Spanning back over 2,500 years, Confucianism is one of China’s oldest and most significant philosophies.
It offers guidelines to bring more morality, virtue, and respect for others into the world.
Despite how ancient its teachings are, it still provides plenty of wisdom that we can apply to our everyday lives.
A crash course in Confucianism
Before we dive into the ways Confucianism still applies today, let’s briefly talk about what it is.
As explained in National Geographic:
“Confucianism is a philosophy and belief system from ancient China, which laid the foundation for much of Chinese culture. Confucius was a philosopher and teacher who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.E. His thoughts on ethics, good behavior, and moral character were written down by his disciples in several books, the most important being the Lunyu.”
Some people argue that Confucianism isn’t just a philosophy, it’s also a religion.
It may have started life incorporating earlier religious traditions, but it is perhaps best thought of as an ethical guide to becoming better people.
So what are its main teachings and how are they relevant today?
Let’s take a look.
1) Treat others the way you would like to be treated
It’s such a simple principle, but one that could change the whole world if everyone lived by it.
One of the most fundamental rules of Confucian teachings is:
“Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.”
If you wouldn’t like it, why would anyone else?
At its heart, it is about showing care towards your fellow man.
Humaneness, benevolence, compassion, altruism, goodness, human-heartedness, humanity, love, kindness…
There have been many translations of the Confucian sentiment of “Jen”.
All point towards one thing:
How we treat each other matters and we should always try to do so with empathy and sympathy.
We should always be concerned about other people’s well-being and act with consideration.
2) People are fundamentally good
Look around at the horrible things that go on in the world, and it’s easy to get disheartened.
There’s no doubt that we humans are capable of some monstrous acts.
Yet Confucian teachings profess that people are essentially good. But they may have strayed from what is right and appropriate.
It’s an optimistic outlook and plenty of people would call it naive to take this stance.
They might argue that it’s a dog-eat-dog world where everyone is out for themselves. Expect the best from people and you leave yourself exposed.
Yet that’s not actually the case.
When we look for the best in others, it helps our relationships. Giving people the benefit of the doubt can even transform our connections.
People respond to this in a far more constructive way. When they feel judged they get defensive. When we’re treated well, we want to do our best.
Everybody has the potential to behave positively and negatively. Seeing the best in someone allows you to focus on their potential.
3) Show devotion to your family
“Filial piety” is a central theme in Confucianism.
In ancient times, it perhaps took more of a traditional stance and would involve things like submitting to your parents will.
But the essence is that family is the most important thing.
These days, we may create our own family. It doesn’t have to look like the traditional model. For some, their friends or their community become their family.
But the idea still stands.
It is our relationships that give us meaning in life and they bring us a sense of belonging.
We are social creatures designed to live in close units that offer us companionship and support.
That means we shouldn’t neglect one another.
We should invest time, energy, and effort and show our appreciation in order to strengthen our most important relationships.
4) Learn lessons from those who have gone before you
It’s tempting to look back on the past with a sense of superiority. Especially when a lot of things feel outdated.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be keen to live in centuries gone by.
Yet we shouldn’t forget that it’s all played a part in where we are today.
Advancements in society, and therefore in our individual lives, have been built upon the growth and experience of those who came before us.
Confucianism believes in ancestor worship. It reminds us to respect our elders.
5) Let your conscience guide you
Righteousness and conscience are about doing right over wrong, something known as ‘Zhi’ in Confucianism.
But any ethics professor will tell you, that morality isn’t always so clear-cut.
In Confucian terms, it all comes down to acting based on a higher sense of good.
It demands that we speak up for what is right, even when it goes against the popular consensus.
Rather than act in our own self-interest, we are asked to think about the bigger picture.
In doing so, we must put aside li, or “profit,” and yung, “utility”. Fairness and decency matter more than self-gain.
It’s simply about doing what’s right rather than being as selfish assh*le.
6) Life’s little rituals shape who we are
They are the guides that we follow in life to give structure and order to society.
The concept of Li, translates as “rites” or “propriety” and it’s an idea found in lots of writings from Confucian sages.
Within the book of rites, you will find rituals for pretty much every occasion.
These rituals are seen as a way of giving respect and keeping a sense of moral order.
But what do we even mean by the word rituals?
In this instance, it’s essentially about paying attention to how we do things. That’s something Confucius believed made us better people.
As explained by philosophy writer Ralph Ammer:
“When we learn that Confucius always carefully straightened his mat before sitting down, we should not misinterpret this as compulsive behaviour! These things matter. It is through these little daily actions that we can cultivate a good character.
“Whether we clean our desks after work, carefully arrange the ingredients before we start to cook, or properly prepare the room before a meeting – how we do these things shapes who we are.”
The habits and actions we take every day all add up to paint a picture of who we are.
Research has also shown that little rituals in life can reduce our anxiety and stress, and help us connect to our values.
7) Education is the key to improvement
It’s safe to say that Confucianism takes a growth mindset approach to who we are.
Rather than believe we are fixed, it sees human potential to expand and grow in morality through learning.
To a Confucionist we are all teachable and improvable, and the way we do that is through self-cultivation and self-creation.
Rather than make excuses or believe we are too set in our ways, we can introduce daily learning and improvement into our lives.
Whether that’s by:
- Cultivating greater self-awareness
- Improving our mindset
- Learning new skills and talents
- Reading every day to build our knowledge
To sum up…
Confucianism teaches us to take responsibility for ourselves in order to be better citizens.
If we all police ourselves to behave in decent ways, the world would be kinder and fairer as a consequence.
That’s an idea that can never get old, no matter how ancient the teachings are.