Confucian Beliefs and Principles

Confucianism is a system of ethics and order based on the teachings of Confucius, a philosopher who lived in the 6th Century BC. Confucianism is basically a way of promoting order in society by emphasizing distinct roles in human relationships, thereby internalizing patterns of behavior and reciprocal respect between people.

Essentially, Confucianism is focused on creating virtuous people and social harmony by ingraining certain norms. These norms are mainly concerned with human relationships, ensuring that all people know their place and their responsibilities toward each other. So children are taught to act a certain way towards their parents, young people are taught to act a certain way toward their elders and rulers are taught to act a certain way towards their people. The overriding principle is one of benevolence and mutual respect, not dissimilar to the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For example, Confucianism would teach that a ruler must act with justice and virtue if they are to expect the same from their people.

This idea of respect was also extended towards ancestors. Consequently, it is a common tradition in China for people to pay tribute to their forebears. Chinese royalty would often pray to the emperors who had come before them.

In achieving its aims, Confucianism stresses the importance of education, not simply as a means of attaining knowledge but also as a means of personal development. Confucius believed people should be judged on their virtue rather than their social standing. He therefore taught students of all class backgrounds and believed all people should have the opportunity to govern, based on merit. This idea of meritocracy was a revolutionary one at the time.


Confucius was born in 551 BC, during the Spring and Autumn Period, in the State of Lu (his home town of Qufu in modern-day Shandong Province now attracts its share of tourists). Confucius is a Latinized version of the Chinese, Kong Fuzi (Master Kong). The Spring and Autumn Period was one of turmoil as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty was in decline and the small states were vying for power. This, however, was the golden age for Chinese philosophy.

Confucius didn’t claim to be propounding anything new, but instead was advocating ancient wisdom. Seeking work in government, Confucius argued his ideas both in his post in the Lu Court and later by traveling to neighboring states, but his teachings received little attention from the rulers. He did, however, receive a following as a teacher. It was these disciples who recorded the teachings of Confucius, as he did not write down his thoughts himself.

History of Confucianism

What Confucius had left behind was essentially a collection of anecdotes and sayings, which was recorded in the Analects of Confucius. It was some 200 years later that the philosophers Mencius and Xun Zi developed the teachings of Confucius into the fully-fledged doctrine of Confucianism. It was first adopted as a state ideology by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (156-87BC) and in subsequent dynasties it either coexisted or competed with Taoism and Buddhism as the dominant doctrine before undergoing a rebirth in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The Neo-Confucianism that was developed in this period included elements of Taoism and Buddhism. It was this ideology that persisted up to the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Significance of Confucianism

When traveling in China you will likely come across a few Confucian Temples. As Confucianism is not really a religion, these places are best viewed as shrines to learning, not to any gods. At such places you are likely to see stone steles with ancient writings and halls that would have served as classrooms or the venue for the Imperial Examination.

Some attractions related to Confucianism in China include the Temple of Confucius in Beijing, the Beilin Museum in Xian and the Confucius Temple in Suzhou. There are also a number of attractions related to Confucius himself in his hometown of Qufu.

But the real significance of Confucianism is its effect on the Chinese psyche. An understanding of Confucianism is particularly helpful in understanding the way Chinese people relate toward each other and in the importance they place on family or social groupings.