Chinese Religion and Confucianism

by Guy Gardner

First articulated nearly 2,500 years ago, the teachings of Confucius have had a lasting influence on Chinese society. Despite the success of other schools of thought, the rise and fall of dynasties and the revolutions of the last 100 years, Confucianism remains an integral part of Chinese society. Although originally taught as a philosophy, Confucianism has come to influence the major Chinese religions as well.

Confucianism as Philosophy

Confucius’ teachings can be understood as a philosophy rather than a religion. Confucius had little to say about the afterlife and much to say about the right way of living. Confucius believed in a just hierarchy in the family and in society based on “human-heartedness,” a profound caring and empathy for others. Those who rule -- the king over his kingdom, the grandfather or father over his family -- do so because they have more developed human-heartedness and therefore shoulder greater responsibility than those whom they rule over.

Veneration of Ancestors

Showing respect and gratitude towards one’s rulers and the social hierarchy is known as xiao in Chinese and filial piety in English. Filial piety is often expressed as respect and deference towards elders, especially family elders and ancestors. This is one of the most influential aspects of Confucius’ teachings, and one that has influenced how other religions are practiced in China.

Confucianism in Other Religions

According to the website, World Religions Professor, an old Chinese saying is as follows, “every Chinese person wears Buddhist robes, a Confucian cap and Taoist sandals." Chinese culture is characterized by a blending of different philosophies and religions. Daoism and Buddhism have both been influenced by Confucius’ ideas and virtues. The followers of Confucius realized how deeply rooted both religions were in Chinese society and, rather than push against these religions, Confucians invited practitioners of both religions to perform ceremonies for funerals, taking the opportunity to spread ideas of filial piety to these other groups. Chinese Buddhists and Daoists have largely adopted the idea of filial piety and the veneration of ancestors. Tomb Sweeping Day, a holiday when Chinese show respect for their ancestors by making offerings and cleaning the area around their tombs, is practiced by Chinese of many different religions.

Confucians Find Religion

As Chinese Buddhists and Daoists absorbed Confucian ideas, Confucian scholars gradually adopted the practices and beliefs of Daoists and/or Buddhists. Confucian scholars were originally charged with preserving the teachings of Confucius from outside influences. However, they largely adopted the practices of Buddhists and Daoists, especially in the case of funeral rites.

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