CONFUCIUS (552?–479 bce), known in Chinese as Kong Qiu (also styled Zhongni); preeminent Chinese philosopher and teacher. The name Confucius is the Latin rendering of Kong Fuzi ("Master Kong"). Confucius was born in the small feudal state of Lu, near modern Qufu (Shandong Province). Little can be established about his life, forebears, or family, although legends, some of very early origin, are abundant and colorful. The biography in Sima Qian's Shi ji (Historical Annals, second century bce) is unreliable. The Lunyu (Analects ), a record of Confucius's conversations with his disciples, likely compiled in the third century bce, is probably the best source, although here, too, apocryphal materials have crept in. The Analects may be supplemented by the Zuo zhuan, a commentary to the Chun qiu (Spring and Autumn Annals; also third century bce), and by the Mengzi (Mencius; second century bce).
In all these accounts, fact and legend are difficult to separate. The Zuo zhuan makes Confucius a direct descendant of the royal house of the Shang dynasty (c. 1766–1123 bce), whose heirs were given the ducal fief of the state of Song by the succeeding Zhou dynasty (1111–256 bce). According to this account, three to five generations prior to the sage's birth, his forebears moved to the neighboring state of Lu. His father is said to have been a soldier and a man of great strength; his mother, to have been a woman much younger and not the first wife. Some accounts make Confucius the issue of an illegitimate union. Tradition has it that at his birth dragons appeared in his house, and a unicorn (lin ) in the village. These may command as much belief as the description of Confucius that endows him with a forehead like that of the sage-king Yao, shoulders like those of the famous statesman Zichan, the eyes of Shun, the neck of Yu, the mouth of Gaoyao, the visage of the Yellow Emperor, and the height of Tang, founder of the Shang dynasty.
Of Confucius's childhood and youth, we hear little even from legends, except for references to the early loss of his father, followed later in his youth by the death of his mother. His favorite childhood game was reportedly the setting up of sacrificial vessels and the imitation of ritual gestures. He married young; some accounts allege that he later divorced his wife, although that cannot be proved and is unlikely to be true. He is also supposed to have visited the capital of the Zhou dynasty (present-day Luoyang) and to have met Laozi, from whom he sought instruction. But this report as well appears to be unfounded.
In the Analects, Confucius says that he was of humble status. Perhaps he came from the minor aristocracy, as he received an education—although not from a famous teacher—and also trained in archery and music. He probably belonged to an obscure and impoverished clan. He would say of himself that by age fifteen he had fixed his mind on studying (Analects 2.4). As a young man, he held minor offices, first overseeing stores with the task of keeping accounts, and later taking charge of sheep and cattle (Mengzi 5B.5). Confucius probably served in a junior post at the Lu court, if the Zuo zhuan is correct about his encounter in 525 with the viscount of Tan, a visitor in Lu, of whom he asked instructions regarding the ancient practice of naming offices after birds. At this point Confucius would have been twenty-seven years old.
Confucius lived in an age of great political disorder. The Zhou royal house had lost its authority and the many feudal lords were competing for hegemony. He himself was concerned with the problems of restoring order and harmony to society and of keeping alive the ancient virtues of personal integrity and social justice. For him, a good ruler is one who governs by moral persuasion and who loves the people as a father loves his children. Confucius was especially learned in rites and music, finding in them both the inspiration and the means for the achievement of moral rectitude in society. He reflected deeply on the human situation about him in the light of the wisdom of the ancients. By about the age of thirty he felt himself "standing firm" (Analects 2.4) on his insights and convictions.
Like others of his time, Confucius viewed service in the government—the opportunity to exert moral suasion on the king—as the proper goal of a gentleman (junzi). At about thirty-five, he visited the large neighboring state of Qi. He stayed there for about one year and was so enthralled by the shao music (attributed to the sage-king Shun) that for three months, he claimed, he did not notice the taste of the meat he ate (Analects 7.14). Clearly, he hoped to be of use at the ducal court. The Analects (12.11) reports his conversations with Duke Jing of Qi about government, and his emphatic belief that a ruler should be a good ruler, the minister a good minister, the father a good father, and the son a good son. The duke decided not to use him (Analects 18.3).
In Lu again, Confucius hesitated some time before accepting public office, perhaps because of the complexity of Lu politics. The Ji family, which had usurped power, was itself dominated by its household minister, Yang Hu (or Yang Huo), and Confucius was reluctant to ingratiate himself with this man (Analects 17.1; Mengzi 3B.7). Perhaps it was at this point that he determined to develop his ideas and to teach disciples. He said of himself that "at forty, I had no more doubts" (Analects 2.4). But some time after 502 (Mengzi 5B.4), at about age fifty, he accepted the office of sikou (police commissioner): "At fifty I knew Heaven's decree" (Analects 2.4). In 498 he attempted in vain to break the power of the three leading families of Lu and restore power to the duke. Perhaps this failure caused him to leave Lu the following year. The Analects (18.4) claims that Confucius left because the head of the Ji family of Lu had been distracted from his duties by dancing girls, while the Mengzi (6B.6) gives as the reason the fact that the head of Lu had failed to heed his advice. (The Shi ji reports that Confucius became prime minister of Lu, but there is reason to question the authenticity of the account.)
After leaving Lu, Confucius traveled for some thirteen years with a small group of disciples. He first visited the state of Wei (Analects 13.9). Although Duke Ding of Wei did not have a good reputation, Confucius took office under him, but left his service when the duke asked his advice on military rather than ritual matters (Analects 15.1). To avoid assassins sent by an enemy, he had to disguise himself while passing through the state of Song (Analects 7.23; Mengzi 5A.8). In Chen he accepted office under the marquis; but his stay in Chen was marred by many difficulties and he was once near starvation (Analects 15.2; Mengzi 7B.18). In 489 he went on to the state of Cai, where he met the governor of She, a visitor from Chu. When the governor asked Confucius's disciple Zilu about his master, Confucius offered this description of himself: "[Tell him I am] the kind of man who forgets to eat when trying to solve a problem, who is so full of joy as to forget all worries, and who does not notice the onset of old age" (Analects 7.19). He was then about sixty-three years old. He also said of himself: "At sixty, my ears were attuned [to truth]" (Analects 2.4).
From Cai, Confucius traveled to Wei via Chen and found it in disorder as the deceased duke's son sought to oust the new ruler, his own son, from the ducal throne. Such disputes help us to understand Confucius's insistence on the "rectification of names" (zheng ming )—that fathers should be paternal and sons filial. After extensive travel through states that lay within present-day Shandong and Henan, Confucius returned to Lu around 484. He was given an office, perhaps as a low-ranking counselor (Analects 14.21). He also occupied himself with music and poetry, especially the ya and the song, which now make up two of the sections of the Shi jing (Book of Poetry). During this period he conversed with Duke Ai of Lu and with the head of the Ji family on questions of government and ritual.
It is known that Confucius had at least one son, Kong Li (Boyu), and one daughter, whom he married to his disciple Gongye Chang. He also married the daughter of his deceased elder brother to another disciple, Nan Rong (Analects 5.1, 11.5). Of his son little is known, except that the father urged him to study poetry and rites (Analects 16.13). Although he is popularly portrayed as a severe moralist, the Analects show Confucius as fond of classical music and rituals, informal and cheerful at home, affable yet firm, commanding but not forbidding, dignified and yet pleasant, with an ability to laugh at himself. In his old age, he devoted more and more time to his disciples. He also knew that he had reached spiritual maturity: "At seventy I could follow my heart's desires without overstepping the line" (Analects 2.4). But his last years were saddened by the successive deaths of his son, his favorite disciple, Yan Hui, and the loyal though flamboyant Zilu.
According to the Zuo zhuan, Confucius died in 479 at the age of seventy-three. While no description exists concerning his last hours, the account of a previous illness shows how Confucius probably faced death. At that time Zilu wanted the disciples to attire themselves like stewards in attendance upon a high dignitary. Confucius rebuked him, saying, "By making this pretence of having stewards when I have none, whom do you think I shall deceive? Shall I deceive Heaven? Besides, is it not better for me to die in the hands of you, my friends, than in the hands of stewards?" (Analects 9.12). When Zilu requested permission to pray for him, Confucius replied, "I have already been praying for a long time" (Analects 7.35). The word praying here has been understood to mean living the life of a just man.
Confucius's political ambitions remained largely unrealized; he is remembered by posterity above all as a teacher, indeed as the greatest moral teacher of East Asia. He is said to have accepted students without regard to their social status or ability to pay. While the Shi ji credits him with three thousand disciples, the more conservative number of seventy (or fewer) is more likely. With two known exceptions, most of the disciples were of humble station and modest means. The majority came from Confucius's own state of Lu, although a few were from the neighboring states of Wei, Chen, and Qi.
The modern scholar Qian Mu divides the disciples into two groups—those who had followed Confucius even before he left Lu for ten years of travel and those who came to him after his return to Lu. The earlier disciples include Zilu, Yan Hui, and Zigong. Zilu was the oldest in age, only some nine years younger than Confucius himself; his valor and rashness stand out in the Analects. Yan Hui, the favorite of Confucius, was about thirty years his junior. His early death at about forty caused much sorrow to Confucius. Zigong, about Yan's age, was an enterprising and eloquent diplomat. Zilu perished—in a manner that had been predicted by Confucius—during a rash effort to rescue his master in the state of Wei (480). Zigong served at the Lu court and was leader of the disciples at the time of Confucius's death. He is reported to have stayed on at his master's grave in Qufu for three years longer than the mourning period of twenty-seven months prescribed for the death of one's parents, vivid testimony to the depth of his commitment to his teacher.
The later disciples were mostly much younger, sometimes forty years Confucius's junior. Those mentioned in the Analects include Ziyou, Zixia, Zizhang, Youzi, and Zengzi, who was only about twenty-seven at the time of his master's death. All five men played important roles in spreading Confucius's teachings, but Zengzi, exemplary for his filial piety, is remembered as the principal spiritual heir through whom Confucius's essential message reached later generations.
Traditionally, Confucius has been credited with the editing of the Five (or Six) Classics: the Shi jing (Book of Poetry); the Yi jing (Book of Changes), a divination manual with metaphysical accretions; the Shu jing (Book of History), a collection of speeches and documents; the Li ji (Book of Rites); the Chun qiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), historical records of the state of Lu during the years 722 to 481, said to have been compiled by Confucius; and the now lost Yue jing (Book of Music). Modern scholarship does not support these traditional attributions. Although the Analects mentions Confucius's knowledge of the Poetry, History, and Changes, there is no evidence that he had a part in editing these texts; nor was it his immediate disciples who, in their study of these texts, started the traditions of transmission for them. Of his relation to antiquity, one can say that Confucius loved the ancients—above all the duke of Zhou, to whom the dynasty allegedly owed its rituals and other institutions—and that he read widely in the ancient texts and passed his understanding on to his disciples.
Confucius's place in history derives from his activities as a teacher and from the teachings that he crystallized and transmitted. In an age when only aristocrats had access to formal education he was the first to accept disciples without regard to status. He instructed them—according to each disciple's ability—not only in the rituals, knowledge of which was expected of all gentlemen, but also in the more difficult art of becoming one who is perfectly humane (ren ). Although none of his disciples attained high political office, Confucius the teacher wrought a real social change. Because of his teaching, the word gentlemen (junzi, literally, "ruler's son") came to refer not to social status but to moral character. A new class gradually emerged, that of the shi (originally, "officers" or "government counselors"), a class of educated gentry. Those among the shi especially distinguished for scholarship and character were known as the ru (originally meaning "weaklings"). Hence the Confucian school is known in Chinese as "the Ru school."
Confucius had a clear sense of his mission: he considered himself a transmitter of the wisdom of the ancients (Analects 7.1), to which he nonetheless gave new meaning. His focus was on the human, not just the human as given, but as endowed with the potential to become "perfect." His central doctrine concerns the virtue ren, translated variously as goodness, benevolence, humanity, and human-heartedness. Originally, ren denoted a particular virtue, the kindness that distinguished the gentleman in his behavior toward his inferiors. Confucius transformed it into a universal virtue, that which makes the perfect human being, the sage. He defined it as loving others, as personal integrity, and as altruism.
Confucius's teachings give primary emphasis to the ethical meaning of human relationships, finding and grounding what is moral in human nature and revealing its openness to the divine. Although he was largely silent on God and the afterlife, his silence did not bespeak disbelief (Analects 11.11). His philosophy was clearly grounded in religion, the inherited religions of Shangdi ("lord on high") or Tian ("heaven"), the supreme and personal deities of the Shang and Zhou periods, respectively. He made it clear that it was Heaven that protected and inspired him: "Heaven is the author of the virtue that is in me" (Analects 7.23). Confucius believed that human beings are accountable to a supreme being, "He who sins against Heaven has no place left where he may pray" (Analects 3.13); nevertheless, he showed a certain scepticism regarding ghosts and spirits (Analects 6.20). This marked a rationalistic attitude that became characteristic of the Confucian school, which usually sought to resolve problems by active human involvement rather than by hoping or praying for divine intervention.
Confucius himself was devoted to the civilization of the Zhou dynasty, although he might have been a descendant from the more ancient Shang royal house. The reason for this may have derived from the fact that Chinese civilization assumed a definitive shape during the Zhou dynasty, or from the special relationship Confucius's native state of Lu enjoyed as a custodian of Zhou culture. Its rulers were descended from the duke of Zhou, the man who established the institutions of the dynasty and who acted as regent after the death of his brother, the dynasty's founder.
Confucius's emphasis on rituals is significant, as it is ritual that governs human relationships. Rituals have a moral and social function as well as a formal and ceremonial one. The Chinese word li refers also to propriety, that is, to proper behavior. Confucius teaches also the importance of having the right inner disposition, without which propriety becomes hypocrisy (Analects 15.17).
Confucius's philosophy might appear unstructured to those who cast only a cursory glance at the Analects, perhaps because the book was compiled several generations after Confucius's death. But the teachings found in the Analects, with all their inner dynamism, assume full coherency only when put into practice. Confucius did not attempt to leave behind a purely rationalistic system of thought. He wanted to help others to live, and by so doing, to improve the quality of their society. In defining as his main concern human society, and in offering moral perfection as the human ideal, Confucius has left behind a legacy that is perennial and universal. On the other hand, his teachings also show certain limitations that derive from his culture, the authoritarian character of government, and the superior social status enjoyed by men, for instance. These limitations do not, however, change the validity of his central insights into human nature and its perfectibility.
For information on Confucius in English, a useful reference work is the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Macropaedia) (Chicago, 1982). His life is well summarized in Richard Wilhelm's Confucius and Confucianism, translated by George H. Danton and Annina Periam Danton (New York, 1931); in H. G. Creel's Confucius: The Man and the Myth (New York, 1949), reprinted under the title Confucius and the Chinese Way (New York, 1960); in the introduction to James Legge's translation of the Analects (1893; 3d ed., Tokyo, 1913), which is not critical enough of the sources; in the introduction to Arthur Waley's translation, The Analects of Confucius (London, 1938), which is definitely better; and in the introduction and appendixes to D. C. Lau's much more recent translation, Confucius: The Analects (London, 1979), which is a further improvement. A summary of Confucius's teachings is also given in Liu Wu-chi's A Short History of Confucian Philosophy (Harmondsworth, 1955), and in the relevant chapters in Fung Yu-lan's A History of Chinese Philosophy, translated by Derk Bodde, vol. 7 (Princeton, 1952). (Volume 2 has excellent chapters on Neo-Confucianism.) My Confucianism and Christianity (Tokyo, 1977) is a comparative study from a theological perspective.
Certain Chinese works are indispensable for a study of Confucius's life. Cui Shu's (1740–1816), Zhusi kaoxin lu, a small work in three juan (with a three juan supplement), offers an excellent critical study. Qian Mu's Xian Qin zhuzi xinian, vol. 1 (Hong Kong, 1956), is immensely useful. Gu Jiegang's Gushibian, vol. 2 (Shanghai, 1930–1931), should also be consulted.
There are interesting Japanese studies of Confucius's life. Kaizuka Shigeki's Koshi (Tokyo, 1951) has been translated into Chinese (Taibei, 1976); Geoffrey Bownas's English translation, Confucius (London, 1956), is also recommended. Morohashi Tetsuji's Nyoze gamon Koshi den (Tokyo, 1969) reports both facts and legends while distinguishing between them wherever possible.
Gier, Nicholas. "Whitehead, Confucius, and the Aesthetics of Virtue." Asian Philosophy 14 (July 2004): 171–191.
Henderson, John B. Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucius and Western Exegesis. Princeton, N.J., 1991.
Jensen, Lionel. Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization. Durham, N.C., 1997.
Mou, Bo. "A Re-Examination of the Structure and Content of Confucius's Version of the Golden Rule." Philosophy East and West 54 (April 2004): 218–249.
Olberding, Amy. "The Consummation of Sorrow: An Analysis of Confucius's Grief for Yan Hui." Philosophy East and West 54 (July 2004): 279–302.
Sim, May. "The Moral Self in Confucius and Aristotle." International Philosophy Quarterly 43 (December 2003): 439–463.
Van Norden, Bryan W. Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. New York, 2002.
Julia Ching (1987)
The Chinese teacher and philosopher Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was the founder of the humanistic school of philosophy known as the Ju or Confucianism, which taught the concepts of benevolence, ritual, and propriety.
In the 6th century B.C. China had begun to disintegrate into a loose confederation of city-states. The nominal ruler of China was the King of Chou, who occupied the imperial capital at Loyang in northcentral China. The Chou had been the supreme rulers of the entire Chinese Empire 500 years earlier, but now they were simply a pawn of the competing Chinese states. This period is generally depicted as a time of great moral decline, when principles and integrity meant little to the official classes.
Confucius, an obscure school teacher, found this situation horrifying, and he attempted to seek a remedy by reviving the great moral teachings of the sages of the past. That he failed is unimportant, for his teachings had a profound influence on later Chinese thought and formed the basis for the dominant Chinese ideology, known as Confucianism.
Traditions and Sources on His Life
Confucius is the Latinized name of K'ung Fu-tzu (Great Master K'ung). His original name was K'ung Ch'iu; he is also known by the style name of K'ung Chung-ni. After he died, a large number of myths and legends grew up around his name, making difficult an accurate description of the historical Confucius. Traditionally, Confucius was venerated as a Chinese saint, and for a long time a critical, objective appraisal of his life was impossible. In more recent times both Chinese and Western scholars have ventured to discard some of the legends and myths and to reconstruct a biography from more reliable sources. As a result, a variety of new images of Confucius have emerged, many of them contradicting each other, and the demythologized picture of Confucius is as confusing as the traditional, mythical one.
The most detailed traditional account of Confucius' life is contained in the Records of the Historian (Shih chi) by Ssu-ma Ch'ien, who lived 145-86 B.C. Many modern scholars have dismissed this biography as a fictionalized, romanticized legend by a Confucian apologist. Nevertheless, in spite of obvious anachronisms, when used with the Analects (Lun yü), which purports to record actual conversations between Confucius and his disciples, one can reconstruct a satisfactory outline of the philosopher's family background, his career, and the role he played in 6th-century society.
According to the Records of the Historian, Confucius was a descendant of a branch of the royal house of Shang, the dynasty that ruled China prior to the Chou. His family, the K'ung, had moved to the small state of Lu, located in the modern province of Shantung in northeastern China. There is an early tradition that Confucius' father at an advanced age divorced his first wife because she had borne him only daughters and one disfigured son and married a 15-year-old girl from the Yen clan, who gave birth to K'ung Ch'iu. Ssuma Ch'ien refers to the relationship as a "wild union," which very possibly indicates that Confucius was an illegitimate child.
Confucius' birth date is given in early sources as either 551 or 552, although the former is more commonly accepted. The exact status of his family at the time of his birth is obscured by later attempts to create for him an illustrious lineage. In the Analects, Confucius says that during his youth he was in humble circumstances and forced to acquire many different skills. It is clear that even though the fortunes of his family had declined, he was no commoner. Confucius unquestionably belonged to the aristocratic class known as the shih. By the time of Confucius most shih served as court officials, scholars, and teachers, and Confucius' first occupation appears to have been as keeper of the Lu granary and later as supervisor of the fields, both low positions but consistent with his shih status.
Career as a Teacher
We do not know exactly when Confucius embarked on his teaching career, but it does not appear to have been much before the age of 30. In 518 he may have served as tutor to one of the prominent clans of Lu, the Meng, who wished their sons to be educated in the li, or ritual. He is alleged to have journeyed to Loyang that year to instruct himself in the traditional Chou ritual. Here he is said to have met the famous Taoist teacher Lao Tzu, who reportedly bluntly rebuked Confucius for his stuffiness and arrogance. This story is undoubtedly apocryphal and belongs to the corpus of anti-Confucian lore circulated by the Taoist school.
The nominal head of state in Lu at this time was a duke (kung), but the actual power lay in the hands of three clans: the Meng, Shu, and Chi. The most powerful of the three in Confucius' time was the Chi, which was frequently in conflict with the ducal house and the other clans. In 517 Duke Chao of Lu took prisoner the prime minister, Chi P'ing-tzu, and was immediately attacked by the other two clans. The duke fled to the neighboring state of Ch'i, Confucius apparently felt a certain loyalty to the duke and fled with him. There are a number of stories about Confucius' adventures in Ch'i, but most of them appear spurious.
Confucius eventually returned to Lu; one suggested date is 515. For several years after his return he does not appear to have accepted a governmental position and instead spent most of his time studying and teaching. He gathered around him a large number of students. Although we can only guess at the exact curriculum of the school, it undoubtedly included instruction in ritual, music, history, and poetry.
In 510 Duke Chao died without ever having returned to Lu, and the Chi clan set up another member of the ducal house as Duke Ting. Shortly thereafter, in 505, a swash-buckling adventurer named Yang Hu, who had been a supporter of the Chi family, rebelled and seized power in Lu.
The clans were able to gather enough strength to expel Yang Hu from Lu in 501, but at the same time another military commander, Kung-shan Fu-jao, gained control of the fortified city of Pi, which was the fief of the Chi clan. Kung-shan Fu-jao issued an invitation to Confucius to join his government. The Analects records that Confucius was tempted to accept the offer, and only after being rebuked by his disciple Tzu-lu, who was in the employ of the Chi clan, did the master reluctantly decline. The decision to violate his own principles and serve a man in open revolt against the constituted authority of his state is a good indication of Confucius' intense desire to obtain a position, no matter how compromising, from which to implement his ideas.
Confucius finally did obtain the post he wanted in 501, this time with the legitimate government of Lu. He first served as magistrate of the city of Chang-tu and later was promoted to the important position of minister of justice (ssu-k'ou). There are a number of stories about Confucius' actions in this office, most of which cannot be verified. One of these stories concerns Confucius' role at the Chia-ku convention in the state of Ch'i, a meeting between the dukes of Ch'i and Lu in 500. At least five sources record that Confucius was responsible for thwarting a plot by Ch'i to kidnap the Duke of Lu and was able to force Ch'i to restore territory it had seized from Lu. Scholars have questioned the historicity of Confucius' participation in this event, but the wide currency of the account must indicate some grain of truth.
Confucius probably owed his position in Lu to the influence of the Chi family, which was still the dominant power. We know from the Analects that he was on especially good terms with Chi K'ang-tzu, the son of the head of the Chi clan. Several of Confucius' disciples were employed by the Chi family. Because of his close association with the Chi clan, which in effect was a usurper of the ducal power, it might be supposed that Confucius had compromised his integrity. However, Confucius and his disciples actually seem to have worked to reduce the power of the three clans. For example, in 498 they were able to extract promises from the Chi, Meng, and Shu families to demolish their fortified cities, which were their bases of power. The Chi and Shu actually had begun preparations to dismantle their cities when the Meng reneged and the plan was abandoned. Nevertheless, the episode is a clear example of Confucius' interest in restoring legitimacy in Lu.
It must have been shortly after the failure of his plan to dismantle the fortified cities that Confucius decided to leave his home in Lu and embark on a long journey throughout eastern China. The traditional explanation for Confucius' decision to leave is that Ch'i believed that if Confucius continued to advise the Duke of Lu, Lu would become more powerful and eventually dominate the other states around it. Therefore, in order to distract the duke from his political duties, Ch'i sent him 80 beautiful dancers and 30 teams of horses. The duke accepted them and became so engrossed that he did not hold court for 3 days, which so incensed Confucius that he resigned his post. This story clearly is a fabrication designed to disguise a less noble motive for Confucius' departure, namely, pressure from the clans, who must have been alarmed by Confucius' attempt to reduce their power.
Confucius left Lu accompanied by several of his disciples, including the former soldier Chung Yu (Tzu-lu) and Yen Hui, his favorite. They wandered throughout the eastern states of Wei, Sung, and Ch'en and at various times had their lives threatened. Confucius was almost assassinated in Sung by one Huan T'ui. On another occasion he was mistaken for the adventurer Yang Hu and was arrested and held in confinement until his true identity became known.
Confucius was received with great respect by the rulers of the states he visited, and he even seems to have received occasional emoluments. He spent much of his time developing and expounding his ideas on the art of government, as well as continuing his teaching. He acquired a large following, and the solidification of the Confucian school probably occurred during these years of exile. Not all of his disciples followed him on his travels, and several of them actually returned to Lu and assumed positions with the Chi clan. It may have been through their influence that in 484 Confucius was invited back to Lu.
Confucius was warmly received in Lu, but there is no indication that he was given a responsible position. Little is known about his last years, although this would have been a logical time for him to work on the many texts and documents he is reputed to have acquired on his journey. Much of his time was devoted to teaching, and he seems to have remained more or less aloof from political affairs.
This was an unhappy period for Confucius. His only son died about this time; his favorite disciple, Yen Hui, died the very year of his return to Lu; and in 480 Tzu-lu was killed in battle. All these losses Confucius felt deeply, and his despair and frustration must have been intensified by the realization that his political ideas had found no sympathetic ear among the rulers of his own state. Confucius died in 479. His disciples conducted his funeral and observed a mourning period for him.
Confucius has been considered responsible for editing and writing some of the most important works in the Chinese tradition. According to relatively early sources, he arranged the classical anthology of early Chinese poetry, the Book of Odes (Shih ching), into its present order and discarded spurious material from a historical work known as the Book of Documents (Shu ching). He is also credited with writing parts of the great divination classic, the Book of Changes (I ching), and the book of ritual, the Records of Rites (Li chi). His name is also associated with a work on music, the Book of Music (Yüeh ching), which is now lost. Few modern scholars accept any of these traditional attributions, and Confucius' connection with these books is simply another aspect of the traditional Confucian myth.
One work that cannot be dismissed so easily, however, is the Spring and Autumn Annals (Ch'un ch'iu), which is a chronological record of the reigns of the 12 dukes of Lu, beginning with the year 722 and ending in 479 B.C. As early as the philosopher Mencius (ca. 317-289 B.C.), Confucius has been credited with compiling or editing this work, which was claimed to contain hidden criticisms of many of the Lu rulers. Later Confucian scholars tried to discover these hidden criticisms, but most scholars now agree that the Spring and Autumn Annals is simply a dry chronicle, containing no hidden meanings, and in spite of Mencius's testimony, Confucius had nothing to do with it.
Although we cannot be certain that Confucius wrote any of the works attributed to him, it is still possible to know something about the general nature of his philosophy. Shortly after his death his disciples compiled a work known as the Lun yü, commonly translated as the Analects but more accurately rendered as the Edited Conversations. This work consists of conversations between Confucius, his students, and an occasional ruler.
The primary emphasis of the Lun yü is on political philosophy. Confucius was concerned about the rampant immorality and amorality of much of the government of his time, and he spent much of his life trying to find a ruler who would accept his teaching that ethical considerations should be the guiding principle of government. Confucius taught that the primary task of the ruler was to achieve the welfare and happiness of the people of his state. To accomplish this aim, the ruler had first to set a moral example by his own conduct, and this example would in turn influence the people's behavior. Confucius rejected the use of a rigid legal system and believed instead that moral custom and voluntary compliance were the best ways of maintaining order in society.
Confucius considered the early years of the Chou dynasty as the embodiment of the perfect form of government. It was not the rulers of this period that he admired so much as the chief minister, Chou Tan, or the Duke of Chou. The Duke of Chou was known in early Chinese tradition as the founder of the state of Lu, and he was probably the chief culture hero in this state. Because Confucius came from Lu, some scholars have claimed that much of Confucius' teachings were simply a revival of this cult. It is certainly true that Confucius himself never claimed to be teaching original ideas but rather termed himself a "transmitter."
Nevertheless, Confucius is the first Chinese thinker to introduce concepts that became fundamental not only to Confucian philosophy but to Chinese philosophy in general. The most important of these are jen (benevolence), yi (propriety), and li (ritual). Confucius believed that the chün-tzu, or "gentleman," must set the moral example for others in society to follow. The word chün-tzu originally meant "ruler's son," but in the Lun yü it refers to the educated "man of virtue," who was not necessarily an aristocrat. The chün-tzu was expected to follow a set of ethical principles, of which jen, yi, and li were the most important. Jen meant in the Lun yü what has been translated as humaneness or benevolence, a quality a chün-tzu should cultivate and, once acquired, attempt to transfer to others. Li was considered the rules of decorum and ritual that were observed in religious and non-religious ceremonies and, as applied to the chün-tzu, composed his rules of behavior. According to the Lun yü, it was through a knowledge of the li that yi, or propriety, could be attained. Yi represents what is right and proper in a given situation, and the chün-tzu, by observing the ritual and because of his inclination toward goodness, always knows what is right.
Confucius was basically a humanist and one of the greatest teachers in Chinese history. His influence on his immediate disciples was profound, and they continued to expound his theories until, in the first Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 8), they became the basis of the state ideology.
The Lun yü has been translated many times. There are two acceptable translations: James Legge, Confucian Analects (1861), and Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius (1938).
Because of the nature of the sources, there is no definitive account of Confucius' life. Herrlee Glessner Creel, Confucius the Man and the Myth (1949; republished as Confucius and the Chinese Way, 1960), is an attempt to discard the Confucian myth and write a biography based on historical material. Creel concludes that Confucius was basically a democrat and revolutionary. At the other extreme is Wu-chi Liu, Confucius: His Life and Times (1955), which accepts almost all of the legends rejected by Creel. It is a good example of the traditional Chinese approach to Confucius. A good balance between these two works is Shigeki Kaizuka, Confucius, translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey Bownas (1956). Kaizuka critically examines the apocryphal stories but does not dismiss them as readily as Creel.
The significance of Confucius for Chinese thought and society can be studied in any history of Chinese civilization. The best of these are C. P. Fitzgerald, China: A Short Cultural History (1938) and The Horizon History of China (1969); William Theodore de Bary and others, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition (1960); and Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1963). □
BRON: c. 551 bce, Tsou, Shantung, China
DIED: 479 bce, Ch'-Fu, Shantung, China
A philosopher of unmatched influence in Eastern civilizations, Confucius was a teacher and minor government official whose philosophy has been immortalized in The Analects, a collection of sayings attributed to him and his disciples. The Analects offers, insight into a wide variety of subjects, including government, personal conduct,
warfare, family, and the spirit, and has been subject to diverse, and even completely opposite, interpretations over the centuries. In spite of attempts to modify or corrupt its doctrines, Confucianism has endured as the foundation of philosophy and religion in China and is an integral element of the national identities of Korea and Japan as well.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Self-Taught Scholar The job of Confucius's biographers has been considerably difficult due to the muddled accumulation of stories about the great sage. It is generally believed that Confucius was born in the state of Lu during the Chou dynasty. His given name was Kong-Qui, but his disciples called him “Kong the Master,” which was Latinized into “Confucius” by Jesuit missionaries. Confucius was three when his father died, and twenty-three when his mother died. By the age of fifteen, Confucius had decided to become a scholar, and he began to educate himself in music and ancient history. Confucius's first occupation appears to have been as supervisor of the
granary in Lu. Some accounts say that Confucius married when he was nineteen but divorced his wife four years later so that he would have more time for his intellectual pursuits. He had one son.
Political Ambition Unhappy with the disunity of the Chou regime, Confucius sought to restore the political harmony described in ancient texts, but he never achieved the elevated post within the Lu administration necessary to effect the changes he envisioned, which included tax reductions and peaceful interaction with neighboring states. Although his own political ambitions were thwarted—he may have served for a time in an insignificant position of a regional bureau—he was able to disseminate his views by teaching students, some of whom would become future leaders, about the principles he felt were necessary to influence the political scene of his time.
Teaching Career Confucius never claimed to have divine revelations. He was not born, he declared, with knowledge, but was fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking knowledge there. Somewhere around the age of thirty, Confucius began his teaching career. Using an informal, discursive teaching style, Confucius became extremely popular with his students. Although one can only guess what the students studied, undoubtedly they received instruction in ritual, music, history, and poetry. In 518 bce Confucius is reported to have met the famous teacher Lao Tzu, who supposedly criticized Confucius for his stuffiness and arrogance.
Confucius thought that basic teaching should be uncomplicated. In fact, much of his philosophy is the result of logical deduction, reasoning, and inference. In its historical setting, The Analects reveals essentially simple ideas: a vision of a cooperative world; the conviction that antagonism and suspicion, strife and suffering, were largely unnecessary; a profound faith that people's true interests did not conflict but complemented each other.
Travels In the eyes of Confucius, China was drifting on a sea of storms “to hideous ruin and combustion.” His solution was to gather and preserve the records of antiquity, illustrating and augmenting them with his own teachings. With such intent, Confucius lectured his disciples on the histories, poems, and constitutional works of the nation.
Around 498 bce, Confucius, accompanied by several of his disciples, left Lu and embarked on a journey through eastern China. As they wandered throughout the states of Wei, Sung, and Ch'en, their lives were threatened more than once. For instance, Confucius was almost assassinated in Sung. On another occasion, he was mistaken for the adventurer Yang Hu and was arrested and held until his true identity was learned. For the most part, Confucius was received with great respect by the rulers of the states he visited, perhaps even receiving occasional payments from them.
Later Years In 484 bce Confucius was invited back to Lu. While he was warmly received there, it does not appear that he was given a position of political power. Confucius's favorite disciple, Yen Hui, died the very year of his return to Lu, and in 480 bce another disciple, Tzulu, was killed in battle. Also during this period in his life, Confucius's only child died. Confucius felt all of these losses deeply, and his sadness and frustration must have been intensified by the realization that his political ideas had found no support among the rulers of his own state. Confucius died in 479 bce.
Works in Literary Context
In all likelihood, Confucius's philosophies were documented by his disciples and distributed after his death. Confucius, like Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus Christ, made a reputation for himself as an instructor while he was alive, and, like these thinkers, he felt it unnecessary to preserve his own words. Despite his lack of literary production, however, Confucius's influence on future generations of thinkers was tremendous. Because of this, a look at his work in literary context necessitates a description of the evolution of the importance of Confucianism through the years.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Confucius's famous contemporaries include:
Pythagoras (c. 572–c. 490 bce): The famous theorem of this Greek mathematician is still the cornerstone of modern geometry.
Shakyamuni (563–483 bce): A spiritual leader in India, Shakyamuni is better known simply as “the Buddha.”
Cyrus The Great (c. 576–c. 429 bce): Cyrus the Great founded the ancient Persian Empire and expanded its borders to include large portions of Asia.
Zoroaster (c. sixth or seventh century bce) Zoroastrianism, the religion born from the teachings of Zoroaster, a Persian, had a major impact on the early teachings of Christianity.
Xenophanes (570–480 bce): This Greek poet and philosopher is perhaps best known for suggesting that human beings fashion their gods after their own images.
Confucianism Through the Years Considered by some as philosophy and others as religion, Confucianism has undergone a complex evolution since the death of its namesake. The first important thinker to expand upon Confucius's work was Meng-tzu, better known by his Latinized name, Mencius. Active during the fourth century bce, Mencius, like Confucius, was a teacher and
counselor. In the collection of his teachings, Mencius furthered the concept of Jen, roughly meaning “good,” arguing that the potential for exemplifying such an honorable trait exists in every human being. In direct contrast, the teachings of Hsun-tzu, a prominent Confucian thinker of the third century bce, stressed the evil nature of humanity. For Hsun-tzu, Li functions to suppress selfish instincts.
Subsequent philosophers of the ancient world incorporated mystical schemes, numerology, and aspects of Taoism into traditional Confucian thought. Although the resulting philosophy was in many ways a diluted and contradictory imitation of Confucianism, it was during this period that Confucianism gained widespread prominence. It became the official state religion of China in the second century bce and eventually spread to other Asian nations.
Wang Ch'ung, a logician of the first century ce, is credited with eliminating the mystical and supernatural elements of Confucianism. It was also during the first century that, after several competing versions circulated, the standard text of The Analects emerged. Although scholars question its reliability as the direct transcription of Confucius's sayings, the work is nonetheless acknowledged as the best possible summation of his thought. The Analects is composed of twenty books, each made up of aphorisms, questions, and notes attributed to Confucius and twenty of his disciples, most notably Master Tseng, who is credited with twelve sayings of his own; Jan Ch'iu, who became a lieutenant in the powerful Chi Family; and Tzu-kung, who became a prominent diplomat.
Most of the first millennium ce is regarded as a period of relative dwindling of Confucianism's influence in China, a time during which Taoism and Buddhism flourished. Neo-Confucianism arose in the eleventh century largely owing to the scholarship of Chu Hsi, whose historical writings focused on what are now known as “Classical Confucian” texts, thirteen works of ancient origin that address a wide range of topics pertaining to Confucianism. Chu Hsi also explored the metaphysical side of Confucianism, engineering a path to spiritual enlightenment that has been viewed as a response to the challenge posed by Buddhism. During the seventeenth century, a second wave of Neo-Confucianism arose; comparable to the earlier efforts of Wang Ch'ung, its aim was to reestablish the original intent of The Analects.
Twentieth-Century Influence The influx of Western civilization into twentieth-century China considerably altered the nation's political, cultural, and philosophical traditions. When Sun Yat-Sen founded the Chinese Republic in 1912, he advocated a form of statesmanship balanced between Confucian values and pragmatic methodology learned from the West. Mao Tse-Tung's organization of the People's Republic of China in 1949, however, neglected Confucius in favor of Marxist ideology, effectively removing the Confucian tradition from political discourse, although its principles survive in literature and philosophy.
Works in Critical Context
In some ways, it is difficult to separate critical response to Confucius from the literary tradition in which it is classified because the literary tradition—including the political and social impact of Confucianism—forms a kind of critical response to the text. A great deal of modern scholarship has focused on the clarification of three main principles: Jen, Tao, and Li. The meaning of each term has engendered a multitude of interpretations, resulting in diverse readings of Confucius. Further scholarship has attempted to discern how much of The Analects is from Confucius and how much belongs to his disciples. Today, Confucius's work—no matter how one interprets its principles or speculates its origins—is considered a valuable and complex philosophical collection of ideas rivaling those of Socrates and Buddha.
The Three Principles Alternately translated as “good,” “love,” and “reciprocity,” Jen is more particularly, according to Arthur Waley, “a sublime moral attitude, transcendental perfection attained to by legendary heroes …, but not by any living or historical person.” This opinion contradicts the belief often espoused by earlier scholars that all humans are endowed with Jen.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
History records the lives of many instructors who had a profound impact upon their students, and Confucius was no exception, as he and his students shared a deeply personal and affectionate connection. Often, knowledge of beloved instructors is gleaned from the writings of their pupils themselves. Here are a few works written by students to honor their teachers:
New Testament (c. first century CE), testimony by the disciples of Jesus Christ. Although the authors of the New Testament cannot be definitely determined, it is clear that the text is a collection of writings elucidating the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The Republic (c. 360 bce), a philosophical treatise by Plato. In this text, Plato outlines much of the political theory of his teacher, Socrates.
Cloud Atlas (2004), a novel by David Mitchell. In this work, an aspiring composer studying under his aging hero realizes that his master has lost his genius.
Tao, translated as “the way,” had been used before Confucius to describe both positive and negative ways of doing things. Confucius's innovation, according to H. G. Creel, was to recast the word as “the way … that individuals, states, and the world should conduct themselves
and be conducted.” Taoism, the philosophical school based upon the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu—who may have been a contemporary of Confucius—provides a similar interpretation of the term, albeit in a more mystical and personal context.
Scholar Benjamin I. Schwartz defines Li as “all those ‘objective' prescriptions of behavior, whether involving rite, ceremony, manners, or general deportment, that bind human beings and the spirits together in networks of interacting roles within the family, within human society, and with the numinous realm beyond.” Historically, the discipline required strict adherence to Li and inspired some political leaders to impose dictatorial rule on their subjects in the name of Confucius, despite the contention of scholars that a state designed to serve the people is one of Confucianism's central tenets.
The Analects: Whose Are They, Anyway? As in the case of the Gautama Buddha and Socrates, it is not easy to separate the founder's vision from the interpretations of his disciples. The group of statements attributed to Confucius in literature of the centuries following his death is large but often suspect, and The Analects remains the focus of fierce controversy. Compiled long after Confucius's death, the work contains not only the Master's aphorisms, but also those from his disciples. Of the twenty “books” now in existence, linguistic analysis indicates that some may belong to a much later period. Waley and others find many passages which they call non-Confucian and even anti-Confucian. In his view, examinations of how language relates to reality must be later additions, since the “language crisis” in ancient China belongs to a much later development of thought. Tsuda Sokichi, a radical and iconoclastic critic of The Analects, finds the work so permeated with contradictions and anachronisms that he believes it is unusable as a source for the thought of Confucius.
Confucianism in the Western World Ironically, as Western scholars in the twentieth century began to recognize the depth and sophistication of Confucianism— indicated by numerous English translations of The Analects—Confucianism in China was on the decline. Many scholars have observed similarities between the teachings of Confucius and those of Socrates and Jesus. D. Howard Smith celebrated the profundity of Confucius as a thinker: “He was convinced that there was a divine order which worked for love and righteousness, and taught that in obedience to that divine order man will find his highest goal.”
Responses to Literature
- Read The Analects. Based on your reading, what do you think the Jen, Tao, and Li are all about? What does Confucius have to say about each? Support your response with some passages from the text.
- Confucius was essentially a political thinker. After having read The Analects, how do you think Confucius would seek to change the world in which you live? For example, would Confucius advocate “going green”? Write at least ten of your own aphorisms for society today.
- Confucius, Buddha, and Zoroaster, according to the traditional dates of these figures, all lived at the same time and all founded philosophical movements that have been transformed into religions. Why do you think that the sixth century bce was such a fertile time for the founding of religions? Research the peoples and cultures of that time to help you formulate your response.
- The thoughts of Confucius himself remain unclear because he never actually wrote them down. Instead, what we know of Confucius's teaching is gathered from what his students told about him and his life. Imagine someone has decided to collect your thoughts in a book similar to The Analects. What would this book say? What are your basic principles of living and thinking?
Dawson, Raymond. Confucius. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981.
Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular and the Sacred. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
Smith, Howard D. Confucius. London: Temple Smith, 1973.
Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1985.
Wilhelm, Richard. Confucius and Confucianism. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 1931.
Wu-chi, Lui. Confucius, His Life and Time. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.
BORN: September 28, c. 551 bec • Qufu, Lu, China
DIED: c. 479 bec • Qufu, Lu, China
Chinese philosopher; teacher; writer
Confucius was ancient China's most famous philosopher and is believed by many to be one of the most influential in history. His system of thought and behavior has been followed by more people for a longer period of time than any other set of ethical principles. Confucian ideas spread throughout Chinese and east Asian society so thoroughly that in the early twenty-first century, most Chinese still lived by some of his principles. Chief among these are a focus on family and respect for ancestors, elders, and paternal (fatherly) authority. Confucius founded what is known as Ru Jia (Ju Chia), or the School of the Scholars, which in the West is referred to as Confucianism. Although Confucianism is termed a religion in Western tradition, in China it is simply seen as a way of confronting the world and living appropriately.
"Do not do to others what you do not want others to doto you."
The main principle of Confucian philosophy holds that a natural social order revolves around five basic family and social relationships. The strongest of these is filial devotion, or the love and respect shown by a child for a parent. Also central to Confucian thought is the importance of ren (jen), a focus on social virtue and empathy, or understanding another person's feelings and situation. Confucians believe that if certain manners or society rituals, called li, are observed, then these relationships will remain in order, and society as a whole will also remain in order.
The philosophical work of Confucius can only be properly understood by studying the time period in which he lived. He was born Kong Qui around 551 bce, in the small town of Qufu (Ch'u-fu) in the state of Lu, or the modern-day Chinese province of Shandong (Shan-tung). He is most often referred to in Chinese as Kongzi (K'ung-tzu), which means "Master Kong," and also sometimes as Kong Fuzi (K'ung Futzu). China already had a long history of intellectual and cultural advances by the time of Confucius's birth. During the Shang Dynasty (c. 1766–c. 1112 bce), the Chinese had established an administrative system, a complex agricultural system, and defined social classes. A method of writing and the first Chinese calendar had also been developed. This era was followed by the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (c. 1025–256 bce), China's classical age. This period featured written laws, a monetary economy, tools made from iron, and ox-drawn plows.
During the Zhou Dynasty, the kings began gradually losing their hold on the people, and large areas of China fell under the control of local princes. By 800 bce these princes began fighting not only the Zhou leaders but also each other for control of the lands. The next several hundred years were ones of great chaos and disorder. In Lu, the state where Confucius lived, the three leading families fought bitterly for powerful positions. Assassinations (political killings) and dishonesty within the government were common, and the people lived under the constant threat of invasion by neighboring states. An almost continual state of war existed, maintained by roving bands of mercenaries (soldiers who fought for money) hired by the various princes. Additionally, the aristocracy, or ruling class, expanded until not enough government positions remained to accommodate everyone. Due to this, the class of shi (shih), the lower aristocracy trained for public service into which Confucius was born, began to experience the same poor living conditions as the peasants. Perhaps because of the effects these conflicts had on people's lives, the period gave rise to some of the greatest thinkers in Chinese history, Confucius among them, and is called the Hundred Schools of Thought period.
Confucius was the son of Shuliang He (Shu-liang Ho) and Yan Zhen-sai (Yen Chen-sai). Historians disagree on his family's status. Many hold that his father was a soldier and a government official, perhaps even governor of the town of Zou (Tsou). Others believe Confucius was a direct descendant of the royal house of the Shang dynasty. According to these accounts, about three to five generations before Confucius's birth, his ancestors moved from the state of Song (Sung) to Lu. Confucius himself later wrote in his Analects (Lun Yu) that he was "without rank and in humble circumstances" at the time of his birth. Later legends speak of strange occurrences at Confucius's birth, such as dragons and a unicorn appearing.
Shuliang He died when Confucius was three years old. Confucius was then educated by his mother and also perhaps at a school for nobles. He learned the basics of the Six Arts, also known as the Six Disciplines: ritual, music, archery, chariot riding, calligraphy (fine handwriting), and computation (mathematics). For Confucius, the arts of music, dance, painting, and poetry, which he classified as wen, were the highest forms of culture. He would later emphasize these in his teachings. He was skilled, as were most nobles of the day, in fishing and hunting, though he reportedly did not fish with a net and never shot a bird at rest. As a young child, his favorite pastime was arranging the various objects used in traditional sacrifices and offerings and then playacting through the entire rituals. Confucius determined by age fifteen that he would be a scholar, and as a young man he held various minor offices in the state of Lu, such as keeping accounts of sheep and cattle. At the age of nineteen he married Qiguan Shi (Ch'i-kuan Shih), and they had, by some accounts, both a son and a daughter. In 528 bce Confucius's mother died, and he left his government post to perform the traditional three years of mourning.
The Confucian ethical system
Confucius remained busy during his years of mourning. He concentrated on the study of li, classical music, and poetry. He focused on the ancient Shang Dynasty and its well-defined social classes, court and family etiquette (manners) and rituals, and orderly bureaucracy. He also studied the early Zhou dynasty, in particular one of its founders, the Duke of Zhou, who became for Confucius the model of the virtuous (good and fair) ruler. According to tradition, such rulers were given their power through a Tianming (t'ien-ming), or "mandate of Heaven," a concept that Confucius accepted. Confucius held that rulers should still behave well, however. He believed their strength lay in de (te), or virtue, rather than in force. Like other thinkers of his age, Confucius sought a way through which society could be renewed, and he saw the traditions of the past as an answer. He also believed that a new individualism had taken over Chinese society as a result of the lack of strong central power. This led Confucius to assemble a set of principles based on traditional Chinese culture and its heavy reliance on the family as the basis of all society.
Confucius's goal was the development of a junzi (chun-tzu), a superior person or gentleman, both as leader and as citizen. Such a gentleman would have a strong sense of humanity and empathy, or ren, which would in turn be developed through li. Confucius specified three different types of li: making sacrifices to gods and ancestors, following the rituals of social and political institutions, and obeying the rules of society in daily behavior. Before Confucius, the rules surrounding li were assumed to come from Heaven, Tian. Though he claimed to be a transmitter of knowledge rather than a creator, Confucius in fact redefined li as a law of humankind rather than of Heaven.
Confucius held that propriety, or following the rituals of society, should become part of one's every action. Self-interest was always to be balanced by the needs of family and society. Confucius applied his concept of li to the basic five relationships, which he defined as those between father and son, elder brother and junior brother, husband and wife, elder friend and junior friend, and ruler and subject. For example, a father should act lovingly towards his child, and a son should be deeply respectful to his father. Similar conditions were put on friendships and sibling relationships, with age being the deciding factor in terms of who received the most respect. Confucius said that between husband and wife, the wife is to be respectful and supportive. When a ruler is benevolent, or kindly, the subject should be loyal. The two aspects of these relationships that most deeply and continually affected the Chinese were filial piety, or the devotion and honor children give to their parents, and respect for those who are older.
Teacher and politician
Following his period of mourning, Confucius hoped to put his new theories about the family and leadership into practice, first by teaching and then by achieving high government office. He felt that by teaching young men the correct way to live, he could improve society as a whole. He is known as the first such teacher in China who attempted to make education available to all men. Prior to his efforts, education was generally obtained in the home through a hired tutor or not at all. Confucius was a key figure in the establishment of teaching as a profession. His supposed birthday, September 28, is still celebrated as Teachers' Day in Taiwan.
Confucius taught by example and by telling stories from his life and the lives of others. He also taught through conversation, asking questions that challenged the beliefs of his pupils. In addition to Confucian philosophy, his students also learned to master the Six Arts, just as Confucius had. He took groups of twenty to twenty-five pupils at a time and was said never to have turned away a hopeful student because the student could not pay. He attempted to inspire a sense of empathy in these young men and also to prepare them for government service. Chinese civil service examinations were later based on Confucian philosophy. Confucius was the first to make merit more important than family connections in the awarding of government positions.
Many of Confucius's teachings were later gathered by his followers and compiled in a workcalled the Analects. This book is considered the most reliable source of information about the life and teachings of Confucius. Analects is also the most important volume of what are known as the Four Books, four collections of Confu-cius's wisdom. The others are The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and Mencius.
Confucius left Lu for the neighboring state of Qi (Ch'i), hoping to advise the Duke of Qi in how to establish a more fair and reasonable and reasonable government. He remained there for one year, but the duke did not listen to Confucius, so he returned to Lu and continued teaching there. When he was about fifty years old, Confucius became a minister of public works and then minister of crime, or chief magistrate, under Duke Ling. For a number of years, he attempted to reduce the influence of the three most powerful families in Lu and restore more power to the duke. However, his efforts were not successful, and the duke continued to lose power to these powerful families, who in turn became enemies of Confucius. Finally, around age fifty-five, he was forced into exile (made to leave his home city).
In the late 1500s, the Jesuits, a Roman Catholic religious order, chose to perform missionary work in China. One of the first Jesuits in China was Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who came from Italy in 1578. He had to keep his mis-sionary work secret, for the Chinese government was highly suspicious of foreign influence. In order to understand and communicate with the Chinese people, Ricci immersed himself in the nation's history and customs and learned its language and traditions. He worked in China for more than thirty years. In order to share his work with Jesuits in Europe, he transformed Chinese words and names into Latin, the language of the Catholic Church at the time. Kong Fuzi thus became Confucius, the name by which the West has known the Chinese philosopher ever since.
Years of exile, years of contemplation
Confucius traveled throughout China for thirteen years with a small group of followers, teaching his principles of proper etiquette and ritual. He sought administrative positions from various rulers, but few listened to him. At times his life was in danger. He was once mistaken for an infamous bandit and thrown in a dungeon. He escaped assassins and near-starvation and, in time, began to miss his home in Lu. A chance to return came with the death of Duke Ling and his replacement by Duke Ai. When Ai's primary minister died, he appointed one of Confucius's students to the position. After a number of years this student was able to arrange for Confucius's safe return to Lu.
Confucius then moved away from politics and focused on teaching and writing. He took a minor government position, edited and wrote comments on classical Chinese texts, and continued to teach his followers, who came from all social and economic classes. He wrote a history of Lu's rulers, Spring and Autumn Annals, which he felt would be his greatest contribution to learning. In his final years, Confucius saw the deaths of his son, Bo Ye (Po Yeh), and his most beloved pupil, Yan Hui (Yen Hui). Confucius died in 479 bce, never having achieved his ambition to become a great political leader but having gained a reputation as a hugely successful teacher and philosopher.
In the Analects, Confucius summed up his life this way: "At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I came to be free from doubts; at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven; at sixty my ear was attuned; at seventy I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the line." Confucius's life was an example of a virtuous existence, and he became the junzi, or superior man, that he had encouraged others to be for the good of society. Although he was a simple man who never claimed divine status, Confucius was the creator of an ethical system that would regulate the daily lives of people in China and east Asia for thousands of years to come.
For More Information
Ching, Julia. "Confucius." In Encyclopedia of Religion. 2nd ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, 1933-37.
Confucius. Analects. Translated by D. C. Lau. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1998.
Dawson, Raymond Stanley. Confucius. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982.
Legge, James, ed. The Analects of Confucius, the Great Learning & the Doctrine of the Mean. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1971.
Liu, Wu-chi. Confucius, His Life and Times. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1972.
Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer. Confucianism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Adil, Janeen R. "The Early Years." Calliope (October 1999): 4-19.
Aaronson, Jeffrey. "The Way of Confucius." Smithsonian. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/issues/2001/november/confucious.php (accessed on May 29, 2006).
"Confucius." The Proceedings of the Friesian School. http://www.friesian.com/confuci.htm (accessed on May 29, 2006).
Riegel, Jeffrey. "Confucius." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/ (accessed on May 29, 2006).
Born: c. 551 b.c.e.
Died: c. 479 b.c.e.
Chinese teacher and philosopher
The Chinese teacher and philosopher Confucius was the founder of the school of philosophy known as the Ju or Confucianism, which is still very influential in China.
Information on his life
Confucius is the Latinized name of K'ung Fu-tzu (Great Master K'ung). His original name was K'ung Ch'iu; he is also known as K'ung Chung-ni. The most detailed traditional account of Confucius's life is contained in the Records of the Historian (Shih chi) by Ssu-ma Ch'ien, who lived from 145 b.c.e. to 86 b.c.e. Many modern scholars have dismissed this biography as only legend. Nevertheless, from this manuscript one can reconstruct a satisfactory outline of the philosopher's life and influence.
According to the Records of the Historian, Confucius was a descendant of a branch of the royal house of Shang, the dynasty (a family of rulers) that ruled China prior to the Chou, and a dynasty which ruled China from around 1122 b.c.e. to 221 b.c.e. His family, the K'ung, moved to the small state of Lu, located in the modern province of Shantung in northeastern China.
It was believed that Confucius's father divorced his first wife at an advanced age, because she had borne him only daughters and one disfigured son. He then married a fifteen-year-old girl from the Yen clan, who gave birth to Confucius. Ssu-ma Ch'ien refers to the relationship as a "wild union," which very possibly indicates that Confucius was an illegitimate child, or a child born out of wedlock.
In the Analects, Confucius's book of teachings, he writes that during his youth he was poor and was forced to acquire many different skills. It is clear that even though the fortunes of his family had declined, he was no commoner. Confucius unquestionably belonged to the aristocratic (ruling) class known as the shih. In the time of Confucius most shih served as court officials, scholars, and teachers. Confucius's first occupation appears to have been as keeper of the Lu granary. Later he worked as supervisor of the fields. Both were low positions but consistent with his shih status.
Career as a teacher
It is not known exactly when Confucius began his teaching career, but it does not appear to have been much before the age of thirty. In 518 b.c.e. he is said to have met the famous teacher Lao Tzu (sixth century b.c.e.), who reportedly bluntly criticized Confucius for his stuffiness and arrogance.
Confucius eventually returned to Lu around 515 b.c.e. For several years after his return he does not appear to have accepted a governmental position. Instead it appears he spent most of his time studying and teaching, gathering a large number of students around him. Although one can only guess about the school's exact course work, it undoubtedly included instruction in ritual, music, history, and poetry.
Around 498 b.c.e., Confucius decided to leave his home in Lu and embark on a long journey throughout eastern China. He was accompanied by several of his disciples (followers). They wandered throughout the eastern states of Wei, Sung, and Ch'en and at various times had their lives threatened. Confucius was almost assassinated (killed) in Sung. On another occasion he was mistaken for the adventurer Yang Hu and was arrested and held until his true identity became known.
Confucius was received with great respect by the rulers of the states he visited, and he even seems to have received occasional payments. He spent much of his time developing his ideas on the art of government, as well as continuing his teaching. He acquired a large following, and the solidification of the Confucian school probably occurred during these years. Not all of his disciples followed him on his travels. Several of them actually returned to Lu and assumed positions with the Chi clan. It may have been through their influence that in 484 b.c.e. Confucius was invited back to Lu.
Confucius was warmly received in Lu, but there is no indication that he was given a responsible position. Little is known about his last years, although this would have been a logical time for him to work on the many texts and documents he supposedly gathered on his journey. Much of his time was devoted to teaching, and he seems to have remained more or less distant from political affairs.
This was an unhappy period for Confucius. His only son died about this time; his favorite disciple, Yen Hui, died the very year of his return to Lu; and in 480 b.c.e. another disciple, Tzu-lu, was killed in battle. Confucius felt all of these losses deeply, and his sadness and frustration must have been intensified by the realization that his political ideas had found no support among the rulers of his own state. Confucius died in 479 b.c.e. His disciples conducted his funeral and observed a mourning period for him.
Although we cannot be certain that Confucius wrote any of the works he is credited with, it is still possible to know something about the general nature of his philosophy. Shortly after his death his disciples compiled a work known as the Lun yü, commonly translated as the Analects but more accurately rendered as the Edited Conversations. This work consists of conversations between Confucius, his students, and an occasional ruler.
The primary emphasis of the Lun yü is on political philosophy. Confucius taught that the primary task of the ruler was to achieve the welfare (well-being) and happiness of the people of his state. To accomplish this aim, the ruler first had to set a moral (good character) example by his own conduct. This example would in turn influence the people's behavior.
Confucius is the first Chinese thinker to introduce concepts that became fundamental not only to Confucian philosophy but to Chinese philosophy in general. The most important of these are jen (benevolence), yi (propriety, or being proper), and li (ritual, or ceremony). Confucius believed that the chün-tzu, or "gentleman," must set the moral example for others in society to follow. In the Lun yü jen, what has been translated as humaneness or benevolence (being kind) is a quality a chün-tzu should develop and attempt to encourage in others. Li is considered the rules and ritual that are observed in religious and nonreligious ceremonies and, as applied to the chün-tzu, composed rules of behavior. Yi represents what is right and proper in a given situation. The chün-tzu, by observing the ritual and because of his good nature, always knows what is right.
Confucius was basically a humanist and one of the greatest teachers in Chinese history. His influence on his immediate disciples was deep. His students continued to explain his theories until, in the first Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.–8 C. E.), the theories became the basis of the state ideology, the body of ideas reflecting the social needs of a culture.
For More Information
Johnson, Spencer. The Value of Honesty: The Story of Confucius. La Jolla, CA: Value Communications, 1979.
Kaizuka, Shigeki. Confucius. New York: Macmillan, 1956. Reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002.
Kelen, Betty. Confucius: In Life and Legend. New York: T. Nelson, 1971.
Reid, T. R. Confucius Lives Next Door. New York: Random House, 1999.
Watson, Burton. The Tso Chuan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) was one of several intellectuals who started questioning the meaning of life, and the role of the gods and the spirits. During the Warring States Period, Confucius developed a system of ethics and politics that stressed five virtues: charity, justice, propriety, wisdom, and loyalty. His teachings were recorded by his followers in a book called Analects, and formed the code of ethics called Confucianism that has been the cornerstone of Chinese thought for many centuries.
Confucius's guiding belief was that of the philosophy Tien Ming (or the influences of fate and mission). Tien Ming states that all things are under the control of the regulatory mechanism of heaven. This includes life and death, wealth and poverty, health and illness. Confucius believed that understanding Tien Ming was his life's mission. He encouraged people to accept whatever happened to them, including death.
Confucius affirmed that if people do not yet know about life, people may not know about death (Soothill 1910). Without knowledge of how to live, a person cannot know about death and dying. However, Confucius was criticized for avoiding discussions of death. He did not encourage his followers to seek eternal life, nor did he discuss death, gods, ghosts, and the unknown future or afterlife in detail. He maintained that ghosts were spirits and were not easy to understand. Confucius concluded that these issues were complicated and abstract, and that it was better to spend time solving the problems of the present life than to look into the unknown world of death and afterlife. He wanted to convey the importance of valuing the existing life and of leading a morally correct life according to one's mission from heaven.
Confucius considered righteousness to be a basic requirement of a good person, stating that such a person would not seek to stay alive at the expense of injuring virtue. He encouraged people to uphold these moral principles and care for each other until death. His followers were exhorted to be loyal and dutiful toward family, kin, and neighbors, and to respect their superiors and the elderly. Filial piety to parents and ancestors is fundamental to these beliefs. Far from being characterized by fear, the attitudes of the living toward the departed members of the family or clan are one of continuous remembrance and affection.
These beliefs may partially explain why Qu Yuen and other students killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, China, were prepared to give up their lives to advocate the values of justice and goodness for their country. Those who follow such beliefs would have no regret when confronted with their own death and would accept death readily. This is regarded as a high level of moral behavior of family or social virtue. Although Confucius did not express it explicitly, to die for righteousness is an example of a good death for the individual as well as the nation.
See also: Chinese Beliefs; Ghosts; Good Death, The
Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson. Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 2nd edition. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1997.
Mak, Mui Hing June. "Death and Good Death." Asian Culture Quarterly 29, no. 1 (2001):29–42.
Overmyer, Daniel. "China." In Frederick Holck ed., Death and Eastern Thought. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1974.
Soothill, William Edward, trans. The Analects of Confucius. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp, 1968.
MUI HING JUNE MAK