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Confucius’s influences on Chinese values

YE LANG and ZHU LIANGZHI | 2019-03-14
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


A painting by the Qing artist Jiao Bingzhen depicts Confucius teaching students poetry, calligraphy, rites and music. It is said that Confucius had three thousand students. Photo: FILE


Confucius (551–479 BCE), whose original name is Kong Qiu and literary name Zhongni, is China’s most famous teacher, philosopher and political theorist, as well as the founder of Confucianism. Most of his speeches and ideas were recorded in the Confucian classic, the Analects.

It is said that nobody can truly understand traditional Chinese culture and the ancient Chinese without reading the Analects. In this way, humanity in China can be perceived from Confucius’s thoughts about Heaven and human beings.


Confucius on Heaven
Early in the Shang and Zhou dynasties (c. 1600–256 BCE), Heaven was personified as a god. Though influenced by this concept, Confucius equated Heaven with nature. His ideas about Heaven can be observed from his famous saying, “Heaven doesn’t speak; yet the four seasons run their course thereby, the hundred creatures, each after its kind, are born thereby. Heaven does no speaking!” (translated by Arthur Waley). For Confucius, Heaven is nature, which is not mechanical, lifeless and separate from human beings. Furthermore, Heaven is a world of lives and the origin of life, and humans are integral to this world and to nature.

Interpreting Heaven with the origin of life was innovative at that time. In this way, the natural process of life creation was the “way of Heaven.” The core connotation of the I Ching also reveals Confucius’s ideas about Heaven—“Alternation between yin and yang to cause constant reproduction [are called] change (yi)” (translated by Fu Huisheng).

Since Heaven was regarded as the origin of life, it became the source of values, known as the “virtue of Heaven.” For the Confucian philosophy, the most important virtue or purpose of Heaven is to cultivate, protect and improve all living things. Therefore, humans, who are believed to be created by Heaven, are obligated to fulfill the purpose of Heaven. Confucius endowed human activities with a sense of mission, known as the “heavenly mission,” under which humans should care for all living things to live a meaningful life.

Meanwhile, Confucius believed that Heaven was sacred, somehow related to its image as the life creator. Then he came up with the proposal that people should hold Heaven in awe, especially junzi (people of virtue). He suggested that junzi should listen to and follow the words of Heaven and respect all living things.

The attitude of the ancient Chinese towards Heaven was deeply influenced by Confucius. They honored Heaven as the most sacred and supreme existence. However, Heaven for the ancient Chinese was not the equivalence of God for Christians—a supernatural personified god. In ancient China, Heaven existed as a world of ever-generating life. As the most intelligent of all creatures, humans were encouraged to take the mission of Heaven as their own and cherish life. Any behavior that hurt other lives would be punished by Heaven and couldn’t be excused by prayer, according to Confucius. Such awe and respect for Heaven became the main belief of the ancient Chinese, representing their religious beliefs.

Confucius’s belief in Heaven is still significant in modern society, as environmental problems are drawing global attention. Humans should listen to the voices of nature, respect and cherish their connection with nature. This is the implicit mission of all human beings, thus giving value to our lives.


Ren (benevolence)
As for Confucius’s fundamental thoughts on humanity, people have invariably insisted that there are two points of view. One is ren (benevolence). The other is li (rite).

One of Confucius’s students, Fan Chi, once asked him what the meaning of ren was. Confucius replied that it meant to love people. Confucius saw filial piety as the first step toward ren. He didn’t believe that one who didn’t care for their parents would love others. Loyalty and consideration to one’s parents is mentioned many times in the Analects. For instance, Confucius said, “While father and mother are alive, a good son does not wander far afield; or if he does so, goes only where he has said he was going.” Confucius doesn’t mean to restrict children to always be around their parents, but hopes they will empathize with and comfort their parents, because parents will be concerned and anxious if they lose touch with their children. “Filial piety is to think and feel what our parents think and feel,” said Confucius, “It is always better for a man to know the age of his parents. In the one case such knowledge (longevity of one’s parents) will be a comfort to him; in the other, it (the fact that parents’ health becomes poor as they age) will fill him with a salutary dread.”

Confucius believed that the way to carry benevolent virtue was to put oneself in the place of another, thus applying the family metaphor to the community, the country and the cosmos. Loyalty (zhong) and consideration (shu) are vital to this process. Consideration is interpreted in the Analects as follows— “Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, seeks also to enlarge others.” One should be aware that others may have the same demands, which means that satisfying others may potentially fulfill oneself. “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” This is an explanation of consideration in the Analects. It means to live and let live. Treat the elderly and the young with reverence and kindness in one’s own family, so that the elderly and the young in others’ families shall be similarly treated. Benevolence may be accumulated bit by bit in everyday life and expanded to a wider range.

As is said by Mencius, “He is lovingly disposed to people generally, and kind to creatures.” This is the fraternity that expands the love  shared between kin to the utmost, that promotes the human spirit to the altitude of the integrity of Heaven and humanity.

“Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Today, this advice from Confucius is still considered a general principle of interpersonal relationships.


Li (rite)
For Confucius, li (rite) refers to norms and systems, a kind of binding force, which guarantee the achievement of social stability and solidarity. Among numerous norms and rituals, what Confucius valued most were the mourning ceremonies and reverence for ancestors, of which the reason can be perceived from the words of one of his students—“Let there be careful attention to perform the funeral rites for parents, and let them be followed when long gone with the ceremonies of sacrifice; then the virtue of the people will resume its proper excellence.”

Confucius believed that rites should come after a person’s emotions. For instance, when a student named Yu questioned the three-year mourning phase and thought that a year would be long enough, Confucius replied, “Only when a child is three years old does it leave its parents’ arms. The three years’ mourning phase is the universal mourning everywhere under Heaven. And Yu—was he not the darling of his father and mother for three years?” From Confucius’s perspective, three-year mourning, which was part of the rite, was established as the way for sons and daughters to express their love towards their parents. Then he came to the conclusion that the rite came directly from human emotions.

The power to maintain social order is the primary value of rites. As the Analects goes, “In the usages of ritual it is harmony that is prized; the Way of the Former Kings from this got its beauty. Both small matters and great matters depend upon it. If things go amiss, he who knows the harmony will be able to attune them. But if harmony itself is not modulated by ritual, things will still go amiss.” Confucius saw the significance of ritual observance in maintaining harmony among people as well as states, thus enabling the country to survive in peace and prosperity for a long time.


The article was edited and translated from Insights into Chinese Culture, published by Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. Ye Lang and Zhu Liangzhi are professors at Peking University.

edited by REN GUANHONG