There is a lot to learn about different cultures and people by understanding their beliefs about the afterlife. One of these beliefs with a unique interpretation of life after death is Confucianism. While commonly thought of as a religion, Confucianism is more of a life philosophy. It provides a structure of ethical and philosophical foundations for social values, institutions, and society.
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Confucianism is a popular belief system in China, though you’ll find aspects of this philosophy around the world. These teachings are based on the importance of kindness, harmony, and order above all.
Because Confucianism isn’t a religion, it’s not always clear whether they believe in life after death or any specific afterlife. In this guide, we’ll dive deeper into Confucian teachings to answer this question once and for all.
Confucian Views on Life and Death
When we consider the role of death in different cultures, it’s hard to separate the western view of the afterlife when thinking about other belief systems. Since Confucianism is all about social order and the community, there is less of a focus on what happens after someone dies. This leads to a greater value of the present moment.
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Living a meaningful life
From a Confucian perspective, it’s important to live what’s known as a “meaningful life.” This is when one develops their moral potential to the fullest. They fulfill their social obligations and live in the present. People do not act based on the expectations of a reward (Heaven) or punishment (Hell) after death. One should live life fully because it is the best way to live.
One lives a meaningful life by acting ethically, paying respect to ancestors, and making the most of what they have. It is important for everyone to conform to their role in relationships and in life. It is only by performing one’s role that everyone exists in harmony, everything falling into place. Ultimately, what comes after is of less importance.
Confucianism gods and deities
Unlike other belief systems, there is no all-powerful god or other deities in Confucianism. There is no separate spiritual word where a god watches over humanity. The sacred is believed to live in everyday life, and the spiritual is ever-present.
Many people mistakenly think Confucius is the god-like figure at the center of this belief system, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Confucius was born around 551 B.C. and his teachings form the foundation for what is known as modern-day Confucianism.
Though he was considered the first private teacher in China, he never claimed to be anything more than that. Unlike other religions (or philosophies), he was a teacher who applied ancient thought to daily life. All of this balance between ordinary and spiritual highlights this important facet of Confucianism.
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The golden rule
Confucianism does share some common belief structures as other religious groups. While the Christian saying is to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Confucius coined a similar saying about the importance of acting morally and with respect. The golden rule of Confucian beliefs focus on five main relationships:
- Parent-child: One should always have respect for their parents since this forms the foundation of all character and morality.
- Elder brother and younger brother: If the father is no longer in the picture, the elder brother is to gain the same respect.
- Husband/wife: The husband should be a source of support for the wife. The role of the wife is to bear children.
- Friendship: Friends should treat each other with mutual respect and kindness.
- Ruler/subject: Finally, rulers should be fair while their subjects should serve loyally.
These relationships support the importance of treating others as you wish to be treated. Respecting authority and enforcing balance and order are the most important things someone can do. This is the golden rule.
Death and dying
Confucius was not concerned with an afterlife or any spiritual realm where souls go after they die. Life is enough, no matter how short. If someone lived according to his golden rules, they shouldn’t be concerned with what comes next since they already played their role in society.
Death is a natural part of life, though it’s not discussed often in the most popular texts or in the teachings of Confucius. In Chinese culture, it’s not seen as appropriate to talk about death. To do so would disrupt the harmony of society.
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So, What Happens When Confucians Die?
When someone who practices Confucianism dies, there is no clear path to the afterlife. The beliefs differ depending on the individual and their family. Many people practice a combination of Buddhism and Confucianism, so they turn to Buddhism for their ideas about what happens after death.
Similarly, Buddhists believe that death is a natural part of life that isn’t to be feared. Instead of going to an afterlife, spirits remain on this earth and are reincarnated. The spirit remains close to its final resting place and seeks out a new body for a new life. Along these lines, death is not the end. It’s simply a rebirth. This is another way to view the balance of Confucianism.
The body goes into a casket where it is washed, dusted with powder, and dressed in its finest clothes. There is a lot of Chinese superstition that goes into the burial process. For example, women are buried with jewelry for good luck. Like a Korean funeral, the casket is decorated and food is offered to the deceased loved one’s spirit. This is all a way to ensure the loved one finds a safe home in their next life.
It would be impossible to talk about Confucianism views on the afterlife without mentioning ancestor worship. Because everyone needs to understand their place in society, this education begins in the family. This is where you learn to honor your elders and those who brought you into this world.
While living well means being respectful to those on this earth, it’s also about honoring those who came before. Household shrines and genealogical records are at the center of daily worship, but it doesn’t stop there. Confucian beliefs include very specific ways to remember family members. For example, when a parent dies, this traditionally calls for 3 years of ritual mourning as a sign of respect.
Confucian himself didn’t take sole credit for his teachings. He called upon the wisdom of the past and his own ancestors, and this led to the modern Chinese philosophy as it’s known today. Everything is made up of stepping stones from the past, and honoring this past is at the forefront of Confucianism beliefs.
When Life is Enough: Confucianism
While every belief system has its own way of understanding what comes after death, Confucianism doesn’t try to answer this question. It’s okay living with the uncertainty of the afterlife, and the focus instead is on finding peace with one’s limited time on earth. Confucius shared his teachings at a time of social and political strife in China. He sought to find harmony and order out of this chaos, and his words of wisdom live on thousands of years later.
Confucianism doesn’t ask complicated questions that can’t be answered. It gives a structure for living one’s life well, and it provides order for those looking for it. Knowing one’s place is a form of peace, according to Confucius. What comes next is anyone’s guess, so why not live life to the fullest in the here and now?
- “Confucian Ancestor Worship.” BBC Radio 4. 31 July 2015. YouTube.com.
- “Confucianism.” Asia Society for Education. AsiaSociety.org.
- Fersko-Weiss, Henry. “The Chinese Approach to Death and Dying.” International End of Life Doula Association. 23 June 2017. INELDA.org.
- Weiming, Tu. “Confucianism.” Encyclopedia Britannica.” 12 August 2019. Britannica.com.