Confucius say learn the art of living

The work of the famous Chinese philosopher Kong Fu-zi (Confucius) has had a profound effect on modern China. Confucius (551-479 BC) devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge and moral virtue. His teachings prescribed the ‘art of living’ and the path to being a superior person; “the superior man thinks of virtue the ordinary man thinks of comfort”.

Confucius’ path to morality required strict rules of propriety. Similar to the concept of Buddha nature (inherent goodness) Confucius perceived humankind as complete; “By nature men are nearly alike; by practice they get to be wide apart”. However given temptation and the chaos Confucius observed, he believed strict external guidance was required to achieve a virtuous, good and just society.

However Confucius did not teach blind adherence to authority. The spirit of free investigation was critical to his goal of the ‘Great Learning’, and he insisted his students question everything they learned displaying complete integrity of the mind where they stand for what they know to be true and acknowledge what they don’t know.

A cardinal virtue underpinning Confucian ethics is filial piety (xiao shun) which means profound respect for one’s parents. This includes taking care of our parents, bringing honour to the family, never offending or speaking badly of them, not travelling far away without purpose, protecting our parents and burying them properly after death.

The filial piety principle was extended to cover relationships with friends who are to be treated as brothers, and our friend’s parents who are to be respected as if they were our own parents. The significance of filial piety can be seen in the following interpretation of Confucian teachings said to include the ten virtues of:

1. Kindness of the father;

2. Filial duty of the son;

3. Gentleness of the older brother;

4. Obedience of the younger brother;

5. Justice of the husband;

6. Submission of the wife;

7. Kindness of elders;

8. Deference of juniors;

9. Benevolence of the ruler; and

10. Loyalty of the minister.

Today these rules appear sexist but we need to remember Confucius lived in a strongly patriarchal society. Confucius taught the doctrine of the mean, a similar approach to Aristotle’s virtue ethics where moderation in all actions is considered crucial to an ethical life. The golden rule of reciprocity ‘do unto others what you would have them do to you’ was also a central theme in the moral teachings of Confucius.

The teachings of Confucius initiated the development of extensive lists of ethical rules to guide human relationships. Here are some examples applying the principle of filial piety:

When it’s winter you must warm your parents bed so they can feel warm.

In summer fan your parents so they feel cool.

When old people sit, young people can sit when they are told to.


When speaking to old people your voice must be low and respectful.


When you meet someone older you respect them like your father.

As with the Buddhist path to transformation of society, the Confucian journey begins within each individual, who must be devoted to learning and living in accordance with the rules of propriety. Once gained, wisdom is to be used to contribute to the well-being of the community by providing service to society and leadership towards peace and stability.

It’s not surprising a country with a population of 1.3 billion and a history of extensive poverty has taken an authoritarian approach to managing their internal affairs. Understanding the contribution of Confucian moral philosophy to forging the modern Chinese worldview is critical to evolving Australia’s relationship with China.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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