Context 1: Origins of ConfuciusI’d originally thought to post short passages from basic Confucian texts for comment and discussion, but given that the subject is unfamiliar to some, perhaps I...

Context 1: Origins of Confucius

I’d originally thought to post short passages from basic Confucian texts for comment and discussion, but given that the subject is unfamiliar to some, perhaps I should post some context first.

Confucius was actually named Kong Qiu. As with all Chinese names, that of the family comes first. (Most Chinese family names are one word, though a few, mostly derived from ancient official titles, are two. Given names are either one or two words long.) He was born in 551 BCE, and died in 479 BCE. He was thus born around the time Cyrus II established the Persian Empire, and died near the time Socrates was born. There are no disputes about Confucius’ historical existence, and no doubt of his dates significant enough to affect understanding of his thought.

According to early legend, his family background was troubled. His mother seems to have been a concubine of his father, who was many years her senior. The father, a town governor, was probably motivated not only by lust but also by his lack of a healthy son (his only son was a cripple). When the father died, Confucius was three years old, and both he and his mother were promptly tossed out. Confucius later restored his links to his half-siblings, and managed family affairs for them, but this does not seem to have happened until he won a place in society on his own merits. As it was, he seems to have grown up in the capital of the state of Lu, Qufu, at the very bottom of the educated classes.

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sagesource eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that it may have been partially behind the divergence between ideal and real when Confucius and his followers discuss authority figures, doctrines such as the "correction of names" and the overthrow of evil kings. Briefly put, Confucian obedience was a double-edged sword. Enthusiastic and loyal submission was expected of inferiors to superiors, if -- and this was the big catch -- the superiors were "real" superiors; that is, if they acted as superiors should (lived up to the standards implied by the "name" or title they were referred to). This in turn meant that a Confucian inferior was duty-bound to undertake moral evaluation of his or her superiors, to see if obedience was legitimate. If the inferior judged that the superior was not living up to the standard of behavior that his "name" entailed, all claims of obedience were cancelled -- an immoral king, a king that did not behave as a true king should, was not a king at all but just "a nobody," as Confucius' follower Mencius said. Similarly, a father who ordered concubines buried with him, or a husband who beat his own mother, was no longer a true father or husband, and could be disobeyed or killed, respectively.

I am wondering if growing up without a father, but with a faint memory of a figure who probably idolized him, followed by a traumatic expulsion from the family, may have helped shape this attitude of "venerate the ideal, but deal with the real."

sagesource eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If there are any psychologists out there, I'd appreciate their comments on the effect on a child who loses his father and his family in the way Confucius did. Our best guess is that he was raised in reduced circumstances by his mother and her family. They must have had some means, or he would not have become educated, but education was more widely available in ancient China than in some other ancient societies -- provided one's family were willing to make any sacrifices necessary to obtain it.

As I will explain somewhat later, I think this early experience might have left a definite mark on the way he conceptualized fathers and other authority figures, but I don't know how justified this hypothesis might be.

kwoo1213 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Your assertion certainly would seem to have merit.  My best friend is a psychologist, so I'll try to remember to ask her about what you mention in your post above.  I would think that not having his father around most of his life would have a profound affect on the way he viewed or thought about authority figures, yes.  I can't see how it wouldn't affect this. 

kwoo1213 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Yes, this makes perfect sense.  What you explain about the superiors having to "live up" to the standards and ideals expected of them goes right along with this.  Thanks for more clarification and insight!

sagesource eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'll be citing and discussing the relevant topics later, of course. It's a little tricky, since the "correction of names" doctrine is also complicated by a textual issue regarding one of the key passages.