Who was Confucius?


Confucianism itself is a tough system to define as there is no consensus on whether or not it is a religion, as scholar Yong Chen explains: “The question of whether Confucianism is a religion is probably one of the most controversial issues in both Confucian scholarship and the discipline of religious studies” (1). Likewise “There have been, and are still, those scholars who have understood Confucianism as a religion; others have argued that Confucianism is not a religion but something else, often, a philosophy” (2).

However, whatever Confucianism actually is, it has had “a monumental impact upon the life, social structure and political philosophy of China” (3). The movement has its origins at around 530 BC through the efforts of a divorced tax collector by the name of Kung Fu-tzu (Confucius in Latin) who left his government post to become a teacher; Fu-tzu was convinced that he could be instrumental in changing society. He also lived during the period of the Warring States, a time that saw hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered. As a result Fu-tzu’s greatest longing was to restore harmony, as Leslie Lyall explains: “His philosophy was very simple: namely, virtue is the foundation of happiness” (4).

As his views gained currency with others he was soon appointed minister of justice in 500 BC and would later resign after a dispute with his superiors. The following 10 years he wandered from state to state in an unsuccessful attempt to convince people to respond to his moral challenge. The last five years saw Fu-tzu compile his “Five Classics,” even though these works were mostly a collection of other peoples work. Yet, by the time of his death (in 479 BC), he had established himself as the most important teacher in Chinese culture. Within some 60 years of his death he was given the title “Duke Ni, All-complete and Illustrious,” and several successive promotions led, in the 11th century, to his elevation to the full rank of emperor. In 1906 an imperial prescript raised him to the status of “Co-assessor with the deities Heaven and Earth,” however there is no evidence that Confucius himself would have laid claim to this inflated accolade (5).


1. Chen, Y. 2012. Confucianism as Religion: Controversies and Consequences.

2. Engler, S. & Price, G. Grieve. 2005. Historicizing  “tradition” in the Study of Religion. p. 232.

3. McDowell, J. & Stewart, D. 1988. Concise Guide to Today’s Religions. p.309.

4. Lyall, L. “Confucianism” in The World’s Religions. p.222.

5. Blanchard, J. Does God Believe in Atheists? p. 317 (Scribd Ebook Format).

One response to “Who was Confucius?

  1. I live in South Korea, which is heavily Confucianist, but Confucianism isn’t really practiced as a religion here. It is more the bedrock of all good manners and proper behavior. Human interaction is governed by it, but never explicitly. It is part of the social DNA.

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