Asians have a reputation for being very disciplined. The reason for this stereotype is that, on the whole, they tend to be able to focus on whatever they are doing in ways that other cultural groupings do not. For instance, if you look in the field of music, it is not unusual to see a large representation of Asians among the top performers. You can find the same thing true in certain fields of science. You also see this principle playing out in the business arena.
The reason you see this phenomenon is not because Asians are genetically predisposed to this kind of focus. Rather, it is because there are certain cultural values within many Asian societies which promote this kind of discipline. If you chase down specifically where that comes from, you will find the root in the teachings of Confucius.
Confucianism is actually not a religion in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, many people consider it more of a cultural foundation than anything else. The main reason it is worthy of examination regarding its worldview basis is because it does supply a major part of the thinking about all of life for a very significant portion of the world’s population. And while it is not a religion, strictly speaking, it does, indeed, contain certain assumptions about the nature of reality which need to be understood when dealing with people who come from Far Eastern cultures which were influenced by this philosophy. Because of this, lets take some time to delve into the background of this system.
Confucius was born Chiu Kung in 551 BC and was the youngest of 11 children. He was a very intelligent man with a great desire to learn. He eventually became a teacher and philosopher, and over time was able to gather a core of disciples around himself. His disciples called him Kung Fu-tzu which means Kung the Master. This was later Latinized in the West into the name Confucius.
In Confucius’ day society was in tremendous turmoil. Most of the social systems of China were crumbling and anarchy was quite prevalent throughout the land. There were numerous rival gangs who commonly fought turf wars against each other and the victors would savage the losers.
As Confucius observed this situation, he attributed it to the decline of the social order in general. His evaluation was that the ancient traditions which had stabilized society in previous generations were losing strength among the people. His solution to this problem was to deliberately create a new philosophy based on the old one and work to overlay it on society. As he developed his system, he felt the best way to spread it was to teach it in every venue possible. As such he sought opportunities to teach in the schools, in temples, at entertainment venues, in homes, at festivals and every other way possible.
Confucius died in 479 BC and, during his lifetime, did not see the ultimate impact of his efforts. But over time, his teachings circulated more and more widely until they were adopted throughout virtually the entire country. In fact, they ultimately became the underlying worldview of the entire country, and from there spread throughout most of Asia.
While Confucius did not specifically teach about God, he was, himself, later deified by Chinese rulers as a means of maintaining control over the population and solidifying a good strong social order.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
Confucianism, in China, is thought of differently among different groups. Many Chinese do consider it to be a religion, much like other divinely revealed religions. Those in this camp view Confucius himself to be a deity. Most, however, see the belief system as a mere philosophy.
In Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and Korea, Confucianism is also very prominent but is not typically practiced as a religion. That being said, this imported ethical system has had a profoundly powerful influence on these societies.
There are 6 key doctrines in the Confucian model. These doctrines include:
1. Jen – Jen refers to the golden rule and is considered the highest virtue of all. Qualities such as benevolence, charity, generosity, sincerity, respectfulness, diligence, loving kindness, and goodness are included in Jen. The assertion is that if mankind would practice these, there would be peace and harmony in the world.
2. Chun-tzu – Chun-tzu refers to a “gentleman”, “superior man”, or “man-at-his-best”. Confucius taught that men were meant to become this kind of person. A man who incorporated chun-tzu into his behavior would become a person of humility, generosity, sincerity, diligence and graciousness. The belief was that this kind of man could transform society into a peaceful state.
3. Cheng-ming – Cheng-ming literally means “rectification of names.” This doctrine teaches that if everyone would play their appropriate role in society, proper order would result. Thus, a king must appropriately act like a king, a father like a father, a son like a son, etc.
4. Te – Te relates to the power to rule. It applies at every level of society from the king on down. In addition to physical power, this teaching puts forth the idea that it is necessary for leaders to be men of virtue who lead by example to inspire their subjects to obedience.
5. Li – Li is the ideal standard of conduct. This is a reference to the way people ought to live out their daily lives regarding relationships. It relates to: (a) proper worship of spirits and the proper relationships between the king and his ministers, (b) proper relationships between the ruler and the ruled, (c) proper relationships between elders and juniors, (d) proper relationships between men and women, (e) proper relationships between parents and children, (f) proper relationships between brother and brother, and (g) proper relationships within the family.
6. Wen – Wen refers to the “arts of peace” (music, poetry and art). This teaching puts forth the idea that a culture can only truly become a “high” culture when the arts are emphasized throughout society.
During the period of time in which Confucius lived, ancestor worship was prevalent. In fact, it was the default belief of the culture. In developing his teachings, Confucius did not specifically teach that people should worship their ancestors, but did assume in his teachings that this was part of the proper order of reality. He simply assumed that the Animistic beliefs of the day represented the structure of reality. He believed that the living must care for the ancestor spirits by proper rituals and that the ancestors can also control the fortunes of the living. While he didn’t put effort into teaching this, he did incorporate the belief into his teachings about always doing the right things.
Based on his underlying Animistic worldview, Confucius viewed man to be basically good by nature. That being said, he believed that man often does bad things when outside forces influence him to do so. As such, he saw man as a being who is capable of attaining an ideal character through education, self-effort, and self-reflection. This was strongly stressed in his teachings.
Rather than any kind of personal salvation, Confucius emphasized the salvation of the social order by encouraging people to respect one another. The entire purpose of his teaching was to change society from one which was chaotic to one which was ordered.
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
The Confucian system does not attempt to answer ultimate type questions such as, “Why does the universe exist?,” or “What explains its origin?” Confucius did, though, believe in the Animistic worldview that underpinned the Chinese culture of his day which assumed an interaction with the ancestors who lived in the spirit world. He taught that the spirits of the dead needed to be honored and cared for by living family members.
2. What is the nature of material reality? (Material reality)
Material reality in Confucian teaching is seen to be a part of the totality of existence. This totality is made up of the material part where humanity lives, and the spiritual part where the gods and the ancestors live. Confucianism recognizes an innate and proper order to the world which must be adhered to. This is actually one of the main elements of Confucian thought.
3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
Confucius taught that man is a competent, self-conscious individual. As such people should seek to attain the ideal character which he taught through means of education, self-effort, and self-reflection.
4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
The Confucian system does not specifically answer the question “What happens after death?” It does, however, assume that there is a hereafter based on an Animistic worldview. It assumes that the spirit of an individual lives on after death as an ancestor spirit and continues to relate to the family.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
Confucianism did not develop a doctrine of how one can have knowledge. It simply assumes that knowledge is possible. It does, though have a teaching about what true knowledge consists of. It is seen to be an understanding of the attributes of the gods and the adoption of those attributes in one’s own conduct. Doing this is understood to bring man closer to eternal truth and serves as a source of knowledge for his benefit.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)
The morality of Confucianism emerges from traditional Chinese beliefs about society. It was Confucius’ life work to codify those beliefs into a new system. His writings are a clarification of how these beliefs should be played out in life.
7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
In Confucian thought, history is simply a linear sequence of events that moves from the past to the future with no transcendent meaning.
During his teaching career, Confucius collected and edited ancient manuscripts and wrote commentaries on them. He arranged these manuscripts into five books which have become known as the Five Classics. These five classics form the central teachings of Confucianism.
1. The Book of Changes is a collection of triagrams and hexagrams. These consisted of a series of short and long dashes used for divination and for explaining Chinese culture and philosophy. They were believed to have great meaning if the key were found to their understanding.
2. The Book of Annals is a history of the ancients.
3. The Book of Poetry contains readings designed to help make people more virtuous.
4. The Book of Ceremonies contains teachings to help the “superior man” act in the right way.
5. The Annals of Spring and Autumn is a commentary related to the events of the state.
Also important are four other documents, called the Four Books, which were written by later disciples.
1. The Analects contains the sayings of Confucius and his disciples.
2. The Great Learning deals with the education and training of a gentleman.
3. The Doctrine of Mean explores the relationship of human nature to the order of the universe.
4. The Book of Mencius stresses the goodness of man.
Evidence for the Authority
The intent of Confucius was not to start a religion. Rather, he was only offering an ethical system to help make his country better. In light of that, Confucianism would not typically feel the need to back up its beliefs with evidence for its validity.
That being said, it does assume an Animistic worldview which accepts that there are ancestor spirits which must be honored and taken care of. In this respect, it must be said that it certainly does have underlying worldview components and cannot get away with saying evidence is not needed. As for grounds that this is a valid belief system, there is no evidence which can be brought to bear which validates this approach to understanding reality.
As for Confucius himself being elevated to the status of a deity, there is no evidence that this represents actual reality either. Confucius never considered himself to be a deity and there is no evidence that he actually is a god.
Confucianism does not claim to be a belief system in the sense that it offers some god or gods to worship. That being said, it does assume a set of beliefs about ultimate reality which falls into the category of Animism.
Regarding the ethical teachings of Confucianism, many of the ones related to how one should interact with other people and how society should be organized have actually had a positive influence in many ways on the cultures which have been influenced by Confucian thought. If one could truly separate out the Animistic thought from the strictly ethical teachings, there is probably much positive which could be gleaned.
That being said, the ethical teachings themselves are not really tethered to anything. While perhaps functional, they are nothing more than an arbitrary approach to creating order in society based on the ideas of a man. The belief system is purely an exercise in relativism with a goal of creating stability in society.
While this goal and Confucius’ approach to attaining it is not necessarily a bad thing, it is not the ultimate in terms of Christian thought. The Bible has a broader purpose and reflects God’s revealed truth about reality and how individuals should relate to it. To the degree Confucian thought parallels actual reality, there are some good things to gain from it. But the ultimate expression of truth is not found there.
© 2010 Freddy Davis