Confucius, or as literally translated, Master Kong (K'ung-fu-tzu or Kongfuzi), lived and worked during what is known as the Chinese Spring and Autumn Period (770-481 BCE), and is by tradition said to have been born on the 28th of September in 551 BCE in the state of Lu located on the Shandong peninsula in northeastern China and died in 479 BCE. It is said, “by tradition” because it is difficult to distinguish much of Confucius’ life between the factual and the legendary. Confucius was an infamous Chinese thinker and educator, comparable to Socrates in the West, who developed a social and political philosophy that is often considered to be the foundation of subsequent Chinese thought. He was the founder of the Ru School of Chinese thought and the philosophical school of thought that has come to bear his name, Confucianism, comes from his tradition and the fragments that were recorded in the text called Analects (Lunyu). One of his most renowned concepts is summed up in the often translated and transmitted phrase:
Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself
As mentioned, it is difficult to trace the historical Confucius as his myth and legend have far surpassed the mere factual coordinates of his life. One legend has it that Confucius was born in answer to his parents prayers they made at a sacred hill (qui) called Ni and hence his names attest as such: Kong equates to the thanking of prayers answered, his forbidden name was Qui and his public name was Zhongni. Fact or fiction, the majority of what we know about Confucius comes from the Analects and other transcriptions and records of his thoughts and goings-on that were mostly transcribed during the Warring States Period (403-221 BCE) in which there was an ongoing struggle among the small states in China to regain the primacy and power of the Zhou. As well, the well-known text, Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), written by Sima Qian (145-c.85 BCE), who was court historian to the Han dynasty, includes many accounts of the life and teachings of Confucius. The latter identifies Confucius as a descendent of the Royal State of Song yet grew up in the small state of Lu due to his grandfather’s having to flee the turmoil that besieged that of the state of Song. His life in Lu was said to have begun in poverty as accounts have stated that his father died when he was just three and he was raised by his mother in which he soon had to take various odd jobs once he came of age. He apparently wed a young girl named, Qi Guan, who bore him a son, Kong Li.
His educational background is unclear except that tradition claims him to have studied with Lao Dan, the Daoist Master, as well as with Chang Hong and Xiang in music and lute respectively. What is clear is that education or study was extremely important to Confucius in which one must be dependent and independent; he is recorded in the Analects as saying: “He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.” The Analects, recorded during the Warring States era, are said to reveal the dialogues between Confucius and his pupils in which he transmits, and perhaps expands, on the ideas, or the way (Dao) of the ancient Zhou. He was known to say that he was a transmitter and not a maker, and he had a passion for the wisdom of the Zhou sages upon which his teachings were based, or transmitted from. It is worth noting that it was in the fall of the Zhou Empire that the various small states began to vie for power and such a unified loss was a probable influence on Confucius.
Confucius gathered a following or a group of disciples, the number of which has been overly exaggerated according to scholars. There are claims that he had as many as three thousand, though more accurate accounts put that number at seventy-two (though this number is also suspicious as it is a magic number and purportedly the age of his death). Regardless, Confucius was open to teaching all, no matter their class, through his interpretation of his study and centered that espousal on the edifice of learning as well. His method was never to teach in a preacher-like manner, but rather in a motivational one (so-to-speak), such that the pupil must answer for himself: “I only instruct the eager and enlighten the fervent. If I hold up one corner and a student cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not go on with the lesson.”
His teachings, as did his own learning, emphasized morality, government, speech and language and the arts. As well he focused on what was referred to as the Six Arts: archery, calligraphy, chariot, computation, music and ritual. Of the various subjects though, it was morality that was considered of utmost importance above all else. Through a proper understanding and practice of morality all else could be derived, harmonized and rectified. This is revealed in a famous lesson in which a student asks if there is one word that could guide a person through life, the master’s answer is “reciprocity” (shu), and the ‘answer’ is a suggestion, followed by the exemplifying phrase, “never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” A moral education, ideally, provides one with the building blocks for self-cultivation, harmony and ethical action, which can maintain and restore value and meaning for society (something which he considered lost in the loss of the Zhou reign). And for Confucius, it was in the Book of Songs, through its poetry, where one could find the epitome of such imperative study in morality.
The aesthetic is very much an important element in the philosophy of Confucius. The aesthetic is beautiful and good and as poetry can yield such manner so should man’s comportment. What by some interpretations may seem as mere etiquette is much more deeply an issue of aesthetic gratitude and respect. It is one of the key elements to his idea of a harmonious order. Such an order included a special relationship to and serving of the spirits. He maintained that he had a special relationship to Tian, the Zhou deity referring to sky or heaven. He acknowledged its changing status and relationship over time, pre-dating the Zhou, and acknowledged the ‘existential’ dilemma in such change, yet maintained a balanced interpretation in which man is subject to the parameters set forth by the Tian though is a free agent within those parameters and responsible for his actions. Therefore, there is an aesthetic, moral and social co-mingling order that ensures the highest order of harmony, which can be effected through li (ritual propriety). One must learn and perform properly and at the proper time for the greater good.
Through li one can cultivate and master the idea of ren (compassion, or the loving of others), a core component of his thinking. Together this involves deprecating oneself as opposed to being artificial in making the appearance of a better impression: to be true and sincere to oneself is to take care of the other as well; to master self-discipline not as a form or self-repression but as a way to accommodate both the self and the other. Such is enacted in the performance of li, and not as mere obligation, but precisely as sincere devotion: “look at nothing in defiance of ritual, listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, speak of nothing in defiance or ritual, never stir hand or foot in defiance of ritual.”
The importance of such comportment is as well, and clearly as could be no other way, integral to the operations of political life. While he deemed that the elders and the learned are to be respected and honored, that in fact the best practice of ren is through the devotion and respect of one’s elders, he was keen to make aware that such filial propriety is not to be abused. There is no ruler who is essentially “better” than a peasant, and the former should never take for granted the latter. As is true for the social is true for governance—self-discipline through compassion and the love of others.
One who rules by moral force may be compared to the North Star – it occupies its place and all the stars pay homage to it.
As well, the system of governance should follow a hierarchy, as does the notion of li in a familial setting such that a legitimate and honorable hierarchy is established and respected as it (when it) collectively adheres to the harmonic order of li and ren. This theory takes on the name of zhengming, in which the principle forms of government have their appropriate names and corresponding behaviors. “Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.” This notion of adjudication is considered essential, as the devolution of governance is believed by Confucius to take place in the devolution of one’s place and the attributes and performance of one’s position.
Proper, ideal governance is, above all else, dependent upon de, or virtue. It is a moral force that incorporates the performance of li and the presence of ren. The ceremonial, in this context, is far from pomp and circumstance, but rather a sincere activation of virtue, which has the effect of performing governance. Confucius spoke of such in defiance of acts of aggressive force or imposition of law and law enforcement, which would be antithetical to the force of morality. As he states: “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.” Virtue, metaphorically, leads on its own accord.
Confucius, himself, did not become officially involved in politics until the age of fifty. Under Duke Ding of the state of Lu, Confucius was first appointed Minister of Public Works, which was then followed by the position as Minister of Crime. Apparently, he was forced to leave his position in the ministry of the Duke due to conflicting desires of the nobility of Lu or perhaps the Duke himself—the exact reasons are not clear. He did take leave, or some have said in exile, and traveled with some of his disciples through the other neighboring states of Cai, Chen, Chu, Song and Wei. He apparently sought positions in the ministries of these states yet was unsuccessful. In 484 BCE he returned to his home state of Lu and devoted the rest of his life to teaching.
The Analects give us most of what we know about Confucius and while Confucius claimed to be a mere transmitter, scholars agree that he in fact did much more than transmit and in fact it is his interpretations, expansions and departures that honored him with such a lasting reputation. His teachings were evolutionary, radical and enlightening. His legacy has had long lasting and far-reaching impact in both the eastern and western traditions. He is an amazing figure in history and in legend as the two can never be separated and it speaks to his almost magical presence in the history of Chinese thought. His age of death, seventy-two, was itself a magic number and again leaves open the uncertainty of what is true and what is retrospective mythologizing. It has been convened that the thinker was under recognized in his time yet his legend, and more importantly his teachings, lived on. At the end of the 4th century, Mencius was to say of Confucius, “ever since man came into this world, there has never been one greater than Confucius.”