much travelling around China to promote his ideas among rulers,
he eventually became involved in teaching disciples. His philosophy
emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social
relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence
in China over other doctrines such as Legalism or Taoism during
the Han dynasty. Used since then as the imperial orthodoxy, Confucius'
thoughts have been developed into a vast and complete philosophical
system known in the West as Confucianism. They were introduced to
Europe by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who was the first to Latinise
the name as "Confucius".
Analects is a short collection of his discussions with disciples,
compiled posthumously. It contains an overview of his teachings.
describes Confucius as a "transmitter who invented nothing",
whose greatest emphasis was on study, the Chinese character that
opens the book.
life and family
At 15, I set my mind upon learning;
At 30, I took my stand;
At 40, I no longer had doubts;
At 50, I knew the will of the heavens;
At 60, my ear was attuned;
At 70, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any
(Analects, translation by James Legge)
to tradition, Confucius was born in 551 BCE (during the Spring
and Autumn Period, at the beginning of the Hundred Schools of
Thought philosophical movement) in the city of Qufu in the Chinese
State of Lu (now part of present-day Shandong Province and culturally
and geographically close to the royal mansion of Zhou). He was
born into a once noble family who had recently fled from the State
Records of the Grand Historian compiled some 400 years later indicate
that Confucius was conceived out of wedlock. His father was seventy
and his mother only fifteen at his birth. His father died when
he was three and he was brought up in poverty by his mother. His
social ascendancy links him to the growing class of Shì
, between old nobility and common people, which later became the
prominent class of literati because of the cultural and intellectual
skills they shared.
a child, he is said to have enjoyed putting ritual vases on the
sacrifice table. As a young man he was a minor administrative
manager in the State of Lu and rose to the position of Justice
Minister. After several years, disapproving of the politics of
his Prince, he resigned. At about age 50, seeing no way to improve
the government, he gave up his political career in Lu, and began
a 12-year journey around China, seeking the "Way" and
trying unsuccessfully to convince many different rulers of his
political beliefs and to push them into reality. When he was about
60, he returned home and spent the last years of his life teaching
an increasing number of disciples, trying to share his experiences
with them and transmit the old wisdom via a set of books called
the Five Classics.
Confucius held the post of the highest officer in Lu, he issued
an arrest and execution order for Shao-Zheng-Mao, a respected
person in Lu. The order gave five rather vague reasons:
a recalcitrant mind
Alienating himself and refusing changes
Enjoying specious arguments
Broadcasting others' faults
Supporting and profiting from others' bad deeds
This has been interpreted as an act of judicial murder, an accusation
which has been denied by Confucius' admirers.
King of Lu was unhappy at this abuse of power, and during an annual
ritual he refused to distribute the sacred meat to Confucius,
a strong indication of disapproval. In fact, Confucius was forced
into exile from Lu after these accusations. During his exile (called
“touring the kingdoms” in Confucianism), Confucius
was not widely welcomed; some kingdoms even forbade him to cross
descendants were repeatedly identified and honored by successive
imperial governments. They were honored with the rank of a marquis
thirty-five times since Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, and they were
promoted to the rank of duke forty-two times from the Tang Dynasty
to 1935. One of the most common titles is Duke Yansheng, which
means "overflowing with sainthood."
there are thousands of reputed descendants of Confucius. The main
lineage fled from the Kong ancestral home in Qufu to Taiwan during
the Chinese Civil War. The latest head of the household is K'ung
Te-ch'eng who is of the 77th generation and a professor at National
Taiwan University. The Republic of China appointed him President
of the Examination Yuan. Kung married Sun Qifang, the great-granddaughter
of the Qing dynasty scholar-official and first president of Beijing
University Sun Jianai, whose Shouxian, Anhui, family created one
of the first business combines in modern-day China that included
the largest flour mill in Asia, the Fou Foong Flour Company. The
Kongs are related by marriage to a number of prominent Confucian
families, among them that of the Song dynasty prime minister and
martyr Wen Tianxiang.
In the Analects, where one can find the most intimate descriptions
of him, Confucius presents himself as a "transmitter who
invented nothing" and his greatest emphasis may be on study,
the Chinese character that opens the book.
this respect, he is seen by Chinese people as the Greatest Master.
Far from trying to build a systematic theory of life and society,
he wanted his disciples to think deeply for themselves and relentlessly
study the outside world, mostly through the old scriptures relating
past political events (like the Annals) or past feelings of common
people (like the Book of Odes).
these times of division, chaos and endless wars between feudal
states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven that could
unify the "world" (i.e., China) and bestow peace and
prosperity on the people. Therefore, Confucius is often considered
a great proponent of conservatism, but a closer look at what he
proposes often shows that he used (and maybe twisted) past institutions
and rites to push a new political agenda of his own: for example,
he wanted rulers to be chosen on their merits, not their parentage.
He wanted rulers who were devoted to their people. And he wanted
the ruler to reach perfection himself, thus spreading his own
virtues to the people instead of imposing proper behavior with
laws and rules.
of the deepest teachings of Confucius, and one of the hardest
to understand from a Western point of view, may have been the
superiority of exemplification over explicit rules of behavior.
His ethics may be considered one of the greatest virtue ethics.
This kind of "indirect" way to achieve a goal is used
widely in his teachings, where allusions, innuendo and even tautology
are common ways of expressing himself. That is why his teachings
need to be examined and put into context for access by Westerners.
A good example is found in this famous anecdote:
the stables were burnt down, on returning from court, Confucius
said, "Was anyone hurt?" He did not ask about the horses.
seems a matter of tiny importance has been long commented on and
shows another of the Confucian specificities that have to be underlined.
When one knows that in his time horses were perhaps 10 times more
expensive than stablemen, one can understand that, by not asking
about the horses, Confucius demonstrated his greatest priority:
human beings. Thus, when one sees a little bit of the greater
picture, according to many ancient or recent Eastern and Western
commentators, Confucius' teaching can be considered as noteworthy
Chinese variant of humanism.
also heavily emphasized what he calls "rites and music,"
referring to these social conventions as two poles to balance
order and harmony. While rites, in short, show off social hierarchies,
music unifies hearts in shared enjoyment. He added that rites
are not only the way to arrange sacrificial tools, and music is
not only the sound of stick on bell. Both are mutual communication
between someone's humanity and his social context; both feed social
relationships, like the five prototypes: between father and son,
husband and wife, prince and subject, elder and youngster, and
between friends. Duties are always balanced and if a subject must
obey his ruler, he also has to tell him when he is wrong.
teachings were later turned into a corps de doctrine by his numerous
disciples and followers. In the centuries after his death, Mencius
and Xun Zi both wrote a prominent book on it, and in time a philosophy
was elaborated, which is known in the West as Confucianism.
Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner
by the Chinese, argument continues over whether to refer to it
as a religion because it makes little reference to theological
or spiritual matters (god(s), the afterlife, etc.).
principles gained wide acceptance primarily because of their basis
in common Chinese opinion. He championed strong familial loyalty,
ancestor worship, and respect of elders by their children and
of husbands by their wives, and used the family as a basis for
an ideal government. He expressed the well-known principle, "Do
not to others what you do not want done to yourself" (the
Golden Rule). He also looked nostalgically upon earlier days,
and urged the Chinese, particularly the politicians, to model
themselves on earlier examples.
The Confucian theory of ethics is based on three important concepts:
Confucius grew up, li referred to three aspects of life, that
of sacrificing to the gods, social and political institutions,
and daily behavior. It was believed that li originated from the
heavens. Confucius redefined li, arguing that it flowed not from
heaven but from humanity. He redefined li to refer to all actions
committed by a person to build the ideal society. Li to Confucius
became every action by a person aiming to meet the person's surface
desires. These can be either good or bad. Generally attempts to
obtain short term pleasure are bad while those that in the long
term try to make your life better are generally good. It is all
about doing the proper thing at the proper time.
Confucius, yì was the origin of li. Yì can best
be translated as righteousness. While doing things because of
li, your own self-interest, was not necessarily bad, you would
be a better, more righteousful person if you base your life upon
following yì. This means that rather than pursuing your
own selfish interests you should do what is right and what is
moral. It is doing the right thing for the right reason. Yì
is based upon reciprocity. An example of living by yì is
how you must mourn your father and mother for three years after
their death. Since they took care of you for the first three years
of your life you must reciprocate by living in mourning for three
as li flows out of yì, so yì flows out of rén.
Ren can best be translated as human heartedness. His moral system
was based upon empathy and understanding others, rather than divinely
ordained rules. To live by rén was even better than living
by the rules of yì. To live by rén one used another
Confucian version of the Golden Rule: he argued that you must
always treat your inferiors just as you would want your superiors
to treat you. Virtue under Confucius is based upon harmony with
applied an early version of the Golden Rule: "What one does
not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to any one else; what
one recognizes as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing
to grant to others." (Confucius and Confucianism, Richard
Confucius' political thought is based upon his ethical thought.
He argues that the best government is one that rules through "rites"
and people's natural morality, rather than using bribery and force.
He explained this in one of the most important analects: 1. "If
the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them
by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have
no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought
to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the
sense of shame, and moreover will become good." (Translated
by James Legge) This "sense of shame" is somewhat an
internalization of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil
action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.
he supported the idea of the all-powerful Emperor, probably because
of the chaotic state of China at his time, his philosophies contained
a number of elements to limit the power of the rulers. He argued
for according language with truth—thus honesty was of the
most paramount importance. Even in facial expression, one sought
always to achieve this. In discussing the relationship between
a son and his father (or a subject and his king), he underlined
the need to give due respect to superiors; this demanded that
the inferior must give advice to his superior if the superior
was considered to be taking the wrong course of action in a given
was built upon by his disciple Mencius to argue that if the king
was not acting like a king, he would lose the Mandate of Heaven
and be overthrown. Therefore, tyrannicide is justified because
a tyrant is more a thief than a king (but attempted tyrannicide
Confucius' philosophical school was continued by his direct disciples
and by his only grandson, Zisi. Mencius and Xun Zi are his two
great followers, one on each "side" of his philosophy,
perhaps simply described as optimism and pessimism. They built
upon and expanded his ethico-political system.
Soon after Confucius' death, Qufu, his home town, became a place
of devotion and remembrance. It is still a major destination for
cultural tourism, and many Chinese people visit his grave and
the surrounding temples. In China, there are many temples where
one can find representations of Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius together.
There are also many temples dedicated to him which have been used
for Confucianist ceremonies.