Confucius was born in around 551 BC, in the small Chinese feudal state of Lu, in what is now Shandong province. At the time, he was one of many philosophers preaching his ideas. His most important disciples were Mencius, in the fourth century BC, and Xunzi a century later.

It was only during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 225) however, that his thoughts were compiled into the so-called Confucian Classics, the most important of which is the Analects. By the second century BC, Confucianism was the official religion of China, and the Classics became the basis of study for all scholars and officials.

Confucius' teachings stressed virtue, goodness and learning. The principal ideas concerned the achievement of peace and harmony together with the nature of the good man, the junzi, who was supposed to show respectful, considerate behaviour. Proper behaviour could only be achieved through a lifetime of practice, including the observation of prescribed rules and rituals known as li.

The Classics had a much wider application, as well. Confucianism discussed the role of the ruler and the subject, and the position of each in a very hierarchical society. Just as a son's most important virtue was filial piety, so should the subject respect his ruler.

Sage-kings of the past (some apocryphal) became symbols of the ideal ruler, and ancient times were held up as golden ages of moral and natural order. Official rituals honoured gods and heroes of the past. All aspects of nature that might affect daily life, such as the seasons, weather and natural disasters, were also included in ritual observance.

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