Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building Bridges: A World Religions Program for 8th-9th Grades

Activity 2: Sayings of Confucius

Activity time: 10 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Copy the handout.
  • Optional: Purchase fortune cookies that contain sayings allegedly by Confucius (not all do). If ordering, do so at least two weeks ahead. Find them at a Chinese restaurant supply outlet, or online at the K and B Bakery website. If you wish, customize the message.

Description of Activity

Participants explore Confucianism through 20 sayings attributed to Confucius. They consider the impact of Westerners encountering Confucian wisdom initially through fortune cookies or jokes. They discuss how the brevity of a message or the context of its delivery might enhance, or detract from, its wisdom. They seek ways to distinguish a religion from a philosophy.

Ask if participants have heard of Confucius. Ask if they have heard someone introduce a saying with the phrase, "Confucius say... " If they have, what was the intent of words follow? Serious, funny, or a combination of both?

Youth may demonstrate or ask about quoting Confucius ungrammatically and with a "Chinese accent." Use the teachable moment; analyze with questions such as:

  • Why do you think people find this funny? Do you think it is funny?
  • Who would not think this is funny? What about someone who is Chinese? Someone who practices Confucianism? Someone for whom English is a second language? Someone of a different racial or ethnic group than the person saying it?

Tell the group many Westerners first encounter the name and ideas of Confucius through Chinese restaurant fortune cookies, movies, or TV shows. For this reason, the name of Confucius has been a springboard for jokes among non-Chinese. Give this example:

  • Confucius say... when called an idiot, sometimes is better to be quiet, than open mouth and remove all doubt.

Now, ask the group:

  • Is there wisdom? What is the wisdom?
  • Is there humor in this statement? Why? (Is it the incorrect English phrasing? The content of the statement? Or maybe the way poor English and valuable wisdom are combined?)
  • What might a statement like this, tucked inside a fortune cookie, which imitates Confucius' style make people think about Confucianism? If you are someone who, before today, had only heard of Confucius because of fortune cookies, you can speak from your own experience.
  • What does it say about our Western culture that Confucius is presented as a humorous character?

If you have time, use the same questions to examine another fortune cookie example:

  • Confucius say... war not determine who is right; war determine who is left.

Now say, in your own words:

These statements were not written by Confucius, a revered Chinese philosopher who lived over 2,000 years ago. However, Confucius did teach in short sayings like these-aphorisms. An aphorism is a brief statement that expresses an important idea in a memorable way. Confucius never considered his teachings religious. He offered practical advice to help people behave virtuously and conduct harmonious relationships with their parents, spouse, family members, friends, and also their ruler and/or subjects, in the hierarchy of his time and place. People's spiritual beliefs were of no concern to Confucius. That is why many consider Confucianism a philosophy and not a religion.

While there is no formal Confucian religion for people to join today, Confucian ideas are woven into other Eastern faiths that consider a sense of duty, right behavior, and respect for elders and ancestors very important. As Unitarian Universalism, we may also draw from Confucian wisdom.

Distribute the handout and invite youth to read the sampling of Confucian sayings (aphorisms). You may wish to read the sayings aloud, or invite one or more volunteers to read them.

Ask the group for their initial reactions: Which sayings are meaningful to them? Which speak to important principles?

Distribute pencils. Give these directions:

1. Circle aphorisms you agree with.

2. Draw a line under aphorisms that remind you of a teaching from another religion we have studied together or another religion or philosophy you know about.

Allow youth a few minutes to work. Then, lead the group to unpack the wisdom in the sayings. Start by inviting volunteers to share their responses from their handouts. To help the group find parallels between Confucian ideas and ideas of other faiths, suggest:

  • 4 is similar to Jewish beliefs about atonement and repentance
  • 7 is similar to the Golden Rule, found in many faiths
  • 13 and 15 reflect our fourth Unitarian Universalist Principle, "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning"
  • 20 reflects our seventh Principle, "respect for the interdependent web of all life."

If you have brought fortune cookies, distribute them as a snack. Invite participants to share the messages they find inside their cookies.


If you have time, before distributing the handout engage the group to distinguish between a philosophy and a religion. Use these questions:

  • What is the difference between a philosophy and a religion?
  • Must a religion offer instruction about the spirit? What are some examples?
  • Is instruction in living a good life inherently religious? Why or why not?

Including All Participants

As with any activity that includes a snack, find out in advance about participants' food allergies and restrictions. If anyone might be allergic to an ingredient, skip the fortune cookies.

Be alert to how youth use humor as the activity moves into the Confucian sayings and, if you have them, fortune cookie messages. If necessary, remind youth gently that to seek laughs by delivering a saying in poor or accented English reflects a narrow view of the world's religions and indeed its wisdom, and violates our own first Principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.