Confucianism is China; China is Confucianism.
This is no mistake, rather a deliberate process over time. Although Confucius’s writings were never intended to be a cultural guide, rather a political treatise, they have been strongly intertwined with Chinese (and adjacent) culture for centuries.
As in every country, there are good actors and bad actors, but the fact that China and other East Asian countries can be categorized as collectivistic rather than individualistic speaks to the influence of Confucius. For well over a billion people to unconsciously adhere to these values, you must figure that there is something in his writings that helps provide guidance in the way of a life philosophy.
All that remains are thoughts on how to live, with little regard to the religious aspect that it once held. In fact, Confucianism is quite humanistic in its emphasis on the ordinary activities of humans. With the goal of achieving fulfillment, this is probably more practical because it places the power in our hands.
Confucius was born in 551 BC and began to work as a teacher but eventually transitioned to working in government. By the time he was 50 years old, he held a high position, and just as swiftly as his ascent, he was reputedly pushed out of office only five years later due to rivals and enemies.
During the next 12 years, Confucius wandered from place to place with a few of his disciples. He was jeered at and even placed in jail. At the age of 67, he found himself as an advisor to the Duke of Ai. During the next years, he spent his time teaching and compiling some of the classic Chinese texts. He died in 479 BC. By the sixth century AD, every prefecture in China had a temple to honor Confucius.
How did he attain such wide acclaim? Shortly after his death, his disciples compiled a work known as the Lun yü, commonly translated as the Analects but more accurately called the Edited Conversations. This work consists of conversations between Confucius and his students.
The primary emphasis of the Lun yü is political philosophy. Confucius taught that the primary task of the ruler was to achieve the well-being and happiness of his people. To accomplish this aim, the ruler first had to set a moral (good character) example by his own conduct. This example would in turn influence the people’s behavior, as societal values stemmed from the politics at the top. It eventually trickled down into all levels of the Chinese people.
A Cultural Philosophy: The Five Relationships
Even though he quit his job as a teacher, Confucius ended up as one of the greatest teachers in Chinese history. He died far before his influence was ever widely felt, but his disciples spread his theories for centuries until, in the first Han dynasty (206 BC to 8 AD), they became the basis of the state ideology, the bundle of ideas identifying the social needs of a culture. Confucianism focuses on human conduct toward other humans, not religious belief or a natural flow. Living better is a result of treating others properly and in specific ways befitting their position—two distinct behaviors in Confucianism.
Confucianism is a worldview, set of ethics, political ideology, and way of life. Sometimes viewed as a philosophy and sometimes as a religion, Confucianism focuses on people first.
Both the theory and practice of Confucianism have indelibly marked the patterns of government, society, education, and familial bonds of East Asia. Confucian mindsets have been the most basic mainstream value of the common people of the Han Chinese nationality and other nationalities in China from antiquity to the modern day. The basic values and virtues of Confucian thoughts are the unconscious rules that govern daily conduct for most Chinese people, most of the time.
All you have to do is think about the soft-spoken and passive stereotype you might have heard about East Asians: eager to please, incredibly hospitable, and horrifically avoidant of confrontation. These are all consequences of a Confucian way of thought. The harmony of the many must supersede the harmony of the single person, and to cause discord is to ignore the five relationships or the five virtues. It can seem fairly restrictive, and in some ways, it is—if you’re not used to it. If you’re used to it, then you simply know that your own happiness is not your priority; your happiness comes from upholding and improving society.
As mentioned, Confucius was mainly interested in how to bring about societal order and harmony for the goal of effective governance. He believed that mankind would be in harmony with the universe if everyone understood their rank in society and were taught the proper behaviors of their rank. Similarly, he believed that the social order was threatened whenever people failed to act according to their prescribed roles.
This almost starts to sound like a caste system or communist world order, but his ideal society functioned smoothly because everyone recognized who they were and didn’t try to be someone they were not. There were specific dynamics to always keep in mind. You have to know your proper role, as well as how to act within it. If it doesn’t sound like it has a caste system tendency, then it may begin to sound like it is trapping you into a series of dishonest formalities. But to Confucius, that would be you prioritizing yourself over society. In an ideal world existing in a vacuum, this is perhaps easier to envision.
Confucius devised a system of interdependent relationships—a structure in which the lower level gives obedience to the higher level (extending from the family level to the national). As a result, Chinese culture tends to give a considerable amount of reverence for authority and age (though not necessarily sincere, especially in modern China).
He believed that moral behavior stemmed from the fulfillment of traditional roles, as defined by these five principal relationships, all of them with a subordinate/superior dynamic, with loyalty between friends as the only horizontal relationship. The dominant person receives respect and obedience from the subordinate person but is by no means a dictator. He is supposed to reciprocate with love, goodwill, support, and affection toward the subordinate person.
Take note that three of the five important relationships concern the nuclear family.
- Ruler and subject. Show loyalty and trust in the ruler’s guidance and direction. Give deference to their judgment and give them the benefit of the doubt. The ruler must demonstrate a good and moral example.
- Father and son (parent to child). Show filialpiety. Filialpiety is the Confucian concept of powerful loyalty and deference to one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. This translates into obedience, gratitude, and caretaking, based on the sacrifice that parents have made for their children. It can be fairly extreme at times and is a massive departure from the freedom from expectations that Westerners possess.
- Elder brother and younger brother (siblings). Show brotherliness and friendship. But beyond that, there are elements of the parent to child relationship, where the elder brother must teach and set a proper example for the younger brother. The younger brother should not bring shame to the family.
- Husband and wife (spouses). Show love, obedience, and honor. The husband must provide for the family while the wife must comply and handle other duties. Obviously, this relationship needs a retrofitting for modern societies, but properly honoring your spouse should go without saying.
- Friend and friend. Show faithfulness. Be a good, reliable friend and show respect to each other. Help each other grow and become more moral and virtuous.
In one sense, the Confucian ethic is egalitarian, though not in a Western sense where everyone has equal standing and opportunity within society. Instead, there’s equality within a social rank.
Though modern China has moved past these narrowly defined roles, Chinese today are still used to thinking in terms of hierarchy. They tend to respect hierarchy and differences in status much more than Westerners, who tend to be more egalitarian and open toward strangers.
In other words, in a Confucian society, you’re supposed to act according to your rank, and not necessarily by how you feel. In the interest of social harmony, it was important to behave with reverence and obedience according to your rank. Indeed, it was not just the polite thing to do in traditional Chinese society. Saying the wrong thing to the emperor or a powerful official could literally cost you your life.
Even in modern China today, this cultural tendency to retain a more neutral public face still endures—especially in work situations and when dealing with those in authority.
It’s probably obvious, but Western cultures tend to emphasize the individual—people are defined more by what they’ve accomplished than by group membership. Individual expression is encouraged from an early age and culturally reinforced in in the West.
In contrast, collectivism is inherent in a Confucian society. In order for Chinese society to operate smoothly, it is necessary to subject one’s own desires to the greater good of the group. People don’t exist independently of one another. Instead, an individual was defined by his or her relationship to the group. There is far more emphasis on social order and sacrificing oneself for these relationships, rather than on individual ambitions more common in Western cultures.
For millennia, the Chinese have been culturally conditioned to suppress personal needs and think in terms of collective responsibility—first, to their families, then community, clan, and nation at large.
Confucius was not interested in individual salvation or individual rights. What he cared about most was the collective well-being of society. Everything he did was in pursuit of that. But of course, for it to work, everyone involved has to agree and buy in; otherwise, the system won’t work and will crumble.
At first glance, it seems that Confucianism certainly isn’t something that will help you find your happiness. How can you be happy if you must constantly tend to the people around you, worrying that you might lose face or violate a boundary?
Instead of feeling a burden, consider Confucius’s main message: to invest in your relationships.
Simple awareness of these five relationships to start with may lead you to reconsider how much investment you are giving to the people in your life. While this isn’t a life philosophy in itself, it’s well-known that relationships are the biggest source of happiness and fulfillment. Do unto others as you would have them do to you, and suddenly everything else in your life seems to take on a brighter light.
By contrast, you may realize that you are ignoring the important relationships in your life and causing inevitable discord and unhappiness. There are also different types of relationships and dynamics you should pay attention to; we have different responsibilities to certain people. Be more social, engage in society, and keep yourself deeply in touch with others. Don’t allow yourself to become isolated.
In the end, the message is to spend much more time intentionally thinking about your relationships, as they ultimately determine your level of happiness.
Confucianism provides one other large concept toward better living: the five virtues (though sometimes four or six are articulated). Similar to Aristotle’s virtues, these can function like a code of behavior in becoming a better person and living better. Of course, his virtues came a few hundred years before Aristotle’s.
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10-Minute Philosophy: From Buddhism to Stoicism, Confucius and Aristotle – Bite-Sized Wisdom From Some of History’s Greatest Thinkers By Patrick King
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