Confucius

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Confucius

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Article abstract: Chinese philosopher, ethicist, and teacher{$I[g]China;Confucius} Confucius’s teachings had little impact on his own times, but through his disciples and followers, Confucianism became China’s official state philosophy in the second century b.c.e., and its texts became the basis of formal education. Confucianism remained the dominant philosophy of China until the early twentieth century and still has a major influence on people throughout East Asia.

Early Life

The name Confucius (kuhn-FYEW-shuhs) is the latinized version of a formal title, Kongfuzi, meaning “The Master Kong.” He was born as Kong Qiu somewhere in the state of Lu (in the present-day province of Shandong), into a family that was part of the official class but had fallen on hard times. It is said that his great-grandparents had emigrated from the neighboring state of Song. Confucius is believed to have lost his father when still a small child and to have been raised in poverty by his mother.

Nevertheless, Confucius learned the arts of a courtier, including archery and charioteering; at age fifteen, he began to study ancient texts. In his mid-twenties, Confucius held minor posts in Lu, first as a bookkeeper and later as a supervisor of royal herds. His approach to the problems of statecraft may have begun in his thirties, but he is best known for the period after the age of fifty when he was an established teacher or philosopher-master to young men. The actual teachings that have been handed down are contained in epigraphic and somewhat disjointed form in the Lunyu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; The Analects, 1861). The book is a compilation of moral teachings, usually in the form of brief dialogues between Confucius and a questioner, who might be either a high feudal lord or one of Confucius’s own disciples. Tradition holds that Confucius had an ungainly personal appearance, but nothing is actually known about his looks. He was married and had a son.

During Confucius’s lifetime, China was divided into contending states under the nominal rule of the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty. By the eighth century b.c.e., the Zhou rulers had lost all effective control over their subordinate lords, who became independent rulers. By Confucius’s day, these rulers often were themselves figureheads, controlled by powerful individuals or families close to the throne. Murder, intrigue, and double-dealing had become the common coin of political exchange. Moreover, established authority and traditional social distinctions were violated in daily life. In this atmosphere of treachery and uncertainty, Confucius emerged as a teacher who valued constancy, trustworthiness, and the reestablishment of the rational feudal order contained in the codes of the Zhou Dynasty.

Life’s Work

Confucius was already known as a teacher, but he desired to become an adviser or government minister when, sometime before his fiftieth year, he went to live in the powerful neighboring state of Qi. The duke of Qi honored Confucius as a moral teacher but did not give him an important position in the government; eventually, Confucius returned to Lu.

When the ruler of Qi asked Confucius the best way to govern, he replied, “Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, and the son a son.” The ideas contained in this moral maxim are central to Confucius’s teaching. He taught that social order and stability could be achieved at societal and personal levels if individuals studied and followed the proper standards of behavior. Confucius taught that if one acted properly in terms of one’s own social role, others would be influenced positively by the good example. That worked for a ruler in state and for...

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an individual in his or her daily life. Thus, Confucianism, from its earliest teachings, contained an approach useful for both practical living and governing.

Virtue (de) displayed by living properly brought one into harmony with the correct human order, called “the Way” (dao). Confucius acknowledged the existence of an overarching force in life called Heaven (tian) but did not accept any concept of a God or gods. He specifically opposed the belief in spirits and was not interested in the immortality of the soul. For Confucius, the human order and human character are fundamentally good, but there is a tendency to slip away from proper behavior through laxity and lack of understanding. A primary responsibility of leaders and elders is to uphold the social ideals through positive demonstration in their own lives. In Confucianism, the most complete statement of this approach is called the doctrine of the Rectification of Names (zhengming). One begins with study to establish the original meaning of the Zhou feudal order. Once that understanding is gained, individuals should alter their behavior in order to fulfill completely and sincerely the social roles they are assigned, such as those of minister, father, or brother. This entire process constitutes the Rectification of Names, which Confucius believed would restore the ideal social order.

On his return to Lu around the year 500, Confucius took up an official position under the sponsorship of Ji Huanzi, the head of the Ji clan, who were the real power holders. His post was not an important one, and Confucius resigned shortly over a question of improper conduct of ritual sacrifices. Ritual (li) plays a central role in Confucius’s teachings. He downplayed the supernatural or religious aspects of ritual but taught that meticulous and sincere observance of rituals imparted moral improvement.

The state of Lu, where Confucius lived, derived from a collateral line of the Zhou Dynasty and was known for careful preservation of Zhou ritual practices. Confucius used this tradition as a proof of the importance of rituals. In addition to the moral training acquired by the mastery of ritual, Confucius taught ritual as a means to acquire the practical skills needed to carry out the functions of high office.

In 497, after his resignation over the ritual issue, Confucius set out, with a few disciples, as a wandering philosopher-teacher, looking for a ruler who would try his methods of governing. This long trek, which lasted from 497 to 484, led to his enhanced reputation for uprightness and wisdom, but he never obtained a significant office. In his mid-sixties, he was called back to Lu, possibly through the influence of his disciple Ran Qiu, who had become the chief steward of the Ji family. On his return, however, Confucius denounced Ran Qiu’s tax policies as exploitative of the common people.

Confucius’s approach to government stressed that the ruler should be benevolent and sincerely concerned about the well-being of his subjects. In Confucius’s hierarchical conception of the social order, the ruler’s concern for his subjects would be repaid by obedience and support. Confucius believed that the same hierarchical yet reciprocal principles applied to all social relationships.

Although later Confucius came to be deified as a sage of infinite powers, in The Analects he appears as a dignified, austere, but gentle man who suffered ordinary human disappointments. Significantly, his ideas are colored by a strong humanism. His teachings as recorded in The Analects emphasize benevolence (ren), meaning a love of humankind, as the key virtue of the ideal man, whom he referred to as a “gentleman” (zhunzi). Benevolence begins with straightforwardness (zhi) of character and then is trained or modified through practice of the rituals. Ritual and music impart the inner character needed by a gentleman. Confucius taught that a gentleman would have other virtues as well, such as loyalty (zhong), righteousness (yi), altruism (shu), and filial piety (xiao). This last virtue—the love and concern of a child for his parents, which expresses itself in dutiful and sincere concern for their well-being—became particularly important in Chinese and East Asian civilizations. All Confucius’s teachings about social relationships demand the subordination of the individual; thus, Confucius was neither an egalitarian nor a libertarian.

During his last years, Confucius lived in Lu and was often consulted by the titular ruler, Duke Ai, and the new head of the dominant Ji clan, Ji Kangzi, but still never was an important minister. Many of his statements from this period are preserved in summary form and enhance the elliptical tone of The Analects.

Confucius, before his death at the age of seventy-two, completed the editing of several ancient texts. Both tradition and modern scholarship connect him with three classical texts. These are the Shujing (compiled after first century b.c.e.; English translation in The Chinese Classics, vol. 5, parts 1 and 2, 1872; commonly known as Classic of History), which contains pronouncements by the founders of the Zhou Dynasty, the Shijing (compiled fifth century b.c.e.; The Book of Songs, 1937), which preserves 305 songs from the time before 600 b.c.e., and the Chunqiu (fifth century b.c.e.; The Ch’un Ts’ew with the Tso Chuen, 1872; commonly known as Spring and Autumn Annals). The last is a terse chronicle of events in the state of Lu from 722 to 481 b.c.e. and has been closely studied through the centuries, for it was believed that Confucius edited it with the intent of transmitting moral messages about good government. Confucius also studied the Yijing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986), but the tradition that he edited that cryptic ancient book of divination is not widely accepted today.

Confucius’s concern to compile correct versions of ancient texts fits the image of him that survives in The Analects. There Confucius stressed his own role as simply a transmitter of the knowledge and ways from the past. Confucius’s model from history was the duke of Zhou, who acted as regent for the infant King Cheng, “The Completed King,” who reigned from 1104 to 1067. Confucius taught that the duke of Zhou was the perfect minister who served his ruler and carried out his duties in complete accord with the feudal codes of the Zhou. The story of the duke of Zhou, as a good regent and loyal minister, emphasizes the exercise of power in accord with the established social codes. Much of the appeal of Confucianism to later dynasties can be found in Confucius’s emphasis on loyalty to proper authority.

At the same time, Confucius’s teachings have been seen as democratic, in that what he valued in others was their good character, benevolence, humanity, and learning rather than their social position, cunning, or strength of will. His teaching that anyone may become a gentleman, or good person, with proper training and devotion established the important Chinese social ideal of personal cultivation through study.

Significance

Confucius died in 479, disappointed in his own career, upset at some disciples for their inability to follow his high standards of conduct, and saddened by the deaths of both his son and his favorite disciple, Yan Hui. Like Socrates, Confucius became known primarily as a teacher through the preservation of his teachings by his disciples. Some of those disciples went on to government service and others took up their master’s calling as teachers.

By the second century b.c.e., the study of Confucian texts had become the norm for those aspiring to official posts. Young men were trained to memorize a set group of Confucian texts. That educational regime remained the heart of learning in China until the early twentieth century. The flourishing of his pedagogical approach is eloquent testimony to Confucius’s genius. His concepts of the goodness of humankind and the importance of benevolence and humanity in political and personal affairs were developed by Mencius and given a more practical and realistic interpretation by the philosopher Xunzi. By the second century b.c.e., students of Confucian teachings were highly valued for their skills in ritual, knowledge of ancient texts, and mastery of other learning that rulers needed to regulate their courts and administer their states. During the Western Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-8 c.e.), Confucianism became the official court philosophy and then was elevated to a state cult. Confucianism continues to be a powerful philosophy in China, Japan, and other states of East Asia.

Further Reading:

Confucius. The Analects (Lun-yü). Translated by D. C. Lau. 2d ed. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1992. An excellent translation of the Lunyu, with a good introduction to Confucius’s ideas and his life.

Creel, H. G. Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. A readable, nontechnical summary that puts Confucius in the overall context of Chinese philosophy.

Dawson, Raymond. Confucius. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. A short, general introduction and biography of Confucius written for a series on great individuals. Stresses Confucius’s ethical and moral influence.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1998. An interpretive essay that attempts to explain Confucius’s attention to ritual (li) and to show how this can be reconciled with his humanism.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985. Contains a long chapter on Confucius that includes extensive comparisons with ancient Western philosophers. Schwartz emphasizes Confucius’s role as a teacher who was both a perpetuator of tradition and an innovator.

Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Records of the Historian. Translated by Tang Nguok Kiong. Singapore: Asiapac, 1990. Contains a translation of the biography of Confucius written c. 90 b.c.e.

Confucius

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Article abstract: Through Confucius’s disciples and followers, Confucianism became China’s official state philosophy in the second century b.c.e., and its texts became the basis of formal education. Confucianism remained the dominant philosophy of China until the early twentieth century and still has a major influence on people throughout East Asia.

Early Life

The name Confucius is the latinized version of a formal title, Kong Fuzi, meaning the Master Kong. He was born as Kong Qiu (styled Zhong Ni) somewhere in the state of Lu (in the present-day province of Shandong), into a family that was part of the official class but had fallen on hard times. His great-grandparents are thought to have emigrated from the neighboring state of Song. Confucius is believed to have lost his father when still a small child and to have been reared in poverty by his mother.

Nevertheless, Confucius learned the arts of a courtier, including archery and charioteering; at age fifteen, he began to study ancient texts. In his mid-twenties, Confucius held minor posts in Lu, first as a bookkeeper and later as a supervisor of royal herds. His approach to the problems of statecraft may have begun in his thirties, but he is best known for the period after the age of fifty when he was an established teacher or philosopher-master to young men. The actual teachings that have been handed down are contained in epigraphic and somewhat disjointed form in the Analects. The work is a compilation of moral teachings, usually in the form of brief dialogues between Confucius and a questioner, who might be either a high feudal lord or one of Confucius’s own disciples. Tradition holds that Confucius had an ungainly personal appearance, but nothing is actually known about his looks. He was married and had a son.

During Confucius’s lifetime, China was divided into contending states under the nominal rule of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 b.c.e.). By the eighth century b.c.e., the Zhou rulers had lost all effective control over their subordinate lords, who became independent rulers. By Confucius’s day, these rulers often were themselves figureheads, controlled by powerful individuals or families close to the throne. Murder, intrigue, and double-dealing had become the common coin of political exchange. Moreover, established authority and traditional social distinctions were violated in daily life. In this atmosphere of treachery and uncertainty, Confucius emerged as a teacher who valued constancy, trustworthiness, and the reestablishment of the rational feudal order contained in the codes of the Zhou Dynasty.

Life’s Work

Confucius was already known as a teacher but desired to become an adviser or government minister when, sometime before his fiftieth year, he went to live in the powerful neighboring state of Qi. The duke of Qi honored Confucius as a moral teacher but did not give him an important position in the government; eventually, Confucius returned to Lu.

When the ruler of Qi asked Confucius the best way to govern, he replied, “Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, and the son a son.” The ideas contained in this moral maxim are central to Confucius’s teaching. He taught that social order and stability could be achieved at a societal and a personal level if individuals studied and followed the proper standards of behavior. Confucius taught that if one acted properly in terms of one’s own social role, others would be influenced positively by the good example. That worked for a ruler in state and for an individual in his or her daily life. Thus, Confucianism, from its earliest teachings, contained an approach useful for both practical living and governing.

Virtue (de) displayed by living properly brought one into harmony with the correct human order, called “the Way” (dao, or tao). Confucius acknowledged the existence of an overarching force in life called Heaven (tian) but did not accept any concept of a god or gods. He specifically opposed belief in spirits and was not interested in the immortality of the soul.

For Confucius, the human order and human character are fundamentally good, but there is a tendency to slip away from proper behavior through laxity and lack of understanding. A primary responsibility of leaders and elders is to uphold the social ideals through positive demonstration in their own lives. In Confucianism, the most complete statement of this approach is called the doctrine of the rectification of names (zhengming). One begins with study to establish the original meaning of the Zhou feudal order. Once that understanding is gained, individuals should alter their behavior in order to fulfill completely and sincerely the social roles they are assigned, such as minister, father, or brother. This entire process constitutes the rectification of names, which Confucius believed would restore the ideal social order.

Upon his return to Lu around the year 500 b.c.e., Confucius took up an official position under the sponsorship of Ji Huanzi, the head of the Ji clan, who were the real power holders. His post was not an important one, and Confucius resigned shortly over a question of improper conduct of ritual sacrifices. Ritual (li) plays a central role in Confucius’s teachings. He downplayed the supernatural or religious aspects of ritual but taught that meticulous and sincere observance of rituals imparted moral improvement.

The state of Lu, where Confucius lived, derived from a collateral line of the Zhou Dynasty and was known for careful preservation of Zhou ritual practices. Confucius used this tradition as a proof of the importance of rituals. In addition to the moral training acquired by the mastery of ritual, Confucius taught ritual as a means to acquire the practical skills needed to carry out the functions of high office.

In 497 b.c.e., after his resignation over the ritual issue, Confucius set out, with a few disciples, as a wandering philosopher-teacher, looking for a ruler who would try his methods of governing. This long trek, which lasted from 497 to 484 b.c.e., led to his enhanced reputation for uprightness and wisdom, but he never obtained a significant office. In his mid-sixties, he was called back to Lu, possibly through the influence of his disciple Ran Qiu, who had become the chief steward of the Ji family. Upon his return, however, Confucius denounced Ran Qiu’s tax policies as exploitative of the common people.

Confucius’s approach to government stressed that the ruler should be benevolent and sincerely concerned about the well-being of his subjects. In Confucius’s hierarchical conception of the social order, the ruler’s concern for his subjects would be repaid by obedience and support. Confucius believed that the same hierarchical yet reciprocal principles applied to all social relationships.

Although later Confucius came to be deified as a sage of infinite powers, in the Analects he appears as a dignified, austere, but gentle man who suffered ordinary human disappointments. Significantly, his ideas are colored by a strong humanism. His teachings as recorded in the Analects emphasize benevolence (ren), meaning a love of one’s fellows, as the key virtue of the ideal person, whom he referred to as a “gentleman” (junzi). Benevolence begins with straightforwardness (zhi) of character and then is trained or modified through practice of the rituals. Ritual and music impart the inner character needed by the ideal person. Confucius taught that the ideal person would have other virtues as well, such as loyalty (zhong), righteousness (yi), altruism (shu), and filial piety (xiao). This last virtue—the love and concern of children for their parents, which expresses itself in dutiful and sincere concern for their well-being—became particularly important in Chinese and East Asian civilization. All Confucius’s teachings about social relationships demand the subordination of the individual; thus, Confucius was neither an egalitarian nor a libertarian.

During his last years, Confucius lived in Lu and was often consulted by the titular ruler, Duke Ai, and the new head of the dominant Ji clan, Ji Kangzi, but still was never an important minister. Many of his statements from this period are preserved in summary form and enhance the elliptical tone of the Analects.

Confucius, before his death at the age of seventy-two, completed the editing of several ancient texts. Both tradition and modern scholarship connect him with three classical texts. These are the Shu Jing (classic of history), which contains pronouncements by the founders of the Zhou Dynasty, the Shi Jing (classic of poetry), which preserves 305 songs from the time before 600 b.c.e., and the Chun Qiu (spring and autumn annals). The last is a terse chronicle of events in the state of Lu from 722 to 481 b.c.e. and has been closely studied through the centuries, for it was believed that Confucius edited it with the intent of transmitting moral messages about good government. Confucius also studied the I Ching (Yi Jing), eighth to third century b.c.e. (English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986), but the tradition that he edited that cryptic ancient book of divination is not widely accepted today.

Confucius’s concern to compile correct versions of ancient texts fits the image of him that survives in the Analects. There Confucius stressed his own role as simply a transmitter of the knowledge and ways from the past. Confucius’s model from history was the duke of Zhou, who acted as regent for the infant King Cheng, the Completed King, who reigned from 1104 to 1067 b.c.e. Confucius taught that the duke of Zhou was the perfect minister who served his ruler and carried out his duties in complete accord with the feudal codes of the Zhou. The story of the duke of Zhou, as a good regent and loyal minister, emphasizes the exercise of power in accord with the established social codes. Much of the appeal of Confucianism to later dynasties can be found in Confucius’s emphasis on loyalty to proper authority.

At the same time, Confucius’s teachings have been seen as democratic, in that what he valued in others was their good character, benevolence, humanity, and learning rather than their social position, cunning, or strength of will. His teaching that anyone may become a “gentleman,” or ideal person, with proper training and devotion established the important Chinese social ideal of personal cultivation through study.

Influence

Confucius died in 479 b.c.e., disappointed in his own career, upset at some disciples for their inability to follow his own high standards of conduct, and saddened by the deaths of both his own son and his favorite disciple, Yan Hui. Like the Greek sage Socrates, Confucius became known primarily as a teacher through the preservation of his teachings by his disciples. Some of those disciples went on to government service and others took up their master’s calling as teachers.

By the second century b.c.e., the study of Confucian texts had become the norm for those aspiring to official posts. Young men were trained to memorize a set group of Confucian texts. That educational regime remained the heart of learning in China until the early twentieth century. The flourishing of Confucius’s pedagogical approach is eloquent testimony to the philosopher’s genius. His concepts of the goodness of humankind and the importance of benevolence and humanity in political and personal affairs were developed by Mencius and given a more practical and realistic interpretation by the philosopher Xunzi. By the second century b.c.e., students of Confucian teachings were highly valued for their skills in ritual, knowledge of ancient texts, and mastery of other learning that rulers needed to regulate their courts and administer their states. During the former Han Dynasty, Confucianism became the official court philosophy and then was elevated to a state cult. Confucianism continues to be a powerful philosophy in China, Japan, and other states of East Asia.

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.

Bibliography updated by Glenn L. Swygart

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