Confucius and Confucianism: Seeking the Lost Heart

Did Confucius Create a New Religion or Just Wise Sayings?

Statue of Confucius in Wenmiao (Confucius Temple), Nanshi district.
Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet / Getty Images

Confucius [551-479 BC], the founder of the philosophy known as Confucianism, was a Chinese sage and teacher who spent his life concerned with practical moral values. He was named Kong Qiu at his birth and was also known as Kong Fuzi, Kong Zi, K'ung Ch'iu, or Master Kong. The name Confucius is a transliteration of Kong Fuzi, and it was first used by Jesuit scholars who visited China and learned about him in the 16th century AD.

Kong Fuzi's biography was written by Sima Qian during the Han dynasty [206 BC-AD 8/9], in "The Records of the Historian" (Shi Ji). Confucius was born to a once-aristocratic family in a small state called Lu, in east China. As an adult, he explored ancient texts and elaborated on the basic principles written there to form what was to become Confucianism, and in the meantime transmitted and transformed the culture.

By the time he died in 47 BC, Kong Fuzi's teachings had spread throughout China, although he himself remained a controversial figure, honored by his students, reviled by his rivals.

The Writings of Confucius

Confucius is credited with writing or editing several works during his lifetime.

The six classics are:

  • The Book of Poetry (Shi Jing), describes the will
  • The Book of Changes (Yi Jing or I Ching), yin and yang
  • The Book of History (Shu Jing), events
  • The Book of Rites (Li Ji or Li Chi), proper conduct
  • The Book of Music (Yue Jing), harmony
  • The Spring and Autumn Annals, titles and functions

Others attributed to Confucius or his students include:

  • Analects (Lun Yu)
  • The Great Learning (Da Xue)
  • The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)
  • Mencius (Meng Zi)


Confucianism is an ethic that governs human relationships, with its central purpose knowing how to behave in relation to others. An honorable person attains relational identity and becomes a relational self, one that is intensely aware of the presence of other human beings. Confucianism was not a new concept, but rather a type of rational secularism developed from ru ("the doctrine of scholars"), also known as ru jia, ru jiao or ru xue. Confucius' version was known as Kong jiao (the cult of Confucius).

In its earliest formations (Shang and early Zhou dynasties [1600-770 BC]) ru referred to dancers and musicians who performed in rituals. Over time the term grew to include not just the individuals who performed rituals but the rituals themselves: eventually, ru included shamans and teachers of mathematics, history, astrology. Confucius and his students redefined it to mean professional teachers of ancient culture and texts in ritual, history, poetry and music; and by the Han dynasty, ru meant a school and its teachers of the philosophy of studying and practicing the rituals, rules and rites of Confucianism.

Three classes of ru students and teachers are found in Confucianism (Zhang Binlin):

  • ru intellectuals who served the state
  • ru teachers who taught in the subjects of the six arts
  • ru followers of Confucius who studied and propagated the Confucian classics

Seeking the Lost Heart

The teaching of the ru jiao was "seeking the lost heart": a lifelong process of personal transformation and character improvement. Practitioners observed li (a set of rules of propriety, rites, ritual, and decorum), and studied the works of the sages, always following the rule that learning must never cease.

The Confucian philosophy intertwines ethical, political, religious, philosophical, and educational basics. It is centered on the relationship between people, as expressed through the pieces of the Confucian universe; heaven (Tian) above, earth (di) below, and humans (ren) in the middle.

Three Parts of the Confucian World

For Confucians, heaven sets up the moral virtues for humans and exerts powerful moral influences over human behavior. As nature, heaven represents all non-human phenomena--but humans have a positive role to play in keeping the harmony between heaven and earth. What exists in heaven can be studied, observed and grasped by humans investigating natural phenomena, social affairs, and the classic ancient texts; or by way of self-reflection of one's own heart and mind.

The ethical values of Confucianism involve developing self-dignity to realize one's potential, through:

  • ren (humaneness)
  • yi (rightness)
  • li (ritual and propriety)
  • cheng (sincerity)
  • xin (truthfulness and personal integrity)
  • zheng (loyalty for social coherence)
  • xiao (the foundation of the family and state)
  • zhong yong (the "golden mean" in common practice)

Is Confucianism a Religion?

A topic of debate among modern scholars is whether Confucianism qualifies as a religion. Some say it was never a religion, others that it was always a religion of wisdom or harmony, a secular religion with a focus on humanistic aspects of life. Humans can achieve perfection and live up to heavenly principles, but people have to do their best to fulfill their ethical and moral duties, without the assistance of deities.

Confucianism does involve ancestor worship and argues that humans are made up of two pieces: the hun (a spirit from heaven) and the po (soul from the earth). When a person is born, the two halves unite, and when that person dies, they separate and leave the earth. Sacrifice is made to the ancestors who once lived on earth by playing music (to recall the spirit from heaven) and spilling and drinking wine (to draw the soul from the earth.