What is Confucianism?

Chinese Li & Ren


confucius temple

Confucianism is a philosophical system developed from the teachings of Confucius.  It stresses the importance of education, moral development of individuals, and government based on morality rather than coercion. 

Over the years, alongside Taoism and Buddhism, Confucianism has provided moral code for people in China, and has very strong influence on the Chinese mindset.



Central to Confucianism are relationships. Obligations and duties arise from one's position in relation to others.

As an individual, we are related to others in various relationships. We are in a junior position in relation to our parents and elders, and in a senior position in relation to younger siblings and younger people. We accord the seniors with reverence and the juniors with benevolence and concern.

From the perspective of Confucianism, there are five pairs of relationships that determine people's position with each other:

  1. ruler and subject;
  2. father and son;
  3. elder brother and younger brother;
  4. husband and wife; and
  5. friend and friend according to age.

in every pair of relationship, there are obligations between them. Between father and son, a father has to behave like a father, and a son like a son.

The ways relationships is managed are all encompassing, forming pillars to the social order, beginning from an individual with his family, all the way to that with the country.  

Social harmony—the great goal of Confucianism—therefore results in part from every individual knowing his or her place in the social order, and playing his or her part well.


Ren and Li

Confucianism believes that in order to govern others, one must first govern oneself. Morality is the basis of government and human relationships.

If we were to summarize the core concepts of Confucianism, we may put it in two words:  ren (benevolence 仁)and li (rites 礼). Both are talking about human relationships; although ren is more at the level of consciousness, and li in its expression, including etiquette and customs.

Confucius ren is the fountainhead from which all virtues flow. It implies love, compassion and equality. It brings harmony resulting from the loving benevolence in us.

Confucius believed that human nature is intrinsically good. Negative leaning and experience of life may surpress the good nature, but benevolence will ultimately bring about its actualization.

As for li, it refers to the expression of ren, which ranges from propriety to knowing one's proper position in society. For example, if you are the younger, you'll have to show respect to the elder, if you are a guest, you cannot behave like a host and so forth.

Together, ren and li provide moral standards to the behavior of people, from that of rulers to the man on the streets.


Confucius teachings:

  1. Ren 仁 - Humility
  2. Shu 恕 - Accomodative
  3. Ming 命 - Destiny
  4. Yi 义 - Justice


Filial piety

Chinese believes that “only when there is a country that there is family; and only when there's family that there is individual”.

A family is an epitome of a society.  

In a family, the parents rule.  They set examples for their children to follow.   Children are taught to be respectful to the elderly from young.  What they are taught at home is applied to interactions with others in the society.   

Confucianism advocates that if everybody can follow ren and li, and behave as his roles dictate, then there are harmonious relationships, whether it is in a family, a business organization or a country.   With that, peace and prosperity ensue.  

For that reason, a person judged of his trustworthy for how you treat his family.  For example, a child is expected to appreciate what the family has done for him, and filial piety is a norm.  If a person cannot respect his parents, he would be despised by his community. 

In an organization, the filial piety is translated to the respect to the bosses.  Senior management of an organization is respected as if they are rulers of a country, or parents of a household.  Middle management are as if officials or elder brothers, and employees the people or the children respectively.


Modern China

In the modern China, although for almost a century Confucianism has been sidelined, it is so deep rooted that most Chinese still subconsciously adopt it as part of their belief system. 

In recent years, there has been a revival of the philosophy.   The top leadership of China has also been seen promoting the ideology.   China's version of British Council -- Confucius College -- has been set up to promote Chinese culture across the world. 

The code of conduct provided by Confucianism is widely observed by the business the Chinese communities, both in and outside China. 


Read more about Confucius and Confucianism.

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