My Crib Notes on Confucianism

843D029A-3D1A-42F2-9A04-3F082D8FD8D6The goal of the Confucian project is to become fully human. Kung Fu-tzu (Confucius) understood the self as a “node” rather than an entity, a “meeting place where lives converge.” (Smith, 1991).

This resonates with my theories of the gift circle. In my PhD dissertation (when I eventually write it….) I argue that the Western concept that all possessions can be alienated from oneself is based on a system of property rights, rather than the way people really interact.

There are parts of ourselves, embodied sometimes in objects, which are sacred, which are “kept-whilst-given,” which cannot be alienated. When they are given, they simply enchain us one to another ever more strongly.

So when I read that the goal of the Confucian project is to continuously understand the self as a “node” rather than an entity, a “meeting place where lives converge,” I saw that my feeling about the way people exist in relation to each other may have very old, Chinese roots. Perhaps my mother’s sub-conscious influence, through her emphasis on family, selflessness and generosity to others? Although, like China, my mother sometimes interpreted these values in sinister ways, emphasising respect for her as a parent without earning this respect. But the fundamental principles were there, and I think they continue to inform the way I see the world as a system of relationships in which people expand when they are filled with love and contract when they are filled with hate. A little Mohism (which is also quite a lot like Christology), a little Confucianism, and you get my gift theory of human relations ;-).

I have copied below some of the Confucian sayings from the Analects which resonated with me. They are largely all about learning, the importance of humility and keeping an open mind. These passages also reminded me of Duane Bidwell’s advice to spiritual counselors to take a position of “not knowing” when engaging in spiritual direction. This is an attitude of open-minded curiosity, a respect for the other and a fundamental acceptance of the unknowability of God and the ways in which others experience God, leading to a permanent sense of learning throughout life (Bidwell, 2004).

‘I will not grieve that men do not know me; I will grieve that I do not know men.’ (The Analects 1:16) This is a good example of Kung Fu-tzu’s humility and openness always to learning.

‘Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.’ (The Analects 2:15). This saying felt very apposite in the current political times.

‘When you see a man of worth, think how to rise to his level. When you see an unworthy man, then look within and examine yourself.’ (The Analects 4:17). Another reminder to be humble and always learning rather than judging.

‘If a man does not ask himself, “What am I to make of this? What am I to make of that?” – there is nothing whatever I can make of him.’ (Analects 15:15). I like the pithiness of this saying, and how it sums up in a humorous way the importance of always having an open mind.

‘The wise man does not appreciate a man because of what he says; nor does he depreciate what he says because of the man.’ (Analects 15:22). This saying reminds me not to “talk down” to people but to relate to people at the level of respect or “jen.”

‘When Tzu Kung asked what were the essentials of government, the Master replied, “Sufficient food, sufficient forces, and the confidence of the people.” “Suppose, rejoined Tzu Kung, “I were compelled to dispense with one, which of these should I forgo first?” “Forgo the forces,” was the reply. Suppose, said Tzu Kung, “I were compelled to eliminate another, which of the other two should I forgo first?” “The food,” was the reply, “for from of old death has been the lot of all men, but a people without faith cannot stand.’ (Analects 12:7).

‘The wise man is intelligently, not blindly, loyal.’ (Analects 15:36). There are several passages I came across in the Analects in which Kung Fu-tzu is quoted as reminding his disciples that you cannot blindly follow a master; that the virtue of loyalty is not a virtue if it is not also accompanied with constant thought and examination.

‘Love of kindness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by foolishness. Love of knowledge, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by loose speculation. Love of honesty, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by harmful candour. Love of straightforwardness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by misdirected judgment. Love of daring, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by insubordination. And love for strength of character, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by intractability.’ (Analects 17:8). This to me is a brilliant summation of the importance of always thinking, questioning and learning and avoiding dogmatic and definitive stances about anything at all. If you consider each of these imbalances which Kung Fu-tzu refers to, you can see probably 99% of the themes of fiction: the hero who has to learn to temper her willfulness with thoughtfulness; the hero who is honest out of ego instead of wisdom; the hero who is kind without thought to practicalities or reality.

‘He who does not know the force of words, cannot know men.’ (Analects 20:3). There is an earlier passage in the Analects in which Kung Fu-tzu wishes he did not have to speak, and instead he attempts to play music for someone who has come to seek his counsel. But most of the time, Kung Fu-tzu seems to accept and promote the importance of clear language and words. This saying is the last line of the Analects, and I thought it pretty much sums up the role of the teacher which Kung Fu-tzu first and foremost embodied.
Who was Confucius?

Kung Fu-tzu was born around 551 BC in Lu, which is now the Shantung province of China. He was from humble circumstances, brought up by his widowed mother (his father died when he was three years old).

After holding a few minor bureaucratic positions he set himself up as a tutor and attracted a loyal following of “disciples.” According to Huston Smith’s history of Confucianism, Kung Fu-tzu wanted to hold public office in order to reorder society, but rulers of the Chinese principalities were too wary of Kung Fu-tzu’s candour to appoint him. The ruler of his home state eventually felt compelled to give Kung Fu-tzu an honorary position, but once Kung Fu-tzu realised the hollowness of the appointment he resigned (Smith, 1991).

At the age of fifty, Kung Fu-tzu began to travel from state to state, offering unsolicited advice to rulers on how to govern better and seeking an official post from which to implement his principles. But it was never forthcoming and Kung Fu-tzu and his core of faithful disciples spent those years mocked by holy men and peasants alike.

Eventually there was a change in administration in his home state and he was invited to return. By then, Kung Fu-tzu was too old for office so he spent the last five years of his life teaching and editing the classics. At the age of 72 he died.

Huston Smith explains that Kung Fu-tzu was a failure as a politician, but was undoubtedly one of the finest teachers the world has known. He had an informal, Socratic method of teaching, conversing with his students, posing questions, citing texts. He never considered himself the “expert,” but instead behaved as a “fellow traveller,” always humble about how far he had himself progressed on the path of fully realising his humanity. He was known to be unwavering in his core values but tempered this with a sense of humour and realism.

After his death, Kung Fu-tzu’s influence increased. Huston Smith describes the historical context in which Kung Fu-tzu’s teachings gained influence. By Kung Fu-tzu’s time, the almost continuous warfare of the era (known as the Period of the Warring States) had degenerated from its erstwhile chivalrous rules of conduct to sheer brutality. Entire populations were mass executed. The social threads of custom were being destroyed by this barbarism, threatening anarchy.

Like Jesus of Nazareth, Kung Fu-tzu had a relatively unremarkable career when alive but upon his death, his messengers were effective and his ideas came at the right time. As a result of his teaching, a class of scholars arose in China. In 130 BC Confucian texts were made the basic education for government officials right up until 1905 AD. His teachings helped to cement the emphasis on family, society and community over individual; reverence for age, and a preference for the middle way of negotiation rather than the adversarial system of the West. The emphasis on wen can be seen in the contemporary Chinese government’s policy of “soft power.”

Unlike other major civilisations such as India or Europe, China did not require a person to be one religion or another. A Chinese person was Confucian in ethics and public life, Taoist in private life, Buddhist at the time of death, and engaged in shamanistic folk religion throughout. (Smith, 1991).

Realism and Mohism

Three main schools of thought can be discerned as responses to China’s Period of the Warring States:
• Realism
• Mohism
• Confucianism

This was the dominant approach at the time of Kung Fu-tzu. The way to deal with humans was through a system of penalties and rewards. Similar to Hobbes’ conception of humanity, Realists acknowledged that ultimately, force was required to restrain humans from being completely selfish. They reasoned that a state needed a large and effective militia, clear laws and serious penalties for violations. Han Fei-tzu was one of the leading proponents of Realism and explained that laws had to be very clearly spelt out and penalties had to be heavy.

Realists believed that humans were ultimately greedy, selfish beings and that goodness had to be forced upon them. They also believed that most humans were too short-sighted to accept present sacrifices for long-term gain and that rulers had to force such policies upon them. Realists did not deny that noble sentiments existed, but argued that these would not be sufficient to keep people in check.

A realist of the fifth and sixth centuries BC was the prototypical, hard-headed Chinese mother (for those of you who have one, you know what I mean ;-). Life is hard. Deal with it.

At the same time as the realists dominated policy making, Mo Tzu (or Mo Ti) proposed that universal love (chien ai) was the solution rather than force.

“Mutual attacks among states, mutual usurpation among houses, mutual injuries among individuals, these are [among’ the major calamities in the world. But whence do these calamities arise? They arise out of want of mutual love….individuals have learned only to love themselves and not others. Therefore they do not scruple about injuring others…How can we have the condition altered? It is to be altered by the eay of universal love and mutual aid.” (Yi-pao, 1929).

Mo Tzu believed that Shang Ti (a personal god) and Heaven “loves the whole world universally. Everything is prepared for the good of human beings.” (Yi-pao, 1929: 145).

My Background Notes on Confucianism

Kung Fu-tzu rejected the Realist approach because it was too much outside of people’s ordinary lives and could not inspire people’s day to day ways of behaving in relation to others. The Realist approach could not inspire intrinsic motivation and purpose in people. At the same time, he thought that the Mohists were too utopian. The Realists thought that governments could enforce peace, whilst the Mohists thought that personal commitment could bring about peace. Both approaches were unrealistic.

For Kung Fu-tzu, tradition was the key. Tradition shaped people’s attitudes, ethics and actions. Kung Fu-tzu saw tradition as a powerful means of improving contemporary behaviour by harking back to the norms of the “Age of Grand Harmony.” This was a period in China’s past when China was passing from the second millennium BC into the first millennium BC, and the Chou Dynasty was at its peak. Kung Fu-tzu may have romanticised this era as a time when the Chinese were still community members before they were individuals. To apply this to his era in the sixth century BC, Kung Fu-tzu realised that he would have to create deliberate tradition supported by conscious and purposeful attention.

Kung Fu-tzu wanted a society which embodied the following five principles:
• Jen
• Chun tzu
• Li
• Te
• Wen

This refers to the relationship between two people which is based on a feeling of humanity, respect and a sense of the dignity of human life. This leads to generosity and good faith. In public life it leads to conscientiousness, and in private life it leads to politeness, considerateness and empathy.

Chun tzu
This is the mature person, the person who is fully grounded about herself and at home in the universe. As a result, she can be a good hostess: graceful, confident, authentic and gracious. This is the “gentleman” or “gentlewoman.”

This has two meanings: propriety, or the right way of behaving; and ritual; or rites which systematize social life.

Li as propriety
Kung Fu-tzu focused on five main arenas for right behaviour: The Rectification of Names, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Five Constant Relationships, Regard for the Family and Age.

The Rectification of Names refers to making sure that everyone has a shared, right understanding of what words mean. In this way, everyone can be of shared meanings.

The Doctrine of the Mean is the “way that is constantly in the middle” between unrealistic extremes. It refers to the Confucian value of moderation in all things.

The Five Constant Relationships are the relationships between:
• Parent-child
• Husband-wife
• Elder sibling-junior sibling
• Elder friend-junior friend
• Ruler-subject

Kung Fu-tzu described how each role should be fulfilled.

“Parents should be loving, children reverential; elder siblings gentle, younger siblings respectful; husbands good, wives “listening”; elder friends considerate, younger friends deferential; rulers benevolent, subjects loyal.” (Smith, 1991).

Regard for Family and Age
Kung Fu-tzu was building on the Chinese belief that the family is the basic unit of society. Respect for parents could also be extrapolated to respect for elders generally.

Li as rites
Kung Fu-tzu also understood the importance of rites and rituals as means of routinizing and embedding the mores of a society at the individual, family and social level. Rites included public rites such as the way the Emperor would three times a year answer to Heaven, and private rites about how you serve tea to a visitor.

This translates as “power,” but for Kung Fu-tzu it refers primarily to a ruler’s “power of moral example.” (Smith, 1991). If the ruler is a good, righteous person, then this will seep down to local leaders and the wider populous. If people can trust and admire their leader, this leads to the “morale without which nations cannot survive.” (Smith, 1991). Such rulers must not have personal ambitions or be led by their ego, but must want to rule because they have good values. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.”

This refers to the “arts of peace” – music, poetry, art and culture, as opposed to the “arts of war.” Kung Fu-tzu valued the arts because of art’s power to easily inspire people to be good. He also believed that the nation with the greatest culture would ultimately win hearts and minds.

The Goal of a Confucian Life

For Kung Fu-tzu, the individual’s purpose in life was the become ever more fully human in the context of the social group. There is no “self,” just a centre of relationships constructed through interactions with others (Smith, 1991). “Confucius saw the human self as a node, not an entity; it is a meeting place where lives converge.” (Smith, 1991).

A person becomes a “chun tzu,” a mature or fully realised human being, by infinitely expanding her empathy/sympathy, or “heart-mind,” hsin. As this expands from oneself, to include the family, community, nation, and eventually all of humanity. This shift of one’s empathy from self to family,

“transcends selfishness. The move from family to community transcends nepotism. The move from community to nation overcomes parochialism, and the move to all humanity counters chauvinistic nationalism.” (Smith, 1991).

One could add that the move beyond humanity to encompass Heaven also transcends the finite with the infinite nature of being. At the same time, the self grows deeper and richer through reflection and self-examination in this ever-broadening idea of self-in-society.

The Religious Context of Confucianism

At the time of Kung Fu-tzu, Chinese generally believed that they lived in a continuum of Heaven and Earth. The people who made up Heaven were the ancestors (ti) and they were ruled over by a supreme ancestor (Shang Ti). Heaven was far more important. Earth spoke to Heaven through sacrifices, sharing their goods with the ancestors through sacrificial fires. The ruler of China was thought of as the Son of Heaven, and oversaw the nation’s sacrifices to the ancestors.

Heaven spoke to Earth through signs and omens such as the weather, the stars, animals or bodily expressions such as rashes, twitches, stumbling, buzzing in the ears. People could also use divination techniques to seek out the ancestors’ advice.

Kung Fu-tzu taught a largely pragmatic approach towards this cosmology. He did not engage in discussions about Heaven and Earth, but simply advised people to accept that they did not know many things that were beyond Earth’s understanding. He encouraged people to look after the living first and foremost whilst still respecting and revering the dead.


Confucius. (1995). The Analects: Dover Thrift Editions. Dover Publications: New York.
Bidwell, Duane. (2004). Short-Term Spiritual Guidance. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.
Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Out Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: Epub.
Yi-pao Mei. (1929). Motse, the Neglected Rival of Confucius. Reprint. Hyperion Press: Westport CT, 1973.
Tu Wei-ming. “Confucianism.” Our Religions. Ed. By Arvind Sharma. HarperCollins: EPub.