What Is Confucianism?

The early religion of China was called "Sinism," and its beliefs are still dominant to the present time.

By RUTH SIMON MAZAT, Missionary on Furlough From China

The early religion of China was called "Sinism," and its beliefs are still dominant to the present time. Sinism consisted of two major parts, nature worship and ancestor worship. Nature worship can be summed up in the statement of Chu Hsi in the twelfth century A.D.: "Heaven is God and God is Heaven." Of ancestor worship it was said that man was the third in the heaven-earth triad. The worship of man was the worship of one's own ancestors. The imperial spirits and spirits of the ancestors of vassal princes and officials were worshiped in temples. The common peo­ple had no temples, but had their own household shrines.

Two systems, came out of the Sinaean Era —Confucianism and Taoism. Both were in process of development for many centuries. Confucianism stressed the practical side of life, and advocated that human conduct regulate itself in harmony with heaven. Taoism proposed a passive, mystical accord with heaven. Con­fucianism is an expression of the Chinese moral character. Taoism is mainly either magic or magical. Chinese medicine is Taoist, and her literature, poetry, art, drama, folklore, and myths have been permeated with its ideas.

"Confucianism—a misleading general term for the teachings of the Chinese classics upon cosmology, the social order, government, morals and ethics. Confu­cius is not the founder of the system, but is the trans­mitter of the teachings of antiquity and the editor of some of the classics."—Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 6, art. "Confucianism."

Confucius lived from 551 B.C. IO 478 B.C. In Biblical history we can think of his living from about the end of the Babylonian captivity to the early part of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. His teachings were mainly concerned with ethical, political, and social questions. During the lifetime of Confucius, the early religion of China was strongly adhered to, and this the sage accepted as a matter of course. He at­tempted no changes. He was greatly interested in the development of the ideal, or superior, man. He believed that man unaided could be­come superior. He also believed that the nature of man was fundamentally good or "inclined to goodness," and that he had no need of a Saviour. His teachings advocated that all could be accomplished through personal relationships. His system of human relationships covered five points called the "five relations": ruler and sub­ject, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and friend and friend. Filial piety was the cornerstone of his system of relationships.

He was primarily interested in society and the state. He was a political reformer at heart. There is no evidence that he tried to help his disciples solve any spiritual problems. He him­self says that he was not the founder of this system of ethics but only the transmitter. But he did think of himself as "heaven's agent." The nine classics, most of which bear some stamp of Confucius, are collections of ancient literature and form the most important writings of China. However, they have little to do with the direct teachings of Confucius.

Basis of Religious Ideas

The Confucian idea of the universe is that it starts out with an impersonal cosmic energy and principle which produced yin and yang, the negative and positive principles. By their interaction they produced heaven and earth and all beings. The social order came from the universal order. In the universal order, models of government, morals, and social life existed as images or ideas. These were transmitted as symbols to the saints and sages, and they in turn taught them to the people.

The teaching of Confucius was largely con­cerned with problems of good government, which he believed could be had if the ruler himself were personally virtuous and upright. The ruler's influence was by force of example. This trend of thought brought about a great stimulation for education.

Confucianism was officially recognized during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. IO A.D. 221) . During the first century A.D. Buddhism came to China. This brought about some changes of belief. These changes then were interpreted by Chu Hsi (A.D. 1130 to 1200). During the Manchu dynasty (A.D. 1644 to 1912) Chu Hsi's Com­mentaries became standard. Some scholars at­tempted to restore the original teachings of Confucius, but not much progress was made because of the Western civilization that began to imprint its ideas, especially on the minds of the younger people.

Mencius (Mang-tsze, 372 to 289 D.c.) was the greatest of the followers of Confucius. He re­frained from entering into questions of religion. He did believe in a single, omnipotent God. Mencius did much to develop and propagate the teachings of Confucius.

Confucianism has never lacked ardent believ­ers. At one time the classics were ordered destroyed, but the people of China were unwill­ing to give them up. The educated classes have kept the classics alive. The ordinary people have kept alive their beliefs by the act of an­cestral worship. Although Confucianism has no priesthood or monastic order, it has held the position of a national religion. It is a mixture of nature worship and ancestor worship. For­merly the emperor with his officials made sacri­fices to heaven and earth. Individual families worshiped at their own ancestral tablets in their own homes.

Religion to the average Chinese is not what it is to the average American, in that the Chinese would seldom fight for their faith. The ordinary Chinese can be Confucianist, Taoist, or Bud­dhist all at the same time. A proverb says, "The three religions are all one."

But in not one of the three has the layman found a full and satisfying religion. E. D. Soper says: "In general the Chinese are at the same time Confucianist, Taoist, and Buddhist, with no sense of incongruity. When he is in society, a Chinese is a Confucianist; when he is in difficulty, is baffled by fears, he is a Taoist; when he thinks of a supervening spiritual world and faces death, he is a Buddhist; it has been said that these religions answer to moods of the Chinese soul."—The Philosophy of the Christian World Mission.

To the Chinese, Confucius is not merely a man ; he is an institution. Although he is wor­shiped as a god, yet he is not thought of as such, but as a "sage." Temples have been erected in his and his disciples' honor. But philosophers, generals, poets, and famous administrators have also had the same honor. Yet Confucius is the object of sincere regard and the only man revered by all the Chinese. To many, Confu­cianism is their only faith. And filial piety is still the ruling idea of religion.

Perhaps the best way to state what the gen­eral beliefs of Confucianism are, is to quote the seven basic principles of the Chinese "religious mind":

General Beliefs of Confucianism

"1.       Tien, heaven, the ultimate, the source of nature, man and moral.

"2.       Tao, the way, the 'way of heaven,' the 'way of earth,' the 'way of benevolence,' etc.

"3.       Ch'eng, harmony, conformity of man with Tao and T'ien, expressing itself inwardly in man as jen (benevolence) and outwardly as Ii (ceremony).

"4.       Jen, love, benevolence, the supreme virtue among moral values, ranging from good thought to universal love.

"5.       Chung, fidelity, or conscience, 'fidelity to one's better self.'

"6.       Shu, consideration, due regard for other men, and actual forgiveness, when the need arises.

"7.         Li, propriety of which hsiao, or 'filial piety,' reverence,' is a chief expression."— Joax C. ARCHER, Faiths Men Live By, p. 65. A few representative sayings of Confucian­ism may give us some idea of the high moral character of the much-quoted proverbs. "Humility exalts, pride debases."

"It is not the knowing but the doing that is difficult."

"The princely man is dignified but not proud ; the inferior man is proud but not dignified."

"An approach to the ideal can be made by one who truly sets his mind on virtue."

"A man without charity in his heart, what has he to do with ceremonies?"

"What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." (Golden rule in his nega­tive philosophy.)

No serious attempt has been made to propa­gate the teachings of Confucius in foreign countries. Even in the land of China the adherents to the Confucian beliefs have tended to decrease, but not in any alarming number. The many new ideas from other countries have had a deep, stirring effect on the present reli­gious trends in China. There is great need of Christ today for the many millions of Confucian believers.

"And even in Confucianism, looked upon as a sys­tem of ethics, there is much to be desired. The good in this common-sense system fails at the point of moral challenge. Contrasted with the ethic of Jesus, it is on a lower plane. One might actually fulfill Confucius' demands; that cannot be said of Christ's. The Sermon on the Mount is a challenge to what man has never achieved, luring one on to more strenuous endeavor and filling the mind with wonder at the achievement of Jesus, who 'spoke as never man spake' whose life and example go even beyond His precept and lead us to the God who is love and holiness itself."—E. D. SOPER, The Philosophy of the Christian World Mis­sion, p. 189.

Approach to Confucianism

Now a few suggestions for work among the Confucianists. Since the Confucianist believes in reverencing authority, the fifth command­ment can be taught, for it ties in with their respect for parents. Confucius taught order and stressed points for an ideal state. This can be incorporated into talks on the God of order and the home of the saved. The Chinese as a whole are anxious for male children. The "seed" in the Old Testament can be traced down through olden times to Christ the Re­deemer.

China's present-day needs are great. For the past decade she has received thousands of tons of supplies and millions of dollars in currency, and yet the present need is even greater than that of a decade ago. This fact has not been overlooked by the Chinese. They are aware of a great need. And their greatest need is a knowledge of Jesus Christ.


Champion, Selwyn Gurney. The Eleven Religions. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1945.

Johnston, Reginald. Confucianism and Modern China. New York: D. Appleton Century Co., 1935.

Plopper, Clifford H. Chinese Religion Seen Through the Proverb. Shanghai: Shanghai Modern Publishing House, 1935.

Porter, Lucius Chapin. China's Challenge to Christi­anity. New York : Missionary Education Movement of U.S.A. and Canada, 1924.

Soothill, W. E. The Three Religions of China. Lon­don: Oxford University Press: Humphrey Milford, 1920.

Soper, Edmund Davison. The Religions of Mankind. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, Nashville, 1937.

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By RUTH SIMON MAZAT, Missionary on Furlough From China

September 1948

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