It’s a difficult question to answer really. A simple answer is that Confucianism is a philosophy, but the truth is much more complicated. Confucianism should be considered a philosophy because it was originally a teaching about how a nation should be governed envisioned by Confucius himself. Also, almost all of Confucius’ original teachings wereis about proper behavior of man, not how the world was created, where people came from and are going after death. Lastly, the Song dynasty was the first to really make Confucianism a state philosophy reaching everyone in society.
Confucianism as envisioned by Confucius was originally a philosophy about how a nation should be governed and how people from the king to the peasant in the field should behave in the interest of the state. It was his disciples and later Confucian scholars that added more color to the Confucianism, but it was originally a system of personal governance and philosophy behind it. TheVery basic theory behind Confucianism is that a good state is a stable state; and in order to have a stable state you need a centralized governance and rigid social structure where everyone accepts their place in society.
Thisese rigid social structure was cemented through various social constructs based on tradition and many rituals, large and small. Without this clever system, creating as large a state as China and keeping it together for thousands of years probably wouldn’t have been possible. Soon, Chinese emperors realized Confucianism wasis the perfect philosophy to keep an empire as large as China stable and centralized, and rest is history. From Han dynasty and on, China became a bureaucratic state with Confucian scholars running the show.
Although Confucius formally studied Taoism and was well versed in the religion, interestingly Confucius himself made little mention of gods or after life. He does seem to have valued religion from perspective of tradition, but he doesn’t seem to have believed in gods. For example, while he mentions importance of rituals to respect ancestors, he makes no claims about these ancestors’ ghosts doing anything for you. Rather, it was the ritual itself that was important, not whether it did anything.
Almost all of Confucius’ original teaching is about proper behavior of man, not how the world was created, where we came from and going after death. He didn’t know and he didn’t care. However, over time religious elements merged with Confucianism – for a very good reason. The religious aspect of Confucianism is really elements of Neo-Confucianism often considered to have been perfected during the Song Dynasty.
While other Chinese dynasties had hired Confucian scholars to be bureaucrats, it wasn’t widely practiced by the society at large until the Song dynasty. Song was the first to really make Confucianism a state philosophy reaching everyone in society. In order to do that, the philosophy had to expand to include elements of religion that was widely practiced in China. This is what most people know of as Confucianism today, with elements of Taoism, Buddhism, and even pagan rituals mixed in. Koreans mixed in their religious flavor to the mix when they made it the state philosophy of Joseon Korea.
Japan had its own flavor as well, although it never became the state philosophy there. The concept of heavenly mandate was a feature that was built into Confucianism by Neo-Confucian scholars to keep the kings and emperors in check. While the concept existed in Chinese tradition, it was the Song’s neo-Confucian scholars who tied mandate of heaven to how well Emperor followed Confucian philosophy and its traditions. It was essentially Chinese Magna Carta in a way. It basically says that Emperor’s power is not absolute, that the power only lasts within the boundaries of Confucian philosophy.
Confucianism is often characterized as a system of social and ethical philosophy rather than a religion. In fact, Confucianism built on an ancient religious foundation to establish the social values, institutions, and transcendent ideals of traditional Chinese society. Confucius was a political architect of his day – and Confucianism is really about how an ideal society should be created and operated.