Confucianism Glossary Terms

Boston Confucianism

Starting in the late 20th century, America has seen the rise of its own indigenous form of Confucianism known as Boston Confucianism. “Boston Confucians” was a term that began to be used jokingly in the late 1980s at conferences of Confucian-Christian dialogue to refer to the representatives from the Boston area. However, the initial joking nature has come to define an intellectual movement. This small but growing group of intellectuals seeks both to promote Confucianism by showing what it can offer the world, and to argue that Confucianism can stand alone outside of its East Asian roots. For example, one of the main figures of the movement, Robert Cummings Neville, who does not speak or read Chinese, considers himself to be both a Confucian and a Christian. In other words, the Boston Confucians are arguing that one does not need to be an East Asian, read Classical Chinese, or abandon other religious affiliations to understand and incorporate this philosophy into one’s way of life.


The Confucian tradition emphasizes the importance of following inherited rites (li) in a conscientious manner so that one can fully activate his or her humanity (ren) and thereby realize the Way (dao) of Heaven (tian). Major figures include Confucius (551-479 BCE), who first elucidated the main tenets of the faith, and Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE), who grouped together the Four Books (the Analects, Book of Mencius, Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean) as the central texts for Confucian education. Today, although very few people identify themselves as Confucians, the tradition continues to profoundly influence East Asian values and behavior.


Confucius (551-479 BCE) is the most famous philosopher of ancient China. The most reliable source regarding his life is the Analects (Lunyu), which includes sayings and anecdotes by Confucius and his disciples. Although he remained modest about his achievements in self-cultivation, later Confucians regarded him as the last and greatest of all sages.

Confucius Institute

In a reversal from the rhetoric used throughout most of the 20th century, the Chinese government is now actively promoting Confucianism as a cultural treasure, a means to better society and maintain social harmony. One result of this new political endorsement has been the creation of the Confucius Institute in 2004. Headquartered in Beijing, the organization’s goal is to setup partnering Confucius Institutes throughout the world to promote and teach Chinese language and culture. In just seven years, 256 Confucius Institutes have been established worldwide, 60 within the United States. Whereas East Asians of the 20th century tended to view Confucianism as an embarrassment, it appears the 21st century is seeing the rise of a new outlook that the Confucian tradition is a heritage to be proud of that could provide insight into solving modern problems. However, the institutes have come under some criticisms for possibly being too heavily directed by the Chinese Communist Party.


The term dao (or tao) literally the “path,” or “way,” has been employed in Chinese religious and philosophical traditions, including Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. In general usage, the Tao refers to the proper way to act so as to fulfill one’s true role in the world. In Daoism, dao points to the ineffable creative process which gives birth to heaven, earth, and the myriad creatures. The Dao is invisible, inaudible, and subtle, though it is not separate from the sights, sounds and objects of this world. It is that which leads from nonexistence to the full flower of existence, and back again, a process which in later Daoist thought expressed in terms of yin and yang.

Five Classics

The Five Classics of the Confucian tradition include the Book of History (Shujing), Book of Poetry (Shijing), Book of Rites (Lijing), Book of Changes (Yijing), and Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu). In 136 BCE Emperor Han, under the direction of the Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BCE), grouped them together to form the earliest canon of the Confucian tradition.

Four Books

The Analects, Book of Mencius, Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean have been the central texts for the Confucian tradition since the 12th century, when the Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi (1130-1200) grouped them together as the Four Books. They gained the status of orthodoxy in 1313, when the imperial house designated them as the basis of China’s civil service examinations. For the next six centuries, Neo-Confucian interpretations of these texts would play a leading role in shaping the religious, philosophical, and political discourse of East Asia.


Mencius (371-289 BCE) is often considered as one of the wisest Confucians, second only to Confucius himself. His conversations with disciples and rulers are collected in the second of the Four Books; his observations include that each person is linked in an intricate network of parents, siblings, spouse, friends, and socio-political leaders. This network reaches back in time as well, encompassing all one’s ancestors and the cultural heroes who have made civilized life possible.

Zhu Xi

(also: Chu Hsi) The Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi (1130-1200) is best known for having grouped together the Analects, Book of Mencius, Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean as the Four Books. For the next six centuries, Zhu Xi’s interpretations of these texts would play a leading role in shaping the religious, philosophical, and political discourse of East Asia.