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There is no doubt that Confucius (Kǒngzǐ 孔子, 551-479 BC) is China’s most revered sage. Statues of him bear the title “Consummate Saint and Ancient Teacher”(Zhìshèng Xiānshī 至圣先师), a title granted by the emperor in 1530. He was born at Qūfù 曲阜 in the state of Lǔ 鲁 in modern Shāndōng 山东 Province.
Born to the young concubine of a formidably large and impressively ugly military leader seeking a male heir, Confucius inherited his father’s size and exceeded him in ugliness. His name was KǑNG Qiū 孔丘, but he was also known as KǑNG Zhòngní 孔仲尼 ("KǑNG's second son"), since his father had an earlier son whom he refused to make an heir because the lad was crippled. When Confucius was three his elderly father died, and the boy and his mother were immediately cast out by the senior wives.
The sage-to-be was raised by his loving, resourceful, and surprisingly literate mother, but generally lacked friends. Fortunately, he was precociously intelligent. When he was not helping his mother to gain their sustenance, he is said to have occupied his time reading ancient writings (when he could get his hands on them) or playing at reenacting ancient rituals. The death of his mother when he was 17 —some say 23— left him alone in the world.
In general, Confucius was convinced that the world of the earlier (or Western) Zhōu 周 dynasty (period 4b) was a fine and civilized period, where everyone was industrious and considerate (even of ugly boys), in contrast to the late (or Eastern) Zhōu period (4c) in which he lived. He lived at the point where the earlier Eastern Zhōu subperiod called “Spring & Autumn” —Chūnqiū 春秋— was turning into the aptly named “Warring States” —Zhànguó 战国— sub-period. It was not a happy time.
After the death of his mother, Confucius’ ever-growing skills in literacy landed him various minor bureaucratic jobs, such as bookkeeper for the influential Jì 季 family in Lǔ. He seems to have been a very competent but restless and dissatisfied employee. Sometimes he attained jobs where he could have more influence, such as “warden” (zǎi 宰) of the town of Zhōngdū 中都 (modern Wènshàng 汶上 county in Shandong 山东 province).
When he returned to Lǔ after several years of fruitlessly trying to persuade petty rulers to try out his theory about the morally perfect monarch, a certain Duke DÌNG (Dìng gōng 定公), the weak ruler of the state of Lǔ, became Confucius’ patron. Confucius actually became acting prime minister of Lǔ for a short time until he crossed powerful merchants and was driven once again into exile. (Footnote)
Confucius’ famous teachings focused on the need to return to the virtues and rituals of the earlier world, which he believed could be accomplished if in some state, even a very small one, he could find a ruler fit and willing to provide the needed moral leadership. A moral leader would obviously (!) inspire morality in his subjects. The result would be benevolent government and a voluntarily submissive citizenry.
For Confucius, morality required subordinating individual desire and creativity to the need to sustain social hierarchy by behaving according to established etiquette. Both modern and ancient critics have regarded this as a significant flaw. This is one of the criticisms associated with ancient schools of “Daoism.”
Other critics have seen the main drawback in his notion that a population of real humans, filled with raw greed and inclined to violence, would be willing to follow a leader, moral or not, who did not routinely crack heads. This is the criticism attributed to ancient schools of “legalism.”
Confucius must have been a more compelling rhetorician than the representation we see in the writings associated with him. The point of view that moral leadership could restore a golden age, which seems naïve when stated that baldly, won Confucius disciples (traditionally numbered between seventy and seventy-three), some of them quite distinguished in their own right. Among them was ZĒNG Shēn 曾参, probably the author of a tiny summary of Confucius’ ideas called The Great Learning (Dà Xué 大学), also available on this web site. (Link)
Among his disciples, his clear favorite was a rather timid man nearly three decades Confucius’ junior named YÁN Huí 颜回 (521?-490?). He seems to have been Confucius’ only intimate friend. (Footnote) Yán Huí’s death at the age of about 30 left Confucius depressed, morose, and lonely for the last decade of his life.
When he died, Confucius still had not found a monarch willing to subscribe to his program to restore the vanished past, and he considered himself to be a failure, just as his father’s senior wives had said he would be when they had kicked him out of the family decades earlier. Like many unsuccessful reformers, he never doubted his view that the world needed to restore the values and customs of antiquity. Instead, he attributed his failure to the prevalence of evil and ignorance. A poem almost certainly not really written by him is called “The Lamentation of Confucius” (Cāi Lán Cāo 猜兰操). It describes his failure as he apparently understood it:
1. With the gentle valley breezes come darkness and rain.
I return home from where I set out.
How has Heaven not attained its goal?
2. I have wandered the world without a home.
People today are ignorant and do not recognize a sage.
The years pass and he grows old.
Confucius was the editor (and abridger) of a collection of earlier poems and songs, The Book of Songs (Shī Jīng 诗经) (sample) and of a rather spare (and boring) chronicle of the state of Lǔ, the Spring & Autumn Annals (Chūn-Qiū 春秋) (sample). His life and teachings are therefore known to us from the writings of others, including, most prominently, several disciples who assembled anecdotes about his conversations into a collection called The Analects (Lúnyǔ 论语) or “discussions.” This work is conventionally divided arbitrarily into twenty “books,” each divided into brief “chapters,” each chapter usually consisting of a conversation or single utterance. Many of these have become or have produced proverbial expressions in Chinese, but they lack any obvious and coherent ordering. In American courses on world civilizations, the tendency is to select high-sounding bits, quote them with approval, and move on.
Unfortunately, not everything in The Analects is high-sounding. Indeed, Confucius comes across as distinctly grouchy much of the time, quick to condemn wayward disciples (although he regards condemning people as poor form), talking about people behind their backs (also poor form in his view), willing to tell “white lies” despite his enthusiastic endorsement of “sincerity,” and surprisingly dismissive of the uneducated, despite his claiming that he is willing to teach anybody regardless of background or social standing.
What little we know of his home life does not suggest that it was particularly happy. In Book 10 we learn that he refused to sit on a mat that was not straight, would not eat food that was overcooked or undercooked, or meat that was not cut properly and served in the right sauce. He never spoke at meals or in bed. He had at least one wife and she bore him one son and two daughters. Except that her surname was Qíguān 亓官, nothing is known of her, and most scholars believe that they eventually divorced.
Separate discussions of the Confucian canon and of philosophical terms are available elsewhere on this web site to learn more about his legacy (link). A brief biography, expanding on the sketch given on this page, is also available (link).
Three extracts from The Analects are provided here, including the beginning of Book 12 (chapters 1-7) and nearly all of Book 17. The translation is by James Legge (1892), the most eminent and often quoted of English translators of this work. Titles have been added for this presentation; spellings have been updated; and occasional English expressions have been modernized. In addition, because these are usually dialogs, they have been reformatted in the form of drama scripts.
All of Confucius’ disciples had multiple names, usually including at least one beginning with the syllable zǐ 子: Zǐgōng, Zǐwǒ, etc. (If the usage were consistent, Zǐ- would potentially be translatable as a title prefix meaning “disciple”). For present purposes, except for YÁN Huí 颜回, I have used their “real” names in the English dialogs and confined the alternatives to the dramatis personae lists.
Legge’s excellent footnotes are omitted, but have informed the dramatis personae lists and procursi that precede each section. (His original full English text, like the full Chinese text, is available from various on-line archives, although usually without his important footnotes.)
As we begin, Confucius and his disciples are, characteristically, discussing human perfection.
On this web site there are three brief selections:
For more about ancient Chinese schools of philosophy, click here. Click here for more about Daoist writings.
Eighteen review questions are available for this reading. They are organized into one long quiz (the "hero" version) or two 9-question quizzes (normal versions) or three 6-question quizzes (wimp versions). The questions are identical; the difference is only in the number of questions blocked together.