Confucianism is a Set of Moral Principles

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Confucianism is a set of moral principles. It is a hierarchical philosophy. The fundamentals of Confucianism state, in its most basic form, that there is a necessity of correct behavior and loyalty and obedience are of the utmost importance. Because Confucianism has had such an impact on the livelihood of many in South East Asia, it is often grouped together with Buddhism and Taoism, but it is not in fact a religion. It is simply a set of moral principles that guide one’s way of life. In Vietnam, Confucianism impacts almost every aspect of life, including family, society, school, and law.

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Confucianism’s origin in Vietnam can be traced back to two specific catalysts: the Chinese occupation and the agricultural lifestyle. The Chinese occupation in Vietnam lasted nearly ten centuries and, during that time, Confucianism was introduced and existed peacefully with the other religions, like Buddhism and Taoism, that were also prevalent in Vietnamese society. “Confucianism became the leading ideology of the Vietnamese monarchy from the Le dynasty, particularly under the reign of Le Thanh Ton (1460–97)” This led Confucianism to intensify and eventually be the main influence the organization of society as a whole.

It is important to mention that this was an important adoption as it continued to prove that Confucianism was not simply a Chinese idea and that Confucianism remained, and grew once the Chinese occupation in Vietnam ended in 939AD. One of the things that helped Confucius thought proper was the fact that the ideology of Confucianism lined up with the indigenous agricultural norms in Vietnam. These agricultural norms were the fundamental way of life and were some of, if not the most important aspects of life to the Vietnamese at the time.

The family unit is one of major importance in Vietnam. Because Confucianism calls for a patriarchal society, women are subordinate to men. In her life, a woman has three ways of life: obeying her father before she is married, obeying her husband after marriage, and obeying her son once her husband has passed away.

A woman’s main job is to produce a male heir. Because of the patriarchal society, having a daughter is not favored as she is at the bottom in terms of hierarchy and respect, and is essentially lost to the family once she is married. Unlike wives, however, husbands are not controlled by anyone in the family, especially their wives, and, therefore, have the ability to be unfaithful to their wives if they are deemed unfit or are not satisfying the man’s needs. They are also the sole owners of all land that the family owns. Children in Vietnam are raised through absolute obedience and going against principles reflects badly on one’s family as it calls to question the legitimacy and success of their raising you properly.

If there is one thing worse than individual same in Vietnam, it is shaming your family, especially to others. One sacrifices individualism for the family as the importance of “the group” is held in high priority as is maintaining harmony between the two. Children also have the responsibility of looking after their parents in old age and performing rituals once they pass away. Another aspect of family life the Vietnamese deem extremely importance is the remembrance of their deceased ancestors.

They view the deceased as still being a part of the living, as their guardians, and believe that their spirits will turn vengeful and angry is not respected and remembered. Almost every home in Vietnam has an altar dedicated to one’s ancestors. They tend to be decorated with names of family members who have dies in the past five generations, incense bowls, candles, and flowers. On the anniversary of each ancestors’ death, a male member of the family places an offering on the altar. This offering could be that of food or of votive papers. As well as having altars in homes, ancestors are also remembered in other celebrations, like weddings and births.

The societal aspects of Confucianism are also large aspect of life in Vietnam. Confucius thought promotes that everyone has their role or place in society. Along with those roles come certain rules, rights, and responsibilities. Like in families, men are superior to women, the top spot of the social hierarchy is held by the King. In Vietnam, there are believed to be five bonds in life. 1) Ruler to Ruled. This states that, because the ruler is the highest member of society, he must be respected and obeyed by his subjects. However, the ruler must also be respectful to his subjects, though not remotely close he same level of respect he receives. 2) Father to Son. As the head of the house, the children, must obey and respect the father.

The eldest son also takes over all familial responsibilities once the father passes away. 3) Husband to Wife. Again, wives must blindly obey their husband and give them the upmost respect. Husbands, in return, must provide for their families. 4) Elder Brother to Younger Brother. The younger brother must obey the elder brother as 1, he is his elder, and 2, the elder brother will eventually become the head of the house, again, a position that commands the upmost respect. Finally, 5) Friend to Friend. Friends in society must respect each other to live harmoniously. However, if one is considered higher in society than the other, the lesser one must show more respect to his superior, even if they are simply friends.

Confucius thought is all about relationships with other people and respecting whomever has a higher status than you. Because of this, there is a passive nature when it comes to societal interaction. One does not challenge anything, one simply accepts their position and continues on with life. Though ones position in society was initially determined by their family’s status at their time of birth, everyone was encouraged to improve themselves for the betterment of the community. Bad public opinion is a fear of the Vietnamese and therefore tend to be extremely trustworthy and focused on building and maintaining relationships with others.

As mentioned before, Confucianism lined up with the traditional agricultural ways, and thus created a sense of collectivism in Vietnamese society. One is not seen as an individual as a singular, but as someone who is part of a family, who is part of a village, who is part of a region, who is part of a county. This, in partnering with the harmony that Confucius thought provides in society, allows for an overarching sense of there being an organic singular. This is born out of the traditional and common efforts to cultivate crops. The collective interest and wellbeing is more important than the individual, and anyone who thinks otherwise is seen as selfish and disinterested in the success of the whole. Their farming background also added to mentality in terms of the “rule of causality, or nhan-qua, which states that “whatever happens today has been caused by past events”.

This not only applies to agriculture, but it is believed that ones life circumstances, like success or failure or poverty or wealth, is all based on past behaviors. Confucius thought has led the Vietnamese people to endure all challenges, and their elasticity and flexible behavior has been a result of their thinking. In support of this, the Vietnamese say,“if you are too clever, you will perish; if you are too stupid, you will also perish; but if you know how to live, you will survive.” This is also reflective of how important the Vietnamese find harmony in their lives and how easily it is to fall out of harmony with oneself and with others.

Because there is a significance of improving oneself for the bettering of society is a large part of the lifestyle in Vietnam, many attend school in order to do just that. As mentioned before, ones place in life is determined at the time of birth and because of the respect that must be given to those above you in society, there is not really much room to truly improve oneself. However, the only way to better yourself from the life you were born into was to go to school. Those who wanted an education would go to the Temple of Confucius in Hanoi.

The education there was extremely difficult and a marginal portion of those who studied actually passed their exams. Those few that passed were known as Mandarins and “there were about 3,500 Mandarins in North Vietnam in the 1700’s”. Because of their impressive knowledge and abilities needed to pass their exams, Mandarins became civil officials in the bureaucracy. This highly selective and difficult education process stayed in place until the French came to Vietnam.

The French introduced Latin script and thus, made reading and writing much easier. Besides the introduction of Latin script, the largest blow the French had on the Confucian education system was the reformation of the civil servant examination. This required those who wished to take it and pass to be trained in the European education system as opposed to the Confucian system most were trained in already. Though the Confucian education system did not last through the French occupation, Confucius beliefs are still practiced by individuals in schools to this day.

Both agricultural cultures and Confucianism value the elderly, but the Vietnamese once especially valued elders in the decision making process. In villages and traditional law, elders were turned to when decisions had to be made. Now, the respect that elders once had in the decision making process is diminishing as socioeconomic conditions in Vietnam change. Confucianism is quite prevalent in law in Vietnam. Because Confucian thought created a clear division within society, creating classes and promoting a certain way of behaving within society, the laws in Vietnam are meant to punish those who are behaving in an incorrect way and against the harmony of the society.

The various laws in Vietnam have often been questioned as there is not a distinct right and wrong in Confucianism. There is a lack of clear rules and, therefore, is often considered arbitrary. With the demographic structure and socioeconomic conditions in Vietnam changing, some say “the question is not to make a choice between legalism and Confucianism, but rather to ‘Confucianise’ the law, as was done during the Chinese Han dynasty. Legislation, including the formal requirements for lawmaking and the scope of regulation, was codified and standardised.” This would allow Confucian values that were once arbitrary to become enforceable norms.

Like most things, there was a point in time where Confucianism was rebelled against. At the end of the seventeenth century, numerous peasant rebellions formed. They called into question the ability of Confucianism to manage the country, especially with its backward thinking. The lower class especially did not like the fact that the ruling class and Mandarins demanded absolute obedience from them, i.e. their subjects. They especially did not like the fact that they were being ruled by a bureaucracy.

The teaching style of the intellectual class was focused specifically on the teachings of Confucius and Mencius, not allowing for any Western ideas to come remotely close to their conscious. This intellectual, along with the physical separation they had from the outside world meant they were being trapped by Confucius thought and its power over their lives. Though, in the nineteenth century, reformers tried to fix this feeling of being trapped by opening the country to trade and foreign investment, it did not last due to the traditional value of obeying one’s rulers. However, when Western forces like the French arrived in Vietnam, those ideals could not withhold the French’s opposing will and henceforth the country was opened to the things the nineteenth century reformers were fighting for.

By the time the Western influence took control, the Vietnamese intellectuals, under heavy suppression from the French, were searching for a way to get their independence and their Confucius way of life back. Because they could not explore liberalism, they turned to socialism and eventually fell under communist rule.

When it came to propaganda, “Confucian values and ethical standards were frequently borrowed in the effort to mobilize the masses, and new interpretations were made to fit the needs of long-lasting liberation and a war against the foreign occupiers.” In 1950, the communist rule liberated women from Confucian oppression and gave them the opportunity to hold jobs among other things. At this time, communism was also present in China and North Korea, and provided stories of power struggles and personal politics, but those, along with the “cult- infused leadership” that is common in communist societies, were far and few in Vietnam.

Confucianism is still prevalent in Vietnam today. Confucius thought still affects both social and familial behavior, but the continuing western ideals being introduced to Vietnam, as well as other countries in South East Asia, is causing there to be a need for flexibility in society. However, that is more of a call of the upper and middle classes. Tradition is still of the upmost importance among the lower class. They still believe in harmony between people, families, and their surroundings and that the unit is more important than the individual. This way of thinking is known as taking the “dao”, or “way of Confucius”. Essentially, wanting there to be harmony in all things in life.

To say that anything other than Confucianism has shaped Vietnam into what it is today would be a gross misstatement. From the Chinese occupation to today, Confucius thought remains prevalent in society, family life, education, and even law. There have been things that have challenged the nations reliance of Confucianism to live harmoniously, but ultimately, the very fabric that represents Vietnam reflects the heart and soul of the nation would not be what it is today without the influence of Confucianism for so many years. 

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Confucianism Is A Set Of Moral Principles. (2019, Jul 26). Retrieved October 4, 2022 , from
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