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The Geography of Confucianism

The Essentials of the Faith

Founded: Confucianism is a complex system of morals and ethics, but it is considered a religion because of the impact it has on the way people live their lives. Confucianism was founded about 500 years before Christ by a young scholar named K'ung-tze, but the latinized version of the name is commonly rendered "Confucius".

Distribution: The distribution listed for Confucianists is given as follows from Markham, pp. 356-357:

Area Adherents Population Percentage
Latin America2,0000.0%
Northern America26,0000.0%

Major Teachings: The main ideas of Confucius was the cultivation of virtue and the development of moral perfection, which he sought to instill in others. Confucius taught that immorality resulted from ignorance and that knowledge is what leads to a virtuous lifestyle. Confucius stressed teaching by example. Many of his recorded saying are proverbs of virtuous men. Confucius also believed in being around positive people to become positive. He also stressed to his disciples about self-correction because self-discipline was also a virtue.

Scriptures and Significant Writings: The six canonical classics of Confucianism are the Shu King or Canon of History, the Shi King or Canon of Poetry, the I King or Canon of Changes, the Li Ki or Book of Rites, the Chun Chiu or Spring and Autumn Annals, and the Hsiao King or Book of Filial Piety. After Confucius died, his disciples compiled collections of his sayings and teachings known as The Analects of Confucius, the Ta Hsio or Great Learning, and the Chung Yung or Doctrine of the Steadfast Men. A compilation of the teachings of Mencius is known as the Meng-tze (Ballou, pp. 487, 488).

Symbols: In Confucianism, symbols are hard to come by. The creation and use of images in worship only came to China with the advent of Buddhism. Even today, no images are used to represent Confucius, only a plaque on which is written his name. The symbol chosen to represent Confucianism on this website is the Chinese ideogram for water, which is seen as a source of life in Chinese philosophy.

The Details about Confucianism

Today, Confucianism is often found intermingled with Taoism. It is difficult to distinguish between what is Taoist and what is Confucian because they both have many of the same ideas about man, society, rulers, Heaven, and the universe. Confucianism deals with the practical and the earthly while Taoism deals with the esoteric and the heavenly. Both beliefs stem from traditional Chinese ideas that were not delegated to one religion. Confucius and Lao Tze, the founder of Taoism, were contemporaries of each other. It is recorded by both traditions that they had several dialogues.

Confucius was born in 551 BCE in the province of Shantung, the youngest of eleven children. He was into a noble class, but his family was stripped of its nobility by the time of his birth. His father died while Confucius was very young, so in his early years, he became a hired servant to support himself and his mother. He was briefly the chief librarian at the library in Beijing. In his spare time, he studied his favorite subjects. He became so learned, that by the time he was 21, he had some disciples and opened a school when he was 22.

In answer to Fan Hsü's questions
the Master said, "To love one's fellow-men
is Manhood-at-its-best. To know them
is to have knowledge."

Since this was not yet clear to him,
the Master continued, "If you will appoint
upright persons to the places now held by
the crooked, you will be making
the crooked straight."

-- The Sayings of Confucius, p. 81.

He constantly sought to gain a governmental position. In the meantime, he would travel from place to place with his disciples and teaching his philosophies on the way. He was always in danger of being killed on his mission, but he persevered until he was 80. In the last five years of his life, he went to Lu, where he encouraged others to study and practice virtue and to follow his example.

Confucius was humanistic in his approach and placed humankind, and not any deity, at the center of the universe. Society was organized from a superior order to an inferior order. All aspects of a person's life was based on that individual's Tao, and if one accepts one's life, life would flow smoothly. Confucius recognized two types of Tao: community and private. An individual should first focus on the first for the good of the community. The focus of Confucius was on a strong, yet benevolent government. Confucius believed that a strong government was key to a strong society.

Some of the most fundamental virtues of Confucianism were sincerity, benevolence, filial piety, and propriety. Sincerity meant more to Confucius than just a casual relationship. It was important to be trustworthy and honest in speech, and to be committed to promises. To Confucius, to be sincerity meant that one's conduct was founded in virtue, and sought to reserve the rules of right conduct in his heart and outward actions. It was just as important to be virtuous alone and in public.

Benevolence, holding regard for the well-being of others, and helping those in need was fundamental to Confucius. It was considered another characteristic of the virtuous man. Confucius was quoted as saying, "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

Filial piety is the third fundamental principle in Confucianism. Confucius also said that, "Filial piety is the root of all virtue. Of all the actions of man, there are none greater than those of filial piety." At the time of Confucius, filial piety meant for the son to love and revere his parents, aid them in comfort, bring them happiness, keep the family name honored, and and to be a success in life. There was, to some degree, a negative consequence to filial piety. This was the obligation of sons to live after marriage under the same roof with the father and to give him childlike obedience as long as he lived. Also, the will of the parents was superior to the extent that if the son's wife failed to make them happy, he was under an obligation to divorce her regardless of how he felt. Neither did sons disagree with their father. If they did, the father was to beat the son until blood is shed and the son was not to show any resistence. Filial piety was also a principle shared with Buddhism and Taoism.

The fourth fundamental principle was propriety. This encompasses the whole spectrum human conduct. The superior man was the one who does the right thing at the right time. To neglect or deviate from propriety was the same as an act of immorality.

"If you love others,
but they do not love you in return,
re-examine your own love.
If you would bring peace
and order to men,
but disorder ensues,
re-examine your own wisdom.
If you are ceremonious with others
and they do not return it,
re-examine you own reverence.
If your deeds are unsuccessful,
seek for the reason in yourself.
When your own person is correct,
the whole world will turn to you."

-- The Sayings of Mencius, p. 100.

Confucianism never took root in Confucius' lifetime. The wise words of Confucius were preserved in the Confucian Analects. His teachings were passed down by his disciples, the most famous being Mencius, considered the "Second Most Sacred Teacher". Mencius added the view that the Mandate of Heaven is removed from an unjust dynasty (Famighetti, p. 511).

Confucianism has had a profound impact on ancient Chinese societies. It was once governmental policy to adopt Confucian principles in order to better oneself in society. Strict examination systems were implemented. Most people did not successfully complete the exams. It was not uncommon for a father and a son to be competing at the same time. Society saw education as social mobility. At the local level schools, Confucian philosophy and ethics were required of every student. The negative repercussions of the examination system is that the poor did not have a chance to compete and that the exams too much stressed poetry at the expense of science and technology.

Not all governmental regimes were fond of the Confucian system. Chin Shi Huang Ti, who was the first emperor of China opposed to Confucianism, believed that Confucianism supported the old feudal regime and that people were naturally good. He ordered all of the books on Confucianism burned. Scholars supporting Confucianism were silenced.

Neo-Confucianism took root during the late Tong Dynasty. It synthesized Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. It stated that the material and mystical worlds were governed by yin and yang. People are a link between the worlds and by self-examination, one can achieve a connection with the supreme ultimate.

In present day, the status of Confucianism has changed considerably. It is now separated from public education, which was one of the key factors in the transmission of Confucianism. It's political and religious function has declined considerably in the Twentieth Century. Also, commercialism and revolutions in China has provided severe blows to Confucianism. Most younger Chinese understand Confucianism as an ancient custom and seem to display more indifference than knowledge. As a result, with the exception of a small circle of scholars, Confucianism is considered far less seriously than it used to be and is rarely taken as an active player in interfaith dialogue.

Because of these things, some may say that Confucianism has died out. This is not so because the main points of Confucianism are instilled in the values and ideas which have essentially become a part of the way of life for many Chinese people.

The Geography of Confucianism

Today, the primary followers of Confucianism are found in mainland China, and Taiwan. Confucianism as practiced here is usually in combination with Buddhism and Taoism and often in conjunction with ancestor worship. The largest population of non-Chinese followers is found in Korea (Famighetti, pp. 731, 732).

Confucianism had an effect upon the landscape through its meticulous attention to order. Through Confucian philosophy, a large governmental bureaucracy was formed, designed to work harmoniously in order to serve the hierarchy mandated by heaven. Such belief in an ordained order of society was reflected in the organization of buildings and public works. An example of this is found in the architecture of the Altar of Heaven in Peking. The altar, used by the emperors to invoke the favor of Heaven, was surrounded by several elevated concentric rings and bordered by an outer courtyard. Nine steps separate each level, representing the nine levels of heaven. At the highest point, the emperor would offer sacrifice each year to ensure continued prosperity for the nation.


Ballou, Robert O., (Editor), The Viking Portable Library World Library. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

Famighetti, Robert (Editor), The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1995. Mahwah, NJ: Funk & Wagnalls Corporation, 1994.

Markham, Ian S., (Editor), A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Ware, James R. (translator), The Sayings of Confucius. New York: New American Library, 1955.

Ware, James R. (translator), The Sayings of Mencius. New York: The New American Library, 1960.

Links for More Information

About Confucianism
About Confucius
Confucius (complete with Chinese characters!)

Version 1.2 dated 05.17.99
Special thanks to Keith Ammann at About Confucius for permission to use this background graphic, representing the name of the master, "Kung Tze"

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