The Three Patriarchs of Confucianism

Extracted from The Six Patriarchs of Chinese Humanism by its

author: Peter M.K. Chan


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Table of Content




Chapter One

 The Humanism of Confucius


1.1  Destiny and the Decree of Heaven

1.2  The Importance of Learning

1.3  The Kingly and the Humane

1.4  Humaneness, Propriety, and Righteousness

1.5  Method of Self-Cultivation

1.6 Essentials of Government

1.7 On Filial Piety and Mourning for the Dead



Chapter Two


 The Romantic Confucianism of Mencius


2.1  The Inborn Nature of Man

2.2  Nourish the Mind and Strengthen the Will

2.3  The “Fixer” of One’s Destiny

2.4  On the Political Economy

2.5  The Mandate of Heaven

2.6 Against Devious Doctrines



 Chapter Three

The Pragmatic Confucianism of Xun-zi

 3.1 Heaven and Man

3.2 The Human Mind and Its Problems

3.3 On the Inborn Nature of Man

3.4 Learning to Become a Kingly Person

3.5 On Society and the Economy

3.6 The Ruler and the State

3.7 Methods of Government





































Peter M.K. Chan is accessible at 




The purpose of this book is to let Confucius, Mencius, and Xun-zi to speak directly and systematically for themselves. It is designed for those who would like to know what they had actually said about the problem of man and society, but were not able to get a systematic view from their isolated utterances on various topics scattered here and there in the ancient texts where their actual words are to be found. This is why I have sought to reconstitute a more friendly and systematic version of what they had actually said -- by extracting directly from the very documents that are known to contain their words, namely: the Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Book of Mencius, and the Book of Xun-zi. It is to show that when many of their utterances on one and the same topic are gathered to roost, what these patriarchs of Confucianism had in mind were in fact more comprehensive and engaging than any intermediary is able to convey.


For those who are not already in the know, the period in which our three Confucian patriarchs had to find themselves is known in Chinese history as the Warring State Period (475 - 221 BC). This was a period of political disorder and unceasing inter-regional conflict, leading eventually to the disintegration of the once glorious Zhou Dynasty (ca.1027 BC 249 BC). Fortunately though, the flip side of this period was its intellectual diversity. As historians have come to see, this was the most creative and productive period in the intellectual history of China, quite analogous to “a simultaneous blooming of a hundred flowers”. It was in this kind of open intellectual environment that the philosophical seeds of Chinese humanism were sown. It appeared in three styles: represented respectively by the teachings of Confucius (ca.551-479 BC), Moh-zi (ca.479-438 BC), and Lao-zi (ca.550 – 450 BC). The issues with which they were concerned are: What is wrong with man and society? How could world order and social harmony be restored? 


Unlike Lao-zi and Moh-zi, the answer of Confucius is that the moral character of man, those in positions of authority in particular, has got to be reformed. This is to be accomplished by way of personal cultivation and learning from the ancient Sage-kings. Part of what that entails is to strive unceasingly to become humane and righteous by complying with the rules of propriety (or proper conduct). It is only when the state is governed by such kingly (or morally superior) persons that political order and social harmony is really to be had.


As it turned out, it was his call for moral reform that had excited the imagination of younger intellectuals. Among them, Mencius (ca.371-289 BC) was the first to move the humanism of Confucius onto new grounds. Upon the fact that it is natural for everyone to feel empathetic toward the suffering of others, it was his view that the inborn nature of man is good. However, as he also pointed out, the having of such humane sentiments is not something that could be taken for granted. According to him, they would wither if not activated and used. What needs to be done is therefore this: nurture the mind and strengthen its chi of righteousness. It is only by doing so that a morally superior individual is able to stand alone and fearless in a chaotic world. And biting his own word with his teeth, he was darling enough to tell his listeners that no ruler should take his “Mandate of Heaven” for granted. It is something that had to be earned by winning the hearts of the people. Furthermore, he was also very outspoken on how a state and its economy should actually be run. It was for reason of the above that he was honored by later generations as China’s “Sage #2”, second only to Confucius himself.


Another outstanding promoter of Confucianism was Xun-zi (ca.298 – 238 BC). According to him, the inborn nature of man is not good, but detestable. It is intelligence that has allowed man to become good by learning from the Sage-kings. That put him seriously at odd with the view of Mencius. Another issue that they could not see exactly eye to eye was Xun-zi’s challenge to the anthropomorphic view of Heaven. According to him, Heaven is nothing but Nature itself. As such, it is something to be regulated rather than worshipped or feared. What is also worthy of note was his foray into the epistemological and problematic aspects of the human mind, which is by far the most articulate in the annals of ancient Chinese philosophy. Even though the mind is the cognitive ruler of the body, he said, it is yet prone to perceptual illusions, delusions of desires, and intellectual blindness. Furthermore, the historical significance of his theory on society and government, including the organizational aspects of public administration, was also more comprehensive than any of his predecessors were able to provide. 


Well, do not take my word for it. The real flavor of the cake is in the eating. It is my hope that by the end of this book, readers will find that the actual words of our three Confucian patriarchs are really tastier than any advertising is able to convey. That alone will be my greatest reward.




Note:  ebooks about 

 these patriarchs of Chinese humanism

are available at: