The tenets of Confucianism derive themselves from the teachings of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 5th century BCE. It is a very humanist perspective and philosophy, treasuring the mastery of the self above all else. Confucianism is extremely practical; it does not focus on the tenets of gods or goddesses, but rather an emphasis on the family and the worldly things that are important in this world. According to Confucius, it is necessary to master your own actions and understand the way your spirit and mind work, so that you may be in full control over your actions. Goodness is a central virtue to Confucianism, as he teaches you to cultivate benevolence in order to achieve self mastery. The gentleman, or junzi, is the ideal self that one should aspire to; self-discipline and mastery enables one to become junzi and act as a moral guide to society. Confucius was meant to be the example of a gentleman.
Confucianism is evidenced through many different customs and rituals, called li; these are merely the motions we go through in everyday life, forming the culture of Confucianism. Despite some controversy in the 17th century about whether or not Confucianism was a religion, it is more akin to a humanist philosophy. Instead, Confucianism (along with other Chinese philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism) followed the idea of the Tao, which means ‘way’ or ‘path,’ meaning the route to enlightenment. One of the biggest virtues in Confucianism is filial piety, in which respect must be shown to all people living or dead, much like a child respects his or her parents. Confucius talked about the noble vs. the ignoble man; according to him, noble men chose to make decisions based on what their principles were, while the ignoble man simply did what was necessary to curry favor.
Confucius’ ideal man must have a love of learning and music; these are often considered elements of li. People must be able and willing to expand their knowledge and cultivate a love of culture in order to be well rounded human beings. Personal virtue and the capacity for love are also important factors in the creation of a gentleman; this allows their good judgment to spread throughout their community and kingdom, making them good leaders. A policy of non-interference and propriety was the fundamental tenet of good governance for Confucius: “To govern by virtue, let us compare it to the North Star: it stays in its place, while the myriad stars wait upon it” (Confucius, Analects II, 1).
Other li rituals include mourning rites, elaborate rituals that would honor those who had passed and showed respect to them. You had a responsibility to your family even in death. Dress was also a factor in li, as one must dress in the appropriate way as to remain polite to others and demonstrate your own self-worth, without being overly focused on vanity. Humility is another strong factor in Confucianism, as humility is an important part of propriety; one must not be prideful in order to be respectful to others. Self denial and discipline helped to facilitate that humility, as Confucianists learned to live without so they may appreciate what they had. These things brought about a greater wisdom in those who practiced them, bringing them one step closer to becoming a true Gentleman.
Community is a strong focus in Confucianism, as social responsibility is highly valued. One’s neighbors are not enemies to be conquered, but people to be trusted and to work together with. Confucius created four functional occupations that were based on cooperative relationships – the merchant, the artisan, the farmer and the scholar. Despite the philosophy not being overtly religious, prayer is still a major component of Confucianism – it was a form of ancestral worship that allowed them to call on their dead loved ones for mercy and assistance in life. War is never explicitly encouraged in Confucianism, as its central tenets revolve around peace and harmony with one’s fellow man. At the same time, however, the concept of loyalty to one’s elders, superiors and ancestors is very strong in Confucianism, provided those leaders are seen to hold a strong moral fortitude. Otherwise, followers may be encouraged to rebel.
On the same side of the coin, respect is a huge element of Confucianism; the bow is a potent symbol for expressing that respect to someone. The double bow held a different purpose: “The double-bow was to express respect to the acquaintance to whom he was sending the complimentary regards, which usually included some sort of gift” (Analects, p. 106). This expression of modesty and reverence towards those who do good to you is another li that brings you closer to self-mastery.
In short, Confucianism is a philosophy with many different rituals and rites, emphasizing loyalty, wisdom and self-mastery, so that one may govern in peace and achieve the ideal state of humanity possible – the Gentleman.
Confucius. Analects. Hackett Publishing, 1950. Print.
Xinzhong Yao. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,