Confucianism 101

The teachings and doctrine of Confucius (551BC – 479BC) also known as Kǒng Fūzǐ (孔夫子) in Chinese, have had a profound influence on east Asian culture, but remain vastly understated in Western culture. Usually Confucianism gets relegated as the “third” religious tradition in Asia behind Taoism and Buddhism, and usually embodies only a footnote in some books, or a mere paragraph or two. And yet, the teachings of Confucius have enjoyed a broad, lasting appeal in Asian culture that superseded the other two at times for its practicality, and its rational, ethical and humanistic streak. Now, as knowledge of Asian culture improves, people are appreciating Confucius thought further.

For me, Confucianism is something I enjoy alongside, or complimenting, my Buddhist faith. They tend to work on two different planes in my opinion, so there’s little if any conflict. Confucius’s advice is often down to earth, rational and straightforward enough to practice, and overlaps with sagely advice the Buddha taught with regard to personal conduct without competing against the Buddha’s grander, brilliant insights into nature of existence and so on.

Here’s a list of posts I’ve written about Confucius here. But here’s some representative posts:

And a couple of history pages too:

I’ll update more as time goes on.

Sources Online

Currently the best resource in my opinion is Professor Charles A.C. Muller’s online translations of the Confucian classics, namely the original “Four Books” (四书/四書, Sìshū):

  1. The Analects of Confucius, which are recorded sayings of Confucius by his disciples. Not surprisingly, it is the most important of the Confucian Classics.
  2. The Mencius which records conversations by another great Confucius scholar, Mencius, who was a disciple of Confucius’s grandson, Zisi.
  3. The Doctrine of the Mean thought to be composed by Confucius’s aforementioned grandson.
  4. The Great Learning, which is in fact a chapter from the ancient Book of Rites that Confucius studied extensively and provided commentary to.

Famous Disciples of Confucius

Confucius had a huge number of disciples, and the best information about them comes from the famous historian, Sīmǎ Qiān (司馬遷, 司马迁 sounds like “sima chien”). The list here originally comes from Tsai Chih-Chung’s illustrated Analects of Confucius (trans. Brian Bruya), who in turn adapted it from Sima Qian’s historical texts.

  • Yán Huí (顏回) – Confucius’s most beloved disciple, and 30 years younger. Also called Yan Yuan, or just “Hui” (sounds like “hwey”). Yan Hui was terribly poor and had little to eat beyond water and a bowl of rice, according to Confucius, yet he was a master of virtue and greatly respected by Confucius. Sadly, Yan Hui died at 32, and in the Analects Confucius often laments his loss.
  • Zēng zǐ (曾子) – Another great disciple of Confucius, who exemplified filial piety. Much of the early Confucian texts are thought to be compiled by Zengzi himself, or his disciples, hence his central role in Confucianism.
  • Mín Sǔn (閔損) – An older disciple, just 15 years younger than Confucius, he was greatly respected for his sense of dignity, self-respect and integrity.
  • Rǎn Yōng (冉雍) – A younger disciple from a lower-class and abusive family, nevertheless Confucius took him in and he became a great disciple.
  • Zhòng Yóu (仲由) – Another famous disciple for his military background, and for being a hot-head. Being only 9 years younger than Confucius, he sometimes quarreled with his teacher, but by and by became more refined, respectful and mature, and Confucius spoke very highly of him as a capable leader. Zhong You was tough under pressure, and well-disciplined. Sadly he was killed in a rebellion in the state of Wei. He is often called Zǐ​ Lù​ (子路) too.
  • Zǎi​ Yǔ​ (宰予) – Often called Zǐ​ Wǒ (子我), he started off promising as a disciple of Confucius but after getting promoted to a prestigious position in the State of Qi, he took part in disreputable uprising that caused his family to be destroyed. Confucius was greatly ashamed of him.
  • Zǐ Gòng (子貢) – A brilliant disciple from a wealthy family, and good business acumen. As a good speaker too, he tended to be fault-finding, and Confucius reprimanded him a few times in the Analects for his arrogance, but nevertheless spoke very highly of him for his ability and good intentions.
  • Zǐ Xià (子夏) – One of the younger disciples, he is seen in the Analects debating poetry, and impressing Confucius with his insight. In later years, he became a prestigious teacher in the State of Wei.
  • Dàn Tái Miè Míng (澹臺滅明) – Dantai Mieming was said to be terribly ugly, even to the point that Confucius was put off at first (later to regret his mistake), but went on to be a very successful disciple of Confucius and acquire many disciples of his own. He travelled as far south as the Yangtze River. He earned a reputation for integrity and consistency and never broke the rules he imposed on his disciples.
  • Zēng Shēn (曾子) – Another young disciple noted for his excellent devotion to filial piety. So much so, he wrote a famous Confucian text, the Book of Filial Piety (Xiào Jīng 孝經). He also features prominently in a few passages in the Analects.
  • Zǐ Róng (子容) – A true gentleman, and lover of learning. It is said elsewhere that he saved the library of Duke Ai’s during a fire, and earned much respect as a result.

Among many others.

Famous Confucians of a later era

Coming Soon.

4 Responses to Confucianism 101

  1. thank you for this introduction

  2. Chico says:

    Hi :) I’m quite interested in Confucianism, HOW can I be a confucian? Do I have to worship ancestors and stuff like that? Please give a thorough explanation for me please? thanks.

  3. Doug says:

    HI Chico and welcome. Apologies for the delay (new baby and such).

    Confucianism isn’t something you can “be”. It’s a kind of ethical code you can live by. Thus in Japan one might be Buddhist/Shinto and Confucian. In Korea, one is Christian or Buddhist, but both would grow up learning Confucian ethics as kind of “basic manners”.

    If you are interested in following Confucian ethics in your life, I highly recommend reading the Analects and other such sources to get a feel for things. You will intuitively know how to act more Confucian in the process.

    Good luck!

  4. Chico says:

    Oh :) Well good wishes to you!

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