Confucianism Timeline

Confucianism Timeline (text)

551 - 479 BCE The Life of Confucius

Confucius, also known as Kung Fuzi or Master Kong, was born in Qufu in 551 BCE. He emerged during the Warring States Period: a tumultuous time in Chinese history surrounding the collapse of the central government of the Zhou Dynasty. Confucius offered a way to help people make sense of the turmoil, by committing themselves to their local communities, families, schools, and political structures. Alongside the preservation of traditional rituals, he taught humaneness, moral and spiritual reformation, and cultivation of good virtues. Although most public leaders disregarded his teachings, Confucius taught a significant group of disciples who went on to spread his message. While Confucius today is often said to be the founder of Confucianism, he considered himself more of a transmitter or revitalizer of the original Zhou traditions, aiming to restore a just government and create a healthy, moral society. He died in 479 BCE.

479 BCE Temple of Confucius in Qufu

A Temple of Confucius was built in Confucius’ hometown, Qufu, nearly one year after his death in 479 BCE. The Temple has been expanded and re-built since then, and is today the oldest and largest Temple of Confucius.

ca. 500 BCE The Analects

The Analects was compiled around this time. It is the most-revered sacred scripture within the Confucian tradition and contains primarily Confucius’ sayings and teachings. It was likely developed as a corpus of the memory of Confucius by his disciples in the generations after his lifetime to transmit his teachings.

371- 289 BCE Mencius

Mencius, also known as Meng Tzu or Mengzi, is the second most important figure in Confucianism, hence his title “the Second Sage.” He was a moral philosopher, political activist, and social critic. His conversations with rulers, students, and other contemporaries regarding Confucian teachings are recorded in a work entitled Mencius, which was later canonized as one of the Four Books of the Confucian Canon.

ca. 300 BCE - 235 BCE The Life of Xunzi

Xunzi (Hun Kuang) is the last of the Five Great Sages of Confucianism. As a scholar, his interpretations of the Confucian philosophical system helped establish the Confucian school as a formidable political and social influence.

213 BCE Burning of the Books and Burying of Scholars

While the details of this event are uncertain, it is said that under a royal decree of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, many books opposing the Legalist school of thought (a rival of Confucianism) were confiscated and burned, and many Confucian scholars were executed. This led to a loss in the preservation of Confucian classics, which were only recovered and re-propagated several decades later during the Han Dynasty. Some believe that the sixth classic, The Book of Music, was completely lost in this event.

206 BCE - 202 CE The Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty arose amidst a flourishing of Confucian thought and practice. Han Emperor Wu (141 BCE - 87 CE) abandoned Legalism in favor of Confucianism, which he established as state philosophy. As the empire expanded into Korean and Vietnamese territory, two schools of thought emerged: the Old Text School, entailing study of the classical canon and early figures, and the New Text School, which infuses theories of yin/yang, the Five Elements, and miraculous tales in order to emphasize supernatural notions of early texts and figures.

136 BCE Emperor Wu Establishes First Confucian Academy

During the Han Dynasty, Confucian ideals became deeply embedded into the government and legal system. As part of his efforts to adopt and promote Confucian thought, the Han Emperor Wu established an imperial university based on Confucian texts for teaching future state administrators. He also introduced the civil service examination, a mandatory exam on Confucian classics for all candidates for local office. This practice of requiring that applicants for government positions pass an examination in Confucian texts persisted until the 20th century.

136 BCE Formation of the Five Classics

In 136 BCE, Emperor Han, under direction of Confucian scholar Tung Chung-shu (179-104 BCE), grouped the Five Classics together to form the earliest canon of the Confucian tradition. The Five Classics are: I Ching (Book of Changes), Classic of Poetry, Book of Rites, Book of Documents, and Spring and Autumn Annals. According to tradition, Confucius wrote or compiled the Five Classics during his lifetime. Though there is little evidence of this, Confucius’ ideas may be reflected in some of the texts.

175 CE The Five Classics Become China’s Official Scriptures

Due to the anti-Confucian policies of the Qin Dynasty, Confucian scholars during the Han Dynasty worked to recover and restore the Confucian Classics. Their efforts culminated in the Five Classics being carved on stone tablets and displayed in the capital. This event symbolized both the finalization of the orthodox Confucian Canon and its adoption as China’s official scripture.

372 CE National Confucian Academy Established in Korea

Confucianism began to spread throughout the Korean peninsula in the 3rd century CE. Goguryeo (Koguryo) was one of the three major kingdoms that ruled the Korean peninsula from the 1st century BCE to the 7th century CE. In 372 CE, King Sosurim of Goguryeo established the Tae Hak (“Great Learning”), a national academy for the study and training of elites in Confucian thought and practice.

489 CE First Northern Confucian Temple Outside of Qufu

The first northern Confucian temple outside of Confucius’ hometown (Qufu) is built by King Xiaowen of the Northern Wei in China.

604 CE The 17 Article Constitution

Though Confucianism is said to have been first introduced to Japan by Wani of Paekche (of Korea) at the end of the 3rd century CE, it did not gain wider prominence until the 6th and 7th centuries. In 604 CE, Prince Shotoku Taishi established a 17 Article Constitution for the ruling class based on Buddhist and Confucian thought, especially the Analects of Confucius. It emphasized the responsibilities of both the sovereign and the ruled for a unified and harmonious state.

618 - 906 CE The Tang Dynasty

To promote the growth of education in Confucian thought and values, the Tang Dynasty established many schools and issued versions of the Five Classics that included commentaries. In 630 CE, The Tang government decreed that all schools should have a Confucian temple, leading to a rapid spread in Confucian temples throughout China. The Dynasty also developed official liturgy for worship and sacrifices at these temples.

682 CE Confucianism and Government in Korea

A National Confucian Academy was built in the United Silla Kingdom (Korea) in 682 CE. In 788, the Kingdom introduced an exam for state administrators based on Confucianism, though the exam initially had little effect on government. In 958 CE, the exams would become more influential and systematic under King Gwangjong of the Goryeo Kingdom.

700s CE - 1130 CE Neo-Confucianism in China

Neo-Confucianism began to develop as a response to Buddhism and Daoism in China. The first formulators included Han Yu (768-824 CE), Li Ao (772-841 CE), and later Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), as well as its most important synthesizer, Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Thanks to Zhu Xi’s work, Neo-Confucianism was later adopted as the orthodox and state religion of China. The thinkers of the Confucian revival developed a comprehensive humanist vision that meshed Confucian ideas about self-cultivation with social ethics and moral philosophy. This Neo-Confucian philosophy applied classical Confucian principles to the concerns of the time.

1100s CE Neo-Confucianism in Japan

Neo-Confucian thought commentaries were introduced in Japan in the late medieval period. However, as a form of thought, Neo-Confucianism did not become prominent in Japan until the seventeenth century CE.

Late 1200s CE Neo-Confucianism Introduced to the Korean Peninsula

As a result of the efforts of An Hyang, a leading Confucian scholar, Neo-Confucianism was introduced to the Goryeo kingdom in the Korean peninsula. With the rise of Neo-Confucianism, Confucian thought and values began to take on even greater significance in Korean culture and government.

1313 CE The Four Books in China

The Four Books (Analects, Book of Mencius, Great Learning, and Doctrine of the Mean) became state orthodoxy of China in 1313 CE, when they were designated as the basis for Chinese civil service examinations.

1392 CE Confucianism Becomes State Religion of Korea

Though the Goryeo kingdom adopted Buddhism as its state orthodoxy, the Sejong and Joseon kingdoms adopted Neo-Confucianism as state religion and the official code of practice for administrators. This largely occurred as a result of the rise of Neo-Confucianism and the efforts of its scholars. During this time, Confucian values became strongly ingrained in Korean politics, culture, legal practice, education, and activism — a tradition that persists today in South Korea.

Late 1400s CE onward Wang Yang-Ming and the Lu-Wang School

Wang Yang-Ming, born in 1472, became the leading Neo-Confucian of the Ming dynasty. He played a significant role in reviving the philosophy of Lu Jiuyuan, leading to the development of the school of the universal mind, or the Lu-Wang school. His Neo-Confucian school of thought emphasized moral education and every human’s innate knowledge of good (liangzhi). The Lu-Wang school’s influence spread beyond China, becoming especially influential in Japan.

1603 CE Government Based on Neo-Confucian Thought in Japan

Japan’s Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu established a bureaucratic government that drew inspiration from some Neo-Confucian teachings.

1644 CE - 1912 CE The Qing Dynasty and New Schools

During the Qing Dynasty, new schools of Confucianism began to emerge, including Shih Hsueh (Practical Learning), which focuses on moral learning and addressing worldly issues, and Kao Cheng (Evidential Research) which focuses on the study of the canonical texts.

1800s CE Confucianism Syncretizing with Various East Asian Traditions

The growth of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Daoism, shamanism, and Shinto in East Asia did not undermine the continuing relevance and strength of Confucianism in many aspects of life -- including government, ritual, family life, ethics, and education. Rather, Confucian values coexisted and syncretized with other East Asian traditions.

1830 - early 1900s CE First American Accounts of Confucianism

American Christian missionaries traveled to China and wrote their accounts of Confucianism. In the 1870s, institutions such as Yale University, Harvard University, and the University of California began to devote themselves to the study of Chinese history and culture and Confucianism.

1862 CE First Use of the Term "Confucianism"

First use of the term “Confucianism.” It first came into use in the West following encounters between Jesuit missionaries and Chinese scholars. However, for centuries there had been an understanding of Confucianism among East Asian intellectuals that was not directly tied to Confucius but rather to those who followed or studied his teachings.

1919 CE May 4th Movement

The May 4th Movement developed as an initiative to bring about modernization and Westernization in China. The movement targeted and denounced Chinese traditions such as Confucianism. The 1905 abandonment of the civil service examination system, as well as the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the New Culture Movement, dealt a blow to Confucianism and traditional Chinese values and practices. Many figures, however, continued to defend Confucianism, believing it could offer ways to remedy China’s problems, and many Chinese people retained Confucian modes of thought.

1961 CE Qufu Confucius Temple Listed as National Cultural Heritage Site

The Confucius Temple in Qufu was added to the National Cultural Heritage Sites list.

1966 CE - 1976 CE The Cultural Revolution

Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China. He was especially hostile to the “old thought” of Confucianism, which he saw as the governing ideology of China before the Communist Revolution. This led to the Cultural Revolution, a campaign to eradicate traditional elements from Chinese life and practice, including the destruction of traditional religious sites in China.

1976 CE Renewed Tolerance and the New Confucianism Movement

After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, subsequent governments were more tolerant toward Confucianism and other traditions of China. Though scores of Chinese people in this period grew up knowing little about Confucianism, the New Confucianism movement emerged aiming to adapt traditional Confucian thought and practice to the contemporary age.

1988 CE Beijing Confucius Temple Listed as National Cultural Heritage Site

The Beijing Confucius Temple was added to the National Cultural Heritage Sites list.

Late 20th Century New Emphasis on Confucian Study in the U.S.

Many Chinese scholars of Confucianism emigrated to the United States, bringing with them a renewed emphasis on Confucian study in the U.S. American interest in Confucianism and Chinese culture also continued to grow alongside various geopolitical events involving China. Many Confucian scholars in the US engaged with Western philosophy, re-interpreting classical Confucian texts in the context of contemporary crises.

The Present and Future of Confucianism

Confucian scholarship thrived during the later years of the 20th century. Confucian studies has seen a revival in universities across the world, and remains particularly strong in Japan; Confucian philosophy continues to have a significant influence in scholarship on ethics, moral philosophy, psychology, and social criticism. Though many modern geopolitical influences — particularly modern Chinese state powers — were hostile to Confucianism, the commitments, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of the Confucian tradition remain vital in the consciousnesses and practices of many people in China and throughout the world.


Explore Confucianism in Greater Boston

Though there are significant Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean immigrant communities in Greater Boston, East Asian traditions such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Shintō are difficult to survey as there are very few religious centers. These traditions are deeply imbedded in the unique history, geography, and culture of their native countries and are often practiced in forms that are not limited to institutional or communal settings.

Map of Boston for Exploring