Basics of Confucianism

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Confucianism is an intellectual, political, and religious tradition, or school of thought, that developed a distinct identity in the 5th-century bc from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. In Chinese the name for this tradition is Rujia (also spelled Ju-chia), meaning “School of the Scholars.” Confucianism advocates reforming government, so that it works for the benefit of the people, and cultivating virtue, especially in government officials. It encourages respect for elders and legitimate authority figures, for traditional beliefs, for ritual practices, for education, and for close family bonds. Confucianism began in China, but it spread from there to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Little is known for certain about the life of Confucius.

Many traditional stories about him are now regarded as myths. Our most reliable source of information about him and his beliefs is the Lunyu (Lun-yĆ¼, or Analects), a collection of sayings by and about Confucius and his disciples. The Analects is divided into 20 books that are the length of chapters. Most scholars think that books 1 to 15 contain a large amount of authentic material.

Confucius saw himself as a “transmitter and not a creator.”

He believed that he was merely teaching the dao (tao, or Way) of China’s ancient sages. However, he was more original than he realized. The Analects is the earliest Chinese text that stresses the concept of ren (jen). Ren has been translated as “benevolence,” “humaneness,” or simply “goodness.” For Confucius, ren is the summation of human virtues.

Ren is a quality that every human should strive to achieve, but it is so exalted that Confucius is wary of attributing ren to anyone. Thus for Confucius, the good life is an endless aspiration for ethical perfection.

In one traditional Confucian view, ren has two aspects: loyalty and reciprocity. Loyalty is considered a commitment to the Way, while reciprocity means “not inflicting on others that which you do not want yourself.” An alternative view is that ren is the perfect combination of a much longer list of virtues, including loyalty, reciprocity, wisdom, courage, righteousness, filial piety, and faithfulness. Wisdom has several aspects, including being a good judge of the character of others. Courage is a lack of fear in doing what is right. Righteousness is doing what is appropriate for one’s role, as a father, son, teacher, or student, for example. Filial piety is acting out of love and respect for one’s parents. Faithfulness includes honesty in word but also involves not being glib.

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