The Origin of Confucianism


The Portrait of Confucius,
Kyongju Hyangkyo, Courtesy of Daniel B. Levine

Confucianism: Its Teachings, Spread, and Revival in China and Korea

Today elements of Confucianism are present in the societies of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and several other countries today. The basic history of Confucianism, as well as its basic tenets, will aid in understanding its impact in Korea.

Confucius and His Teachings

Born in China in 551 BCE, Confucius lived during a time of political turmoil. Several independent kingdoms divided the area of today’s China. Each fought for dominance. Many people suffered hunger, displacement, and death because of the fighting.  Amidst this anarchy, Confucius sought to bring peace and order to society. Although he hoped to accomplish this goal by serving as a high minister in government, Confucius never obtained such a position. Instead, he strived to teach others the way to live in harmony with those around you as well as principles of good governance. His teachings eventually permeated society and he became one of China’s greatest social philosophers and teachers.

Confucius’ teachings focused on the mortal world of rulers and the ruled rather than life after death. In Confucianism, order and peace emanated from the top. Rulers achieved order and harmony in their kingdom when they abided by strict moral codes and sought after virtues. These virtues included humanness, filial piety, ritual, humility, loyalty, and diligence.  Confucius also taught that the safety of a society depended on the people maintaining and strengthening five key relationships. These relationships include the following: ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger, and friend to friend.

Confucius’ Teachings Spread

After Confucius’ death, his disciples compiled his teachings in The Analects of Confucius. They began to spread these teachings throughout China. A later disciple, Mencius (372 – 289 BCE), became an ardent proponent of Confucianism and further spread its teachings among the people. Much like Confucius, Mencius’ teachings were collected in a book bearing his name: Mencius.

Years later, Confucian scholars formed the Confucian canon based on several historical texts and the teachings of both Confucius and Mencius. This collection of books is known as the “Four Books and Five Classics.” The Four Books are The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Analects of Confucius, and Mencius. The Five Classics are The Classic of Poetry, The Classic of History, The Classic of Rites, The Book of Changes, and The Spring and Autumn Annals.

Although having been taught for centuries, Confucianism eventually became less influential in China after the fall of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). At this time, followers of different religions began sharing new ideas with the people. Buddhism, Daoism, and other philosophies began guiding individual behavior and society. As such, Confucianism’s development began to stagnate. However, nearly 1,000 years later, its teachings were revived.


Centuries later, during the Song dynasty (960 CE – 1279 CE) in China, scholars began to reexamine ancient documents of Confucian teachings. Notable scholars, such as the Cheng brothers (1032 – 1107 CE), and Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 CE), revived original teachings of Confucius and combined them with other philosophies of the time. Modern Western scholars would later dub this renaissance as Neo-Confucianism.

Neo-Confucianism combined elements of both Buddhism and Daoism and put them into a Confucian framework. The scholars hoped that this new fusion of philosophies would offer a metaphysical and religious aspect to Confucianism — something that it had previously lacked. Neo-Confucianism now gave answers to questions beyond the physical realm. Scholars also hoped to provide practical answers to questions of how to properly govern a nation and society. New ideas, inspired by old ideas, began to take root.

One result of the renewed study was an emphasis on the concept of li. Li is sometimes translated as “rationale” or “principle.” It refers to the concept of an underlying principle that governs the existence of all things in the universe. Zhu Xi, the father of Neo-Confucianism, expounded on, but also focused his work on qi, the vital or living force in the universe. Much of Neo-Confucian philosophy focuses on the interactions and roles of li and qi. This interaction helped people to understand the living world around them as well as their place in the world.

Zhu Xi’s works also emphasized key Confucian teachings that added a religious aspect as well as reestablished core governing concepts. He taught how to build a spiritual connection with the past by visiting the graves of the deceased and by performing ancestor rituals. Society based itself on building strong relationships in the family through love and respect. Once more, kings needed to be virtuous and set the example of conduct for the kingdom. Learning and education became essential to becoming a better person and citizen in society. These enhanced concepts formed a new foundation of principles and governance that became essential after the Mongol conquests of Asia.

Neo-Confucianism in China and Korea

In the early thirteenth century, the Mongols began invading and conquering parts of China. These fierce warriors were skilled horsemen and used new technology to conquer most of Asia and even parts of Europe. Eventually, they would conquer most of China. In 1271 CE the Mongols established the Yüan dynasty in China. During this time, a Chinese scholar named Hsu Heng (1209 – 1281 CE) persuaded the Yüan court that a government bureaucracy modeled after Neo-Confucian teachings. He convinced the Mongols that these principles would be an effective way to manage the government under Mongol rule. The Mongol rulers agreed with this vision of peace and order and permitted the scholars to begin to establish a Neo-Confucian bureaucracy. These scholars’ efforts infused Confucian principles into the foundations of Chinese government and society.

As the Mongolian empire stretched throughout the Asian mainland, peoples from foreign countries traveled to Beijing and enjoyed more frequent interaction within the empire. Koreans traveled more freely, especially to the Mongol capital in Beijing. Once in China, Korean scholars obtained new books and knowledge from the Chinese schools of thought — particularly those of Zhu Xi. These Korean scholars (the most prominent being An Hyang) brought their newfound knowledge back to Korea and began spreading Neo-Confucian teachings throughout Koryŏ society (918 – 1392 CE). The scholars eventually established several schools to teach Zhu Xi’s doctrine. The Sŏnggyun’kwan, or “Royal Confucian Academy,” was the foremost institute to teach Confucian doctrine. The disciples of these early Korean Neo-Confucian scholars would later be influential in establishing the Chosŏn Kingdom.