Key Concepts in Confucian thought
Rites (Lǐ, 禮)
Main article: Li (rites)
Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously. (Analects II, 3)
The term here translated as "rites" (禮; lǐ) has a considerably broader array of meanings than its corresponding term in English, as it simultaneously denotes "ritual," "(religious) sacrifice," and even "social etiquette." While the Chinese character for "rites" previously had the religious meaning of "sacrifice" (the character 禮 is composed of the character 示, which means "altar," to the left of the character 曲 placed over 豆, representing a vase full of flowers and offered as a sacrifice to the gods; cf. Wenlin), Confucian thought broadened it to include all forms of social and spiritual propriety, many of which were codified and treated as an all-embracing system of norms. Confucius himself tried to revive the etiquette of earlier dynasties, but following his death he himself became regarded as the great authority on ritual behavior.Indeed, its Confucian meaning ranges from politeness and etiquette to proper sacrificial practices, with the emphasis on performance. In this way, the li has prominent role in the creation of social mores, as they inform people about their duties to others and also of their reasonable expectations of them. This perspective is echoed in the writings of Xunzi (c. 310–237 B.C.E.), a later disciple of Confucius, who argued for the necessity of li in conditioning human behavior and constructing a harmonious society:
Hence, any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal. Therefore, man must first be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual principles (li), and only then will he be able to observe the dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the forms and rules of society, and achieve order.
The above explains an essential difference between legalism and ritualism, and points to a key (albeit stereotypical) difference between Western and Eastern societies. Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; whereas a ritual system inculcates patterns of behavior are internalizedand exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face. In general, this process of internalization is the primary element of the li framework. Formalized behavior becomes progressively internalized, desires are channeled and personal cultivation becomes the mark of social correctness. Though this idea conflicts with the common saying that "the cowl does not make the monk," Confucianism avoids the charge of hypocrisy by asserting that sincerity is what enables ritualized behaviors to be internalized by individuals. Obeying ritual with sincerity makes ritual the most powerful way to cultivate oneself. Thus, "respectfulness, without the Rites, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the Rites, becomes timidity; boldness, without the Rites, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the Rites, becomes rudeness." (Analects VIII, 2) Ritual can be seen as a means to find the balance between opposing qualities that might otherwise lead to conflict.
Humaneness (Rén, 仁)
Confucius was concerned with people's individual development, which he maintained took place within the context of human relationships. Ritual and filial piety are the ways in which one should act towards others from an underlying attitude of humaneness. Confucius's concept of humaneness is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the Golden Rule phrased in the negative: "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you". (Analects 15.24)
In general, this ethic of reciprocal "humankindness" is eloquently summed up in Ames and Rosemont's translation of the Analects:
Ren, translated herein as "authoritative conduct," "to act authoritatively," or "authoritative person," is the foremost project taken up by Confucius, and occurs over one hundred times in the text. It is a fairly simple graph, and according to the Shuowen lexicon, is made up of the elements ren 人 "person," and er 二, the number "two." This etymological analysis underscores the Confucian assumption that one cannot be a person by oneself — we are, from our inchoate beginnings, irreducibly social. Herbert Fingarette has stated the matter concisely: "For Confucius, unless there are at least two human beings, there can be no human beings."
Rén also has a political dimension. If the ruler lacks rén, surely it will be difficult if not impossible for his subjects to behave humanely. Rén is the basis of Confucian political theory: it presupposes an autocratic ruler, exhorted to refrain from acting inhumanely towards his subjects. An inhumane ruler runs the risk of losing the "Mandate of Heaven," the right to rule. Such a mandateless ruler need not be obeyed. But a ruler who reigns humanely and takes care of the people is to be obeyed strictly, for the benevolence of his dominion shows that he has been mandated by heaven.
The Perfect Gentleman / Exemplary Person
The term Jūnzǐ (君子) is a term crucial to classical Confucianism. Literally meaning "son of a ruler," "prince," or "noble," the ideal of a "gentleman" (or, less gender-specifically, "exemplary person") is the ideal which Confucianism exhorts all people to strive. A hereditary elitism was bound up in the concept and gentlemen were expected to act as moral guides to the rest of society. They were to:
cultivate themselves morally;
participate in the correct performance of ritual;
show filial piety and loyalty where these are due; and
The great exemplar of the gentleman is Confucius himself. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life was that he was never awarded the high official position which he desired, from which he wished to demonstrate the general well-being that would ensue if humane persons ruled and administered the state.
The opposite of the Jūnzǐ was the Xiǎorén (小人), literally "small person" or "petty person." Like English "small," the word in this context in Chinese can mean petty in mind and heart, narrowly self-interested, greedy, superficial, and materialistic.