Confucius Essay - Critical Essays

Kong Qiu



Confucius 551(?) B.C.-479 B.C.

(The name Confucius is a Latinized version of the transliteration K'ung-fu-tzu.) Chinese philosopher.

A thinker of unmatched influence in Eastern civilization, Confucius was a teacher and minor government official whose philosophy has been preserved in the Lun-yu (The Analects), a collection of sayings attributed to him and his disciples. The Analects contains remarks on a wide variety of subjects, including government, personal conduct, warfare, and family, and has been subject to diverse, even diametrically conflicting interpretations. For over two thousand years, Confucianism has endured as the foundation of Chinese philosophy.

Biographical Information

It is generally believed that Confucius was born in the state of Lu during the Chou dynasty and was orphaned at an early age. Some of Confucius's ancestors had been aristocrats in the state of Sung, but the family had immigrated to Lu to escape political unrest and intrigue. As a descendent of ancient nobility, Confucius occupied a middle position in Chinese society—between the impoverished peasantry and the ruling aristocracy. By the age of fifteen he had decided to become a scholar and worked to educate himself in music, literature, and ancient history. He began teaching in his early twenties and also served for a time as manager of Lu's state granary and supervisor of public fields. He also studied ancient governments under a scholar known as the master of Tan. Making use of an informal, discursive teaching style, Confucius became extremely popular with his students, many of whom became important government officials. In 479 B.C. Confucius left Lu on a sometimes perilous fourteen-year journey during which he taught and spread his ideas on society and government throughout China. Confucius's son died the year he returned to Lu, and two years later his student Yan Hui died. Reportedly inconsolable over the death of his beloved student, Confucius died less than three years later.

Major Works

The objective of Confucianism, the body of thought and writings inspired by Confucius, is the elucidation and encouragement of three main principles: Jen, Tao, and Li. In his teachings, which have been recorded in such works as The Analects, Li Chi (Book of Rites), and I Ching (Book of Changes), Confucius encouraged his students to think for themselves; he also endeavored to define concepts in an abstract manner so that they could be universalized and applied to all cultures. Confucius's principles therefore are never succinctly defined and have engendered a multitude of interpretations, resulting in diverse readings of his works. Although scholars acknowledge problems with The Analects as the direct transcription of Confucius's utterances, it is nonetheless regarded as the best possible summation of his philosophy. The Analects are composed of twenty books, each made up of aphorisms, questions, and notes attributed to Confucius and twenty of his disciples, most notably Master Tseng, who is credited with twelve sayings of his own; Jan Ch'iu, who went on to become a lieutenant in the powerful Chi Family; and Tzu-kung, who went on to become a prominent diplomat. Alternately translated as "humanity," "good," "love," and "reciprocity," Jen, according to Arthur Waley, is "a sublime moral attitude, transcendental perfection attained to by legendary heroes … but not by any living or historical person." This opinion contradicts the belief, often espoused by earlier scholars, that all humans are endowed with Jen. Thomas Cleary argues that "humanity is to love people" and contends that "Confucius believed the moral foundation of social order must rest on the primary virtue of … humanity." Tao, translated as "way," had been used before Confucius to describe both positive and negative ways of doing things. Confucius's innovation, according to H.G. Creel, was to recast the word as "the way … that individuals, states, and the world should conduct themselves and be conducted." Taoism, the philosophical school based upon the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu—who may have been a contemporary of Confucius—offers a similar interpretation of the term, albeit in a more mystical and personal context. Benjamin I. Schwartz defines Li as "all those 'objective' prescriptions of behavior, whether involving rite, ceremony, manners, or general deportment, that bind human beings and the spirits together in networks of interacting roles within the family, within human society, and with the numinous realm beyond." The discipline required of strict adherence to the ideals of duty and etiquette has inspired some political leaders to impose dictatorial rule on their subjects in the name of Confucius. Confucius's teachings, however, stress the opposite, as one of the philosopher's central tenets is that a state should be designed to serve the people. According to Thomas Cleary, Confucius "envisioned a social order guided by reasonable, humane, and just sensibilities, not by the passions of individuals arbitrarily empowered by hereditary status, and warned of the social consequences if men in positions of power considered personal profit and advantage over public humanity and justice. Confucius believed in the regeneration of public and private conscience through education and the influence of unifying cultural ideals."

Critical Reception

The first important thinker to expand upon Confucius's work was Meng-tzu, better known by his Latinized name, Mencius. Active during the fourth century B.C., Mencius, like Confucius, was a teacher and counselor. In the collection of his teachings, the Mencius, he furthered the concept of Jen, arguing that the potential for exemplifying such an honorable trait exists in every human being. In direct contrast, the teachings of Hsun-tzu, the prominent Confucian thinker of the third century B.C., stress the evil nature of humanity. For Hsun-tzu, Li functions to suppress selfish instincts. Subsequent philosophers of the ancient world incorporated mystical schemes, numerology, and aspects of Taoism into traditional Confucian thought. Although the resulting philosophy was in many ways a diluted and contradictory imitation of Confucianism, it was during this period that the movement gained wide acceptance, becoming the official state religion of China in the second century B.C. and eventually spreading to other Asian nations. Wang Ch'ung, a logician of the first century A.D., is credited with eliminating the mystical and supernatural elements of Confucianism as superfluous. Most of the first millennium A.D. is regarded as a period of relative diminution for the influence of Confucianism in China, during which time Taoism and Buddhism flourished. Neo-Confucianism arose in the eleventh century largely owing to the scholarship of Chu Hsi, whose historical writings focused on what are now known as the Classical Confucian texts—thirteen works of ancient origin that deal with a wide range of topics pertaining to Confucianism. Chu Hsi also explored the metaphysical side of Confucianism, engineering a path to spiritual enlightenment that has been viewed as a response to the challenge posed by Buddhism. During the seventeenth century a second wave of Neo-Confucianism arose; comparable to the earlier efforts of Wang Ch'ung, it aimed at reestablishing the original intent of The Analects, necessitating the purgation of all extraneous commentary and speculation. The influx of Western culture into twentieth-century China considerably altered the society's political and philosophical traditions. Mao Tse-Tung neglected Confucius in favor of Marxist ideology when he organized the People's Republic of China in 1949, effectively removing the Confucian tradition from political discourse, although its principles survive in literature and philosophy. Ironically, the decline of Confucianism in China was accompanied by a recognition—evinced by the numerous English translation of The Analects—on the part of the Western world of the depth and sophistication of Confucianism. Many scholars have observed similarities between the teachings of Confucius and those of Socrates and Jesus and often debate whether Confucianism should be characterized as a religion or a secular philosophy of ethics. Commentaries on Confucius usually center on differing interpretations of such key terms as Li and Jen as well as themes of proper government and individual behavior. D. Howard Smith celebrated the profundity of Confucius as a thinker: "He was convinced that there was a divine order which worked for love and righteousness, and taught that in obedience to that divine order man will find his highest goal."

Principal Works

Lun-yu [The Analects] (philosophy) c. 400 B.C.

*Shih Ching [Book of Songs] (poetry)

Ch'un Ch'iu [Spring and Autumn] (history)

Li Chi [Book of Rites] (philosophy)

I Ching [Book of Changes] (philosophy)

Shu Ching [Book of History] (history)

*According to popular tradition, Confucius was the editor of this collection.

†The works known as the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean are chapters from this book.


James Legge (essay date 1893)

SOURCE: "Confucius and His Immediate Disciples," in The Chinese Classics, Vol. I, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1893, pp. 90-111.

[In the following excerpt, Legge remarks on the veneration of Confucius and discusses the philosopher's views on government.]

1. Confucius died … complaining that of all the princes of the kingdom there was not one who would adopt his principles and obey his lessons. He had hardly passed from the stage of life, when his merit began to be acknowledged. When the duke Âi heard of his death, he pronounced his eulogy in the words, 'Heaven has not left to me the aged man. There is none now to assist me on the throne. Woe is me! Alas! O...

(The entire section is 9281 words.)

Ernst Faber (essay date 1896)

SOURCE: "A Missionary View of Confucianism," in A Systematical Digest of the Doctrines of Confucius, The General Evangelical Protestant Missionary Society of Germany, 1902, pp. 89-99.

[In the excerpt below, Faber compares Confucianism and Christianity.]

This subject is still but little known. As I have an exhaustive work in preparation I will take the liberty of stating here its programme:—

  1. The Thirteen Sacred Books of Confucianism. The origin of every portion of them. A history of the text. Remnants of ancient texts; various readings, quotations, etc. History of the Confucian Canon.
  2. The other Ancient Literature of China,...

(The entire section is 4759 words.)

Arthur Waley (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: An introduction to and "Terms," in The Analects of Confucius, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1938, pp. 13-26, 27-50.

[In the following excerpt, Waley comments on Confucius's life, his disciples, and the origins of the Analects. The critic also defines several key terms used in the Analects.]


Thought grows out of environment. Ideally speaking the translator of such a book as the Analects ought to furnish a complete analysis of early Chinese society, of the processes which were at work within it and of the outside forces to which it reacted. Unfortunately our knowledge of the period is far too incomplete for any such...

(The entire section is 6667 words.)

Lin Yutang (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Wisdom of China and India, Random House, 1942, pp. 3-52.

[In the following excerpt, Yutang outlines the basic tenets of Confucianism, which he describes as a system of ideas that sought a rationalized social and political order "by laying the basis for it in a moral order. "]


Can one be enthusiastic about Confucianism nowadays? I wonder. The answer seems to depend on whether one can be enthusiastic about sheer good sense, a thing which people usually cannot work up very much enthusiasm for. The more important question seems to be whether one can believe in Confucianism nowadays....

(The entire section is 11958 words.)

Fung Yu-lan (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Confucius, the First Teacher," in A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, The Macmillan Company, 1948, pp. 38-48.

[In the excerpt below, Fung remarks on Confucius 's life, discusses the concept of righteousness in Confucian thought, and assesses Confucius's ever-changing stature in Chinese history.]

Confucius is the latinized name of the person who has been known in China as K'ung Tzu or Master K'ung. [The word "Tzu" or "Master" is a polite suffix added to names of most philosophers of the Chou Dynasty, such as Chuang Tzu, Hsün Tzu, etc., and meaning "Master Chuang," "Master Hsün," etc.] His family name was K'ung and his personal name Ch'iu. He was born in...

(The entire section is 4426 words.)

Liu Wu-chi (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "K'ung Ch'iu, Founder of the Ju School," in A Short History of Confucian Philolosophy, 1955. Reprint by Hyperion Press, Inc., 1979, pp. 13-25.

[In the following excerpt, Wu-chi focuses on the life and thought of Confucius and contends that Confucius's "greatness lies in his transforming the feudal code of rites and etiquette into a universal system of ethics."]

Chapter One: K'ung Ch'iu, Founder of the Ju School

1. On the Greatness of Ju Philosophy—A Prelude

The Ju philosophy that has dominated Chinese thought for the last twenty-five centuries had its beginning in the teachings of K'ung Ch'iu (551-479...

(The entire section is 5259 words.)

Wing-tsit Chan (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "The Humanism of Confucius," in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 14-48.

[In the following excerpt, Chan argues that Confucius's ideas on humanism greatly influenced the development of Chinese philosophy and that Confucius's belief in "the perfectibility of all men" radically altered the traditional concept of the "superior man."]

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) can truly be said to have molded Chinese civilization in general. It may seem far-fetched, however, to say that he molded Chinese philosophy in particular—that he determined the direction or established the pattern of later Chinese philosophical developments—yet...

(The entire section is 14927 words.)

Wing-tsit Chan (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Chinese and Western Interpretations of Jen (Humanity)," in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 2, No. 2, March, 1975, pp. 107-128.

[In the following essay, Chan compares Chinese and Western interpretations of jen, the idea of humanity or humaneness, which is a central concept in Confucian thought.]

The concept of jen (humanity, love, humaneness; pronounced ren) is a central concept of Confucian thought and has gone through a long evolution of more than 2000 years. The story of that evolution has been told elsewhere.1 The purpose here is to see how the Chinese have understood the concept and how the West has interpreted it. We...

(The entire section is 9547 words.)

Jeffrey K. Riegel (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Poetry and the Legend of Confucius's Exile," in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 106, No. 1, January-March, 1986, pp. 13-22.

[In the essay below, Riegel analyzes three poems about Confucius's time of exile.]

Among the many stories and tales which constitute the legends of Confucius's life, the most well-known and dramatic involve the Master's suffering and hardships during his exile from Lu.… According to the account set forth in the Tso chuan … and Shih chi …, Confucius departed, or perhaps was banished, from his homeland in 497 B.C., after a failed attempt, supported by him, to dismantle the defensive walls around the cities...

(The entire section is 8400 words.)

David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Some Uncommon Assumptions," in Thinking Through Confucius, State University of New York Press, 1987, pp. 11-25.

[In the following excerpt, Hall and Ames comment on distinctions between Confucius's original teachings and later interpretations of them.]

In this essay we have been bold enough to challenge both the principal understandings of Confucian thought and the traditional methods of articulating them. It behooves us, therefore, to begin by discussing certain of the fundamental background assumptions which characterize what we consider to be an appropriate interpretive context within which Confucius' thought may be clarified. The primary defect of the...

(The entire section is 5696 words.)

Philip J. Ivanhoe (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Reweaving the 'One Thread' of the Analects," in Philosophy East and West, Vol. XL, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 17-33.

[In the following excerpt, Ivanhoe discusses the Golden Rule, which, in Confucian thought, is described in the notions of chung and shu.]


The Golden Rule—the notion that one's own desires can serve, by analogy, as a guide for how one should treat others—is found in various forms, in cultures throughout the world.1 It seems that something like it must exist if there is to be any kind of society at all. One cannot have a friend, a tribe, or a civilization without the fundamental...

(The entire section is 8588 words.)

Further Reading

Boodberg, Peter A. "The Semasiology of Some Primary Confucian Concepts." Philosophy East and West 2, No. 4 (January 1953): 317-32.

Discusses translations for several Chinese idioms that appear in Confucius's teachings.

Cleary, Thomas. Introduction to The Essential Confucius: The Heart of Confucius' Teachings in Authentic I Ching Order, translated by Thomas Cleary, 1992, pp. 1-11.

Provides an overview of Confucius's ideas on education and society as well as an examination of the historical background to Confucius's teachings.

Creel, H. G. Confucius, The Man...

(The entire section is 529 words.)