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The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, ...
The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685-758, Tang Dynasty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Confucius (551–479 BCE)[1] was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history. The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. His followers competed successfully with many other schools during the Hundred Schools of Thought era only to be suppressed in favor of the Legalists during the Qin Dynasty. Following the victory of Han over Chu after the collapse of Qin, Confucius's thoughts received official sanction and were further developed into a system known as Confucianism.
Confucius is traditionally credited with having authored or edited many of the Chinese classic texts including all of the Five Classics, but modern scholars are cautious of attributing specific assertions to Confucius himself. Aphorisms concerning his teachings were compiled in the Analects, but only many years after his death.
Confucius's principles had a basis in common Chinese tradition and belief. He championed strong family loyalty, ancestor worship, respect of elders by their children (and in traditional interpretations) of husbands by their wives. He also recommended family as a basis for ideal government. He espoused the well-known principle "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself", an early version of the Golden Rule.
Confucius' family and personal name respectively was Kong Qiu (孔丘 Kǒng Qiū). His courtesy name was Zhongni (仲尼 Zhòngní).[2] Following an Old Chinese reconstruction, his family and personal name respectively may have been Kʰˤoŋʔ Kʷʰə, while his courtesy name may have been Truŋsnˤərs.[3] In Chinese, he is most often known as Kongzi (孔子, literally "Master Kong").[4][5] He is also known by the honorific Kong Fuzi (孔夫子 Kǒng Fūzǐ, literally "Master Kong").[5] In the Wade–Giles system of romanization, the honorific name is rendered as "K'ung Fu-tzu". The Latinized name "Confucius" is derived from "Kong Fuzi", which was first coined by 16th-century Jesuit missionaries to China, most probably by Matteo Ricci.[5]
Within the Analects, he is often referred to simply as "the Master" (子). In 1 AD, Confucius was given his first posthumous name, the "Laudably Declarable Lord Ni" (褒成宣尼公). In 1530, he was declared the "Extremely Sage Departed Teacher" (至聖先師). He is also known separately as the "Great Sage" (至聖), "First Teacher" (先師), and "Model Teacher for Ten Thousand Ages" (萬世師表).


According to tradition, three generations before Confucius' time, his ancestors had migrated from the Song state to the Lu state.[6] Confucius was said to have been a descendant of the Shang kings or priests through the Dukes of Song.[7][8][9]

Personal life

Early life

It is generally thought that Confucius was born in 551 BCE.[10] His birthplace was in Zou, Lu state (near present-day Qufu, Shandong Province).[10][11] His father Kong He (孔紇), also known as Shuliang He (叔梁紇), was an officer in the Lu military. Kong He died when Confucius was three years old, and Confucius was raised by his mother Yan Zhengzai (顏徵在) in poverty. At age 19 he married his wife, surnamed Qiguan (亓官), and a year later the couple had their first child, Kong Li (孔鯉).
Confucius was born into the class of shi (士), between the aristocracy and the common people. He is said to have worked as a shepherd, cowherd, clerk, and a book-keeper. When his mother died, Confucius (aged 23) is said to have mourned for three years as was the tradition.

Political career

The Lu state was headed by a ruling ducal house.[12] Under the duke were three aristocratic families, whose heads bore the title of viscount and held hereditary positions in the Lu bureacracy.[13] The Ji family held the position "Minister over the Masses", who was also the "Prime Minister"; the Meng family held the position "Minister of Works"; and the Shu family held the position "Minister of War".[13] In the winter of 505 BCE, Yang Hu—a retainer of the Ji family—rose up in rebellion and seized power from the Ji family.[13] However, by the summer of 501 BC, the three hereditary families had succeeded in expelling Yang Hu from Lu.[13] By then, Confucius had built up a considerable reputation through his teachings, while the families came to see the value of proper conduct and righteousness, so they could achieve loyalty to a legitimate government.[14] Thus, that year (501 BC), Confucius came to be appointed to the minor position of governor of a town.[14] Eventually, he rose to the position of Minister of Crime.[14]
Confucius desired to return the authority of the state to the duke by dismantling the fortifications of the city-strongholds belonging to the three families.[15] This way, he could establish a centralized government.[15] However, Confucius relied solely on diplomacy as he had no military authority himself.[15] In 500 BC, Hou Fan—the governor of Hou—revolted against his lord of the Shu family.[15] Although the Meng and Shu families unsuccessfully besieged Hou, a loyalist official rose up with the people of Hou and forced Hou Fan to flee to the Qi state.[15] The situation may have been in favor for Confucius as this likely made it possible for Confucius and his disciples to convince the aristocratic families to dismantle the fortifications of their cities.[15] Eventually, after a year and a half, Confucius and his disciples succeeded in convincing the Shu family to raze the walls of Hou, the Ji family in razing the walls of Bi, and the Meng family in razing the walls of Cheng.[15] First, the Shu family led an army towards their city Hou and tore down its walls in 498 BCE.[15] Soon thereafter, Gongshan Furao[a]—a retainer of the Ji family—revolted and took control of the forces at Bi.[16][17] He immediately launched an attack and entered the capital Lu.[15]
Earlier, Gongshan had approached Confucius to join him, which Confucius considered at first.[16] Even though he disapproved the use of a violent revolution, the Ji family dominated the Lu state by force for generations and had exiled the previous duke.[16] Although he wanted the opportunity to put his principles in practice, Confucius gave up on this idea in the end.[16] Creel (1949) states that, unlike the rebel Yang Hu before him, Gongshan may have sought to destroy the three hereditary families and restore the power of the duke.[18] However, Dubs (1946) states that he was instigated by Viscount Ji Huan to invade the Lu capital in an attempt to avoid dismanteling the Bi fortified walls.[17] Whatever the situation may have been, Gongshan was considered an upright man who continued to defend the state of Lu, even after he was forced to flee.[18][19] According to Dubs (1946), the attackers retreated after realizing that they would have to become rebels against the state and against their own lord.[20] If so, according to Dubs (1946), this incident resulted that the Bi officials inadvertently revolted against their own lord through Confucius' doing, thus forcing Viscount Ji Huan's hand in having to dismantle the walls of Bi (as it could have harbored such rebels) or confess to instigating the event by going against proper conduct and righteousness as an official.[20] He further states that the incident brought to light Confucius' foresight, practical political ability, and insight into human character.[20]
During the ordeal, Zhong You (仲由) had managed to keep the duke and the three viscounts together at the court.[19] Zhong You was one of the disciples of Confucius and was arranged the position of governor at the Ji family by Confucius.[21] When Confucius heard of the raid, he requested from Viscount Ji Huan to allow the duke and his court to retreat to a stronghold on his palace grounds.[20] Thereafter, the heads of the three families and the duke retreated to the Ji's palace complex and ascended the Wuzi Terrace.[22] Confucius ordered two officers to lead an assault against the rebels.[22] At least one of the two grandees was a retainer of the Ji family, although according to Dubs (1946) probably both were, but they were unable to refuse the orders while in the presence of the duke, viscounts, and court.[20] The rebels were followed in pursuit and defeated in Gu.[22] Immediately after this revolt was stricken down, the Ji family razed the Bi city walls to the ground.[22]
When it was time to dismantle the city walls of the Meng family, the governor was reluctant to have his city walls torn down and convinced the head of the Meng family not to do so.[22] The Zuo Zhuan recalls that the governor advised against razing the walls to the ground as he said that it made Cheng vulnerable to the Qi state and cause the destruction of the Meng family.[20] Even though Viscount Meng Yi gave his word not to interfere with an attempt, he went back on his earlier promise to dismantle the walls.[20] Later in 498 BC, Duke Ding personally went with an army to lay siege to Cheng in an attempt to raze its walls to the ground, but he did not succeed.[23] Thus, Confucius could not achieve the idealistic reform that he wanted and restore the legitimate rule of the duke, returning to the period of the Duke of Zhou.[24] As a result of his unusual degree of success, Confucius made powerful enemies within the state, especially with Viscount Ji Huan.[25] According to accounts in the Zuo Zhuan and Shiji, Confucius departed his homeland in 497 BC after his support to the failed attempt of dismantling the fortified city walls of the powerful Ji, Meng, and Shu families.[26] He left the state of Lu without resigning, remaining in self-exile and unable to return as long as Viscount Ji Huan was alive.[25]


The Shiji states that the neighboring Qi state was worried that Lu was becoming too powerful while Confucius was involved in the government of the Lu state. According to this account, Qi decided to sabotage Lu's reforms by sending 100 good horses and 80 beautiful dancing girls to the Duke of Lu. The Duke indulged himself in pleasure and did not attend to official duties for three days. Confucius was deeply disappointed and resolved to leave Lu and seek better opportunities, yet to leave at once would expose the misbehavior of the Duke and therefore bring public humiliation to the ruler Confucius was serving. Confucius therefore waited for the Duke to make a lesser mistake. Soon after, the Duke neglected to send to Confucius a portion of the sacrificial meat that was his due according to custom, and Confucius seized upon this pretext to leave both his post and the Lu state.
After Confucius's resignation, he began a long journey or set of journeys around the small kingdoms of northeast and central China, traditionally including the states of Wei, Song, Chen, and Cai. At the courts of these states, he expounded his political beliefs but did not see them implemented.

Return home

According to the Zuo Zhuan, Confucius returned home when he was 68. The Analects depict him spending his last years teaching 72 or 77 disciples and transmitting the old wisdom via a set of texts called the Five Classics.
Confucius' political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through "rites" () and people's natural morality, rather than by using bribery and coercion. He explained that this is one of the most important analects: "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of the shame, and moreover will become good." (Translated by James Legge) in the Great Learning (大學). This "sense of shame" is an internalisation of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.
Confucius looked nostalgically upon earlier days, and urged the Chinese, particularly those with political power, to model themselves on earlier examples. In times of division, chaos, and endless wars between feudal states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven (天命) that could unify the "world" (天下, "all under Heaven") and bestow peace and prosperity on the people. Because his vision of personal and social perfections was framed as a revival of the ordered society of earlier times, Confucius is often considered a great proponent of conservatism, but a closer look at what he proposes often shows that he used (and perhaps twisted) past institutions and rites to push a new political agenda of his own: a revival of a unified royal state, whose rulers would succeed to power on the basis of their moral merits instead of lineage. These would be rulers devoted to their people, striving for personal and social perfection, and such a ruler would spread his own virtues to the people instead of imposing proper behavior with laws and rules.
While he supported the idea of government by an all-powerful sage, ruling as an Emperor, his ideas contained a number of elements to limit the power of rulers. He argued for according language with truth, and honesty was of paramount importance. Even in facial expression, truth must always be represented. Confucius believed that if a ruler were to lead correctly, by action, that orders would be deemed unnecessary in that others will follow the proper actions of their ruler. In discussing the relationship between a king and his subject (or a father and his son), he underlined the need to give due respect to superiors. This demanded that the inferior must give advice to his superior if the superior was considered to be taking the course of action that was wrong. Confucius believed in ruling by example, if you lead correctly, orders are unnecessary and useless.


There is not much known of Confucius' disciples and a little over half of them had their surnames recorded in the Zuo Zhuan.[29] The Analects records 22 names that are most likely Confucius' disciples, while the Mencius records 24 names, although it is quite certain that there have been many more disciples whose name were not recorded.[29] Most of Confucius' disciples were from the Lu state, while others were from neighboring states.[29] For example, Zigong was from the Wey state and Sima Niu was from the Song state.[29] Confucius' favorite disciple was Yan Hui, most probably one of the most impoverished one of them all.[29] Sima Niu, in contrast to Yan Hui, was from a hereditarily noble family hailing from the Song state.[29] Under Confucius' teachings, the disciples became well-learned in the principles and methods of government.[30] He often engaged in discussion and debate with his students and gave high importance to their studies in history, poetry, and ritual.[30] Confucius advocated loyalty to principle rather than to individual in which reform was to be achieved by persuasion rather than violence.[30] Even though Confucius denounced them for their practices, the aristocracy was likely attracted to the idea of having trustworthy officials who were studied in morals as the circumstances of the time made it desirable.[30] In fact, the disciple Zilu even died defending his ruler in Wei.[30]
Yang Hu, who was a subordinate of the Ji family, had dominated the Lu government from 505 to 502 and even attempted a coup, which narrowly failed.[30] As a likely consequence, it was after that that the first disciples of Confucius were appointed to government positions.[30] Few of Confucius' disciples went on to attain official positions of some importance, some of which were arranged by Confucius.[31] By the time Confucius was 50 years old, the Ji family had consolidated their power in the Lu state over the ruling ducal house.[32] Even though the Ji family had practices that Confucius disagreed and disapproved, they nonetheless gave Confucius' disciples many opportunities for employment.[32] Confucius continued to remind his disciples to stay true to their principles and renounced those who did not, while being openly critical of the Ji family.[33]


Confucius's teachings were later turned into an elaborate set of rules and practices by his numerous disciples and followers, who organized his teachings into the Analects. Confucius' disciples and his only grandson, Zisi, continued his philosophical school after his death. These efforts spread Confucian ideals to students who then became officials in many of the royal courts in China, thereby giving Confucianism the first wide-scale test of its dogma.
Two of Confucius's most famous later followers emphasized radically different aspects of his teachings. In the centuries after his death, Mencius (孟子) and Xun Zi (荀子) both composed important teachings elaborating in different ways on the fundamental ideas associated with Confucius. Mencius (4th century BC) articulated the innate goodness in human beings as a source of the ethical intuitions that guide people towards rén, , and , while Xun Zi (3rd century BC) underscored the realistic and materialistic aspects of Confucian thought, stressing that morality was inculcated in society through tradition and in individuals through training. In time, their writings, together with the Analects and other core texts came to constitute the philosophical corpus of Confucianism.
This realignment in Confucian thought was parallel to the development of Legalism, which saw filial piety as self-interest and not a useful tool for a ruler to create an effective state. A disagreement between these two political philosophies came to a head in 223 BC when the Qin state conquered all of China. Li Ssu, Prime Minister of the Qin Dynasty convinced Qin Shi Huang to abandon the Confucians' recommendation of awarding fiefs akin to the Zhou Dynasty before them which he saw as counter to the Legalist idea of centralizing the state around the ruler. When the Confucian advisers pressed their point, Li Ssu had many Confucian scholars killed and their books burned—considered a huge blow to the philosophy and Chinese scholarship.
Under the succeeding Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasty, Confucian ideas gained even more widespread prominence. Under Wudi, the works of Confucius were made the official imperial philosophy and required reading for civil service examinations in 140 BC which was continued nearly unbroken until the end of the 19th Century. As Moism lost support by the time of the Han, the main philosophical contenders were Legalism, which Confucian thought somewhat absorbed, the teachings of Lao-tzu, whose focus on more mystic ideas kept it from direct conflict with Confucianism, and the new Buddhist religion, which gained acceptance during the Southern and Northern Dynasties era. Both Confucian ideas and Confucian-trained officials were relied upon in the Ming Dynasty and even the Yuan Dynasty, although Kublai Khan distrusted handing over provincial control.
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