Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

How did tradition treat Confucius after he was gone?

Very soon after after his death, the followers of Confucius initiated what would become a centuries-long process of elevating their teacher above the ranks of ordinary people. They revered him as a special ancestral figure, the pinnacle of wisdom. They built a temple in his honor in Qufu in 478 B.C.E. and, not long after that, began to enshrine statues and paintings of the Teacher and his major disciples there. Official imperial exaltation of Confucius did not begin until nearly five centuries after his death. After Han emperor Ping proclaimed Confucius the “Exalted Mt. Ni Duke of Highest Perfection” in the year 1 C.E., a dozen other sovereigns followed, bestowing similar accolades until at least the sixteenth century. In keeping with the hierarchy of royal titles, the emperors decreed that Confucius would be known by such titles as Duke, First Teacher, First Sage, High King of Learning, and Ultimate Sage. Around 1530 C.E., emperors stopped using the language of royalty and switched to a set of titles designed to reflect wisdom rather than temporal power. As early as the mid-fifth century C.E., the imperial authority dedicated a temple to Confucius, and within a century or two decreed state-sponsored offerings in the Master’s honor. Though Confucians have never considered Confucius divine, he has clearly ranked at the very zenith of human perfection.

Confucius in stone, Tokyo Confucius temple.


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