Confucianism is a religious and moral philosophy based on the teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius, who lived in the sixth century B.C. Confucianism emphasizes worship of the family and ancestors and imposes on all people the obligation of accepting their station in life. Personal honor depends on social complacency; one has to behave in accordance with the expectations of society, and the essence of personal behavior is obedience, submissiveness, and peaceful acquiescence in the social hierarchy. As a political philosophy, Confucianism views the state as an extension of the family, with a political leader acting as a father, providing his followers with a good example, protection, and love. A leader who protects and cares for his family can automatically expect complete obedience and reverence from them. When the Chinese subjugated Vietnam in the second and third centuries B.C., Confucianism, which was rapidly permeating Chinese culture, came into Vietnam and became the prevailing ideological force there. The Vietnamese emperors accepted the Chinese model of bureaucratic government based on a Confucian-trained civil service. That bureaucracy dominated Vietnamese life until the arrival of the French in the nineteenth century.

Although both Confucianism and Buddhism coexisted in the Vietnamese spiritual world, they came into serious political conflict during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Buddhists resented the control Confucians had over the civil bureaucracy, while the Confucians accused the Buddhists of exploiting peasants through religious superstition. Little by little the Buddhists were forced to retire from central political influence to their villages, pagodas, and monasteries, where they still exercised considerable authority in Vietnamese cultural life. While Buddhism was the organized religion of Vietnam, Confucianism was the moral philosophy which the Vietnamese used to govern their society.