Confucianism is an omnibus term for a set of thoughts that compose an ethos, a sentiment, that has been shaping China for many millennia. Confucianism is a group of proposals for proper socioethical ways of life, providing a foundation to the individual’s commitment to sincerity, honesty, and interpersonal harmony. Its impacts are multidimensional in politics, family, interpersonal relations, and education, with deep moral and religious implications. It originated in the Analects, supposedly of Confucius, and its ancient commentaries began at Mencius. Elements of Confucianism are popular in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China and in the United States, where Confucianism is popular among Asian Americans and traditional Chinese. Asian parents emphasize education, a time-honored Confucian ideal. In Confucian ethos, Asian Americans value family; a member’s decision (e.g., on house-buying) involves other members’ consultation, approval, and even financial support.
Confucianism has had to contend with other trends, such as Taoism and Buddhism. In the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), Neo-Confucianism made Confucianism the dominant philosophy among the educated, who drew from Taoism and Buddhism to formulate a new metaphysics of a sociopolitical hierarchy nonexistent in older Confucianism. This Neo-Confucian synthesis was established as dominant orthodoxy by Chu Hsi (1130-1200).
Confucianism envisions harmonious social relations in proper respectful comportment, the gentleman’s way of life in polished manners, with rites and ceremonies to fulfill responsibilities of one’s societal positions to promote the Five Relations: ruler-subject, father-son, elder-younger brothers, husband-wife, and friend-to-friend.
Reforming the society begins at reforming the individuals, through whom we establish loving respectful order in families and develop into orderly state and world concord. Rulers must initiate and exemplify the reform in person and in performance.
Personal desire for goodness nurtures family structural concord, to support individuals and spread to society at large. Social solidarity in various aspects is formed by people’s loyalties, respect, and proper conduct.
Fulfilling the codes of conduct is a form of socialization. The codes are accepted with individual expressions. Ideally, psychological issues are considered within this goal-context of virtues as fulfillment of the ideal Five Relations.
Stressing individuals as part and parcel of families and interpersonal relationships, Confucianism is a constitutive ingredient in the Chinese value system and relevant to cross-cultural counseling. China assumes family and Five Relations (parent-child, husband-wife, etc.) as a context of living. Individual well-being depends on the harmony of family relationships. Exclusive consideration of private needs is perceived as selfish, not “independent” as in the West. Confucianism is where a good personal trait (virtue) is gentle modesty, to allow others to express their needs and help fulfill them. Seen from the West’s independence, many Chinese may appear withdrawn, indecisive, and shy in self-expression.
Unwittingly, however, Western individualistic ethos does include respecting others’ individual rights and laws that are communal (e.g., traffic laws, election laws). Counselors working with clients who value Confucianism should stress community as a resource for coping, because, Confucianism would say, community composes individual integrity, giving birth to it, raising it. Exclusively stressing unique individuality, taking community as its auxiliary, is one major cause of mental stresses. Confucianism calls for a shift in counseling paradigm from individual-centeredness to individual-community interdependence.
- Chan, W. T. (1963). A sourcebook in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Mair, V. (Ed.). (1994). The Columbia anthropology of traditional Chinese literature. New York: Columbia University Press.