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Confucius and Confucianism

Who was Confucius? What were the core teachings of Confucianism? Was it a religion, philosophy, or culture?
So one of the defining characteristics of both China and Korea was Confucianism. And that’s going to be one of the major topics, actually the major topic, for this week. Now when I say the China and Korea were Confucian civilizations, I don’t want to overstate the case. Confucius, his ideas, and then the followers who created Confucianism, they were in an environment that was much more complex, where they were competing with a lot of other ideas. For example, they were competing with Buddhism, which was strong both in China and particularly strong in Korea. They were competing with smaller philosophies, but still quite powerful, like Taoism. So many scholar officials would say, on the outside I’m a Confucian, but inside I’m a Taoist.
In my heart what I really believe are Taoist ideas. Christianity started to make inroads. As we talked about last week, Christian missionaries started to arrive in China just before the Black Dragon War. And though it never really spread, it was constantly encroaching and challenging Confucian orthodoxy. In the late 18th century, Christian converts, missionaries, started to arrive coming back from China with Catholic beliefs started to arrive on the Korean peninsula as well. So Christianity was in the mix. And then quite interesting here, in Korea, which I’d say is distinctive to Korea and less present in traditional China, was Shamanism.
So Shamanic beliefs, which you can still see as part of contemporary Korean society, were another part of that mixture limiting the influence of Confucianism and challenging it. Now all these caveats aside, these two societies, and especially when we talk about the political history, when we talk about the polities of China and Korea, these were quintessentially Confucian constructs. And so a certain set of questions are really critical for us to think about. And it’s what I want us to explore this week, basic questions like, who was Confucius? What was Confucianism? How diverse was it? What were the different varieties of Confucian experience over the centuries? How was Korean Confucianism different from Chinese Confucianism?
And how did Confucianism function as a sort of glue in the relationship between China and Korea? And is it still part of these societies? Is it still part of their relationship? Those are the questions that we’re going to explore. So the obvious place for us to start is with Confucius, the man, the historical Confucius. Who was he, when did he live. He was a teacher from a time known as the Axial Age. He was a contemporary of Gautauma Buddha. Confucius was born around 550 BC. He came obviously a few centuries before the great teachers of the West, Socrates and Jesus.
So he belongs to that sort of shared antiquity which was so critical in forming civilisation, actually, on a global scale. What did Confucius teach, exactly? What were his core messages and the core values that he was preaching, in a sense? When he lived back in China, he was from the Shandong peninsula, which actually juts out onto the Yellow Sea and is just across from Korea. So as he was travelling around Shandong and other provinces, other parts of China, what was his message? What was he teaching?
Well, Confucianism and when we talk about historical Confucianism as he taught it original Confucianism was most essentially a moral and political philosophy about right action, how to behave, what is the proper way to go through life. So it’s very much moralistic, you could say, in a good and bad sense. It’s all about ethics. Now Confucius and his followers, when they talked about basic moral concepts like benevolence. Benevolence was the cardinal virtue within Confucian thinking when they talked about these abstract ideas, they always embedded them in particular relationships. So this is another key feature of Confucianism and of Confucian societies, is the emphasis on different types of relationships. Those relationships are almost always hierarchical.
And so if we think about what the basic set of relationships would be, it would be, on the political side, the relationship between the ruler and his subjects. Or a topic Confucians are always very interested in, the ruler and his ministers, because Confucians want to be ministers. That’s the political side of those relationships. But then also critically important is the family side of those moral relationships. So what is the proper way of behaving as husband and wife? What are the proper roles belonging to a father and son, or a parent and child?
And then the one area where it starts to get a little bit more equitable is when Confucians talk about brothers, the elder brother and the younger brother, and even friendship. Confucians were, of course, practitioners of friendship, had very powerful friendships. And so that’s kind of one area that’s carved out where you feel less of the hierarchy that dominates most Confucian thinking. So there are two other cardinal virtues that come out of the political sphere and the family sphere. And that’s, in political terms, loyalty, and in family terms, filial piety.
We’ve actually made up that word in English to translate this central concept of Confucianism of an almost religious set of duties that you owe to your family to ensure that your family does well. So this is kind of the moral universe that a Confucian inhabits. It involves an internal side of how one should act in one’s own mind. There’s a great deal of discipline that’s taught through Confucianism. And then a heavy emphasis on the family, what kind of roles you should play in your family.
And then that extends outward into society, into politics, how you should behave, especially as a public servant, because that’s what every Confucian aspires to be, is a loyal, yet critical and thoughtful, official in the bureaucracy, a servant of the emperor. So that is the mixture of ideas that turned out to be very powerful in a Chinese context, and then later in a Korean context. That’s if we freeze the frame and focus back in the sixth century, fifth century BC and look at the teachings of Confucius.
By the way, if you want to learn more about him, I have to recommend a wonderful book by one of my teachers when I was an undergraduate student, and a graduate student, at Yale, Annping Chin, who wrote a great book called The Authentic Confucius. And that really brings you back in time to the world that he inhabited and explains his teachings in much greater depth. But after he put those teachings out into the world, then they became their own monster, for good and ill. And Confucian schools evolved literally over thousands of years. So if I wanted to give you a basic, very essential vocabulary of the varieties of Confucianism, at this point I would highlight two or three.
The first would be Imperial Confucianism. Imperial Confucianism is the term that scholars have sort of settled on to describe this next critical moment in the history of Confucian ideas, when during the Han Dynasty, around 200 BC, the powerful Han emperor of a newly reunified China embraced Confucian ideas, embraced Confucian texts, and made Confucianism central to the Chinese state. Now the Han emperor and those who followed him were actually sneaking other influences into that mix. And in particular they were using legalist ideas. Legalism is equally fascinating to Confucianism, developed around the same time. And the legalists and Confucians are sort of black and white. Where Confucians constantly emphasise morality, legalists are basically amoral. And they say the world is about power.
It’s not about good and bad. It’s not about right and wrong. It’s about powerful and powerless. And so the legalists devised a whole sinister, but often effective, authoritarian philosophy of government. The Han emperor and many emperors who followed him found a way to sort of mix elements of legalism into what was overall a Confucian set of values and institutions, later, of course, including the Civil Service examinations. So that amalgam is what we refer to by Imperial Confucianism.
Then the other critical moment if we fast forward, kind of leapfrogging over centuries here but the next critical turn in the history of Confucianism would come during the Song dynasty in the 11th, 12th centuries AD, when there was a kind of Renaissance of Confucian philosophy and of Confucian scholarship. And so the leaders of that Renaissance, these so-called Song Confucians sometimes they’re referred to as Neo-Confucians they really added whole new levels, for example, of metaphysical depth to Confucianism. The historical Confucius, you’ll notice, if you paid attention to my summary, didn’t have much to say about metaphysics. He wasn’t particularly interested in metaphysics. But Buddhism was, from the beginning, quite sophisticated in its metaphysical ideas.
Well, eventually, by the 11th, 12th century, this has become a problem for Confucians, who basically said, we need a whole metaphysical, we need answers to the metaphysical questions that the Buddhists keep talking about. And so Song Confucians went back to Confucian classical texts, and in quite original ways, reinterpreted those texts to develop a whole set of Confucian metaphysics. And the two big ideas that they were always debating was, what is the role of li? In Chinese, li is order. It’s translated as order or principal. What is the balance between li, on the one hand, and chi? Chi is material force, matter. So how do these two things interact? It’s a very basic metaphysical question.
These debates became quite sophisticated, quite abstruse, but they were passionately argued by Confucians in the Song Dynasty. And that was creating what we would describe as a kind of Renaissance in Confucian ideas, to the point where we call it Neo-Confucianism. There was a new kind of Confucianism that evolved. And then very quickly, the last one, which we’ll be exploring this week, is something we can call statecraft Confucianism. And the statecraft Confucians, in a way they were going back to Imperial Confucianism. In the wake of all those metaphysical debates, they were saying let’s get back to very pragmatic questions, especially about politics, administration, economy, agriculture versus commerce, military. The statecraft Confucians were sort of reformist, very pragmatic.
In a sense they were borrowing, again, from that old legalist playbook. And that became a very important movement within Confucianism, both in China and in Korea coming into the 19th century. So this, hopefully, gives you the very big picture of Confucianism, historical Confucianism, and then its evolution over the centuries. We’re going to continue to explore it in finer detail over the course of this week because of that central role that it played in holding together lips and teeth in Imperial times.
Who was Confucius? What were the core teachings of Confucianism? Was it a religion, philosophy, or culture? When did Confucianism spread from China to Korea… and what role did it play as glue in the bond between the two countries over the centuries?
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Lips and Teeth: Korea and China in Modern Times

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