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Cultures that Practiced It

Confucianism was developed specifically for the Chinese culture, and was widely practiced throughout China from around 400 B.C.E. onward.

Nuts and Bolts

The son of an aristocratic family from northern China, Confucius spent most of his life trying to gain a high position in government. But he was very strong-willed, and often his thinking was at odds with state policy. As a result, he never achieved his goal. Instead, he served as an educator and political advisor, and in this role he had a tremendous influence on China. He attracted many followers, some of whom helped share his teachings, and others who collected his thoughts and sayings in the Analects, which would come to have a profound influence on Chinese thinking, both politically and culturally.

The most important distinction to make about Confucianism is that it is a political and social philosophy—not a religion. Though fundamentally moral and ethical in character, it is also thoroughly practical, dealing almost solely with the question of how to restore political and social order. Confucianism does not deal with large philosophical issues or with religious issues, such as salvation or an afterlife.

Confucianism focuses on five fundamental relationships: ruler and subject, parent and child, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. When each person in these relationships lives up to his or her obligations of those relationships, society is orderly and predictable.

Confucianism concentrates on the formation of junzi, individuals considered superior because they are educated, conscientious, and able to put aside personal ambition for the good of the state.

There are also several values that Confucianism stresses:

Ren—a sense of humanity, kindness, and benevolence

Li—a sense of propriety, courtesy, respect, and deference to elders

Xiao—filial piety, which means a respect for family obligation, including to the extended family

Confucius believed that individuals who possessed these traits would be not only good administrators but also influential in the larger society because they would lead by example. He also was convinced that to restore political and social order, morally strong individuals were required to exercise enlightened leadership. This is why Confucius did not support a particular political system, but rather favored good people running whatever system was in place. Under Confucianism, women in China were considered of secondary status, although children were taught to honor their mothers as well as their fathers.

Broader Impact

Because Confucianism was an ethical, social, and political belief system, as opposed to a religion, it was compatible with other religions. In other words, a person could, for example, practice both Buddhism and Confucianism simultaneously. This flexibility enabled Confucianism to flourish. Government leaders, too, embraced it, because it was intended to create an orderly society. Its widespread acceptance eventually led to a distinctive Chinese culture in which communities became extremely tight-knit; members had duties and responsibilities to many others in the community from birth to death.

Confucianism did not, however, have a similar impact on the rest of the world, because it evolved only within the context of the Chinese culture.

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