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Confucianism as the State Ideology of Ancient China


Ancient China is a civilization with a varied and long history of philosophical discovery and thought. Among others, the teachings of Confucius have had the biggest impact on the modern understanding of China and the cultural perception of Asian philosophy. Confucius’s teaching put much emphasis on personal improvement and tradition as a way for an individual to bring benefit to their community or govern their subjects. To understand his teaching better, this paper will attempt to explore how Confucianism was used as a state ideology during the times of Ancient China. First, the major tenets of the ideology will be explored, in an attempt to understand their impact on societal practices and the impact they can have on the government. How the principles of Confucius have been used to create and establish social order will also be discussed.

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Basic Tenets of Confucianism


Rituals play a big part in Confucian ideology, serving as a principle for one’s judgment, behavior, and actions. As a term, rituals describe several behaviors, ranging from official ceremonies to personal conduct. Rites can be both governmentally mandated and unofficial, stemming from particular cultural beliefs. Encapsulating all spheres of life, rituals are used to uphold order, cultivate moral character, and transfect knowledge from generation to generation. Such rites have to be followed by an individual in their work, social interactions, and day-to-day life. Confucius finds following the rites to be extremely important for both the person and the society at large, saying that one should: “not look unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not listen unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not speak unless it is by the rites; do not move unless it is in accordance with the rites” (The Analects of Confucius 12:1). Living according to Analects should be strictly mandated through honoring tradition and acting by societal expectations. Following the rituals is an act that allows one to properly live and govern over others.

The Noble Person

The concept of a noble person, or a gentleman, is another notion oftentimes used in the Analects. Mostly portrayed in contrast with the “small person” such an individual is an example of proper moral and societal conduct. A noble person is implied to be somebody of a high upbringing, although the ability to follow rituals and prioritize the societal good is valued more in such a person. This person is an ideal to strive for, and an individual that can function well within the Confucian society. As stated in Analects 4:16 “The gentleman understands what is moral. The small man understands what is profitable”. The phrase can be interpreted to mean that a nobleman acts with the best intentions for others and their well-being, while a lesser man is mainly concerned with self-gain and material possessions. This outlook was used to motivate people in working with others and respecting the established traditions of Imperial China.


Humanness is a tenet used in the Analects to describe a feature of the virtuous human being, a quality that one should strive towards. Otherwise called humanity, it can be understood as an ability to teach kindness and proper conduct to others, to support and promote flourishment among others. A person that follows traditions, knows the rituals and has the ability to teach others similar skills possesses humanness. Such an individual brings benefit to their community, promotes Confucian values that contribute to the development of moral character. Similar to the personal example set by rulers and kings, the principle of humanness can be used to maintain tradition and teach people the peculiarities of various rites.


The notion of rightness, or correctness, is used in Analects as a way to set primary goals for a governing system. The people with large amounts of power and influence, according to Confucius, should be leaders that are able to guide others in a moral sense. By setting their example, governing forces are to educate the common people on what is considered correct and moral behavior. In the eyes of Confucius, positive influence from the people of power is a sufficient means of persuasion and moral guidance. Precisely, he states: “To govern means to rectify. If you lead on the people with correctness, who will dare not to be correct?”. The phrase means that the height of moral and lawful judgment ultimately lies in those who are in positions of power. In light of their privileged status and authority, their governing should strive to teach others correctness.


Filial Piety is one of the core tenants for the Analects as well. Referring to the respect and devotion one must show towards their parents, the concept can be further applied to other fields as well. Filiality, in Confucius’s outlook, must extend to the larger society and be applied to one’s superiors. In 1:2 of the Analects, the text states “Among those who are filial toward their parents and fraternal toward their brothers, those who are inclined to offend against their superiors are few indeed”. The notion implies that order created through generational hierarchy reduces the incentive to act “out of line” and ensures relationships based on respect and proper etiquette. The sense of respect and strict hierarchy within the family is what creates order and maintains proper relationships between its members. The notion extends further onto the ruler and their subjects, where the creation of vertical power distribution is seen as a way to keep things under control. For Confucius, both familial and societal relations are ultimately founded on respect for those in higher positions, and obedience to particular rules.


Virtue, in Confucius’s work, refers to a person’s ability to exercise a variety of approaches towards others that are considered to be beneficial and righteous. They include sincerity, generosity, earnestness, and kindness (Analects 17:6). By being guided with such principles, teaches Confucius, a person has the ability to attain perfect virtue. The quality ultimately comes from having an ability to support and understand others, something that is crucial to existing within society. Confucius further argues that those in power should display their virtue to others in an effort to promote the correct approach to life. The man insists that by instilling the notions of earnestness, kindness, and generosity into one’s actions, one is guaranteed to set a positive precedent for those below. This notion is solidified in Analects 12:19, which states: “the virtue of the gentleman is like the wind; the virtue of the small man is like grass. Let the wind blow over the grass and it is sure to bend.”

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Confucianism as a State Ideology

Confucianism dictates the correct approach to governing people in the most productive way. Ethics takes the central focus for this ideology, with the basis for society’s functionality being rooted in universal virtues. Building moral character and moving towards self-improvement is important both for commoners and royalty alike. For Confucius, the creation of social order is primarily accomplished through benevolent rule, rituals, traditions, and strict social hierarchy. Benevolent leadership manifests in aversion to punishment and violence, which are both disavowed in the Analects. A noble person should strive to be truthful in their word and respectful to others. Such an approach is used to guarantee the fairness of judgment and contribute to the following tradition. Overall, tradition is highly valued and respected, with rites being as important as the written law. The rules of behavior and conduct are crucial to managing a state. The Analects argues that ruling people primarily through law and punishment is ineffective, having no positive influence on the moral character of the people, which leads to negative outcomes. It is proposed that an effective ruler ought to promote rites and develop moral strength of character in their subjects. In terms of ministerial management, Confucius also states the importance of the following tradition. The relationship between the ruler and their ministers is based on a vertical hierarchy and following the rituals. The established relationship between people and their superior is to be regarded as sacred and any individual must pay respect to their lords. Each citizen of the state, similarly, has to fulfill their role within the system, positively interacting with others and bringing benefit to the larger community. People are incentivized to act in the common interest by authoritative example, led by virtuous rulers.

How they Reinforce Social Order

Traditions and rituals are reinforced to improve moral character and uphold societal norms that are beneficial to the majority. Analects 2:3 says: “Lead them by means of regulations and keep order among them through punishments, and the people will evade them and will lack any sense of shame. Lead them through moral force (de) and keep order among them through rites (li), and they will have a sense of shame and will also correct themselves.” Following this pattern of thought, the strengthening of a person’s moral character is thought to contribute to preserving a desired social order. A personal example is seen as a primary way to persuade people in Confucianism, with the book arguing that a good leader should set a precedent for their subjects, which, in turn, should lead to enlightenment and better societal outcomes for the majority. Apart from advising rulers, the teaching of Confucius outline the general attitudes any individual should have in their life. Confucius stresses the importance of living honestly and honing one’s moral character, which can positively contribute to a person’s process of self-discovery. Developing in a moral sense gives people an ability to distinguish between good and bad, virtuous and selfish, which can help them interact with others in a more positive manner. Encouraging personal growth as a sure way of managing social order allows Confucianism to bring enlightenment to the general population, which, in turn, contributes to improving people’s lives.

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