Confucius and Chinese Culture
1. Terminology - Confucius
“Confucius” means two things:
1). Confucius as a person: He was called Kung Fu-Tzu , the master teacher Kung,
Latinized as Confucius. (Kung is his surname).
2). The theory developed by Kung Tzu, defined as a religion and/or political
In fact, there is no form of religion or political system, but there is an essence of a
religion and political idea, and its implementation. The Chinese word for
Confucius is “儒”, which combined two characters - “people” and “need”.
2.1 The era background
Chinese culture had a long history from the ancient sage emperors through the
Emperor Huang (2690 – 2590BC), Xia Dynasty (2183-1752BC) to the Shang
Dynasty (1751-1112BC) and into the Zhou Dynasty (1111-249BC).
Since King Wen, King Wu and Zhou Gong, the Zhou Dynasty was very glrorious,
wether considered from infrastructure development, economic development or the
art. Unfortunately, following its development, the power of the feudal lords
increased. They overthrew the king and established a new capital, marking the
beginning of the Eastern Zhou period in 770 BC. The era from 770 – 476BC was
called Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history. The various states struggled
against each other to expand their borders. Within the state there were also
struggles and political intrigues among ministers and officials seeking more power.
K'ung Tzu (Confucius) was born in such circumstances in the state of Lu (in
modern day Chufu, Shantung Province) in 551 BC and died in 479BC at the age of
During the crisis of the Spring and Autumn Period, Kung Tzu sought to end
the chaos of the times. Believing this disorder to be a reflection of declining
morals in society, he exhaustively toured (497BC – 484 BC) the various
warring Chinese states to advise rulers and officials on the merits of ethical
rule in order to create the harmony world.
Confucius said, "Riches and honors are what all men desire. But if they cannot
be attained in accordance with the Tao they should not be kept. Poverty and low
status are what all men hate. But if they cannot avoided in while staying in
accordance with the Tao, they should not avoid. If a Superior Man departs from
benevolence, how can he be worthy of that name? A Superior Man never leaves
benevolence for even the time of a single meal. In moments of haste he acts
according to it. In times of difficulty or confusion he acts according to it."
Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang. The King said: "My good man, since you
haven't thought one thousand meters too far to come and see me, may I
presume that you have something with which I can profit my kingdom?"
Mencius said: "Why must you speak of profit? What I have for you is
Benevolence and Rightness, and that's all. If you always say 'how can I profit my
kingdom?' your top officers will ask, 'how can we profit our clans?' The shih(a
person with offical rank) and the common people will ask: 'how can we profit
ourselves?' Superiors and inferiors will struggle against each other for profit, and
the country will be in chaos. In a kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the murderer
of the sovereign is usually from a clan of one thousand chariots. In a
thousand-chariot kingdom, the murderer of the sovereign is usually from a clan
of one hundred chariots. Now, to have a thousand in ten thousand, or one
hundred in a thousand is not really all that much. But if you put Rightness last
and profit first, no one will be satisfied unless they can grab something."
"There has never been a Benevolence man who neglected his parents, and
there has never been a righteous man who put his prince last in his priorities.
King, can't we limit our conversation to Benevolence and Rightness? Why must
we discuss profit?"
2.3 His idea
Central to Confucius' teachings was the concept of "benevolence," which he
considered to be the apex of self-cultivation. In its most simple sense, benevolence
is the act of loving others, and more specifically, according to Confucian moral
standards, involves: obeying one's parents, loving one's brothers, being honest to
one's friends, and being loyal to one's country.
Brothers / Me/Partner Friends
Confucius said, "There are five achieved ways in this world, which are carried out by 3
things. The five achieved ways are ruler and minister, father and son, husband and
wife, older brother and younger brother, and between friends. The three achieved
virtues of practice are wisdom, benevolence and courage. They are practiced in
Through self-improving to accumulate “virtue” is the dominant subject in
Confucius teaching. The “Virtue” is the “De” in Chinese which the 2nd part of
Lao Tzu’s Tao De Chin.
- filial piety (to parents)
- sib affection (to brothers and sisters)
- loyalty (to country, king)
- trustworthiness (friendship)
- sense of shame
Yu Tzu said: "There are few who have developed themselves filially and fraternally who
enjoy offending their superiors. Those who do not enjoy offending superiors are never
troublemakers. The Superior Man concerns himself with the fundamentals. Once the
fundamentals are established, the Tao (proper way) appears. Are not filial piety and
obedience to elders fundamental to the fundamental of benevolence?"
Confucius said: "A young man should serve his parents at home and be respectful to
elders outside his home. He should be earnest and truthful, loving all, but become
intimate with benevolence. After doing this, if he has energy to spare, he can study
literature and the arts."
Yen Yü an asked about the meaning of benevolence. The Master said, "To overcome
selfishness and keep to propriety is benevolence. If for a full day you can overcome
selfishness and keep to propriety, everyone in the world will return to benevolence.
Does benevolence come from oneself, or from others?"
Yen Yü an asked: "May I ask in further detail how this is to be brought about?"
Confucius said, "Do not watch what is improper; do not listen to what is improper; do
not speak improperly and do not act improperly." Yen Yü an said, "Although I am not so
perspicacious, I will apply myself to this teaching."
Confucius said: "If a person lacks trustworthiness, I don't know what s/he can be good
for. When a pin is missing from the yoke-bar of a large wagon, or from the collar-bar of
a small wagon, how can it go?"
子曰：「人而無信, 不知其可也。大車無輗, 小車無軏 , 其何以行之哉 」
Confucius said: "When the Superior Man deals with the world he is not prejudiced for or
against anything. He does what is Right."
子曰：「君子之於天下也, 無適也, 無莫也, 義之於比。」
The relationship between person and country:
Confucius said: "Loving study, you approach wisdom; putting effer on practicing, you
approach benevolence. Understanding shame, you approach courage. If you
understand these three, you know how to self-cultivate; knowing how to self-cultivate,
you know how to handle others; knowing how to handle others, you know how to
govern the world or country."
Basically, Confucius believed government by the virtue is the way to manage the
country. This is the “Wu Wei” in Lao Tzu’s idea.
Confucius said: "If you govern with the power of your virtue, you will be like the North
Star. It just stays in its place while all the other stars position themselves around it."
The Duke of Ai asked about government. Confucius said: "The records of the
governments of King Wen and King Wu are on the ancient tablets. When there is the
right people, the government functioned, and when there is no the right people, the
government failed. When human power to be used properly, the government flourishes;
when the ground is right, the plants flourish. The proper governments would flourish like
Therefore, the skillful handling of government is contingent upon having the right
people. You attract the right people by your own character. You cultivate your character
through the Tao and you manifest the Tao by Benevolence. Benevolence is “humanity”
and its most obvious function is in loving people. "Justice" means "setting things right"
and its most obvious function is in venerating the Good. The differing levels in loving
people and venerating the good are expressed through propriety.
Wanting to cultivate his character, he cannot do it without serving his parents. Wanting
to serve his parents, he cannot do it without understanding others. Wanting to
understand others, he cannot do it without understanding Heaven.
Heavenly decree :
Besides to managing the country by virtue, it is very important to follow the will of
heaven by his belief.
Confucius said: "The Superior Man stands in awe of three things:
(1) He is in awe of the decree of Heaven.
(2) He is in awe of Great men.
(3) He is in awe of the words of the Sages.
The inferior man is not in awe of anything because he does not know the decree
of Heaven, and will take great men lightly and laugh at the words of the sages."
Confucius said: "He who does not understand the decree of Heaven cannot be
regarded as a superior. He who does not know the rites cannot take his stand. He
who does not understand words(talking), cannot understand people.”
3. The Chinese culture system
God/Universe is the very important in Chinese prospect since the ancient time. As
human beings, we are between Sky and Earth. As Superior man, he has the
responsibility to assist Sky and Earth in transformation and sustenance. So,
Superior man, the Noble Being, forms a trinity with Sky and Earth. God/Universe
always delivers the messages to human being by the thing beforehand.
Once you are in the Path of fully actualized sincerity, you have foreknowledge of things.
When a nation or clan is about to rise up, there are always omens of their fortune. When
a nation or clan is about to fall, there are always omens of their misfortune. It can be
seen in the milfoil stalks, tortoise shells and in the movements of the body. When good or
evil fortune is imminent, the perfectly sincere person will know without obstruction. With
fully actualized sincerity are like a god. (Doctrine of Mean)
Fu Xi (about 3100BC) and King Zhou Wen (about 1100BC) are two very typical
examples as Sage to read the message from holy tortoise and horse and to write the
Ba-Gua. The Gua has explained all the changing rules of Universe.
Lao Tzu (about 600BC, from Western Zhou dynasty to Eastern Zhou dynasty)
wrote another book called Tao De Chin to explore the idea of God/Universe in
words. He called this Tao. Many years after, the Taoism was formed, which
inherited all the teachings from Fu Xi, King Zhou Wen, Lao Tzu and other Sages.
Confucius always has been compared with Lao Tzu. They are generally considered
to be different philosophers. But, in fact, Kung Tzu inherited all the ancient
teaching and re-expounded in words which were easier to be understood at that
time. He even spent much of his last years working on some of the classics. I-Chin
is one of the very important books to be commented by Kung Tzu. No matter for
Lao Tzu or Confucius, to reveal our original nature is the kernel issue.
What Heaven confers is called "nature."
Accordance with this nature is called the Tao.
Cultivating the Tao is called "education (religion)." (Doctrine of Mean)
For the nature, they use different terms from different perspectives to explain what
Five Five constants Five Elements
constants for for human’s when Five Organs Five Direction
Universe original nature menifest
Trust Soil Stomach, Spleen Center
Yun Benevolence Wood Liver East
Hang Propriety Fire Heart South
Li Righteousness Mental Lump West
Zhang Wisdom Water Kidney North
Fu Xi Confucius Taoism Medicine
Kung Tzu’s disciples continued to explore Confucius’ idea with ancients teaching
to write the book such as the Great Learning, The Doctrine of mean (by Tzu Si),
Mencius (by Mencius). The Analects of Confucius, The Great Learning, The
Doctrine of mean, Mencius called four books which are the most important books
Kung Tzu generalized from Chinese culture to form the theory of Confucius.
4. His Influence
Kung Tzu layed a solid foundation for China's enduring civilization through different
In the history of Chinese education, Confucius is a paragon of all teachers,
symbolizing the philosophy of "Educate all without discrimination, and teach
according to the abilities of one’s students" using the six arts of rites, music,
archery, chariot driving, learning (including reading and writing), and
mathematics. The basic idea of his education is to build up the complete
Confucius had more than three thousand disciples during his lifetime. In practice
of his credo, the Sage never refused a student because of his class or character,
requiring only that his pupils possess a sincere desire to learn.
He encouraged people to study.
Confucius said: "At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I
had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was
obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing the norm."
Confucius said: "Be of unwavering good faith and love learning. Be steadfast unto death
in pursuit of the good Tao.
The greatest sage and teacher
When the Republic of China was founded, Confucius' birthday, August 28, was
designated as a national holiday, ‘Teachers' Day’, to remember Confucius'
enormous contribution to Chinese culture and society. Today, Teachers' Day not
only commemorates China's foremost teacher in history but also honors all
teachers for their hard work during the year.
Every year during Teachers' Day, the Confucius Memorial Service is solemnly
held at the Confucius Temple to show respect and honor for the Sage. At the
‘Teachers Day Celebration’ held by the Ministry of Education and the various
local governments, teachers with the highest seniority and best qualities are
recognized for their contribution to society.
4.2 Political System
Kung Tzu had implemented his idea in Lu. It only took three months to change the
clan to become a harmonious, secure county. Unfortunately, King Lu could not
continue to implement his idea. And no other ruler could take his advice, either. Easter
Zhou gradually fell down as the Warring State, which was worse than the
After Zhou dynasty, Confucius became the main trend in the Qin and Han dynasty.
After the warring period, they realized the importance of Confucius after reflection.
Such reflection happened many times in Chinese history, eg, Tang, Song and Ming.
For the Qing dynasty, the third emperor implemented Confucius’ ideas for a different
reason. He was aware that the best way to govern the country was to govern by the
Chinese way. He spent a lot time to study Confucius. He turned out to be very a
5. Chinese Culture
Confucius is not the only factor for the Chinese culture. Confucius has the very
important role in processing Chinese culture. In the mean time, Taoism played another
very important role, as did Buddhism, of course. In Tang Dynasty, the idea Confucius,
Taoism and Buddhism is one family to be raised up.
6. Confucius Today - Discussion
Lao Tzu: “Using the ancient Tao
to manage the affairs of now
In able to know the beginnings
it is called the law of Tao.”