What Did Confucius Say About the 5 Relationships What Did Confucius Say About the 5 Relationships

What Did Confucius Say About the 5 Relationships Among People?

Confucianism, crafted by the great Chinese philosopher Confucius, is more than just a religious doctrine. It’s a comprehensive system of socio-political philosophy, ethical conduct, and ritualistic customs. It guides individuals on how to live virtuous lives and maintain social harmony through moral actions and responsibilities.

Central to this ancient philosophy is the “Five Relationships” or (五伦), which are seen as the cornerstone of a stable and harmonious society. So, what did Confucius say about the 5 relationships? Let’s find out.


An Introduction to the Concept of 5 Relationships

Chinese elders
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The concept of the Five Relationships is a fundamental tenet of Confucianism. These relationships, as documented by the Brookings Institution, include those between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. With each relationship comes specific roles, duties, and obligations that reflect the inherent hierarchy of the society and ensure order and respect.

Notably, among these five, the father-son relationship was deemed most significant by Confucius and his followers due to its role in anchoring the family unit, which is considered the basic building block of society.

These relationships are not merely about maintaining power dynamics but are fundamentally about fostering mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation.

Hence, understanding these relationships is key to fully grasping the essence of Confucian philosophy.


Filial Piety in Confucianism

At the core of Confucian philosophy lies a profound respect for family, embodied in the concept of filial piety. Derived from Chinese culture, filial piety is an ethos that promotes respect and care for one’s parents.

It’s not simply about paying lip service to respect but encompasses an inward attitude of genuine gratitude and acknowledgment of parental sacrifices.

Significance of Filial Piety in Confucian Philosophy

Filial piety holds a critical place within the ideological fabric of Confucianism. As Robert Oxnam puts it, “Filial piety derives from that most fundamental human bond: parent and child.”

Notably, the parent-child relationship is the first of the Five Relationships outlined in Confucianism, underlying its importance. In fact, Confucius himself asserted that “filial piety is the root of virtue and the basis of philosophy.”

Duties and Responsibilities of Filial Piety

The practice of filial piety goes beyond mere respect for one’s parents.

  • It also includes an awareness of reciprocating the burden borne by them.
  • This reciprocity is seen as an obligation towards one’s ancestors, rather than a choice.
  • In other words, expressing gratitude and acknowledging the sacrifices made by one’s parents forms an essential part of this duty.
  • The responsibilities of filial piety extend to the overall moral and social order within a family.

These duties are not limited to caring for aging parents but also involve fostering strong familial bonds, ensuring the continuation of family lines, and maintaining family honor.

Filial Piety and Family Order

In Confucianism, filial piety is seen as the foundation of an orderly society. The respect and deference children exhibit towards their parents are mirrored in the societal relationships between rulers and ministers, or husbands and wives. Thus, filial piety forms a blueprint for broader social harmony and respect.

As Confucian ethics position filial piety as an unconditional obligation, its practice can help shape a family’s moral compass, aligning it with the virtues of humility, respect, and duty. By fulfilling these obligations, individuals contribute to a morally sound and socially respectful family environment.


What Did Confucius Say About the 5 Relationships?

At the heart of Confucian philosophy are the Five Relationships, believed to be the fundamental building blocks of societal harmony and respect. These relationships include the ruler-minister, father-son, husband-wife, elder-younger, and friend-friend. Let’s delve into these in more detail.

1. Ruler-Minister Relationship

The relationship between a ruler and minister, or, in modern terms, between leaders and followers, is crucial in establishing societal order.

  • The ruler is expected to govern with wisdom and benevolence, providing just laws and ensuring the welfare of the subjects.
  • On the other hand, the minister is expected to serve faithfully, offering wise counsel, and obeying the ruler’s commands.

This mutual respect and duty foster a harmonious society.

2. Father-Son Relationship

Arguably the most important among the Five Relationships in Confucianism is that of the father and son.

  • It is underpinned by the concept of filial piety, where the son is expected to show utmost respect and obedience to his father.
  • In return, the father is responsible for nurturing and educating the child.

This relationship is seen as the cornerstone of a stable family structure, which in turn contributes to societal harmony.

3. Husband-Wife Relationship

In the husband-wife relationship, both parties have distinct roles and responsibilities.

  • The husband is expected to protect and provide for the family, while the wife manages domestic affairs and nurtures children.
  • Mutual respect and affection are encouraged, creating a harmonious family environment.

4. Elder-Younger Relationship

The elder-younger relationship goes beyond familial ties.

  • Even within the community, older individuals are accorded respect and reverence.
  • Younger members, in turn, benefit from the wisdom and guidance of their elders.

This promotes intergenerational harmony and continuity of cultural values.

5. Friend-Friend Relationship

Lastly, the friend-friend relationship highlights the importance of sincerity, trust, and mutual respect in peer relationships.

  • Friends are expected to support and help each other while maintaining a sense of equality and fairness.
  • This cultivates a sense of camaraderie and interconnectedness in the community.

These Five Relationships are intertwined, each reinforcing the other. They create a societal framework marked by mutual respect, obligation, and harmony. By fulfilling our roles in each relationship, we contribute to a balanced, respectful, and harmonious society, embodying the core ideals of Confucian philosophy.


The Concept of Junzi (The Ideal Person)

In the realm of Confucian philosophy, a term that holds significant importance is ‘Junzi.’ The concept of Junzi offers an image of the ideal person in the Confucian ethical system. This term is often translated as “gentleman” or “superior person,” but its meaning goes beyond these simple translations.

It represents a person of accomplished virtue, impeccable manners, and a well-developed moral sense, as recorded in The Analects, the collected sayings of Confucius and one of the most important texts in Confucianism.

Qualities and Attributes of a Junzi

A Junzi, according to Confucius, embodies both morality and amorality. This definition may be somewhat misleading to Western readers, as it extends beyond the scope of narrow virtue ethics.

Junzi is not just about being morally upright. It’s about demonstrating the consummate personality traits that Confucius envisioned for the ideal person. These traits have been carefully documented in The Analects, providing us with a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be a Junzi.

Junzi: The Pathway to Harmony and Respect

One might wonder how Junzi, a concept rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy, could be relevant in today’s world. However, the wisdom encapsulated in this term has influenced the East-Asian cultural sphere significantly, particularly in China, Japan, and Korea.

The concept of Junzi is viewed as the optimal path toward achieving harmony and respect in all relationships, which is a key tenet of Confucian philosophy.


The Five Constant Virtues in Confucianism

At the heart of Confucian philosophy lie the Five Constant Virtues or Wu Chang. These are benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), propriety (li), wisdom (zhi), and trustworthiness (xin).

The significance of these virtues extends beyond personal character development, deeply influencing the dynamics of the Five Relationships, and guiding both personal conduct and societal order.

Benevolence (Ren)

The virtue of benevolence in Confucianism is about having empathy for others and being kind-hearted. It is described as “forming one body” in relation to others, an expression that signifies seeing ourselves as extensions of others and vice versa.

This approach promotes acts of love, care, and concern for the interests of others, such as taking care of a family member. In terms of the Five Relationships, this virtue encourages harmonious interactions by promoting understanding and compassion.

Righteousness (Yi)

Righteousness is a virtue that guides people towards upright and honorable behavior. It involves refusing to violate prohibitions considered shameful or degrading, such as bribery.

This virtue can also be seen as the distribution of goods according to one’s merit and position. Within the Five Relationships, righteousness ensures fair and ethical interactions, strengthening bonds of trust and respect.

Propriety (Li)

Propriety is the virtue of understanding and adhering to social norms, rules, and rituals. It encompasses realizing the correct way of doing things and perfecting refinement. This virtue helps individuals navigate the complexities of social interactions and maintain harmony within the Five Relationships.

Wisdom (Zhi)

Wisdom, in Confucian philosophy, emphasizes knowledge and understanding. It denotes a special kind of insight that allows individuals to discern subtle complexities and anticipate outcomes before they occur.

In the context of the Five Relationships, wisdom aids in making balanced decisions and understanding the nuances of each relationship.

Trustworthiness (Xin)

Trustworthiness, or sincerity, is considered the most important of the five virtues, forming the foundation for the other virtues. It represents an unwavering commitment to one’s purpose and builds a strong reputation for reliability. Within the Five Relationships, trustworthiness fortifies bonds, ensuring stability and mutual respect.

Quote by Confucius
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In essence, these Five Constant Virtues, when practiced diligently, not only shape individual character but also influence the dynamics of the Five Relationships. They establish a righteous path for personal conduct and promote societal harmony and respect.

Thus, practicing these virtues is an absolute necessity in the pursuit of becoming a Junzi, or ideal person.



In this exploration of Confucianism, we have delved into the Five Relationships, filial piety, Junzi, and the Five Constant Virtues. These principles not only provide a profound understanding of Confucian philosophy but also offer a roadmap for achieving harmony and respect in personal and societal relationships.

The Five Relationships of ruler-minister, father-son, husband-wife, elder-younger, and friend-friend represent the integral relationships within society. Each of these relationships has unequal but complementary roles that contribute to societal balance and harmony.

The higher authority in each relationship is expected to behave morally, promoting obedience and respect from the subordinate. This hierarchical structure, while seemingly imbalanced, actually promotes harmony through mutual respect and obligation.

In short, these five relationships, underpinned by the principles of Li and Jen, serve as the blueprint for a harmonious society in Confucianism. They dictate how individuals should interact within their respective roles, emphasizing mutual respect and moral righteousness.

By adhering to these principles, individuals can contribute to the stability and tranquility of their family and, by extension, their community and society.