Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

What is Confucianism and who were the Literati?

“Confucianism” refers to the system of social, ethical, and religious beliefs and practices associated with Confucius. The term does not imply the worship of Confucius as a supreme or central deity, but it does acknowledge his foundational and pivotal role in the cultivation of beliefs and practices that have remained important in many Asian societies for centuries. Some scholars suggest that we replace “Confucianism” with “Literati Tradition” to indicate that the complex of beliefs and practices now generally attributed to Confucius is actually part of a broader cultural phenomenon. “Literati” (the Latin for “the lettered, educated”) is a name coined by non-Chinese scholars to describe the cultural elite most influential in promoting and preserving the Chinese imperial system. The Literati were the highly educated, professionally specialized bureaucrats who maintained the far-flung governmental structures of the empire. They also functioned as the ritual specialists in the many religious ceremonies performed under imperial auspices for sponsorship.


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