A Moral Response to the Human Predicament

The Dao of Confucius
It is humans that make the Way great,
not the Way that makes humans great.
[Analects 15:29; translated by Brian Hoffert]


The following section of the “Shao Announcement” (from the Book of Documents) is supposed to record the words of the second Zhou ruler’s uncle, the Duke of Zhou, who served as regent for the young king:


Ah! August Heaven, High God [Shangdi; a.k.a. the Lord on High], has changed his principal son and has revoked the Mandate of this great state of Yin [a.k.a. Shang]. When a king receives the Mandate, without limit is the grace thereof, but also without limit is the anxiety of it. Ah! How can he fail to be reverently careful!
       Heaven has rejected and ended the Mandate of this great state of Yin. Thus, although Yin has many former wise kings in Heaven, when their successor kings and successor people undertook their Mandate, in the end wise and good men lived in misery. Knowing that they must care for and sustain their wives and children, they then called out in anguish to Heaven and fled to places where they could not be caught. Ah! Heaven too grieved for the people of all the lands, wanting, with affection, in giving its Mandate to employ those who are deeply committed. The king should have reverent care for his virtue….Let the king reverently function in his position; he cannot but be reverently careful of his virtue. We cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Xia [an earlier dynasty]; also we cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Yin….We must not presume to suppose that the Yin received the Mandate of Heaven for a fixed period of years; we must not presume to suppose that it was not going to continue.  It was because they did not reverently care for their virtue that they early let their Mandate fall. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 36]
From Western Zhou…

…to Spring and Autumn…

…to the Warring States

The Teachings of Confucius
551-479 BCE

Yan Yuan asked about humaneness. The Master said, “Through mastering oneself and returning to ritual one becomes humaneIf for a single day one can master oneself and return to ritual, the whole world will return to humaneness. Does the practice of humaneness come from oneself or from others?” Yan Yuan said, “May I ask about the specifics of this?” The Master said, “Look at nothing contrary to ritual; listen to nothing contrary to ritual; say nothing contrary to ritual; do nothing contrary to ritual.” [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 55 (Analects 12:1)]

When the Duke of Ch’i asked Confucius about government, the Master replied:

Let the ruler be a ruler; the minister, a minister; the father, a father; the son, a son. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 56 (Analects, 12:11)]

Respect for and deference to one’s parents is one of the most central virtues in the Confucian Tradition, with even the most minute detail of proper conduct meticulously defined. For example, the following account from an ancient text called the Book of Rites provides a model that defined the proper attitude that a husband and his wife should adopt towards his parents:



On getting to where they are, with bated breath and gentle voice, they should ask if their clothes are (too) warm or (too) cold, whether they are ill or pained, or uncomfortable in any part; and if they be so, they should proceed reverently to stroke and scratch the place. They should in the same way, going before or following after, help and support their parents in quitting or entering (the apartment). In bringing in the basin for them to wash, the younger will carry the stand and the elder the water; they will beg to be allowed to pour out the water, and when the washing is concluded, they will hand the towel. They will ask whether they want anything, and then respectfully bring it. All this they will do with an appearance of pleasure to make their parents feel at ease. [Living Religions, 206]
  • How can following “social norms” (i.e. ritual/rites/propriety) help people become moral?
  • What are the limitations of this approach to moral cultivation?

Zigong said, “What would you say of someone who broadly benefited the people and was able to help everyone? Could he be called humane?” The Master said, “How would this be a matter of humaneness? Surely he would have to be a sage? Even Yao and Shun were concerned about such things. As for humaneness—if you want to establish yourself, then help others to establish themselves; if you want to develop yourself, then help others to develop themselves. Being able to recognize oneself in others, one is on the way to being humane.” [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 50 (Analects 6:28); note italicized portions have been modified from the original translation]

As the Great Learning states it, peace begins with the moral cultivation of the individual and order in the family. This peace extends outward to society, government, and the universe itself like circular ripples in a pond. [Living Religions, 205]
  • Is the kind of moral transformation described above “religious”? Why or why not?


10th Century ~ Present

As Buddhism spread into China, Confucianism was also revived. This “Neo-Confucianism,” which became dominant after the tenth century CE, was more metaphysical than classical Confucianism, and it made extensive reference to The Book of Changes. [Anthology of Living Religions, 155]



The Great Ultimate through movement generates yang. When its activity reaches its limit, it becomes tranquil. Through tranquility the Great Ultimate generates yin. When tranquility reaches its limit, activity begins again. So movement and tranquility alternate and become the root of each other, giving rise to the distinction of yin and yang, and the two modes are thus established…It is man alone who receives (the Five Agents) in their highest excellence, and therefore he is most intelligent. His physical form appears, and his spirit develops consciousness. The five moral principles of his nature (humanity or jen, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and truthfulness) are aroused by, and react to, the external world and engage in activity; good and evil are distinguished; and human affairs take place…. [Anthology of Living Religions, 155-6]

  • Does this provide a “religious” foundation for Confucian morality? Why or why not?


Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore that which fills the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions. The greater ruler [the emperor] is the eldest son of my parents [Heaven and Earth], and the great ministers are his stewards. Respect the aged—this is the way to treat them as elders should be treated. Show deep love toward the orphaned and the weak—this is the way to treat them as the young should be treated. The sage identifies his character with that of Heaven and Earth, and the worthy is the most outstanding man. Even those who are tired, infirm, crippled, or sick; those who have no brothers or children, wives or husbands, are all my brothers who are in distress and have no one to turn to…. [Anthology of Living Religions, 156; cf. Living Religions, 208]

  • Is this merely a moral statement, or can it also be regarded as “religious”?

Confucian ethics insists that the self be the center of relationships, not in order to claim one’s rights but to claim to be responsible; and that a sense of the community of trust must be modeled on the family, not in a way that excludes others but in a way that extends one’s family affection to a wider world. According to a Confucian understanding, daily behaviour must be guided by an established ritual, not merely for restricting individuals, but more for cultivating the sense of holiness and mission in their heart. Education is essential for building up a good character, not primarily for building up one’s physical power to conquer what is unknown, but for the ability to cooperate with others and to be in harmony with nature and the universe….


…The Confucian faith is fundamentally humanistic, which lays the responsibility for a better world and for a secured future, not in the hands of a supremely detached God, but in the hands of ordinarily engaged humans. In this sense, Confucianism provides us with an alternative way of dealing with the meaning of life and the meaning of death….


For a Confucian, the meaning of life can be realized only in learning and practice, in bringing oneself to the standard of a gentleman (i.e. a morally cultivated person) and the society to the standard of Great Unity: the destiny of a human can be fulfilled only in establishing words, merits and virtues for generations to come…. [Anthology of Living Religions, 159-60]



Is Confucianism a Religion?
Xinzhong Yao

As a religion, Confucianism is indeed of special character. The backbone of Confucian doctrines is composed of three principles: harmony and unity between humanity and Heaven, harmony and unity between descendants and ancestors, harmony and unity between the secular and the sacred (Yao, 1996a: 31-3). In analysing, and expanding on, these three dimensions of harmony, Confucianism develops a systematic and unique doctrine of human religiosity. This is a kind of humanism, because it concentrates on solving secular problems and insists on human perfectibility. However, Confucianism is not humanistic in the normal sense of this term, because it does not end with the material satisfaction of human needs, nor does it reject pursuing the spiritual Absolute. Although it holds a different conception of what can be counted as the ‘spiritual’, Confucianism does have a common sense of the ultimacy of a personal experience of the sacred and a personal commitment to the Ultimate. It is thus a humanistic religion, a humanistic tradition manifesting spiritual longing and discipline in its classics, creed, practices and institutions, and leading to a religious destination that answers human ultimate concerns. These concerns are expressed through individual and communal commitments and revealed by the desires to transform self and society according to their moral and political vision. [An Introduction to Confucianism, 45]

  • If religion is, as Frederick Streng maintains, a means to ultimate transformation,” does Confucianism qualify as a religion? [See the “What is ‘religion’? discussion on the web page for the first class of this course.]


Tu Weiming
A Confucian Life in America

Oesterle Library: 181.112 T79w


Posted on December 17, 2012, in WAKE UP. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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