Confucianism: Sacred or Secular?

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 4 »Confucianism Sacred Or Secular

By Kathleen Nadeau

Kathleen Nadeau is an assistant professor of Anthropology at California State University, San Bernardino. She completed her MA in Anthropology at the University of San Carlos, Cebu City, Philippines and her PhD in Anthropology from Arizona State University. She has conducted field  work on the BCC movement in the Philippines from 1993-1994. A frequent contributor to the East Asian Pastoral Review, she is researching on prostitution issues and transnational migration.



What is called in the West ‘Confucianism’ is not a religion, but the traditional view of life and code of manners of the Chinese gentry for two thousand years up to the Revolution of 1911. Confucius was not the founder of a religion, nor was he a philosopher; he was a gentleman whose sense of what is done and what is not done has been taken as standard ever since (Graham 1988:357).


Is Confucianism a religion or is it a political philosophy? The answer depends on how one defines religion. Confucius approaches life from a different angle than Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed did, in the sense that he seemed overly concerned with the mundane world of the here and now. His attention was on matters of personal conduct and the social order. He was a reformer, not revolutionary, who, unsuccessfully, pursued a high government post to put his ideas into practice. He did not talk much about a metaphysical world of ‘spirits’ or a singular notion of the Godhead that is, at once, solitary and loving. So, Confucianism has been described by some outsiders as an ethical system based on a this-worldly epistemology. Yet, if religion is defined as a way of life that is grounded on a concept of a transcendental God (Love) that is interwoven with, and emanating from all living things (e.g., rocks, plants, insects, fish, animals, and humans), then Confucianism is a religion.

This paper takes the position that Confucius was a social action worker and religious prophet who aimed to develop a sacred way of life for society as a whole. He portrayed himself to be a great synthesizer of the recorded teachings of ancient Sage Kings. These teachings, largely, were being forgotten by his contemporaries. Confucius’ predecessors envisioned an idealized social order around which their kingdoms were oriented. Ancient Chinese cities, like ancient Hindu kingdoms, were, deliberately and consciously, built to elevate the human spirit to get in touch with the divine. One idealized plan of a city is given in the "Code Book of Works" preserved in the Book of Rites: "The capital city is a rectangle of nine squares Li.1 On each side of the wall are three gates. The Altar of Ancestors is to the left (east), and that of Earth, right (West). The court is held in front, and marketing done in the rear," forming a Chinese mandala of nine squares with the human being in the center (quoted in Wu 1963:37).

Confucianism, primarily, is concerned with creating harmony in human society. This is done in accordance with an ancient Chinese cosmology. From this perspective, the cosmos is a sacred place and all aspects of it are interrelated. Thus, the ancient Chinese aimed to uphold the sacredness of life itself by maintaining harmony among humans and between humanity and nature. The ancient understanding of how the cosmos works was based on a notion that everything that exists—the heavens, earth, human beings, ancestral spirits, and deities, is composed of life force called Ch’iCh’i is manifested, mainly, in two opposite but complimentary forces, yin and yang. Yin refers to that which is dark, moist, inert, turbid, cold, soft, and feminine, and yang corresponds to that which is bright, dry, growing, light, warm, hard, and masculine.

The yin and yang view of the cosmos works in conjunction with five elemental forces that are considered to be metaphysical. These elements are fire, wood, metal, water, and earth, each exerting a dominating influence at any one time. Everything in the universe is linked to its participation in the cycles of transformation and varying proportions of yin and yang. These are the primal and cosmic patterns that influence and shape human relationships. The teachings of Confucianism are the way through which humans can achieve an enlightened social life by living in harmony with natural and cosmic forces.

The Life of Confucius

Confucius lived during a time of great political upheaval when the Golden Age of the Chou dynasty was falling apart. It was a period referred to in the Chinese annals as the Spring and Autumn period (Ch’un Ch’iu), from 722 to 481 BCE. The emperor’s rule was under siege, and his princes, filled with greed and lusting for power, were warring with one another. The ancient ethical code was turned upside down. Confucius, growing up in a chaotic world, probably, understood the value and importance of order in personal and social affairs.

Traditional accounts, found in the early work of Francis Grant (1936:83–152), of Confucius’ life relates that he was born of the illustrious Kung family, which could trace its roots back 18 centuries, to its prehistoric founder Hwang-Ti. In those days of the grandfather of Confucius, political turmoil forced the family to leave their homes and settle in Lu, where the father of Confucius, Kung Shu Liang-Hih, was born. Confucius’ father became famous as a military officer who exhibited strength and courage under fire. During the siege of Pihyang in 562 BCE, a group of his men were about to be trapped by a dropping gate that he caught and raised, enabling all of them to escape. Notwithstanding his many feats, he had nine daughters but no son to carry on his family name. At 70 years old, Shu Liang Hih approached the royal house of Yen and asked to marry one of his three daughters. Yen’s two eldest daughters refused to marry such an old man, while the youngest, Chiangste, turned to him and said: "Merely designate your wish, father." Thus, Yen gave his youngest daughter to the warrior. She is remembered as one of the examples of filial piety by Confucian families, today. Feeling the pressure of responsibility to produce a son, Chiangste climbed the sacred Mount Ni and prayed for a son from Heaven.

Legend has it that auspicious omens accompanied the birth of Chiangste’s illustrious son, who was said to have been born in a cave in Mount Ni. Two dragons are believed to have appeared in the heavens, together with five sages, at the time of his birth. Music is said to have floated through the atmosphere when his mother went into labor. Upon the body of her son were 49 marks, signifying his unique destiny, and his head was shaped like Mount Ni. While there are many variations of the legend on the birth of Confucius, all report that he grew up in humble circumstances. Despite poverty, however, Confucius’ mother persisted in her efforts to give her son the best possible education.

Confucius’ father died when Confucius was only three years old, entrusting him to the care of his mother. It is said that his favorite childhood games were imitating ceremonial rites, which are fertile expressions of religious and cultural traditions. His passion for knowledge absorbed him, and at 15 he became an assistant teacher. At 17, apparently, in need of material means, he sought employment to help to support his mother. He obtained a local position as a director of agricultural works, and it is said that the harvest was bountiful and the cattle thrived under his watch. At 19, he married the daughter of a noble Sung family and the couple had a son and two daughters. By the time his son was born, Confucius already had established his reputation, for the Prince of Lu, sent him a symbolic gift of a carp. Confucius, aware of propriety, named his son Carp (Li). Thereafter, there is scant information in the historical record about his family.

Early Work of Confucius

Confucius’ mother died when he was 24 years old, and in accordance with the profound significance attached to mourning for the dead, Confucius removed himself from public life for three years. He meditated and studied ancient ceremonial and political texts. Emerging from his reclusive retreat, he began teaching. Throughout his life, Confucius humbly insisted that he was not an original thinker. Rather, he was a great synthesizer. He honed and developed his precepts from the literary and historical record left behind by ancient scholars. He believed that his scholarly pursuits were mandated by heaven. Heaven from the ancient Chinese perspective can be likened to a creative life-giving spirit that is immanent everywhere in nature and the human world. Like his predecessors, Confucius was a keen observer of nature and he believed in the sacredness of all natural life. Accordingly, the sage considered that his destiny was to lead men and women back to a love of their fellows. He thought that they could best serve heaven by serving each other. In a period, when anarchy threatened to disrupt the nation, Confucius imparted to his students the ideals of justice and order that typified the ancient Shang and Yu kingdoms, which can be traced back in the archaeological record to the 24 century BCE.

Confucius thought that it was important to put scholarly ideas into practice for the long-term benefit of society. Therefore, he traveled for most of his life, in search of a high political position that would enable him to serve his fellows to the best of his ability. He wanted to make life comfortable for everyone. Confucius yearned to implement the ancient philosophical principles, ethical doctrines, and political economy into the prevailing structures of government.

In 517 BCE, the political factions that threatened to disrupt the kingdom of Lu broke out into utter chaos and anarchy. Realizing the futility of remaining in his native province, Confucius traveled to the neighboring kingdom of Chou. He hoped that the local Prince would offer him a government post. However, the ruler only offered him a pension. Perhaps the Prince thought that if Confucius were given real power and authority, he would expose the already corrupt government. Refusing the pension, Confucius devoted the next 15 years of his life to teaching and research. His thoroughness in every field of knowledge is remarkable. He is reputed to have studied philosophy with Loa Tze, music under Chang Hung and Su Hsiang, and politics under Tang Tau. Although it is not likely that Confucius was mentored by these heroic masters, it points to the reverence that Chinese people have for his thorough and well-rounded education.

The Works of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius is one of the most reliable works on his life. It is a concise collection of Confucius’ sayings and activities, written by his disciples. It is said that Confucius wrote Spring and Autumn and edited the Book of Poetry or Songs, theBook of Rites, the Book of Records, and the Book of Changes. Later during the Sung dynasty (960-1279), scholars brought together the Analects, the Mencius, the Ta Hsueh (Great Learning) written by Tseng Shen, a disciple of Confucius, and the Chung Yang (doctrine of the Mean) written by Tzu Ssu, the grandson of Confucius. They named this collection Four Books. The Four Books together with the Five Classics (collected, organized, and edited by Confucius) became the basis for education in China, from 1313 to 1912. They formed the basis for the competitive civil service exams that were mandatory for some 600 years. Even today, the effects of this examination system are visible in the national college-level entrance examinations of Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.

Confucius the Great Orator

From the perspective of modern times, it is difficult to imagine that Confucius considered his first responsibility to be a great public speaker. However, during his lifetime, no one could even dream of becoming a civil servant or governmental official without also being an accomplished poet. This is because all formal communication between the emperor and his people took place through the form of flowery sayings and musical ballads. Ancient emperors listened to the heart-beat and pulse of the nation through the poetry and songs of their people. As stated in the Book of Rites: "Each five years, the Son of Heaven makes progress through the kingdom and the Grand Music Master is commanded to lay before him the poems of different states." These poems were carefully studied by royal scholars, for through them in the absence of a press, the condition and well-being of each province was measured. Ancient Chinese rulers were well aware that the singing of poems provided a stress releasing outlet for the people.

Poetry, also, was integral to the performance of religious and governmental ceremonies. No ceremonial ritual was complete without the recitation and singing of poetry. The cultivated man was knowledgeable in poetry. Confucius wrote in the Analects: "A man may be expected to act well in government service after he has mastered 300 lyrical poems." It is said that Confucius, eclectically, collected over 3,000 poems out of which he selected and used only about 310. These poems covered diverse subjects from tributes to heaven or the emperor to love poems and poems about the beauty of nature.

Teachings of Confucius

Master Confucius attracted a large following of students from different social, cultural, and economic circumstances. It is said that the number of his pupils reached 3,000. He refused no seeker of his guidance no matter how humble their origins. He was known to say to his students, "I was born with knowledge. I am the only one who has given himself to the study of antiquity and am diligent in seeking for the understanding of such studies." During his journeys he drew parables based on his personal experiences and observations of real social life that corresponded to the ideals of past scholars about familial and social life. His precepts have been followed for nearly 3,000 years.

Confucius based his social teachings on that of the patriarchal Chinese family structure. He thought that the parent-child relationship was the foundation of the hierarchical nature of society. The fundamental loyalty of an individual was to his or her family. Confucius taught that younger generations should respect and obey their elders, women should be subservient to their men, and everyone should be obedient to the emperor, who was a parent figure. Today, Confucianism is still based on five relationships: ruler-subject; father-son; husband-wife; older brother-younger brother; and friend-friend. Except for the last, all of these relationships are based on differences in status and exemplify different power relationships in Confucian societies. However, Confucius also taught that those in superior positions were supposed to look out for the well being and provision the needs of their subordinates. This ethical principle is one reason why the modern day nation states of Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have taken a collectively-oriented course to capitalist development in sharp contrast to the competitive individualism and nucleic trajectory of Western Europe or the United States.

Confucius and his students walked mostly on foot across China. They underwent many hardships, including starvation, humiliation, persecution. At one point, an assassin almost murdered Confucius. However, Confucius always showed himself to be an exemplary leader of impeccable moral character. He encouraged his disciples to strive to become superior human beings by living virtuous lives. This ideal was epitomized in the life and teachings of Confucius.

At the age of 68 Confucius was invited back to Lu by the sovereign ruler, where he spent the rest of his life editing the classical texts and continuing his teaching. Despite his ardent desire to transmit his political theories into the structures of government, Confucius recognized that legitimate power and authority did not come from a high-sounding official title. When one of his students resented his not being in a public office, Confucius replied: "You remember the Book defines a good son as being ever-dutiful, and a friend of his brothers, thus, giving the example of good rule. This, too, is to rule. What need, then, of office?" In 479 BCE, Confucius died at the age of 72 and was buried in his hometown of Chufu.





1. Li refers to the rational and the official version of what is proper behavior. The essence of li refers to social norms or etiquette, which means to humble oneself so as to honor others. The use of li is to ensure security, orderliness, or correct conduct. Li-lessness means danger (Wu 1963:33).



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