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Confucius, to whom most of the sayings in the Analects are ascribed, was a descendant of an influential family of the state of Lu in the present-day eastern Chinese province of Shandong. His family name was Kong. His personal name was Qiu and he was also known as Zhong Ni. Later he was known as Kong Fuzi, meaning Master Kong, out of respect. At the time of his birth, his family was already in reduced circumstances, but he could boast of a long line of illustrious ancestors, dating to before the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 b.c.e.). Because of Confucius’s fame, his family history is perhaps the most complete and extensive genealogy in the world.

Orphaned at an early age, Confucius went to work while still in his teens. He held a number of minor posts in the government and in the employ of the nobility. His service record and his self-cultivation soon won for him wide recognition. Students gathered around him for instruction in ethics, literature, and the art of government service. He was particularly respected for his knowledge of ancient rituals. Among his followers were men of diverse interests and temperaments. Myth and legend grew around the historical Confucius over the centuries, and the story of the ancient sage’s life has become anything but monotonous. Confucius is said to have had to put up with one student who was too stingy to let his master borrow his umbrella; consequently, Confucius was drenched in the rain at least once. Confucius, so the legend says, had constantly to restrain a second student whose hot temper involved himself and his master in frequent difficulties. Confucius is believed to have had a narrow escape from a third disciple whose reaction against his master’s ceaseless moralistic admonitions amounted to a murderous intent.

Confucius divided his time among lecturing to his students, editing reading materials for his students, and trying to persuade the men in government to adopt his ideas. If he failed in the last, he certainly succeeded remarkably well in the first two tasks, as his Analects and its lasting influence testify. Being a collection of remembered dialogues recorded by his disciples and their pupils, there is clearly a question about the accuracy of the statements in the Analects. In addition, the extremely terse style of these dialogues lends itself to a variety of interpretations. However, upon a careful perusal of these sayings, many key ideas of the Confucian system emerge with clarity.


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Of the central idea that is discernible in Confucian thought, the idea of ren is perhaps the greatest in importance. Ren is the foundation of Confucian ethics because ren stands for the ideal relationship among human beings. The etymological significance of the Chinese character ren yields a key to this idea: The symbols that form this character mean “two human beings,” hence the suggestion of “the ideal relationship between any two human beings.” Ren suggests gentility, magnanimity, humanity, goodness of character, and benevolence. The last sense is the one most frequently used to translate this term. In short, ren is the perfect virtue of human beings; it is the only road to the peace and harmony of a society. One who embraces the principle of ren will treat people gently and humanely; and for this person, everything will go well.

In answering his disciples’ questions on the existence and functions of ren, Confucius stressed the importance not only of internalizing the principles of ren to make them a part of a person’s natural disposition but also of putting them into daily practice. He wanted his students to practice courtesy, magnanimity, good faith, diligence, and kindness everywhere and all the time. He came close to advocating an infinite compassion when he summed up his own exposition with a succinct command: to practice ren is to “love mankind” universally. Most frequently Confucius emphasized that ren was not a lofty metaphysical abstraction beyond the comprehension of the ordinary person. On the contrary, he insisted that ren lay close at hand for everyone to grasp. The difficulty, as he saw it, was that few people could remain firm for long. Even among his distinguished disciples, he mentioned only one who succeeded in practicing ren with constancy.

A note of earnestness that verges on religious fervor can be detected when Confucius speaks of the importance of ren. With unmistakable clarity, he asserts that good people sacrifice their lives in order to maintain ren and that they would never alter ren in order to survive any crisis. In this light, the Confucian principles of ren become more than relative standards of desirable social behavior; they are notions of absolute right and justice. However, Confucius explains, the seeds of these notions are not to be found outside humankind’s basic nature. Without giving a clear statement anywhere of his view on humankind’s nature, Confucius nevertheless reveals his assumption that people are born basically the same and that direct expressions of the original nature of humankind approach much closer to ren than any affectation could. Confucius insists on only one condition: Any direct expression of one’s own nature has to be restrained by li (the rules of propriety) in order to adhere to the principles of ren.

The Rules of Propriety

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Strictly speaking, the rules of propriety, the li, taken literally could mean rites, etiquette, good form, or decorum, but clearly Confucius uses this term to mean much more than mere outward expressions of formality. As an expert and an authority on ancient rites, Confucius preferred to have his students look beyond the music and pomp, the “jade and silk,” and other features usually accompanying the rituals. In the Analects, he stresses the essence of li as the distinguishing quality of humanity without which humankind and wild animals would be the same and human society would cease to exist. He also tells his own son to study li because if he does not know li, he will not know how to behave like a man.

Li, consequently, is upheld as the evidence of humankind’s civilization. Li is essential to sophisticated, cultured, and orderly living, which is the central aim of the Confucian social teachings. With li, people can tame the wild animal in themselves and make themselves better members of society. In more than one statement, Confucius suggests the psychological use of li to bring calm and poise to people at critical moments. Li is the Confucian prescription to save society from chaos and disorder.

True to his status as a self-appointed standard-bearer of traditional culture, Confucius does not spare any effort to impress his students with the importance of rituals. He himself would not eat unless the meal was presented and the seat arranged in the proper manner; he would not walk on foot when he kept company with the dignitaries; he would not look, listen, speak, or move until he was sure his every action was in accordance with the rules of propriety (li). Indeed, his own sayings and other statements about him in the Analects show a man of meticulous care for proper manners. Confucius may have purposely done so to dramatize the cultural heritage of his state of Lu, which was closely linked to the Zhou Dynasty. In his philosophy, Confucius champions a revival of the Zhou institutions, which in his political vision represent a golden past. Confucius holds the spirit, the appropriateness, and the sincerity behind the rites above the formalities. He instructs his students to observe simplicity, not lavish display, as the general principle of all rites, and to ascertain the genuine sentiment behind any ritual observance rather than the mere physical presence of etiquette. The spirit of li, according to Confucius, obtains only when the person practicing li has ren. Here the two key Confucian ideas come together to form the basis for the concept of junzi.

The Ideal Person

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Originally junzi meant no more than “the son of the lord.” Its more extensive use acquired for it the broader meaning of “any person of good breeding.” In the repeated appearance of this term in the Confucian statements, the element of good breeding or family origin is no longer stressed, and junzi becomes simply “good person” or “the best of people” in contradistinction with xiaoren, “small person” or “petty person.” The sense of the term in the Analects can also be quite adequately expressed as the “superior person” in contrast to the “inferior person.”

Confucius paints in junzi a picture of the ideal person. This perfect person has a thorough understanding of ren and constantly practices it. The individual always acts according to li, and the rules of propriety are so much a part of the person’s nature that he or she never can violate them. The individual’s uprightness, or the expressions of the person’s genuine nature, is perfectly blended with that proper amount of refinement, so that the ideal person is neither pedantic nor rustic. In dealing with others, the junzi is warm-mannered. The ideal person has a will of steel and always appears calm because ren keeps the individual from experiencing anxieties. The person’s wisdom guards against perplexities, and courage dispels any possible fear. Although petty-minded people think of profit, the junzi is always mindful of what is right. The ideal person may not possess much technical knowledge about details but the individual’s mind is capable of grasping what is essential and significant. Above all, the junzi treasures and seeks the dao, or the Way.

Dao and Heaven

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The Confucian dao, or the Way, is vastly different from the Dao of mystic Daoism. Confucius speaks of the dao of the ancient Sage Kings, meaning the Way to an ideal government and society, and of the dao of a virtuous man, meaning the right Way of being a man. At times, Confucius treats the word dao as another name for righteousness and sagacity. As he does with ren, Confucius also speaks of dao with occasional outbursts of pious feeling. He declares, “He who hears of dao in the morning may die content at night.” In these instances, Confucius does come close to expressing a religious dedication.

On the whole, Confucius’s silence on the supernatural is eloquent. In the Analects, he does not defend, nor does he attempt to destroy, the prevailing ideas about the world of the spirits. Instead, he unequivocally instructs his disciples to keep their minds on the affairs of humankind and not to be bothered by questions about the spirits. He informs them that they must first learn enough about life before they inquire into life hereafter, and he himself throughout his life remained too busy studying this world to deal with the other world. When his student asks him about the relationship between the rites and the spirits, Confucius’s answer is that since sincerity is the essence of the rituals, one must conduct the sacrificial rites to one’s ancestors “as if they were present,” and to the spirits also “as if they were present.” Beyond this, so says Confucius, one should not go. It is enough “to respect the spirits and stay away from them.”

Small wonder that one of his disciples declares his disappointment in trying to learn Confucius’s expositions on “Heaven’s ways.” Confucius may be suspected of dodging the question. He may also be suspected of having no formulated ideas about the spirits, but he cannot be accused of total silence on the question of Heaven. For in many passages in the Analects, Confucius refers to Heaven, sometimes as an invincible moral force, at other times as a supreme being, willful and purposeful.

Heaven to Confucius is the supreme being that decides in favor of the moral and the right, and Confucius envisages himself as having been commissioned by the heavenly authority to perpetuate the Sage Kings’ Way on earth. So he declares, when his life is threatened by the people of Kuang, “If Heaven is not going to let this culture decline, what can the people of K’uang [Kuang] do to me?” On another occasion of distress, Confucius comforts his friends by saying, “Heaven has created this virtue in me; what can Huan T’ui [Huan Tui] do to me?” That Confucius views Heaven’s will as always in favor of the good and always beneficial is further evinced in his statement about the regularity of the seasons and the thriving of myriad creatures. This statement has been taken by many students of Confucianism as a proof of Confucius’s belief in the spontaneity of a universal amoral force that is omnipotent. This view could be correct, but if one judges by the majority of Confucius’s remarks concerning Heaven, the force of the foregoing statement still tends to describe Heaven as a beneficent force that works benevolently without “elaborate explanations.”

Heaven’s dao in Confucian terms is Heaven’s Way or Heaven’s will. This will is supreme and above human interference. If Confucius’s use of the term Heaven is perfectly consistent, then Heaven’s will should also be moral and in favor of the good. Here another Confucian term is introduced, the ming. Ming can mean either a command or a destiny. When it appears in connection with Heaven as “Heaven’s ming,” it usually means “Heaven’s command,” or “Heaven’s will.” When it appears alone, ming can mean “fate” or “destiny.” What makes Confucius’s position on Heaven’s will unclear is his statement that if the Way (dao) is to prevail, it is fate (ming); and if the Way is to fail, it is also fate (ming). If this is the same ming as Heaven’s command, then Heaven may not always be intent on making the Great Way prevail. This idea is what is generally understood as Confucian fatalism. In other words, fate, as a shadowy necessity beyond the comprehension and control of human beings, also appears in Confucian thought.

Filial Piety

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Enough is said in the Analects to illuminate some other Confucian ideals with regard to social and political institutions. The importance of the family as the microcosm of society is clearly implied when Confucius reminds his students to practice filial piety within the family before trying to learn how to read and write well. The significance of filial piety in the Confucian system as seen in the Analects, however, is not as great as has been generally believed. Confucius describes this virtue as important because people who are respectful toward their parents are not likely to violate the law and order of society and because to be thankful to one’s parents is a good sentiment that should be encouraged.

However, to uphold filial piety as the supreme human virtue is not Confucius’s intent in the Analects; rather, it is a later development in the Confucian school of thought, elaborated and reinterpreted by the Confucian commentators on these texts. Confucius himself does not preach total, blind obedience to one’s parents. He sees the virtue of a son shielding his sheep-stealing father, but he also teaches the son to remonstrate, mildly but persistently, with his erring father.

Attaining Knowledge

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As an educator, Confucius was equally earnest in teaching his students, regardless of their social status and family origins. He believed in the equal teachability of people, but he recognized the difference in intellect and talent among them. In the Analects, he accepts those “who are born with knowledge” as the best, and those who learn after industrious study as the second type of mind. Nowhere in this book does Confucius suggest that each person is born socially equal and is entitled to the right to self-rule. He urges the ruler to learn the right Way to govern; he urges his students to learn to be the best ministers possible in order to assist the ruler. Confucius’s view on the function of the government is that government must rule by moral excellence—a view that anticipates the whole political philosophy of Mencius.

Confucius’s remark about people “born with knowledge” is extremely provocative, but unfortunately, the Analects does not yield any adequate exposition on Confucius’s view of knowledge. In discussing how to study, Confucius acknowledges his own intention “to observe and commit to memory what is observed,” because he confesses that he “cannot do anything without knowing about it first.” When these statements are examined together, Confucius does hint at the possibility that some people are born with knowledge; hence, these people can act spontaneously without the effort of learning how to act and without being aware of their knowledge. However, Confucius carefully declines the company of people of such super intellect, and he admits that the source of his knowledge is observation and intensive study. He also rules out the attainment of knowledge through meditation without the aid of books because once he “tried to think the whole day without eating and the whole night without sleeping, but nothing came of it.” Furthermore, he does not separate the attainment of knowledge from action and practice.

Names and Actuality

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More important than the relation between action and knowledge is the exact identification of name with actuality, according to the Confucian teachings. The times were chaotic and the social order was confused. Therefore, Confucius urged the king to behave like a king and the minister to act as one of his rank should. If the name is not correctly applied, says Confucius, then language is no longer a medium of communication. Consequently, nothing can be accomplished and people will not even know where to “put their hands or feet.” From a moralistic start with a practical aim, the Confucian doctrine of rectification of names developed into a serious effort to define terms. Confucius’s concern with this matter reveals his underlying assumption that the name is not just a representation of a thing but is the very essence of the thing itself. The germ of this idea can be found in pre-Confucian thought in China’s high antiquity, but Confucius’s effort has added significance to this idea and made it an important development in Chinese philosophy.

Survival of Confucianism

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In spite of its brevity, the Analects remains the most authentic and rewarding source for the study of Confucius—the man and his thought. Besides setting forth the key ideas of original Confucianism, the book illuminates certain aspects of life in ancient China. The fragments of dialogues between Confucius and a few political leaders show the role the intellectuals played in a society where values were undergoing dramatic change. The dialogues also reveal how totally without restraint the states vied for supremacy in a power struggle that followed the collapse of an ancient feudal order.

The fact that certain key statements in the Analects have been interpreted in different ways has certainly contributed to the survival of the Confucian system. The book contains something for everyone, from the most radical to the most conservative. Indeed, much has been read back into the Confucian teachings, and what Confucius did actually teach has been, as a result, distorted. In spite of differences of interpretation, it seems important to note that Confucius valued most highly an orderly, peaceful, and harmonious society. To this goal, he channeled all his thought and teaching. His dao was the Way to achieve this ideal; his de (virtue) was his claim that he had been invested with the knowledge of the Way; his wen (refinement, cultural heritage) was the heritage of institutions prevailing in an imaginary golden past derived from the ancient texts. To be sure, Confucius insisted that society would not be peaceful if each individual did not behave properly, according to social station. This meant that for Confucius the individual was important, but only insofar as the person could help bring about peace and harmony in society. If Confucius speculated on the position of humanity in the universe or dealt with other metaphysical matters, he did not record it in the Analects.


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Additional Reading

Allito, Guy. The Last Confucian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Based on the life and work of Liang Shuming, who tried to reestablish Confucian ideas in the early twentieth century. Includes his attempt to use Confucius as a basis for reform that would revitalize rural China. His goal was to stop the growing influence of communism. Discusses the different reactions to China’s problems by Liang and the communist leader, Mao Zedong.

Berthrong, John H. Transformations of the Confucian Way. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. A lucid guide through the many changes to the canon of Confucianism.

Chai, Ch’u, and Winberg Chai, eds. The Sacred Books of Confucius and Other Confucian Classics. New York: University Books, 1965. Introduction evaluates Confucianism both as humanism and as a religion. Includes as excellent glossary of Chinese terms used by Confucius and other writers. Covers later writings to the second century b.c.e. Contains a very readable translation of Analects.

Dawson, Raymond. Confucius. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A short introduction and biographical sketch of Confucius, written for a series on great individuals. Stresses Confucius’s ethical and moral influence.

De Bary, William Theodore. The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975. Discusses the reemphasis on Confucian thought that fueled the transition from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty. Explains how Confucianism stimulated a Buddhist revival in the late Ming period.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. An interpretive essay that attempts to reconcile Confucius’s attention to ritual with his humanism. In discussing Analects, the author believes that Confucius was ahead of his time; with ideas similar to the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

Hsu, Leonard Shihlien. The Political Philosophy of Confucianism: An Interpretation of the Social and Political Ideas of Confucius, His Forerunners, and His Early Disciples. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1932. The authoritative discussion of the Confucian principle of li, an unwritten code of justice for sovereigns, their ministers, and the people themselves.

Liu, Shu-hsien. Understanding Confucian Philosophy: Classical and Sung-Ming. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Liu attempts to uncover the key to Confucian philosophy through its spiritual origin.

Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Contains a long chapter that compares Confucius to ancient Western philosophers. Emphasizes Confucius as a teacher who was a perpetuator of tradition as well as an innovator.

Smith, D. Howard. Confucius. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. A biographical sketch that includes a discussion of Daoism, the contemporary opposition to Confucius, as well as the later opposition of Buddhism. Evaluates the impact of Confucianism on the major dynasties of Chinese history.

Sloate, Walter H., and George A. De Vos, eds. Confucianism and the Family. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. A collection of essays that examine the psychocultural aspects of the Confucian family.