July 1971

“Confucianism,” Ensign, July 1971, 44


Confucius, after whom Confucianism was named, was a man of obscure origin whose accomplishments were not extraordinary while he lived. He was, however, China’s first professional teacher and is known today as Asia’s greatest moral and social thinker. His teachings still greatly influence the human relations of Asia and are the foundation of family life there. And in many other parts of the non-Asiatic world, the wisdom of Confucius’ teachings has gained ready acceptance. An emphasis upon moral principles as the basis for harmony in the home, in society, and among nations is inherent in both Confucianism and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Confucius was not a god nor even a divine sage. Speaking of himself, he said: “As to being a Divine Sage or even a Good Man, far be it for me to make any such claim.” And he added: “I for my part am not one of those who have innate knowledge. I am simply one who loves the past and who is diligent in investigating it. A Divine Sage I cannot hope ever to meet; the most I can hope for is to meet a true gentleman.”1

The life and teachings of Confucius have been the subject for an enormous amount of writing, much of it highly fanciful. As Arthur Waley has observed, one could construct half a dozen Confuciuses by tapping his legend at different stages of its development. What is known of the original man is drawn from his book Analects, a collection of terse answers to questions, prefaced by the phrase “The Master said,” and from a brief eulogistic biography written by China’s most famous historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, who lived about three hundred years after Confucius.

From these sources we know that he was a native of the small state of Lu, in the present Shantung peninsula. He was born in 551 B.C. and was orphaned at an early age. All we know about his family is that he had an elder brother and a niece, while he himself fathered a son and a daughter. We know that his son died while Confucius was still living, but of his wife we know nothing.

Essentially an educator interested in social reform through self-cultivation, Confucius had as his most singular driving desire attainment of high political office. But in this he failed, although he traveled from one state to another for about a decade, seeking for a post worthy of his talents. During those years, not merely in Lu but in the other states as well, there was almost no basis of authority or order. There was instead a constantly shifting state of moral chaos, from the lords down to the people. Disappointed, Confucius decided not to go into the government. Instead, he returned to Lu, where he resumed his teaching, his study, and his editing of ancient books of poetry, history, ritual, and music. These texts later became the basis for the so-called Confucian Classics.2

The number of Confucius’ disciples steadily grew, and there were many who came from distant parts of the land. But after five years as their teacher, Confucius died at the age of seventy-two in 479 B.C. His life had been undramatic—no climax, no martyrdom. None of his chief ambitions had been fulfilled. And there is little doubt that when he died, he considered himself a failure.

Confucius thought of himself primarily as a devoted student of antiquity, a transmitter of the wisdom of the past. He looked back in particular to the early days of Chou rule as a golden age of peace. The anarchy of his own day, he felt, could be corrected only if men would return to the social order supposedly created by King Wen and the Duke of Chou, who were his chief heroes.

The Duke of Chou had been responsible for laying down all the religious institutions of ancient Chinese civilization, its songs and sacrifices, its ranks and ceremonies, its village festivals, its manners and morals, and its rules of social intercourse. Of course, the Duke of Chou did not accomplish all these things, but in the mind of Confucius, Chou stood as a symbol of that golden era, glamorized by dances and music, robes and carriages, and temples of worship.

Confucius was not generally interested in theology or metaphysics. He refrained from raising fundamental religious issues. Although he was a religious man, we are left in doubt as to what he really did believe. We have very few statements from Confucius about spiritual beings or divine powers. In fact, it is said specifically that “the Master did not speak about strange phenomena such as omens, feats of strength, disorders, or spirits.” When one of his disciples asked him how to serve the spirits, Confucius replied, “Till you have learned to serve men, how can you serve ghosts?” Tzu-lu then asked about death, and was answered: “Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?”3

Confucius’ firmest and most frankly stated religious convictions related to heaven, or t’ien. He looked upon heaven as the source of his power, a heaven that had entrusted him with a sacred mission as a champion of the good and true in China’s culture. In danger, Confucius dismissed his enemies as powerless against him in the face of heaven. In despondency, he took comfort in the fact that heaven, at least, understood him. When accused of wrongdoing, he called upon heaven to witness his innocence.

Confucius generally thought of heaven as an impersonal, ethical force, a cosmic counterpart of the ethical sense in man, a guarantee that somehow there is sympathy with man’s sense of morality in the very nature of the universe. This is suggestive of the gospel doctrines concerning the universal light of truth with which Church members are familiar. (See D&C 88.) Although Confucius rejected elements of traditional religion, such as Shang practices of human sacrifice, he did retain the idea of a providential and eminent heaven.

Confucius once said: “At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.”4

During his lifetime Confucius was considered a saint by a few people, but after his death he was venerated as such by a great many more of his followers. In the brief resume above, Confucius outlines the steps by which he became a saint. A saint is a fully cultured and completely virtuous man. He is a person who can freely follow the desires of his heart without fear of transgressing the “Way.” At fifteen he had his mind bent on learning how to rule people through virtue and moral suasion. At fifty, he reached a turning point. He obtained a conviction that this was a heaven-sent mission. Putting his heart in tune with this newly felt heavenly mandate, he proceeded without fear of equivocation and falsehood.

A Japanese Confucian scholar, Hattori, has shown that Confucius realized in his later years that his power depended upon the grace of heaven. Although Confucius often spoke of heaven in impersonal terms, he also had room for a personalized heaven, thought of as the Lord of human beings. A self-conscious person, Confucius became convinced of divine direction in his own life. Hattori wrote:

“From the remotest time there were not a few Saints who had received the grace of Heaven. They all were representing Heaven and ruled people on account of Heaven. Moreover, the people were educated by them. But what was Heaven’s aim? Confucius believed that the doctrine was in obscurity and the Way unpracticed for a long time because there had been no Saint for many hundreds of years since the death of Wen Wang and Chou Kung, to whom Confucius in his heart payed [sic] deep veneration. Therefore, during many hundreds of years the people did not enjoy a quiet life.

“It is hardly possible that Heaven, the lord of human beings, himself profoundly human and virtuous, would conceal the Way, would let the world perish while he looked with indifference upon the people trusted to him who are unable to continue their lives. That is why Heaven finds and charges a suitable man to make clear the Way and to install peace for the sake of human life. I consider Confucius was the man who received from Heaven such a mission.

“I think that Confucius believed himself that he was provided with the Virtue enabling him to be charged with this mission. And I think also that the meaning of the phrase ‘to know the Decrees of Heaven’ is nothing other than the profound belief of Confucius that a mission to clarify the Doctrine and to practice the Way was bestowed on him by Heaven.’”5

Although Confucius took an agnostic attitude toward the spiritual—he had little faith in the old Chinese deities and the popular superstitions associated with them—Confucianism must certainly be thought of as one of the major religions of man.

Confucianism rests upon the ideas of a practical teacher who was engrossed with the problem of man in society. The sum of his philosophy is clearly revealed in his two most frequently expounded ideals: the true gentleman and proper conduct.

The True Gentleman. Originally this meant ruler’s son or aristocrat, a term that, in the hands of Confucius, changed in meaning from a hereditary noble of the Chou Dynasty to a man of nobility. The term is best translated as true manhood, superior man, and manhood at its best as opposed to petty man, mean man, vulgarian. The true gentleman should possess inner virtue and external polish. The five basic qualities of inner virtue are uprightness or integrity; righteousness; conscientiousness toward others, a loyalty; altruism, or reciprocity; and most important, benevolence, or jen.

Jen (pronounced “run”) names the ideal relationship that should exist between people. Variously translated as goodness, man-to-man-ness, or the preferred Christian translation, benevolence and love, it is perhaps best rendered as human-heartedness or the educated heart. Jen involves a simultaneous feeling of humanity toward others and respect for oneself, a sense of dignity toward human life.

The idea of reciprocity or shu is summed up in the Analects as “not doing to others what you do not like yourself,” a parallel to the Golden Rule taught by Christ: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:12.)

The Confucian texts are replete with maxims and anecdotes pertaining to the superior man. Here are three from the Analects:

“The Master said: ‘The true gentleman is conciliatory but not accommodating. Common people are accommodating but not conciliatory.’”

“Tzu King asked, saying: ‘What would you feel about a man who was loved by all his fellow villagers?’ The Master said, ‘That is not enough. … Best of all would be that the good people in his village loved him and the bad hated him.’”

“The Master said: ‘The gentleman is dignified but never haughty; common people are haughty but never dignified.’”6

The Great Learning, one of the so-called four books of Confucianism, teaches that only as persons are transformed into true manhood can the world move toward peace:

“If there be righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.

If there be beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home.

If there be harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation.

If there be order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.”7

Proper Conduct. Central also to the teachings of Confucius is the doctrine that moral and religious refinement is exhibited only through careful attention to and practice of li or ritual, which he said reveals itself in decorum and etiquette. From early youth Confucius took an almost childlike pleasure in religious rituals and ceremonies. In his later years he frequently referred to the ceremonial observances of ancient China, and this emphasis contributed a great deal to the reliance in East Asia on teaching inner attitudes through the practice of external forms.

Actually, li came to mean propriety, or the way things should be done. It was the blueprint for a well-conducted life. Li embraced the ideas of (1) moderation, (2) agreement of names with deeds, (3) the family and the five social relations, and (4) age.

Moderation. Confucius advocated neither indulgence nor asceticism. But he did believe in the enjoyment of life through following moderation. He taught a way that is constantly in the middle between life’s extremes. Based upon the ancient teachings of The Book of Changes, he believed that extremes always produce their own opposite. With “nothing in excess” as a guiding principle, propriety brings harmony and balance in life. As the Book of Ritual explains:

“Pride should not be allowed to grow. The desires should not be indulged. The will should not be gratified to the full. Pleasure should not be carried to excess.”

Perhaps the closest western equivalent to this principle is the Golden Mean of Aristotle, but certainly balance and the avoidance of extremes of doctrinal fads and modes of conduct are a basic principle of the Latter-day Saint approach as well.

Agreement of Names with Deeds. In what he called “the rectification of names,” Confucius taught a recognized gospel truth that there must be an accurate correspondence between words, thought, and objective reality:

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

“Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately. … What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”8

Here Confucius is saying that we should behave according to the titles we hold. We should find out what our responsibilities and duties are, then live by them. A father must first of all be a father —not a son or a buddy or a friend, but a father. She who is called mother must be that and not something else. “Do your duty; that is best” is a good Confucian saying. Confucius felt that men must perform their properly assigned roles in a fixed society of authority.

The Family and the Five Social Relations. The five cardinal relations are part of that idyllic ancient way to which mankind must conform, according to Confucian thought. These are between master (ruler) and servant (subject), father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger (brothers and relatives), and friend and friend. In each case different responses are appropriate to the two participants. A ruler should be benevolent, a subject loyal; a father loving, a son reverential and obedient; an elder brother gentle, a younger brother respectful; a husband good, a wife attentive; an elder friend considerate, a younger friend deferential. You are never alone when you act. Every action affects someone else.

Confucius would probably agree with the late President David O. McKay’s statement that no other success in life can compensate for failure in the home, for success in a Confucian home is always judged in terms of family solidarity. The family has done more than any other institution to make possible the remarkable survival of Chinese culture. It has been the incubator of morality and a miniature of the state. From one point of view, Confucianism might be defined as a philosophy of the Chinese family system. Three of the five basic social relationships exist within the family. This is indicative of how important Confucius believed the family to be. In this he was not inventing but was continuing an assumption that the family and not the individual is the basic unity of society, an assumption deeply embedded in Chinese legend and tradition that has also taken root in every country that ascribes to the Chinese philosophy of family life.

Age. With Confucianism, age gives all things—objects, institutions, and individual lives—their value, their dignity, and their worth. As a consequence, esteem should always turn upward to those who have gone on ahead and stand before us. The bulk of respect in life should flow from young to old. Honoring age and ancestors should be the heart of faith. Confucius taught that serving those now dead as if they were living is the highest achievement of true filial piety. Filial piety, or respect and loyalty to parents, undergirds all else in the Confucian way of life. The relationship between a son and his father, particularly the eldest son and his father, is theoretically always more important than any other relationship, even than the relationship between a son and his wife.

To a Confucianist one’s inner attitude toward age, parents, and ancestors is expressed only through ceremonial rituals of courtesy and obedience. Confucius’ reverence for ancestors formed the core of his religious approach and reinforced the development of ancestral shrines and detailed rituals of mourning and burial.

Closely associated with his concern for ritual ceremony was Confucius’ great respect and appreciation for aesthetic arts. He looked upon music, art, and poetry as powerful instruments for moral education. He said a simple piece of music once cast such a spell over him that for three months he was unable to distinguish the taste of meat.

“For the Songs will help you to incite people’s emotions, to observe their feelings, to keep company, to express your grievances. They may be used at home in the service of one’s father; abroad, in the service of one’s prince.”9

Confucius believed that music and government go hand in hand and that music rises from the human heart. When the emotions are touched, they are expressed in sounds, and when the sounds take definite forms, we have music. Therefore, the music of a peaceful and prosperous country is quiet and joyous, and the government is orderly; the music of a country in turmoil shows dissatisfaction and anger, and the government is chaotic. That country which develops the finest music, the grandest poetry, and the noblest moral ideals—that is, the country with the most exalted culture—will always yield the greatest power in the world. Confucius taught that the moral character of a neighborhood constitutes its excellence and will elicit the spontaneous admiration of men and women everywhere. To him, political, social, and military power cannot derive from hereditary privilege but must rest upon righteousness, a novel doctrine that played a role of some importance in the rise of democratic ideals in Europe and America.

On one occasion Confucius advised: “Learn as if you were following someone [with] whom you could not catch up, as though it were someone you were frightened of losing.”10 By subscribing to a moral education and self-discipline, by learning the blueprint that must be followed, and by keeping a steady middle path, men may achieve poise and freedom and power. Through any other course anarchy will inevitably prevail.

When Confucius died, he was buried in Lu, on the River Sze in the north of the city. After his burial his disciples all observed the regular mourning of three years, and when the period of mourning was over, they said good-bye to each other and left, weeping again at the grave before they departed.

There have been many kings, emperors, and great men in history who enjoyed fame and honor while they lived and came to nothing at their death; but Confucius, a common scholar clad in a cotton gown, has become the acknowledged master of scholars and moralists centuries after his death. The reasons for this phenomenon are not easy to see, yet all the people of China who discussed the weighty affairs of art, social intercourse, and government eventually came to regard Confucius as the final authority in their deliberations. His philosophy became preeminent. He became the great moralist, the divine sage. In fact, there emerged a Chinese state cult in which Confucius himself became the central object of worship.

Confucius made contributions to both philosophy and ethics; but he could not have expected, nor would he have approved of, the worship that was later tendered him. The viability of his cult is to be sought in the culture and general ideas of the Chinese and in the environment that made the development of the cult inevitable. Political conditions served to increase the prominence of Confucius after his doctrine of government by moral example had been officially adopted by the state. Perhaps it was the religious ideas of the Chinese that made it possible for one as prominent as Confucius to be worshiped.

The Confucian cult was entirely free of obscenity, licentiousness, and any emphasis on sex; for that matter, all of Confucian literature is remarkably free of any of these elements.

The meaningful ritualistic cult of Confucianism has almost entirely disappeared, although Confucius is still venerated and worshiped in religious ceremonies in various temples of Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.11 Under the personal influence of President Chiang Kai-shek, the Republic of China in recent years has pursued a self-conscious policy of updating and rejuvenating the old Confucian ceremonies in Taiwan. However, of all the East Asian people who have fallen under the influence of the Chinese sage, only in Korea is Confucius venerated today in an authentic traditionalistic Chinese way. Koreans still perform semiannual rites called sokchon, as they have done for the last six and a half centuries, to display the commemorative tablets housed in the Temple of the Great Sage in Seoul to the spirits of deceased Confucian masters.

Through this ritualistic emulation, the practices of filial piety, brotherly love, loyalty, and faith are enhanced and the principle of moral management of family and state affairs is reaffirmed. On occasion, distinguished government officials and university professors still unfold a colorful pageant to the accompaniment of ancient musical instruments and classical dances. Incense is burned, invocations of praise are rendered, and food and drink are offered to the deceased in the solemnity of a state occasion.

But if Confucian state rituals are now ineffectual and meaningless, and the Communist lexicon has replaced the Confucian classics in the homeland of Confucius, what of Confucianism today and in the future? As underlying principles governing family relationships in Asia that determine what is important and what is good, Confucianism is decidedly very much alive. Even in China, where Confucius has suffered an eclipse during the past century of anarchy, turmoil, and change, as some kind of normalcy returns, the people will again reverence the man who, at the beginning of anarchy twenty-five hundred years ago, inspired confidence in traditional good customs and wise moral standards. From the vantage point of history, it would be difficult to disagree with sinologue James R. Ware, who believes that China will once again acknowledge Confucius nationally as the symbol of social stability and national decorum.

Confucius as a human being died long ago, but Confucius as an exemplar of the true gentleman with the highest moral conduct will endure through the ages.

The ultimate purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the regeneration and perfection of human souls, which is largely brought to pass by obedience to moral law. Righteousness is the keystone to salvation and peace. There is no privileged race in the Church; whether one is oriental or occidental is of little importance. However, the development of one’s character is of infinite importance.

The Lord Jesus asked of his followers in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16.)

But this statement also contains the key of the essential difference between Confucianism and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Notice that Jesus declared that the pursuit of righteousness glorifies God. Morality is a matter of divine concern. In fact, the purpose of life is to see if men “will do all things whatsoever the Lord” might require. (See Abr. 3:25.) God, not man, sets the standards. He is the source of righteousness, the author of law, the perfect model, the divine goal.

Morality in Mormonism is based upon faith in God, not upon social or human considerations. The sum of the matter was once expressed by Count Leo Tolstoy: “Religion is the relation which man fixes between himself and his God, and morality is the outward manifestation of this inward relationship.”

In Confucianism, morality is a social cement. It is a human problem concerned with here and now. The purpose of morality is to stabilize society, to rationalize government, and to bring family members into harmonious relations with one another. This is accomplished through a series of outward formalities and restraints, courtesies, and ceremonies.

In the Confucian way of life morality is a set of prescribed relationships and duties that, when observed, produce order and virtue agreeable to the grand pattern of nature, with the ultimate ideal being to transform ordinary men into noble human beings.


  1. From Arthur Waley’s translation, The Analects of Confucius (London: Bradford and Dickens, 1956), VII, 33; VII, 19; and VII, 25. All citations from the Analects in this chapter are from Waley’s translation.

  2. None of the recognized Confucian canon are original with Confucius. Only the Analects contain teachings attributable to Confucius himself. For summary information on the classics, see Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, East Asia: The Great Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1967), pp. 64–67.

  3. Waley, XI:11, p. 155.

  4. Waley, II:4, p. 88.

  5. U. Hattori, “Confucius’ Conviction of His Heavenly Mission,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. I (1936), no. 1, pp. 105–6.

  6. Waley, XIII:26, pp. 177–78.

  7. James Legge, “The Great Learning,” The Chinese Classics (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960), vol. I, pp. 263–64.

  8. Legge, “The Analects” ibid., pp. 263–64.

  9. Waley, op. cit., XVII:9, p. 212.

  10. Waley, op. cit., VIII:17, p. 136.

  11. For the triumph of Confucius as an object of veneration and worship in the Chinese state, see John K. Shryock, The Origin and Development of the State Cult of Confucius (New York and London: The Century Company, 1932). See also Kim Chongguk and Kim Chinman, “Some Notes on the Songgyun’ gwan,” Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 38 (1961), pp. 69–91.

  • Dr. Palmer is coordinator of Asian studies at Brigham Young University and a professor of history and religion in the College of Religious Instruction. A former president of the Korea Mission, he is the author of the book The Church Encounters Asia. Currently he teaches Sunday School in Edgemont Eighth Ward, Sharon East Stake.

The translation of these Chinese characters is “The portrait of Confucius, the great sage.” The original portrait hangs in a temple in Taiwan.

This Confucian gentleman in Seoul, Korea, prepares for sacred rites honoring the sages of Confucianism.

Dating from about 1600, the Hall of the Great Sage Confucius in Korea is based on an ancient prototype in Peking.

The top photograph shows the inside of a Confucian temple in Taiwan with an image in the center of the altar. Korean and Japanese temples do not use images. From left to right in the bottom photographs are members of the classical orchestra at the Temple to Confucius in Seoul, Korea, officiators leading the prayer and salutation to Confucius, a bell of the temple, and an ancient ritual dance performed in classical style. (Photos by Spencer J. Palmer.)