Early Confucianism


Early Confucianism is typically identified with the Confucian philosophers active during the period leading up to and during the Warring States era in China (6th – 3rd century BCE). The most familiar and discussed figures in this period are Confucius himself, Mengzi, and Xunzi. The period in which these philosophers lived was extraordinarily violent, chaotic, and troubling. Philosophical inquiry thus betrays an atmosphere of crisis, reflecting concerns about what had gone wrong, both politically and morally, and how it might be repaired.

The preoccupations and concerns of the early Confucians can be represented in questions such as the following:

  • What are the components of a good life, particularly where living well morally is in tension with worldly success?
  • How ought society be organized in order to secure both good social order and conditions in which people may appropriately flourish?
  • How do harmonious interpersonal relationships, especially familial relationships, contribute to personal and social well-being?
  • What role do everyday moral micropractices have in both moral learning and the development of robust virtue?
  • What is human moral psychology and what strategies of moral cultivation are best fitted to our psychology?
  • How might we explain the salutary effects of moral exemplars, especially of politically powerful exemplars, on others and on social atmospheres and orders?
  • Given human sociality, how ought we conceive our duties and moral-emotional make-up toward others?
  • Assuming that we have natural impulses to care for kin, how can these be effectively marshaled to produce caring for wider spheres of others?
  • What are the particular virtues morality includes and how are these best developed?

These are just a few of the many questions to which the early Confucian philosophers turned their attention. In this primer, we introduce you to some of the resources to begin learning how the early Confucians and their interpreters have tried to answer these questions.

Key Figures and the Core Text for Teaching Each

Caveat: No attempt at listing important early Confucians and texts is likely to be complete so our list here operates on the logic of providing what will most likely be easy-pickings for philosophers new to early Confucianism and giving information that you may encounter as you wade into the Confucian waters.

Confucius (Kongzi 孔子), Analects (Lunyu 論語)
The Analects is an unusual philosophical text in its fragmentary and laconic quality. The text has historically been treated as the most direct access to Confucius, the man, and his ideas. It can be understood to present its ideas in three ways: 1) The text contains what purport to be general claims Confucius makes, e.g., remarks about particular virtues; 2) it offers brief dialogues between Confucius and his students, in some cases displaying counsel Confucius offers particular others in light of their needs, capabilities, and temperaments; 3) it describes Confucius himself – his life and qualities of character – with the aim of commending him as an unparalleled moral exemplar. The Confucius who emerges via these various modes of presentation is at once a philosopher and teacher, as well as a man struggling in a world that does not value what he offers. Given his radically outsized influence on Chinese culture, it bears emphasizing that Confucius enjoyed little success in his own lifetime. The Analects observes this and can be read as testament to the struggle to flourish when circumstances do not favor well-being. Because of its laconic style, interpretation of the Analects can be challenging for philosophers. Likewise, because the text operates something like a manual for living rather than a transparently theoretical work, retrieving the implicit arguments that inform its various claims can be challenging. There are multiple scholarly philosophical approaches to the text, but it is perhaps especially crucial to philosophers encountering the text for the first time to bear in mind that Confucius himself is the hub of the wheel where this text is concerned. Such is to say that the narrative elements of the text – those elements philosophical training may incline one to discount – are not mere extras or color commentary. Whatever else the text is doing, it is unambiguously committed to seeing Confucius as a formidable example of what it describes.

Mencius (Mengzi 孟子), Mengzi or Mencius
Mengzi lived approximately three generations after Confucius – he was purportedly trained by Confucius’ grandson, Zisi. Readers will immediately notice that his style and interests are distinct from those found in the Analects and this owes in part to philosophical debates happening in the intervening years. The Mengzi offers a much more formal philosophical style, though it too preserves a dialogic orientation. In it, Mengzi is depicted conversing with rulers and with philosophical opponents, both of which entail his offering arguments against resistance and opposition. One pronounced concern in the Mengzi is to legitimate Confucian practice, including both ethics and politics, in light of a philosophical anthropology. Thus most treatments of Mengzi’s philosophy begin with his observation that “human nature is good,” a claim that he seeks to establish via thought experiment and by demonstrating that “sprouts” of moral emotion (essentially spontaneous moral reactions uncommanded by decision or rational process) arise even in those not otherwise devoted to morality or to cultivating such responses. From these arguments, Mengzi develops a program of moral cultivation that sees as its principal charge “extending” our natural and easy moral-emotional responses into circumstances where they do not come naturally or easily. The virtuous person here begins like everyone else, but through a process of analogical recognition enjoys moral emotions that come to broadly encompass the widest range of human experiences and targets for moral concern. The text also notably contains much that develops the political aspects of Mengzi’s thought, including rather sensitive remarks regarding the impact of poverty and insecurity upon moral development, as well as rather biting critiques of political indifference to this, critiques that even yield an apparent argument regarding the permissibility of regicide in some circumstances.

Xunzi (荀子), Xunzi
Like Mengzi, Xunzi is both seeking to elaborate Confucian ideas and respond to philosophical rivals. He is most adamantly concerned to dispute Mengzi’s account of human nature and the corresponding methods of moral cultivation Mengzi recommends, but arguments against Daoist critiques of Confucian ritual also feature as a marked undercurrent. Like Mengzi, Xunzi forwards a philosophical anthropology, though he positions his view in stark opposition to Mengzi, claiming that “human nature is bad.” There are considerable variations in scholarly opinion about just how “bad” he intends to characterize human nature. (Note: some translations render his claim as “human nature is evil,” but this is more dire and extreme than what Xunzi appears to intend.) However, what is unambiguously clear is that he seeks to appeal to a state of nature argument that emphasizes how terrible we are when our nature is left unammended by moral training. Xunzi’s account of moral training rides on ritual (li) and moral exemplars as the key mechanisms for transforming human nature away from its brutish and self-seeking impulses. His treatment of ritual, in particular, provides much that can be richly turned to discussions of how external norms of conduct can, under the power of habituation, both structure moral emotions and cultivate virtue. Xunzi is committed to a view in which moral micropractices and the social environments they provide are key to moral training and development, not least because he describes our moral psychology as exceptionally receptive, for good or ill, to external influences. Of the early Confucians, Xunzi’s work is the most naturalistic. Other notable elements of Xunzi’s work include a strongly aesthetic element in his presentation of the moral force of ritual and his defense of the moral power of music, the latter of which is very popular for discussion with students.

Additional Early Confucian Texts

Additional Confucian Texts Most Frequently Discussed in English-language Materials
Daxue大學 (Great Learning)
Liji 禮記 (Book of Rites or Record of Ritual)
Shijing 詩經 (Odes or Songs) A classic work of poetry cited in early Confucian sources.
Xiaojing孝經 (Classic of Filial Piety)
Zhongyong中庸 (Most commonly translated as the Doctrine of the Mean)
Commentaries written by Zhu Xi (朱熹). Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200) is not an early Confucian, but
is included here because his commentaries on the early Confucian texts are the singularly most influential historical Chinese source for understanding
them. As one reads about early Confucianism, references to Zhu Xi’s interpretations form a steady backdrop. As an historical note, Zhu Xi’s commentaries
on the early Confucian classics served as a basis for the examination system in Chinese civil service from the 14th century until 1905.

Starter Kits for those New to Confucianism

For classroom use:
Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden (eds). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2005. This anthology contains excerpts of the most significant texts in the whole of early Chinese philosophy. Brief introductory notes situate each selection.

Bryan W. Van Norden. Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. Indianapolis: IN: Hackett Publishing, 2012. Written for undergraduate audiences, Van Norden’s text places early Chinese philosophy (including schools other than the Confucian) into familiar academic and analytic interpretive language.

For beginning scholarly use:
Translations of many early Chinese texts exhibit considerable variety and so we list here several of the most current translations available. For information regarding the variety of translations of early Chinese texts, see http://tdp.wikidot.com/wiki:prime:early-chinese-philosophy. Our selections of secondary works are given with the goal of providing materials with reasonably comprehensive overviews and especially rich bibliographies for further investigation. There is of course a considerable literature beyond these works and that more closely targets particular topics. Readers are encouraged to consult the bibliographies in the works cited here for additional further reading.


Translations of the Complete Text:
Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical
. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.

Eno, Robert. Analects: An Online Teaching Translation. Available here: http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Analects_of_Confucius_(Eno-2015).pdf

Lau, D. C. The Analects. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

Nylan, Michael (ed.), Leys, Simon (trans.), Norton Critical Edition of the Analects. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2014.

Slingerland, Edward, trans. Analects: With Selections from the Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003.

Secondary Works:
Nylan, Michael and Thomas Wilson. The Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage through the Ages. New York: Crown Archetype, 2010.

Olberding, Amy, ed. Dao Companion to the Analects. New York: Springer Press, 2014.

Reigel, Jeffrey. “Confucius.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttp://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/

Richey, Jeff. “Confucius.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttp://www.iep.utm.edu/confuciu/

Mengzi (Mencius)

Translations of the Complete Text:
Bloom, Irene. Mencius. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Eno, Robert. Mencius: An Online Teaching Translation. Available here: http://www.indiana.edu/%7Ep374/Mengzi.pdf

Lau, D. C. Mencius. New York: Penguin Books, 1970.

Van Norden, Bryan. Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2008.

Secondary Works:
Liu, Xiusheng and Philip J. Ivanhoe, Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002.

Richey, Jeffrey. “Mencius.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttp://www.iep.utm.edu/mencius/

Shun, Kwong-loi. Mencius and Early Chinese Thought. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Van Norden, Bryan W. “Mencius.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttp://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mencius/


Translations of the Complete Text:
Hutton, Eric. Xunzi: The Complete Text. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Knoblock, John. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. 3 vols. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Secondary Works:
Elstein, David. “Xunzi.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttp://www.iep.utm.edu/xunzi/

Hutton, Eric. Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Xunzi. New York: Springer Press, 2016.

Robins, Dan. “Xunzi.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttp://plato.stanford.edu/entries/xunzi/

Early Confucianism (Sources addressing more than one of the early Confucians)

Angle, Stephen. “Social and Political Thought in Chinese Philosophy,” Sections 2.3 and 2.8: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-social-political/

Cline, Erin M. “Justice and Confucianism.” Philosophy Compass 9.3 (2014): 165-175.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1993.

Li, Chenyang. “The Philosophy of Harmony in Classical Confucianism.” Philosophy Compass 3.3 (2008): 423-435.

Sarkissian, Hagop. “Recent Approaches to Confucian Filial Morality.” Philosophy Compass 5.9 (2010): 725-734.

Tan, Sor-hoon. “Democracy in Confucianism.” Philosophy Compass 7.5 (2012): 293-303.

Wong, David. “Chinese Ethics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttp://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-chinese/#ConEth

Online Tools Useful for Teaching


Online Glossary of Key Philosophical Concepts: Robert Eno, Analects: An Online Teaching Translation, Appendix 2, available here: http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Analects_of_Confucius_(Eno-2015).pdf

People: An online guide to the students of Confucius who feature as his interlocutors in the text: Robert Eno, Analects: An Online Teaching Translation, Appendix 1, available here: http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Analects_of_Confucius_(Eno-2015).pdf


Online Glossary of Key Philosophical Concepts: Robert Eno, Mencius: An Online Teaching Translation, Appendix 1, available here: http://www.indiana.edu/%7Ep374/Mengzi.pdf

Key Terms Significant for Early Confucianism

To be clear, this list offers key philosophical terms used in Confucian sources and the more common translations of these into English. This list offers no gloss of the terms or evaluations of these translations but is meant merely to facilitate identifying the terms across a variety of translations and scholarship. For explanation of the different spellings employed for these Chinese characters and pronunciation tips, see http://tdp.wikidot.com/wiki:prime:early-chinese-philosophy.

Pinyin Wade-Giles   Common Translations
dao tao way, path, teachings or doctrine, to speak
de te power, virtue, moral force, potency, moral charisma
e o, a (morally) bad, evil
he ho harmony
junzi chun tzu
gentleman, exemplary person, noble person, superior person
li li ritual, rites, etiquette, custom, propriety
ming ming name, terms
ming ming decree, command, mandate, fate, destiny
qi ch’i vital energy, breath, psychophysical energy
ren jen human being
ren jen humaneness, authoritative conduct, goodness or Goodness, humanity-at-its-best, co-humanity, human excellence, benevolence
shan shan good, adept, excelled
sheng sheng Sage
shi shih scholar, minister, knight, scholar-apprentice
shu shu sympathy, reciprocity, fellow-feeling, putting oneself in the other’s place, consideration
tian t’ien heaven, Heaven
wei wei
deliberate effort
wuwei wuwei nonaction, effortless action, non-purposive action
xiao hsiao filial piety, filiality, filial responsibility
xin hsin heart/mind, heart-and-mind, mind, heart
xing hsing nature [of a being], human nature
yi yi righteousness, appropriate, fitting
zhi chih knowledge, wisdom, to know
zi tzu Master [honorific used in reference to distinguished teachers and philosophers]
zhengming cheng rectification of names, correction of names