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The Research Institution of Confucianism in China. (kanegen/flickr)

The Research Institution of Confucianism in China. (kanegen/flickr)

The inner pole of Confucianism was reformist, idealistic, and spiritual. It generated a high ideal for family interaction: members were to treat each other with love, respect, and consideration for the needs of all. It prescribed a lofty ideal for the state: the ruler was to be a father to his people and look after their basic needs. It required officials to criticize their rulers and refuse to serve the corrupt. This inner and idealist wing spawned a Confucian reformation known in the West as Neo-Confucianism. The movement produced reformers, philanthropists, dedicated teachers and officials, and social philosophers from the eleventh through the nineteenth centuries.

The idealist wing of Confucianism had a religious character. Its ideals were transcendent, not in the sense that they were other worldly (the Confucians were not interested in a far-off heavenly realm), but in the sense of the transcendent ideal -- perfection. On the one hand, Confucian values are so closely linked with everyday life that they sometimes seem trivial. Everyday life is so familiar that we do not take its moral content seriously. We are each a friend to someone, or aparent, or certainly the child of a parent. On the other hand, Confucians remind us that the familiar ideals of friendship, parenthood, and filiality are far from trivial; in real life we only rarely attain these ideals. We all too often just go through the motions, too preoccupied to give our full attention to the relationship. If we consistently and wholeheartedly realized our potential to be the very best friend, parent, son, or daughter humanly possible, we would establish a level of caring, of moral excellence,that would approach the utopian. This is Confucian transcendence: to take the actions of everyday life seriously as the arena of moral and spiritual fulfillment.4

The outer and inner aspects of Confucianism -- its conforming and reforming sides -- were in tension throughout Chinese history. Moreover, the tensions between social and political realities and the high-minded moral ideals of the Confucians were an ongoing source of concern for the leaders of this tradition. The dangers of moral sterility and hypocrisy were always present. Confucianism, they knew well, served both as a conservative state orthodoxy and a stimulus for reform. Great Confucians, like religious leaders everywhere, sought periodically to revive and renew the moral, intellectual, and spiritual vigor of the tradition. Until the 1890s, serious-minded Chinese saw Confucianism, despite its failures to realize its ideal society, as the source of hope for China and the core of what it meant to be Chinese.

Although since the revolution, the public ideology of the People's Republic has abandoned Confucian teachings, one can say that there is a continuity of form: like Confucianism before it, Maoism teaches a commitment to transforming the world by applying the lessons of autopian ideology to the actions and institutions of everyday life. This is not to claim that Mao was a "closet Confucian," but to emphasize that the Confucian way was virtually synonymous with the Chinese way.


Robert Neelly Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial, New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

C. K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961, pp. 20-21.

Excerpted and adapted from de Bary, Sources, I: 115-16.

For a somewhat fuller philosophical (but readable) discussion, seeHerbert Fingarette, Confucius -- The Secular as Sacred, New York:Harper and Row, 1972, chapter one.

Note: This article and the one on Dao/Taoism were written during the Indiana Religion Studies Project Institute for Teaching about Religion in the Secondary Social Studies Curriculum. The drafts were critiqued by the social studies teachers who attended with an eye to supplementing and correcting the information in textbooks and other materials used by teachers. The two articles should read as a pair; they complement each other in much the same way these two religions complemented each other throughout Chinese history.