Confucianism Beliefs: The Four Tenets

Confucius statue in Beijing, China
Confucius statue in Beijing, China.

compdrw / Getty Images

Confucianism is a philosophy developed by Master Kong (known more commonly as Confucius) during China’s Zhou Dynasty (1045 – 253 BC). It focuses on innate human goodness and the importance of interpersonal human relationships. The goal of Confucianism to achieve social harmony. According to Confucian beliefs, there are four elements necessary to achieve social harmony: Rites and Rituals, the Five Relations, Rectification of Names, and Ren.

Key Takeaways: The Four Tenets of Confucianism

  • The four tenets of Confucianism are Rites and Rituals, the Five Relations, Rectification of Names, and Ren. 
  • All rites and rituals are intentional acts of social unification.
  • Relationships all fall within a hierarchy that must be observed to preserve harmony, and every person must understand their role in this hierarchy.
  • The goal of Confucianism is to exercise Ren, or true altruism.

Confucius studied the history of China, comparing the most and least harmonious periods of Chinese history, evaluating the relationships between heaven, leadership, and the general population during times of peace and times of war. He found order and understanding in his studies of the past, and he used these findings to develop a system of values and beliefs.

Because Confucianism is rooted in the study of the past and does not preach a new doctrine, it is considered to be a code of ethics rather than a religion. The four tenets of Confucian beliefs are the guidelines for this code of ethics.

Rites and Rituals 

Confucius taught the importance of rituals in uniting people. In the Analects—a collection of ideas, thoughts, and quotes attributed to Confucius—the importance of observing rites and rituals with body and mind is revered. 

The Master said: "Authority without generosity, ceremony without reverence, mourning without grief—these, I cannot bear to contemplate."
The Analects, 3.26

According to Confucian beliefs, all ceremonies should be intentional acts of social unification. They should be practiced with others, and they should be done with reverence and high regard, rather than a mindless repetition of words and actions.

Rites and rituals include funeral practices during which observers wear white and grieve for the dead for up to three years, weddings beginning with appropriate matchmaking, coming of age ceremonies for young men and women, and offerings to ancestors, among many other regional practices.

The Five Relations

Using his studies of the past, Confucius determined that in order to achieve peace and harmony, every relationship must fall under a strict hierarchy, with each relation acknowledging and exercising their dominance or submission.

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "Let rulers be rulers, ministers ministers, fathers fathers, sons sons."
The Analects, 12.11

There are five key relations under which all social interaction falls: the ruler to the subject, the parent to the child, the husband to the wife, the older brother to the younger brother, and the friend to the friend. Even within friendship, a hierarchy must exist to ensure continuous harmony.

Dominant parties should treat the submissive parties with kindness and gentleness, and submissive parties should treat the dominant with reverence and respect. For example, children should only speak when spoken to.

Rectification (Or Redemption) of Names 

The rectification of names is the designation of the five relations to all members of a society in order to clear up confusion about the roles and responsibilities of the people to achieve social harmony. According to Confucius, chaos results from confusion when proper “names” (positions in society) are not known or exercised. 

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
The Analects, 13.3

The rectification of names must occur in order for every member of society to know their place and appropriate duties in relationship to one another.

Ren 

There are many definitions of the word "Ren," but the most commonly accepted definition is virtue or kindness. The ultimate goal of Confucianism is to be, according to Confucius, "the gentleman," or to exercise true altruism in every encounter. This is best illustrated by the relationships between two people, which is why understanding and exercising one’s place within the social hierarchy is essential. 

Fan-Chi, asked about humanity (ren). The Master said, "Love all men."
The Analects, 12.22

Unlike Nirvana or entrance into Heaven, Ren is not a place or state of being that can be achieved. All people are born with Ren, meaning all people, according to Confucius, possess an innate sense of goodness. However, possessing ren and acting on it are two different things. A Confucian “gentleman” always acts in the interest of others within the boundaries of his social status and hierarchical relations.

Sources 

  • Confucius. Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Edward Slingerland, Hackett Publishing, 2003. 
  • Henshall, Kenneth. A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  
  • Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge University Press, 2000.