When Did Confucianism Begin?

Confucian Philosophy Lives on Today

The revered sage Confucius, whose philosophy influenced Chinese civilisation for centuries- Wenmiao (Confucius Temple), Nanshi district.
Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet / Getty Images

Confucius (the Master) is more correctly known as Kong Qiu or Kong Fuzi (551-479 B.C.). He was the founder of a way of life, philosophy, or religion named Confucianism, so-called after a Latinized form of the founder's name.

The Master was honored as a sage in his own time, his writings were followed for centuries, and a shrine was built for him upon his death. The philosophical system based on his writings, however, died out at the end of the Zhou Dynasty (256 BCE). During the Qin Dynasty, which started in 221 BCE, the First Emperor persecuted Confucian scholars. It was during the Han Dynasty in 195 BCE that Confucianism was revived. At that time, a "new" Confucianism was developed as a state religion. The Han version of Confucianism had only some elements in common with the Master's original teachings.

The Historic Confucius

Confucius was born near the city of Qufu in the state of Lu, a Chinese province located on the coast of the Yellow Sea. Different historians give very different accounts of his childhood; for example, some claim that he was born into a royal family of the Zhou Dynasty while others claim he was born into poverty.

Confucius lived during a time of crisis in Chinese politics. Various Chinese states challenged the power of the 500-year-old Chou Empire. Traditional Chinese morality and civility declined.

Confucius may have been the author of two important Chinese texts including revisions of the ​Book of Odes, a new version of the historical Book of Documents, and a history called the Spring and Autumn Annals. Four books describing Confucius's own philosophies were published by his disciples in a book called Lunyu which was later translated into English under the name The Analects of Confucius. Later, in 1190 CE, Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi published a book call Sishu which contained a version of Confucius's teachings.

Confucius did not see the outcome of his work but died believing that he had made little impact on Chinese history. Over the centuries, however, his work became increasingly well-regarded; it remains a major philosophy even today.

Confucian Philosophy and Teachings

Confucian teachings revolve, to a large degree, around the same concept as the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," or "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."). He was a strong believer in the value of self-discipline, humility, benevolence, propriety, compassion, and morality. He did not write about religion, but rather about leadership, daily life, and education. He believed that children should be taught to live with integrity.

While the Analects are not necessarily completely accurate, most English speakers use quotations from the book to provide examples of what Confucius actually said and believed. For example:

  • The profound person understands what is moral. The small person understands what is profitable. (4.16)
  • The Master's Way is nothing but other-regard and self-reflection. (4.15)
  • Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son. (12.11)