As a Christian I have always felt that it is very important to have a good understanding of non-Christian religions and philosophies. I can still remember a giant wall-size poster my roommate in college had on his wall: a detailed comparison of about a dozen major philosophies and religions. Understanding the wisdom (and sometimes lack thereof) from philosophy and religion has been most helpful in my walk of faith the past two decades. Today I present a brief review of the major teachings of Confucianism.
According to a Stanford University article, the “primary purpose [of Confucianism] is to achieve harmony, the most important social value.” Confucius seems to have been very concerned about creating a harmonious society– an idealistic, humane place for people to be happy.
The Religious Tolerance website describes the teachings like this: “Confucius taught that when societies operate under laws, people are punished by authorities after having committed illegal activities. People generally conform to the laws, often without necessarily understanding the rationale behind them. He promoted a different way: to internalize behaviors so that actions are controlled beforehand. People then behave properly because they wish to avoid feeling shame and want to avoid losing face. In theory, the result is a reduction in the number of coercive laws required for smooth functioning of the society.”
Most articles about Confucianism list five to seven core beliefs. Here is my summary of what I learned about five key teachings of Confucius.
Li: (Etiquette) The teaching called “li” is about “the proper way”. This is a belief that includes ritual, propriety and etiquette. It includes a set of rules for interaction with others. Knowing and finding your role in a system is important. Control of emotions, restraint, obedience to authority, conforming and “keeping face” are highly valued and important.
Hsiao: (Filial piety) The teaching called “hsiao” is about love within the family and about keeping order in relationships. It includes love of parents for their children and of children for their parents. Sometimes this is called ‘filial piety’. Often it is considered among the greatest of virtues and must be shown towards both the living and the dead. The term ‘filial’ (meaning ‘of a child’) characterizes the respect that a child, originally a son, should show to his parents. This relationship was extended by analogy to a series of five cardinal relations (“wu lun”): Sovereign-Subject, Father-Son, Elder-Younger Brother, Husband-Wife and Friend-Friend. In time filial piety was also built into the Chinese legal system: a criminal would be punished more harshly if the culprit had committed the crime against a parent, while fathers often exercised enormous power over their children. Much the same was true of other unequal relationships.
Ren (or Jen): (Humanity) The teaching called “ren” is about benevolence and humaneness towards others. Ren is the central ethical principle, and is equivalent to the concepts love, mercy, and humanity. Perhaps it is best explained by Confucius in the following statement which sounds very similar to a Biblical teaching: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” A Wikipedia resource mentions that “Confucius never stated whether man was born good or evil, noting that ‘By nature men are similar; by practice men are wide apart’ —implying that whether good or bad, Confucius must have perceived all men to be born with intrinsic similarities, but that man is conditioned and inﬂuenced by study and practise.”
Chung: (Loyalty) The teaching called “chung” or “zhong” is about loyalty to the state or to ruling authorities. This is similar to “filial piety”, but on a entirely different level. This teaching is about being loyal to authority and those in power. According to a Wikipedia entry, chung seems to have been twisted around by the rulers in Chinese society : “It [chung] is particularly relevant for the social class to which most of Confucius’ students belonged, because the only way for an ambitious young scholar to make his way in the Confucian Chinese world was to enter a ruler’s civil service. Like filial piety, however, loyalty was often subverted by the autocratic regimes of China. Confucius had advocated a sensitivity to the realpolitik of the class relations in his time; he did not propose that “might makes right”, but that a superior who had received the “Mandate of Heaven” (see below) should be obeyed because of his moral rectitude. In later ages, however, emphasis was placed more on the obligations of the ruled to the ruler, and less on the ruler’s obligations to the ruled.”
Junzi: (Nobility) The teaching called “junzi” is about righteousness, honesty and trustworthiness. A junzi is a nobleman. It was a term used by Confucius to describe his ideal human. To Confucius, the functions of government and social stratification were facts of life to be sustained by ethical values. Junzi is often translated as “gentleman” or “superior person” and sometimes “exemplary person”. Junzi literally means “lord’s son”. As the potential leader of a nation, a son of the ruler is raised to have a superior ethical and moral position while gaining inner peace through being virtuous. Despite its literal meaning, any righteous man willing to improve himself can become a junzi.