Confucianism 101


Confucianism is a religion that is practiced mostly in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan. They’re 6,000,000 people in the world who have faith in the philosophical and religious beliefs that originated in ancient China.

Confucianism is a religion of civility because of the emphasis on morality. Ethics and education intersect within Confucianism with the sole purpose of instilling morals and useful philosophies in its disciples. To apply the Confucian morals and philosophies followers must align their lifestyle and outlook, therefore Confucianism is considered more so a way of life than a religion. 

Below you will learn about Confucius, Confucian philosophies and how you can apply them to your life. This article will also go over the rituals, rules, and teachings that aim to create harmony in a world so often prone to chaos.   

Who Was Confucius?

During the Zhou dynasty, which was 1134- 250 BCE, a group of educated elite advised royal and high-ranking authorities. Teaching righteous and proper conduct through kindness and ritual was of great value to rulers. The most well-known advisor was Master Kong, also known as Confucius. 

Confucius was born in the State of Lu of the Zhou kingdom in 551 BC. Through time myth has surrounded Master Kong’s birth, myths that include dragons, gods, and a unicorn. These myths are not relevant to Confucian philosophy and rejected by most followers, regarded as an attempt to give Confucius a more god-like status.


The more likely story is that Confucius’ father was a soldier named Kong and that he that died before Confucius turned three years old. Yan Zhengzai, his mother, raised him in poverty. Although not as mystical as being the son of a dragon, the normal version of his birth and childhood offers insight into Confucian views on the social class system in China.

Growing up he worked various odd jobs such as a shepherd and a clerk. Confucius began working for the government as a governor of a small town before reaching his elite status as the advisor for the highest and most regal government officials. 

Confucius left his government job when he was 51 years old because of being disappointed that the leaders he advised didn’t follow his advice. After quitting he traveled throughout China to spread his philosophy by teaching others the lesson and ideas he learned throughout his lifetime. Those whose lives and perspectives he impacted recorded his ideas, which later became The Analects of Confucius.  

It wasn’t until years after he died in 479 BC that China recognized Confucius for his work. Those in the government appreciated most of his teachings, which centered on respecting authority and how important government and law was to society. With time his words of wisdom became the philosophies of China and a part of Chinese culture for over two thousand years. 

Chaos, political discord, and a severe lack of order within families filled every facet of life during the Zhou Dynasty. Confucius was a philosopher concerned with the order, structure, and way of everyday life. His philosophies reflect this by being focused on politics and morals. Confucian teachings were created to cure the various issues throughout China. 

Later Confucianism evolves to include more esoteric ideology borrowed from Taoism and Buddhism, but Confucius did not focus on spiritual matters. He felt humans should live with the dignity and benevolence of heaven while here on earth and used his wisdom and intellect to solve problems that everyday men faced.  

Philosophy and Beliefs

From Confucius’ teachings, Confucianism was born. Its popularity decreases during the Qin dynasty and increases again during the Han period. Confucian philosophy created a sound foundation for social order and respect during its early popularity and is still entwined with modern Chinese culture today. 

Confucian philosophy is highly valued because it promotes being righteous, good, and respectful. The following philosophies are the main ideals within the religion:

  • Follow a code of morals and ethics.
  • Have good manners and etiquette.
  • Follow your daily rituals.
  • Family is important and everyone should respect their ancestors (filial piety).
  • Mankind should have integrity, righteousness, altruism, goodness, and loyalty.
  • Do not live in excess or greed.
  • Treat others with kindness and respect, even bad people.
  • A strong and organized central government is very important.
sculptures at confucius shrine in nagasaki, japan

 Being a good and respectful person is the key to practicing Confucianism because its main concern is family, morals, and what makes an effective ruler. Confucianism stresses the need for rulers and teachers to create a functioning society. Rulers should rule by virtue and moral teachings rather than by punishment, cruelty or force. 

“If a ruler sets himself right, he will be followed without his command. If he does not set himself right, even his command will not be obeyed.”


Confucius philosophy also teaches that all men can be rulers and no one should assume authority based on their class. Superiority should be the product of character development and hard work. 

This was a problematic idea at a time where your class status determines your values and capabilities within society. Some even thought civilization needed this system or it would not function well.

 “Wealth and rank are what people desire, but unless they be obtained in the right way, they may not be possessed.”


Wealth and rank should be given to those who study and strive to be good and kind, not only to benefit their personal lives, but society. Confucius himself wasn’t born into wealth, though he was one of the greatest philosophers of his day. Confucianism makes it an even playing field for those not brought up on proper etiquette and values. Anyone willing to study Confucianism will learn how to become a better leader.

Ren, Li, and Yi in Confucianism

To set your heart right you can follow Ren. Ren, Li, and Yi are key Confucian principles that promote morals and peace. These principles aren’t only used to make sure a single person is living ethically, but that all society functions in order and peace.

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right.”


Li means rituals or actions, Yi means righteousness, and Ren is the state of being when your Li is in alignment with Yi. To live in a state of harmony and high morality (Ren) one must act with honor and dedicate themselves to their everyday life (Yi and then Li). These three principles working together create a foundation for Confucianism and a thriving society.

Incense sticks in red jar on a white wall. Traditional Asian culture

Ren makes humans different and gives every man and woman their humanity. It is a scale for good behavior and the rewarding state that comes from acting within that scale. This standard of behavior encourages harmony, justice, empathy, respect and understanding and applies to everyone regardless of class and authority without exceptions. 

It is of great importance that a ruler possesses Ren. It is clear if they do not because those they rule over will be in a state of chaos, rebellion and/or fear. A ruler who treats his subject inhumanely and without Ren is not worthy of being a ruler. 

“Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?”


When someone live in the state of Ren and loses self-interest, they are living in Yi, which means righteousness. Yi is the ability to know the difference between right and wrong and choosing what is right. Society needs people living in Yi to function without corruption and be examples for others. A person living in Yi in their day-to-day life lives just without evil tendencies. 

Li is the way of life and the actions people make while living their life, whether good or evil. It is the principle of order and a defined guide to every person’s actions, which means doing the right mundane and ritualistic routine at the right time. Li is important in all aspects of life both personal and social. This principle is responsible for a peaceful way of life for anyone living by it. Examples of Li are respecting your elders, obeying authority figures, and specific ceremonies. 

Ren is the state of being a good person, Li is the actions a good person makes and Yi is how people choose what is good and what is wrong. These principles are a way of life and those living with these principles possess a kind of dignity and respect that infiltrates their entire lives.

Writings in Confucianism

The most important texts in Confucianism are The Five Classics and The Four Books. These texts create a foundation for Confucian teachings and some contain Confucius’ original philosophies. 

The Five Classics are the Book of Odes, Book of Documents, Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. The Four Books are The Doctrine of the Mean, The Great Learning, Mencius, and the Analects. 

With nine influential writings to choose from, it can be overwhelming where to start and how to interpret all the information. One should begin reading The Four Books and then the Five Classics to avoid confusion and help instill the right lessons in the most comprehensible order.

Confucianism in The Four Books and The Five Classics

The Great Learning is a guide for learning how to better understand the world around you through self-cultivation. It provides a step-by-step explanation how all aspects of society depend on knowledge and learning. This is the perfect text to begin since it teaches you why reading the other texts is so important.  

“The perfecting of one’s self is the fundamental base of all progress and all moral development.”


The Analects collects Kongzi’s teachings. It stresses the importance of learning but also goes into the need for government, virtue, respect, and ritual.

The Mencius are conversations between Mencius and Kongzi. This text focuses on the emperor being a good governance by following the Way. It also describes natural instincts within humans being good, but in need of cultivating to stay that way.

The Doctrine of the Mean teaches how to keep balance and harmony in life. It teaches following the way and living under the law. Living by a standard of goodness will create a happy life and a stable foundation for approaching responsibilities.   

Those are the Four Books that will start your journey into Confucian philosophy and Chinese ideals. The five classics that should follow these are the Book of Documents (history of ancient China), the Book of Odes (songs and poetry), the Book of Rites (rules, norms, and ritual conduct), the Book of Changes (divination), and the Spring and Autumn Annals (historical collection on the State of Lu). 


Gaining insight matters in the religion Confucianism, which makes sense considering the practice is based on the philosophical teachings of an advisor in ancient China. You can start your own journey into Confucian philosophy and teachings by cultivating your personal growth and reading the many Confucian texts in the right order. 

Each facet of Confucianism serves a purpose to ensure peace, morality, and awareness. To know right from wrong you must first understand the deeper aspects to the life you live and Confucianism teaches you how to do just that and much more.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 


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