Confucius sorted out the books and records of the Xia and Shang dynasties (about 21st-11th century BC), and reflected on the Zhou culture, which initiated the broad themes and structure of the Confucian philosophy. His discussions with his disciples, which were recorded into books like The Analects of Confucius, were considered important canons of the philosophy. Confucius created the philosophy of "benevolence", and taught people to exert moral instinct in their daily lives and behaviors, which involve politics, education, and ethics, and also the building of proper relationships among the people. He basically accepted the existence of god and spirits, and thought one should follow the instructions of heaven. However, he took the existence of god and spirits in a very rational way, being rather different from his Western counterparts. Heaven itself reveals ethics, while god and spirits just provide some useful information, but cannot intervene with the Confucius saints. Meanwhile, he also broke away from the previously popular attitude towards heaven based on the gains and losses in everyday life. He advocated a proper relationship between god and people based on rational cognition. The sacredness of heaven is highly valued, but the moral values of heaven are even more emphasized.
Mencius, or Mengzi, a book compiled by Mencius and his followers is the most original and lively Confucius canon only second to The Analects of Confucius. In the book he advocated the values humanity and justice, and was for benevolent government. Mencius also had some unique concepts about voluntary self-cultivation. He thought one could find innate good nature with one"s own consciousness, i.e., the "good by nature" theory. Therefore, a man"s good or evil deeds were both out of one"s own realization, and if one were aware of his innate good nature, he would refrain from evil deeds. The tradition has been continuously elaborated upon and extended by all following scholars. The "good by nature" theory also influenced the "Great Vehicle" Buddhism in China, concluding that the nature of Buddha present in every living creature.
Xunzi, in his book Xunzi, argued that people are "evil by nature." Hence, one only has moral standards with the education of kings and saints as well as one"s own studies. Rites and laws are emphasized in his book. Xunzi opposed the one-sidedness and subjectivity of people"s cognitive skills, instead, he argued that a person could unblock one"s view to attain the level of "ultimate understanding" of life with proper training.
Dong Zhongshu is best known for his suggestion to emperor Han Wudi to "pay supreme tribute to Confucianism while banning all other schools of thoughts," which put Confucianism in a dominant and orthodox position as a result of political influences. Dong proposed to rule the country by virtues, and provided a set of suggestions on politics and society. Dong"s philosophical structure is the reflection of the time. After the Han Empire was built, the power of the emperor so strong that Confucianism had to be carried out with the help of the monarch. Therefore, the key point of realizing Confucianism is to work out a feasible way for the kings to implement the "policy of benevolence." On the one hand, Dong apotheosized the power of the emperor, and deemed him "son of heaven;" on the other, the emperor was under checks and balances from heaven. The emperor was warned not to implement tyranny; otherwise he would be punished by heaven.
Han Yu is a famous writer in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and a leader of Classical Prose Movement (championed by Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan and others in the 7th century against the florid and symmetrical style). In a social atmosphere where the Great Vehicle Buddhism was prevailing, Han fervently advocated the resumption of Confucius tradition, and rejected Buddhist thoughts. Han"s thoughts and works pointed out a general direction for the development of Confucianism in the following Song and Ming dynasties.