Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics

An introduction to Confucianism
Confucianism, Confucius and
Confucian classics
About 2,500 years ago, a man was born to a once aristocratic family
in a small state called Lu in East China. During his lifetime, the man
endeavoured to work ‘towards a goal the realisation of which he knows
to be hopeless’ (Lunyu, 14: 38), carrying forward the old tradition in a
chaotic environment and opening up a new horizon in a dark age. By the
time he died at the age of seventy-three, his teachings had spread throughout the state and beyond. His disciples and students compared him to
the sun and moon, while his rivals considered him a man ‘who does not
work with his arms and legs and who does not know how to distinguish
between diCerent kinds of grain’ (Lunyu, 18: 7). But there was one thing
that neither side knew: that Chinese culture, and to some extent, East
Asian culture, would be forever linked with his name, and that the tradition he loved and transmitted would rank with the greatest in the world.
This tradition is known in the West as ‘Confucianism’.
‘Confucianism’ and ru
The origin of the English word ‘Confucianism’ may be traced back to
the Jesuits of the sixteenth century:
Until Nicholas Trigault published his version of Ricci’s journals
in 1615, there was hardly any knowledge of, not to say debate about,
Confucianism . . . The Jesuits were virtually the first Europeans to
discover Confucius and Confucianism, ‘the sect of the literati’ as they
not inaccurately called it . . . The Jesuits, representatives of European
values and intellectual methods, attempted . . . to understand Chinese
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Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics
intellectual life in terms of systems, and transmuted the tradition of
the Ju or Chinese ‘scholars’ into an ‘-ism’, Confucianism.
(Rule, 1986: 2, 195)
Since then ‘Confucianism’ or its equivalents in other European languages has been taken in the West as a proper name for the East Asian
tradition with Confucius as its fountainhead. In fact, what is meant by
‘Confucianism’ is more a tradition generally rooted in Chinese culture
and nurtured by Confucius and Confucians rather than a new religion
created, or a new value system initiated, by Confucius himself alone. It is
true that as a distinctive ‘school’ Confucianism began with Confucius.
It was Confucius who explored deeply and elaborated extensively on
the basic principles of what was to become Confucianism, and it was
Confucius and his disciples who succeeded in transmitting and transforming their ancient culture. But it would go too far to suggest that
Confucianism was ‘created’ solely by Confucius and Confucianism was
sustained exclusively by the faith in Confucius. In this sense, the word
‘Confucianism’ is a misnomer for the tradition that is normally referred
to as ru jia, ru jiao, ru xue or simply as ru in China and other East Asian
countries. Confucius played a key role in the development of the tradition which had originated long before his time. He is usually regarded
as a ‘sage–teacher’ for the people or as the Sage for Confucians, but
seldom as the Saviour, and never as the Lord. Confucius functioned as
‘the founder’ of the Confucian tradition in a way quite diCerent from the
founders of other religious traditions.
R U and the R U tradition
Ru jia, ru jiao or ru xue may be translated roughly as ‘the doctrine,
or tradition, of scholars’. To understand the nature of this doctrine or
tradition, we have first to explore its root in ru. A prominent scholar
of the Han Dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), Liu Xin (?–23 ce), located the
formation of ru as a profession in the early years of the Zhou Dynasty
(1100?–256 bce) and asserted that ru was characteristic of its devotion
to the ‘six classics’ (the Book of Poetry, the Book of History, the Book
of Rites, the Book of Music, the Book of Changes, and the Spring and
Autumn Annals), and that as a social group and a distinctive school,
ru emphasised the virtues of humaneness (ren) and righteousness (yi),
followed the ancient sage–kings, and took Confucius as their master
(Hanshu, 1997: 1728). However, the identification of ru with Confucian
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An introduction to Confucianism
scholars was not recognised until a much later time, when Confucianism
had been recognised as a prominent school with its scholars engaging
with the classics and the Way of ancient Sages. What then is the original
meaning of the ru?
Among ancient texts, the character ru first occurs in the Analects, where
Confucius taught his disciples to be a ru of virtuous gentlemen (junzi ru),
and not a morally deficient man or a vulgar ru (xiaoren ru) (Lunyu, 6: 13).
Some scholars, both Chinese and Western, argue that although groups
of men professionally skilled in ceremonial practice existed prior to
Confucius’ time, the character ru post-dated Confucius’ time and was in
fact coined as a name for the followers of Confucius (Eno, 1993: 192).
While we cannot engage in this debate, suAce it now to say that there is
no reason for us to disregard what is implied by the reference to the two
kinds of ru in the Analects, and we have grounds for believing that as a
profession or distinctive group in society, ru must have predated the time
of Confucius.
As mentioned above, Liu Xin gave a clear explanation to the origin of
ru. He traced the origin of ru to a government oAce (situ zhi guan, Ministry of Education) whose function was to ‘assist the ruler to follow the way
of the yin–yang and to enlighten [the people] by education’ (zhu renjun,
shun yinyang, ming jiaohua, in Hanshu, 1998: 1728). There seem to have
been few debates concerning the meaning of ru before the twentieth
century, and people generally accepted Liu Xin’s explanation. Following
the introduction of a western scientific methodology at the beginning
of the twentieth century, however, Chinese scholars started to rethink
the character ru and reassess its meanings and connotations. A group of
scholars followed Liu Xin to confirm that ru was indeed from a government oAce. Zhang Binglin (1869–1936), for example, argued that all the
schools which came into being during the period of Spring and Autumn
(771–476 bce) and the period of Warring Sates (475–221 bce) originated
from the imperial oAces (wang guan) of the Zhou Dynasty. In his article
Yuan Ru (‘Exploring the Origin of Ru’), Zhang pointed out that in ancient
times ru was a general term with a range of references, and that there
were three kinds of ru in the Zhou Dynasty: ru as a distinguished title for
intellectuals or gentlemen who were equipped with skills and expertise
in one or more areas of social life (shu shi); ru as a classification for those
who were professionals in the six arts (rites, music, archery, carriage
driving, history and mathematics); and ru as an oAcial title for those
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Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics
who assisted the ruler to follow the way of yin–yang and to enlighten the
people by education. Zhang believed that the three kinds of ru were later
disregarded and ru as a general term became a specific name for those
who taught and transmitted the Confucian classics (Zhang, 1909: 56).
Other modern scholars such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Hu
Shi (1891–1962) disagreed with Liu and Zhang with regard to the origin
of ru. For them, ru did not originate in a government oAce of the Zhou
Dynasty. Based on the records that Confucius usually wore a special cap
(zhangfu zhi guan), Hu Shi claimed that ru referred to the adherents
(yimin) of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–c. 1100 bce) who because of their
expertise in religious rituals were employed as priests by the Zhou
Dynasty. When the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100?–770 bce) declined
shortly before the time of Confucius, these professionals lost their privilege
and social status, and became a group of people who lived on their knowledge and skills in rituals and ceremonies (Hu, 1953: vol. 4). In his Yuan
Ru Mo (On the Origins of the Ru and Moists) Fung Yulan argued against
this assumption that wearing the Shang cap did not mean that these
people were adherents of the Shang. Fung further separated ru and rujia,
the former being a professional group who lived on education and performing rituals, the latter being a distinctive school established in the
Spring and Autumn period (Chen, 1996: 334).
Most of the debates were concentrated on the immediate predecessors
of ru that later tradition knew as Confucian scholars. Whether or not
it was associated with a government oAce, the members of ru were
certainly associated with learning and education. But what was their
original profession? Recently, a number of Chinese scholars have returned
to the question. Some conclude that as a profession ru refers originally
to dancers and musicians in religious ceremonies of the Shang Dynasty
when the worship of spirits and gods dominated the life of the people. A
ru would perform various dances and play music as imprecation for
a good harvest and as oCerings to gods or ancestors, and would lead
ceremonies for the coming of rain during the seasons of drought. To fulfil
their duties ru had to study not only the rituals proper, but also other
relevant subjects such as astronomy/astrology to predict rain or drought.
The character ru () is said to come from the character xu (). Xu was
composed of two parts, ‘cloud’ () above sky () (Yan, 1995: 50), which
reveals the relation of ru to ritual dance in rain-praying. In the oracle
bone inscriptions, xu was rendered as a man who is in a shower ( ),
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An introduction to Confucianism
suggesting a ritual ablution before a ru went about his responsibilities.
In chapter 38 ‘The Conducts of Scholars’ of the Book of Rites, we can
see the importance of bathing for a Confucian scholar: ‘The scholar keeps
his person free from stain, and continually bathes (and refreshes) his
virtue’ (Legge, 1968, vol. 27: 407).
Other etymological connections also suggest that ru were related
to ritual dance, music and religious ceremonies. The character ru shares
the same root with those for ‘weaklings’ and ‘cowards’, indicating that
the members of ru were characterised by their softness, suppleness
and flexibility. Probably for this reason, Xu Shen (58?–147?), the first
Chinese philologist, defined it as such: ‘Ru means “soft.” It is the title for
[Confucian] scholars (shu shi) who educated the people with the six arts’
(Shuowen Jiezi Zhu, 1981: 366). Therefore, a ru was gentle and yielding
rather than competitive and commanding, in contrast to a warrior who
was known for his vigour in war and competition. As a master of music
and dance, a ru was clearly aware of his own refinement and manners,
and believed his own worth to reside in his cultivated and noble etiquette;
it was this which served to distinguish the ru from common people, such
as farmers, craftsmen and merchants.
To summarise and assess what has been presented above, we may
hypothesise that the diCerent explanations of the origins of ru might
actually refer to the diCerent periods in the evolution of the groups of
men who were called ru. The ru went through a number of stages before
the time of Confucius. Firstly, ru referred to dancers and musicians in religious rituals, who were characterised by their softness and flexibility. At
this stage, ru was a special group in society whose members were roughly
equivalent to what we mean by shamans, magicians and sorcerers.
Secondly, ru were masters of rituals and ceremonies, who performed, or
assisted the performance of, various rituals. At this stage, ru referred to
professionals expert in religious rituals, rites and ceremonies. Thirdly,
ritual masters became teachers in oAcial education. To be able to look
after rituals, ru must have mastered history, poetry, music, astrology,
archery and mathematics which were closely related to rituals in ancient
times. As experts in these areas they exercised responsibility for training
young dancers, musicians and performers, and for teaching on rituals
and ritual-related subjects, which earned them the title of shi ():
‘Masters/Teachers’, although they were still employed as professional
priests or assistants at oAcial or non-oAcial ceremonies.
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Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics
Along with the decline of cultic practices and the rise of rationalism
during the Spring and Autumn period, a large number of ru departed
from the oAcially assigned profession, and entered various areas of
social life. The ru became distinctive for their skills in state rituals and
in oAcial and private education. The character ru was also gradually
extended to become a specific term for those who had skills of ritual,
history, poetry, music, mathematics and archery, and who lived oC their
knowledge of all kinds of ceremonies and of many other subjects (Chen,
1996: 350). Among the teachers of these disciplines Confucius stood
out as an outstanding ru of his time, and opened up a new course by
developing and transforming the ru tradition. By the time of the Warring
States period, Confucius had been recognised as the highest figure in the
ru tradition, as indicated by Han Fei (280?–233 bce), a leading Legalist
philosopher and a well-known critic of Confucianism, ‘In the present
age, the celebrities for learning are the literati [ru] and the Mohists. The
highest figure of the Literati was K’ung Ch’iu [Kong Qiu]; the highest
figure of the Mohists was Mo Ti’ (Liao, 1960, vol. 2: 298). Not long
after that, the tradition of ru was totally identified with the doctrines
clarified, elaborated and propagated by Confucius, and ‘the rituals of
the ru’ and ‘the Way of Confucius’ became interchangeable in a collection of the Former Han Dynasty (Huainanzi Yizhu, 1990: 501). One way
or another, Confucius’ transmission and interpretation of the ancient
culture and his practices of education played a major part in shaping and
reshaping the ru tradition. The process involved in this transformation
must be taken into account when we discuss the relationship between
Confucius and ru. Therefore, whatever method one may employ in tracing the origin of Confucianism, one must take into account both the
cultural heritage on which Confucius worked and the transformation Confucius made to the ru tradition. In this sense it is misleading to
simply ‘characterize Confucius and his followers through their role as
masters of dance’ (Eno, 1990: 2–3). As we have pointed out above, by
the time of Confucius, the ru had fundamentally changed their social
and cultural functions, and therefore, should not be treated in the same
way as the earlier masters of dance and music.
‘Confucius’ is a Latinised form of the Chinese name Kong Fuzi, Master
Kong, which is in turn a reverent title for Kong Qiu or Kong Zhongni
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An introduction to Confucianism
(551–479 bce). Confucius was born and lived in the Spring and Autumn
period of the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty was established on
the system of feudalism: under the central government the empire was
divided into many feudal states, either headed by the members of the
royal house or awarded to those who had rendered outstanding service
to the state. There were about 124 states shortly before Confucius’
birth and around 70 during his life. Initially the system worked well. The
princes and dukes of the states took the king as the ‘Son of Heaven’ and
as their chief commander. When the grasp of Zhou Kings over the states
weakened, however, the administrative system began to collapse. The
heads of individual states ignored the command and order from the
central government, and competed with one another for a bigger share of
land and property. This led to military conflict between states and power
struggles within a state. The old order of social life was being destroyed
and a new one was advancing, while the people were left in endless
suCering and misery, husband being torn from wife, and wife being forced
to leave husband; the rich enjoying their luxury, while the poor had
nothing to rely on (Legge, 1992, vol. 4: 117, 320, 423, 424).
Many thinkers explored the cause of chaos and disorder, and expanded
upon their ways of solving the problems. Some became pioneers of diCerent schools, and Confucius was one of them, probably the most famous
one of his time. He believed that chaos and disorder developed from the
misuse and abuse of ritual/propriety (li) and music (yue). He described
these as a situation of li huai yue beng – ‘the decay of ritual/propriety
(li) and the collapse of music’. Unable to endure this state of aCairs,
Confucius embarked upon a life-long enterprise to restore the value of
rituals and to propagate the rules of propriety. For him chaos and disorder could not be corrected under a bad government, in which neither
ruler nor minister acted in accordance with the true values of their roles.
To establish a righteous government, the ruler and his ministers must act
according to what was established in ancient rites, because what made a
government good was the power of moral virtues rather than the power
of cruel and punitive laws. Moral virtues could produce trust and faith
in the people, while punitive measures might stop wrongdoing only for a
moment. A ruler ‘who governs the state through his virtue is like the pole
star which stays put while the other stars revolve around it’ (Lunyu, 2: 1).
An eAcient way to secure ‘governing by virtue’ was to perform rituals and
play music correctly, which would enable performers to remain in a state
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Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics
of sincerity and loyalty and to set up good examples for the common
people so that they knew what was right and what was wrong. In this
sense, Confucian Learning, performing rituals and playing music were
not merely a matter of ceremonies. Either at a personal level or at a social
level, ‘flourishing comes from [learning of] poetry; establishing results
from [properly performing] ritual; and completing is to be achieved by
means of music’ (Lunyu, 8: 8). In order to set up guidelines for good
family and social life, Confucius reinterpreted the meaning and methods
of learning and education of the ru tradition, and believed that the promotion of the tradition had great leverage on improving the quality of
social life, was the key to overcoming present problems, and would lead
the people to a refined and redefined world of goodness and harmony.
As his objective was the restoration of social and moral excellence, and
the cultivation of purity within the heart of individuals, so that society
and humanity at large could function harmoniously, Confucius took on
the task of reforming the government through revitalising the ancient ways
which was believed to have been established at the beginning of the Zhou
Dynasty and carried out eCectively and eAciently during the first half of
the dynasty: ‘The Zhou is resplendent in culture, having before it the
example of the two previous dynasties. I am for the Zhou’ (Lunyu, 3: 14).
The political ambition and moral strength with which Confucius
strove to realise his ideal came in part from his ancestral background
and aristocratic origins. Confucius is believed to have been a descendant
of the royal house of the Shang Dynasty and his family lived in the state
of Song until his grandfather was forced to move to the state of Lu. His
father died when Confucius was three years old and it was his mother
who raised him and had him properly educated. The passing away of
his father led to the further decline of the family, and Confucius once
described himself as ‘being of humble station when young so that I was
able to handle many menial things’ (Lunyu, 9: 6). The humbleness of his
living conditions and the nobility of his ancestry were probably two main
factors which encouraged him to learn. The road to the final achievement was long but gradual, as we find in his poetic self-description which
records that he set his heart firmly on learning at the age of fifteen, and
by thirty he had achieved some success; ten years later, he had reached
a higher step, when he was no longer perplexed with world aCairs; at
fifty, he believed that he had understood the Mandate of Heaven; at sixty
his ears were docile, and at seventy, he had reached the peak of human
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An introduction to Confucianism
transformation so that he could do everything following his own heart’s
desire without transgressing the norm (Lunyu, 2: 4).
In his public career, however, the progress was much less obvious.
He was a private educator and a well-known master for most of his
life. Although Confucius was keen to transform government, he himself
seemed to be more interested in practising virtues at home than in holding
oAce. When asked why he was not involved in government, Confucius
replied, ‘What does the Book of History say? “Simply by being a good
son and friendly to his brothers, a man can exert an influence upon
government.” In so doing a man is, in fact, taking part in government.
How can there be any question of his having actively to “take part in
government?”’ (Lunyu, 2: 21). Confucius held oAce for only a few years,
the first significant post assigned to him being that of magistrate of the
district Zhongdu when he was nearly fifty-one years old (501 bce). Due
to the success of his administration in this district, he was promoted to
Minister for Construction (500 bce) and the Chief Justice, possibly even
serving as acting Prime Minister for a short period (499 bce). Seeing that
he was unable to turn his doctrines into practice, Confucius left his home
state of Lu for other states in 497 bce, hoping that his words would
be heeded, his politics carried out and his ideal realised in other parts
of the world. For thirteen years (497–484 bce), he and a group of his
disciples travelled from one state to another, frequently encountering
failure and despair. However, he never lost his faith in the Way of Heaven
(tian) and his mission in the world. Confucius believed that Heaven is
the Ultimate, the source of faith from which he drew his optimism and
wisdom in dealing with human aCairs.
When Confucius realised that the situation was hopeless and when the
political climate in the state of Lu changed, he returned home, devoting
the rest of his life to teaching disciples and editing ancient classics, in
the expectation that the disciples would carry on his work and pass his
teachings on to later generations. Confucius died in the fourth month of
479 bce, and it was said that Duke Ai of Lu (r. 494–467 bce) came to
pay his condolences: ‘Alas! Heaven has no mercy on me, and has not
spared me the Grand Old Man, leaving me unprotected and in deep regret.
Alas! Father Ni (Confucius’ name)! Great is my sorrow!’ (Lin. 1994: 153;
Legge, 1992, vol. 5: 846). A few hundred years later, when Sima Qian
(145?–86? bce), the greatest Chinese historian, wrote a biography of
Confucius, he concluded with the following paragraph:
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Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics
When I read the works of Confucius, I try to see the man himself. In
Lu I visited his temple and saw his carriage, clothes and sacrificial
vessels. Scholars go regularly to study ceremony there, and I found it
hard to tear myself away. The world has known innumerable princes
and worthies who enjoyed fame and honour in their days but were
forgotten after death, while Confucius, a commoner, has been looked up
to by scholars for ten generations and more. From the emperor, princes
and barons downwards, all in China who study the Six Arts take the
master as their final authority. Well is he called the Supreme Sage!
(Shiji, 1997: 1947; Yang & Yang, 1974: 27)
It is commonly agreed that as a distinctive school Confucianism
took shape in the hands of Confucius and he was responsible for the
formation of the basics of Confucianism. His commanding personality
and profundity of knowledge attracted many followers and he himself
became the centre of gravity and the embodiment of Confucian virtues.
His understanding of the world and religious matters led the Confucian
tradition to the direction of rationalism and humanism, which characterises Confucian practices, either secular or religious. He deliberated
on many important concepts, which laid down the very foundation
for Confucian doctrines. He virtually instituted a pedagogic tradition
which transcended the class distinctions. And he painted a picture of the
gentleman/virtuous man (junzi) as an attainable ideal. All these become
the backbone of the Confucian Way, illustrating how a Confucian follower should behave, how he should lead his life and what he must do
for an ideal society. It is believed that following this Way, a Confucian
will be able not only to manifest the Principle of Heaven and Earth, but
also to continually ‘make’ the Principle out of his own practices.
With all his contributions clearly recognised, however, there is no
agreed evaluation of Confucius and his works, and opinions on him
among western scholars vary dramatically. For example, in his history
of philosophy, Hegel looked down upon Confucius as merely a moral
educationalist and his teachings as a collection of moral proverbs, which
represents the primitive stage of the progression of the Absolute Spirit.
For Karl Jaspers, the image is diCerent. Confucius is said to be one of the
four ‘paradigmatic individuals – It would be diAcult to find a fifth of
equal historical stature’ – who ‘by being what they were did more than
other men to determine the history of man. Their influence extended
through two millennia down to our own day’ (Jaspers, 1962: 6). As
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regard to his contribution to religion, Herbert Fingarette emphasises
the sacredness of his secular teaching, while Julia Ching would rather
consider him ‘a seminal thinker’ (Ching, 1993: 52).
The main concern of Confucius was with humans and with the fundamental principles of humanity. Confucius believed that these principles
were the root of social relationships, the foundation of the stability, peace
and prosperity of the state, the family and individuals. He developed his
ethics around two central theses; that goodness can be taught and learned,
and that society can only be in harmony and at peace under the guidance
of wisdom. He further developed a system of concepts to expound the
central theses. Of these concepts four became the underlying ideas of the
Confucian tradition, namely, the Way (dao), ritual/propriety (li), humaneness (ren) and virtue (de), and later the backbone of the ideological structure of a Confucian state. Devoting himself wholeheartedly to solving
human problems, Confucius propagated the value of education, virtue
and self-cultivation. On the one hand Confucius kept a distance from
religious matters such as serving ‘spirits and ghosts’, and would rather
talk about this life than the life after (Lunyu, 11: 12); on the other
hand, he held a deep faith in Heaven and destiny (ming), and preserved
religious ritual strictly. Although he believed in his mission that was
endowed by Heaven, he never saw himself as the leader or founder of a
religious tradition; what he did was merely to transmit the ancient culture, which in his mind was the model for the present and the guarantee
for the future. However, in the transmission he ‘innovated’ the old
tradition, as asserted by Schwarts that ‘in his focus on the concept of jen
[humaneness] Confucius is an innovator rather than a transmitter’
(Schwarts, 1985: 76). According to Fung Yu-lan, ‘in transmitting, he
originated something new’ (Fung, 1961: 41), while in the words of Jaspers,
‘in the philosophy of Confucius, the new expressed itself in the form of
the old’ (Jaspers, 1962: 54).
confucianism as a ‘family’ (JIA)
It was said that Confucius had three thousand students, among whom
72 were intimate disciples – the number of his disciples varying in diCerent books, for example, 70 in Mengzi 2a:3, 77 in Shiji, 76 in Kongzi
Jiayu, and 72 in Hou Hanshu, and the number of 72 becoming widely
accepted probably under the influence of the Five Elements School’s
numerological configuration of the perfect number 360 divided by 5. After
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Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics
three years’ mourning (in one case six years’) for their master, these disciples and students went to diCerent areas, either engaging in administration of a state, or setting up schools to teach the principles of the ru
tradition. Confucius was recognised as the symbol of the ru, and the ru
gradually became a specific term for those who followed Confucius to
interpret, and teach, the classics, and who engaged themselves in administration, education and the preservation of ancient rituals and music.
The multidimensional themes raised in Confucius’ conversations and the
rich resources of his teaching made it possible for the members of the ru
to develop diCerent understandings and interpretations of Confucius and
his philosophy. The diCerences in the methods of learning and practice
led to a variety of sections within the broad category of the ru. According
to Han Fei, during this period there were eight prominent sections of the
ru (Watson, 1970: 119). Although these sections developed Confucian
doctrines in manifestly diCerent directions, all of them considered themselves faithful followers of Confucius, devoted to studying, editing and
interpreting the classics as well as producing a considerable amount of
new literature in the ru tradition, and thus receiving recognition as distinguished scholars (ru) on the ancient classics. All these sections together
were known as ru jia, one of the bai jia (a hundred schools).
Jia means a structure of family home, being extended to refer to a group
of people who are devoted to the same ideal and who form among themselves relationships which are like those of a large family. By ru jia it is
meant the school or tradition of literati or scholars who have committed
themselves to the tradition of the ru. As a school, ru jia sought to make
the Way of ancient sage–kings prevail again in the present world. The
Way of the ancients was understood as multidimensional in its contents,
including the vision of harmony, the rules of propriety, the values of rituals
and rites, virtues and methods of a benevolent government. All these were
believed to have been well illustrated in the classics that ru scholars held
Confucius to have edited and interpreted. Ru jia propagated the study
and learning of these classics to correct disorder and to transform the
society, and strove to bring order to the state and peace to the world.
Like many other schools, the ru transmitted these teachings and principles
through forging a seemingly unbroken chain of master–disciples. Its practices were characterised by untiring study of, and instruction on ancient
writings, and by performing rituals and playing music properly under
the guidance of masters.
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confucianism as a cult (JIAO)
For a long time after the death of Confucius, Confucianism remained only
one of many schools. Although its teaching was considered prominent
and its followers were numerous, it did not enjoy any privilege throughout the Warring States period. On the contrary, it was frequently mocked
and attacked by the followers of other schools, as it had been during the
lifetime of Confucius. In the eyes of its rivals, Confucianism did not
provide adequate answers to the problems of life, nor did it show any
advantage over other schools. In a passage from a Daoist work, the Book
of Zhuang Zi, Confucianism is treated the same as other schools, having
its strong and weak points: ‘The various skills of the hundred schools
[bai jia] all have their strong points, and at times each may be of use. But
none is wholly suAcient, none is universal’ (Watson, 1964: 364).
The First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221–206 bce) relied on
Legalism (fa jia) to unify and govern the empire. As Legalism was one
of the chief rivals of Confucianism, Confucianism was humiliated and
suCered from suppression and persecution. With a gradual recovery in
the first few decades of the Former Han Dynasty (206 bce–8 ce), Confucianism became a dominant school and an orthodox ideology during the
reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 bce). Closely related to the religious
sacrifices of the state, Confucianism was given another name, jiao, and
later became one of the three jiaos, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism.
In Shiji or the Records of the Historian ru and jiao are first linked together.
However, the meaning here is perhaps no more than the teaching of the ru
(Shiji, 1997: 3184; Watson, 1961, vol. 2: 455.) One of the early references
to Confucianism as a religious doctrine is made in the History of the Jin
Dynasty (Jinshu, 1997: 1). When Kang Youwei of the late Qing Dynasty
(1644–1911) launched a reform movement to transform the Confucian
tradition into a state religion, he confected the story that Confucius
created the ru jiao, the religion or religious doctrine of literati.
The original form of ‘jiao’ ( ) is a pictograph, consisting of ‘a hand
holding a stick ( | )’ and ‘beating ( ) a child ( )’. The later form of
the character () consists of ‘teaching (educating, )’ and ‘filial piety
()’, meaning that a child is rigorously brought into a filial relation. This
meaning was broadened to include the doctrines that a group of people
endeavoured to transmit and spread. A jiao also implies a system of
observance of rituals, disciplines of behaviour and faith in the teachings
of the founders of a tradition, which are regarded as three of the most
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important factors in maintaining the unity and transmission of a jiao.
Therefore, what is meant by ru jiao is the cult of the learned or cultured,
the continuous tradition of the scholars who followed Confucius to take
part in the interpretation and application of the doctrines explored
in the classics, and who emphasised the importance and significance of
rituals and ceremonies for the realisation of their ideal. As Confucianism
was promoted to be the state ideology, the reverence and worship of
Confucius became part of state religious activities. Confucius was given
the title of Perfect Sage and Ancient Teacher; religious ceremonies were
performed on his birthday and other festivals, and sacrifices were oCered
to his spiritual tablet in temples dedicated to Confucius. Along with the
rising of Confucius’ status and with the dogmatic application of his teachings, two more names were invented to refer to Confucianism. Kong jiao
(‘the cult of Confucius’) emphasises that the teaching and figure of Confucius are central to the tradition, and recognises that Confucianism as
a distinctive school, a glorious tradition and an orthodox doctrine was
promoted, explored, transmitted and interpreted by Confucius, while li
Jiao (‘the ritual religion’) reveals the overemphasis of Confucianism on
li, the rules of propriety, the rites, rituals and ceremonies.
confucianism as a form of learning (XUE)
One of the features that serves to distinguish Confucianism from many
other traditions is its commitment to the study and transmission of
ancient classics. Confucius is said to be the great editor and commentator
of the classics, and his reputation as the sage is based on the fact that he
embodies ancient culture. Following him, each generation of Confucian
masters and scholars made a contribution to learning, and the doctrines
of Confucianism were gradually enriched and extended in numerous
writings, treatises and discussions. The Confucian tradition has gathered
around its classics an unparalleled abundance of annotations and commentaries. As the tradition of literati, Confucianism is steeped in the spirit
of scholarship. Confucianism is thus known by the name ru xue, meaning the learning of scholars, and the term is first used in the Records
of History (Shiji, 1997: 3118). It is agreed that Confucianism has been
able to outlive its status as state religion, and has survived persecution,
suppression and revolution, because it is sustained not by its social and
religious privilege, but by its unflagging eCorts to further learning. It is
also contended that Confucian temples may be demolished, devotion to
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its sages abolished and Confucian followers may be stripped of their social
privileges, but Confucianism can still survive and thrive as long as learning is permitted, and the classic texts are available. For this reason, most
modern East Asian intellectuals prefer to name Confucianism as ru xue
rather than ru jia or ru jiao, in recognition of the fact that the life and
spirit of Confucianism lies in its learning.
It is generally recognised that either as a school of thought or as the
state orthodoxy, the vitality of Confucianism can be generated through
learning and education, and renewed in practising what has been learnt.
Confucian Learning diCers significantly from what we mean today by
‘learning’. For a Confucian, Learning is first of all a process of reading,
understanding and deliberating, but it is more than a purely academic
subject. Confucian Learning is the study of the Way of Heaven both in
the inner self and in external practices. The only purpose of learning is
the promotion of virtuous action and the cultivation of a moral character, as Confucius made it clear that ‘A person of virtue studies the Way
in order to love people’ (Lunyu, 17: 4). Confucian Learning is also closely
related to human nature and destiny. Learning is to transform one’s self
and retain what is virtuous. It is in this sense that Mengzi, the second
sage in the Confucian tradition, understood the way of learning to be
nothing other than ‘going after the lost heart’ (Mengzi, 6a: 11).
As a particular kind of learning, the Confucian tradition is known for
three characteristics (1) that its members are mostly learned people or
civilised intellectuals in a broad sense, which reveals that in Confucian
Learning preference is always given to the virtuous way of life (2) that
they commit themselves to expanding upon, and interpreting, the classics,
which indicates that the value of Confucianism lies in a continuous
process of transmitting and furthering the ancient tradition; and (3) that
they endeavour to carry out, politically and ethically, collectively and
individually, the principles embodied in the classics, which implies that
the intention and goal of Confucian Learning is to transform the world
in the world.
Ethics, politics and religion in the Confucian tradition
The seven-dimension theory of religion put forward by Ninian Smart
has become a useful tool for scholars in Religious Studies to explore
the richness and depth of a particular tradition. Smart believes that
although it is diAcult to define a religion, we can examine it usefully
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in its diCerent aspects or dimensions, such as the practical and ritual
dimension, the experiential and emotional dimension, the narrative or
mystic dimension, the doctrinal and political dimension, the ethical and
legal dimension, the social and institutional dimension, and the material
dimension (Smart, 1989: 12–21).
‘Confucianism’ literally means the tradition and doctrine of literati/
scholars. In fact, it is more than the values of a group of people. It contains a socio-political programme, an ethical system, and a religious
tradition. It functions as an underlying ideology and a guiding principle
permeating the way of life in China and informing the cultures of many
other East Asian countries.
Confucian doctrines are primarily explored and illustrated in the
Confucian classics, and are also enriched, transformed and extended at
the hands of many generations of Confucian masters and students. The
interpretation of Confucian principles changes with the times, and we
can therefore observe a number of distinct phases or stages in the process of Confucian evolution. Confucianism was the dominant school of
thought and orthodox ideology for the most part of two thousand years,
exercising both dogmatic and dynamic functions. It was dogmatic in
maintaining and strengthening its dominance, but it was also flexible
enough to adapt to diCerent environments and situations, shaping and
reshaping itself constantly and synthesising new ideas from other schools.
It is essentially a Chinese tradition, primarily reflecting the Chinese attitude towards life and the world, although of course it has spread also to
other East Asian nations, flourishing in both a distinctively Korean and
Japanese form.
Any adequate understanding of Confucianism, past and present, will
depend upon a thorough examination of all its dimensions, phases and
forms as well as the interplay between it and its social environment.
Each of these dimensions is in itself a miniature of the whole tradition,
embodying the fundamental principles of Confucianism and at the same
time reflecting other dimensions in its own distinctive way. Can we single
out from the many dimensions the one which is more important than
the others and by which Confucianism may be defined? Many modern
scholars and students in Confucian Studies have attempted to answer
this question, yet Confucianism demonstrates an ability to cross the
boundaries of the traditionally defined subjects in the West, therefore
the variety of its presentations has made it almost impossible to be clearly
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defined. Even so, some of them still argued that Confucianism must have
some essential characteristics that serve to set it apart from other traditions and to preserve its distinctiveness, and that it should be possible to
define Confucianism in its relation either to ethics, politics or religion.
an ethical system?
Morality has been characteristic of Confucian theory and practice. It was
on the foundation of Confucianism that various codes of moral life, rules
of propriety, patterns of behaviour and guidelines for social and daily
life were produced and enhanced. Confucianism underlined, and perhaps
to a smaller extent continues to underline, the basic structure of society
and community, to orient the life of the people and to define their moral
standards and ethical ideal in most parts of East Asia.
Considering the central position of morality in Confucianism and
the significance of Confucian ethics for society, some Western scholars
have concluded that the moral dimension is so essential for Confucianism
that Confucianism itself can be defined as a form of ethics. A number
of prominent scholars hold this position. For them, ‘Confucianism . . .
was essentially a system of ethics’ (Needham, 1970: 24–5); ‘What is
called in the West “Confucianism” is… the traditional view of life
and code of manner of the Chinese gentry’ (Zaehner, 1988: 370); and
Confucianism should be viewed only as ‘a set of behavioural patterns’
(Tu et al., 1992: 40).
As a moral tradition, Confucianism demonstrates many features in
common with other moral systems in the world. For example, Confucian
ethics emphasises that both inner motive and its external results must be
taken into account when we evaluate a person or his/her conduct. In this
sense, it is both deontological and consequentialistic. Confucius repeatedly taught that while it was important to observe ancient rituals strictly,
it was even more important to have a sincere heart and a devoted spirit:
‘For if a person lacks humaneness (ren) within, then what is the value
of performing rituals? For if a person lacks humaneness within, what is
the use of performing music?’ (Lunyu, 3: 3). Confucius took a holistic
view of a person and believed that if we looked at how a person acted,
examined his motives and his tastes, then it would be impossible for the
person to conceal his real character from us (Lunyu, 2: 10).
Confucian morality revolves around family relationships, especially
around the relationships between parents and children, between elder and
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younger brothers, and between husband and wife. In these relationships,
the primary emphasis is put on fulfilling responsibilities to each other with
a sincere and conscientious heart. However, Confucian ethics is not confined to the family. It takes family virtues as the cornerstone of social order
and world peace. Its logic is that the family is the basic unit of the human
community and that harmonious family relationships will inevitably lead
to a harmonious society and a peaceful state: ‘If only everyone loved his
parents and treated his elders with deference, the Empire would be at
peace’ (Mengzi, 4a: 11). For those who are members of the ruling class,
their virtues in family aCairs are even more significant for the whole
country: ‘When a ruler feels profound aCection for his parents, the
common people will naturally become humane’ (Lunyu, 8: 2).
In the light of such points, some modern philosophers believe that the
way by which the Confucian moral system was established is similar to
that of virtue ethics. Moral instruction and ethical persuasion employed
by Confucius and Mengzi are even said to be able to ‘provide a radical
alternative to the Aristotelian and Thomistic paradigms most often involved’ in the West (Nivison, 1996: 2). As a system of virtue ethics, Confucianism is said to point to a solution for social problems arising from
the lack of virtues and from the lack of will to practise virtues. With
respect to the lack of virtues, the Confucian solution is a sort of persuasion enforced by rules of ritual/propriety, while for so-called ‘weakness
of will’ it follows the path of self-cultivation and education.
Even if we agree with all these arguments, the question still remains:
are these arguments enough for Confucianism to be defined as a system
of ethics? There is no question that Confucianism is oriented towards
morality and that ethics is the central part of its theory and practice. But
what is meant by ‘morality’ in Confucianism is in fact quite diCerent
from that defined in Western ethics. In this respect, Henri Maspero’s
comments are to the point:
The central problem of the Doctrine of Literati in all ages was one of
ethics; and that is probably what has so often led to the judgement that
Confucianism was above all a morality, which is far from accurate . . . It
is indeed a matter of a very particular ethics, quite diCerent from what
we generally understand by this word, and that is probably why it is so
often omitted from Western accounts of Confucianism. In reality, the
problem is the eCect which the good or bad acts of man (and especially
the governmental acts of the sovereign, representing humanity) have
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upon the orderly progress of natural phenomena (the progress of
stars, eclipses, earthquakes, floods, etc.) and upon human aCairs
(the deaths of sovereigns, revolts, overthrow of dynasties, etc.).
(Maspero, 1981: 71)
Indeed, Confucian ethics are not only about what we mean by ‘moral
issues’, but also about politics, religion, education, psychology and metaphysics. All these aspects are integral to Confucian ethics. As morality
is integrated with religion and politics, moral virtues become essential
both for governing and for religious activities. As religion and metaphysics are part of morality, religious ritual and practice are a way of
moral improvement. Taking these into account, we have to say that since
Confucianism contains a special kind of morality, and since Confucian
ethics cover a much wider area than in the West, it would be misleading
simply to define Confucianism as a moral system.
an official orthodoxy?
As the tradition of literati, Confucianism is characterised by its deep
involvement in politics, aspired to by its ambition to bring order and
peace to the world. After Confucianism gained predominance over all
other schools, Confucian ethics gradually became a universal yardstick
for behaviour and ideas, an orthodoxy that oriented conduct, thought
and relationship. The moral and political requirements of Confucianism
were crystallised as ‘Three Guiding Principles’ (san gang) and ‘Five
Constant Regulations’ (wu chang), on which Confucian states were
established. Among the three principles maintained and propagated
by Confucianism, the first and foremost one is the subordination of a
subject or minister to his ruler, which is followed by that of a son to his
father and of a wife to her husband. The Five Regulations are actually
five Confucian virtues, humaneness (ren), righteousness (yi), ritual/propriety (li), wisdom (zhi) and faithfulness (xin), which are believed to be
as constant and unchanging as natural laws, remaining the same for all
time and guiding/ordering all other virtues. These principles and regulations are taken as the essence of life and the bonds of society. In this way,
Confucianism extended the boundaries of moral codes from individual
matters to social and political areas, not only providing the state with an
ideological format, but also equipping the authority with the standards
to judge behaviour and thoughts.
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To emphasise the function and value of Confucianism in shaping and
reshaping society and politics, some scholars argue that Confucianism
was none other than an oAcial state orthodoxy. In posing the question
‘What was the Confucianism that concerned society at large in late
imperial China?’, for example, Kwang-Ching Liu and his companions
obviously have in mind the answer of ‘an oAcial state orthodoxy’
(Liu, 1990: 1, 53–100).
Confucius was seriously concerned with political irregularities. In
order to bring peace to states and to restore the brilliant Way of the
ancients in his time, he paid great attention to the rules of propriety. One
of his concerns was about the discrepancy between names and reality,
between language and action, and between rights and duties:
If names be not correct (zheng), language could not be fluently used.
If language be not fluently used, aCairs could not be carried on to
success . . . ritual/propriety (li) and music could not be flourishing
. . . the punishments could not be properly made . . . then the people
would not know how to behave. (Lunyu, 13: 3)
What Confucius tried to argue here is that if a ruler, a subject, a father
and a son do not fulfil their duties, they abuse their titles and violate the
names by which they are defined. For Confucius, this is the beginning of
the collapse of ritual/propriety and music, and is one of the causes which
bring about social disorder and political chaos.
Having given preeminence to the role of a ruler in restoring the Way
of the ancients, Confucius seldom emphasised the one-way loyalty of the
subject or minister to the ruler. Rather, he insisted that the relationship
must be reciprocal: ‘The ruler should employ his subject–ministers
according to the rule of propriety/ritual (li), while subject–ministers should
serve their ruler with loyalty (zhong)’ (Lunyu, 3: 19). However, to serve
the purpose of imperial government, this theory of ‘rectification of names’
was, especially in the latter part of history, extended and interpreted as
a conservative bulwark for an authoritarian regime in which absolute
subordination of subject–minister to ruler guaranteed an eCective
administration. In this way, Confucianism became more than a system
of morality or a school of thought, and it was the core of the state
orthodoxy that every person, every event and every aCair must be in
accordance with what was required from them.
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For a long period in the past, government bureaucracy and Confucian
scholarship were almost identical: the oAcials of the state were chosen
either by examining a candidate’s learning of the Confucian classics
or by recognising his achievements in practising Confucian virtues. A
systematic way of selecting oAcials in accordance with Confucian principles was already put into use in the Han Dynasty, and this system
later developed into a network of civil servant examinations at county,
provincial and national levels. On the one hand, Confucianism gained
its energy from the scholars who took the Confucian Way as the Truth
and Confucian Learning as an eAcient and eCective means to transform
society and to bring peace to the world. Within an ideal Confucian
context, a scholar is a Confucian whether or not he is in oAce, and he
can do what is expected of him whether he is an oAcial or not. On the
other hand, as Confucian Learning was identified with the contents of
examination, many scholars took it as their greatest duty to gain success
in civil examinations and to be part of government bureaucracy. To some
extent, whether achievement in Confucian Learning could be recognised
or not depended upon success in examination, as depicted in a proverb:
‘All other careers are inferior, while only [Confucian] Learning is superior
[wanban jie xiapin, weiyou dushu gao].’ It was perhaps true that for many
men over a long period of history, Confucian Learning was no more than
a stepping-stone to success in an individual’s career. Confucianism was
eventually transmuted from a resourceful doctrine into an authentic
scheme, not only binding the performance and thinking of a social elite,
but also defining how to lead a life for every individual.
There is no doubt that Confucianism acted as an oAcial state
orthodoxy during the latter part of East Asian history; but our inquiries
into the nature of Confucianism as an orthodoxy lead to a number of
other questions. What kind of function did the state orthodoxy exert
on the life of the people? Wm. Theodore de Bary believes that as the
orthodox tradition, Confucianism was ‘a life-style, an attitude of mind,
a type of character formation, and a spiritual ideal that eluded precise
definition’ (de Bary, 1975: 24). In order to elucidate its social functions,
he analyses the four types of orthodoxy assumed by Neo-Confucianism
in late imperial China, educational orthodoxy, bureaucratic orthodoxy,
philosophical orthodoxy, and ‘liberal’ orthodoxy (de Bary, 1981: 50–7,
188–94). The quartet presentation of Confucian orthodoxy draws a clear
picture of how Confucianism functioned in history. But as these four are
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very diCerent by nature and in function, it would not make our task any
easier to define Confucianism, even if we agreed that it was a sociopolitical orthodoxy.
A more serious question would arise if we defined Confucianism as
the state orthodoxy: What was or is Confucianism when it either was
not yet, or no longer is, the state orthodoxy? Confucianism was not
always a dominant ideology, nor has it been the state orthodoxy since
the beginning of the twentieth century. From Confucius until the middle
of the Former Han Dynasty, Confucianism was not orthodox at all.
It was subject to attack, criticism and persecution. From the collapse of
the Later Han Dynasty (25–220 ce) to the Song Dynasty (960–1162)
Confucianism maintained the name of the state ideology but in reality its
control over the state and over social life was limited to a very small area,
thanks to the popularity of Daoism and Buddhism. From the beginning
of the twentieth century until the 1980s, Confucianism lost its grasp over
the state and over people’s life and thinking. It was criticised and attacked
as a reactionary and conservative force by many liberals and Communist
intellectuals alike. Nevertheless, Confucianism still existed and developed
during all these periods. The fact that Confucianism has outlived its
status as the state orthodoxy demonstrates that ‘orthodoxy’ is not the
essential quality of Confucianism.
The third question in relation to the definition of Confucianism as the
state orthodoxy is this: was Confucianism an orthodoxy manipulated
by a small group of social elite, or a culture shared by a large portion of
people? From a historical perspective Confucianism existed both as an
oAcial orthodoxy and as a popular culture, being at once a tradition for
scholars–oAcials and a common system of values for peasants, artisans
and merchants. On the one hand, Confucianism evolved out of the ru
tradition, and Confucius educated his students to be true gentlemen, to
devote themselves to learning and practising the principles of the ancient
classics. A great number of Confucian masters were prominent philosophers (zi) who loved wisdom and endeavoured to make plain the secret
of human and natural life, although ‘the Chinese word corresponding to
philosopher denoted group attachment to tradition rather than individual
love of wisdom’ (Dawson, 1963: 10). For these reasons, Confucianism is
said to be ‘a circle of academics’ and the way of life for a small group of
social elite. On the other hand, Confucianism does have its ordinary
character, appealing to the people of all ranks. Its theories and practices
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were initially the new products of freethinking and private education.
All but two of Confucius’ disciples came from the families of a lower
social status, and Confucius was a very ‘common’ person whose early
life was spent in poverty, and whose knowledge was gained through hard
learning. Most of his conversations were humorous and many of his
attitudes to life were typical of the Chinese. Many Confucian scholars of
later generations could even be said to be half-Confucian and half-Daoist:
in oAce they engaged themselves in administration, while out of oAce
they concentrated on self-cultivation, either through learning, cultivation
and education, or on enjoying natural and social pleasures.
It is thus clear that Confucianism is not merely an oAcial orthodoxy.
Otherwise, we would not be able to explain properly why Confucianism
is said to be both conservative and radical, retrogressive and progressive.
Measured by modern values, it did indeed have its ‘good’ as well as its
‘bad’ side. Some modern scholars have only seen or emphasised the one
side or the other by which they label Confucianism. Having examined
the long history of Confucianism, for example, Shryock commented that
‘Confucianism is one of the major achievements of the human mind, and
its noble code of ethics makes it worthy of the deepest respect’ (Shryock,
1966: 226). This view, however, is not shared by others. For the latter,
Confucian orthodoxy was a product of history, and has become completely obsolete and is an obstacle for forward progress. An early example
of the latter opinion was provided by James Legge, an outstanding translator and interpreter of Confucian classics, who saw the teachings of
Confucius as the cause of the backwardness of China. According to
Legge, ‘There has been a tendency to advance, and Confucius has all
along been trying to carry the nation back’, and because Confucius
and his followers had no sympathy with progress, Legge believed that
the influence of Confucianism ‘will henceforth wane’ (Legge, 1991,
vol. 1: 108, 113). The divergence of their views itself demonstrates that
the definition of Confucianism as an oAcial orthodoxy can lead only to
a partial evaluation of the tradition.
a religious tradition?
‘For the historian or phenomenologist of religion, Confucianism presents
a kind of extreme or limiting case in which the religious or sacred elements are elusive and challenge many of the accepted generalisations’
(Rule, 1986: xiii). One problem regarding an overview of Confucianism
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is whether or not Confucianism should be considered a religious tradition, and if we are to take it as a religion, then what can we say are its
distinctive features? The western interpreters of Confucianism disagree
greatly on this issue, partly because of a terminological ambiguity arising
from applying western terms of religion, philosophy and ethics to an
eastern tradition, and partly because of a phenomenological confusion
coming from restructuring Confucianism in light of these scholars’ own
religious or non-religious convictions.
Whether Confucianism is religious or not is directly related to the
question of how to define the Confucian tradition. Under the influence
of a Christian definition of religion, earlier generations of western scholars
judged it on the basis of the Christian doctrine, so that Confucianism
swings between religious and agnostic or between good and evil. For
example, ‘Confucianism, which for the Jesuits had seemed a wonderful
preparation for the Gospel, was, even for Legge the great interpreter of
it, an evil which had to be swept away’ (Dawson, 1964: 25). In general,
contemporary western scholars have extended their concept of religion,
but this has not yet reached an agreement about the religious elements of
the Confucian tradition. A number of contemporary western scholars
avoid involvement in any kind of questions on the religious nature
of Confucianism, while others attempt to argue for their own views.
However, their views have by no means converged. For the sake of
convenience, we can classify their opinions into two groups. The first
group holds an opinion diametrically diCerent from the second group
and attempts to establish that Confucianism was and is a religion. For
example, Rodney Taylor argued
those interpretations that have sought to define Confucianism as a
form of humanism devoid of religious character have failed to realise
the central feature that persists throughout the tradition. I argue
that a single thread runs throughout the tradition, and this thread is
religious . . . Let us make no mistake, Confucianism is an ethical system
and humanistic teaching. It is also, however, a tradition that bears a
deep and profound sense of the religious, and any interpretation that
ignores this quality has missed its quintessential feature.
(Taylor, 1986b: 1–2)
The character of Confucianism as a religion is examined on varying grounds. With respect to traditional function and cultural heritage,
Confucianism is considered a religion because it ‘has played a central
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role in the cultures of China, Korea and Japan as the major moral and
religious teaching at the very heart of each of these cultures’ (Taylor,
1986a: 1). With respect to the content of the tradition, it is believed to
be religious because it has a strong ritual dimension: oCerings and
sacrifices to ancestors, for example, have been central to Confucian
beliefs (Smart, 1989: 110). With respect to its metaphysical ultimate,
Confucianism is considered to be a religion due to its understanding of
Heaven and to ‘the relationship of humankind to heaven’ that functions
as a religious core from which all that flows ‘is part of religious meaning’
(Taylor, 1986b: 2).
The opinions of the second group are marked as much, if not more,
by disagreement. For some, Confucianism is not a religion because it
focuses on interpersonal relationships, rather than on a human relationship to God or a supernatural Being. For others, it is because Confucius
is mostly a teacher of morals and ‘it is considered wrong therefore to class
his doctrine as a religion’ (Giles, 1915: 67). For some again, it is because
Confucianism lacked a supernatural element and ‘depended on no supernatural sanctions’ (Needham, 1970: 24–5). Max Weber concluded that
‘Confucianism was indiCerent to religion’, and that ‘Completely absent
in Confucian ethic was any tension between nature and deity, between
ethical demand and human shortcoming, consciousness of sin and need
for salvation’ (Weber, 1968: 146, 235). Much unsatisfied with Weber’s
evaluation that Confucianism is so rationalistic that it has eradicated ‘all
the residues of religious anchorage’, Creel remarked sharply that ‘it would
be pleasant to be able to say that Weber’s comments on Confucius and
Confucianism were all equally penetrating, but unfortunately this is not
the case’ (Creel, 1960: 310).
Eastern scholars in Confucian Studies do not perform much better than
their western counterparts, although their divisions are due to reasons
quite diCerent from those in the West. One of the many diAculties in
defining Confucianism as a religion is that the term ‘religion (zong jiao)’
has quite a diCerent resonance in Chinese than in a western language. If
in English, the term ‘religion’ often carries, along with its descriptive
meanings, a commendatory implication of ‘devotion, fidelity or faithfulness, conscientiousness, pious, aCection or attachment’ (The Oxford
English Dictionary, 2nd edition, vol. 13: 569), in Chinese, the word that
refers to religion is primarily suggestive of superstitions. A religion is
usually regarded as a superstructure which consists of superstitions,
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dogmas, rituals and institutions (Fung, 1961: 3). For this reason ‘the things
of religion were not greatly appreciated’ in China, as Matteo Ricci
observed a long time ago (Gernet, 1985: 16).
Historically it was believed in the West that human knowledge about
the world and about ourselves would be much better served by maintaining a division between the secular and the religious (initiated by Plato),
and by the compartmentalisation of human sciences such as philosophy,
ethics, politics, economics, education and religion (probably starting with
Aristotle). To the ancient Chinese, however, these divisions are inappropriate. Their religious view of the world is not intentionally distinguished
from their philosophical or political view. The terms which were used to
refer to their views of the world, such as dao (the Way), jiao (doctrine or
the tradition) and li (principles or laws) are all, without exception, suitable to denote philosophical thinking, political ideal, ethical norms and
religious practices. The distinction between diCerent traditions is seldom
categorically emphasised and an individual is normally able to commit
himself to more than one doctrine. With this fact in mind, Eric Sharpe
argues that ‘to talk of syncretism of religious thoughts or threads, and
particularly in any discussion about the “three religions of China”, any
scholar had to admit that it was possible for a Chinese to belong to all
three systems at the same time’ (Sharpe, 1994: 82).
The modern Chinese use a term coined by combining two characters,
zong and jiao, which originally meant ‘ancestral’ and ‘teaching/doctrine’.
In the mind of the ancient Confucians, there were two kinds of teaching.
Those transmitted from ancient times by sages are considered to be noble
and orthodox, encouraging people to be good and sincere, to be filial
to their ancestors and parents. When these teachings are corrupted or
misused, they become associated with superstitions, involving belief
in miracles, strange powers, reincarnation and so forth. They believe
that noble doctrines are those by great sages like Confucius, Lao Zi and
Sakyamuni the Buddha, while the depraved teachings were evident in
popular Daoism, popular Buddhism and folk cults. When ‘religion’
is identified with the theories and practices of the latter, it enjoys the
respect of few scholars. This perhaps explains why in the modern age
only a handful of scholars such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) would
enthusiastically argue for establishing Confucianism as the state religion,
and this eCort met a strong reaction and harsh criticism from other Confucians. Liang Qichao (1873–1929), for example, opposed any attempt
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to label Confucianism a religion because he believed that ‘religion’ was
incompatible with Confucius’ own views and was contrary to rationalism
(cited in Yang, 1961: 5).
Here we encounter that definitions of Confucianism turn on definitions of religion in general. ‘Religion is diAcult to define in a way that
satisfies everyone . . . It is always a part of the general culture of the
people who hold it, and at the same time it is an interpretation of that
culture’ (Shryock, 1966: 223). Many modern scholars in the West have
gone beyond the old and ultimately Christian definitions of religion so
that many diCerent traditions and cultures can now be comfortably drawn
under its umbrella. Durkheim rejected various definitions of ‘religion’
popular in his time. Among these definitions, one defined religion by
the supernatural and the mysterious, and the other defined religion in
relation to God or a spiritual being. Durkheim believed that ‘A religion
is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that
is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which
unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who
adhere to them’ (Durkheim, 1961: 21–44). Paul Tillich took religion
as the ‘state of being grasped by ultimate concern’ (Tillich, 1963: 4). John
Bowker examined religions in their sociological and anthropological
functions so that a religion is a way of breaking ‘through limitation’ or is
expressive of ‘route-finding activities’ (Bowker, 1973: viii). Frederick
Streng defines religion as ‘a means towards ultimate transformation’
(Streng, 1985: 1–8). John Hinnels emphasises specifically that there are
inherent dangers in assuming that there will always be a definable and
separate phenomenon recognisable as a ‘religion’, since ‘the religion of
the majority is often expressed mainly through custom and practice’,
which leads him to believe that the nature of a religion is in its custom
and practice (Hinnels, 1991: 12–13).
In the light of this expansion of the understanding of religion, more
and more western scholars tend to think of Confucianism in terms of a
religion. In Mainland China, where the Confucian tradition is in general
defined as a feudal ethical system, the perception of Confucianism has
also started to change, as indicated by a group of recently published
articles in which a number of prominent intellectuals confirm the close
link between Confucianism and religion in one way or another (Xinhua
Wenzhai, no. 10, 1998, pp. 37–42). It is clear that these new attempts
are diCerent from those made by the Sinologists of old generations who
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took Confucianism as a religion because of its similarities to Christianity. Contemporary scholars attempt to establish that Confucianism is
religious, a tradition of a unique character that is distinctive from other
religions in one way or another. Inquiries into the religious nature of
Confucianism thus focus on its distinctiveness.
It is agreed that the diAculty in defining Confucianism as a religion
does not lie much in its practices, and the practices Confucianism
cherishes such as ancestral worship, patronage of Confucian sages and
sacrifices oCered to Heaven do not diCer greatly from the religious
practices of many other traditions in the world. The nub of the diAculty
lies in its humanistic teachings and rational understanding of the world
and life. Even W. E. Soothill who listed Confucianism as one of the
three religions in China had to resort to the complementary unity of the
three religions in China to make up for ‘the deficiency of Confucianism
in making little or no provision, beyond a calm stoicism, for the spiritual
demands of human beings’ (Soothill, 1973: xi–xix). Is there ever any
religious spirit and value in the Confucian doctrines on philosophic,
ethical and social matters, so that a distinct type of religiosity can be
Hans Küng believes that Confucianism is a religion, a religion of
wisdom, distinguishable and yet related to two other types of religion
in the world. According to him, there exist three Great River Systems
of world religions. The first river system is of Semitic origin in the
Near East, which is of prophetic character and is composed of ‘three
Abrahamic religions’, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. From the Near
East to the Indus Valley, we encounter the second great river system of
religion. It is of Indian origin and has a mystical character. It originated
in the Indian tradition (Upanishads). As a reformation or adaptation
of this, there emerged three further religions: the reform movement
of mahavira, called Jina, the ‘victor’, founder of Jainism; the reform
movement of Gautama Buddha which gave birth to Buddhism; and
the more recent Hindu religions, whether monotheistic or polytheistic.
The third great river system of religion is of Chinese origin and is
associated with the figure of the sage; it is therefore labelled a religion
of wisdom, and includes Confucianism, Daoism and part of Chinese
Buddhism. In the third system of religion, it is the wisdom of the sages,
Confucius, Lao Zi and the Buddha, that leads the people to their salvation
(Küng & Ching, 1989: xi–xix).
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Julia Ching defines Chinese religions as ‘religions of harmony’, because
they are all based on the theme that ‘Heaven and human are one (tianren
heyi)’. For her, there are two kinds of religion of harmony, the first
one intending for ‘a greater harmony between God and man’, while the
second seeking ‘a greater harmony between the divine and the human
orders, such as in Taoist philosophy, in the humanism of Mencius, of
Neo-Confucianism, as well as Chinese Mahayana Buddhist philosophy,
especially of Ch’an (or Zen)’. Taking these two sides into account, Ching
believes that Confucianism is ‘a humanism that is open to religious values’.
Recognising that the main concern of Confucius and Confucianism is
with social and moral aCairs, Ching does not agree that all humanists
are ‘secularists or at least religious agnostics’, and insists that Confucius
is a humanist of a special kind and that there is a profound spirituality
in his moral teachings which are the foundation of Confucianism (Ching,
1993: 6, 51, 52).
Confucianism covers a wide range of doctrinal deliberations from pure
humanism to ultimate spiritualism but a spiritual concern over human
destiny runs through it. Some people therefore concentrate on the distinctiveness of the religious dimension of Confucianism rather than on
whether or not Confucianism is a religious tradition (Tu, 1989a). In a
recently published book entitled Confucianism and Christianity, this
author argues that the distinctiveness of Confucianism as a religion lies
in its humanistic approaches to religious matters, such as beliefs, rituals
and institutions, and in its religious concerns with secular aCairs, individual growth, family relationships and social harmony (Yao, 1996a).
There is more than one type of religion in the world. DiCerent understandings of transcendence, imminence, immortality and the ways to
eternity, manifest diCerent religious values, which underlie the variety of
religions, either theistic, humanistic or naturalistic. One of the ways in
which some writers have failed to recognise Confucian spirituality is that
Confucianism has been examined and judged with the yardsticks of a
theistic system. Within a theo-centric framework, Confucianism is said
to be definitely not a religion, since ‘It has no priesthood, no church, no
bible, no creed, no conversion, and no fixed system of gods. It has no
interest in either theology or mythology’ (Ferm, 1976: 150). However, if
one recognises that diCerent types of human religiosity exist, it would
not be so diAcult for us to see that there are Confucian counterparts to
the Christian ‘priests, church, bible, creed, theology and mythology’. For
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example, Confucian academies functioned in much the same way as
churches of Christianity. Matteo Ricci first noticed that these Confucian
Academies (shu yuan) were equivalent to Christian preaching houses and
the Confucians were also ‘impressed by the resemblances between the
[Jesuit] preaching houses and their own traditional academies’ (shu yuan).
E. Zürcher also observed that ‘the atmosphere of shu yuan did have something solemn and almost holy’: each meeting began with a ceremony in
honour of the founder and Confucius; the rules of conduct were codified
according to a convention, which often included pious hymns sung by
choirs of young boys (Gernet, 1985: 17–18).
The diCerent approaches discussed above lay the ground for our
own view of the distinctiveness of religious Confucianism. As a religion,
Confucianism is indeed of special character. The backbone of Confucian
doctrines is composed of three principles: harmony and unity between
humanity and Heaven, harmony and unity between descendants and
ancestors, and harmony and unity between the secular and the sacred
(Yao, 1996a: 31–3). In analysing, and expanding on, these three dimensions of harmony, Confucianism develops a systematic and unique
doctrine of human religiosity. This is a kind of humanism, because it
concentrates on solving secular problems and insists on human perfectibility. However, Confucianism is not humanistic in the normal sense
of this term, because it does not end with the material satisfaction of
human needs, nor does it reject pursuing the spiritual Absolute. Although
it holds a diCerent conception of what can be counted as the ‘spiritual’,
Confucianism does have a common sense of the ultimacy of a personal
experience of the sacred and a personal commitment to the Ultimate. It
is thus a humanistic religion, a humanistic tradition manifesting spiritual
longing and discipline in its classics, creed, practices and institutions, and
leading to a religious destination that answers human ultimate concerns.
These concerns are expressed through individual and communal commitments and revealed by the desires to transform self and society according to
their moral and political vision. Confucianism is a kind of humanism that
seeks sacredness in an ordinary and yet disciplined life; or in Paul Rule’s
words, it is a ‘secular religion, this-worldly in emphasis yet appealing to
transcendent values embodied in the concept of “heaven”’ (Rule, 1986: 31).
By relating the secular to the sacred, the humanistic to the religious,
Confucianism demonstrates a unique understanding of the Ultimate and
of transcendence, and opens a distinctive path to human eternity.
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Confucianism is a humanistic religion because the Confucian understanding and conception of the Ultimate, of the imminent power, of the
transcendent, of the world, life and death are all related to, and based
on, its exploration of human nature and human destiny. Human life is
meaningful and invaluable, not only because it is a way of fulfilling human
destiny, but also because it is the only way of bridging this life and the
beyond, the limited and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, which
is well illustrated by Confucius in his reply to the questions of how to
serve spiritual beings and how to understand death: ‘If you are not yet
able to serve humans, how can you possibly serve spiritual beings? If you
do not yet understand life, how can you possibly understand death?’
(Lunyu, 11: 12).
As a religious humanism, Confucianism is characterised by its faith
in Heaven (tian) and the Mandate of Heaven (tian ming), and by its
belief that humanity can achieve perfection and live up to heavenly principles. It insists that humans have their mission in the world. But it also
insists that this mission cannot be fulfilled unless men and women have
done their best to fulfil their ethical and moral duties, from which there
develops a unique understanding of the moral as the transcendental
and the secular as the sacred. Confucianism stresses the importance
of self-consciousness and self-cultivation as the pathway leading to
‘transcendence’. Self-transformation is never meant to be a matter of
isolation of the self from others and from society. Rather, it is closely
related to human and natural orders, conscientiously exercised in the form
of social and political action, and optimistically aimed at harmonising
the world through changes. It is in this sense that Tu Wei-ming points out
that ‘The question of being religious is crucial for our appreciation of the
inner dimension of the Neo-Confucian project’, and that the religiousness of Neo-Confucianism should be defined in terms of the individuals’
eCorts in engaging in ‘ultimate self-transformation as a communal act’
(Tu, 1985: 135).
As a humanistic religion, Confucianism is also distinctive in its rationalism. According to Max Weber, ‘To judge the level of rationalization a
religion represents we may use two primary yardsticks which are in many
ways interrelated. One is the degree to which the religion has divested
itself of magic; the other is the degree to which it has systematically unified
the relation between God and the world and therewith its own ethical
relationships to the world’ (Weber, 1968: 226). By the first measure,
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Confucianism is almost devoid of any belief in magic, which is demonstrated by Confucius who was recorded as seldom talking about ‘prodigies, magic powers, disorder and spirits’ (Lunyu, 7: 21). By the second
measure, Confucian rationalism is revealed in its insistence that Heaven
is the ultimate source of human virtues, that the Mandate of Heaven can
be known through one’s conscious search in one’s nature and/or in the
natural and human world, and that fulfilment of Heaven’s Mandate
is nothing other than undertaking self-cultivation and extending one’s
virtues to others and to the world.
And as a rationalistic religion, Confucianism does not emphasise
transcendence as a delivery from without. It is concerned with human
destiny, but this concern is based on, and in turn supported by, the belief
in the possibility of sagehood or the perfectibility of every individual,
visible in daily improvement in terms of moral quality and social progress.
Confucianism does not hand out a blank cheque for those who are eager
to embrace an eternal hope. It is fully aware of the imperfection of human
individuals and the limitation of social reality. Therefore, it repeatedly
warns that perfectibility will remain merely a possibility unless each individual engages in a life-long process of learning and practising, and is
constantly under self-discipline and education. For Confucianism, life is
indeed a process of continuous self-cultivation and self-transformation
leading to self-transcendence, the realisation of one’s authentic nature in
which the all-pervasive principles of Heaven are fully manifested. It is in
this process, engaged in by so many people in so many generations, that
Confucianism gains its power, energy and vitality.
Confucian classics
As the doctrine of literati, Confucianism may well be called a tradition of
books, in the sense that it takes the sacred writings of the ancients as the
source of values and ideals. It has been agreed that the Confucian classics
contains the core of Confucian doctrines, the root of the late Confucian
schools and sub-schools, and the fountain-head of all the Confucian
streams. Indeed, without a proper knowledge of Confucian classics, it
would be impossible for us to draw a full picture of Confucianism.
The image of Confucianism in the West has always been closely
related to how these classics are evaluated. For some of the early Christian
missionaries, the Confucian classics represented the holy past of China
when it had not yet been corrupted by later rationalism and by Buddhist
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superstitions. For example, seeing a relation between elements in the
Confucian classics and Christian belief, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610)
remarked that,
Of all the pagan sects known to Europe, I know of no people who
fell into fewer errors in the early ages of their antiquity than did the
Chinese. From the very beginning of their history it is recorded in their
writings that they recognized and worshipped one supreme being
whom they called the King of Heaven. (Dawson, 1964: 9)
The fundamentally appreciative view of the Confucian classics changed
as the function of these classics in East Asian society and history was
fully revealed, and as radical Chinese and Korean intellectuals began to
denigrate the classics in their desire to demolish Confucianism. Some
western historians took a radical view of the Confucian classics. For them,
China is ‘the oldest state and yet no past, but a state which exists today
as we know it to have been in ancient times’ (Dawson, 1964: 15). One of
the reasons why China was not a progressive state is said to be that it
had been held back by the Confucian classics: ‘This stereotyping of their
books has caused the stereotyping of their ideas’ (Dawson, 1964: 6). The
classics were therefore deemed to be obstacles for the further development of Chinese culture, constantly drawing China back to the past. In
this sense it is said that Confucianism as ‘a scriptural tradition’ does not
have a future.
Neither that the Confucian classics are the embodiment of human
civilisation nor that they are completely useless and oppressive would
do justice to them. For a long time the classics have been considered the
sacred writings and the source of supreme values. They are indeed the
foundation on which Confucian thinking was formulated and behaviour
guided. As the source of values they stimulate Confucian students to
follow and to create. Therefore, it is not very far from the truth to say
that the Confucian classics are, to a great extent, identifiable with Confucianism, and that to be a Confucian is to dedicate oneself to the classics
or more precisely, to the values embodied in the classics. On the one hand,
these classics were the products of history, contingent upon time and
space. This would inevitably make them dogmatic and stereotyped if their
words and sentences were to be applied absolutely and universally to
communal and personal life. Unfortunately, this was the case during a
long period in the later part of East Asian history. On the other hand, it
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is argued that what we know as the Confucian classics did not remain
unchanged for two thousand years. Rather, they have been constantly
renewed, extended and deepened in the form of annotation, interpretation
and reinterpretation made by each generation of Confucian scholars. The
religious and political visions projected in the classics have always been
subject to development, and the directions of that development have
always been a topic of debate between the diCerent Confucian schools.
ancient records and the classics
Long before Confucius a well-developed tradition of oAcial learning
(guan xue) had existed and thrived. Following the collapse of the Shang
Dynasty, the newly founded Zhou Dynasty felt a strong need for an
oAcial system of learning and education that could provide the state with
ideological ideas and administrative skills. The Duke of the Zhou, a great
sage for Confucius, was said to be the first person who consciously
implanted such a system into the imperial institution, and who, with the
help of ru, intellectuals of a wide range of knowledge, transformed the
sophisticated ritual system of earlier ages to institute a new system of
‘ritual and music’ with a clearly new moral and political orientation. The
learning of the new system was transmitted partly through education
in local and state colleges and partly through written materials (bronze
inscriptions and inscriptions on bamboo/wooden strips). In order to
preserve and carry on this learning, various kinds of records gradually
accumulated and became oAcial versions of ancient culture.
Confucianism emerged when the unified ideology began to fragment
and the oAcial learning was torn apart by semi-independent states and
was gradually replaced by private learning or education (si xue). Confucius was one of the earliest teachers to start private education and to
extend learning to the poor and to the masses. He was said to have taught
as many as three thousand students, among whom only one or two are
known definitely to come from aristocratic families. As the head of the
group, Confucius himself was keen to learn and grasp what had been
achieved in previous times. One of his life-long aims was to preserve,
edit and transmit the recordings of the culture of the ancients. Edited
and interpreted, these records then became known as the classics (jing),
sacred books believed to be the work of ancient sages. Having been
established as the state orthodoxy, these classics were revered both in
China and in all other countries where Confucianism was influential.
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Confucianism cherishes the classics as the truthful records of ancient
culture, value-added by Confucius’ editing and commentaries. The
customs and events of the past are believed to serve as a mirror of the
present and the guide to the future. As far as the Confucian doctrine is
concerned, Confucians believe that in the classics, heavenly principles
are revealed to them and that by studying these classics and books they
will be able to understand the Way of Heaven and by applying it to
human life they can establish the Way of humanity.
The Confucian classics played four primary roles in the transmission of
the Confucian tradition. Firstly, they were the key textbooks for students.
Either as one of many schools or as the oAcial ideology, Confucianism
was celebrated for its reverence for the classics. Confucian followers were
required to learn the texts by heart, and most students would indeed be
able to extract ‘significant meanings and implications’ from seemingly
abstract texts. When Confucianism became the ‘oAcial learning’
sponsored and supervised by the government during the Han Dynasty,
Confucian classics were taken as basic textbooks for state education. It
is recorded that in 124 bce, the Grand Academy of the state (tai xue)
was established at the capital, and learned masters of the five classics
were appointed as imperial academicians (bo shi). By 130 ce, the academy
had grown so big that 240 buildings were built with 1850 rooms to
accommodate students. The academy was under the control of a rector,
tai chang, a minister of the rites who took care to see that the instruction
was consistent with the tradition. Students took the course of two of the
classics during the first two years, and were examined at the end of this
period. Those who passed the exam received a title and a stipend, and
those who failed had to start again. Those who wished to carry on their
learning would study the other three classics, each for two years, and
they would be examined at the end of that period (Shryock, 1966: 21).
When the civil examination was decreed to be based on the Confucian
writings, the classics and their standard commentaries became compulsory for all candidates and schoolboys in the empire.
Secondly, the classics were considered to be the source of the Confucian
way of life. For Confucian believers, the Confucian classics were, to a
great extent, the blueprint of an ideal life. Political instructions recorded
in the classics were taken to be the guidelines for governmental activities.
Rituals observed by the ancients became necessary rites of passage.
Poems and music were believed to be essential for cultivating a good
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character. Even daily conversations recorded in the books became
the mottoes and proverbs to be taken by heart. Poetry, history, rites, the
principles of change and the melody of music thus became something
to live by and to act on. Confucius devoted most of his later years to
editing and arranging the Spring and Autumn Annals. For him, the Annals
were not merely a historical chronicle; they communicated values, both
recommending and prohibiting various paths of action. Confucius invested so much in the work that he remarked on it with great confidence:
‘The future generations shall understand me through the Spring and
Autumn Annals and shall also judge me on the basis of the Spring and
Autumn Annals’ (Mengzi, 3b: 9).
Thirdly, the classics were the root from which numerous Confucian
branches developed. Due to the richness of their materials and complexity of their contents, the classics became the area where controversies
and debates between diCerent Confucian sections frequently took place.
Creative scholars would read diCerent meanings out of the classics, which
led to the establishment of diCerent schools. Masters of these schools
often gave their own interpretations to the texts. Full of personal insights
and unique experience, the annotations and commentaries of school
masters inspired further speculation and expansion. Some of the Confucian schools were directly generated from the diCerent versions of the
same classics. For example, there appeared to be three schools of the
Book of Poetry at the beginning of the second century bce, based on
three diCerent versions of the text available at that time. There were also
three schools for the Book of History, and four for the Book of Changes.
Although some of these schools came to an end when their versions
became unpopular or when diCerent versions were integrated into
one, they nevertheless left a deep impression on, and provided a heritage
of learning for, later generations, who in due time would produce or
reproduce new interpretations and new controversies.
Fourthly, the Confucian classics were appreciated primarily for their
political functions and applications. Confucius was recorded to have
intended all the six arts to help establish a good government:
All Six Arts help to govern. The Book of Rites helps to regulate men,
the Book of Music brings about harmony, the Book of History records
incidents, the Book of Poetry expresses emotions, the Book of Changes
reveals supernatural influence, and the Spring and Autumn Annals
shows what is right. (Shiji, 1997: 3197)
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Deeply involved in politics, the Confucian classics were also taken as an
easy tool for various political purposes. On the one hand, mastery of the
classics was necessary for a good reputation which in turn earned a scholar
a successful career. On the other, changes of dynasties and rulers often
led to the promotion or demotion of this or that classic. The fortune of a
particular school depended upon whether or not its understanding of
the Confucian classics would be accepted by the authority of the day,
and adoption of one rather than another version directly pointed to the
failure of one school and the triumph of another. The Confucian classics
became the central arena again for political debates at the end of the
nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, when
diCerent ‘political parties’ made use of them to justify their own political
programmes. Thus, on some occasions the Confucian classics were said
to be reformative by nature, while on other occasions they were rebuked
as conservative. In one way or another, the Confucian classics were
simply used as a means for various political ends and were closely
related to the process of political changes.
confucius and the confucian classics
There are good reasons for holding that the Confucian classics took their
shape in the hands of Confucius. However, nothing can be taken for
granted in the matter of the early versions of the classics, and debates
and arguments concerning what are original texts and how much Confucius did to them have erupted time and again.
Confucius is believed to be the Sage primarily for what he did with the
ancient recordings. At least since the Former Han Dynasty, the majority
of Confucian scholars have come to believe that there were no ‘classics’
proper before Confucius, and that Confucius established what is known
as the classics. Before his time there might have been some writings
recording early political speeches, court or popular poems, philosophical
and religious deliberations, various rites and rituals, as well as historical
and natural events. However, these writings had either been corrupted
or were virtually lost by the time of Confucius. Confucius recollected
and edited them by rearranging the orders of the chapters and by commentating on passages. In this way, Confucius ‘fixed’ the versions of the
ancient writings and established their value as classical textbooks. The
Records of the Historian of the second century bce related how this had
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In the time of Confucius, the power of the Chou Emperors had declined,
the forms of worship and social intercourse (‘ritual and music’) had
degenerated, and learning and scholarship had fallen into decay.
Confucius studied the religious or ceremonial order and historical
records of the three dynasties (Hsia, Shang and Chou), and he traced
the events from the times of Emperors Yao and Shun down to the times
of Duke Mu of Ch’in and arranged them in chronological order . . .
Therefore, Confucius handed down a tradition of historic records and
various records of ancient customs and ethnology . . . Confucius taught
poetry, history, ceremonies and music to 3,000 pupils of whom 72 had
mastered ‘the six arts’ (probably referring to the Six Classics).
(Lin, 1994: 127–35)
This tradition became an orthodox story about how the Confucian
classics came into being and was adopted by almost all the royal houses
after the Han as the truth of the classics. Many Chinese scholars still
hold to this tradition. Lifu Chen, for example, believes that ‘Confucius
edited the Book of Songs, and the Book of History, compiled the Book
of Rites, and the Book of Music, annotated the Book of Changes,
and wrote the Spring and Autumn Annals. These were called the “Six
Classics” ’ (Chen, 1972: 2). And Xiong Shili believes that ‘the [existent]
six classics were the final version fixed up by Confucius at his late years’
(Xiong, 1996: 406–42).
However, there is also a diCerent account of this. For some scholars,
especially those of the Old Text School – a Confucian school based on
the version of the classics written in the scripts of pre-Han times – the
classics originated in the early years of the Zhou Dynasty. What Confucius did was no more than rearrange the early writings so that he could
take them as textbooks for his students. Confucius was a preserver of
early writings and transmitted them to later generations. By this account
it is therefore wrong to say that Confucius ‘created’ or ‘initiated’ the
classics. Some scholars of this century fall into line with the Old Text
School and put forward an even stronger argument that Confucius had
nothing to do with the Confucian classics. The Five Classics are said to
be five unrelated books, which were put together as the Five Classics
during the end of the Warring States period (Gu, 1926: 40–82). This
debate continues among modern western scholars. Some of them have
lent their firm support to the tradition that the classics were the work of
Confucius, while others dispute it. H. G. Creel, for example, came to an
overall negative conclusion:
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Our examination of the various books Confucius is supposed to have
written. . . . leaves us with the conclusion that we have no convincing
evidence that he wrote or even edited anything at all. This is not an
original verdict; an increasing number of scholars have reached this
same conclusion in recent years. (Creel, 1960: 106)
In contrast to these factions, many other scholars hold a pragmatic
view of the relation between Confucius and the Confucian classics. They
believe that the history of the Confucian classics is a long one, and that
Confucius and his immediate followers contributed to their formation.
These scholars neither accept nor reject the traditional story that Confucius was responsible for the formation of the classics. They work instead
to establish which sections of the classics took shape during the time
of Confucius and his disciples, and which were edited or added or rewritten much later (Loewe, 1993). It would be an exaggeration to say
that Confucius purposely created a system of the classics by editing the
early writings. From the testimonies given by his disciples and contemporaries, however, it would also be misleading to deny that Confucius
did make a great contribution to the transmission of the ancient writings,
classifying and rearranging the earlier records and employing them as
textbooks for his students, whether or not the versions of the classics we
have today come directly from his work. It is of no importance to this
introduction to examine in detail the historical accuracy of authorship
for each classic. SuAce it is to say that these classics have formed a body
of literature which has gained great importance in the Confucian world,
as works inspired by Confucius’ aims and ideals.
confucian classics in history
The earliest known reference to the Confucian classics is made in the
Book of Zhuangzi, a Daoist book compiled during the Warring States
period. In this book the Book of Poetry, the Book of History, the Book
of Rites, the Book of Music, the Book of Changes, and the Spring and
Autumn Annals are grouped as the classics (Watson, 1964: 363). This
means that at least by the middle of this period, the status of the classics
within and without the Confucian tradition had been recognised. After
that, three important ‘events’ were decisive for what we know today
as the Confucian classics. The first was the ‘burning of books’ during the
Qin Dynasty. Having brought separate states into a unity by war, the
First Emperor of the Qin (r. 221–210 bce) turned his attention to
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ideology, to unify people’s minds by submitting diCerent schools to one
voice. Encouraged by Legalists who were the chief rivals of the Confucians at that time, the Emperor decreed in 213 bce that ‘heretical books’
must be handed over to the government and burnt. The Confucian classics
were probably the first, if not the sole, target of this policy. It is said that
among all literature only that on medicine, agriculture, divination and the
oAcial history of the Qin, and those possessed by the state academicians
who taught in the imperial college and who advised the government
escaped this catastrophe. Whether or not these events were purposely
aimed at eradicating Confucianism is an open question; but they caused
a heavy blow to Confucianism as its tradition was preserved in the books
and its appeal and value depended upon learning of the classics. The
Confucian classics were not fully recovered until several decades later
when Confucianism re-emerged from the destruction and consolidated
its position during the early years of the Han Dynasty.
The second ‘event’ was the rediscovery or re-editing of the Confucian
writings during the Former Han Dynasty. The Confucian classics were
devastated by the anti-Confucian policies of the Qin Dynasty and by the
wars that brought down the tyrannical government of the Qin. Consequently no complete version of the classics was available during the
early years of the Han. In order to overcome the diAculties caused by
the lack of reliable materials in their transmission of the tradition and to
satisfy the urgent needs of the new Empire for administrative skills, Confucians laboured hard to discover, reconstruct, re-edit and even rewrite
some or a large portion of the lost classics. Most of what we know today
as the Confucian classics were in fact ‘formatted’ during this period, and
the diCerent versions put forward as ‘true Confucian classics’ laid the
ground for many of the Confucian controversies and contrasting schools
of thought which developed then and thereafter. It took a long time for
the Confucian classics to assume their definitive shape, and it is the royal
decree of 175 ce to engrave the five classics in stone that symbolises the
final establishment of the orthodox version of the Han classics.
The third ‘event’ was the ‘renaissance’ of Confucianism in the Song
Dynasty (960–1279 ce). Confucianism was adopted as the state orthodoxy in the Han Dynasty, but from that time on it suCered greatly from
the advance of Daoism and especially of Buddhism. For a long time, from
the collapse of the Later Han Dynasty to the end of the Tang Dynasty
(618–907), it was Buddhism or Daoism rather than Confucianism that
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commanded the secular and religious life of the Chinese. The decline of
Confucianism was substantially reversed only in the Song, when a new
type of Confucianism, dao xue (the Learning of the Way), or li xue (the
Learning of the Principle) and xin xue (the Learning of the Heart/Mind),
known together as Neo-Confucianism in the West, regained the upper
hand over all other religious and non-religious traditions. Neo-Confucians
launched a new movement to reinterpret, reannotate and re-edit the
ancient classics. Most of these new interpretations and annotations were
strongly under the influence of Daoism and Buddhism, and the newly
constructed doctrines were syncretic by nature. Nevertheless, they were
established as the oAcial interpretations of the Confucian classics, and
were taken as standard texts for education, state examination and oAcial
learning. Due to the supreme status of Confucianism as the state-cult,
Neo-Confucian philosophy was not only cherished and venerated by
Confucian scholars, oAcials and students, but also absorbed by Daoism
and redeployed by Buddhism. Neo-Confucian classics were taken to other
East Asian countries where they found new audiences and adherents,
and underwent a further process of syncretisation with the cultures of
these nations.
the thirteen classics
In the Confucian tradition, there are two kinds of sacred writing: one is
called jing (), referring to ancient scriptures or classics, which, it was
believed, had the same function for society as did the warp for fabrics,
since the Chinese character jing originally means the warp of cloth, from
which it is extended to mean the constant principles that guide life and
history. The other is called shu (, ), which is a combination of ‘holding
a writing brush ( )’ and ‘mouth ( )’, meaning the ‘records of sayings’
and thus refers to ‘books’. There used to be a diCerence between a jing
and a shu, a jing being earlier and more fundamental than a shu. Indeed,
with only one exception (Xiao Jing or the Book of Filial Piety), all those
that are known as jing have their origins in the ages before Confucius.
However, in their later usage in a Confucian context, the meaning of
these two characters fused, both referring to the sacred writings.
Historically, Confucian classics and books were combined in variously
sized groups. The earliest known number of Confucian classics is six:
the Book of Poetry, the Book of History, the Book of Rites, the Book of
Music, the Book of Changes and the Spring and Autumn Annals, which
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are named variously as the ‘Six Classics’ (liu jing), ‘the Six Arts’ (liu yi),
and ‘the Six Forms of Learning’ (liu xue). One of them, the Book of Music,
was completely lost probably in the ‘burning of books’, and so the Six
Classics became the Five. When Emperor Wu (r. 156–87 bce) of the
Former Han Dynasty (206 bce–8 ce) proscribed all non-Confucian
schools of thought and espoused Confucianism as the orthodox state
ideology, the Five Classics became the oAcial learning and the standard
for selecting civil servants. To the Five Classics were added the Analects
of Confucius, and the Book of Filial Piety in the Later Han Dynasty and
thus the Seven Classics came into being. Taken as the textbooks in the
Tang Dynasty (618–906 ce), the ‘Nine Classics’ were inscribed on stone
tablets, namely, the Book of Changes, the Book of History, the Book of
Poetry, the three commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals, the
Rites of the Zhou, the Rites of Etiquette and Ceremonial, and the Book
of Rites. The Nine Classics later became the Twelve Classics by taking
in three more books, namely, the Book of Filial Piety, the Analects of
Confucius and Er Ya (The earliest Chinese dictionary, the meaning
of the title is something like ‘approaching “what is correct, proper and
refined” ’). In the Song Dynasty (960–1279 ce), the Book of Mengzi
was added to the Twelve Classics so that the ‘Thirteen Classics’ was
finally established, which has been used as the standard collection of the
Confucian classics ever since.
the five classics
In all these groups, the ‘Five Classics’ are the basic component, and have
been treated as the faithful records of ancient culture, touching on its every
aspect: politics, philosophy, legend, history, poetry and religion, and as the
primary source of the Confucian Learning which unfolds interrelated
visions for human life: poetic, historic, politic, metaphysical and ethical.
From the Han Dynasty on, the Book of Changes or Yi Jing or Zhou Yi
(the Yi of the Zhou) has been listed as the first of the Five Classics. It
is singled out to be the ‘origin of the six arts’ in Han Shu (the History of
the Former Han Dynasty), while in earlier literature it is normally given
the fifth position in the Six Classics. Yi means ‘change’; hence yi jing the
Book of Changes. Yi also refers to ‘easy’, which indicates the nature of
the book, a handbook for divination and for understanding the world.
Although the book has been highly regarded for its metaphysical and
moral implications in the Confucian tradition, it was originally used as a
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primary manual of divination, being consulted for an oracle message by
following a process of manipulating yarrow sticks, and to a great extent
it is still used in this way today.
The Book of Changes is composed of two parts, the text and the commentaries. The text (jing) is a much earlier part, the product of ancient
practices in relation to divination. Central to the text are the patterns of
six lines, which are known as hexagrams. The hexagrams are composed
of six broken lines ( ) and/or unbroken lines ( ), which are well known
today as yin and yang lines. Recent studies of ancient Shang–Zhou oracle
bones and bronze inscriptions have caused much conjecture about
curious groupings of recurring six-part symbols. Modern scholarship has
shown that the current form of yin and yang lines was not used in the
oracles until a later period. They may have been represented previously by
numerals. Excavated oracle bones and ceramic pieces display a number
of identifiable numerical hexagrams, for example,
(757666), (176786). When converting their odd numbers
into yang lines and even numbers into yin lines, we have in front of us
two patterns, and , which are respectively Hexagram 12 and
Hexagram 53 of the existing text of the Book of Changes(Rutt, 1996: 99).
In the silk manuscript of the Zhouyi found in the Han Tomb, dated at the
beginning of the second century bce, yang and yin lines are presented as
, , which appear to be similar to the old forms of two numerals (1),
(8) (Zhang, 1992: 8). This further indicates a continuity of the gradual
formation of the hexagrams from odd/even numerals to yin–yang lines.
Traditionally, it was held that trigrams were invented and functioned
well before the existence of hexagrams, and that hexagrams were formed
by adding two trigrams together. James Legge and Richard Wilhelm
(1873–1930), for example, give much emphasis to the constituent and
nuclear trigrams as paths leading to the comprehension of hexagrams.
Today’s scholarship recognises that there is little evidence for the use of
nuclear trigrams before the Han Dynasty. Further discoveries that
trigrams of three numerals and hexagrams of six numerals co-existed in
the earliest dated records indicate that there might not be a clear sequence
of development from trigrams to hexagrams. Ancient diviners may have
consulted their deities by directly forming a hexagram or a trigram (ibid.:
13–14). Both trigrams and hexagrams might well have been tools for
divination and other religious rituals, either independent from each other
or being linked in a two-way flow.
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Early western translators of the book partly accepted the Confucian
tradition that the texts and commentaries were the work of ancient Sages
such as Fu Xi, a legendary sage, King Wen, the founding father of the
Zhou Dynasty, and the Duke of Zhou, a Confucian sage. It is perhaps in
this sense that Soothill suggested that the importance of the book be found
as ‘the first signs of humanity moving away from primitive barbarism
to civilised conditions’ (Soothill, 1973: 152). The majority of modern
scholars do not consider the traditional belief to be an authentic narrative
of the origins of the Book of Changes. An agreed opinion on the text is
that this part of the book was produced over a long period and materials
from various sources were collected together to become a more or less
recognised manual by an unknown number of learned diviners, probably
during the early period of the Zhou Dynasty.
The second part of the book is ten pieces of commentaries, also called
the Ten Wings. Traditionally these commentaries are credited to Confucius, who not only edited the book but also transmitted the book with
his commentaries to his disciples. Confucius was said to be so fond of
the book that he wore out the leather bindings of his copy three times. It
is also believed that a sentence in the Analects means to the eCect that
‘Grant me a few more years so that I would have studied the Book of
Changes (yi) at fifty years of age, then I should be free from major errors’
(Lunyu, 7: 17), although there is an argument that yi in this sentence
does not refer to the book (Lau, 1979: 88). The Confucian tradition holds
that Confucius delivered a copy of the Book of Changes with his own
commentaries to one of his disciples, Shang Ju (522–? bce), who was
especially faithful to the book and from whom the book was transmitted
(Shiji, 1997: 2211; Watters, 1879: 45). This tradition has again been
refuted by modern scholars. It is agreed that the commentaries were
actually added to the text probably towards the end of the Warring States
period or probably even as late as the time of the Qin–Han Dynasties,
although there are surely some elements that come from Confucius or
his school (Lynn, 1994: 3).
The second of the Five Classics, shijing, is translated variously as
the Book of Poetry or the Book of Songs, or the Book of Odes. The
Book of Poetry is a collection of poems, written during the 500 years
between the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty and the middle of the Spring
and Autumn period. It is believed that Confucius selected 305 from more
than 3,000 pieces and edited them into a book to be used for education.
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However, modern scholars such as Arthur Waley have expressed their
doubts about this tradition. One thing that is clear, is that Confucius
did use the Book of Poetry to teach his followers and said that all the
300 poems could be summarised by one phrase: ‘Having no depraved
thought’ (Lunyu, 2: 2). The poems are primarily used to reveal the internal
resonance of the human community, in which ‘the interaction among the
people is like the natural flow of sympathetic response to familiar tunes
and dance forms’ (de Bary & ChaCe, 1989: 142). Like other Confucian
classics, the Book of Poetry suCered dearly during the Qin Dynasty and by
the beginning of the Han it was no longer available. Three academicians
had to transmit the Book of Poetry orally, from which the ‘Three OAcial
Versions of the Poetry’ became known. The first version was handed down
by a learned master named Han Ying (the Poetry of the Han), the second
was derived from the teachings of a learned master from the State of Qi
(the Poetry of the Qi), and the third was modelled on the lessons given
by a master from the State of Lu (the Poetry of the Lu). A scholar with
the surname of Mao also taught on the Book of Poetry, and the version
with his commentaries is thus called the Poetry of Mao. The three oAcial
versions were lost after the Han Dynasty, while the version of Mao survives, becoming the only available version of the classic.
Of the 305 poems, each is usually known by its title that is drawn
from phrases that are usually found in its opening words. Each poem is
also preceded by a short passage, a preface, which explains or summarises
its content or main points. The 305 poems may be conveniently classified
into four parts: firstly, 160 poems are about local customs, festivals and
daily life in thirteen different states or regions; secondly, 74 minor odes
are concerned with the courts of local states, their festivals and complaints about life; thirdly, 31 major odes are about the Kingdom of the
Zhou, some concerning its overthrow of the Shang Dynasty, and some
recording historical or legendary figures from ancient times; and fourthly,
40 hymns of praise or liturgies, divided into sections for the Zhou, the
State of Lu and the Shang Dynasty, describing various rites, feasts, or
musical performances.
Following the Book of Poetry is the Book of History, or the Book of
Documents, translated from the original Chinese title Shang Shu, or Shu
Jing, or simply Shu. Shang means ‘above’ or ‘ancient’ and shu means a
book, which together reveal the literary meaning of the title: the venerated ancient book, or the book about the ancients. It is the earliest book
of history and has served for more than two thousand years as the
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foundation of Confucian historiography, politics and philosophy. The
contents of the book mainly concern historic and political events of the
Three Dynasties (sandai, the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou), in the form
of addresses and conversations of the kings and their ministers. The central part of the book can be conveniently divided into five types: consultations (mo), namely, dialogues between a king and his ministers;
instructions (xun), ministers’ advice for a king; announcements (gao) by
a king to the people at large; declarations (shi), battlefield speeches made
by a king; and commands (ming), entitlements of royal responsibilities
and privileges for a single individual.
It is said that the Book of History was used both by Confucius and by
Mozi (479?–381? bce) as a textbook for their schools. It is also believed
that at the time of Confucius the book was composed of 100 chapters.
This version, if ever existed, had been lost by the time of the Han Dynasty.
What we have today is a book comprising of two kinds of texts. The
28 or 29 chapters of the ‘New Text’ (chapters written in the new script
of the Qin and Han period) were ‘rediscovered’ from memory after the
fall of the Qin Dynasty, but ‘recently scholarship has shown that even
many of these chapters were composed “well after the events they purport to record”’ (Loewe, 1993: 377). The chapters of the ‘Old Text’
(written in the ‘tadpole script’ that was current before the script-reform
of the Qin Dynasty) were said to be found at the old house of Confucius
but were subsequently lost again. It was said that the newly discovered chapters of the Old Text were presented to an Emperor of the Jin
Dynasty (265–420). These chapters became part of the book and were
deemed as the true historical documents until the Qing Dynasty (1644–
1911) when they were definitely shown to be forgeries dating from the
Jin Dynasty.
Nevertheless, the Book of History was for a long time considered the
most important classic for Confucians, not only because it was believed
that Confucius arranged the texts chronologically and added prefaces
to each chapter, but also because many of its ideas were regarded as the
original source of Confucian philosophy, ethics, religion and politics.
Confucians took it as the mirror of their own times and derived moral or
religious teachings from the historical records.
The fourth classic is a book called Li Ji, normally translated as the
Book of Rites, ‘a ritualist’s anthology of ancient usages, prescriptions,
definitions and anecdotes’, although the ‘date of each section and its
provenance are subjects of considerable disputes, just as the date and
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origin of the Li Ji as a whole have proved to be controversial throughout
Chinese intellectual history’ (Loewe, 1993: 293). On various occasions,
the Book of Rites was mentioned by Confucius, Mengzi and others. However, it suCered the same fate as other classics and the original version
was probably lost in the fire of the Qin Emperor. During the Former
Han Dynasty, when a number of sections were obtained from various
sources, two versions of the Book of Rites became available, edited
respectively by two Confucian scholars, Dai De and his nephew Dai
Sheng. The first version is composed of 85 chapters but most of them are
lost, and the latter is of 49 chapters and has become the standard version
of the book (Liji Jijie, 1989: 1–3). Although these 49 chapters are all said
to be about rituals of the Zhou Dynasty and to have been interpreted by
Confucius and recorded by his disciples, most of them are now believed
to have been produced only between the Warring States period and the
Former Han Dynasty.
For convenience, the contents of the book can be divided into five
categories (1) comprehensive discourses on ritual, rites and learning, such
as Da Xue (the Great Learning), Zhong Yong (the Doctrine of Mean),
and Li Yun (the Evolution of Rites) (2) interpretations on ancient rites
recorded in Yi Li (the Rites of Etiquette and Ceremonial) such as Guan
Yi (‘Meaning of the Capping’), Hun Yi (‘Meaning of the Nuptial Rites for
a Common OAcer’), and Yan Yi (‘The Meaning of the Rites of Banquet’)
(3) Recordings of the sayings and aCairs attributed to Confucius and his
disciples (4) Ancient ritual or ceremonies, and (5) Ancient Proverbs,
maxims and aphorisms.
The last of the Five Classics is Chun Qiu or the Spring and Autumn
Annals, a historical work recording political, economic, natural and
diplomatic events for a period of 242 years from 722 bce to 481 bce. It
follows the chronicle of the State of Lu, the home state of Confucius.
The name of this book reflects the tradition of giving the year, month,
day and season before each recorded event. Since spring then included
summer, and autumn included winter, the entries are all preceded by one
of these two terms, with a resulting profusion of ‘Spring and Autumn’.
Since the time of Mengzi, the Confucian tradition has considered Confucius to be the author of the Annals and the Annals to have embodied
matters of the most profound significance: Confucius edited or composed
(zuo) the Annals in order to pass judgement on the violence, lawlessness
and corruption of his age (Mengzi, 3b: 9). This traditional belief was not
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much challenged until the beginning of the twentieth century, when a
number of critical scholars gave various evidence to prove that Confucius
was not possibly involved in writing up the Annals (Chunqiu Zuozhuan
Zhu, 1981: 8–16).
As the texts of the Annals are extremely terse, three major annotations
by scholars with surnames of Zuo, Gongyang and Guliang appeared at the
beginning of the Han Dynasty or perhaps earlier, to help readers to understand what a particular passage meant, to add information concerning
the context of particular events and to interpret the purpose of using a
particular phrase. As in the case of the Book of History, the three annotations on the Annals together with the texts were also divided into two
groups: the one was based on an older version of the Annals written in the
pre-Qin ‘ancient script’, the other two were based on the version written
in the ‘new script’ current in the Han time. Which of these two versions
was true to history became a constant debate between the Old Text School
and the New Text School. For most Confucians, the Annals are the mirror
of history, a tool for setting up the good government, putting usurping
princes in their proper place and condemning misbehaving ministers, so
that the cause of peace and unity of the world might be upheld.
the four books
From the Han to the Tang Dynasty, the Five Classics were the key
textbooks for Confucian Learning and for state examination. Of other
Confucian writings, only the Analects of Confucius was occasionally
accepted as one of the oAcial textbooks. However, this situation changed
during the Song Dynasty, when great Neo-Confucians, especially Zhu Xi
(1130–1200), paid more attention to the Analects of Confucius, the two
chapters from the Book of Rites, the Great Learning and the Doctrine of
the Mean, and the Book of Mengzi. Zhu’s annotations and commentaries
on them were published as a book entitled Sishu Jizhu, the Collected
Annotations on the Four Books. Zhu believed that the Four Books were
a necessary ladder for scholars who wanted to learn the Way of Sages,
and that a scholar would only be able to read other classics, investigate
fundamental principles and deal with social and personal aCairs, if he
had thoroughly studied the Four Books. If he was able to read through
and thoroughly understand these, then there would be no book that he
would not understand, no principle (li) that he could not investigate, and
no aCair that he could not deal with. Since then, the status of the Four
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An introduction to Confucianism
Books rose quickly, and in 1313 the Imperial court of the Yuan Dynasty
(1260–1370) decreed that the questions of state civil examinations had
to be taken from the Four Books and all the answers had to be based on
Zhu Xi’s annotations and commentaries. This decree eCectively promoted
the Four Books to a position above the Five Classics. From then until the
beginning of the twentieth century, a majority of Confucian scholars concentrated on the Four Books rather than the Five Classics, and every
schoolboy had to learn them by heart before he reached adolescence.
As the Four Books are the basic textbooks, they are ordered according to their length and depth. Thus, the shortest of the four, the Great
Learning, is the first, and study of this text is believed to enable one to
have a good foundation of learning: ‘the Great Learning is the first stage
where the learning of the Sage must be explored’ (Songyuan Xuean, 1992,
vol. 4: 882). It is followed by the Doctrine of the Mean, and then by the
Analects. The longest book, and more diAcult to apprehend Book of
Mengzi comes last. The Four Books are also arranged according to their
contents. Thus, the Great Learning is given the first position, which is
followed by the Analects, the Book of Mengzi and finally the Doctrine of
the Mean. Zhu Xi suggested that the reason why the Doctrine of the
Mean was listed the last was because the Way of the Mean was the peak
of the learning and without it one would be unable to ‘read the book of
the world and to discuss the world aCairs’ (ibid.: 918).
The Great Learning is a translation of Da Xue, literally meaning
the learning for adults or the learning for those who wish to be great,
which is in contrast and yet related to ‘small learning’ (Xiao Xue), the
textbook for primary schools. The Great Learning is believed to be a
work of one of Confucius’ disciples, Zengzi (Zeng Shen, 505–432 bce).
It purports to teach people how to learn and practise ‘the Great Way’. In
this book, the author explains what a person should do if he wants to
govern the whole world well. The goal cannot be achieved by arms, nor
by power or law, but only by moral strength and moral virtues. The core
of the book is thus concerned with how to cultivate moral virtues within
and how to exert moral influence without: manifesting the illustrious
virtues, loving the people and abiding in the highest good. To this end,
the book provides the so-called Eight Items or Steps for the beginner to
follow, namely, investigating things, extending knowledge, making the
will sincere, rectifying the heart/mind, cultivating the character, regulating the family, governing the state, and bringing peace to the world.
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Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics
The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong) is believed to have been composed around the fifth century bce, and re-edited during the time of the
Qin and Han Dynasties. It is probably the first Confucian writing that
introduces the idea of the Five Elements into Confucianism and extends
it to explain moral and social aCairs. If the Great Learning is a search
for the Way of governing the world, the Doctrine of the Mean is an
exploration of the Way of cultivating one’s character and becoming a sage.
This Way is called the Middle Way, the way of centrality and harmony.
The Middle Way does not mean simply pursuing a middle course. It is
said to be a course following the harmonious process of the universe.
In order to follow the ‘Way of the Mean’, one has to keep one’s mind
sincere. Sincerity (cheng) enables people to extend and develop their
nature: those who possess sincerity achieve what is right without eCort,
understand without thinking, and can naturally and easily embody the
Way. Sages are those who, by their sincerity, stand between Heaven and
Earth and with them form a triad. This theory was later accepted as
orthodox Confucianism, and the goal of the ‘triad’ became the supreme
ideal for many Confucians.
Listed as the third of the Four Books is the Analects, which is a
translation from the Chinese title lun yu, literally meaning ‘discussion or
conversations and sayings’, and implying ‘a compilation of the words’
by Confucius and his students.
The Lun Yu contains the replies made by Master Kong to his disciples
and contemporaries, and the discussions between the disciples or the
words that they heard from the Master. At that time each disciple held
his own records, so that when the Master died, his followers put their
notes together to make a compilation, thus called the Lun Yu.
(Han Shu, 1997: 1717)
This is the primary source by which we know Confucius and his teaching. This book comprises 20 sections or books, around 500 chapters or
paragraphs. It took about one hundred years after the death of Confucius to compile the records of his disciples as a book. Japanese Scholar
Yamashita Toraji, in his The Chronology of Editions of ‘Lun Yu’, takes
the date of its edition between the death of Confucius (479 bce) and the
death of Confucius’ grandson, Zisi (d. 402 bce). The Chinese scholar
Yang Bojun sees the students of Zengzi, the youngest disciple of Confucius as responsible for the edition. He also argues that the editing started
at the end of the Spring and Autumn period and was completed around
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An introduction to Confucianism
the beginning of the Warring States period (Lunyu Yizhu, 1980: 26–30).
The version of the book as we have it today did not come into being until
the third century ce (Lau, 1979: 221). Therefore, how much of the
Analects is authentic in the sense of representing the original Confucius
faithfully becomes a matter of debate. Arthur Waley, for example, in the
introduction to his translation of the Lun Yu, cautions that ‘I use the
term “Confucius” throughout this book in a conventional sense, simply
meaning the particular early Confucians whose ideas are embodied in
the sayings’ (Waley, 1938: 21). It has become accepted that the diCerent
chapters of the Analects are of very diCerent dates and proceed from
very diCerent sources: for example, Books 3–9 are believed to represent
the oldest stratum, Books 16–17 are not from a source close to the
earliest Confucian students, and Book 18 and parts of Book 14 are even
later, because they contain many anti-Confucian stories, similar to those
prevalent in Daoist works (ibid.). While this scrutiny has some academic
credentials, it would not do justice to Confucianism if it is meant to cut
the connection between Confucian wisdom as revealed in the book and
Confucius himself.
The fourth book is Mengzi or the Book of Mengzi, possibly edited by
his disciples. Mengzi (Meng Ke, 371–289 bce) was a great Confucian
thinker during the Warring States period. But from the fact that his writings are listed in the part of philosophical writings (zi bu) in the History
of the Former Han Dynasty, we can assume that he was not particularly
prominent in the Confucian tradition in the Qin–Han period. The Book
of Mengzi was probably not a key textbook in classical learning throughout the Han Dynasty. Although Zhao Qi (108?–201, the author of the
earliest existent commentary on the Book of Mengzi) mentioned about
a Han oAcial post of academicians on the learning of the book, and
this might indicate that the book had been listed among the Confucian
classics, his reference has not been verified in other sources. As a matter
of fact, the book bearing his name was not listed among the Confucian
classics until the Song Dynasty. Only then was Mengzi himself regarded
as the second sage in Confucianism next to Confucius himself. The book
comprises seven sections, each of which has two parts. In this book,
Mengzi, by arguing with representatives of other schools, expounds his
own theories, such as the original goodness of human nature, the unity
of humans with Heaven, the possibility for everybody to become a sage,
the humane government and so on.
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Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics
Besides the Five Classics and the Four Books, there are other writings
which also hold an important position in the Confucian canon and have
exerted a great influence on Confucian doctrines and on the Confucian
spiritual practice. Among them, two are of particular significance, namely,
the Book of Music and the Classic of Filial Piety, although for one reason
or another they were not listed among the major Confucian classics.
Questions for discussion
1. Is Confucianism identical to the ru tradition? How did Confucius
transform the ru tradition into a distinctive school of thought?
2. Looking at the three Chinese characters, jia, xue, and jiao which are
used for ‘Confucianism’, consider what is revealed about the East Asian
understanding of the Confucian tradition.
3. Why is it said that Confucianism is a system of morality?
4. Can we define Confucianism as a religious tradition? If we can, what
kind of religious characteristics does this tradition have in comparison
with other world religions?
5. Why is Confucianism sometimes called a tradition of books? What is
meant by the Confucian classics? How did these books function in a
Confucian society?
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