The Life and Philosophies of Confucius

Statue of Confucius

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Confucius (551-479 B.C.), the founder of the philosophy known as Confucianism, was a Chinese sage and teacher who spent his life concerned with practical moral values. He was named Kong Qiu at birth and was also known as Kong Fuzi, Kong Zi, K'ung Ch'iu, or Master Kong. The name Confucius is a transliteration of Kong Fuzi, and it was first used by Jesuit scholars who visited China and learned about him in the 16th century AD.

Fast Facts: Confucius

  • Full Name: Kong Qiu (at birth). Also known as Kong Fuzi, Kong Zi, K'ung Ch'iu, or Master Kong
  • Known For: Philosopher, founder of Confucianism
  • Born: 551 B.C. in Qufu, China
  • Died: 479 B.C. in Qufu, China
  • Parents: Shuliang He (father); Member of Yan clan (mother)
  • Spouse: Qiguan
  • Children: Bo Yu (also referenced as Kong Li)

Early Life

Though Confucius lived during the 5th century B.C., his biography was not recorded until the Han dynasty, some 400 years later, in the Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji by Sima Qian. Confucius was born to a once-aristocratic family in a small state called Lu, in northeastern China in 551 B.C., just before a period of political chaos known as the Warring States Period. Various translations of the Shiji indicate that his father was elderly, nearly 70, while his mother was only 15, and it is likely that the union was out of wedlock.

Confucius' father died when he was young, and he was raised in poverty by his mother. According to The Analects, a collection of teachings and sayings attributed to Confucius, he acquired menial skills as a matter of necessity from his poor upbringing, though his position as a member of a formerly aristocratic family afforded him the ability to pursue his scholarly interests. When Confucius was 19, he married Qiguan, though he quickly separated from her. Records differ, but the pair is known to have had only one son, Bo Yu (also called Kong Li).

Later Years

Somewhere around the age of 30, Confucius began advancing his career, taking on administrative roles and, later, political positions for the State of Lu and its ruling family. By the time he reached 50, he had become disillusioned by the corruption and chaos of political life, and he set out on a 12 year journey through China, gathering disciples and teaching.

Little is known about the end of Confucius’ life, though it is assumed that he spent these years documenting his practices and teachings. His favorite disciple and his only son both died during this time, and Confucius’ teaching had not improved the state of the government. He foresaw the beginning of the Warring States Period and was unable to prevent the chaos. Confucius died in 479 B.C., though his lessons and legacy have been passed on for centuries.

Confucius' Teachings

Confucianism, coming from the writings and teaching of Confucius, is the tradition focused on achieving and maintaining social harmony. This harmony can be accessed and continually fostered by adherence to rites and rituals, and it is founded on the principle that human beings are fundamentally good, improvable, and teachable. The function of Confucianism rests on the general understanding and implementation of a strict social hierarchy between all relations. Adhering to one's prescribed social status creates a harmonious environment and prevents conflict.

The purpose of Confucianism is to achieve a state of total virtue or kindness, known as ren. One who has reached achieved ren is a perfect gentleman. These gentlemen would fit strategically into the fabric of social hierarchy while emulating Confucian values through words and actions. The Six Arts were the activities practiced by gentlemen to teach them lessons beyond academia.

The Six Arts are ritual, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy, and mathematics. These six arts ultimately formed the foundation for Chinese education, which, like much else in China and southeast Asia, is highly influenced by Confucian values.

These principles of Confucianism arose from the conflict in Confucius' own life. He was born into a world that was on the brink of chaos. In fact, soon after his death, China would enter into a period known as the Warring States, during which China was divided and chaotic for nearly 200 years. Confucius saw this brewing chaos and attempted to use his teachings to prevent it by restoring harmony.

Confucianism is an ethic that governs human relationships, and its central purpose is to know how to behave in relation to others. An honorable person attains relational identity and becomes a relational self, one that is intensely aware of the presence of other human beings. Confucianism was not a new concept, but rather a type of rational secularism developed from ru ("the doctrine of scholars"), also known as ru jia, ru jiao or ru xue. Confucius' version was known as Kong jiao (the cult of Confucius).

In its earliest formations (Shang and early Zhou dynasties [1600-770 B.C.]) ru referred to dancers and musicians who performed in rituals. Over time the term grew to include not just the individuals who performed rituals but the rituals themselves; eventually, ru included shamans and teachers of mathematics, history, astrology. Confucius and his students redefined it to mean professional teachers of ancient culture and texts in ritual, history, poetry and music. By the Han dynasty, ru meant a school and its teachers of the philosophy of studying and practicing the rituals, rules and rites of Confucianism.

Three classes of ru students and teachers are found in Confucianism (Zhang Binlin):

  • ru intellectuals who served the state
  • ru teachers who taught in the subjects of the six arts
  • ru followers of Confucius who studied and propagated the Confucian classics

Seeking the Lost Heart

The teaching of the ru jiao was "seeking the lost heart": a lifelong process of personal transformation and character improvement. Practitioners observed li (a set of rules of propriety, rites, ritual, and decorum), and studied the works of the sages, always following the rule that learning must never cease.

The Confucian philosophy intertwines ethical, political, religious, philosophical, and educational basics. It is centered on the relationship between people, as expressed through the pieces of the Confucian universe; heaven (Tian) above, earth (di) below, and humans (ren) in the middle.

Three Parts of the Confucian World

For Confucians, heaven sets up the moral virtues for humans and exerts powerful moral influences over human behavior. As nature, heaven represents all non-human phenomena—but humans have a positive role to play in keeping the harmony between heaven and earth. What exists in heaven can be studied, observed and grasped by humans investigating natural phenomena, social affairs, and the classic ancient texts; or by way of self-reflection of one's own heart and mind.

The ethical values of Confucianism involve developing self-dignity to realize one's potential, through:

  • ren (humaneness)
  • yi (rightness)
  • li (ritual and propriety)
  • cheng (sincerity)
  • xin (truthfulness and personal integrity)
  • zheng (loyalty for social coherence)
  • xiao (the foundation of the family and state)
  • zhong yong (the "golden mean" in common practice)

Is Confucianism a Religion?

A topic of debate among modern scholars is whether Confucianism qualifies as a religion. Some say it was never a religion, others that it was always a religion of wisdom or harmony, a secular religion with a focus on humanistic aspects of life. Humans can achieve perfection and live up to heavenly principles, but people have to do their best to fulfill their ethical and moral duties, without the assistance of deities.

Confucianism does involve ancestor worship and argues that humans are made up of two pieces: the hun (a spirit from heaven) and the po (soul from the earth). When a person is born, the two halves unite, and when that person dies, they separate and leave the earth. Sacrifice is made to the ancestors who once lived on earth by playing music (to recall the spirit from heaven) and spilling and drinking wine (to draw the soul from the earth.

The Writings of Confucius

Early Chinese iNscription on Education
This plaque from the People's Republic of China is part of a Tang Dynasty manuscript of the Analects of Confucius with Annotations by Cheng Hsuan unearthed in 1967 at Turfan, Sinkiang. The Analects of Confucius was an essential textbook for pupils in ancient China. This manuscript indicates the similarity of the education systems between Turfan and other parts of China.  Bettmann / Getty Images

Confucius is credited with writing or editing several works during his lifetime, categorized as the Five Classics and the Four Books. These writings range from historical accounts to poetry to autobiographical sentiments to rites and rituals. They have served as the backbone for civil reflection and governance in China since the end of the Warring States Period in 221 B.C.

The Five Classics are:

  • The Book of Odes (a collection of poetry)
  • The Book of Documents (historical events of ancient China)
  • The Book of Changes (a book of divination, focusing on Yin and Yang)
  • The Book of Rites (rituals and governance practices during the Zhou dynasty)
  • The Spring and Autumn Annals (chronological record of the State of Lu)

The Four Books include:

  • Analects (Confucius' teachings and conversations)
  • The Great Learning (guide to self improvement by examining the world)
  • The Doctrine of the Mean (guide to maintaining harmony in life)
  • Mencius (collection of discussions between Confucius and Mencius)

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