Confucius was a thinker, political figure, educator, moralist and philosopher. He was born on 28 September, 551 BC in Lu state, somewhere near the present day town of Qufu in southeastern Shandong to the ancestors of the Royal State of Song.
Confucius, originally Kong Qiu (孔丘), is a combination of his surname (孔) and his given name (丘), also known as Master Kong or Zhong Ni (仲尼). According to Sima Qian (145-c.85 BCE), a Han dynasty court historian, Confucius was born in answer to his parents’ prayers at a sacred hill (qiu) called Ni. Confucius’ surname Kong (which means literally an utterance of thankfulness when prayers have been answered), his given name Qiu, and his social name Zhongni, all appear connected to the miraculous circumstances of his birth.
His early childhood is said to be mired in deep poverty. However, he undertook petty jobs as accountant and cared for other people’s livestock to support his family. His father’s name was Shulianghe (叔梁紇) who was a famous warrior and owned a fiefdom. Confucius’ father died when he was three years old. His mother Yan Zhengzai (顏徵在) left the fiefdom with her young kid because as a concubine, she wanted to avoid mistreatment by the hands of Shulianghe’s formal wife. Confucius was very diligent in his studies thanks to his mother’s active support and encouragement. The young man suffered a big setback at the age of seventeen when his mother died as a result of illness and overwork.
It is not known if Confucius received formal education but tradition has it that he studied ritual with the Daoist Master Lao Dan, music with Chang Hong, and the lute with Music-master Xiang. Soon, Confucius’ wisdom attracted a group of disciples whom he taught matters of society, morality and policy. He also devoted himself to political matters in state of Lu. According to 4th century BCE Mencius and some other historians, Confucius had seventy two disciples.
The best source for understanding Confucius and his thoughts is the Analects. Book X of the Analects describes how Confucius comported himself as a thinker, teacher, and official. Many of these passages give general prescriptions on how a gentleman should dress and behave that were relabeled as descriptions of Confucius. Traditionally, Book X has been regarded as providing an intimate portrait of Confucius and has been read as a biographical sketch. The following passages provide a few examples:
Confucius, at home in his native village, was simple and unassuming in manner, as though he did not trust himself to speak. But when in the ancestral temple or at Court he speaks readily, though always choosing his words with due caution. (Lunyu 10.1)
When at court conversing with the officers of a lower grade, he is friendly, though straightforward; when conversing with officers of a higher grade, he is restrained but precise. When the ruler is present he is wary, but not cramped. (Lunyu 10.2)
On entering the Palace Gate he seems to contract his body, as though there were not sufficient room to admit him. If he halts, it must never be in the middle of the gate, nor in going through does he ever tread on the threshold. (Lunyu 10.4)
When fasting in preparation for sacrifice he must wear the Bright Robe, and it must be of linen. He must change his food and also the place where he commonly sits. He does not object to his rice being thoroughly cleaned, nor to his meat being finely minced. (Lunyu 10.7, 10.8)
Passages from Analects such as these made Confucius the model of courtliness and personal decorum for countless generations of Chinese officials. By 4th century BCE, the Chinese philosopher was idolised as a unique figure by scholars and public figures alike, a sage who deserved recognition and coronation as king. However, Confucius never sought power and authority in his life and lead a simple but honest life.
At a time when the society was engulfed in division, chaos and endless wars between feudal states, Confucius was a great proponent of order and discipline. He wanted to restore the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ that could unify the world all under Heaven and make people live in peace and harmony. Mandate of Heaven is a traditional Chinese philosophical concept that suggests a ruler will receive blessings of the Heaven by being just to his subjects, but would come under wrath by being corrupt and despotic. Poverty, infighting and natural disasters were often taken as signs that heaven considered the incumbent ruler unjust and thus needed replacement.
Once a ruler of the large state of Qi, a neighbour of Confucius’ native Lu state, asked Confucius about the principles of good government. The great master replied: “Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.” (Lunyu 12.11) If I claim for myself a title and attempt to participate in the various hierarchical relationships to which I would be entitled by virtue of that title, then I should live up to the meaning of the title that I claim for myself.
Confucius’ political philosophy is firmly rooted in his belief that a ruler should learn self-discipline, should govern his subjects by his own example, and should treat them with love and concern. “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.” (Lunyu 2.3; see also 13.6.)
As an adult, Confucius left his homeland and wandered from state to state in China. He wanted to share his philosophy with the ruling warlords and princes, believing these powerful leaders had an obligation to lead their people with virtue. Rather than leading for power, control, money, or ego, Confucius emphasised the princes of China must understand their higher purpose, which was to do “right” and lead by selfless example.
The great philosopher and thinker was never afraid of speaking the truth when asked to opine on matters of governance. When asked by Ji Kangzi, the ruler of Lu state who usurped power, Confucius advised: “If your desire is for good, the people will be good. The moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends.” (Lunyu 12.19)
Confucius’ based his social philosophy on the concept of ren which means “compassion” or “loving others.” Cultivating or practicing such concern for others involved deprecating oneself. Such nobility, he said, can be attained through the practice of forms of the Golden Rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others;” “Since you yourself desire standing then help others achieve it, since you yourself desire success then help others attain it.” (Lunyu 12.2, 6.30). Devotion to parents and older siblings, he said, is the most basic form of promoting the interests of others before one’s own. He emphasised that those who have learnt self-discipline can accomplish such altruism and service to mankind.
According to Confucius, study means finding a good teacher and imitating his words and deeds. He said: “A good teacher is someone older who is familiar with the ways of the past and the practices of the ancients.” (See Lunyu 7.22) Though he warned against too much reflection and meditation, the Great Master took a middle course between studying and reflecting on what one has learned. “He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”
Confucius taught his students morality, proper speech, government, and the refined arts – ritual, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy, and computation. He clearly regarded morality as the most important subject with an intention to create gentlemen who carry themselves with grace, speak correctly, and demonstrate integrity in all things. Confucius termed moral education vital because it is the means by which one can rectify this (chaotic) situation and restore meaning to language and values of the society.
He warned his disciples of sycophants, who work in a pretentious manner to win favours. He lived in an age where people’s words and actions were out of joint and titles had little meaning of their virtues. The great master explained: “If I claim for myself a title and attempt to participate in the various hierarchical relationships to which I would be entitled by virtue of that title, then I should live up to the meaning of the title that I claim for myself.”
According to ancient Chinese historians, Confucius spent much of his last years working on classics like the ‘Book of Poetry’ and the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’. The books had deep moral and ethical implications on the society as his works exposed the faces of despotic warlords and their supporters and condemned their chaotic rule.
The last couple of years of the great master’s life were very bitter as a number of his trusted disciples including his son died. However, Confucius faced his own death calmly. Once when he was very ill, his closest disciple, Zilu, asked if he could pray for him. The great master responded: “My praying has been for a long time.” Confucius outlived Zilu by about a year, and died at the age of seventy-two. The deeds of his life had been his prayer to Heaven.
Confucius’s numerous disciples and followers later turned his teachings, a collection of his words, acts and discussions, into a comprehensive set of rules and practices called the Analects. After his death, great Chinese scholars like Mencius and Xun Zi composed important teachings based on fundamental Confucian ideas that have a tremendous influence on Chinese and East Asian thought and values to date.