Confucianism Ethics

Confucianism Ethics

            One of the most important and influential movement of thought in Chinese philosophy is Confucianism which traced its beginnings to Confucius (551-479 B.C.E) although there is no clear consensus regarding the existence of Confucianism as philosophical ethical school of thought. Though Confucius was not himself the founder of Confucianism in the same way that Buddha was the founder of Buddhism, The New York Times stated, he “responsible for systematizing and teaching a scholarly tradition and code of ethical conduct that had roots hundred years in the past particularly in China’s ancient cult of ancestor worship” (p. 720). Chenyang Li (2000) pointed out that some people have used the term ‘Confucianism’ “to refer to a state- sponsored systematic philosophy established during the Han time and continued through the Song” (p. 2). If this was the case, it appears there was no Confucianism before the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E- 220 C.E.) despite that Confucius and his disciple Mencius have “developed their core ideas several hundred years earlier’ (Li 2000, p. 2).

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            However, Li mentioned that there were still others who have used that the term Confucianism broadly to include not only the doctrine of certain scholars of the Han and later times “but also that of Confucius, Mencius, and Xun Zi” (p. 2) which suggest that Confucianism existed even before and after the Han Dynasty. Li also mentioned that the lack of English translation of some particular Chinese words had made it difficult to accurately establish the period of existence of Confucianism.

            One of the most important ethical issues in Confucianism that has a long history of existence is the gender segregation, which was viewed by critics as oppressive towards women. Though according to Li, it was not obvious that Confucius and Mencius had an oppressive attitude towards women, they do not recognize women role in society except in the home as a mother (Li p. 3).

            One of the surviving sources of Confucian ethics is the Analects which were thought to have been written by Confucius himself. According to The New York Times, this source contains twenty chapters which were a conversation between Confucius and his disciple. The New York Times stated that the teachings of Confucius as recorded in the Analects, (a Greek term meaning ‘Literary glraning) “advocates humanitarian ethical system focused on five values namely ren or the reciprocal human-feelings: yi or righteousness;  li or property which include ritually correct behavior; zhi or knowledge; and xiao filial piety; and wen which means culture or civilization or civil as opposed to military power.

            The New York Times stated further that chapter 4, 5, and 6 of the Analects dating about 479 B.C. “emphasize the cardinal virtue of ren or the reciprocal human feelings, the dao or the “way” the natural order of things. Chapters four, five, and six of the Analects, also talk about the idea of the gentleman and the importance of putting one’s cultivation of virtue into practice, by holding public office. These New York Times stated that these chapters of the Analects “define Confucianism, as a coherent school of teachings” (p. 720). Chapter seven, eight, and nine on the other hand, talk about the disciples’ disciple which is dated to last half of the fifth century B.C. These Chapters according to the New York Times define the school’s doctrines and “portray Confucius as a transmitter, not an innovator” guided by the enlightened example of the sage-rulers of antiquity and emphasizing the internalization of values and virtuous conduct” (p. 720).

            The remaining chapters however dating from the mid-fourth century introduce ritual and or the correct conduct of religious rituals to ordinary social elite, as the key Confucian virtue. It also speaks about heaven and the real of the spirit.


Li, C. (2000) The sage and the Second Sex USA: Carus Publishing USA: The New York Times Co.

The New Times The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge

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