In its early form (before the 3d cent. B.C.) Confucianism was primarily a system of ethical precepts for the proper management of society. It envisaged man as essentially a social creature who is bound to his fellows by jen, a term often rendered as "humanity," or "human-kind-ness." Jen is expressed through the five relations—sovereign and subject, parent and child, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend. Of these, the filial relation is usually stressed.
The relations are made to function smoothly by an exact adherence to li, which denotes a combination of etiquette and ritual. In some of these relations a person may be superior to some and inferior to others. If a person in a subordinate status wishes to be properly treated that person must—applying a principle similar to the Golden Rule—treat his or her own inferiors with propriety. Correct conduct, however, proceeds not through compulsion, but through a sense of virtue inculcated by observing suitable models of deportment. The ruler, as the moral exemplar of the whole state, must be irreproachable, but a strong obligation to be virtuous rests upon all.
The early philosophers recognized that the epochal "great commonwealth," the union of mankind under ethical rule, would take a long time to achieve, but believed that it might be constantly advanced by practicing the "rectification of names." This is the critical examination of the degree to which the behavior of a functionary or an institution corresponds to its name; thus, the title of king should not be applied to one who exacts excessive taxes, and the criticism of the undeserving claimant should force him to reform. The practice of offering sacrifices and other veneration to Confucius in special shrines began in the 1st cent. A.D. and continued into the 20th cent.