Confucianism and Chinese culture


Speaker: Chen Lai

Dean of the Academy of Chinese Learning at Tsinghua University
Lecture to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Confucius Institute.

Chen LaiWhat is Confucianism? It can be defined, like in a dictionary, as a philosophical system encompassing ideology, culture and academia, brought together by Kong Zi ‘Master Kong’, better known as Confucius, then followed and developed by successive generations of his disciples over the past 2,500 years. Confucianism centres on Confucius’s philosophies, but what is the core value of his philosophies? A book called Lv Shì Chūn Qīu, literally ‘Lv’s Annals’, written at the end of the Pre-Qin and Warring States period, abstracted the philosophies of each of the then leading thinkers into one word or one concept. Lv summed up the philosophies of Confucius as “Kong Zi guì rén”, guì meaning ‘to value most or attach the greatest importance to’, and rén ‘humanity and benevolence’. That is to say, rén was the core of Confucius’s philosophies, which was followed by his disciples for several generations before Meng Zi ‘Master Meng’ or Mencius came on stage. Mencius also valued rén, but added a second word yì ‘righteousness’ to rén. Later, rén and yì developed into the four virtues of rén, yì, li, and zhì, with li referring to ‘rites and etiquette’ and zhì ‘knowledge and wisdom’, which became the most fundamental core values of Confucianism.

ConfuciusThe three concepts rújiā, rúxué and rújiào have frequently appeared in modern times. The word rú originally refers to a teacher of arts. As Confucius was known to be the teacher and founder of the first private school in China, this word later was used to refer exclusively to Confucius and his school. The word jiā, which means ‘household, family’, is also used to refer to a school of thought, because teachers and students have been perceived to be in the same relationship as parents and children. So rú jiā became the name of the Confucian school or Confucianism. The word xué means ‘learning; scholarship’, so rúxué highlights the academic system of the Confucian school. The word jiào means ‘teaching; didactic’. When it was used to refer to religious teaching or doctrine, it developed the sense ‘religion’, but rújiào has never been a religious concept in Chinese history as jiào here refers to a didactic function or system. Rújiào, Dàojiào ‘Daoism’, Fójiào ‘Buddhism’ all have the word jiào because they all have didactic functions and exist for educational purposes. So in ancient China the saying, sān jiào hé yī ‘three didactic systems into one’ did not mean ‘a combination of three religions’ (Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism). Although the saying may have referred to their belief systems, it was in the main about their didactic functions.

In our definitions we have highlighted Confucius, his establishment of the Confucian school and his philosophies at the core of Confucianism, but we have not touched on the relationship between Confucius and the Chinese civilization. In fact, Confucius’s philosophies are rooted in the Chinese civilization of the Archaic Period. The canon of Confucian texts started not from Confucius’s teachings but the Six Classics which predate Confucius and have always been regarded as the core of Confucianism. Confucianism, therefore, can trace its origins back to the cultures of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties (or even earlier) spanning some 1,500 years.


The Six Classics, namely Shi Jing ‘Book of Poetry’, Shang Shu ‘Book of Documents’, Yi Jing ‘Book of Changes’, Li Jing ‘Book of Rites’, Chunqiu Jing ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’ and Yue Jing ‘Book of Music’, were written well before Confucius was born. He collected and edited the Six Classics and in doing so, became well-informed about the political ideology, ethical values, aesthetic standards, etc. of the early periods of the Chinese civilization. Preservation, transcendence and innovation are all embodied in his work – not just reiterating certain traditions but also adding the new concept of rén to the tradition of li and yuè. From the very beginning down to the Han Dynasty, the interpretation and preservation of the Six Classics was solely the work of Confucius and the Confucian school. Without the culture of li and yuè in Archaic China, Confucius’s philosophies would have been without foundation. Equally, without Confucius and the Confucian school, the wisdoms recorded in the texts of the Archaic Period would not have survived through the generations and a part of Chinese history would certainly have been lost to history. That was a great feat by Confucius and his followers, who had early on taken it upon themselves to preserve China’s cultural tradition. The Chinese civilization is the most continuous in the world and this continuity is the result of the Confucian school’s conscious mission to protect Chinese culture.

Without Confucius and the Confucian school, the wisdoms recorded in the texts of the Archaic Period would not have survived through the generations and a part of Chinese history would certainly have been lost to history.

Even before the Pre-Qin period the Six Classics had already established themselves as the classics of Chinese culture, but this status was achieved spontaneously, with no conscious effort from the state or individuals to protect them. Only the Confucian school, under a natural sense of obligation, continued their teaching and learning. It wasn’t until the Han Dynasty that this natural sense of obligation was picked up by the state. Emperor Wu of Han was a patron of the study of the Five Classics (the Book of Music had been lost following Qin Shihuang’s burning of books and buryin alive of scholars) and appointed scholars studying them, which proved to be an important initiative. Then onwards until the Tang Dynasty, Jīng Xué ‘Classical Studies’ became a major systematic discipline in China with the Five Classics at the core of the system.

During that time there was a change in the inner system of Confucianism – a new set of classical texts became prominent. The Four Books, namely Lun Yu ‘The Analects’, Da Xue ‘The Great Learning’, Zhong Yong ‘The Doctrine of the Mean’ and Meng Zi ‘Mencius’, became more popular than the Five Classics. To quote Zhu Xi, a great master in the study of rites and rituals, “the Five Classics are more like wholegrain with their husks still on, while the Four Books are more like a cooked meal, ready to eat.”

Chen Lai
Chen Lai

On the basis of what has been described, we can come to a conclusion that Confucianism represents mainstream Chinese culture and was in a dominant position for a long time. Confucianism, or rather Confucian culture, represented by the Five Classics and the Four Books (especially the latter) has established the core values of Chinese culture and extended a deep influence over the Chinese civilization. It played a significant role in preserving and developing tradition and culture in Chinese history. In China, religions such as Buddhism and Taoism have also made similar contributions, but not on the same scale as Confucianism. Confucianism has played a vital role in shaping the ideology of the Chinese nation and its culture, and Confucius has largely become a spiritual leader of the Chinese civilization.


Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Number 35. Volume VI. November 2014.

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