Confucianism is a social, moral, educational and political philosophy (or simply a way of life), which was initiated by the Chinese scholar, Confucius, who lived from 551BC to 479BC. His philosophy was later developed by his followers with the purpose of building a harmonious and peaceful society. The philosophy was then spread in Vietnam during the 1000 thousand years Chinese domination, and together with Buddhism and Taoism - they became the 3 main religions in the country.


During our feudal periods, those three teachings were foundations for Vietnam to form its world view, they were authorities for and confirmations of an entire way of the Vietnamese’s life.



As a result, Buddhist pagodas, Taoist and Confucius temples were built across the country from the 10th century. Among the Confucius temples in Vietnam, the “Temple of Literature” is the most well-known, because it is not only the typical Vietnam temple worshipping Confucius, it was also the Vietnamese Confucius School where our kings recruited officials for the royal courts during the period of 703 years, and that’s why it’s said to be the first university of Vietnam.


Though the construction of the Temple of Literature was started in the capital Hanoi in 1070, many parts of the building were reconstructed as the country went through different war times.


Confucian Education During Vietnamese Feudal Periods


One of the Confucianism’s progressive points is the encouragement of education, seeing education as necessary for everyone. Therefore, the imperial exam system was started in Vietnam in 1075, and the first university of Vietnam was also built behind the temple around that time.


There were 3 different exams held once every 3 years, and Vietnamese students got to pass an exam to attend the next one a year later. The third exam happened at the royal palace, where the students had to answer questions posed by the king. Those who passed that royal exam were officially called PHD doctors, awarded by the king, and selected to be officials for the royal court – the positions known as mandarins.


In 1484, king Le Thanh Tong stated that “talent is the life source of a nation, the powerful life source strengthens a country, a declining life source weakens it”.  So to promote the education, he started a tradition of carving names of the upcoming PHD doctors on a new stone stela after each royal exam. The tradition was carried out in the Temple of Literature for a period of 300 years, from 1484 to 1779. During that time there were 82 royal exams, hence there were 82 stone stelae made and displayed in its doctor stelae garden (third garden from the entrance). On each of those stelae, we can find a few hundred classical Chinese characters, which are names, places of birth and achievements of 1304 Confucian PHD doctors.



Those who did not pass the exams became Confucian teachers in their home villages, and were very much respected by the community. It was very common for young Vietnamese to be told that "One day as a teacher, the whole life as a father”.


Although that Confucian exam system was finally abolished by the colonial French in 1919, Confucian ideas, as well as those of Taoism and Buddhism, remain strong in Vietnam where deference and obedience to family is central to the society.





Very little is known about Confucius’ life, except that he was called Master Kong by his students in China, and the name "Confucius" was given to him by Western scholars. His idea was about to create a social and political harmony through individual moral developments, proper family relations, and good governance.


In his early life, he held low-level government positions and sought for a high-ranking ruler to hire him as an advisor, so that his ideas for achieving social and political harmony could be implemented. That never happened.


He spent most of his life studying the classics of Chinese history and teaching his ideas to students. He died in 479 BC without having had any major influence on China during his lifetime. However, his teachings developed in the centuries after his death and came to prominence during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).


Four Books in Confucianism


1. The Great Learning


Great Learning is an introductory book for young students, in the past, people aged 15 years old went to college and learned this book. The two words "Great Learning", can be understood as the learning of the great people, and the learning to become great people.


The book consists of a short main text attributed to Confucius, and nine chapters by Zengzi, one of the disciples of Confucius. It teaches people how to cultivate themselves and rule people, therefore it has been extremely influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought.


2. The Doctrine of the Mean


The book was written by Zisi, Confucius' grandson. It demonstrates the usefulness of a golden way to gain perfect virtue.


3. The Analects


A compilation of speeches by Confucius and his disciples, as well as the discussions between them. Since Confucius's time, the Analects has heavily influenced the philosophy and moral values of China, and later other East Asian countries as well. The Imperial examinations emphasized Confucian studies, and expected candidates to quote and apply the words of Confucius in their essays.


4. The Mencius


A collection of conversations of the scholar Mencius with kings of his time. In contrast to the sayings of Confucius, which are short and self-contained, the Mencius consists of long dialogues with extensive prose.



Five Classics in Confucianism


1. The Classic of Poetry


A collection of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs, 105 festal songs sung at court ceremonies, and 40 hymns and eulogies sung at sacrifices to heroes and ancestral spirits of the royal house.


2. The Classic of History


A collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It is possibly the oldest Chinese narrative, and may date from the 6th century BC. It includes examples of early Chinese prose.


3. The Classic of Rites


Describes ancient rites, social forms and court ceremonies. The version studied today is a re-worked version compiled by scholars in the third century BC rather than the original text, which is said to have been edited by Confucius himself.


4. The Classic of Changes (I Ching)


Classic of Changes is an ancient Chinese divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics, which is centered largely around the principles of yin and yang. Some of the divination practices are still used today.


5. The Spring and Autumn Annals


A historical record of the State of Lu, Confucius's native state, 722–481 BC. It records main events that occurred in Lu during each year, such as the accessions, marriages, deaths, and funerals of rulers, battles fought, sacrificial rituals observed, celestial phenomena considered ritually important, and natural disasters.


The Classic of Music is sometimes considered the sixth classic but was lost in the Burning of the Books. The burning of books and burying of scholars refers to the supposed burning of texts in 213 BCE, and live burial of 460 Confucian scholars in 212 BCE by the Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty of Imperial China.


Basic Teachings in Confucianism



1. Individual Moral Development


For Individual Moral, Confucius teaching is characterized by the promotion of virtues. He talked about the Five Constants, which usually means five common moral qualities of man, and seen as the standard for all political and social activities.


1. Rén – Benevolence

2. Yì – Justice

3. Lǐ - Proper Rite

4. Zhì – Knowledge

5. Xìn – Integrity


Confucius also divided people into three classes:


1. Sage: a wise man, who manifests and transfers wisdom.

2. Honorable Man: People are moral, always striving to do the right thing.

3. Primary Man: The "lowly" people, doing things without caring about morality.


To become an Honorable Man, one must study constantly throughout his life, and after learning something he must review it regularly.


Confucianism considers people's morality more important than property. Confucius said, "Honorable man care about morality, the primary man yearns for the garden of the house. The honorable man is concerned about the rule, the primary man wishes for grace".


Confucianism sees individuals as the most fundamental factors that constitute family and society.


2. Family


Confucius saw the role of the family as a cell of society. If each family is peaceful, each of its members will have the conditions to cultivate themselves, the moral is then enhanced, the society will be prosperous.


Confucianism upholds the Filial piety, promotes the proper rites, virtue, and the status of the family as well as the relative. Children must be filial to their parents, when parents die they must bury carefully and mourn to pay their gratitude. Confucianism see filial piety is the root of the morality.


Everyone must be good to their parents, take care of parents, engage in good conduct not just towards parents at home but also outside the home to bring a good name to parents and ancestors. Therefore, the filial piety and family reunion is particularly important, and considered a key virtue in Vietnamese culture. If one forgets his ancestors, he has sin to his ancestors.


In marriage, Confucianism promotes husband and wife love, not allowing adultery after marriage. The wife must know the Three Obedience and Four Virtues; the husband must not abuse the authority to torment the wife. Three Obedience and Four Virtues are the most basic set of moral principles and social code of behavior for women in Vietnam:


The Three Obedience:

1. Obey her father as a maiden daughter

2. Obey her husband as a chaste wife

3. Obey her sons as a widow dedicated to the family


Four Feminine Virtues:

1. Virtue in Morality

2. Virtue in Proper Speech

3. Virtue in Appearance

4. Virtue in Diligent Work


Confucianism attaches great importance to virginity, for pre-marital sex or cohabitation, Confucianism is very critical, considering it as immoral, humiliating act.


3. Society


There are 5 basic relationships in society:

1. Ruler and Subject

2. Father and Son

3. Elder Brother and Younger Brother

4. Husband and Wife

5. Friend and Friend


In all relationship, there involves the authority of the superior over the subordinate, except between the friends. The power and the right belongs to the superior, each people has to respect the superiority, such as the older people over younger, or man over woman.


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