Confucianism is the product of the disciples of Confucius, the westernized name of Chinese teacher, Kong Qui, who lived between 551 and 479 BC. The texts associated with Confucianism are the Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects and Mencius, collectively known as the ‘Four Books.’ The Great Learning and Analects are attributed to Confucius, while the Doctrine of the Mean is attributed to his grandson, Zisi and Mencius is a collection of conversations the scholar Mencius had with kings. Perhaps the most familiar text related to Confucianism is the I-Ching, which translates as the ‘Book of Changes.’ Confucius is thought to have contributed to the appendices and commentaries of the I-Ching.
The foundation of Confucianism rests upon the Five Virtues of gravity (seriousness), generosity, sincerity, earnestness and kindness. Stress is placed upon the importance of cultivating gentlemanly character, as defined by the culture. In Confucian texts, love is alluded to as purely filial compassion and respect, rather than passionate emotional affection. The Golden Rule of reciprocity expressed in Confucianism is ‘Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.’
Tzu-chang asked Confucius what is love.
Confucius said, Love is to mete out five things to all below heaven.
May I ask what they are?
Modesty and bounty, said Confucius, truth, earnestness and kindness. Modesty escapes insult: bounty wins the many; truth gains men’s trust; earnestness brings success; and kindness is enough to make men work.
The Saying of Confucius, Book XVII.6
Confucianism, in essence, defines a system of social morality, placing emphasis on maintaining rituals and customs, respecting ancestors, elders and state officials, and on cultivating altruism. Confucianism doesn’t approach metaphysics, cosmology or even theology, although Confucius was a strong proponent of ancestor worship, ritual and sacrifices. This, however, is due to the influence of prehistoric folk religions of China, which later found expression in Taoism.
As a system of social morality, Confucianism, with its emphasis on unquestionable loyalty to authority figures opens practitioners to exploitation by officials. Where obedience and subservience to superiors is inculcated, the dis-empowered, inferior class would be discouraged from speaking of suspect activities or misrepresentation by leaders. Is it any wonder then that Confucianism gained respect only after Confucius’ death? During his lifetime, although he was ambitious to secure a government post, he did not manage to do so. As a master of his own philosophy, the source of a stringent moral code and a man of high intelligence, he would have been a threat to nobles who controlled China. The cultivation of gentleman character was the ideal system for molding the masses, but it was not a set of principles suitable to feudal dynasties of ancient China. The rules by which emperors played was quite different and, in many ways, starkly contrary to the principles of Confucianism.
Confucianism has shaped the character of people in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and other regions that people of Chinese origin have migrated to. It is a forerunner of altruism and humanism, which find expression in religions that promote the Golden Rule. While few identify as practitioners of Confucianism today, it is arguably the first attempt by anyone to codify interpersonal and social morality as a personal development endeavor, rather than exhortations to curb lusts and passions to avoid punishment from God or gain supernatural powers.
One of the more subtle things that can be learn from a read of Confucian texts relates to the definition of morality. Confucius is said to have had particular rules about color of clothing to be worn and this he felt was an importance factor in morality, as he defined it. In a western context, this seems a rather eccentric fascination with what is, essential, a mundane subject matter. However, the example illustrates the subjectivity of morality. This flexible, culturally flavored composition of social moral code is as diverse as human cultures are. This diversity is, perhaps, the quality deemed worthy of respect in all religions professing adherence to the Golden Rule.