Confucius (or Kongzi) was a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 6th century BCE and whose thoughts, expressed in the philosophy of Confucianism, have influenced Chinese culture right up to the present day. Confucius has become a larger than life figure and it is difficult to separate the reality from the myth. He is considered the first teacher and his teachings are usually expressed in short phrases which are open to various interpretations. Chief among his philosophical ideas is the importance of a virtuous life, filial piety and ancestor worship. Also emphasised is the necessity for benevolent and frugal rulers, the importance of inner moral harmony and its direct connection with harmony in the physical world and that rulers and teachers are important role models for wider society.
Confucius' Early life
Confucius is believed to have lived from c. 551 to c. 479 BCE in the state of Lu (now Shandong or Shantung). However, the earliest written record of him dates from some four hundred years after his death in the Historical Records of Sima Qian (or Si-ma Ts‘ien). Raised in the city of Qufu (or K‘u-fou), Confucius worked for the Prince of Lu in various capacities, notably as the Director of Public Works in 503 BCE and then the Director of the Justice Department in 501 BCE. Later, he travelled widely in China and met with several minor adventures including imprisonment for five days due to a case of mistaken identity. Confucius met the incident with typical restraint and was said to have calmly played his lute until the error was discovered. Eventually, Confucius returned to his hometown where he established his own school in order to provide students with the teachings of the ancients. Confucius did not consider himself a ‘creator’ but rather a ‘transmitter’ of these ancient moral traditions. Confucius’ school was also open to all classes, rich and poor.
It was whilst he was teaching in his school that Confucius started to write. Two collections of poetry were the Book of Odes (Shijing or Shi king) and the Book of Documents (Shujing or Shu king). The Spring and Autumn Annals (Lin Jing or Lin King), which told the history of Lu, and the Book of Changes ( Yi Jing or Yi king) was a collection of treatises on divination. Unfortunately for posterity, none of these works outlined Confucius’ philosophy. Confucianism, therefore, had to be created from second-hand accounts and the most reliable documentation of the ideas of Confucius is considered to be the Analects although even here there is no absolute evidence that the sayings and short stories were actually said by him and often the lack of context and clarity leave many of his teachings open to individual interpretation. The other three major sources of Confucian thought are Mencius, Great Learning and Mean. With Analects, these works constitute the Four Books of Confucianism otherwise referred to as the Confucian Classics. Through these texts, Confucianism became the official state religion of China from the second century BCE.
Chinese philosophy, and particularly Confucianism, has always been concerned with practical questions of morality and ethics. How should man live in order to master his environment, provide suitable government and achieve moral harmony? Central to Confucianism is that the moral harmony of the individual is directly related to cosmic harmony; what one does, affects the other. For example, poor political decisions can lead to natural disasters such as floods. An example of the direct correlation between the physical and the moral is evidenced in the saying, ‘Heaven does not have two suns and the people do not have two kings’. A consequence of this idea is that, just as there is only one cosmic environment, there is only one true way to live and only one correct political system. If society fails it is because sacred texts and teachings have been misinterpreted; the texts themselves contain the Way but we must search for and find it.
Another important facet of Confucius’ ideas was that teachers, and especially rulers, must lead by example. They must be benevolent in order to win the affections and respect of the populace and not do so by force, which is futile. They should also be models of frugality and high moral upstanding. For this reason, Chinese education has often favoured the cultivation of moral sensibilities rather than specific intellectual skills. Further, under Confucian influence, Chinese politics principally focussed on the intimacy of relationships rather than institutions.
Mencius & Xunzi
The thoughts of Confucius were further developed and codified by two important philosophers, Mencius (or Mengzi) and Xunzi (or Hsun Tzu). Whilst both believed that man’s sense of morality and justice separated him from the other animals, Mencius expounded the belief that human nature is essentially good whilst Xunzi, although not of an opposite position, was slightly more pessimistic about human nature and he, therefore, stressed the importance of education and ritual to keep people on the right moral track.
Confucianism, therefore, expounded the importance of four virtues which we all possess: benevolence (jen), righteousness (i), observance of rites (li) and moral wisdom (te). A fifth was later added - faith - which neatly corresponded to the five elements (in Chinese thought) of earth, wood, fire, metal and water. Once again, the belief that there is a close link between the physical and moral spheres is illustrated. By stating that all men have such virtues, two ideas are consequent: education must nurture and cultivate them and all men are equal - ‘Within the four seas all men are brothers’. With suitable application, anyone can become a sage (sheng). It is not innate talent which is important but one’s will to mould one’s character into the most virtuous possible.
Following his death in 479 BCE, Confucius was buried in his family’s tomb in Qufu (in Shandong) and, over the following centuries, his stature grew so that he became the subject of worship in schools during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and temples were established in his name at all administrative capitals during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Throughout the imperial period an extensive knowledge of the fundamental texts of Confucianism was a necessity in order to pass the civil service selection examinations. Educated people often had a tablet of Confucius’ writings prominently displayed in their houses and sometimes also statues, most often seated and dressed in imperial costume to symbolise his status as ‘the king without a throne’. Portrait prints were also popular, especially those taken from the lost original attributed to Wu Daozi (or Wu Taoutsi) and made in the 8th century CE. Unfortunately, no contemporary portrait of Confucius survives but he is most often portrayed as a wise old man with long grey hair and moustaches, sometimes carrying scrolls.
The teachings of Confucius and his followers have, then, been an integral part of Chinese education for centuries and the influence of Confucianism is still visible today in contemporary Chinese culture with its continued emphasis on family relationships and respect, the importance of rituals, the value given to restraint and ceremonies, and the strong belief in the power and benefits of education.
- Hackin, J. Asiatic Mythology 1932. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2005.
- National Geographic. National Geographic Essential Visual History of World Mythology. National Geographic, 2008.
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551 BCE - 479 BCELife of Confucius.