gratitude.

While some Confucians thus became famous for their political activities, the best-known Confucian leaders in history earned their reputations as intellectuals and teachers. They became famous for their individual philosophical contributions and for establishing Confucian academies (xueyuan). In some cases these academies were the training ground for Confucian scholars who would lead future philosophical, social, or political movements. Thus, serving as a teacher could make one a Confucian leader, since a Confucian scholar’s reputation was furthered above all through teaching a body of dedicated disciples.

In fact, one way of enhancing Master Kong’s reputation was through building legends about the large number of disciples he taught. By the first half of the Han Dynasty, when Sima Qian wrote the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), China’s first comprehensive history, the author reported that Kong had 3,000 disciples, of whom 72 could be named. As in other lists of major disciples, usually numbering about 70, the author includes the names of 25 disciples who appear in the Analects. Although the evidence from the Analects and preHan sources gives little credence to later legends, it verifies that a group of Master Kong’s immediate disciples began an intellectual lineage that still survives. By the time Master Meng taught, a century-and-a-half later than Master Kong, the idea of an intellectual lineage was so strong that Meng considered Kong the sage and uncrowned king (suwang) whose teachings had to be spread to save the empire. Meng’s effort to spread these teachings was recorded in turn by Meng’s disciples in the book Mengzi (Master Meng).

At every major stage in the later history of the Confucian intellectual lineage, there were moral-spiritual leaders who are remembered for their contributions to education as well as to philosophical and political life. The great Han Dynasty Confucian Dong Zhongshu convinced the emperor Wudi to establish a state college for the study of Confucian scriptures, which initiated trends that would ultimately give China a Confucianbased civil service examination system. During the Song era Zhu Xi developed the renowned White Deer Grotto Academy and other schools. Wang Yangming, the famous Ming era adversary of Zhu Xi, took up the life of a teacher at Kuiyang Academy after being banished to outlying Guizhou Province for writing a defense of a Confucian official who had been arrested by the powerful eunuch Lin Jin. As explained below in MAJOR THEOLOGIANS AND AUTHORS, these same men were also philosophical luminaries in Confucian intellectual history.

As in China, leading Confucians in other East Asian countries often had political as well as intellectual influence. Nevertheless, some scholars in, for example, Vietnam and Japan showed surprising resistance to Neo-Confucianism centuries after its rise to prominence in their countries. This occurred in part because resistance to Chinese influence as such was expressed through resistance to current Chinese ideologies and in part because the Vietnamese and Japanese scholars in question were reformers who drew their ideas from Confucianism’s earliest sources, bypassing more recent interpretations that were, in their minds, of lesser value.

When the Tâyson rebellion in late-eighteenth-century Vietnam overthrew the Le Dynasty, the country was ripe for intellectual as well as institutional change. Ngo Thi Nham (1746-1803), already a leading Confucian, took the opportunity to provide for the new Tâyson emperor a suitable ideology, the influence of which extended well into the succeeding Nguyen Dynasty. Nham shunned the scholasticism that characterized the Neo-Confucianism of his day, criticizing the method of rote memorization favored by many of his Vietnamese contemporaries. He stressed direct parallels between the political situation in Vietnam and the travails of the ancient Zhou Dynasty during its Spring and Autumn era (722-481 B.C.E.), as recorded in the scriptural Spring and Autumn Annals. Although the Annals described a world that predated by more than two millennia Nham’s Vietnam, it captured the latter country’s need of leadership to “save the age” (tê thê). By challenging his contemporaries to abandon the relative security of the scholastic method for the direct experience of a world in crisis, with the chronicle of the ancient Zhou experience as a guide, Nham reinvigorated the Confucian tradition in Vietnam.

Confucianism’s traditional influence in Japan regained strength during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Although the Meiji period is best known for its connection with Japanese modernization, it is also known for efforts to revive certain Confucian teachings. Motoda Nagazane (1818-91), the Meiji emperor’s tutor and advisor, was the Confucian leader most responsible for these efforts. While the government promoted the Westernization of Japan’s economy, society, and culture, Motoda argued for the revival of Confucianism as a countervailing force. As a Confucian lecturer in the Imperial Household Ministry and the primary author of the famous 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, which gave renewed emphasis to Confucian and Shinto values, he was able to achieve a certain success.

In particular, Motoda advocated an enhanced role for Confucian ethics in modern Japanese education. Modern knowledge, he argued, must be ethically based, built on Confucianism’s Four Virtues of benevolence, righteousness, loyalty, and filiality. Like other traditionalists in late-nineteenth-century Japan, he supported movements to establish private schools and societies for Confucian learning and himself authored an ethics textbook, which was widely distributed in 1882 under the auspices of the emperor. By the time of the Imperial Rescript on Education, which assured the role of Confucian ethics in the standard curriculum for Japanese schools, Confucianism had been merged with Imperial Shinto as the basis for Japanese nationalism. Thus, as perhaps unintended consequences of Motoda’s leadership, the Japanese government promoted Confucianism for two main reasons: (1) to reinforce people’s feelings of loyalty and filiality toward the emperor and (2) to establish Confucianism as the common cultural heritage in the areas of East Asia that Japan was beginning to conquer.

Major Theologians and Authors

Prior to today, the most innovative Confucian thinkers emerged during the time of classical Confucianism (fifth through third centuries B.C.E.) and during the era of so-called Neo-Confucianism, more than a thousand years later. The leading figures of the classical era were the masters Kong, Meng, and Xun. In the development of Neo-Confucianism, two figures stood out: Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming. In the twentieth century a group of thinkers called New Confucians initiated efforts to revive Confucian thought.

Much has already been said about the role of Kong and Meng in Confucian history. Master Xun was a brilliant thinker who influenced Legalists as well as early Confucians. He was not fully appreciated by later Confucians, however, perhaps because he disagreed with Master Meng’s view on the goodness of human nature, which became a mainstay of Confucian orthodoxy. Nonetheless, Master Xun’s views on li (ritual norms) did influence later Confucianism. These views were actually linked to his position on human nature, which held that the latter tended toward selfish behavior and, therefore, was needful of the social training provided by li. In an argument suggestive of the theories of modern sociology, he asserted that ritual behavior functions to create social harmony as well as to have a civilizing effect on the acts and feelings of individuals.

Early Confucians focused on the outward behavior—both political and ritual—that was needed for a person’s moral development. The Neo-Confucians, responding to Buddhism and Taoism, took up a stronger interest in the inner life. They produced two main schools of moral and mental cultivation, one known as Lixue (learning to understand li[meaning, in this case, fundamental principle, not ritual norms]) and the other as Xinxue (learning of the heart-mind). Lixue was championed by Zhu Xi, while Wang Yangming promoted Xinxue. Master Zhu held that the mental practice of being attentive to principle as it was manifested in each thing could lead to the realization of the fundamental principle permeating all phenomena, which he called heavenly principle (tianli).

The other two linchpins of the Neo-Confucian perspective on humanity and nature were heart-mind (xin) and matter-energy (qi). While the principle manifested in things was held to be ultimately unified, the dynamic nature of matter-energy was thought to account for the unceasing change in the cosmos as well as for the differences among its myriad phenomena. Like all other cosmic entities, humans embody the dynamic interaction of li and qi, principle and matter-energy. Indeed, Zhu conceived each person as having a heart-mind that, ideally, could unify li and qi as manifested in the inner nature endowed by Heaven, on the one hand, and human feelings rooted in physicality, on the other. This perspective on humanity and nature was the basis for Zhu’s follower’s seeking to attain the goal in which “Heaven and human become one” (tian ren heyi). They began their quest with an effort to understand li (principle) as it is manifested in the myriad phenomena of the cosmos. From this starting point, Zhu asserted, a person could ultimately awaken to the unifying tianli permeating all phenomena, human and nonhuman.

Three centuries later Wang Yangming would disagree with Zhu, asserting that the quest for Confucian awakening should begin with the heart-mind itself. While this version of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation seemed close to Buddhism—to the Chan (Zen) school in particular—Wang’s followers distinguished themselves from the so-called mind-emptying, society-fleeing monks and nuns of Buddhism. One sees justification for their position when one looks at the political as well as philosophical career of Master Wang. Banished to a remote area following a youthful confrontation with the powerful eunuch Liu Jin, Wang was restored to favor following Liu’s execution in 1510, at which point he began a remarkable career as a civil administrator and military commander. His reputation was so great that, in 1527, he was asked to come out of retirement to govern two southern provinces of China that were plagued by insurgents. He succeeded in his final assignment and died on his way back home in 1529.

How could this socially involved official be identified, especially by critics, as someone responsible for a Buddhist turn in Neo-Confucian thought? Biographers trace his philosophical shift to a spiritual experience he had during his banishment in Guizhou. As a result of this experience he realized that his inner nature was itself sufficient for attaining sagehood and that he could find li (principle) within his own heart-mind. In fact, in Wang’s view, Zhu Xi had made a crucial error in separating li from heart-mind, thus leading followers to believe they could find li in things outside the self. Because Wang believed heavenly principle is inherent in the human heart-mind, he said it should be sought there through inner contemplation. Quiet sitting (jingzuo), the Confucian equivalent of Buddhist meditation, was thus even more central for Wang’s followers than for those of Zhu Xi. Moreover, the former also embraced the idea that moral practice could gain greater guidance from a person’s inner knowledge of the good (liangzhi) than through more outward moral learning. Wang’s approach toward moral and spiritual matters would become the inspiration for the New Confucians of the late twentieth century.

After Neo-Confucian thought spread to Korea and Japan, Zhu Xi orthodoxy achieved prominence in those countries. In both countries, however, there were efforts to revise, and even to oppose, Zhu Xi’s thought. Yi T’oegye (1501-70) played a central role in reinforcing the status of Zhu Xi’s thought in Korea, yet his revision of Master Zhu’s ideas also gave him a reputation as one of Korea’s most original thinkers. Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728), a major figure in the so-called Ancient Learning (kogaku) movement in Japan, took the even more radical step of committing himself to the study of early Confucian scriptures, ignoring the commentary of Zhu Xi and deriving fresh ideas of his own.

Yi T’oegye earned his place in Korean intellectual history by advancing the Confucian conceptualization of how principle (li) relates to matter-energy (qi). Zhu Xi had made this relationship central to Confucian thought but had left it somewhat unclear. For Zhu, although principle had a certain priority—by virtue of its relation to tao (and coequally heaven) and inner human nature (xing)—over physical things and human emotions, the precise character of this priority remained ambiguous. In his work on ethics and psychology, T’oegye, uncomfortable with this ambiguity, clearly described the way in which principle had priority. For him, in the ideal order, principle manifests itself first, and matter-energy second. This order results in goodness. By contrast, if matter-energy becomes manifest first and veils principle, evil can result. On this basis he explained the origin of evil tendencies in human behavior and provided guidance for people on how to prevent evil from arising in their behavior.

In T’oegye’s view, since principle is always good, the moral status of something depends on the quality of its matter-energy. For humans a return to the inner nature, which is aligned with principle, establishes the basis for developing good tendencies at the level of matter-energy. This return can be accomplished by cultivating the moral aspect of one’s mind, or the mind of tao, as opposed to the merely human mind. More concretely, this means that the “seeds,” as Master Meng had called them, of the Four Virtues issue from principle and are grasped by the mind of tao, whereas the emotions issue from the human mind. In this way T’oegye established the priority of the mind of tao over the ordinary human mind in parallel with the priority of principle over matter-energy. During his life and for centuries afterward, debate continued over his solution to perceived problems in orthodox Zhu Xi thought. Nonetheless, he had done more than any other Korean thinker to frame the context of the debate.

In Japan debate focused not on a correct interpretation of Chinese Neo-Confucianism but, rather, on the possible need for a radical alternative to it. For thinkers in the Ancient Learning movement, this alternative was found by returning directly to early Confucian texts. They believed the metaphysical and psychological theories that fascinated T’oegye and other Neo-Confucians were distractions from the correct Confucian path. Ogyu Sorai, the best known among these thinkers, founded the Kobunjigaku (School of Ancient Words and Phrases) and made good use of his skills as a scholar of ancient Chinese texts to identify concrete Confucian moral, ritual, and governmental practices. In his attack on the thought of Zhu Xi and other Neo-Confucians, he argued for the importance of actual rites and institutions created by the ancient kings, as recorded in ancient texts. According to Ogyu, reverence for heaven expressed through prescribed ceremonies and the adoption of correct ritual norms in daily life would transform individuals and society, whereas acting upon the belief that the inner nature linked persons to heavenly principle would only lead to arrogance. Just as an earlier proponent of Ancient Learning, Yamaga SokM, had advocated the adoption of early Confucian models for personal behavior in developing Bushido, or the Way of the Warrior, Sorai furthered an abiding interest in ancient Chinese li (ritual norms) within Japanese civilization. Although he did not deter other Japanese thinkers from continuing with Neo-Confucian philosophical speculation, his contribution to the richness of Japanese ritual thought and practice lasted into modern times.

In the twentieth century many East Asian intellectuals opposed Confucianism. Their opposition was grounded in the view that Confucian traditions were responsible for their society’s difficulties with modernization. Nonetheless, some intellectuals remained loyal to Confucian thought and, moreover, strove to show its relevance to the modern world. One clear example of this has been the work of the New Confucians.

On 4 May 1919 demonstrations occurred throughout China that became symbolic of the antitraditionalist efforts of Chinese intellectuals. The first well-known traditionalist response was the book Dongxi wenhua ji qi zhexue (Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies), by Liang Shuming (1893-1988). Two of his like-minded contemporaries, Zhang Junmai (Carson Chang; 1886-1969) and Xiong Shili (1885-1968), inspired and taught a second generation of modern Confucians who were labeled New Confucians. Three of them—Tang Junyi (1909-78), Xu Fuguan (1903-82), and Mou Zongsan (1909-95)—left China proper and were instrumental in educating a third generation of New Confucians in Hong Kong and Taiwan. These three scholars, along with Zhang Junmai, produced and signed a manifesto introducing their teachings in 1958. Zhang was living in the United States at the time and was the first to suggest the idea of a manifesto that would provide other scholars with a more positive assessment of Chinese thought and a more optimistic view of its contribution to world thought.

Although the manifesto of 1958 was addressed, in key respects, to Western scholars, the English translation appeared four years later in an abbreviated version that had little impact at the time. Published in Chia-sên Chang’s The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought (1962), the translation was titled “A Manifesto for a Reappraisal of Sinology and a Reconstruction of Chinese Culture.” The four authors were disappointed with prevailing studies of traditional Chinese culture because such studies treated it as a dead object and failed to understand its spiritual essence. They believed that a correct understanding of Chinese culture would improve the prospects for healthy future developments in China and throughout the world. Correctly understood, they argued, the essence of Chinese culture lies in moral and metaphysical teachings that have universal value rather than a value limited to their being aspects of Chinese history or modern Chinese nationalism. These teachings originated in Confucianism and are far more spiritual in nature than others are willing to admit. While others consider Confucianism important and identify xin (heart-mind) and xing (inner nature) among its key concepts, they fail to see its spiritual value. Too influenced by modern, Western views of mind and human nature, they misunderstand xin and xing. Xin designates a person’s transcendental moral mind, and xing designates the sense of moral reason that is conferred on a person by Heaven. By following the learning of moral mind and moral reason (xinxing zhi xue), one can attain a state of conformity in virtue (de) with Heaven (Tian).

According to the 1958 manifesto, Confucian moral metaphysics, unlike Western moral metaphysics, does not need to posit God’s existence. Instead, it grounds itself in the experience of the limitless nature of the transcendental moral mind possessed by every person. While moral practice can emerge from consciousness of moral mind and moral reason, such consciousness grows only through regular moral practice. Thus, Confucian philosophy is never merely theoretical, as is so often true in the West. It is always practical and close to everyday living. Therefore, although Western philosophy produced the kind of abstract theory and rigorous logic that helped modern science to develop, it can still learn much from Asian thought. In particular, there are five areas in which the West can learn from the East. In its relentless pursuit of progress the West betrays an underlying insecurity that makes its societies keep driving ahead. With experience of the transcendental moral mind as the basis of all temporal value, people can appreciate resting in contentment as a counterbalance to the will to drive ahead. Proceeding from abstract truths to their application in concrete situations, the modern West is not only exceedingly oriented toward progress, it is also quite inflexible in its manner of observing and handling specific situations. All must conform to supposedly universal legal, scientific, or religious principles. By appreciating that the human mind must stay in contact with immediate reality, an Asian perspective can lead us to a more dynamic and flexible approach to world problems. The West can also learn from the East in regards to the practice of compassion. The love and enthusiasm for helping others that is grounded in Western religions carry the danger of distortion and allow selfish tendencies to play a role. To prevent these tendencies from emerging, a person must remove them at their roots by experiencing what Buddhists call “great compassion.” A person can then love and respect every other person as one in whom God (Heaven, great compassion) also dwells. Westerners should also learn from the East how to perpetuate their culture. In its pursuit of progress and world mastery, the West not only lacks a sense of contentment but also a sense of historical consciousness that incorporates human as well as cosmic roots. Westerners need to have a sense of filial gratitude toward their roots as the basis for prolonging the culture and history of their ancestors. Finally, with their traditional beliefs in original sin and a salvation that is limited to members of a particular religion, Westerners need to develop a greater sense of “one world, one family.” Holding that each person is originally good and having no requirement of church membership, Confucianism can lead the way toward people’s acceptance of all others as brothers.

Students of the New Confucian thinkers who wrote the 1958 manifesto continue to be active, developing their ideas and seeking new ways to respond to Western religions and philosophies. Perhaps the best known among them is Wei-ming Tu, a Chinese-American scholar at Harvard University. In his optimistic assessment, contemporary Confucians are beginning a Third Epoch in the history of Confucian thought as they respond to Western ideas. During the First Epoch (Han period), according to Tu, Confucians successfully faced the challenge of competing Chinese schools of thought. In the Second Epoch (Song period) they reformulated their tradition in response to Indian Buddhism. In the Third Epoch they will match their earlier intellectual accomplishments in facing the challenge of the West.

Organizational Structure

Confucianism’s organizational structure was typically the same as that of existing social institutions, such as the family and the state. Those who led and preserved the tradition over the centuries were clan patriarchs and state officials. Other organizations that served as Confucianism’s “carriers,” to use the concept of the sociologist Max Weber, included the Confucian academies aligned with certain philosophical schools and the syncretic religious groups that promoted Confucian teachings along with Buddhist, Taoist, and other teachings.

With the demise of East Asian monarchies and with clan organizations existing only as shadows of their former selves, the successors of the Confucian academies and syncretic religions remain as the primary carriers of Confucian teachings and practices. Such groups as the New Confucian school of philosophers continue to serve the function of Confucian academies, and some religious organizations, such as Yiguan Dao (Way of Unity) and Falun Gong, preserve Confucian teachings as part of a syncretic mixture.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

The most sacred place for Confucians is Qufu, Shandong Province, China. The town contains the gravesite of Master Kong (in a Kong family graveyard) and the homes of many living descendants of the Kong family. In addition, Qufu is the site of the oldest and largest Master Kong temple. Throughout East Asia are similar temples, where official rites for Master Kong were traditionally performed. Only a few such temples continue to have these rites and do so partly to keep the tradition alive and partly to serve the tourist industry.

One can also include the ancestral halls and grave-sites of East Asian families other than the Kong family as places of Confucian worship. Traditionally, at these two sites, family members performed Confucian-style ceremonies in commemoration of their ancestors. This practice has continued but on a reduced scale, though there has been a revival of these ceremonies in China since the death of Mao Zedong.

What is Sacred?

In his book Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (1972), the scholar Herbert Fingarette presented the view that people should find sacredness in the ordinary activities of human interaction. According to this view, what Confucians consider sacred is fully within the natural and social worlds in which people live. In the natural world Tian (Heaven) and key representations of the yin and yang forces, such as Moon and Sun, are sacred. In the social world each human being is sacred and potentially a sage, yet a person’s own elders and ancestors are to be most revered. Even the tradition’s main deity—to the extent that Master Kong is treated as one—has only rarely been associated with anything miraculous or supernatural. Like other revered sages of Confucianism, he is sacred because he was able to maximize human virtue and wisdom.

Holidays and Festivals

The most specifically Confucian holiday is 28 September, the celebration of Master Kong’s birthday, which for some East Asians is also Teacher’s Day. It is celebrated in many ways, with various kinds of East Asian cultural performances, including traditional sacrificial rites at Master Kong temples. During premodern times these were biannual rites performed on spring and fall festival days.

In a strict sense there are no other Confucian festival days. Most people, however, acknowledge the strongly Confucian nature of ancestral festivals, when family members ritually express their filial gratitude toward ancestors. These festivals include days for visiting gravesites, such as the Chinese Qing Ming festival (5 April), as well as days when family members present offerings to ancestors on the family altar at home, such as New Year’s Day.

Mode of Dress

Contemporary Confucians, even leaders, have no specific mode of dress. The only exception occurs on Master Kong’s birthday, when dignitaries wear robes similar to those worn by traditional Confucian officials. In premodern times the mandarin robes that were the daily attire of officials enhanced the reverence in which they were held by the common people. The robes worn on ritual occasions were quite ornate, featuring images of birds and other animals that indicated the type (civil or military) and rank (grades one through nine) of an official’s position. When a large number of officials wearing these robes stood in ceremonial formations, both color and cosmic significance were added to the rites being performed.

Dietary Practices

The Confucian scriptures and related traditions had much to say about eating in general but not about dietary restrictions or prohibited foods. These sources, especially the ones about li (ritual), covered good table manners, seasonal observances, and proper awareness of the social hierarchy in the serving of food. For example, the Book of Ritesprescribes the following: Do not make noise in eating; do not snatch food; do not use chopsticks for millet porridge; do not gulp soup; do not keep picking the teeth; and, if a guest asks for condiments, the (insulted) host will apologize for not making a better soup. While modern East Asians may not know the source, most will certainly recognize the table manners it recommends.

Seasonal and hierarchical aspects of eating also had religious and social significance. The discussion of seasonal observances in Confucian ritual texts included information about what to eat so as to be in harmony with a given time of year. For example, the “Monthly Ordinances” chapter of the Book of Rites prescribes wheat and mutton for a ruler’s spring meals; beans and fowl for his summer meals; hemp seeds and dog’s flesh for his autumn meals; and millet and pork for his winter meals. As with other aspects of the ruler’s behavior—such as the color of his robe and the type of carriage or shape of vessel used—the food he ate had to harmonize with the elemental agent of each season: wood for spring, fire for summer, metal for autumn, and water for winter.

Reflecting a broader enforcement of social hierarchy through symbolic acts, ritual procedures for serving food revealed the same penchant for careful differentiation by age, gender, and social status that are found in Confucian ritual procedures for other areas of life, from court protocol to funeral ceremonies. An especially interesting passage from the part of the Book of Rites covering table manners tells about the five ways to serve a melon based on the social status of the person who will eat it. For the Son of Heaven (the emperor), the melon must be in eight parts and covered with fine linen; for the ruler of a state, it should be in four parts and covered with a course napkin; for a great officer, it should be in four parts but left uncovered; for a lesser officer, it should simply be served with the stalk cut off; and, for the common man, no preparation is needed, since he “will deal with it with his teeth.”


As discussed above, li (ritual norms, propriety) have played a central role in Confucianism, and throughout East Asia, ritual norms for important ceremonies, such as marriages and funerals, originated in ancient Confucian scriptures. In addition, a whole range of state rituals were performed in accordance with the requirements of the Confucian scriptures, such as the Book of Rites, from each ruler’s worship of his own ancestors to the imperial sacrifices to Heaven that Chinese emperors performed at the Altar to Heaven on the day of the winter solstice. In a general sense, all of these events were Confucian rituals. The rites performed for Master Kong at Confucian temples, however, were historically the ones most closely identified with Confucianism, and today this is even truer because they are virtually the only (formerly state) rituals that continue to be performed.

Temple rites for Master Kong began as a Kong family affair. Over time, however, they became a national tradition in China and other East Asian countries. Centuries after Master Kong’s death, during the Han Dynasty, the Chinese emperor first made offerings at Master Kong’s ancestral temple in the hometown of the Kong family. Later the system of official rites for Master Kong expanded greatly. A major temple for Master Kong was constructed in the national capital, and lesser temples were built at all local administrative centers. At the main altar in each temple the master was worshiped under his official title, “supreme sage and ancient teacher,” and, at various secondary altars, lesser Confucian sages were revered. Similarly, ordinary families built clan ancestral temples for the worship of male ancestors, who were represented by tablets showing their names and official titles.

Since the fall of the premodern states in China, Korea, and Vietnam, only a shadow of the former system of Confucian temple rites has been maintained. Cultural conservatives and foreign tourists in contemporary East Asia are periodically able to enjoy ceremonies performed for Master Kong. But these ceremonies no longer serve a central role in a state religion. Like other aspects of the modern Confucian tradition, they have an uncertain future.

Rites of Passage

Three major rites of passage in East Asia developed under Confucian influence: coming-of-age, marriage, and funeral ceremonies. Confucian mourning and ancestral rites can be viewed as extensions of the practices of Confucian funeral ceremonies. The Book of Rites was the original source for most information on how to perform these rites of passage. Since the twelfth century, however, Zhu Xi’s Family Rituals has been the immediate source of information for most families. In addition to carrying the commentary and imprimatur of Master Zhu, it briefly covers each of the key rites of passage: capping and pinning, weddings, funerals, and sacrificial rites for ancestral and seasonal events.

While the existence of the capping and pinning ceremonies for boys and girls suggests ritual parity between males and females, in actuality only the capping ceremony for boys was a major event. Girls were “pinned” (given a cap, a jacket, and an adult name) as part of the betrothal process, sometimes just prior to their marriage. The capping ceremony, by contrast, was a major event in the lives of boys from upper-class families who had reached the age of 14 (15 in Chinese reckoning). The process began three days before the actual capping with an announcement at the family offering hall by an elder (usually the boy’s father or grandfather). The capping ceremony itself occupied a day of ritual activities that culminated in a meal for the sponsor (an important friend or associate of the elder) and the introduction of the boy to his father’s friends and other local elders.

Confucian influences on marriages extend from the details of the rituals as such to the patriarchal values underlying them. Even today many traditional marriages conform to the pattern of “six rites” that is described in Confucian ritual texts. First, the groom’s family hires a go-between to inquire about the prospective bride. Second, the go-between makes another visit to request the prospective bride’s astrological information. Third, if the bride’s family provides this information, then an astrologer will be asked to compare the astrological information of the young woman and the man to assure that their marriage will be a match made in heaven. Fourth, there is a formal engagement involving the exchange of gifts between the families. The most important gifts go from the groom’s to the bride’s family in the form of a “bride’s price,” which compensates the girl’s family for giving away their daughter to become another family’s helpmate as well as its hope for continuing the family line. The fifth rite sets an auspicious date on which the wedding ceremony will take place. The sixth rite, the wedding ceremony itself, has several parts: The bride departs her home amid acts marking her impending separation from her natal family; she arrives at the groom’s home to witness rituals that celebrate her arrival but also express the subordinate position she will have in her new home; and the bride joins the groom as a guest of honor at the wedding banquet, with its various acts and foods symbolizing key values, including prosperity and posterity, above all.

The only other family rituals that match marriage ceremonies in importance are those that follow death: funerals, mourning, and the veneration of ancestors. A Confucian funeral is, above all, a final opportunity for sons and daughters to express the depth of their filial gratitude. Although Master Kong advised against lavish funerals, most people express filial gratitude to their cherished ancestors by spending heavily on funerals, often hiring Taoist priests or Buddhist clerics to perform additional rites for the sake of the deceased person’s soul. As a Confucian ritual, the event is a family affair, with sons of the deceased, rather than religious professionals, performing key ritual roles. As death becomes imminent, the elder is moved to the main hall of the home, where the altar to the ancestors is located. After death family members wash the corpse and place it in a coffin, which is then ritually sealed. Following filial rites in the main hall of the home, participants in the funeral procession carry the coffin to its burial site. After the burial the ancestral tablet carried by a son at the head of the procession is returned to the home and ritually installed on the ancestral altar.

Mourning rites offer opportunities to continue to express filial gratitude to one’s deceased ancestors. Mourning responsibilities are divided into five grades (wu fu) defined by the Book of Rites. These range from first-grade mourning, which is observed by the wife and children of a deceased man, to fifth-grade mourning, which is observed by his distant relatives. The higher, or stricter, kinds of mourning last longer (up to 27 months), involve severe restrictions on behavior, and require the wearing of coarse attire as an expression of respect and sadness. In addition to mourning activities, ancestral rites were the final obligations required of family members. These will be covered below in connection with Confucian state rituals.

The main official rituals in Confucian states consisted of sacrifices to three kinds of entities: cosmic forces, royal ancestors, and Confucian sages. State sacrifices to cosmic forces were considered an important part of government because they maintained harmony between human society and the universe. The timing, location, and content of these sacrificial offerings were key aspects of maintaining this harmony. For example, the Chinese emperor, as the Son of Heaven, worshiped Heaven on the day of the winter solstice (when the heavenly yang principle begins to grow) at the Altar to Heaven, south of the capital city (that is, the yang direction). Because the sacrifice to Heaven was a “Great Sacrifice,” it involved offering all three main sacrificial animals: an ox, a sheep, and a pig. The emperor offered a sacrifice to Earth at the time of the summer solstice at an altar to the north of the capital, while he revered the Sun and Moon in the east and west, respectively, at times that were also fixed in accordance with the yin-yang cosmology. As the representative of human society, the emperor acted according to the principles of the yin-yang cosmology specifically in order to maintain harmony between humanity and the natural world.

In the world of Chinese state ritual, the Son of Heaven’s royal ancestors were second in importance only to Heaven. In fact, throughout East Asia, monarchs worshiped their ancestors in accordance with the Confucian principle of filial gratitude. In China ritual offerings were made at the imperial ancestral temple near the imperial palace and also at the imperial tombs outside the capital. Families throughout the empire conducted these practices on a smaller scale. They made offerings to their own ancestors at altars in the main halls of their homes as well as at their ancestor’s gravesites. These rituals celebrated the accomplishments of the ancestors, the continuity of the family line, and the anticipated achievements of future generations. While contemporary East Asian leaders honor their forebears in private ancestral rites, just as ordinary citizens do, public commemorative rites for deceased national leaders and heroes are also common.


Has Confucianism been a universal religion—that is, one that spreads a message for all humanity from one area to others in the manner of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam? Or has it been a cultural religion, one that maintains itself primarily among one ethnic or national group, as has been the case with Judaism and Hinduism? Confucianism seems to fall between these two types of religion. On the one hand, it evolved and long remained within Chinese society. On the other hand, Confucianism ultimately spread from China to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam along with various features of Chinese culture. Because Confucian doctrines had a strong appeal to certain leaders in those countries, they promoted these doctrines with missionary zeal. But this does not mean that Confucianism is an evangelistic tradition. Rather, it has moved with societal, governmental, and intellectual traditions as they spread throughout East Asia and beyond. Even outside East Asia, immigrants—not missionaries—brought Confucian teachings and practices into new areas. Nonetheless, modern followers of Master Kong, such as the New Confucians, argue that people everywhere can embrace Confucian teachings on being filial, humane, trustworthy, and morally courageous. More than ever, Confucianism is a universal tradition but not an evangelizing one.

Religious Tolerance

There is no question that contemporary Confucians are content to accept their tradition as one among several world religions that should respect one another. In fact, several leading Confucian scholars are simultaneously interested in Confucianism and Buddhism or Taoism, while yet others are practicing Christians. In addition, they have been willing to participate in interreligious conferences, which are the modern world’s best examples of mutual tolerance among religions. In particular, in the late twentieth century there were four major Confucian-Christian conferences—in Hong Kong (1988), Berkeley (1991), Boston (1994), and Vancouver (1997).

In premodern times the Confucian record with regard to religious tolerance was more mixed. Confucian states in China, Korea, and Vietnam were generally more tolerant of different religion’s beliefs than their Christian counterparts in Europe. Periodically, however, there were persecutions of Buddhists by Confucian states as well as the infamous long-term suppression of Buddhism under Korea’s Yi dynasty. Moreover, Confucian states often betrayed a suspicion of popular syncretic religious groups, which had roots in Buddhism, claiming that they had subversive tendencies. If deemed necessary, they used military force to control, or even eliminate, these sects.

Social Justice

During most of its history Confucianism has been aligned with established powers in society rather than with social justice movements that challenged these powers. As modern Confucians have argued, however, the tradition has a “prophetic” (social justice) dimension that they can develop, since Confucianism is now separated from the premodern monarchies that once supported and defined it. This dimension emerged during China’s Warring States period (480-221B.C.E.), when Master Meng, in particular, was one of few voices calling for peace, social welfare, and popular protest against inhumane monarchs. At that time Confucians, who considered themselves an ignored minority preaching humaneness and justice, lacked social and political influence.

Some modern scholars have found populist, and even democratic, tendencies in Master Meng’s thought. They have pointed to occasions on which he approvingly quoted proto-democratic sayings, such as “Heaven sees as the people see; Heaven hears as the people hear” (Mengzi 5A:5). They also have argued that he believed in popular rebellion when it was justified. For example, in conversation with the king of the state of Qi, he told the king that the people will treat a ruler who abuses them as a robber and an enemy. A bit incredulous, the king asked, “May a subject assassinate his sovereign?” Master Meng explained, “He who mutilates humaneness is just a mutilator; he who cripples justice is a mere crippler.” He added that this kind of behavior turns a king into an “outcast,” so that his murder would not count as the assassination of a sovereign (Mengzi 1B:8). As for conducting wars, Master Meng considered this to be one of the great crimes monarchs committed against their peoples. Although those skilled at war were highly valued in his time, he said “death is too light a punishment for such men.” He stated his justification for this view as follows: “In wars to capture territory, the dead fill the plains; in wars to capture cities, dead bodies litter the urban landscape” (Mengzi 4A:14). Thus, the Confucian tradition has the intellectual resources to support social justice movements, although historically it has a weak record in using them.

Education is one area in which Confucianism has a strong historical record. With its positive assessment of human potential, Confucianism has made education central to its views on social as well as individual development. This trend began in the time of the masters Kong and Meng with the idea that social leaders should be those who have themselves learned about government, ritual, and virtue, not simply those born the sons of aristocrats. It later developed into East Asia’s most important social program to counteract aristocratic privilege: the state examination system. With roots going back as far as the Han period, the system of state examinations evolved first in China and was later adopted in other areas of East Asia and, ultimately, the world. Confucian leaders sought to develop state-run examinations that would become the path by which the sons of any family could enter key government positions.

While the examination system excluded women and was not completely successful in replacing aristocracies with meritocracies, it established education as a path to success and stressed selection by merit as a cure for the widespread social ills of nepotism and favoritism. In contemporary East Asia, the battle between these social ills and the meritocratic ideal has continued, with young women as well as young men placing their fate in the hands of examination systems that determine access to educational as well as career opportunities.

Social Aspects

The family has always been the central social institution in Confucian thought. In fact, the second institution stressed by Confucians, the government, was in key ways modeled on the family, with the monarch filling the role of patriarch. Traditionally, the family and the state in Confucian societies were both hierarchically ordered. More recently, there have been efforts to change this by promoting equality between husbands and wives and by promoting democracy as the best system for forming governments.

Representatives of Confucianism hold conservative views on the value of the family, viewing it as preferable to other social arrangements, from communes to unmarried couples. Many, however, would like to see democratization in family relationships as well as in political ones. One recommendation has been to rearrange the famous Five Relationships, described above in MORAL CONDUCT, so that the central one would be a balanced husband-wife relationship instead of the hierarchical father-son relationship, the latter relationship also becoming more equable. Such an arrangement represents two fundamental shifts in social values. First, women are valued as much as men and are believed to have the same right to pursue careers. Second, no one in the family is stuck perpetually in a powerless, subordinate role. The wife is freed from a life of subordination to her mate. Children are given the space to develop as independent individuals, although they still must learn to express filial gratitude to the mother and father who have sacrificed to help them develop.

Controversial Issues

Many issues on which modern Confucians have taken a stand concern the nature of the Confucian tradition itself. Focused on saving Confucianism and, in many cases, traditional culture as such, they have rarely commented on the issues that dominate much religious debate—abortion, birth control, divorce, and homosexuality, for example. In fact, they have expended most of their intellectual capital defending the tradition against the attacks of its critics. In the process they have had to respond to the following key questions: (1) Is Confucianism so attached to the past that it is unable to contribute to a brighter future in East Asia; (2) do Confucian values run counter to the economic needs of modernizing societies; (3) is Confucianism relevant to East Asia’s quest for democracy; and (4) can Confucianism find roles for and enhance the status of women within the tradition as well as in society as a whole?

Contemporary Confucians are admittedly conservative in the sense that they find much of value in traditional culture. Most claim, however, that they are willing to abandon useless elements of traditional culture while preserving useful elements and combining them with the best contributions from the West. The need to preserve the past while moving forward to keep pace with the West has dominated the thinking of East Asian intellectuals since at least the mid-nineteenth century, when the Confucian scholar Zhang Zhidong (1837-1909) coined the slogan “Chinese learning as foundation, Western learning as application.” The polarity between ti (foundation, substance) and yong (application, function) had been important in Confucian thought prior to the nineteenth century, but Zhang placed it at the center of a controversy that has lasted for well over a century.

Confucians have generally believed that Western learning provides useful tools for developing East Asian nations but that Asian thought (Confucianism, in particular) continues to provide the basic values by which these nations should be developed. They have admired certain Western contributions, such as science for technological development and democracy for political development, but they have rejected “wholesale Westernization.” They do not want Western materialistic and utilitarian values to replace Confucianism’s spiritual humanism and its commitment to forms of social harmony that mitigate competition between individuals.

In the mid-twentieth century Western social scientists all seemed to agree that elements of the Confucian social harmony model—familism, deference to authority, suppression of assertive individualism—would stand in the way of economic development. By the 1980s, however, social scientists in East Asia as well as the West found themselves having to explain the economic success of Japan and the four “mini-dragons”: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Contemporary explanations attribute economic success in these areas to the presence of the East Asian social harmony model as well as to such other “Confucian” elements as frugality, diligence, and delayed gratification. This has emboldened Confucians to claim that, indeed, there is a way to remain culturally Confucian while using Western tools to modernize, at least economically. The jury is still out on the issue of democratization in East Asia, however. Despite the region’s economic modernization, it is still possible to argue that, as long as the political culture of East Asian countries remains subtly but essentially Confucian, they will continue to have trouble with political modernization.

Some modern Confucians have claimed that ancient Confucian political thought was not authoritarian—that, in fact, it contained democratic tendencies. Nonetheless, controversy has continued to rage over whether or not Confucianism can contribute positively to the process of democratization in East Asia. Even the New Confucian thinker Mou Zongsan has acknowledged that the Confucian political tradition lacked the means for practicing democracy, even though it supported philosophically the idea of government by and for the people. Others have been even less sanguine, wondering whether Confucianism can do anything at all to help democratization except stay out of the way as the process occurs. Moreover, Confucians have had trouble convincing people that their tradition is friendly to democracy, because a number of modern authoritarian regimes have promoted Confucian values, such as loyalty and filiality, to cultivate people’s obedience. The governments of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan (1949-75), Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore (1959-90), and, more recently, Jiang Zemin in China (1993-2003) have made use of the Confucian tradition to secure people’s compliance. Philosophically oriented Confucians have tried to distance themselves from this trend, but it clearly has led people to view claims about the compatibility of Confucianism and democracy with skepticism.

Confucians confront an equally difficult situation in making the case that their tradition is in a good position to champion women’s rights. They face an uphill battle in reinterpreting their tradition in a way that establishes gender-neutral respect for human dignity. Scriptural discussions of the human potential for virtue and wisdom seem always to assume a gendered male subject, and the historical record on the treatment of women in Confucian societies is abysmal. It is therefore not surprising that no prominent feminist intellectuals in East Asia have identified themselves with Confucianism. All prominent representatives of Confucianism are men. For the most part these men have been willing to repudiate the attitudes toward women found in Confucian scriptures and in premodern Confucian societies. Nonetheless, they have not been affected as much by the global women’s movement as have men in other world religions, primarily because women have been mostly unable or unwilling to join their ranks. Whether deserved or not, their tradition has an extremely poor reputation with feminists.

Cultural Impact

As the teachings of Master Kong and his successors spread over East Asia, something called “Confucianization” occurred in the affected parts of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. This process extended from the previously discussed areas of moral, spiritual, and political life to the arts, including architecture, literature, and painting.

In the case of architecture, public buildings, especially the residences and audience halls of rulers, were built to conform to sacred principles laid down in Confucian scriptures. These included the principle of northsouth axiality, according to which building entrances faced south—the beneficent yang direction—with their backs to the north. The related principle of directionality determined what ritual structures could be built to the east, west, north, or south of the main hall or residence. Finally, the principle of concentricity assured that the most sacred building, such as the primary audience hall or royal residence, was at the center of the whole complex of walls and buildings. Lesser structures were built on the periphery in locations determined by the principles of directionality and north-south axiality. Even the structures of other traditions, such as Buddhist monastery complexes in East Asia, were built according to these principles.

While Confucianism’s influence on music and dance was less pervasive than its influence on architecture, it had a special impact on the performance of public rituals that featured music and dance. Intoned ritual commands mixed with the sounds of drums and bronze bells came to characterize public rituals throughout East Asia. Moreover, the positions of participants in the ritual reflected originally Confucian conceptions of social hierarchy, with the highest-ranking participant (perhaps the ruler himself) marking the center of power, and those of lesser and lesser ranks standing in locations farther and farther away from this central figure.

Turning to the realm of literature, it is clear that Confucian officials wrote more than ritual commands and the texts of memorials to their kings. Indeed, the Book of Odes was not only one of Confucianism’s original Five Scriptures but also the primary source of examples and inspiration for East Asian poets. Moreover, Confucian officials were always found among the ranks of poets, and learning to write poetry was always part of a good Confucian education. For better or worse, poetry writing required skills possessed only by members of the educated elite. Poet’s verses had to conform to strict rules about rhyming, line length, and so forth. Poets also needed the erudition that would allow them to create, as well as to recognize, literary allusions to the contents of earlier poetic works, including the Book of Odes.

In fact, the topics and themes of poetry, going back to the Book of Odes, often reflected Confucian values and a Confucian lifestyle. Such topics and themes included descriptions of being in harmony with the seasonal changes of the cosmos, praise for good rulers and their loyal ministers, subtle condemnation of corrupt rulers through portrayals of social abuses, and expressions of the nostalgia for one’s native place that was felt by officials who were stationed far from home. Finally, the events celebrated in occasional verse were often connected with the public and private lives of Confucian officials, including such occasions as a parting from home to take up a new official position, a private gathering of the literati, or even a visit to a friend.

Confucianism also exerted an influence on painting. In fact, a movement called “literati painting” emerged in China that, ultimately, had an impact in other areas of East Asia as well. Literati painters were self-professed “amateurs” in their lives away from court. They self-consciously avoided the professionalism of those who painted court portraits or realistic scenes from upperclass life. One of the results of their effort to avoid professional realism was the somewhat expressionist look for which literati landscape paintings are now so well known and adored. They offer personal expressions of the beauty and mystery of nature rather than photographic reproductions of it.

This discussion of Confucianism’s impact on cultural developments in East Asia would be incomplete without mentioning calligraphy and the carving of seals. These two art forms had a special connection with East Asia’s Confucian elite, who viewed their handwriting and signature seals as expressions of human character on paper. All educated people studied the art of using a brush to write traditional Chinese characters. In premodern times a calligraphic scroll written by a great brush master or a famous historical figure had more value than most paintings. Perhaps even more surprising to students of East Asia, the carving of seals was often considered a major art form there, of no less importance than painting or calligraphy. After all, stamping one’s seal on a document in East Asia continues to serve the same function as signing a document elsewhere in the world. Who else but Confucians would create an art form out of an important tool of the bureaucracy: the seal used to guarantee the authenticity of a state document?

This discussion demonstrates that, as the Confucian tradition spread over East Asia, it brought with it various cultural forms rooted in the private and public lives of Confucian scholars. The impact of these cultural forms has been as deep and abiding as the influence of the philosophical ideas and governmental practices for which Confucianism is better known.