Lesson: Confucianism and Christianity
Note: Certain Chinese terms are in Chinese unicode encoding.
Confucianism ( 儒家思想 ) forms the basis of the Chinese
civilization. Do our accepting of Jesus Christ mean abandoning
Confucian roots? What does it mean to be a Chinese
Can we be a "Confucian" and a Christian at the same time?
What is Confucianism?
Confucianism generally refers to the teachings of Confucius ( 孔子
), but over the centuries it has been modified by others who
came after him. Scholars sometimes added or modified Confucius's
teachings to make it more relevant to life or more consistent with the
newer trends in the intellectual community. Politicians modified
it to promote their aims. Religious people modified it to make
religion more acceptable to the people. Thus the Confucianism we
know of today is quite different from the actual teachings of
What did Confucius really teach?
Fortunately, Confucius's teachings are faithfully recorded by his
in what came to be known as The Analects ( 論語
). From The Analects we find the basic teachings of
which we need to use to compare with Christianity.
The basic underlying principle as stated by Confucius is reciprocity
) -- the two-way relationship between two people.
It is exemplified by the Confucian Golden Rule: "Do not do unto others
what you would not want others to do unto you" ( 及所不欲勿施於人
). The proper way of interpersonal relationship is called jen,
) which is a character made up of two characters, "two"
and "person" ( 二, 人
). A person is jen when
he is fully "concerned with the state of the other person, hoping and
the other person to improve but without sacrificing himself."1
The proper conducts are called rituals or rites ( 禮
Rites include proper roles, ranks, music and dances. The power
real, honest rites is virtue ( 德
). Rites are not the same
as law; rites are rules of virtue which one voluntarily chooses to
Rites are inherited from the past, so people have to study the ways of
the past. Confucius believes that through
the proper and sincere observance of rites one can get closer to being
and who reaches that stage is called a morally noble man ( 君子
Confucius claims that the Way2 ( 道
) has been lost,
and people should strive to rediscover the Way. Since the Way was
lost, the way to rediscover it is to return to antiquity through the
of ancient rites. Righteousness ( 義
) means diligently working
to do the right things and rediscover the Way for himself. He
that all the observances of rites and acts of righteousness will help
rediscover the Way for himself. In short, the basic premise of
teachings is that the Way is lost and we can rediscover the Way through
self-cultivation, which is done by sincere observance of rites and
the right things.
What Confucius did not teach...
Confucian teachings were not adopted by the ruling authority during the
Ch'in Dynasty ( 秦朝 ). Starting with the
Han Dynasty ( 漢朝 ), Confucian teachings were made into
part of the official educational curriculum, which means that people
to government positions must study Confucian teachings. This also
had the side effect of government intervention into Confucian
generally done so the power of government and social order could be
For instance, the three bonds ( 三綱
) -- absolute
obedience of subjects to the ruler, children to father, and wife to
-- was made and became part of what came to be known as Imperial
Some of these are quite contradictory to what Confucius taught.
instance, Confucius advocates reciprocity, not blind obedience.
Confucianism became more dominant in the society, these modifications
more and more frequent. Many intellectuals in the early 20th
called for a revision of the Chinese culture because they think the
civilization will not progress fast enough if it continues to be based
on Confucianism. Many of their problems with Confucianism,
are really concerned with later modifications of Confucianism, not with
the actual teachings of Confucius.
The religious aspects of Confucianism
Another issue that Confucius did not teach is the religiosity of his
He acknowledges a governing power, the Heaven ( 天
he actively participates in the sacrifices made to the Heaven.
however, is more like an unknown deity, just like the Way is an unknown
set of principles. Once a disciple asked him about afterlife, and
Confucius told him why worry about the afterlife when he doesn't even
to live the current one. He told them to revere the spiritual
but stay away from them ( 敬鬼神而遠之
), for he knows that the "spiritual" things
around him (e.g., sorcery and fortune-telling) were all fake.
did he ever claim to be a deity himself. Confucius-worshipping
done by later generations as a way to honor him, but eventually it
Confucius advocates proper worshipping of Heaven. Although he
admits that he knows very little about Heaven, he knows that it is part
of the reason why the ancient people were great. Confucius keeps
telling people to refer to the ancient days when the Way was known and
people live sincerely. Hundreds of years later when Buddhism was
introduced into China, it experienced a period of very little
It finally became widely accepted after the Buddhists reconciled their
beliefs with Confucian teachings and claimed that Confucian teachings
theirs are not in conflict.
Comparison of Christianity and Confucianism
The real Confucian teachings and Christian teachings are quite
and many have speculated on the reasons why the two cultures separated
by thousands of miles would be so. For instance, the Confucian
Rule, "Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto
you," is very similar to Jesus's Golden Rule, "Love your neighbor as
(Mark 12:31). But Jesus's teaching is far more demanding.
defines a jen person as concerned with others but not
himself for them; Jesus sacrificed himself. One day, a disciple
and asked Confucius what should Shun (舜, a
legendary sage king in ancient
China) do if his father commits a murder. Confucius said that he
should resign from office and take his father to hide at a distant
so his father won't be caught and punished. His reasoning is that
filial piety ( 孝 ) is more important than justice ( 公義
). Jesus's solution to the similar problem is to take up
the punishment in place of the actual murderer, for by doing so, he
have fulfilled both love and justice.
Confucius sees the Way as lost and needs to be rediscovered.
know the Way -- Jesus Christ -- and know what to do to be saved
teaches nothing about redemption for sins but he does not condone
lifestyles). He and his disciples were doing the best they knew
for Jesus did not come until hundreds of years later. Perhaps
knows that there is a God and knows that the ancient people know how to
reach Him, but since he and his contemporaries do not know Him, the
they could do is to follow the examples of their ancestors in their
of God. Some scholars see this as an example of a natural
-- longing for God and will make one if necessary. But Confucius
is very different: he seems to acknowledge that there is a God but does
not make one out of nowhere or out of himself. Unfortunately, the
later generations made him into a semi-deity for his contributions to
1. Do you think the original teachings of Confucius is
to Christianity? Why or why not?
2. Confucius advocates distancing ourselves from spiritual
Why? Do you think this applies today? What makes the
3. Do you see a problem with the Confucian emphasis on rites
)? Why do you think they emphasize it so much?
What is the danger of observing rites without being jen ( 仁
4. Do you see any conflicts between Confucianism and
Are those conflicts part of Confucius's original teachings, or are they
modifications made after his death?
5. How can we revere Confucius without betraying God?
6. The governments after Confucius added to or modified
teachings to facilitate their own purposes. What is the analogy
(1) Most of the teachings of Confucius stated here are taken from
materials of Prof. Wei-ming Tu and Prof. Peter Bol of Harvard
(2) Some interpreters see the Way ( 道
) as equivalent to the
Truth ( 真理 ).
This lesson was developed by George Huang. Got a question or want
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Last updated: 2/10/2000