The Stages of Confucianism

China is the country of an ancient civilization and rich philosophical heritage. History of philosophical thought of ancient China dates back to the beginning of first century BC.

The most influential direction of Chinese philosophy is Confucianism. The founder of the Confucianism was ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (born K'ung Fu-tzu) - the most famous Chinese thinker. Confucianism is primarily moral and ethical teaching, developed to answer the questions about the place everyone takes in the world.

The First Stage

At the core of Confucianism there are several concepts: jen (commonly denotes the concept of humaneness, kindness to the people, sincerity), t'ien ming (mandate of heaven), hsin (the virtue faithfulness or veracity), li (the concept encompasses decency, etiquette, ethics, ritual, ceremony), dao (the way of every person).

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Confucius, like many other philosophers of ancient China, claimed the principle of honoring the Heaven. Heaven is higher power, it keeps track of justice on earth, it is the guardian of the social order. Heaven is the destiny, fate. It determines the place in society for each man, it rewards and punishes. Confucius emphasized the anxiety about Heaven, its avenging power and inevitability of heavenly fate.

The thinker interprets the concept of jen very broadly including many qualities: love for others, sincerity, loyalty, selflessness, justice, dignity, truth, courage. It is the bond of perfections, which only ancient people had. Jen-people were ascetics, bearers of the highest ethics. Philanthropy embodied general principles of relations between people. Ritual, observance of ceremonies and rites (i.e. rules or etiquette) became their particular incarnation.

Confucius’ ritual li is not reducible to external ceremonies. Through the ritual, the man shows his respect and understanding of the other person. Ritual is valuable as a means of reaching an agreement in the family and society.

After the death of Confucius his numerous disciples and followers formed a plurality of schools. The prominent two were headed by Mencius and Hsun Tzu.

Mencius is considered to be the second person in Confucianism after Confucius. The most important innovation of Mencius was the idea that human nature is originally good. On this basis he develops the idea of natural knowledge of good and human ability to create, occurrence of evil in man as a result of his failure to follow his nature, mistakes or inability to shield himself from negative external influences. Mencius speaks of the need for full disclosure of human nature through education, which allows knowing the Heaven and serving it.

Unlike Mencius, Hsun Tzu believed that a man is naturally inclined to evil, born with an instinctive desire for profit. He claims greed and avarice to be natural qualities of a man. According to his teaching, man is evil by nature; his virtue is generated by practical activities. Therefore, every person needs an impact through education and the law, it is necessary to get him to respect the rules of ritual and do his duty, only then a person becomes cultured, polite, and pliable. Only rituals lead to the order and discipline.

The Second Stage

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In the second century BC with the rise of the Han Dynasty Confucianism defeated the Legalism and gained the status of the official ideology. Confucianism was systematized by Tung Chung-shu, nicknamed "Confucius of Han period," and completed with the cosmological doctrine. He begins the second stage in the development of Confucianism, Confucianism of Han period (206 BC - 220 AD), which was submitted to the works of Yang Hsiung, Wang Ch’ung, and others.

Tung Chung-shu connected Confucianism with the doctrine of cosmic forces of yin and yang and the five elements (wu xing). He defines human nature as an inherent quality received from Heaven. It contains equally humaneness (jen), and greed, which reflects heavenly action of yin and yang. Feelings (sources of evil) are also part of human nature, but human nature becomes good and complete through education.

The Third Stage

During the reign of T’ang Dynasty (618-907 AD), a significant change in Chinese culture happened. New Buddhist religion acquired greater influence in the state, which became an important factor in political and economic life. These changes required significant modification of Confucian teachings. The process was initiated by a prominent politician and scholar Han Yu. Activities of Han Yu and his students led to the next renewal and transformation of Confucianism, which in European literature is called Neo-Confucianism.


Neo-Confucianism of 11-17 centuries was based on the texts of Confucius, Mencius, and their students. There were two competing studies headed by the Cheng-Zhu school (Cheng brothers and Zhu Xi) and Lu-Wang school (Lu Jiuyuan and Wang Yangming). The first one developed doctrine of principle, leading to the attainment of the objective reality. The second focused on the doctrine of the heart, leading to the attainment of subjective reality, which contains all the principles of world order.

Contemporary Neo-Confucianism presents theoretical works of Liang Shumin (1893-1988), Feng Yulan (1895-1990), He Lin (1902-1992), Tu Weiming (born 1940), etc. Modern Neo-Confucianism is characterized, on the one hand, by the desire to perceive Western values, on the other hand, by an appeal to the moral issues of early Confucianism.

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Confucianism is a worldview, social ethics, political ideology, scientific tradition, a way of life, sometimes regarded as a philosophy, sometimes - as a religion. The history of Confucianism is inseparable from the history of China. For millennia, this doctrine has been the backbone for the Chinese system of government and society. Confucianism went through several stages of development and in its later modifications finally formed what is usually called the traditional culture of China. Before the contact with the Western civilization, China was a country with the prevailing Confucian ideology.

Nowadays, Confucian school is widespread in different countries (Singapore, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the USA and others).

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